Review of Inside Out, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester

Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery is showcasing Inside Out, a look at Outsider Artists and their followers based around the UK, South Africa, France and the USA. The term ‘outsider art’ – originally an English synonym for Jean Dubuffet’s art brut – was used to describe works created outside mainstream artistic boundaries, but has since expanded to include any works by artists who share similar stylistic and thematic concerns. Namely, extreme inner states, obsessiveness and isolation from societal norms.

“Outsider art is not a brand new invention as it was 40 years ago. Its profile has percolated into the wider culture,” said David Maclagan, an artist and former art therapist, who collaborated with the gallery’s curation. Although ‘outsider artists’ originally referred to marginalised and self-taught figures, such as children and those in psychiatric confinement, Maclagan’s work is similar in that he produces works with a scribbly, gestural style, as if the impulsive, chaotic forms on display have elicited imagery from deep within the unconscious. His three untitled paintings – dated January and March 2014, and November 2013 and December 2015 – are explosions in colour, drawn and brushed over onto the A1 drafting film while the artist listened to improvised music, and they appear amorphous yet organic.

Other artists exhibited also share this improvisatory quality, like the enormous Well (2012) by London’s Peter Darach, or the ‘automatic’ landscapes found in works by Manchester’s Darren Brian Adcock. But a small collection by Jenna Wilkinson, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, is more squarely crafted than those other works. Obsession No. 41 (2016) looks like a set of tree branches that continuously intersect with each other as if threatening to overwhelm the paper’s blank space, and Mini Obsessions iii (2015) is a blot made up of grey-coloured rose petals all merged together to look like a tightly wound bouquet. “My drawings are planned before I start them. I pick a pattern and decide if I want to fill the whole page. It gives me time to go over things in my head,” the Northampton artist said.

Closely related to psychological expression is the field of mythology. As Carl Jung claimed, the symbolism found in dreams has a crucial link with those found in ritualistic expressions and beliefs of ancient societies. Cape Town’s Marlene Steyn has two works which dominate the venue: the dizzying entanglement of knees and elbows in Knee and Elbow Birthday (2014), which recalls the multiple limbs of Hindu deities, and the interweaving of humans into forest trees in Plait Park (2013). Both of these large linen pieces fill the lower gallery’s back wall, but they are also striking through their resemblance to historical artefacts rather than modern works. Manchester’s Mit Senoj is similarly spiritual in his watercolour depictions of wraiths floating through nature.

Andrea Heimer (from the USA), Mehrdad Rashidi (Iran), Joel Lorand (France), and Nick Blinko, Richard Nie and Carlo Keshishian (all from the UK) arguably come closest to being outsider artists in its historical definition. Unlike the artists mentioned above, they are all self-taught. Their backstories also show how a surge of creativity can be a therapeutic process. It’s undoubtedly true for Nick Blinko, the frontman of anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni. His illustrations at Castlefield are done in the same macabre, pen-and-ink style featured on the band’s album covers – freakish faces, black skies and decaying necropolises all smash together into suffocating landscapes of inner torment. His work illustrates what David Maclagan calls ‘an overwhelming pressure to create’, when an inner drive expresses itself in the artist’s finished work. Creativity may be a common inclination; for others, it can be a compulsion.

Charlie Bennett

Inside Out, until 24 April, Castlefield Gallery, 2 Hewitt Street, Manchester, M15 4GB. For more, visit

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1. Jenna Kayleigh Wilkinson, Obsession no.37, 2015 [detail].