“If art has any insight into life today, it is that we have no other interior than the world.”
When discussing the work of persons whom we could potentially distinguish as outsider artists, we often cite instances of poor mental health, frequent institutionalisation, or the kind of restless gesamtkunstwerk which we have come to associate with the genre, nebulous as its definition is wont to be. Henry Darger’s 15,000-page In the Realms of the Unreal (C20), Adolf Wölfli’s 45-volume embellished autobiography and Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain (C20) are creations birthed by prolific yet naïve autodidacts, at once excessive and obsessive, carried out in obscurity. These are works that are often unappreciated, or otherwise remain hidden, until after the artist’s death.
Christopher Joseph Holme (1952-2010), the artist whose oeuvre forms the basis for the group exhibition and publication Cracked Egg (2016), curated by Lauren Velvick, proves less co-operative when attempts are made to place him in the same category as the aforementioned parties. Though he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his second year of university and continued to struggle with mental illness for the rest of his life, his treatment of subject, space and medium reveals an affinity for turn-of-the-century Cubism and post-war modernism, a result of his art education and his patronage of galleries displaying contemporary work. In the texts presented as part of the publication (which takes the form of a folder designed by Lisa Lorenz, alongside which the separate components are tipped-in and which serves as a facsimile for the paper folders which house many of Holme’s separate drawings and writings) an effort is made to parse out the intricacies of his practice.
Velvick’s introductory text serves as an indispensable biography, illuminating not only key moments in the artist’s life, but also drawing attention to the commendable work of friends and family as support network and impromptu conservators, whilst offering a critical reading of his relationship to Outsider Art and the extent to which his illness informed his work. David Wilkinson’s The Life Imperative, an interview with Una Baines (whom, as a musician, was a founding member of Manchester’s the Fall, as well as a psychiatric nurse at Prestwich Hospital) attempts to situate Holme’s body of work within a particular moment in history; namely, the 1970s and 1980s when the artist studied art and produced a large volume of work. With a focus on their attendant politics and culture, the conversation enables a closer look at the structure of life for those who struggled with mental illness at this time: of the institutionalising and alienating effect of the psychiatric hospital; the hit-and-miss strategy of fledgling pharmaceutical therapies; and the recuperation of anti-psychiatric concepts under Thatcherism and their misuse as an alibi for spending-cuts in the health and social care sectors.
Clara Casian’s film Drawings for Ideas highlights the importance of Holme’s family as archivists and supporters of his work, presented as a contemplative tour through his charcoal drawings of staff and patients at Sharoe Green Hospital, the site which Christopher attended for outpatient day-sessions. It is interesting to note the similarities between this and the other works included in the exhibition and publication. For example, the artists converging on an engagement with the environment of Preston in an effort to contextualise Holme’s practice, touching on the fragility of the collection and the tracing of a disjunctive narrative through the work of the artist.
Though prolific, Holme was not always creating visual art. At times he would state in his diaries or to his peers that he was ‘done with painting’. He would instead focus on writing and music until an event would encourage him to begin working in a new vein. Acts such as this, when considered alongside the symbolic vocabulary particular to his work, allude to the transgressive potential of recreating oneself, and also to the crippling nature of self-doubt. Michael Redmond’s hypnagogic series of illustrations Rocks and gravel, bricks and mortar draws from Holme’s sketchbooks and preliminary drawings, oscillating between the humorous and the absurd, dealing in the hostile political realities and the personal freedoms of the 1960’s counter-culture which informed much of the artist’s world-view. They also contain the religious iconography of his catholic upbringing and tokens of rebirth and fate; the chick emerging from the cracked egg, the lemniscate, the ouroboros.
Holme’s symbolism occurs within the framework provided to him by the geographic place and culture in which his work was created; amongst the parks, churches, mills and dwellings of Preston. Rocks and gravel is painted largely from memory, the landscape could be said to exist as a form of qualitative timekeeping, enabling us to retell Holme’s experiences in different orders and at different tempos to how they may have realistically occurred. Likewise, Aliyah Hussain’s risograph-printed photographic series Untitled (Man Behind a Mask) renders the visual document unreliable; resisting complete comprehension, we are forced to reconstruct the contained images each time we view them anew.
Wilkinson’s second work, the short film We Wander Unknowing – created with handheld cameras and utilising archival material of Holme’s writings, poetry and musical recordings – allows us to catch glimpses of not only the artist’s playfulness, but also an incredulity towards the concept of a concrete self: “We wander unknowing,” Wilkinson recites over tape-hiss and guitar noodling, “…’cause we’re not fully-formed. You are becoming you.” Lines like this, plucked from Holme’s diaries, echo the lysergic philosophies advocated by thinkers such as Alan Watts and William Burroughs, and indeed this preoccupation feeds back into his work. Holme’s abstracts and self-portraits, placed above and around the screen in the living room like exhibition space, bleed into frenetic backgrounds, reiterating those same countercultural concepts—the dissolving boundary of the self, a becoming-one with society. In Holme’s work, and that of the artists commissioned to respond to it, though, these concepts are not given the status of ideal as championed by the intellectual celebrities of the 1960s and 70s, but rather are approached with apprehension and criticality. What is raised is the question of what the result of this fragmentation of the self is, of what occurs when society determines our world for us.
Although working prior to the turn of the century, Christopher Joseph Holme’s body of work displays a remarkable prescience. As a creator, he was profoundly sensitive to the world around him, affirming our own lack of ontological security, embodying the disarray and anxiety of our contemporary condition, the difficulty which we face when trying to infuse our lives with meaningful experience, and our horror when confronted with the increasing hostility towards the ‘other,’ whichever form they may take. In presenting and interpreting his work via a weaving of online content, physical publication and site-specific installation, the artists involved in Cracked Egg have created a project which is at once a public and private affair, echoing this sentiment. The usually individual experience of decoding a text is entangled with the viewer’s need to visit video-streaming websites and Tumblr archives, encouraging them to actively engage with the exhibition, the work of the archivists, and the community that has sprung up around them. Unlike traditional print publications (or exhibition catalogues, for that matter), what is presented does not remain static; rather, we are given the ability to re-configure their work in a way that a more rigid design may not offer, and to assess the result of such a method.
Aliyah Hussain, Clara Casian, David Wilkinson, Michael Redmond, Lauren Velvick, Lisa Lorenz, Cracked Egg, In Certain Places project space, Preston, 17 June – 19 June 2016.
Images courtesy the artists and In Certain Places.
Michael D’Este is a writer based in Preston and undergraduate student of Philosophy at UCLAN.