YOKO KUBOTAGirl in Red Negligée, 2006, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 55 × 40 cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Halle Saint Pierre, Paris.

HIRONOBU MATSUMOTO, Unbridled Dance, 2008, pencil, watercolor, colored pencil on paper, 27 × 38 cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Halle Saint Pierre, Paris.

A State of Perpetual Becoming

Japan France

Though he is functionally illiterate, 31-year-old Moriya Kishaba is fascinated by Japanese ideograms. In fact, he spends hours transcribing them from dictionaries and encyclopedias. In works that appear in the 63-artist group show “Art Brut Japonais” at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, Kishaba methodically “translates” simplified kana characters into kanji—for the artist, the pictorial form of the language is more valuable than its meaning, and his malapropisms create poetry. His transcriptions redefine language and describe phenomena beyond our wildest imagination: Amaminokurousagi, or “black rabbit of the Amami islands,” becomes, following his phonetic mistranslation, a “black rabbit in soft straw clothing.”

The French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term “Art Brut,” to describe a genre with nearly identical equivalents in the fields of Folk, Outsider, Self-Taught, Marginal, Naive and Visionary art, in the mid-1940s. To see “Art Brut Japonais” as the dynamic addition to the Art Brut dialogue that it is, one must first understand the impulse that fueled Dubuffet’s search for a purer, rawer form of expression.

Dubuffet defined Art Brut’s parameters—art of the insane, destitute and marginal—in advance of amassing and assessing a collection of artworks by psychiatric hospital patients, social outsiders and spirit-channelling mediums. In 1947 he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, and in 1949 he wrote a manifesto that laid out the group’s primary goals: to challenge the conservative rhetoric of the cultural elite that monopolized contemporary arts, and to unshackle art by the clinically insane from its conscription to the “psychiatric arts.” “Our point of view,” Dubuffet explained, “is that . . . there is no more an art of the mad than there is an art of the dyspeptic, or an art for those with bad knees.”

The Collection de l’Art Brut found its permanent home in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1976. Since then, workshops such as Creative Growth in Oakland and Atelier InCurve in Osaka have actively engaged the would-be Art Brut artist, furnishing facilities and technical guidance for the mentally ill or handicapped. These organizations focus on the specific needs of the artists and the artworks’ conservation and exhibition, empowering the present-day creators of Art Brut over its curators. The greatest achievement of these ateliers is that the “art of the mad” has indeed been dislodged from the rubric of “psychiatric art” and granted the autonomy it needs to flourish.

Many psychiatrists in early 20th-century Europe assumed their patients’ drawings and writings provided evidence of mental illness. This method of surveying drawings for symptoms, called “diagnosticism,” compelled doctors to salvage and preserve these oddities for study. While this yielded the first collections of “psychological art,” the works were still only appreciated as proofs of madness. A shift away from this diagnosticism permitted a reappraisal of these creations as art. Dubuffet and the Compagnie’s midcentury efforts accelerated the cause. In Japan, this process of acceptance is still in progress.

The origins of Japanese Art Brut date back to the post-World War II restructuring of the country’s social welfare system, wherein a new patient-centered approach to mental healthcare sought to spiritually engage all people. The initial interest in the artistic output of psychiatric patients was actually born of a desire to equip the mentally handicapped with a means of self-expression. Omi Gakuen, the first Japanese institution for mentally handicapped children, was founded in 1946 by psychiatrist Kazuo Itoga, who advocated “a new welfare concept that puts emphasis on respect for disabled people’s human rights.” Volunteering at Omi, Kazuo Yagi, one of Japan’s most influential 20th-century ceramicists, was astounded by the children’s creations and, most of all, what they produced when left unattended. Motivated by his beliefs that an artist should work without external strictures imposing form and technique, he guided the institution toward a freer workshop model. This hands-off approach to art therapy, having proven overwhelmingly successful with the artists and their families as well as Omi’s directorship, inspired other workshops in Shiga prefecture.

In 1964, Kohei Deguchi founded the Mizunoki Workshop, inviting the painter Chuichi Nishigaki to lead drawing and painting courses for the handicapped in Kameoka, near Kyoto. Nishigaki taught only two basic concepts: “killing the white” (filling the composition), and the use of line. “We teach only techniques,” said Nishigaki, “without stepping into their mentality at all.”

Japanese art centers and museums began to take notice, and the increased exposure provided evidence of the social-welfare system’s successes, thereby increasing funding for such resources and aiding in their proliferation. The formation of the Able Arts Movement in 1995, followed by a landmark exhibition of its participants in 1997, perhaps marked the point at which institutional health and contemporary fine art began to work in tandem.

It would be false to suggest that a stigma against Japanese Art Brut no longer exists—the endurance of the terms “handicapped art” and “disabled arts” suggests otherwise. At its base, the producers’ involvement in the social welfare system paradoxically perpetuates high culture’s resistance to it. However, just as the shroud of diagnosticism was lifted from “psychological art” when it was contextualized within Art Brut, the stamp of approval from Lausanne likewise applies an art-historical precedent to Japanese Art Brut—it is now in conversation with mediums, visionaries and “idiot savants.” While the shift away from “psychological arts” spanned decades, Japanese Art Brut will certainly see a quicker change in rhetoric.

Twelve artists from the Mizunoki workshop were selected for the first version of “Art Brut Japonais,” which opened in Lausanne in 2008 and was so widely acclaimed that it was extended for another year. The exponentially larger 2010 show in Paris (with more than 1,000 works) included the original 12, and drew from a wider pool of ateliers. “Art Brut Japonais” was formed of an exchange with Borderless Art Museum No-MA, a nonprofit alternative arts space in Shiga prefecture, whose mission is to further distance Japanese Art Brut from its association with the social welfare program.

The increase in scope reflects an expanded dialogue and mounting enthusiasm from both West and East. In a Europe now comfortable with Art Brut and Outsider Art, this exhibition successfully challenges our established notions of what these terms are, and points to prejudices yet to be addressed. As Martine Lusardy, director of Halle Saint Pierre, commented to ArtAsiaPacific, “The West has always been wary of art-therapy ateliers. ‘Art Brut Japonais,’ which has notably consisted of the mentally handicapped, obliges us to rethink our positions.” This radical shift is brilliantly in keeping with Art Brut’s original agenda.

If art is a state of perpetual becoming, then Art Brut is both a reminder of this fact and an invitation to reimagine what we might become. Takashi Shuji’s black forms on display, be they giraffes, rabbits, buffalo or workshop tools, are all carved—excavated, really—by erasing around nearly identical pastel masses. The forms that emerge often bear a resemblance to his surroundings, but just as often resemble nothing at all. To see them reveal themselves out of the abstraction is to simultaneously feel emotions of surprise and satisfaction—the same feelings wrought by new discoveries in the ongoing discourse of Art Brut. This is an urgent, necessary endeavor, and one filled with joy.

KUKJE GALLERY CHRISTIE"S 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art SOTHEBY'S