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Madge Gill (1882-1961), embroidered dress,
mercerized cotton thread and colored wools

Art Without Precedent–Nine artists from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection • Irish Museum of Modern Art

Imagine some community on the outside–the Other–beyond that boundary which determines the "Us" of the art world, the inside. Now, invite this outside into the inside and give it a name–OUTSIDER ART (from the French Art Brut of Dubuffet)–give it a green card, and greet the Outsider Diaspora.

Outsider art is popular, is appearing and being ever more discussed: a Christie's auction, a World of Art series book (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), and now at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. "Art Without Precedent" in an institution which houses art with a precedent in the form of current exhibitions across the courtyard by contemporary artists, as well as a permanent collection with all the modern trimmings.

Art without precedent, because these nine artists are united in that they all share an ability to focus totally on their own inner vision uninhibited by training, received art practice or, above all, the weight of art history. The exhibition evokes some of the basic issues concerning Outsider art: at least two of the artists work within psychiatric hospitals, as a group they are untrained (in terms of formal education), and a number of them disclaim personal responsibility for their creations, giving credit instead to a spirit force which works through them.

Madge Gill is one of the well–known. She is also one of the mediumists, who is said to have believed in a spirit–guide called MYNINEREST (although she denied this in public). During her lifetime she was extremely reluctant to part with her works and, for the most part, refused to sell them. She died in 1961; since then, a number of exhibitions have been shown of her work, and a major sale was mounted by Christie's of South Kensington in '85.

In "Art Without Precedent", one of her intricate tapestries is displayed, with its murky green topography of whorls like fingerprints; tightly woven colors explode into frayed edges. The intricacy of this embroidered silk is reflected in the intricacy of patterned geometry seen in ink drawings by Gill. A recurring motif is illustrated here: little film–noir, deep–eyed girls with oval faces peer out from a tangle of Escher–esque black–and-white cubes and lines. The girls look out from their labyrinthine world in a large format on paper the height of a human-being. They also appear in more intimate postcard–sized works. Hundreds of these postcards exist, and looking at the few which are displayed, I am immediately reminded of the work of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré–whose year 2000 postcards have been reproduced onto newsprint and distributed free of charge throughout Dublin.

Another of the more famous of the Outsiders is Henry Darger, who again was discovered at his death, in 1973. He led a secluded life in Chicago, working diligently on a novel of some 19,000 pages, hand–bound into thirteen volumes with hundreds of illustrations (eat your heart out, Proust), with the take-a-deep-breath title of: The Realms of the Unreal, or the Story of the Vivian Girls In What Is Known As The Realms Of The Unreal Or The Glandelinian War Storm of the Glandicco Abbiennian Wars As Caused By The Child Slave Rebellion. In any case, some of the illustrations are up to 12 feet long, and in "Art Without Precedent" we are shown a double-sided triptych of a few feet with little naked girls scampering about with male genitals doing strange things like running into the backside of companions. A central figure consists of two bodies bound together, running on three legs, and the double–she creatures look like a cartoon form of "The Tragic Anatomie" of the Chapman Brothers.

Carl Peploe in Manchester made hundreds of books (and is presumably still making them–he is one of the few to be recognized in his lifetime). Something like 400 books in 20 years; the stress is on quantity. It is hard not to be reminded of the Paul Thek exhibition being shown on the other side of the city, which features some of the multitude of this (once an Outsider himself) sketchbooks. Peploe, however, cites Hieronymous Bosch as an inspiration, not Paul Thek (there is some art history in there after all).

The point fast approaching is this: all of the art thus far mentioned has had some very strong and obvious connection to art with a history of being on the inside–art is art for goodness sake, inside–out, upside–down. It is, I would argue, the collection, the terminology, rather than the art, which is without precedent. Here is the incarnation of the ever-infamous institutional need to exploit a trend–the term Outsider has the enticing lure of the peripheral about it. But I have more faith in IMMA as an institution without precedent. Led by Declan McGonagle, the only curator to be nominated for the Turner Prize (before his move to IMMA), the young museum states as part of its policy that ". . . standing definitions of artist and non-artist must be renegotiated, as must the categorizations which have traditionally ascribed value to art, artists and cultural institutions in society." And I could believe this policy as I stand amongst this outsider art as a group of 25 children sit sprawled at my feet on cushions with crayons in hand, making postcards of their own after Madge Gill; I could believe it looking through The Process Room, which is another forum for public interaction; and I guess I must believe it when I think of the artists in the Artist's Work Programme at the museum who are struggling to make a living in art–artists generally considered part of the inside art world, who have been left out of the museum's exhibition space. They are now, it seems, the current "Outsiders."

Amy Jean Porter

Dublin, Ireland 2000