Outsider art is en vogue as seen in recent exhibitions at Wellcome Collection and the Hayward Gallery – it was even the central theme of last year’s Venice Biennale. Tate Britain’s current exhibition on British Folk Art is cut from a similar cloth, featuring works that the art world would not recognise as ‘art’ – needlepoint interpretations of Old Master paintings and shop signs in the form of boots and bears that would normally be seen more as craft than art.
The Tate has taken the bold step of breaking down this barrier and introduced a whole new world of work that we normally wouldn’t see in a large gallery or museum. The more traditional works here are the weakest on display – landscapes and seascapes will never compete with the likes of Constable or Turner so they fall rather flat. But the attraction lies in the more radical designs such as a cockerel and a violin made from bone by French prisoners of war, and a straw effigy of King Alfred.
Folk art is a massive topic so rather than choosing to show the full breadth of variety in this field, the Tate has chosen to pick certain types of work. This ‘buffet’ style approach makes for a more coherent exhibition. A personal favourite of ours was the room full of ship figureheads including a mammoth version of an Indian man that was placed at the front of a British ship.
This is a varied exhibition and despite some works that fail to impress, it’s a show that challenges pre-conceived notions of what is art and offers up some quirky alternatives. It may not be as boundary pushing as some outsider art we’ve seen but it is a step in the right direction for Tate Britain, following some recent criticism in the press.
British Folk Art is on at Tate Britain until 31 August. Tickets are £13.10 for adults, concessions £11.30.
For more art to see in London, explore our June art listings