A dialogue between self-taught artists from vulnerable adult backgrounds and trained artists practising within a contemporary critical framework, resulting in an exhibition of collaborative and new work...
With contributions from Simon Anderson, Colin Barrass, Than Clark, Alberto Duman, Ben Eastop, Richard Gildea, Sophie Hope, Ibrahim Kirimli, Jamie Lane, Oliver MacDonald, John Reardon, Trish Stevenson, George Westren, John Wood and Laura Wilson.
- Introduction to the REFRAMED Project - by Hannah Hull
- Interview with the Artists - conducted by John Reardon
- Working Things Out - a short story by Sophie Hope
- The I of the Art Is - A Poem by Queen Hephzibah
- Press Release - By Hannah Hull
- Response to Press Release - by Will Rankin
- Feedback from the Artists
- The provision of art training within rehabilitation schemes: ongoing research in the relationship between vulnerable adults and conceptual art - by Hannah Hull
The works in this exhibition have been produced in response to an ongoing dialogue I set up between a group of self-taught artists with backgrounds in homelessness, addiction or the criminal justice system practising in largely traditional media, and a group of established, trained artists practising within a conceptual and highly critical framework.
The purpose of this project is to further investigate the existing and potential relationship between conceptual art and art made by those from 'vulnerable adult' backgrounds; and to challenge and inform the ideas which I have developed as to this relationship. This is not just an experiment, rather a test of my personal belief that a candid conversation between artists from these two backgrounds can be in some way valuable to both.
There was an open brief regarding how participants engaged in the project, and how the responses in this exhibition manifested themselves. All participants were invited to meet one another on 19 May 2009, which formed a mixture of informal 1:1 chats and group discussion. Exchanges such as recommending reading material and artists, collaborating on ideas, 1:1 meetings, telephone conversations, letters, a group interview without my presence and other requests for further information were made to inform the artists' responses.
The ongoing dialogue between the artists has been sometimes awkward, sometimes inspiring and sometimes progressive. Everyone has entered into the project with an open mind and with candidness, which allowed a set of assumptions from either side (including my own) to be revealed and tested.
In particular, there were overlaps between artistic discourses and social discourses, which are easily and mutually interchangeable. The responses of the conceptual artists present many different roles of the artist in relation to society: commentator, associate, critic, mimic, medium, educator, and so on. There were issues in discerning when artistic concerns became secondary to social concerns, and sometimes an aversion in confronting how social concerns might fall outside of the remit of the artist.
Much discussion formed a weighing up of the value of a self-taught background compared to art school training. Both trained and untrained artists expressed some discontent with their education in favour of the other - of feeling like a product of their education. Both expressed the constrictions of their respective practices: the self-taught in terms of mobility in the art world and the trained in terms of mobility within their practice. Both of these could be seen as a sort of artistic freedom, and may at times appear mutually exclusive.
In terms of the conceptual artists, I find that this desire for more freedom within their art practice - a more expressive approach, less attention paid to continuity in style and so on - is perhaps caused by a loss of ownership over their learning. A feeling that they have been taught about art, and have been told what they can and can do within it. I personally found art school to be an acceleration of self-learning, within the support framework of those that had gone before me. I was given tools to aid and improve my self-expression, and my continuity in style is naturally reflective of my focus - rather than an attempt to artificially convey this - and it is clear to me that any work I produce will inherently continue to reflect this style in some form regardless of my awareness of adhering to its components.
What I can see happening within this exhibition on both sides is a locating and questioning of ideas about art, collected somewhere along the way, that have now turned round to restrict us, and how integral these are to our respective practices. For me this process during the First Time Gallery formed an affirmation of my learning, rather than a rejection, and this is what I feel has resulted for some artists in this project. A clarifying of the value of an art school education, or a more firmly rooted disregard of this in favour of self-learning: self-affirmation and ownership over ways of learning.
I would just like to take this opportunity to thank all of the artists. I am indebted to all of them for their time and investment in this project. I have been honoured by the involvement of artists whose work I highly respect, and without their humour and rigour this exhibition would not be the same.
