Arts writer Terry Grimley visits the Outsiders exhibition in Walsall.
The term “outsider” in art used to refer to naive, spontaneously-creative individuals who had never been initiated into the norms of fine art through formal training.
Such people might produce work of eccentric interest, but it was doomed always to exist in isolation, divorced from any kind of historic context.
The artists in the exhibition Outsiders, just opened at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, are a rather different case.
In the first place the concept of formal training hardly exists today, and in any case most of these artists have been to art school. Then again, the fact that the thing which links them is a commercial London gallery, the Lazarides Gallery, shows that they are already locked into the art market.
Whatever the terms of reference, this is an energetic and invigorating exhibition. They may have started out from what I suppose we now have to call the graffiti tradition or other forms of popular art, but the work of these artists is not so radically different from mainstream contemporary art. While some very dull art from the last 20 years has been related back to Pop Art, the work of these artists seems to catch some of the early excitement of Pop.
Funnily enough, another characteristic which marks these artists out is the high level of craft skill evident in their work. This is certainly true of the star exhibit – a huge mural by the young Irish artist Conor Harrington which is painted directly on to the gallery wall and spans its entire 26 metre length.
Combining photographic imagery – notably battle re-enactment enthusiasts in “redcoat” uniforms, a bull and two figures in religious costume – with abstract imagery, it calls to mind Robert Rauscshemnberg’s work combining pop imagery with abstract expressionism. But while the effect of Harrington’s style is of big gestural brushstrokes, he actually works with aerosol sprays.
The other big work painted specially for the exhibition consists of two murals by the Birmingham artist Lucy McLauchlan, a member of the Moseley arts collective Beat 13. One of them, painted in her distinctive black and white neo-psycheledlic style, is a giant Dubuffet-like figure incorporating musical instruments, hub caps and a bicycle wheel.
The Brooklyn-based art collective Faile began by pasting its posters on the walls of streets in New York and other cities, and eventually graduated to making sculptures of various kinds. Here it shows a group of “prayer wheels”, wooden cylinders revolving on steel bases which are carved and painted with Faile’s distinctive pulp magazine imagery. Their work has a wonderfully folksy textured quality which evokes the pioneering days of Pop.
Jonathan Yeo is an interesting artist to encounter in this context. The son of the Tory MP Tim Yeo, he was educated at Westminster School but was self-taught as an artist, establishing himself as a society portrait painter whose sitters included Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch and the Duke of Edinburgh. When a commission to paint George W Bush was cancelled by the White House he made a portrait of the president anyway, using flesh tones clipped from pornographic magazines.
Yeo also shows some beautiful leaf studies using collage material from the same source. Since one of his sitters was Hugh Hefner, there is a neat link with the three sculptures by Pail Insect which share the same gallery.
These are three heads of Playmates of the Month, each of them a skull with bunny ears and bow tie – a contemporary take on the time-honoured art tradition of the “memento mori”.
* Until January 25 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm; admission free).