Yayoi Kusama – Outsider Artist? 3

( continued from previous post )

Our volunteer continues:

The retrospective reinterpretation of Kusama’s work by critics was fuelled by an interest at the time in psychiatric art in Japan and Kusama became a poster child for ‘Outsider Art’. However, whilst she fits into this category if you consider her ‘untrained’ due to only 18 months studying nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in her early twenties, Kusama has never been excluded from influential artistic circles, but was in fact an extremely active participant in the artistic infrastructure dominating both New York and Tokyo at the times she lived there. A morbid fascination with pathology along with the simplified idea that madness is a direct source of creativity often leads to individuals being too enthusiastically labelled as ‘outsider artists’. Art critic Abe Nobuo has made the telling point that although hallucinations may provide rich sensory experiences for artists to draw from, it is not enough for the artist to merely reproduce the hallucinatory experience: the artist needs to connect their own personal experience of the hallucination with specific artistic intent, for that painting to become a work of art. ‘The greatest appeal in Kusama’s work is that she seizes the devilish malice which comes sprouting up from the unconscious darkness, and turns it into art.’1

Some of the more revealing interpretations of Kusama’s work come from looking at her artistic intentions in relation to the current artistic climate. The current exhibition of her work at Tate Modern doesn’t focus on her mental health as much as does the publicity surrounding it. In fact the only reference to her as an outsider within the exhibition is in Walking Piece, a series of colour slides of Kusama from 1966 dressed in Kimono and flowers wandering the streets of New York, which explores her position as a female, Asian artist in a predominantly white, male New York art world, exemplifying a theme of patriarchal defiance which runs throughout her work.

The Yayoi Kusama exhibition continues at Tate Modern until 5 June 2012.

1 Cited in G. Borggreen, “The Myth of the Mad Artist: Works and Writings by Kusama Yayoi” in Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies vol 15 (2001), pp. 39-40.

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