Mental Spaghetti is an Outsider Art organisation whose name fits the aesthetic of their exhibition The Mind Machine, which took place at the Menier Gallery, London from the 18th – 23rd January. Review by Colin Hambrook.
Curated loosely around themes of portraiture – portraits of the self, portraits of the imagination, and imaginative portraits of states of mind – The Mind Machine even includes a self-portrait as a landscape oil painting of a viaduct, simply titled My Death by John Moore.
The artworks on show by and large share personal narratives imbued with a wide plethora of cultural references. I was drawn to two paintings by Marie-Louise Plum: The Strawberry Girl Thief and She Loves You, both inspired by the ‘Nowhere Man’ from the Beatles’ 1968 animation, Yellow Submarine.
I’d always thought of the Nowhere Man as a product of the more cynical side of John Lennon’s imagination. But these paintings depict the character with a more sinister air, with undertones of sexual manipulation using expressive strokes and a clever palette placing warm tones behind cooler colours to render the subject with a three-dimensional quality.
The Mind Machine was something of a pilgrimage for me. I especially wanted to see Yvonne Mabs Francis’s work since reviewing an exhibition by her at the Diorama Gallery in the late 90s, which had left a lasting impact. The artist’s work would comfortably sit alongside paintings by Frida Khalo, Dorothea Tanning, Paula Rego and Leonora Carrington, the greatest female painters of magical realism/ surrealistic imagery of the 20th and 21st centuries. Fearful but equally invested with grace and humour, Francis’s paintings are beautifully crafted with a sublime use of colour.
Over the years some paintings enter your psyche as ‘old friends’. I had forgotten the scale of the genius of Francis’s ‘Mental Health series’. The Electric Bed was one such painting. Then, as now, it struck a chord partly because of a personal association the painting evokes of a fear of being plugged into the electricity supply with ECT.
Yet, The Electric Bed has a far more peaceful quality to it than I remembered. The figure lying supine on a bed wired up to the electricity meter is clearly not comfortable but equally she conveys a resigned nature. The vivid colour and above all the Iris petals that float from the sleeper’s bed with a cloud-like skull that surrounds the central image, give the narrative a protective quality, unwieldy as her predicament is.
Like Magritte’s The Reckless Sleeper, you get the sense that whilst in her prostrate state she is reinventing the world and is far less of a victim than you might think.
Dominating the gallery space are three works that define Francis’s ouvre: The Bodily Time Machine, Manacles or Bracelets and The Impossibility of Being Inside the Head of Someone Living. Colossal paintings, they represent a form of religious art for the secular age. There is a timeless and universal sensibility to the figures Francis presents us with. Each painting poses a question about contemporary life from a feminist perspective.
The Bodily Time Machine is most reminiscent of Frida Khalo drawing on motifs of flowers and skull while exposing the inner organs of the female body. The painting illustrates the cycle of life from woman to girl, to foetus, showing each incarnation emerging from the other. In the text accompanying the painting Francis talks about how it illustrates a feeling she experienced of going backwards in time to meet her death.
Again, it struck a chord personally, having also had the sensation of growing towards the foetal state during a psychotic episode. It’s an exhilarating feeling and echoes the story of the mythical character of Merlin who was said to have lived from old age to infancy.
Manacles or Bracelets represents the imperative to reproduce, asking whether that which confines and restricts us can also free us. There are echoes of the many-armed goddesses of Hindi art, and of mediaeval manuscripts, but the figure in this painting is a modern woman questioning her fate. She is an old soul reflecting on universal dilemmas.
Two pheasants placed on either side of the central figure add to the symmetrical, eastern influence in the painting. The text accompanying the painting says they are there because they are signifiers of beauty although they are going to be shot by gunmen. I like the plain language Francis uses to describe her narratives. It enhances the viewers’ appreciation of the work in a concise unpretentious way, conveying the backstory to the symbolism she employs.
The Impossibility of Being Inside the Brain of Someone Living takes the 1999 American magical realism film Being John Malkovich as its inspiration. In the painting a tree supports a central head with an exposed brain, which draws new life. Again there is a dark comedic touch to the subject matter, an allegory for the limitations of being human.
The other work on show in The Mind Machine was also of excellent quality but was eclipsed by the force of feeling conjured up by revisiting the work of Francis.
Mental Spaghetti aims to provide a platform for artists to showcase their work to a wider audience, often working one-to-one with service users to teach skills and gain a wider audience in the all-too-often exclusive, and tricky to navigate, world of creative arts. The organisation has gathered some momentum over the last four years and I would definitely recommend looking out for future plans for their exhibitions and events via the website.