Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 27 January to 6 March

Outsider artists have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned. They are all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society. Working outside the fine art systems they produce from the depths of their own personalities works of outstanding originality in concept, subject and technique.

(Michel Thevoz, former curator of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, see statement, )

This contentious statement frames the debate and sets up some of the prickly issues up for discussion in this show of work by Shahin Afrassiabi at Project. The artist has created an installation in the gallery, using works loaned from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection which is housed at IMMA as a starting point. A characteristic of Afrassiabi’s practice is to investigate the functioning and transformation of objects as elements in his sculpture, and as part of his methodology, both coded and explicit reference is made to art history and modernism.

The interventions in the gallery space at Project are highly specific, sensitive and self-conscious. Some interventions include a corner of the gallery that is painted magnolia, beside which are placed two buckets of paint and a glass shelf with a piece of rolled-up paper on it; some tacky vases arranged in a line on the floor; a painting and series of boards propped up against a wall; a video projector and paraphenalia that indicate the ‘set-up’ has not yet been completed. In addition, there are a number of works by the aforementioned ‘outsider artists’ placed around the walls. The reasoning governing the acutely detailed arrangements is impenetrable. Clearly, this seemingly random system is intended to reflect and critique the similarly arbitrary, yet paradoxically specific, systems of classifying and collecting characteristic of art history/practice. It is these ideas of taste, ‘value’, and the omnipresent high culture / mass culture divide that are at issue here.

Shahin Afrassiabi, 2004: mixed media constructions and gallery interventions, installation shot; courtesy Project

‘Outsider’ artists are often referred to as self-taught and/or na•ve. Their artistic production is usually constructed as totally ‘original’, ‘unique’ and heavily mythologised as somehow raw, primal, an, most importantly, ‘pure’. The work of such artists is arguably the latest in a long line of practices ‘other’ to high art (‘primitive’ art; ‘tribal’ art; graffiti) whose modes of representation have been appropriated. Afarssiabi positions works by these artists in the context of a self-conscious, ‘white-cube’ gallery environment in an attempt to create a situation in which their status becomes the subject of discussion as the misconceived ‘other’ of mainstream art. Are these ‘others’ being exoticised or assimilated, objectified or accepted, and on whose terms? Afrassiabi’s strategy is not without its problems, however: it is unquestionably using modes of re/presentation that are coded to only be readily understood by artworld initiates.

Are these forms of cultural expression, and by extension, the issues Afarssiabi is trying to raise, open to a wider viewership than this then? When engaging with issues to do with marginality and the ‘others’ of the art world, is it enough to examine these discrepancies using a heavily coded visual language within a largely exclusive arena of ‘high’ culture? If this work does not deal with the audience whose work it is presenting, has this project not worked itself into something of a cul de sac? To many people, certainly those without a background in art or critical theory, looking at this work it will simply appear as if the exhibition is not yet fully, or ‘properly’, installed (ironically provoking the response "sure I could do better than that") and fitting the stereotypical ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ idea of contemporary art. Although the work provokes difficult questions about challenging issues, its accessibility is a major problem. The show deals with the concept of marginal art producers – but what about marginalised audiences? These are the outsiders in the artworld, and this work does little to bring them in.

Sarah Browne is an artist and writer currently based in Co. Kildare.