Friday, 7 October 2011
If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm a big fan of the Museum of Everything, which describes itself as Britain's only museum dedicated to outsider art. Two of their past exhibitions have been presented in a ramshackle building in Primrose Hill, and the unapologetically handmade aesthetic, combined with an exuberantly chaotic presentation of work have combined to create a pleasingly off-the-wall atmosphere.
The latest offering from the Museum of Everything, Exhibition #4 is somewhat different. This time the museum has popped up in Selfridge's, one of London's largest and most famous department stores, where it has transformed the Ultralounge area into an exhibition space filled with over 400 drawings, paintings and sculptures from international studios for contemporary self-taught artists with learning and other disabilities. The Oxford Street windows of the store have also been transformed into a series of installations, showcasing the work of some of the artists in the exhibition.
I was looking forward to seeing this latest show when I went along last Sunday, but all the same I wasn't quite sure what to expect from an exhibition of marginalised artists in such an overtly commercial setting. Arriving a little early, I found myself waiting outside the doors on bustling Oxford Street along with hordes of eager shoppers, many of whom were obviously intrigued by the eye-catching window installations. At last the doors opened, and I went down to the basement, passing on my way a whole area dedicated to Christmas decorations, shimmering with tinsel and tree decorations, and already blasting out 'All I Want for Christmas is You', which set the stage for a slightly surreal experience.
In many ways, the exhibition proved to be much of what I've come to expect from the Museum of Everything. The show is well thought through, with some challenging and intriguing work, and maintains its usual quirky homespun charm, although perhaps it loses a little something away from the kooky atmosphere of its Primrose Hill home. I especially enjoyed Erica Punzel's multicoloured abstract images, Leonard Fink's dense monochrone maps, Mary Ogunleye's garlands of rainbow-coloured particles and Kenya Haley's drawings of cupcakes and ice-creams. I was also interested to see a whole host of works exploring text in various ways, from Nicroe Kittaka's images made up of signs, letters and ideograms, to Kunzo Matsumo's lists, letters and diaries, and Harald Stoffer's amazing letter-based drawings, raising some interesting questions about the relationship between creative writing and visual art. So far, so good.
After a good rummage around the exhibition, I headed up to the Shop of Everything on the ground floor (delayed en route by an optimistic salesman intent on demonstrating handwarmers, in spite of the fact that it was probably one of the hottest days of the year), which is another new development for this show. Although there have been bags, badges and a few other items of branded merchandise for sale at their shows in the past, this is a much more wholesale affair, packed with everything from postcards to prints to Oyster card holders to crayons to designer t-shirts and other clothing produced in collaboration with the likes of Clements Ribero. The items themselves are lovely, and I'm the first to recognise that arts organisations need to find practical ways to generate income to support what they do, yet I have to admit that this proliferation of branded goods left me feeling slightly uneasy.
I don't think there's any good reason why art shouldn't be exhibited in a shop, and I can't help admiring the sheer panache and ambition of the Museum of Everything in brokering a collaboration on this scale with Selfridges, probably the most prestigious name in retail in the UK. Yet somehow all this seems to change the Museum from something distinctive and idiosyncratic to another slick, clever branding exercise, which makes it feel suddenly much more like the other big name galleries we encounter in the art world. What made the original Museum of Everything exhibition so special was how out of the ordinary it felt: remote, secret, magical, like stepping into a colourful, uncomfortable otherworld. Encountering it on Oxford Street somehow just isn't the same.
Yet somehow I still can't quite make up my mind about Exhibition #4. In some ways, I admire how the Museum of Everything is apparently breaking all its own rules to reach new audiences and to grab the attention of all kinds of people who might never usually think about visiting an exhibition like this. But in part I also have a certain sympathy with Adrian Searle, who writing in the Guardian, suggests that the setting is 'inappropriate' and that such challenging artworks might require more than an idle visit in between trips to the Clinique counter. But on the other hand, is chaotic Oxford Street absolutely the appropriate place - in some ways the perfect setting for these bold, spiky, attention-grabbing artworks? It certainly offers a fantastic opportunity to get the voices of these often unheard artists out there into the city's public spaces. Or has the Museum of Everything simply sold out?
I don't have any answers to any of these questions, but however you choose to look at it, Exhibition #4 certainly offers its visitors plenty to think about.
Exhibition #4 is at Selfridge's until 25 October 2011. Find out more about the Museum of Everything, visit the online shop, or see their digital exhibition.