‘Your face looks like the Metro train service’: a new vision from art’s outsiders

03.12.21 | Press

‘Your face looks like the Metro train service’: a new vision from art’s outsiders

The Age, 3 Dec 21

The shortlisting of a British collective of neurodiverse artists, Project Art Works, for this year’s prestigious Turner Prize was an overdue acknowledgement of neurodiversity in the mainstream art world. Locally, neurodiverse artists Emily Crockford and Thom Roberts have been finalists in the Archibald Prize, and Mathew Calandra was selected to exhibit in this year’s Sulman Prize.

These are just a few examples, yet there remains a misconception that the work of artists from supported studios – for artists with specific social or health needs – is a result of “art therapy”, something less than legitimate art practice. “Or that they’re sheltered workshops,” says Sim Luttin, gallery manager of Melbourne’s Arts Project Australia (APA), a supported studio established in 1974. “Although it’s changing, there’s a long way to go.”

Luttin, who has worked for 17 years at APA, is the co-founder of a new international arts platform that aims to elevate the work of neurodiverse artists and those living with disability by changing the industry’s view of what is programmed, where, and how people can access it.

She has teamed with Lisa Slominski from London art consultancy Slominski Projects, and Jennifer Lauren in Manchester, who both curate and work with neurodiverse and disabled artists, to create Art et al.

Thom Roberts’ A portriff of Adam (Shane Simpson AM), which was a finalist in this year’s Archibald Prize.
What had originally been planned as a group exhibition grew into the idea of a permanent platform, which will commission and exhibit collaborations between artists from supported studios, artist peers and professionals, and will feature critical writing and multimedia content.

“We want to change the landscape of the visibility of neurodiverse and intellectually disabled artists to introduce them to curators and other artists and creatives in the art ecology,” Luttin explains.

For many neurodiverse artists, the contemporary art world is not always accessible; art colleges are not necessarily suitable and there are often barriers to exhibiting or selling artwork.

Supported studios help pave professional paths for their artists and offer them the kind of opportunities often denied to them, but Luttin hopes Art et al will take this a step further.

The platform will also commission critical writing about artists and their practices.

“As with the Indigenous arts world, a lot of the writing tends to be about … biography, rather than the artworks in and of themselves, and people aren’t writing about our artists’ work coming out of the studios,” she says.

Artists from supported studios are not “good news stories”, she says. “Stories about a person having a disability and achieving a lot through art – ugh, we love that. If writing is not going to be written about our artists, we’ll create the written content ourselves.”

Peer-to-peer collaboration is another major focus, and this week Art et al’s first physical exhibition has opened as a pop-up exhibition (COVID dashed plans for a longer show) at APA’s gallery at Collingwood Yards arts precinct. Part of the UK/AU Season, a cultural exchange between Australia and Britain, the pop-up features six artists – three of whom are neurodivergent – who have collaborated across the seas.

Sydney artist Thom Roberts, who works at Studio A in Crows Nest, is the first Australian artist from a supported studio to take part, having collaborated, via video calls and email, with British artist Cherelle Sappleton.

Roberts, 45, is already an established name in contemporary art, having featured in many high-profile exhibitions, undertaken residencies locally and abroad and received major private and public commissions; his work is now held in several public and private collections. His portrait of Studio A’s chair Shane Simpson was a finalist in this year’s Archibald Prize.

Roberts, who has autism, interprets the world in a very particular way, often reflected in his unique style. Obsessed with trains, he sees trains as people and people as trains, and identifies himself as a CountryLink Express train. He also identifies himself and others as buildings – he is the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai – and when he meets someone he will bestow a different name on them.

When I meet him and Studio A’s CEO and artistic director Gabrielle Mordy (who Roberts calls Kylie) over Zoom, he calls me Ronald; my building is “somewhere in New York City.” “And I think your face looks like the Metro train service,” he adds.

While Roberts has worked across painting, drawing, animation and installation and is widely known for his portraits of trains and people with multiple eyes, he’s also a devoted fan of the photocopier. “Sometimes I sneak in here on tiptoes to use the photocopier to print,” he says. “I call Christmas Day Easter Day – guess what I’m getting on Easter Day?”

Thom Roberts in collaboration with Cherelle Sappleton, posca on collage, 2021.
“Thom,” says Mordy, “plays the photocopier like a piano” and recently completed a residency at Fuji Xerox Australia’s headquarters, where he created a bespoke artwork.

A photocopier’s dream? “Yes,” says Roberts. “I call it heaven.”

Roberts regularly collects free pamphlets or flyers to use in his work, copying, resizing and manipulating them to create something new.

“I like pictures of children and babies and dogs and cats and bears,” he says. “I often put moustaches on babies, then I print a lot and then I get the tape gun.”

He’s worked on several collaborations in the past, with other artists, theatre-makers and designers; his next collaboration is with ceramics company Mud Australia. For the exhibition he was keen to work with Sappleton, who also uses manipulated, scanned images in her collage work.

Sappleton works at Autograph Gallery in Shoreditch, which regularly features exhibitions around accessibility and inclusivity, “something that’s really close to my heart,” she says over Zoom. “And when I saw Thom’s work, I instantly fell in love with it – it’s such a joy to look at his drawings and paintings.”

Sappleton, dubbed “Rachel” by Roberts, says it was only the time differences that proved difficult with the collaboration. Everything else was “really fluid”. Both were sent links of the other’s work before they met digitally, and their shared love of image manipulation, reproduction and image layering meant their styles were complementary. The pair spent three months exchanging artworks digitally and the resulting works feature base layers created by Sappleton using manipulated collaged images, and Roberts’ work, mostly in Posca pen, overlaid on these.

The pop-up exhibition, which travels to London early next year, is just the first of Art et al’s projects, whcih Luttin hopes will lead to more inclusive arts programming.

“This platform is the first of its kind in the world, and we hope to step it out worldwide,” she says. “It’s all about improving access and creating new points of connection.” And, critically, eliminating the division between artists who tend to be consigned to the periphery and the rest of the contemporary art world.

“I think it’s really important that there’s no division,” says Sappleton. “And for people to see that working with Thom is just working with an artist who is represented by Studio A and who makes serious artworks.”

Art et Al X APA is at Arts Project Australia, Collingwood Yards, until December 5. artetal.org

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