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Outsiders 2008 - Where It All Began

Words:

Edd Norval
May 27, 2019

Origin stories have become big business. Everyone loves superheroes. Everyone then wants to know how they got their powers. This origin story is a little different. It's about a collection of artists in New York, consisting of 'up and coming' talents, who were part of a visionary gathering of that have become some of today's leading contemporary artists.

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In the art world, these things come around every so often. When the artists are on the cusp of wide-scale yet still unforeseen recognition, individually and collectively and the curator manages to tap into this wave with telepathic timing to unleash something on the world whose significance mightn't have been felt at the time, but will be fully understood down the line. It is, in other words, the emergence of something great.


Steve Lazarides was once Banksy's agent and Banksy was in many ways his gateway drug into the contemporary street art scene, a movement that wasn't officially coined, nor accepted by the establishment at the time. It made sense then, that when gathering this motley crew of artists that formed the line-up for his 'Outsiders' show back in 2008, that outsiders is exactly what they were.


Every artist on the roster; Zevs, Vhils, Antony Micallef, Invader, Jonathan Yeo, JR, Mark Jenkins, Mode 2, Faile, Paul Insect, Miranda Donovan, David Choe, Conor Harrington, Todd James, Polly Morgan and Reas had the ability to make someone rub their eyes cartoonishly, questioning whether they'd just seen what they thought they had. Their names weren't instantly recognisable beyond those close enough to already know. But that's what gave them the appeal, made them stand out in amongst one of the world's artistic capitals. They were unknown entities, interesting and with something to say.

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Curator and artists aside, there was another character too - New York City. Displaying in a shop front, with 'outsiders' scruffily daubed as a temporary sign above the doorway in Bowery, the sense of 'where else could it have happened?' punctuates all discussions of the event. The answer in short is, nowhere.


Aimed to shock, in content and the senses, not everywhere would have been as receptive as the Big Apple (who liked it so much, the dates were extended). Entering the exhibition carried that edge of unfamiliarity that happens when one wanders around a new frontier. It was dark, atmospheric and completely at odds with the clean white walled aesthetic that still dominates the gallery scene in art. If there were any rules, Lazarides didn't bother to read them.


In many ways, the space itself was a part of the exhibition. It looked like an unexplored underground, where artists had taken up impromptu residency rather than displaying by invitation. This was a necessary buffer. It gave the pieces context, as if the audience became a part of the urban art safari, from where these wild untamed minds had their pieces on show.

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From then until now, 2008 to 2019, the progression of these artists has been a true process of evolution - one that has taken each to new levels. None have left behind the styles and ideas of that show, but none have stayed stagnant either. Even in their most seminal days, the identity was very much established. Invader still works with mosaic, Vhils with intricately carved portraits and Yeo with psychological depictions of his subjects.


It was the strength of these artists work that spoke for itself. The show had no formal advertising, yet pulled in over 30,000 visitors between September and October of its tenure. Critics and journalists at the time were forced to reassess its implications. Internet culture was still underdeveloped, relative to now at least, yet provided the driving force behind the interest in those showing and the ragtag movement that they belonged to.


Accessibility proved another of these driving forces. Art had hitherto been seen as something for elites, that required considerable prior knowledge to be understood. The works of these artists was direct and impactful, it was political and referenced popular culture, something that everyone could take something from. This also meant it was confrontational, and where people didn't agree, there was controversy, a further allure to the premise of being an 'Outsider'.

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Quite literally, they artists are 'outsiders' too. Their gallery was the walls of the streets. Being indoors was something different for them too. It was a world that they usually didn't belong in. By giving their work away for free, the ethos of street art seemed a far-cry from the monied and very traditional and conservative art world. It was, all things considered, a groundbreaking show.


More than just a launchpad for the featured artists careers, it helped popularise an idea, or rather, helped to challenge a long established one. Art has largely been a medium and means that sticks fairly rigidly to certain ideas and components - regardless of whether that frame hold a Dali or a Picasso. That was only one conception of the idea of 'art' though. Outsiders pulled in artists who dared see it differently, from various corners of the earth, and stitched them all together in a Frankenstein's monster of a show.


Outsiders was largely met with open arms, creating another interesting dimension to the title. It was a 'first' in officially revealing this new movement, but sadly, also the last real exhibition that shook up the art world's idea of art quite so considerably. It existed on that fine line, where the first of something quickly became the last - an ephemeral couple of months in art history where the book was re-written and a whole new chapter started.

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