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Reviewed by Alex Belsey.
For their latest exhibition on the links between medicine, life, and art The Wellcome Collection has brought together work by 46 artists from social welfare facilities in Japan. All of these self-taught artists have been diagnosed with behavioural or mental disorders and reside in or attend such facilities. The chosen title ‘Souzou’ translates into English as ‘creation’ or ‘imagination’, yet the most interesting aspect of the curator’s approach is the critical alignment with the term ‘outsider art’, a label applied to practice that is seen to arise from a base desire to create unadulterated by the expectation of an audience.
The curators claim that this practice in Japan has not formed a collector base and been impinged upon by commercial interest, therefore making the artwork here closer to the principles of ‘art brut’ and the other attendant terminologies they have referenced. Such an assumption on behalf of the artists represented here is occasionally brought into question, particularly by Daisuke Kibushi’s homespun pop art with its referencing of posters and magazine covers. Nevertheless, this exhibition makes a strong case for the therapeutic aspects of this practice, beginning with an exploration of language best represented by the distended glyphs of Takanori Herai’s ‘diary’, a codified document that initially appears to be simply an exercise in monochromatic doodling oddly reminiscent of Beardsley. Elsewhere language is dissociated from its symbolic function by the repeated character in Ryoko Kada’s work, becoming merely a unit in the undulating black waves she creates on white paper, yet punctuated with jarring instances of colour.
The role of art therapy means recourse in most cases to cheap materials and methods of production. Naturally there are a number of artists working in clay, the most striking works including Shinichi Sawada’s totems with their elaborate spines and teeth. Hideaki Yoshikawa’s ceramic series abstracts the features of the human face to create slate grey obelisks, the largest of which is fourteen inches tall and dappled with pin-prick markings like some kind of alien artefact. Moving into mixed media, the maquettes of Schoichi Koga form a group of animal-headed effigies equally inspired by folkloric figures and pop culture characters. Their rawness, almost scrappiness, is what gives Koga’s pieces such animation, with even their excess of sticky tape bestowing upon them an otherworldly sheen befitting their mythic character. By comparison Sakiko Kono’s disturbingly moon-faced dolls are somewhat less engaging by way of craft than their context – that of Kono paying tribute to staff at the institution in which she has lived for 55 years. In terms of the effectiveness of cheap materials, Masao Obata’s works in coloured pencil on cardboard achieve wonders through the juxtaposition of their unassuming physical properties and their subject matter. Rendering his figures in shades of red, Obata uses a strong adherence to symmetry and a high level of adornment to evoke the style of religious icons.
The ingenuity with which so many of the artists here have embraced their materials is one of the greatest pleasures of this exhibition, yet the most resonant works are those that marry the low-/no-budget use of basic materials to a meticulous, almost fanatical work ethic. The beautiful embroidered pieces by Noriko Tanaka demonstrate a fine eye for colour; she conjures a huge purple wave from a stream of skilfully worked reds, yellows, and blues, while another piece painstakingly combines complementary tones into a warm, fleshly pink. Kenichi Yamazaki’s use of colour is brasher and almost euphoric, which is all the more surprising considering that his contribution is a series of hand-drawn engineering schematics. Upon closer inspection, Yamazaki’s felt pen blueprints are punctured with tiny needlepoints made using a compass, allowing the light to pierce them in carefully orchestrated patterns. If Yamazaki’s approach seems to border on the obsessive, then the ritualistic practice of Komei Bekki – who, we are informed, only sets to work once the ceramic workshop in his occupational therapy unit is completely empty – has produced a collection of tiny clay figurines defined by repetition and subtle variation. More alarming still are Shota Katsube’s one-inch action figures made from twist ties of every imaginable colour, a whole battlefield of diminutive warriors and fantastical creatures. These artists seem to compulsively create for the sake of creation itself, yet the work of some artists here indicates obsessions that are more clearly psychological. Most sensational of all are Marie Suzuki’s terrifying sexual visions, her large-scale drawings of bulging organs, razor-like teeth and leaking fluids, all precisely rendered in a vampiric palette of coloured pens. In an almost pointillist fashion every contained form is filled with tiny geometric patterns, revealing to what extent the artist laboured over her apocalyptic images of sexual violence.
Our tendency to venerate the compulsive/troubled artist has been a dominant narrative in Western art since before Van Gogh chose institutionalisation as the only way left to live and create. This exhibition is therefore all the more admirable for skilfully balancing the inevitably interesting (and necessary) contextual material on each artist with a relatively open-plan layout that showcases and celebrates the ingenuity of their work above all else.
This free exhibition is at The Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London, until 30th June 2013
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