Detail from Dr Quark Lord of the Greedies is asked to show a little wonder ...
Greg Bromley, 2018, Mixed Media on Canvas
In May of this year the European Outsider Art Association's AGM and conference was hosted by Outside In at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, which conveniently for me was only an hour's drive away. As last year's conference took place in Poland and next year's will take place in Sweden, I am still feeling grateful that luck, timing, and geography all aligned so that I could go.
Even so, I could only attend one out of the three days of activities. But what a packed day that was! From the opening remarks by Outside In's founder and Director, Marc Steene, to a number of panel discussions and presentations by artists, this was one of the best art events I've been fortunate enough to attend.
At every opportunity the audience was welcoming and the artists engaging. In choosing the theme of The Artist's Voice, the conference truly focused everyone's attention on the artists: sharing and celebrating their work, amplifying their experiences, revealing their unique personalities across language (and lack of language) barriers, and highlighting the important role art making plays in their lives. There were serious moments too, as in discussing the problems that arose from a residency project in which an artist with learning difficulties struggled with the expectations and emotional needs of their neurotypical partner and vice versa. But even here there was respect for the artists on both sides of the relationship and a desire to understand how the residency had gone wrong in order that similar problems might be avoided in future projects.
As an artist well versed in access issues, with experience of working with/against mental and physical health limitations, and more interested in pursuing the artistic experiences and aesthetics which please me, myself, before pleasing market forces ... I found the event invigorating and inspiring. But most of all, I found the artists' voices compelling in their passion for the work they and those around them are doing. At no point was there competition, only interest in what others are making and a desire to reach out and connect across the many different cultures, languages, and abilities represented by those present and represented.
Of those represented in their absence I was most struck by Laila Kassab who had been denied a visa to attend the event despite having been awarded an Outside In commission and invitation to come and speak at this event. The Q&A that was run on a mix of new and old technologies with her words in Arabic played aloud from a Skype recording while an English translation was displayed next to images, allowed her authentic voice to be heard and her work to be seen despite the distance between Chichester and the refugee camp where she now lives. Since the conference, Outside In has featured her as their Artist of the Month (June 2018), and run a successful Crowdfunding Campaign to bring her work to the UK this month.
But first a bit about the commission ...
Originally, Colliding Worlds: Scottie Wilson had been a commission intended for one artist only to respond to the work of Scottie Wilson, one of the Outsider artists represented in the Pallant House Gallery collection. In the end however, the commission was awarded to two artists: Greg Bromley and Laila Kassab. With each artist being invited to respond individually to Wilson's work and exhibit the resulting work in a solo show at Pallant House Gallery.
For a visual representation on the theme The Artist's Voice, their related, but wholly independent exhibitions are a perfect example of how one brief might be answered entirely differently by two different visual artists.
First to exhibit was Greg Bromley
A detail showing just how detailed Greg's work is, can be found at the top of this blog. Below is the whole of that piece along with an excerpt from the exhibition label that accompanied it:
Dr Quark Lord of the Greedies is asked to show a little wonder ...
"This is a montage of many of Scottie's faces ... On the surface the work speaks of the viewer's expectation of looking at art and expectation of it being wondrous. Covertly, I think the image speaks of my struggle with depression and exhaustive attempts at finding happiness i.e. I am asking Dr Quark for wonder!"
In responding to Wilson's work, Greg played with his images in order to create something new. Above is Scottie Wilson's Untitled, Birds and Sea Creatures (1950s), below is Greg Bromley's On the Birdboat to Nacada Louis Freeman lost his head and became man overboard (2018).
In the label, Greg states that "the narrative in this image portrays Scottie's voyage to Canada (Nacada) and how he changes his name from Louis Freeman to Scottie Wilson ... The small boat in front of Birdboat is a doffing of my flat cap to my hometown of Hull and is representative of a river pilot bringing in the big ships."
In his words, the image sounds prosaic, almost mundane, but in the imagery all is turned on its head taking "Scottie's work down the Cosmic Wormhole" as Greg describes at one point.
Second to exhibit was Laila Kassab.
As you can see, from the images above and below, both artists are drawn to bright, bold colours, but there each one's voice steps off onto its own path. In reading the two texts though you'll see that while they were each drawn to different aspects of Wilson's own work and journey, both of them found similarities in how his life could relate to their own experiences. Even so, their work is wildly different, showcasing just how very important the artist's voice is in bringing something unique even to the same situation.
About Love and Passion (2018) Laila writes, "I tried to acquire Scottie Wilson's passion for lines that emit energy and motion. In this sketch the strength of the painting is embodied in the symbols, lines and their magical auras."
Of Prisoner of Life, "The young woman I have drawn looks as if she is in another world. She is consumed by mind-boggling thoughts. This painting depicts a scream of pain coming from the depths. Like a life at its end, running away from the cruelty of the world ... At some point the prisoner must rebel and escape her prison, resist and refuse to be deluded like a naive animal lamenting its destiny."
Above is one wall of Laila's exhibition, with two of her works bookended by two of Scottie Wilson's. The right hand image by Laila is titled Hope and is one of the most peaceful images from the two exhibitions, but I believe my favourite piece is Laila's Butterfly particularly paired with Wilson's Untitled, Sea Creatures (1950s).
Perhaps because they so neatly pair again with my own obsessions for butterflies and fish, flying as swimming and swimming as flying, and the power of art to transform from one thing to another and mean many things all at the same time. Things, which to borrow Greg's words above, "show me wonder ..."
Untitled, Sea Creatures by Scottie Wilson
and Laila's Butterfly,
pregnant with past, present, and future possibilities ...
because the conversation is still open,
inviting other artists to join in.
And, in another 60 or 70 years, who knows, perhaps the Outside In / Pallant House co-commision will be asking for artists not yet born to respond to these works made now.
The good news is that as of the time of writing and until 29 July you are still able to see Laila Kassab's work in person at Pallant House Gallery. For you, it is the present that is full of invitation and possibility. However, if that's too far for you to travel, keep your eyes peeled as both exhibitions will be touring the UK in the coming months and they might just be headed in your direction.