Art Brut Japonais at Halle Saint Pierre

This exhibition is comprised of over one thousand pieces, the works of sixty three artists on two floors. It is similar to an art graduate show in its scope, skill and diversity. Yet the artists featured have no formal art training; this is an exhibition of Japanese ‘Art Brut’, a label coined by the French Artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art from outside the confines of conventional society.

Most of the artists featured live in Japanese institutions for the mentally handicapped, many have autism or Down’s syndrome and find it difficult to adapt to the cultural demands of society. They have spent incredible amounts of time and energy creating these works, not because the artists wish to impress others or garner rave reviews. But because we are all moved by a need to self-express, and for the Art Brut artists, who are on the confines of society, art is often the most lucid way to articulate.

The ceramic creations by Shinichi Sawada illustrate perfectly the depth of invention on display. The meticulously sculptured creatures of red grey and orange are reminiscent of the masks currently on display at the ‘Fleuve Congo’ exhibition at the Quai Branly. These terrifying but beautiful creatures are all at once strange, tender, disturbing and joyful. They are mythical creatures to rival the Ancient Greek’s.

The variety of styles and statements is vast; the dark hangs next to the vivacious, the minute next to the mammoth. ‘My town, view from my heart’ is a series of eight pieces by Yuji Tsuji. The artist has created an intricate, beautiful view where single lines create trees, fountains, boats, speed signs, one-way systems and skyscrapers. These lines create an insight into the town, and an insight into the affection Tsuji holds for it. On the other hand, Marie Suzuki’s bold and explicit painting,  ‘Tromperie a toute l’humanité’ depicts an overweight woman with a disfigured eye stabbing at the eyes that inhabit the space between her legs. At the same time a red foot stamps on her back. The image is startling in its candidness, but unlike much contemporary art, it was not created in order to shock, in order to generate publicity: the depiction feels almost painful in its honesty, and is arresting in its frankness.

A standout piece was Kazuhiko Takahashi’s ‘Untitled’. A piece of A1 paper is crowded with rows of faces. Occasionally, a non-conformist has his head turned, or his hair styled differently, but what this drawing depicts is the terror of uniformity, and feeling out of place in an inflexible society. ‘Journal’ is similarly thought provoking. It is a vast bound collection of geometric patterns in grey, a sheet of paper drawn each day between 2000-2006. It looks as if it has been leafed through countless times. These pictorial diary entries are easily as expressive as words in a Moleskine. Contrasting in palette is  ‘Ordinateur’ by Michiyo Yaegashi, Drawn with coloured marker pens, this piece looks like modern stained glass: hundreds of tiny squares make up cells of dazzling colour. It is a celebration for the eyes.

When I left the exhibition, my mind was racing with ideas and interpretations that were probably all wrong, but it did not matter, as there were no longwinded explanations next to the pieces to discount ideas, just a space to come up with one’s own. The lack of pretension was refreshing. Without the preoccupations of genre and the constraints of boundaries, the artists express their thoughts fervently, and in turn the pieces generate a wealth of ideas to their audience. I would argue that this is what art should be all about.

Art Brut Japonais is at Halle Saint Pierre until the 2nd of January 2011. For more information visit: hallesaintpierre.org

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