JR: So I'm a bit… erm … uncertain about what this is and I think that's why I was wanting to talk about it, 'cos my feeling is that there's a lot of uncertainty about it. For good and bad. Which is the thing that makes it interesting as well. I think. Possibly. Erm… so I wanted ask you just generally first… erm … I suppose how you got involved. And what you think you gotten involved in?
I would like to be a deviant like you, can you teach me? That would be a great art project, to actually be arrested, have some real life experiences for a change and then use this in my art, no that would be my art. I'm so jealous of you, having such a colourful life experience to draw on. Fuck. All I've got is inter-railing across Eastern Europe and pathetic teenage dabbling in hallucinogenic drugs to draw on. Everything since has been a process of learning an art language in order to find ways of being paid to dismantle it.
Artist talking to Artist
As Light to Light
No outsiders hearing
What viewers have in sight.
A unique exhibition bringing together artists from diverse backgrounds.
Self-taught artists from homeless, addiction and offending backgrounds have been selected to submit artwork for display at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery. This diverse and dynamic group of artists have been making art for a number of years. REFRAMED aims to displace the frame of the past that lingers around their work, so that it may transcend the personal histories of its creators.
I can't send that to any of the publications I mentioned. It's completely inaccessible to the average punter. I don't mean that to be rude or mean, I'm sure the art mags will love it.
But I wanted to read something that said "After you've visited the Royal Naval College, the market and had a nice cup of tea, come and see some amazing art created by people who used to have addictions. They have given up their addictions, and have turned to art to express some of their ideas, views on the world, and feelings. It's worth coming to see because we've also put their pieces next to the work of some trained artists, so you can have the opportunity to stop and think about the value of taught art versus art that really comes from the heart. But you'll probably just come if you know one of the artists."
"Meeting George, Richard, Colin, Simon and Emma felt a bit like a reverse therapy session in which the 'conceptual doctor' called in to administer some sort of professional advice is discovering symptoms of his own."
- Alberto Duman
"I'm finding it an enlightening experience. The meeting fired me up and made me ask myself a lot a questions. If something pushes my buttons, it always has to be good. The event made me realise that these things are wide open, nothing is closed."
- Colin Barrass
"I enjoyed the criticism. It gave me focus in that it is what I really want to do. It was very uplifting that professional, established artists appreciated my stuff."
- Simon Anderson
"My understanding is that we are all found in the midst of this Dichotomy, instructed by the elitist attitudes of the art-world graded not firstly through our artistic aptitude but through the system of meritocracy."
- Oliver MacDonald
"Exposure to practicing contemporary and conceptual artists and other ideas in contemporary art practice, but not in an artificial or forced or patronising way."
- Ben Eastop
"I didn't expect the artists to have the technical proficiency, self confidence, nor the level of 20th century art and art history that they all displayed. As a consequence of their knowledge we had some wide ranging discussions around art, literature, philosophy, even yoga."
- Trish Stevenson
The process of developing this exhibition has been very informative with regards to my ongoing research into the provision of arts education within rehabilitation schemes, with specific reference to the potential relationship between vulnerable adults and conceptual art. The core element of this is the problematics of a relationship between artistic and social inclusion, and how these might be resolved.
Here I would like to present a brief overview of this research in progress.
There are many examples of art by 'vulnerable adults' being exhibited within an art institutional setting, reinforced by an art naïve/ brut/ povera/ outsider art tradition.
Often appearing as a curatorial slant under the guise of artistic inclusion, such exhibitions incite a debate about morality, and stand accused of taking advantage of these artists. This debate assumes that the artists have no reference points for art or what is happening within the gallery space, which is true in some instances. But here I would like to specifically talk about the trajectory of the self-taught artist from a 'vulnerable adult' background, which could be seen as a subset of 'outsider art'.
