ONLINE ONLY: The Hayward Gallery’s Fashionable Primitives

“Twelve Events in a Dual Universe” by Alfred Jensen 

Modern galleries like their art to raise questions. The Alternative Guide to the Universe, at the Hayward Gallery, is a rare exhibition that really does raise important questions. Perhaps, though, the questions it raises were not those that the curators had in mind.

The exhibition charts the work of some “self-taught artists and unlicensed architects, fringe physicists and visionary inventors”. What is a self-taught artist, nowadays? A century ago, when the Parisian avant-garde adopted Le Douanier Rousseau, a self-taught artist was distinctly naive. Rousseau’s painting, so direct, so opaque, so flat, appealed because it hinted that something of the primitive might remain in us; for bohemians, the primitive meant freedom, and primitivism would be the escape from rotten ‘bourgeois’ sophistication. Rousseau’s work was wildly different from that of any of his champions in the avant-garde who felt themselves inhibited by their subtler craft; the avant-garde really grew out of the great artistic traditions – it had to know their intricacies to ridicule them, and it had to know their ideals to reject them – but Rousseau’s art had grown out of nothing but his own instinctive vision. Indeed, the instinctive vision, which is only personal, actually became a new, modernist ideal. And so our most distinguished art schools, following the progress of bohemian prejudices, have, for at least the last half-century, sought to counsel their students into discovering their personal vision instead of teaching them traditional craft. By now no schools could teach that craft, even if they wanted to – thus we have been triumphantly liberated from artistic tradition. That fin-de-siecle primitivism has left us actually primitive.

We find this awful conclusion confirmed by the Hayward, as the work on show by self-taught artists and architects is not obviously any less subtle than that which we are accustomed to seeing produced by professionals. Take for example Bodys Isek Kingelez (b.1948), who had apparently seen no architecture – not even in photographs – from outside his native Kinshasa before he began to make his fantastical model buildings. Some of his designs seem slightly oriental, pagoda-like; most of them look like something from a mid-twentieth century fair-ground. But Bodystand, and Dorothe, of giant scale and asymmetrical, gravity-defying form, in conception strongly resemble buildings by the “starchitects” – Frank Gehry, Sir Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, et al. It is not too hard to imagine Kingelez’s models really being built, their steel skeletons rising ominously into the sky to cast shadow over the Thames – as long as their colours were tastefully toned down and the whole clad in darkly tinted reflective glass. The starchitects’ creations are seen as the height of sophistication – indeed they are commissioned to stand as the ultimate symbols of our modern society’s sophistication. Perhaps they are sophisticated as feats of engineering. But by comparing their actual appearance with Kingelez’s models we may suspect that the starchitects’ imaginative ambition is, in character, decidedly close to primitive. And so the Hayward exhibition forces us to ask ourselves about the real significance of the primitive, in a world where technological advance has distracted us from spiritual subtlety.

But the word “primitive” is hardly used anymore. It has been disqualified as misleading and offensive. “Outsider” is preferred, in relation to art. This word is also problematic – “outside” of what, exactly, now that we are so free of our old artistic traditions? But there is still one tradition allowed: the avant-garde; the radical rejection of tradition has become a tradition itself. Perhaps The Hayward wants to imply that these self-taught artists can be more radical for their lack of training because modern art schools, despite teaching no craft, may be imparting a conventionalised and by now traditional rejection of what was once taken to be conventional thought – and that is at any rate exactly what happens in art schools. Perhaps this exhibition postulates that it is no longer for the avant-garde to learn from primitives, or outsiders; instead, now that modernism has been institutionalised, really these outsiders hold the best claim to being our avant-garde. So the Hayward promises that this exhibition will give us “bracingly fresh perspectives on the world we live in”.

It actually gives us the opposite of fresh perspectives, but it is all the more interesting for that. The styles of these works are as familiar as the quality of their ambition and execution; the visions of these self-taught artists and architects, as well as being no less subtle and no more primitive than the avant-garde vision, appear to be no less conventional. Indeed, so strongly do these supposedly naive visions seem to conform that they raise the question whether it is still possible, in these days of mass communication, for a genuine ‘Outsider Art’ to exist.

Of course it could be that the curators’ modernist prejudices have strongly affected what was selected for display here. But the photographs of ramshackle structures that Richard Greaves (b.1952) built in a forest would belong in a show of Land Art. Jan Dagarama Gluszak (1937-2000), who is modestly described as a “poet, philosopher, and visionary architect”, drew his vision for a city of the future which seems to follow – however clumsily – from Corbusier’s example. He is all for austere geometry and utopian polemic. All of the “unlicensed architects”, even including Kingelez who, according to the Hayward, imagines his buildings for a future of “lasting peace, justice and universal freedom”, see mechanically-formed looming towers as the answer to all of Man’s natural wants and needs. Can this be only a coincidence? Modern architecture has caused me nightmares since I was a small child – getting lost in dank basements and dark walkways, or being crushed by crags of concrete as they block out the sun – and so I may not be best placed to judge on its natural appeal. As the simple thought of it has horrified me, I find it impossible to imagine how modernist architecture could ever have caught on, other than by extreme conventionality. By showing us the work of these “unlicensed architects”, the Hayward may accidentally be showing us how far the dogma of modernism spread.

