The Art of the Extraordinary

As ‘outsider art’ goes on permanent display for the first time in one of Scotland’s top museums, it poses important questions about who faces barriers to the art world today. Susan Mansfield finds out more.
Plasticine portraits of The Beatles and Moses in rushes by Gordon Anderson, Photo: Chris James

The permanent exhibit to be unveiled at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is not by an Old Master or even by one of the city’s contemporary art stars, and the names of the artists being celebrated here are largely unknown. They did not create their work for galleries or to sell, but their art is extraordinary nevertheless.

For the first time the gallery will show work from the Art Extraordinary Collection, gifted to Glasgow Museums by the pioneering Scottish art therapist Joyce Laing. Her collection of Scottish ‘art brut’ (‘raw art’) includes over 1,100 objects and is recognised nationally and internationally as outstanding. Unveiled just months after Laing’s death, it is the first permanent display of this kind of art in a Scottish museum.

The term ‘art brut’ was coined in the 1940s by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe work by artists not formally trained and who worked outwith the conventions of the art world. Many of those represented here were marginalised because of mental ill health, some spending decades in psychiatric institutions.

Laing, who is regarded as Scotland’s first art therapist and a pioneer in the field of mental health, always shunned the term ‘outsider art’, preferring her own term. ‘art extraordinary’. 

Deirdre Robertson, Laing’s friend and biographer, said: “She loathed the term, which she saw as hugely disrespectful, excluding or ‘othering’ the artists. Joyce was ahead of her time in realising that mental health problems can happen to any of us. Even in her last years, and despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she was lobbying for the English-speaking art world to abandon that term and instead use ‘art axtraordinary’.”

When invited by Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre (now the Centre for Contemporary Arts, or CCA) to find examples of art brut in Scotland, Laing began a journey of discovery, collecting work by artists she considered “extraordinary”. These include: Angus McPhee, a long-term patient at Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital in Inverness, who wove complex objects and garments from grasses gathered in the hospital grounds; Shetland-born Adam Christie, who carved faces and figures from stones using a nail and a piece of glass; Kenneth Annat, who made paintings and ceramics and is believed may have suffered PTSD after serving in WWII, and Marylene Walker, who made photographs and tiny sculptures inside coffee jars.

Sculptures by Gordon Anderson and an unknown artist, Photo: Chris James
Sculptures by Gordon Anderson and an unknown artist, Photo: Chris James

Laing supported and mentored artists such as Gordon Anderson, a musician and co-founder of the Beta Band whom she met in the 1990s when he experienced a period of mental ill health. She also rescued historic works from skips as large psychiatric hospitals closed down, including a striking toy mouse by an anonymous maker dating from the late 19th century made from hospital bolsters and an old coat, with whiskers from a hospital broom.

It was her belief that these works deserved to be exhibited and recognised as works of art, a view which is now shared by many artists, gallerists and curators. This year’s Venice Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani placed work by outsider artists in her art historical “time capsules” at the heart of the festival’s most prestigious exhibition.

Adam Christie, carved stone sculpture of a head © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections
Adam Christie, carved stone sculpture of a head © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections

The unveiling of the art extraordinary display at Kelvingrove comes at a time when museums are asking searching questions about inclusion. Glasgow Museums’ outreach team has been making extensive use of the art extraordinary collection in their work. Open Museum curator Claire Coia said: “If people can see themselves reflected in the museum space – when they see artworks which reflect their own experience – they know they are valued.”

She added that the public, and particularly those with lived experience of mental ill health, had much to offer in terms of helping curators better understand the collection. 

Volunteers from Gartnavel Hospital, Leverndale Recreational Therapy Unit and Glasgow’s Project Ability worked with curator Tony Lewis to create the display, making it the first permanent community-curated exhibit in the gallery’s history.

Coia added: “This is a very important collection and, by working with these communities, a lot of perspectives have come out that would not have otherwise. We want to learn more about this collection, and they are the experts on this work, not us. I’ve learned so much from them about the objects and how to make them accessible to other people.”

The collection also played an instrumental role in the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project New Dialogues, run by the charity Outside In. During lockdown, in partnership with Glasgow Museums, Outside In offered courses in Exploring Collections and Curating Collections for artists who may face barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. Eight Glasgow-based artists from this project went on to make their own art in response to the collection for the exhibition Unlocking the Extraordinary, shown at Kelvingrove and Project Ability.

Outside In course facilitator Morven Macrae, said: “I think the work in the Unlocking the Extraordinary show is incredibly sophisticated, powerful and articulate. It has been fascinating seeing the research the artists put into it and how that has led to the work they made.”

Macrae, who also works supporting artists with learning difficulties with the Edinburgh-based charity Garvald, is passionate about including those who may find themselves “outsiders” to the art world today, whether due to disability, mental ill health, chronic illness, neurodiversity or social disadvantage. 

Joyce Laing, spring 2022. Photo: Deirdre Robertson
Joyce Laing, spring 2022. Photo: Deirdre Robertson

She says: “Joyce’s passing, and the fact that the Art Extraordinary Collection is now closed, poses a lot of questions: what now for makers who are making art outwith the mainstream? To have a complete artistic landscape in Scotland, their voices need to be in that dialogue. Their work shouldn’t be seen as separate or different. But they might face barriers of access. If they want to apply for their art to be in the Royal Scottish Academy Open Exhibition, for example, are there financial barriers, language barriers? It’s up to organisations to consider accessibility.”

“Due to the pandemic there has been a bit more openness and inclusion. Zoom has helped a lot of people access things, but now the rest of the world has Zoom fatigue and they fear losing those connections as things go back to ‘normal’. There are a lot of artists out there making phenomenal work. How do we move things forward for them?”

Grant Glennie, A Number of Losing Lottery Ticket Swans
Grant Glennie, A Number of Losing Lottery Ticket Swans

The Art Extraordinary display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is permanent. The Unlocking the Extraordinary exhibition is in the community space at Kelvingrove until November 21. Click for more info.

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