Outsider art that comes from within

by Edward M. Gómez

Special To The Japan Times

“Outsider art” is relatively new in Japan and, as a genre, works made by self-taught Japanese artists are still not very well known on the category-delineating, label-loving international art scene.

Now, though, “Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan,” an exhibition on view (through June 30) at the Wellcome Collection in London, is calling attention to the innovative creations of dozens of talented, self-taught artists from a country that has long been recognized for its rich history in the fields of design and the visual arts.

Taking its title from a Japanese word that can mean either “creation” or “imagination,” depending on which kanji are used to write it, “Souzou” presents more than 300 works made by 46 artists, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles and ceramics. Representing a diverse range of art-making motivations, techniques and themes, it features such unusual confections as Shota Katsube’s legions of miniature action figures fashioned from plastic-bag twist ties and Norimitsu Kokubo’s drawings of imaginary cityscapes, made with colored pencils and inks on enormous sheets of paper — one is several meters wide.

Also on view are artist Shinichi Sawada’s spike-covered, animal-like or totem-shaped yakimono (ceramic works), whose copper-toned clay accentuates their earthy character. (Are they strange sea creatures or perhaps monuments to imaginary deities?) Toyo Hagino offers vivid abstract compositions in white and shades of blue — circles, irregular grids, concentric rectangles. Made with fabric and embroidery thread, they would look right at home next to works produced by better-known, trained-artist purveyors of geometric abstraction.

Among the most gripping imagery on display is that of Marie Suzuki. Her psychosexually charged pictures made with colored ink on paper bear such titles as “It’s All Your Fault” (2009) and “Proliferation” (2007); alluding to human procreation, their dynamic compositions feature naked, contorted female forms, stylized genitalia, newborn babies and an ominous-looking, large pair of scissors whose opened blades rest against an unseen, prostrate woman’s spread-eagle legs.

It was in the 1940s that the French modernist artist Jean Dubuffet became aware of and began investigating drawings, paintings, sculptures and architectural environments that had been made by talented autodidacts in Europe. Such artists had not attended art school and they had lived and worked outside the socio-cultural mainstream. They made their works primarily for themselves, not for any market, and they did so without any real consciousness of the academy’s canonical art history. Dubuffet called such works “art brut” in French. Referring to the sense of pure, unbridled creative energy such works often convey, the term literally means “raw art.” “Outsider art” or “self-taught art” are labels that are now also used to identify a wide range of outside-the-mainstream art forms.

Today, in Europe and North America, a well-developed sector of the art establishment focuses on such art. It boasts specialized galleries, museums, publications and events, such as the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York. In Japan, the Tokyo-based gallery Yukiko Koide Presents is the only commercial venue of its kind that specializes in this field. In Kyoto, Galerie Miyawaki, an older outpost known for its offerings of classic modern art, has presented works by self-taught art-makers.

Wellcome Collection’s Japanese exhibition comes at a time when outsider-art dealers and collectors are hungry for new discoveries. In general, in this specialized field, Asia still represents a largely unexplored territory.

” ‘Souzou’, is our first more conventional art exhibition, even though it’s quite unconventional,” says James Peto, Wellcome Collection’s head curator. That’s because his institution, a division of the Wellcome Trust, usually mounts shows focusing on human health and the body, such as its exhibitions on the themes of death or the brain. The trust is a charitable foundation, which supports improvements in human health. Its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who in his lifetime amassed more than a million objects related to medicine and the body.

In Japan, it is only in recent years that works made by non-professionally trained, self-taught artists have begun to be shown publicly, usually under the “art brut” label. For the most part, they have emerged from art-therapy programs sponsored by what are known as social-welfare organizations, whose structures and funding sources tend to differ from those of comparable nonprofit institutions in the United States. The works on view in “Souzou” come from artists who have participated in such art-therapy programs; some of them have various forms of autism or other mental or physical disabilities, but that is not to say that in Japan only such individuals produce outsider art.

In a pamphlet accompanying “Souzou,” its curator, Shamita Sharmacharja, notes that, “In Japan, outsider art has been more closely aligned with public health and education reform” since 1945, when “a highly developed social-welfare system was established.” She points out that, in Japan’s art-therapy programs (as in others, elsewhere), typically, there is a “policy of ‘nonintervention’ in the creative process,” meaning that facilitators make materials available to participants but they do not tell their charges what to create or how to do so.

Several of the artists represented in “Souzou” are from Shiga, a prefecture that is known for the variety and quality of its art-therapy programs. It is also home to the Borderless Art Museum NO-MA (in Omihachiman, east of the prefectural capital, Otsu), a venue dedicated to self-taught artists’ works. Opened in 2004 in a traditional, Japanese-style house, it presents high-quality shows of outsider artists’ works in different media. Five years ago, it worked with the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, to produce a big exhibition of this kind of art from Japan for that important European museum.

In 2005, also in Shiga, the nonprofit organization Haretari Kumottari was established. Its mission: to identify all the self-taught art-makers who are affiliated with social-welfare organizations in Japan, protect their creative rights and help conserve their works. “Souzou” was organized in collaboration with both of these institutions, along with Aiseikai, a social-welfare organization in Tokyo that sponsors an art-therapy program. The exhibition was first shown, in a different form, at Het Dolhuys, the Museum of Psychiatry, in Haarlem, Holland.

“Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan” at the Wellcome Collection, London, runs through June 30. For more information: www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/japanese-outsider-art.aspx. Edward M. Gomez has written about Japanese modern art for the New York Times, Art in America, ARTnews, Art + Auction, Raw Vision and Art & Antiques.