‘Art Brut Japonais’: Unleashing the uninhibited power of expression

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

In recent weeks there have been several contemporary-art group exhibitions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo Annual, VOCA at the Ueno Royal Museum, and the Sompo Japan Rising Artists Exhibition. In theory these exhibitions, which are usually scheduled to coincide with the optimism of spring, are designed to show what Japan’s brightest and best are up to and point to future trends in the art world.

But another way of looking at these shows is as part of the socialization process of artists. In the derivativeness of much of what is on offer, we are given clear indications of artistic role models, while the curatorially designated trends point to the subtle artistic herding that goes on. In such shows, the young artist often emerges as a figure caught between education and expectation, with pure expression lost in the mix. This may be the reason why so much of the art at these shows was simply disappointing.

Contrast this with the vivid and delightful art on display at the “Art Brut Japonais” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Saitama and you might conclude that the whole Japanese art establishment has been wasting its energy. The artists at this show are all mentally disabled outsiders. Because of this, they are equally impervious to artistic education and curatorial guidance, and, not so surprisingly, all the better for it.

Art Brut, literally “raw art,” was a category formulated by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art that derived from “pure and authentic creative impulses, where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.” Dubuffet concluded that such art could best be produced by the mentally disabled.

The show represents the return to Japan of an exhibition held over 10 months at the Halle Saint Pierre Museum in Paris. This was organized with the help of Shiga Prefecture, a pioneer in using art to help improve the lives and status of its mentally disabled. But why the French interest in Japanese “outsider art”?

“In the world of outsider art in Europe or in America, Japanese outsider art has always been an outsider,” Taku Shibuya, a curator at MOMAS, comments wryly. “I think this was the reason why they became interested in Japanese Art Brut.”

Another reason may have been the quality. But with outsider art “quality” has to be understood in a different and more counter-intuitive way. One of the chief delights of the art at this exhibition is the way it flaunts accepted artistic rules, but not in the self-conscious, smart-aleck, iconoclastic way of the professional “edgy” artist. Instead it is done in a delightfully innocent manner, as in Koichi Fujino’s “Squid” (1996-2001). Any notions of balance between figure and ground are completely swept aside in the artist’s evident joy in filling in large areas of the card with sumi ink.

Keisuke Ishino’s strange 2-D into 3-D paper dolls are another joy. Drawn with colored marker pens, these seem to combine elements of 1970s’ kitsch with geometric stylization vaguely reminiscent of Maya stone reliefs. But whatever associations they may evoke, these are clearly the sincere and heartfelt outpourings of a young man who just happens to have a thing about a certain kind of idealized female. The way in which he then naively tries to make these drawing into 3-D works by cutting them into outlines and taping strips of paper to their sides only adds to the poignancy.

Shibuya defines Art Brut as “art that is made by the people who are not disciplined in academic artistic education.” However, their idiosyncratic obsessions give them a different kind of discipline that helps to shape and define their art while also giving it the kind of distinctive artistic voice that many professional artists struggle for years to find.

Takuya Gamo’s colorful swirling sketches of plants and animals, Shinichi Sawada’s protuberance-covered ceramic sculptures and Koichi Yashima’s absurd but strangely apt junk assemblages — to name but three — all have unique signature styles of the kind that any successful artist needs.

But whatever the artistic merits, the therapeutic function is also central. So how are these aspects viewed?

“It depends on what we think about the function of art as a society,” Shibuya says. “Art Brut is very useful for the improvement of the social status of disabled persons, but, on the other hand, art should not need to have a social object. In this case, I feel we stay equidistant between the moral function and art for its own sake.”

In addition to this, the exhibition also has a potent message for those interested in creating art, showing the importance of having confidence in your abilities whatever they are. Regardless of their technical limitations, the artists here have no room for doubt, soul searching, and self-criticism. The uninhibited power of expression runs through their work, transforming their often humble talents into magical powers.

“Art Brut Japonais” at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama runs till May 15; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momas.jp.