Whitechapel Art Gallery


With the all renovations going on, the Whitechapel Gallery recently had a spare room for an afternoon. In a display of conspicuous inclusivity the institution opened its doors for artists to talk about being Outsiders and put Outsider Art on the walls.

The host was the affable Patrick Brill, aka Bob and Roberta Smith. He introduced the event with a couple of anecdotes, accompanied by a trumpet. They were about not being an Etonian and not being an academic when at the British School in Rome. Perhaps they made the point that outsidership is relative, but also laid the ground for a Bob and Roberta Smith investigation into amateurism and failure.

However he did then steer the discussion very professionally, encouraging people to talk about the work they had put up. One man, who had brought a small figurative sculpture, worked in a foundry scaling up for yBAs. He talked about being a political outsider, but didn’t make it clear how his politics alienated him. Another man had done a drawing – a cartoonish composite of images of Berlin. He said he worked in a variety of media and felt that not sticking to one thing was a disadvantage in terms of making a living, you don’t get picked up by a gallery. He didn’t see himself as in or out, just as an artist, who made art when he could. Elsewhere on the walls were prints of scenes derived from a family’s transatlantic history, a picture of a woman from the turn of the century Photoshopped to have a stud through her tongue, and a painting by a woman who said her age excluded her. She had chosen to show her picture – a small, brightly-coloured still life – because “it looks unprofessional, like outsider art”. So she had a (very valid) idea of what Outsider Art looks like: something child-like, inept, unskilful, outsider-y. Her daughters, including one with learning difficulties, embroidered faces onto pillows.

She was the only exception in a group of people who were not outsiders in Cardinal’s terms, of being self-taught, mentally ill, or otherwise on the margins. When the question was asked – who here is college trained? – nearly all hands went up. There were even two Royal College graduates. As Colin Rhodes says, ‘Outsider Art’ loses any kind of meaning as a term if you include “struggling would-be professional artist[s] attempting to find his or her own way in the mainstream, but currently languishing outside the system”.


The work was, for the most part, aspirational, non-critical and under-developed. The one performance piece – an artist called Vickie Wood, who dressed as a dentist’s assistant, took moulds of participant’s teeth then invited you to eat someone else’s teeth cast in white chocolate – was probably the least outsider-y, and the most engaging.