What makes an artwork a piece of ‘Outsider Art’? Is it a certain aesthetic? A lack of traditional training for the artist that produces it? Or does it denote an artist from a specific background or community? Clearly, it is a fluid category, but if we take the latter as an indicator of Outsider Art, this surely has profound implications: is it not problematic to classify all disabled artists as ‘outsiders’? Is the term empowering if taken ownership of, or is it merely another method of othering an already marginalised group for the mainstream art world? These questions and more are raised through the group exhibition Namo Āto, currently showing at Glasgow’s Tramway as part of Unlimited Festival.
The exhibition brings together works by three artists from Atelier Corners, an organisation that works with learning-disabled artists in Osaka Japan and is brought to the UK in collaboration with Pallant House Gallery, Outside In, Unlimited (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) and the British Council.
It’s not clear that the three exhibiting artists in this ‘outsiders’ exhibition - Koji Nishioka, Makoto Okawa or Yasuyuki Ueno - would necessarily identify as such. Judging from the comments of Atelier Corners’ founder Takako Shiraiwa, that she sees their work as ‘simply art’, one would presume not. Whether or not the artists do truly identify in this way, one thing is for sure, this is good art. In fact, at times it’s great; vibrant, essential, life-affirming art.
Nishioka’s pen-and-ink renderings based on musical scores have an alluring fluidity. Aesthetically they hold more in common with Japanese calligraphy than Western styles of orchestration, a fitting observation given that the pioneers of graphic scores in the Western tradition such as John Cage were heavily influenced by Eastern philosophies. Nishioka apparently showed an affinity for classical music as a baby, and would stop crying if his parents played it to him. His scores have an innate musicality in a visual sense, but are more akin to jazzy improvisation than an orchestra at full pelt. The newer scores gradually move further to one side of the page due to an astigmatism Nishioka has in one eye. All good artists adapt and evolve based on new life experiences and this just feels like that process catalysed.
Ueno’s work consists of his own idiosyncratic take on the pages of Vogue Magazine. He, like, most of Western society, is apparently obsessed with beauty. Whilst the work is beautiful, it is a sort of inverted, subversive, alternative beauty. His representations of the airbrushed supermodels have unusual features of the sort you’d never see in Vogue; they apparently resemble his own face. It’s certainly a novel way of exploring less homogenous ideals of beauty in such a context.
Okawa’s paintings are imbued with a sort of latent fervent energy which exudes from the canvas. They are notable for their bold colours, unique characters and a freedom of movement that hints at an almost Basquiat-like abandon. The real stars of this whole show, however, are Okawa’s ‘makoot’ dolls made of wool. It’s as if the colourful, psychedelic characters that inhabit his paintings have become sentient and walked off the canvas. All have a humanlike appearance yet encompass a galaxy of colours and array of weird but wonderful shapes. And yet they all have a similar, fixed expression of joy which belies the turmoil, anger and anguish that apparently went into making them.
This feels deeply poignant. We all feel a pressure to maintain a happy veneer despite our inner tumult but this pressure must be even greater for those with learning disabilities, especially those involved with institutions. For many, bottling up their emotions simply isn’t an option. Or perhaps they are an exercise in the artist creating a world he wants to see.
The work of the three artists seems unrelated thematically, yet they sit together quite comfortably in terms of aesthetic and approach. Nevertheless, it’s not obvious that this exhibition has had a clear curatorial eye over it. If Namo Āto proves anything, it’s that we need to see more work by learning-disabled artists in mainstream contexts, whether it’s perceived as Outsider Art or not. Isn’t the best work that which is informed by unique experiences and perspectives? Namo Āto has that in spades.