Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Studio ARTISTS at The Paper Mill

by Hugh Nichols

28 Jul 2011

A collective called Studio ARTISTS has just begun a residency at The Paper Mill, an artist-run-initiative (ARI) in Sydney's CBD. The collective consists of artists working within Studio ARTES, a non-profit organisation providing support to people living with disability. Using a 'whole of life' approach to their programming, the studio runs a full-time art program, as well as other programs around recreation, training, employment and skills (thus, ARTES). They promote themselves as an arts-based community service, not an organisation operating within the 'Contemporary Art' scene. On the basis of this, it is reasonable to wonder why they would be undertaking the residency. The artists who are part of the collective, however, are the Studio ARTES clients who are particularly committed to the idea of developing a professional artistic practice.

The work of artists with disabilities is generally set into two categories. The first and most considered in the context of contemporary practice is 'outsider' art. This highly contested (some would say dubious) category is deceptively imprecise and is, in reality, an umbrella term for a number of distinctive sub-categories [1]. Broadly speaking it covers work produced by artists who are, in some way or another, deemed to be outside of mainstream contemporary art discourse. Mostly they have not received formal training. Prone to inspiring strong sentiments, one of the many ideas used to delegitimise such work argues that, in order for the outsider to exist, there must first be a mainstream to be excluded from. In the context of contemporaneity - a moment in art history that is partially characterised by the multiplicity of artistic communities operating within it - this is, of course, an impossibility. There is no mainstream to be outside of [2].

The second category is community art practice. This type of practice, while in its own way valuable, is of no use to any artist whose practice is developed beyond being a hobby or for therapeutic value alone. If the aim is to promote equal critical consideration of artists with disabilities to a contemporary art audience, then the last thing to do is include them in this category, which, on its most visible level, is manifest in interminable mixed-ability group shows [3] that show no curatorial linkages beyond the simple fact that everyone who created the work lives with a disability of some kind.

Beyond just conceptual distinctions, the collective is also at something of a disadvantage being based at a studio in Sydney's northern suburbs, an area perceived to be quite geographically distant from the traditional epicentre of artistic production - the inner city. While this isolation is not insurmountable - as the residency at The Paper Mill shows - the psychological gulf is keenly felt by those working with the artists in the studio [4].

A residency at an inner-city ARI is usually nothing to bat an eyelid at, and the Studio ARTISTS residency is, on the surface at least, no exception. With the context above in mind however, it is apparent that the residency is actually - in its own way and to a (currently) relatively small group of people - important and long overdue in Sydney. Genuine interaction between artists with and without disabilities in a publicly accessible contemporary art space has not been achieved in Sydney to any noticeable degree. Such interaction is essential to ensuring that "these so-called 'outsider' practitioners [are brought] to the fore rather than being forever relegated to the footnotes in Australian art's recent histories"[5].

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1 Raw Vision. (n.d.). What is Outsider Art? Retrieved fromhttp://www.rawvision.com/outsiderart/whatisoa.html 2 Geczy, A. (2010). The Solid Fraud of Outsider Art. Broadsheet, 39 (1). 3 Rhodes, C. (2010). Unseen to Seen. Unseen Ways (catalogue). Sydney, NSW: Macquarie University Lighthouse Press. Retrieved from http://www.artgallery.mq.edu.au/about/exhibitions/pdfs/2010-UnseenWays-catalogue.pdf 4 Mordy. G (personal communication, July 26, 2011) 5 Barkly, G (2011). Overlapping worlds: Outsider art in an Australian context. Art & Australia. 48(4).