Outsider Art from Japan

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Private Collection, image © Wellcome Library, London

Shawada’s grotesque, menacing clay totem poles and obscene figures are some of the most instantly recognisable pieces on display. Heavily reminiscent of African tribal art, they’re wonderfully bizarre and obsessively overworked mutant gods, covered with thorns and eery, bulging eyes.

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Collection of the artist. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

Fujino’s bold images of fish, octopuses and random patterns seem barely contained by the page, leaking out across the edges. They are among the simplest works in the show and are all the more striking for it, though there is still an imposing sense of fear and pressure.

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Collection of the artist. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Collection of the artist. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

Katsube has made an army of tiny, improvised anime soliders out of coloured wire. Brandishing swords and bazookas, the works are impressively intricate in detail. They’re laid out like a vast, futuristic Games Workshop battlefield in an awesome clash of art and pop culture. If only you were allowed to play with them.

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Nonprofit Organization Haretari-Kumottari. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Collection of the artist, image © Wellcome Library, London

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Social welfare coporation Yamanami, Atelier Yamanami. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Collection of the artist. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Collection of the artist Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Collection of the artist, image © Wellcome Collection, London. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Shiga Prefecture. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

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Collection of the artist. Photo: © Nobuo Onishi. Courtesy Wellcome Images

Wellcome Collection, Bloomsbury Friday April 5 2013 0:00

Outsider art, as a term, lumps huge groups of disparate artists into one, messy, patronising heap. Whatever doesn’t fit easily into the art world must be ‘outside’ of it – whether that means the artist has learning difficulties or is just untrained. The categorisation can turn any such display into a freakshow, where us norms get to indulge in voyeurism of disabled people’s lives, or just pat them on the back for learning how to paint.

Fortunately – some condescending curatorial mumbo-jumbo aside – the Wellcome has concentrated on the art of these 46 artists who attend Japanese social welfare institutions, and not their lives. There’s plenty of background here, on the artists’ conditions and daily rituals, but you don’t need it. The narrative is still important, but this is art that can stand alone, and deserves to. From Yumiko Kawai’s intricate embroidery to Takako Shibata’s portraits of her mother, there’s some incredible work on display. If this was billed as a show of contemporary Japanese art, it would not only be valid, but stunning, accomplished and fascinating. Its ‘outsiderness’ doesn’t define it, its quality does.

What the outsider status does bring to the show, however, is a different set of intentions from contemporary art. This is art made as therapy or distraction, not as careerist commercialism. These artists aren’t trying to be the next Koons or Emin, they just create for the sake of it. There are no nods to art’s past, no clever in-jokes. It’s just art, and that’s incredibly liberating.

Eddy Frankel

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