Inside the "Outsider" Issue

In 1992–93, Artlink’s Naïve & Outsider Art for all its curious conflations (garden art, tattooing), which to later generations may seem random or even ‘tone deaf’, was an issue centring on a broad range of themes linked by a shared invisibility in the mainstream discussions of the time. Incipient and untracked—but cogent and live—ideas, especially those that were side-lined by the academy, have been central to Artlink throughout much of its four decades. Yet if some animals are more equal than other animals, then some art practices have turned out to be more robust in public intellectual life than others. Some ideas such as Indigenous resistance, sovereignty and agency, definable shifts in feminist practice, and advocacy for a vulnerable global ecology, that Artlink consistently centred and platformed from the late 1980s onwards, (well before they registered with the slower moving and more self-serving institutional cultural and political leaders) are now the foundations of intellectual and creative life in Australia.

Artlink vol 12. no 4, Summer 1992–93. Cover art work: Marie Jonsson-Harrison, View of the world of art outside the ‘mainstream’. Commissioned for Artlink. Courtesy of Greenaway Art Gallery.

The resonance of the practices discussed in Naïve & Outsider Art have been (or are) less clearcut. Of the several ideas that clustered in the 1992–1993 issue some have faded from consciousness, some have consolidated and shifted their positions, others have weathered less straightforward histories of placement and public recognition over the past three decades. Both the reasons for this complexity and the process by which this complexity shaped understanding and validation of non-standard practices in Australia have threaded intermittently throughout Artlink, but often in a fragmented and lateral fashion, sometimes being read between the lines of essays, and notable by default in the appearance and disappearances of names, writers, makers, organisations in multiple contents pages across various issues.

Thirty years on, apart from more confident statements of identity and personal truths, and certainly a robust model of the social construction of “disability” among younger artists and activists, (if not the authorities charged with supporting outliers in today's Australia), we have no overarching consistent theory, terminology or policy that defines the many sectors advocated for in the 1992–1993 issue.

Artlink vol 12. no 4, Summer 1992–93. Cover art work: Marie Jonsson-Harrison, French performance artists being arrested for nudity at the Adelaide Festival 1992. Commissioned for Artlink. Courtesy of Greenaway Art Gallery.

Major public-facing galleries, collections and research institutes that sought to promote and document non-central practices in Australia have closed or substantially shifted ownership, governance and policy. Could one imagine institutions dedicated to either mainstream art or Indigenous art being allowed to have such unstable backstories? And what of the global interest such as New York’s Outsider Art Fair, inaugurated in 1993? Aligned with the publication of SENSORIA:Access & Agency, Peers maps a recent art history of the shifting ethics and politics of ‘Outsider’ artists, visibility/invisibility, and the power imbalances within an art world embedded with saviour narratives of ‘care’ and ‘cure.’

Juliette Peers is a Melbourne based independent scholar and cultural critic with a substantial freelance curatorial and art writing practice in Australia, Europe and the USA. Best known for her work on women’s art practices and feminist art histories, Peers has been an extensive contributor to Artlink since 1993. She lectured for 25 years at RMIT, and is a historical consultant to the Sheila Foundation for Women in the Visual Arts. Disclosure: Juliette Peers is an invited member of Artlink’s Editorial Advisory Group.