The 'self-taught' label given to these artists is deceptive. It is usual that artists from these backgrounds (including all those in this exhibition) have come into contact with some form of non-accredited art training - in shelter, prison, rehab, etc - whether as part of an outreach programme or through referral. These artists still define themselves, and are defined by others, as self-taught. But there is a form of training going on, which diffuses this morality debate. The artist is not completely ignorant to art conventions, and someone has taken on the responsibility of educating them about these.
For me, this training therein becomes of much interest, and it is here that a confusion between artistic and social inclusion is very visible. These training schemes claim that art can provide social inclusion for 'vulnerable adults'. Three generally accepted notions encouraged by such schemes are: art is therapeutic for 'vulnerable adults'; seeing art made by this group promotes acceptance and understanding; buying art made by this group demonstrates social awareness.
If we look at the type of exhibition these schemes produce, we see there is a delicate approach to curation to maximise inclusion. The level of expectation as to the quality of art is lowered, and therein the position of all artists involved is lowered. Such exhibitions commonly take place within a commercial context, as part of the Corporate Social Responsibility policy of a company. Sales are semi-induced under the banner of raising money for a charitable organisation, rather than just a mark of artistic appreciation.
These exhibition opportunities - which occur often - allow artists to assume a practice within which they regularly sell and exhibit, akin to a trained or professional artist.
This is commendable and effective to a point, and for many this simulation of artistic success is very valuable. However, while the art of 'vulnerable adults' continues to be produced and exhibited within the context of the artists' pasts, there remains a reliance on this past to obtain and sustain access to this position: their past is their license to artistic success. This use of 'positive discrimination' seems to fail when brought to its fullest conclusion.
Taking a step back to look at how these works are produced, we can see another restriction. There is a reliance on traditional media within this type of arts training, which poses the problem of an incompatibility with the contemporary art world. If these artists were to start practising without foregrounding their past, their practice would be comparable to the seaside or portrait painter, which is not bad in itself, except that it is certainly a restriction.
As a result of this absence of a conceptual approach, these artists can only be included by the upper echelons of the art world via the tradition of outsider art/ art naïve, with their past visible. Because the training schemes have limited the capacity of their clients production, it is these schemes that become indirectly responsible in the previously outlined morality debate.
Beyond this access issue - whilst a traditional approach serves many purposes - I find there to be specific benefits of a conceptual approach when working with vulnerable adults:
Firstly in terms of an open model for education, that demands self-reflexivity, produces a personally-defined skills base, invests in the whole of the individual, demands joined-up thinking, questions value systems, and so on. Many of these elements - as well as providing an argument against a more traditional approach - meet the specific needs of ex-offenders, ex-homeless and recovering addicts, and can be seen to fill specific gaps in the provision of rehabilitation schemes.
Secondly, in terms of financial access. The linear artistic development associated with traditional practice - such as drawing to painting to oils, or clay to bronze - is not realistic for many artists from vulnerable adult backgrounds. This traditional idea of progress is obstructive to those trying to realise themselves as artists. Conceptual art does not necessary deem expensive materials to be an essential part of artistic progress.
Another key problem is the low likelihood of those from vulnerable adult backgrounds to enter into formal education. So these artists are 'stuck' with what they are taught, a responsibility which demands rigour within such schemes.
None of this is not to say that all these artists should or could or desire to make it big in the 'art world', but to say that these systems inherently restrict it.
Many of the self-taught artists in the exhibition are at the top of the 'art game' that has been set before them, and are now stuck. By this, I mean they have conquered everything set before them. They are technically proficient, have been practising for a number of years, have taken all opportunities offered to them, and sell and exhibit regularly. REFRAMED gives these artists direct and engaged access to conceptual artists, an opportunity that has not been offered to them before, in order to extend and test elements of this research.
I have been very grateful for the time, cooperation and insight of all professionals and artists I have come into contact with in the development of this project, in helping me begin to develop this research. I hope that the exhibition explores and expands the consistency of a direct relationship between two apparently distinct worlds, and can inform surrounding debate, and provide valuable evidence to support alternative approaches to arts provision for vulnerable adults.