Christopher Kane’s Outdoor Art Spectacle

I’ve always been fascinated by the work of outsiders, and maybe that’s because as a working-class creator from Glasgow who arrived at Central Saint Martins, I felt like an outsider too,” says designer and artist Christopher Kane. “With outsider art – I prefer Jean Dubuffet’s term ‘art brut’ – there is a purity and honesty. You see the raw intent and the works vibrate within.”

Kane is speaking in a light-filled gallery space, the world-renowned Galerie Gugging, located in the forested hills of Lower Austria outside of Vienna. He has been invited by gallery director Nina Katschnig to display his figurative paintings alongside pieces by artists-in-residence from the Artists House, a permanent home and studio for 14 creatives with psychiatric conditions.

Gallerist Nina Katschnig (left) and Christopher Kane at Galerie Gugging © Lisa Edi

the show, Curated by Christopher Kane, is a bold move for the designer, who found salvation in art during the lockdown when the fashion industry came to a standstill. “Painting and drawing have always felt so natural, and as a boy I would ask my mother to pose for me. When you run a fashion business, your passions take a backseat, but I picked up my brushes and pens again and this practice became my sanctuary, a way to maintain my sanity,” Kane says.

Kane first struck up a friendship with Katschnig in 2016, after discovering a work by Johann Hauser titled The woman in a yellow dress. It reminded him of a dress in his Spring 2011 collection called Princess Margaret on Acid, and while visiting Galerie Gugging he found a kindred spirit. Their first collaboration, an exhibition of Gugging artists at Kane’s Mount Street store, was shown during Frieze London 2016. There was further cross-pollination: Kane featured vibrant motifs from Johann Korec and Heinrich Reisenbauer in his pre-fall 2017 collection .He shot the lookbook on location in Gugging.

A detail from Aretha, 2021, by Christopher Kane

A detail from Aretha, 2021, by Christopher Kane © Lisa Edi

Painted by Christopher Kane T-shirt, £175

Painted by Christopher Kane T-shirt, £175 © Lisa Edi

“I had no idea Christopher was painting until I saw his Instagram photos,” says Katschnig. “I approached him to perform with the artists here. There is an honesty in his work. He doesn’t paint for money or to be famous, but because he has to be.” Curated by Christopher Kane is the third in a special series that Katschnig has created, where creators are invited to curate shows, selecting works by Gugging artists from an extensive archive in the country.

The exhibition is bold in its scope, yet intimate in its revelations and ultimately life-affirming. Kane’s works feature large-scale semi-abstract figures, lace-trimmed limbs extending beyond the edge of the canvas, shimmering shimmering edges, and textural plays of deft collages made from paper, paint, and scrap fabric.

The voluptuous and confrontational silhouettes look like visions from a fever dream: smaller heads in bright pop-art colors stare out at the viewer while figure studies in layers of glitter shimmer like strange phantasmagorias from a cabaret. They hang alongside the wild, pulsating work of Arnold Schmidt, who has worked at the Artists’ House since 1986. In contrast, Heinrich Reisenbauer’s repetitive ideograms – smiley faces and the sun – capture the euphoria of creation. “To me, his work symbolizes freedom, simplicity and happiness,” says Kane. His selection also includes erotic drawings by Karl Vondal. All eight artists in the show with Kane have gathered internationally and some have work exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.

Artists House wall, with murals painted by several Gugging artists

Artists’ House wall, with murals painted by several Gugging artists © Lisa Edi

Over the centuries, interest in outsider art and the art of those with psychiatric disorders has often gone hand in hand with advances in the study of mental health. In the 19th century, the French artist Théodore Géricault visited the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris (an asylum for women) for his series of Portraits of madmen, which helped studies in this field. In the 1920s, Surrealist artists became fascinated by the workings of the subconscious, associated with the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud. During the 1970s, the act of creativity emerged once again as a subject of fascination, accompanied by a wave of interest and appreciation for art brute.

Left, Penelope, 2021, by Christopher Kane, and Figure, 1994, by Arnold Schmidt
Left, Penelope, 2021, by Christopher Kane, and Figure, 1994, by Arnold Schmidt © Lisa Edi/Courtesy of Galerie Gugging/Private Foundation – Artists by Gugging

“So much art is judged by conventions of good and bad taste, but who’s to say what’s good or bad?” Kane asks. “Or that it can’t be art because the artists aren’t formally trained. I know seamstresses, self-taught seamstresses, people who write bestselling novels, and these are all artists, but they did it out of their own will and with gutsy instincts.”

Katschnig’s own introduction to Gugging was equally strange. “I first came here as a psychiatry student when I wrote a thesis on art and schizophrenia. I interviewed [founder of Galerie Gugging] Johann Feilacher and asked for a job on the spot,” she smiles. “That was 25 years ago.” At the time, the Artists’ House was a residential psychiatric clinic housing 20 men of all ages, some of whom began painting through therapy sessions. Feilacher’s vision (he is also a collected sculptor) was to create an artist retreat and build a museum dedicated to brut art. “It’s not that art makes people healthy or offers a cure—what they express is their inner world,” explains Katschnig, who has been the gallery’s director since 2000, “but it elevates individuals, it raises appreciation and attracts outside attention and support.” The entire Gugging complex, including the museum, gallery, Artist House and accompanying studio, took time, effort and sweat to come to fruition and was finally completed in 2006.

A wall of the House of Artists painted by Heinrich Reisenbauer

A wall of the Artists House painted by Heinrich Reisenbauer © Lisa Edi/Privatstiftung – Artists from Gugging

“There is an honesty in his work. He doesn’t paint for money or to be famous, but because he has to be”, says Katschnig about Kane’s work © Lisa Edi

“At first there was skepticism about the commercial operation of the gallery, but soon everyone could see that the intentions were good and understood how the funds from the sales of the work would go to the artists, pay living expenses and help in funding the Gugging work,” says Katschnig. Today, as society works to remove the stigma associated with mental health, there is a new wave of research and interest. It is fitting that Gugging, near Vienna, the birthplace of modern psychiatry, is on the cutting edge of a successful combination of community, commerce and entrepreneurship. So impressive is the venture that Feilacher is now invited as an adviser to government boards on matters of culture and health.

Kane is one of several creators who have been invited to Gugging over the decades. David Bowie visited in 1994. Now, collectors, academics and art world figures go on dates, while artists are represented internationally at fairs and exhibitions.

Kane is extremely priceless about his art, and his association with Gugging and Katschnig made instinctive sense. He attempted to curate the show by working with a model hanging from his London studio. The process has overwhelmed Kane’s work for the brand he runs with his sister and creative partner, Tammy. “Now we’re more hands-on than ever,” he laughs.

At the show’s opening, Kane’s “friends,” including actress Laura Carmichael, writer Lena Dunham (who commissioned her to design her wedding dress), and fellow designer Erdem Moralıoğlu gathered for a private look with the artists. “It’s amazing to be able to shine a light on Gugging,” smiles Kane. “If people love it, great! If they don’t? Good for you!”

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