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> > > Alternative Guide to the Universe at the Hayward Gallery, London

18 June 2013

An image showing a woman looking at a brightly lit painting of a fantastical red architectural drawing in a darkened room

Marcel Storr 'Untitled' (1975). Installation view ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’, Hayward Gallery 2013. Photo: Linda Nylind © Liliane and Bertrand Kempf

Alternative Guide to the Universe explores the work of self-taught artists and architects, fringe physicists and visionary inventors. Richard Downes lends a critical eye to the exhibition on show at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 26 August

This guide posits visions of the future through the work of outsider artists, as a central tenet. Whilst displaying works of interest and great skill, pieces of art that affect feelings of difference within it fall within this remit. The future is represented by that which is known from the past and used in the present; colour, number, culture, prophesy. The presence of the old God, reformulations of His temple, the pursuit of ideals expressed as love and peace predominate. So the future goes by unremarked upon except perhaps as fantasy.

Whilst that sounds critical it is not meant to be for much of this exhibition deserves viewing. Its weakness, other than in failing to live up to its billing, is that the initial powerful blocks of colour, concept and draughtsmanship aren’t sustained throughout the exhibition. Yet works of great power and intricate detail dominate the first part of the gallery tour.

As anticipated the work of disabled artists dominate studies of unschooled artists. The eternal battle with discrimination underpins our stories. We are not recognised and given the opportunity to add schooling to our existing talents. Our impairments of themselves  may lead to isolation or place us within settings where art is expressed as a means of therapy and recovery and this leads to a devaluation of the work or to ‘interesting’ back stories.

Such tales are given short shrift in the text supporting the art but it's there for those who look. We hear of talents invested elsewhere prior to illness leading to the engineer giving up his work but holding on to his draughtsmanship in order to create new visions of buildings and structures that could exist, that could take over environments that would otherwise remain natural, unmarked by man, and which provide kinder conditions for the human to live within.

The other story told throughout the exhibition puts work in a context of how it came about through illness, and which aims to heal, not only the constant ‘sufferer’ but also those who are to follow, or those who sit for a portrait to discover their metaphysical cause of discomfort. I find myself wanting to know what the significant illness is?

Having not previously come across artists such as George Widener, Marcel Storr, Jean Perdrizet or Guo Fengyi I wish for more biography. Even internet searches through Google fail to build the picture that I am looking to paint especially where the history may only be given in languages that I don’t speak and which keep the artist beyond my ken.

Against this we require that work should stand for itself. In the case of George Widener (autistic) and Marcel Storr (deaf) it can only be described as extraordinary. Widener specialises in colour and number. He creates codes, which probably speak more eloquently to him in terms of meaning than they do me. They are said to be based on dates and the Mayan calendar and have some spiritual meaning. All I can say is I look at the work and involve myself in the number systems I can understand. I have to fight with myself to make the calculation required. And it is in such interaction that a future can be glimpsed across the threshold I struggle to stand on.

Marcel Storr is said to have lived in fear of nuclear destruction. His visions of new buildings were left as a blueprint for rebuilding Paris after the bomb is dropped. Critics say his work is dehumanising as his figures scuttle like ants but given the grandeur of his architecture how could we be seen to be anything else. Storr is given a darkened room to himself. His technique as an artist are such that his pictures glow in the dark. I leave his room taking a note to find out what translucence means. My memories of his work glow within me.

The Alternative Guide to the Universe is on show at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, until 26 August

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