There can be no better feeling than finding inspiration in unexpected places. Last week while taking the tube to the Royal College of Art in London I saw a poster advertising Souzou, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection featuring Outsider Art from Japan. So, after a day of work reviews with this year’s crop of graduating fashion students (the 2013 catwalk shows take place later this week – more later), I decided I deserved a visit. Even though I had to rush across London during rush hour and with only an hour before the gallery closed its doors I am happy I made the effort. This exhibition feels like a huge hit of pure oxygen. Everything about it made me smile and lifted my spirits and, for a moment, made me forget about the bustling, hustling, complex world on the outside.
Outsider Art is a catch-all phrase that describes art in the raw or uncontaminated by culture. It is commonly used to mean work by artists that have had no professional training or tuition and who often inhabit the outskirts of society. It is art that is made for the sake of creation alone. The programme for the show informs us that the word Souzou ‘is a word which has no direct equivalent in English but a dual meaning in Japanese: written in one way it means creation and in another imagination.’ The 46 self-taught artists featured in the exhibition live and work within social welfare facilities across Japan. They ‘have been diagnosed with a variety of different cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illness, and are residents or day attendees of specialist care institutions.’
Although the work on display is across many different mediums – from precise coloured pencil drawings to squashy 3D soft sculptures – the naïve spirit and lack of lofty aspirations that runs throughout hugs your heart and squeezes your soul. The use of everyday, unconventional materials (cardboard boxes, sticking tape, bin bag ties and discarded clothes) inspires tremendous inventiveness. There are many pieces worth noting: exquisite pencil sketches of strange groupings of dogs, fish and deer by Takao Uenishi, reimagined felt pen posters of post-war film classics by Daisuke Kibushi, an army of tiny battling knights by Shota Katsube that look like they have been twisted from metallic multi-coloured Quality Street sweet wrappers (for best effect I would recommend crouching down to view this exhibit through the side panel of the case), the TV screen portraits of Hiroyuki Komatsu that combine words and pictures and the cloth dolls by Sakiko Kono that are cleverly displayed suspended in mid-air. Before I describe my two favourite works I need to mention the hang of the show, charmingly curated by Shamita Sharmacharja, which is equally special in its humble, unpretentious style, featuring stiffened canvas information labels secured to the wall with utilitarian metal clips. Echoing the mood of the work, the display elicits a sense of calm and reflection.
My highlights in the show include a trio of roughly constructed pyjamas by Takahiro Shimoda, decorated with the favourite foods of the artist using oil-based marker and acrylic paint. My favourite were a pair called Salmon Roe Pyjamas, others were titled Fried Chicken Pyjamas and Hato Sable (translated as ‘pigeon-shaped cookies’). The other highpoint was a series of foot high figures fashioned from bits of torn cardboard, newspaper, sticking tape and the like. Taking their inspiration from folklore and fantasy action films the line-up of characters was delightfully quirky including Kago-Otoko (Basket Man) and Kanibo (Crab Boy). I found myself mesmerised and (maybe it was the off-kilter, drab meets dazzling colour combinations or unexpected silhouettes), oddly reminded of the quixotic menswear presentations of Italian designer Romeo Gigli.
But, most of all, Souzou made me feel a little heady and ready for the real world again. You’d be a fool not to see this show.
SOUZOU: Outsider Art from Japan, Wellcome Collection, London, NW1 2BE, runs until 30 June 2013.