The interest in so-called 'Outsider' Art seems to have begun in the late eighteenth century with the Romantic Movement, perhaps as part of a challenge to Enlightenment's Rationalism. Naturalistic and 'historically correct' representation called for considerable skill in practice. Artists needed to be scholars too. Academic institutions were created to achieve this. In contrast, Romanticism (and its consequences), saw art being achieved by people who were not 'official' artists. By the beginning of the twentieth century we see avant-garde artists giving considerable attention to this 'otherness' &to children's art, to indigenous cultures, to 'outsiders'. Spontaneously produced artwork came to be seen as closer to the essence of creativity. The dichotomy - ability/disability becomes a useless distinction.
Among the first artworks from Arts Project that I experienced were those by Julian Martin (born 1969) and John Northe (born 1943). In the early 90s, Julian's work in particular struck me as audaciously original. The medium was pastel, and at that time generally tonal, greys - monochromatic, sometimes with subtle, muted colouration. Like a jigsaw puzzle they depicted extraordinary interlocking compositions - singular 'portraits' subjected to the artist's unique sense of design. Later, with confident ease, colour brightened more complex symmetries - groups of figures, footballers - sophisticated figurations reminiscent of some kind of geometric semi-abstraction& Expressionistic? Cubist? Pop?& Delaunay? Klee?
In contrast, John Northe's earlier work drew on other mass media sources - magazines and movies. Subject matter included Dracula, Pocahontas, Alien, Bart Simpson, Don Bradman, Mel Gibson, and the 'Woman' series depicting Elvira, Sophia Loren, Sharon Stone etc& themes of the beautiful and ugly, hybrid and alien. In recent years he has concentrated on life drawing. Such work in this exhibition is intense and eccentric, but adeptly expressing an overwhelming urge to create - distinctively and without artistic pretension. (Whitely eat your heart out!) Comparison is futile, but I was remotely reminded of the early sixties work of Larry Rivers in the use of gesture and figuration combined with pencil line and text.
Stelio Costa (born 1966) loves movement, dance and football. His acrylic paintings combine broad brushstroke and totemic-like forms. Figures and faces are reduced to a pictographic grid of form and line. These elegantly abstract, expressive paintings are often characterised by thick white lines over a restrained ground of black and two or three primary colours. Don't be deceived – they are well resolved, complex compositions - achieved with considered, spontaneous gestural grace. Penke? Tapies? Tuckson?
Other Arts Project artists included in this exhibition include the acclaimed Alan Constable, Anne Lynch and Kelvin Heffernan. All of the artists exhibit distinctive individual styles, indicative of sustained long term and passionate engagement with their practice. All are obviously fans of popular culture. In this there is a recognition of the genres of mass culture - a visual analysis of the conventions, of the styles, of the sign – and of the world.
And then there is the childlike quality. It is this quality which is the proof of the genuineness of the uninhibited, the sincerity of the maker. This is the sincerity that Picasso and Klee strove to achieve, self-consciously. The sincerity that Manet declared to give his work "its character of protest". We are reminded of a time when innocence was subversive, indifferent to rules, prescriptions and examples.
The work here could be viewed as occupying a non-intellectual realm, an art without a theory, without words. But no theory has been able to define the criteria for visual expression. These artists articulate their own expressive authority, apparently arising out of nowhere. Consider the playful openness which generates idiosyncratic solutions to complex visual problems. Innovations emerge from an unbroken connection between childhood and adulthood.
Arts Project Australia began in Melbourne more than twenty-five years ago. The primary aim is to encourage people with intellectual disabilities who want to express themselves through visual art to do so. The artists from the Arts Project studios have access to the support of artworkers and assistants. However, it is a principle of Arts Project Australia that the artists do not work by prescription. The style and content of their work is not suggested by others. What is created comes directly from the individuals, from their own concerns and interests. The results have been astonishing. Their artwork is now viewed with respect and admiration. Many of the artists exhibit regularly at home and overseas. Several represented here are career artists contracted to mainstream galleries. Their work can be seen in collections around the world.