Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(380)

Souzou presents works that are often of a very personal nature, not always intended for exhibition or the art market. This is a collection of drawings, paintings and sculptures produced by people using art therapy as part of their treatment for "a variety of different cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders". But it is much more than that, and a hugely enjoyable show in its own right.

The exhibition is arranged into three groupings: "Language and Making", "Representation and Relationships" and "Culture and Possibility". The boundaries of these categories are fairly loose, and a lot of effort has gone into creating a continuity of themes throughout the exhibition.

This is an exhibition consciously critical of the term "Outsider Art". As you pass through the space, you begin to challenge some of the assumptions about this category. One of the main stereotypes of outsider artists is that they work outside the influence of culture and society, producing work unmediated by intellect or artistic reference points.

In the first sections, "Language and Making", we are presented with work that is clearly highly personal to the artist. Takanori Herai's "Diary" is 800 pages of monochrome hieroglyphs invented by the artist. The recurring characters, subtly changing from page to page, tell the stories of Herai's life - except we can only guess the meaning. The pages taken from the diary and placed in a perspex display are double-sided so from one side you can see the other coming through the page. This is art as a way of exploring experience, but also beautiful and masterful in its own right.

There is a contradiction between art as a personal therapy and the communicative nature of these pieces that is imminent in any act of representation. This contradiction is explored in the exhibition, starting with the primarily therapeutic and moving towards the more knowingly representational.

Megumi Matsui's "Candles" seems rich with metaphor, although it was made as a way to express the memory of a birthday party that the artist otherwise found impossible to articulate.

Although displaying works that are charged with emotion, this exhibition is keen to challenge the idea that Outsider Art is created by people with no cultural reference points or lacking the wherewithal to express themselves clearly. Works such as Miya's "Epoch of 214 Piano Keys" express a clear intentionality and vision, but this is not achieved by artistic allusion.

The creation of artistic metaphor requires a process of abstraction, and here it is a lived emotional response that highlights how the attempt to understand the world and communicate in it is a vital part of human activity. Artistic beauty, merit and meaning are part of a social process, and Souzou debunks the myth of the artist as genius - a singular imbuer of stable meaning.

This is art that doesn't seek its merit by convention or knowing reference, making it all the more fascinating and captivating.

The exhibition is on at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 30 June