The Museum of Everything
By Kirstin Butler
The world of contemporary art, for all its global reach, is relatively small. A select group of collectors, critics, and curators define an equally select group of artists as “in,” and those same names repeatedly fill exhibitions and installations from Amsterdam to Venice. Not for nothing is the string of major art festivals called a circuit.
What’s left out, on the other hand, is a vast range of work that for the first time has a dedicated space in the UK. Just open this month, the Museum of Everything in northwest London calls itself a place “for artists and creators living outside our modern society.” And indeed, most of the names shown at the Museum will be unfamiliar to the art-world denizens currently in Regent Park for the annual Frieze Art Fair. (To our knowledge, this is the first such museum in Europe; however, the American Visionary Art Museum and other museums of so-called folk art have significant institutional legacies.)
Located in a former dairy factory in Primrose Hill, the Museum of Everything displays work typically called intuitive or outsider art. No one genre defines the collection, and “mixed media” is the descriptor that accompanies much of the work. What the artists do have in common, however, is that they are all self-taught and create work with singular and distinctive vision.
Sister Gertrude Morgan was a self-proclaimed missionary, poet, and musician whose self-portraits on paper, styrofoam trays, and window shades often depict her as a bride of Christ. A more widely known name, Henry Darger worked as a custodian in Chicago for more than fifty years while also creating elaborate drawings and paintings based on a fully formed fantasy world and narrative.
One artist whose work we discovered thanks to the Museum is Kunizo Matsumoto. The Japanese-born Matsumoto fills notebook upon notebook with stories of the things he loves, among them Disney animations and Bunraku and Kabuki performance art. The densely covered pages seem to speak in shibboleths, scripts whose real meaning remain mysterious to all but the artist himself.
James Brett, the Museum of Everything’s founder, is a filmmaker who has collected these visionary works for years. In addition to his own selections, the Museum’s inaugural exhibition was curated by some very “inside” artists and cultural figures. David Byrne, critic Hans Ulrich Obrist, and artist Marcel Dzama are among the big names involved, ironically drawing the fringe inside the typically closed contemporary-art circuit.
Brett’s collection comprises artists’ complex inner worlds, replete with characters, codes, and customs we may not understand. We can, however, enjoy them, and be grateful that places such as the Museum of Everything have discovered this art and given it a place to call home.
Use the Museum’s list of artists as a jumping-off point from which to explore their worlds.
Published October 22, 2009