There are two painters whose larger works here are all but indistinguishable from each other – and their gimmicky style is extremely marketable. They borrow the aesthetic of Jasper Johns but, instead of using the grid to signify a lack of deeper meanings, they use it to advertise some compounded mysticisms. The first of these painters, George Widener (b.1962) – who also happens to draw some futuristic cityscapes similar to Dagarama’s – thinks of himself as a “time traveller”, and he titled a painting The Ancients used Magic Squares to align space and so shall I. The second of them, Alfred Jensen (1903-1981) – who is perhaps a strange inclusion in this show as he studied in art schools all over the world – claimed to mix Goethe’s colour theory with the Mayan number system, and Pythagoras. We are told that he, too, was a “messenger” between the past and the future. “Yes, my work is difficult to understand,” he said. “After all, it contains all different things and cultures. It’s the past, present, and the future.” Then there is Rammellzee (1960-2010), a graffiti writer and MC, who referred to himself as an “equation”, and who sees our alphabet as an oppressive power structure. Since art schools decided not to pass on knowledge of the artistic crafts, they have concentrated instead on equipping their students with a mode of self-justifying jargon so that they may eventually get by in the art world. However, as the above examples go to prove, the ego-mania and pretension upon which contemporary art thrives is no longer contained by our prestigious institutions – everyone can talk that way now. These “self-taught” artists, with their garbled mysticisms and half-ironic boasts, are categorically of their times; they are fashionable people, not outsiders at all. There is nothing naive in their approach to art – at least, it is no more naive than what we are used to.

So William Scott’s (b.1964) drawings are most puzzling. They are made in the style of ‘50s advertisements; and they illustrate Scott’s idea for the spiritual healing of the city of San Francisco by UFO visits, gospel singing, and salsa dancing. All is presented and explained with the Hayward’s usual deadpan tone. Is this a joke? If so, then it is perfectly aimed at the contemporary art audience’s appetite for the surreal with snobbish undertones. But if it is not a joke, then it is stupidity, or even madness; were we not long past the time when primitivist thought turned to the art of the insane for a “fresh perspective”?

Some of the other exhibits have evidently sprung from unbalanced minds (and the catalogue does reveal that a number of the exhibitors were diagnosed schizophrenics). But in the odd case of Morton Bartlett (1909-1992), what was made out of a personal obsession is of general and serious interest. Bartlett attended Harvard, briefly, before dropping out and working as an advertising photographer. He had a sophisticated eye, but he put it to strange use. He lovingly crafted disconcertingly accurate models of adolescent boys and girls, which he then posed to photograph. The resulting photographs are most carefully lit; some are in Hollywood-starlet style, but others are pornographic. They are truly disturbing as the private documents – Bartlett never intended to show them – of a sensitive soul’s dangerously eccentric engagement with the popular modern experience. If Bartlett’s works, which in terms of craft are perhaps the subtlest here, had been made now to be shown in a modern gallery, then critics would not hesitate to praise both the artist’s tragic appreciation of the spiritual corruption effected by our celebrity culture, and his witty comment on the commodification of youth and sex – I cannot help thinking that these photographs are exactly what the Chapman brothers would have hoped to make, had they had more educated taste. But these works, we can assume, make no comment; they are products of fantasy. Even more than with Scott’s drawings, to look at Bartlett’s photographs is to be made sharply aware of how troublingly complicated the modern gallery experience has become; now that we have no accepted standards for art, and no shared art forms, let alone subjects, and now that everything that would be presented as art is always to some degree didactic, no matter how trivial, we really must be told how to relate to an artwork or we will be lost. What hope for our culture if we cannot distinguish our highest art, on its intrinsic merits, from the fantasy of – in this extreme case – a sad, and probably sick, loner?

Marcel Storr’s drawings at the Hayward Gallery 

Marcel Storr (1911-1976), who was abandoned as an infant and who eventually made a living as a road-sweeper, somewhat redeems this silly show. The Hayward tells us he drew his cityscapes as plans for rebuilding after a nuclear catastrophe; but in this case the justification does not matter because the work can stand alone. It is even tempting to call these drawings beautiful – the Hayward has presented them well, each of them softly spot-lit in a dark room, so we are transported fully into the artist’s own world. The lighting also emphasises the colour. Storr invented his own strange technique: first he made a fine pencil drawing, then he coloured it with bright inks, then he added a layer of wax varnish which he ironed on. I do not know if it is just the fortuitous result of this technique, but Storr’s works happily exhibit the last quality one expects to find in naive picture-making – colourism. Buildings lean out in veils of scarlet and orange, relieved by more neutral complementaries, set off from a ground of green and blue, with pink skies, and sharp yellow distances. There is a very narrow tonal range, but the space in these scenes stays lucid through all the kaleidoscopic colour. The extreme ripeness of the colouring at first reminds us of Indian painting; but when we see an un-finished, un-coloured drawing, we realise that Storr’s vision was actually quite French. He evidently had made a proper study of the High Gothic architecture he saw in Paris. And he understood it; like the other architectural draughtsmen in the show, Storr loved towers, but he also loved ornament. His towers grow – truer to the original spirit of Gothic than anything made in the Gothic revival – out of the ornamentation’s own logic. It is as if Storr – who was both deaf and illiterate, so that his experience was significantly isolated – managed to give us an almost medieval view of the modern world. And it is a little revelation. This man was genuinely out of step with his time.

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