The Aura of the Outsider

Without fanfare, a small group of works by an important American artist of the twentieth century were given a rare showing in Sydney last month. Five drawings by James Castle set the tone of The Enclave, Dutton at Darren Knight Gallery, an exhibition that had nothing to do with the Leader of the Opposition but featured eight artists represented by Dutton, New York. Like Darren Knight, Sonia Dutton is an art dealer with a longstanding practice of exhibiting self-taught artists alongside their trained peers and in an understated way this exhibition suggested how prescient the works of the so-called outsiders of the twentieth century were in anticipating the psychology and materiality of much twenty-first century art, especially in the field of drawing.

Deaf from birth but raised by a family that encouraged him as an artist, James Castle possessed an extraordinary sensitivity to scraps of paper and flattened cardboard boxes as materials upon which to represent the world. His drawings of local vistas, executed with “ink” that he mixed from stove soot and his own spit, offer a skew-wiff view of rural America. While his pictorial world does not harbour demons in the way that Henry Darger’s does, its quiet mysteries defy rational explanation. Castle’s grasp of the artwork as a thing that is simultaneously an image (sensitively observed and translated) and an object (dirty, damaged) is a marvel that no art school syllabus could ever capture. The opportunity to look closely at a few, very good examples at Darren Knight Gallery, including a bustling sketch of a road with heavy traffic, the cars provocatively grazing the edge of the ragged paper, verified that Castle stands tall as an original of mid-century American art.

The Enclave, Dutton was not a drawing show per se, but immediacy of touch was a unifying quality and a suite of pencil drawings by the young Melburnian artist Khaled Chamma invited direct comparison with Castle’s. Chamma’s work demonstrates a retreat from hyperactive modernity into a quiet space of slow formation. In his pictorial universe the upright oblong is presented as a monolith beset by flutters, recalling cloud formations or eddies on a pond’s surface without ceasing to be a concrete form. With echoes of William Blake and Quranic illumination I’d have believed that Chamma is an unschooled visionary but in fact he is an alumnus of RMIT who cites a love of nature and poetry as guiding impulses.

If James Castle proves that the wild outsiders have long since come in from the cold, Chamma shows that the conventionally trained have never been more enabled to embrace their idiosyncrasies. Notwithstanding the likelihood that there are still creative souls living with disability or disadvantage but endowed with rare insight and artistic talent, in the art world the term “outsider artist” now seems redundant, at least in galleries like Dutton’s and Knight’s where everybody, whether trained or untrained, celebrated or marginal, faces the same search for a productive synthesis of knowingness and not knowing.

Proposing an entirely different way that artists might overcome the limitations of their own consciousness, Drawspace’s From Japan / RULES FOR DRAWING presented the work of five Japanese artists who use rules and systems to determine the form of their work. In an illuminating essay, curator Lisa Pang points out that “when artists self-impose rules they turn away from a frontal approach and instead come upon the drawing process sideways . . .” Thus, following the rules becomes a means to escape habitual solutions and attain a sense of surprise that, though often tending towards neatness, evinces the same hankering for renewed insight that first attracted audiences to the work of “outsider artists.”

Like many artistic strategies with origins in modernism, the use of rules continues to be adapted by artists around the world, with results that can stray wonderfully or woefully from the idea’s point of origin. From Japan / RULES FOR DRAWING was an opportunity to glimpse, first-hand, a small sample of what is being done in this field by artists in a culture so utterly different from Australia’s.  

Kai Koyama made the journey to Sydney for the exhibition and, while speaking in a forum, made points that would be unsurprising to most artists working in the field: stressing the importance of accident in his working process and expressing a disdain for beauty as an artistic aspiration, although he is not displeased if others find his work beautiful. As I looked to fathom the particular coherence of his drawings it was the dynamism of their patterning, the interruption of various glitches and the luminous shimmer produced by thousands of hand drawn lines—in short, the drawings’ perfect imperfection—that became apparent. Koyama manifests a visual order to reveal its undoing, an achievement made possible by his sensitivity to visual relationships and his skill in devising rules that enable the right kinds of accidents to occur. In an exhibition that presented some eccentric visual propositions (at least to this Sydneysider’s eyes), Susumu Takashima’s accretions of line, building at a snail’s pace towards monumentally solid forms, were another highlight.

Finally, Flinders Street Gallery reopened the case of whether the “outsider” tag is still viable with a solo show by Melburnian Chris Dyson. The musician and graduate of VCA was hailed as the next big thing by peers and critics in his early career and for a time he taught at his alma mater: hardly a stranger to art or its social setting. But even the most promising insider may experience a change of fortune and while Dyson’s career faded the work of being an artist has never ceased.  

Chris Dyson: Small Works showed him to be a kindred spirit of Americans like Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, pulling images out of the weird basket but holding them at a distance for cool examination. In Dyson’s paintings, the more intricate the composition the more refined the handling becomes; in the drawings there is a different distillation as the abeyance of colour lends lightness to his intriguing assemblies of forms, striking a more universal tone. In his pictures of humans, the heads radiate with the kind of aura often associated with the outsider.


The Enclave, Dutton 
3 February – 2 March 2024 
Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

1 – 25 February 2024 
Drawspace, Sydney 

Chris Dyson: Small Works 
9 – 23 March 2024 
Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney 

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