Last years MOE #1 looked at the anxious preoccupations of the outsider artist, and this year with Peter Blake as host the return show is steered on a more jovial tact.
The successive rooms look at familiar outsider themes of sideshow, dolls, puppets, banners, fairgrounds and taxidermy jammed into a jigsaw of corridors and nooks to form the opposite of the classical gallery. Its starting point is a pair of tiny pair of cowboy boots – authenticated as belonging to General Tom Thumb, then on to walls crammed with original photos of other miniature people. The tight space exaggerates your own comparative size. Next more photos of varied sideshow freaks, including The Elastic Skinned Man and La véritable Femme a Barbe Annie Jones. These images encourage reflection on the less politically correct times gone by, but also provide an insight into how Blake’s collage work captures the immediacy of the original material. Blake has an eye not just for the ugly ordinary, but also the extraordinary.
Most visually daunting is the shell display; where encrusted trinket boxes and effigies are displayed against a background of yet more shells, mesmerising in their repetition they collectively present a deadpan survey of taste the democratising nature of beautiful tat - as surly nearly every home in the UK has at one time or another been furnished with a shell trinket box souvenir? From another perspective is also the physical volume of shells required to support this one popular shell decoration trend. The raw material is somewhat a waste product of the seafood industry, once a home to a critter, that on its death would eventually become sand.
Architecturally the show rewards its visitors with suspense and changes in colour and scale. The converted Victorian dairy has illogical levels and openings, which create views to the colourful double height banner room through glass cabinets of the puppet room. Views are also glimsed though the treads that climb to the fairground room, where up here the open mezzanine gives some breathing space in what could be a claustrophobic trip into the lair of an artist.
Probably my favourite artist in the show is Ted Wilcox, a reclusive tapestry artist who stitched vivid compositions of pin up girls copied from magazines. Not much else is know about Wilcox, an ex-service man injured in the WW2, who after befriending Blake would sell his work to him in return for beer money. Wilcox uses the direction of the stitches to flesh out the girls, giving them superhuman presence against free formed needlework backdrops, like rag blankets – making them look warm and protected. In the weaves and swirls of his stitches you can imagine him getting lost in the making. This is especially prevalent in his more cosmic pieces populated with a cacophony of beasts and symbols that have a strange occult / cartoon-ish look to them. His pieces also reveal an endearing ineptitude at stitching faces, the rendering of the expression in the images above is certainly one of his best.
But is it these ineptitudes and the somewhat unsavoury nature of the hobby artist that get to the crux of what this exhibition is about. I remember seeing Walter Potter’s baroque taxidermy dioramas at Jamaica Inn, in shrine like display cabinets and noticing how badly some of the animals had been stuffed and sewn, and most of all the smell! After the Jamaica Inn Curio Museum was disbanded, Potters work was sold at auction to various collectors after failing to find a new home for the whole collection. With pieces now owned by Blake, Damien Hirst and Harry Hill, this come back tour shows – depending how you look at it - the unnerving or inspiring visions of the hobby artist.