The term ‘outsider art’ is a term that is contested.
It has commonly been used to describe anything outside the mainstream art world and its institutions, and produced by people with limited or no artistic education. Its synonyms include self-taught, vernacular, autodidact art, and visionary art, but it was the term art brut used by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) in the 1940s that first brought it to popular attention.
In an essay accompanying the 2014 exhibition Everyday Imagining: new perspectives on Outsider art at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, curator Joanna Bosse writes: “Dubuffet was drawn to what he considered the raw and unmediated nature of art made by the institutionalised mentally ill, which he perceived as arising directly from the inner self of the artist unaffected by cultural or societal influences […] He was searching for a primal form of activity – the modernist grail of ‘pure vision’ “
Today the term art brut reinforces the links between exceptional creativity, marginality and mental illness, but, Bosse argues, it is a preconception that can lead to misinterpretation of the agency and intention of the artist.
“One of Dubuffet’s central claims for art brut was its transgression of established rules and conventions. However American cultural theorist Hal Foster has reversed Dubuffet’s reading, proposing instead that the works reveal a desire to repair, replace and reinvent a symbolic order to restore equilibrium.”
Foster’s analysis is instructive when considering the work of New Zealand artist Andrew Blythe, whose paintings are an ongoing attempt to create stability, order and – in Blythe’s own words – harmony through repetition and pattern.
I am getting worse with every letter.
So hard to work with the borders and edges of the paper.
Trying to make the right row of the simple word NO, to patch up the work as I go,
instead of painting an elusive pure vision.
I try to beautify my beasts; I have them still though I am searching for answers to my silliness, to be a better man, to paint beautiful works.
I try to remember how to be polite when I walk through crowds of people.
My effort to improve feels like taking the pit out of an apricot and not hurting myself, though I am sorry to interfere, sensing that somehow I am still in danger, and it’s my fault.
Things can go wrong here, sometimes I seek warmth from people though I choose to be celibate.
I do enjoy the company of others in this wonderful art space.
I’ll try not to get too close.
Andrew Blythe, 2009
Tim Melville is grateful to work alongside the Toi Ora community arts trust https://toiora.org.nz/ in presenting Andrew Blythe’s first solo exhibition since 2018.
Photography by Kallan MacLeod