Art at the edges

 

When Dusan Kusmic was buried in a pauper's grave in Dublin in 1990, just a handful of mourners turned up for the funeral. Among them were painters Pat O'Faolain and Brian Maguire. They were two of the few people who had taken an interest in the reclusive Yugoslav, who had lived alone in Ireland since 1950.

They'd realised that Kusmic was an artist and given him encouragement and companionship. But he wasn't an artist in the conventional sense. He didn't have a career or work within an established framework of cultural reference, for example.

His artistic activity began in extremis. Born in 1925 and raised within a strict Catholic family, while still in his teens he fought with Marshall Tito's partisans during the second World War. Surviving some horrific experiences, he found himself in a prison camp in Sicily in 1948. There, traumatised by the suicide of a fellow prisoner and unable to eat, he started to mould the bread he was given, fashioning miniature pairs of shoes. He became so adept at this singular activity that he was able to sell his bread sculptures to a jeweller's shop after his release.

The Irish Red Cross brought him to Dublin in 1950. He lived in a small bedsit in Mountjoy Street, did a few odd jobs and survived on the dole. Gerald Dicker, who ran the local vegetable shop, befriended him, and introduced him to Pat O'Faolain, who was at the time living and working on Mountjoy Square. Kusmic's room was chock-a-block with his sculptures, and O'Faolain gave him storage space so that he could keep working.

"He never learned to speak English properly," O'Faolain recalls. "He never integrated, and he was difficult to understand, but despite that we did understand each other. He'd come around for tea and I remember that, though he had nothing, he always arrived with a cake, never empty-handed."

O'Faolain was struck by the quality of his imagination. "I was impressed by the very first piece of his I saw." Kusmic was a typical Outsider artist - inasmuch as there is a type. Self-taught, he existed outside the mainstream cultural sphere, on the margins of society, responding to and largely inhabiting the inner world of his imagination. He is one of many whose works are included in an exhibition opening today at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, "Art Unsolved: Works From The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection". The curator of this collection, Monika Kinley, got to hear of Kusmic and came to Dublin to find him. She arranged a grant of £600 and included his work in an exhibition in Japan. It was his wish that his sculptures go to the archive after his death.

The Outsider Collection and Archive was established by Victor Musgrave and Monika Kinley in 1981, following on from an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery in 1979. Musgrave, a poet and theorist, died in 1984 and Kinley is now the sole custodian of the collection: she has yet to fulfil her ambition of finding it a permanent, financially secure home. In the meantime, it will be on loan to IMMA for the next two years.

The archive is more than just a repository. It is a focal point and meeting place for artists, collectors, scholars and others interested in the subject - which is important, given that Outsider Art exists, by definition, outside the conventional institutional structures. It's a bit like the shadowy, underground postal service hinted at in Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying Of Lot 49. A degree of elusiveness is essential.

The existence of the collection raises the issue of defining what Outsider Art is. After the publication of Dr Hans Prinzhorn's influential book Artistry Of The Mentally Ill in 1922, what Musgrave termed Outsider Art was straightforwardly associated with insanity. The best known champion of such art was undoubtedly the French artist Jean Debuffet, who coined the term Art Brut - raw art. His interest was spurred by reading Prinzhorn's book, but when he set about building a collection of Art Brut he realised that it was not so easily categorised. Not the least of the problems was that many of those labelled insane were nothing of the sort.

Art Brut doesn't necessarily imply lack of skill. Some Outsider artists may lack technical skills, but others have great natural facility. Or an artist might possess exceptional decorative ability. Shafique Uddin's fabulously detailed compositions, for example, are dreamlike evocations of both the Bangladesh he left as a child of nine and the very different world he found in London.

For Debuffet, the vital point was that the creative activity offers a direct line to the artist's unconscious. This is true, he suggested, of the work of psychotics, but also that of children, and for that matter of many amateur artists. Various painters associated with expressionist movements have endeavoured to do something similar, to get in touch with a "primitive", pre-cultural state of consciousness, but, as Jasper Johns once remarked about painting: "Once an idea is given you're stuck with it." These artists cannot really unlearn what they know, something that applies equally to the work of Debuffet himself.

Writing in the catalogue for "Art Unsolved", Jon Thompson categorises Outsider artists as "the unschooled, the socially displaced, the psychotic and the visionary". But more to the point, he suggests that it's not so much a question of their being "outside" as of being on the margins, and of how the cultural margins relate to the cultural centre and vice versa.

THE work in the show is presented in isolation of the biographical details of its makers, so that we can approach it free of preconceptions. In a way, this is scrupulously fair. But in many cases, such as Kusmic's, the lives of the artists are extraordinary in themselves, and have a poignance and resonance that is remarkable, encompassing extremes of experience that clearly influenced their creative activities.

Some Outsider artists are, paradoxically, relatively well known. The work of the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis, for example (represented in the collection but not in this show) was admired and collected by many mainstream artists. Likewise, Glaswegian Scottie Wilson has works in many of the world's finest museums. Londoner Albert Louden has exhibited what he calls his "internal landscapes" widely, to considerable acclaim.

Madge Gill, who died in 1961, was also well known. A colourful Londoner who held weekly seances and Ouija board evenings, she often exhibited her drawings, but declined to sell them on the basis that they really belonged to her spirit-guide, Myrninerest. She worked through the night in a trance-like state, making repetitious, labyrinthine images centring on a recurrent, doll-like female figure.

On the face of it, Outsider Art should be moving inside. The current artistic climate is theoretically open to virtually any and every form of cultural expression. The notion of a single, dominant artistic orthodoxy is a dead duck. Yet the art world is a funny old place, and it still finds ways to guard its status, to create insiders and outsiders.

"Art Unsolved: works From The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection" is at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Kilmainham, Dublin from today until October 14th