Souzou – Outsider Art from Japan @The Wellcome Collection.

Outsider art – it could go either way. Self-taught artists can produce genius or drivel, whose only saving grace is that it appears in a gallery. If you saw it out of context, you might think that a child in a bad mood had created it. Luckily the curators of Souzan, a word that means something between creation and imagination, have steered clear of that cliché. This five-part exhibition may well take you on at least the start of an intriguing tour around the edges of Japan’s artistic psyche.

There is some so-so stuff. The Language section of the exhibition (unfortunately the first section as you enter) consists mainly of Japanese characters scrawled in different ways and in different sizes by different artists. Really, who cares.

The Representation section holds, among some dross, some hidden gems. M.K’s Lady with Rainbow-Coloured Hair (2009) displays a lightness of touch and a humour that I didn’t expect to find in the ever-so-serious-sounding category of Japanese outsider art.

Lady with Rainbow-Hair

Lady with Rainbow-Coloured Hair

The text beside the fraught lady repeats the endless tirade airplane passengers must endure over the PA system (fasten your seat-belt, no smoking, get the food service now, fasten your seat-belt, etc) . I know exactly how she feels.

The Relationship section, as expected, involves a lot of sex. From Nobuji Higa’s stylised nudes, fleshy and distorted, to Sakiko Kono’s stuffed dolls, representing people who have been kind to her during her  55 years at one residential facility, you’ll find plenty to think about.

Sakiko Kono's stuffed dolls

Sakiko Kono’s stuffed dolls

Marie Suzuki’s portrayals of sex, procreation and gender (below) are dripping with phobias of the psyche. Technically brilliant but deeply disturbing, don’t expect to see them in the flesh and walk away unscathed.

Unwanted Release

Suzuki’s Unwanted Release

Suzuki's Disturbance

Suzuki’s Disturbance

The Culture section isn’t worth mentioning, unless a ten foot map of an imaginary city scrawled in Biro is your idea of artistic brilliance. And if it is, fair play; it would be mine too if there was anything interesting included in it.

The tour de force of the exhibition was the Making section. Here creation and imagination go wild. Noriko Tanaka presents  a lovely exploration of colour, aptly titles Five Colours and Other Colours. Tanaka’s hand-stitched tapestries woven from the three primary colours, plus black and white, create a shimmering rainbow that holds inside itself other, unnamed hues.

Akane Kimura creates paintings that apparently reference music, but I just enjoyed his rich palette and – dare I say it – was reminded of Rothko.

The WOW factor, the art I’d crawl over ground glass to see, was Shota Katsube’s Untitled (2011). 300 tiny figures, made out of the glittering ties that are used to close garbage bags in Japan, are displayed in a glass case, like so many gems. And intricate gems they are, each one painstakingly frozen in a pose or a tableaux. The figures reference the action heroes of American comic books – Marvel, D.C and the rest – themselves now assimilated into popular Japanese culture, as well as the traditional samurai.

Detail from Untitled (2011)

Detail from Untitled (2011)

Untitled (2011)

Untitled (2011)

These figures have to be seen to be believed. They are complete with individual weapons; swords, spears, lighting rods and rings of fire, as well as individually sculpted armour and their own personal arsenals of super-weaponised limbs. You could spend an hour studying them all, experiencing fresh discovery.

Make of them what you will. I loved the concept of American heroes recreated from rubbish material and reduced to a fraction of their size, before being displayed in a gallery like frozen artifacts of a bygone era; American  artifacts that don’t realise they are frozen and that all their power is gone. A pleasant fantasy for a future world. But that’s just my take.

So all in all, some outsider art that is pretty far out there. Much further out there than I expected and much prettier too. Enjoy.

Souzou runs until 30th June 2013

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About Mary-Claire W

Writer, reader and art fiend View all posts by Mary-Claire W

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