Interview with James Brett founder of The Museum of Everything

by Demian Smith on November 20, 2012

The Museum of Everything, presented in Paris by Chalet Society, led by former director and chief curator of Palais de Tokyo, Marc-Oliver Wahler is a collection of artworks by those untouched by artistic culture, work by men and women who function without art education, theory or society. We have interviewed the founder of the exhibition, James Brett.

The show consists of work by those who for various reasons exist, or at least produce artwork, outside of the mainstream culture, unconcerned in their creativity with worries of competition, acclaim or social promotion; for whom the act of creation and the impulse to make depend neither on destination nor on definition.

Founded by Britisher, James Brett, the 500 works span the 19th, 20th and 21st century, and highlights include the panoramic adult fairytale of Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the towering spirit scrolls of Chinese factory worker Guo Fengyi, the mystic constructions of French miniature architect ACM, and the dense tramways of Dutch self-appointed naive Willem van Genk.

The Museum of Everything was established by James Brett in 2009 in an old dairy in Primrose Hill, north-west London, and has since travelled the world. The show is in Paris until Christmas before heading to Moscow.

In the interview, Brett explains a little on how one determines outsider-ness, how the exhibition ended up in Paris, and why Banksy’s former gallerist, Steve Lazarides is the King of Outsiders.

Henry Darger - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (3)

Portrait of a Girl Scout by reclusive American self-taught artist, Henry Darger. Photo: © The Museum of Everything

Josef Karl Rädler - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (9)

Portrait by Austrian porcelain painter and psychiatric patient, Josef Karl Rädler. Photo: © The Museum of Everything

Henry Darger - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (6)

 Double-sided panoramic episode by reclusive American self-taught artist, Henry Darger. Photo: © The Museum of Everything

Henry Darger - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (7)

  Double-sided panoramic episode by reclusive American self-taught artist, Henry DargerPhoto: © The Museum of Everything

The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (11)

The Woodbridge Figures. Photo: Pavlos Metaxas. © The Museum of Everything

Prophet Royal Robertson - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (8)

Environmental sign by Prophet Royal Robertson.  Royal Robertson created countless drawings of aliens, buildings, women and calendars, as well as signs directed against his former wife. Photo: © The Museum of Everything

Justin McCarthy - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (15)

 Portrait of ice skater, Hans Leitner, by Justin McCarthy.  The prolific McCarthy is considered an important and enigmatic Southern American self-taught painterPhoto: © The Museum of EverythingAleksander Pavlovich Lobanov - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (16)

Hunting scene by Aleksander Pavlovich Lobanov.  A Russian deaf-mute confined to an institution for 50 years, Lobanov created a vast body of work, including drawings and paintings which featured him as a gun-toting hero of the revolution. Photo: © The Museum of Everything

The Museum of Everything artworks are by contemporary and historic self-taught, visionary and non-traditional artists, often termed outsider artists. Tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved with the Museum.

The Museum of Everything started because it had to. No other British art institution dedicated itself to creators whose creations had no perceived destination. When museums did present this work, they relied on labels and categories – like outsider art and art brut – to design a distance. The art was often abstracted or neutralised, the artists presented as others, rather than as aspects of us.

These segregations seemed more than a little inappropriate. So our first exhibition curated over 100 artists in a ramshackle former dairy in London. We invited all the contemporary artists, curators and thinkers we knew to choose their favourites and verbalise their choices. The result was an informal and alternative history which seemed to touch and inspire a wide-ranging audience.

Their enthusiasm inspired us, so we carried on. Hence, three years, a bunch of shows across Europe, movies, books and a vast obsessive creative mess.

Are there really any outsiders anymore? And if so, outside what?

Most people think of themselves as outsiders, most creative characters do anyway. It’s the romance of difference and counter-culture. Add the word art and we tend to project: to the isolated hermit carving masterpieces in his cave. So on that level the implication is correct. Today there are less caves, less hermits.

Yet it’s one thing to label oneself an outsider, another to have the label stuck on you. A person who cannot see or hear can be called an outsider from a physiological or psychological point of view. But what if it was your child and what if it was you?

Questions of outsiderness are all a bit irrelevant. This person is like us, he or she is us, different to some, similar to others, a varied variable human being whose art might speak to us even when he or she cannot. We don’t really need a word to find our empathy. If anything, the definition is more likely to encourage the opposite. That’s why The Museum of Everything always has an eye on its tongue.

No inside, no outside, no walls.

WILLIAM HAWKINS - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (2)

King Kong by William Hawkins.  Hawkins is one of the most reknowned and sought-after self taught African-American painters.  Photo: © The Museum of Everything

Dan Miller - The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (14)

Environmental sign by landowner, GT Miller.  Photo © The Museum of Everything

The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (17)

Anonymous working model of funfair ride.  Photo: Pavlos Metaxas  © The Museum of Everything

The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (13)

William Hawkins installation shot at Exhibition #1.1 in Paris.  Photo: Pavlos Metaxas © The Museum of Everything

The exhibition is installed in an ephemeral space, an ex-Catholic school in St Germain, and includes 500 works: private drawings, signs and carvings, hand-made books, discovered bodies of work and environmental installations. How did the venue reveal itself to you?

The venue appeared courtesy of a tall Swiss gentleman called Marc-Olivier Wahler, the esteemed former director of Palais du Tokyo.  We knew each other, were mutual fans and shared a cup of mint tea in North Africa.

There in the heat, Wahler revealed his new art space - Chalet Society - an anti-museum centred around radical philosophies of creativity. The chosen building was a monument trapped in time. Thin and decrepit, it had once been home to the city’s Catholic students, where a printing press pumped out propaganda inside rooms painted in more colours than a Parisian rainbow.

We fell in love immediately, changed nothing and we started to hang pictures and place objects. As we did, the structure spoke to us, told us what it wanted and where it wanted it to go. We just got on with it.

The exhibition also incorporates essays by leading artists, curators, writers and thinkers, including David Byrne, Ed Ruscha, and Marlene Dumas. Can you tell us a little about the way the non-outsider art world views the Museum of Everything and outsider art in general?

It’s a good question, but what is the art world? Some know us, many more don’t, a lot turn up, the lucky few get it, museums ignore us, unless of course they don’t, free-thinking curators embrace us, traditionalists steer clear, collectors are intrigued, galleries flirt, auction houses don’t bother; we don’t merit the market.

But the contemporary creative communities are as fascinated as we are. Artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers and writers connect with the authenticity of this work because it connects with their own creativity. Through their support, our ideas have reached out into the world, call it the art world if you must.

All we see is that our artists are turning up more and more, in major shows across Europe and America, in festivals, fairs and biennales. That seems to indicate some level of impact, although you can never really tell.

The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (12)

Morton Bartlett installation shot at Exhibition #1.1 in Paris.  Photo: Pavlos Metaxas  © The Museum of Everything

The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (10)

ACM installation shot at Exhibition #1.1 in Paris.  Photo: Pavlos Metaxas © The Museum of Everything

The Lazarides gallery in London calls the pieces it sells outsider art, partly because it is produced by artists who also make work outside, the website notes, tongue in cheek. The gallery most famously used to represent street artist, Banksy. Should artwork produced by this stable of commercial street artists share the outsider art label?

Steve Lazarides is the King of Outsiders, Banksy draws on walls, we knock them down. It’s all a question of taste and intention. But since hermits like cave walls, it would seem a little short-sighted to impose a world-wide ban.

What are your future goals with the exhibition Museum of Everything? And, do you have any other projects coming up that you can tell us about?

Right now we are sojourning in Paris, after that we trek to Moscow, for a final show of our Russian summer discoveries. Then who knows, the universe beckons and there are many tiny creative nooks. Sign up to our newsletter, when we get a moment, we’ll let you know.

The Museum of Everything by James Brett at Chalet Society by Marc-Oliver Wahler, former director of Palais de Tokyo (1)

Almighty God installation shot at Exhibition #1.1 in Paris.  Photo: Pavlos Metaxas © The Museum of Everything

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Chalet Society presents The Museum of Everything // Exhibition #1.1

14 boulevard Raspail, 75007 Paris

Wednesday to Sunday, from now until  end of February, 2013

 www.musevery.com

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Also, while you’re there you can check out Le Café d’Everything –  an exclusive coffee-counter and all-you-can-eaterie with bespoke delicacies from the animal and vegetable kingdoms, created by Momo and Derrière.

And, The Shop of Everything an award-winning boutique, with limited edition books, prints, clothes, homeware and knick-knackery to benefit The Museum of Everything and its artists.

The Shop of Everything can be found rive gauche at Chalet Society, 14 boulevard Raspail, Paris 75007, and rive droite at Merci, 111 boulevard Beaumarchais, Paris 75003.

For the full range, go to www.shopevery.com.

 

About the Author

Demian Smith starts out painting graffiti in the late ‘90s around Swiss Cottage in London, and ends up writing gossip journalism for the Daily Telegraph. Arrived in Paris in 2012 to establish Underground Paris.

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