James Brett

Text by Dean Kissick

Vol 6iss 287

James Brett photographed by Rokas Darulis


For many, the highlight of last October’s Frieze Art Fair in London was the opening of Exhibition #1 at the Museum of Everything, a pop-up space in Primrose Hill, curated by James Brett. The groundbreaking show presented over 200 drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations made by self-taught artists and selected by leading contemporary artists and cultural figures, all presented in a disused, labyrinthine space that has in the past been both a dairy and a recording studio. Brett, a filmmaker, is also the curator of the Museum of Everything, which showcases rarely seen pieces produced by artists from outside the official art establishment. The museum is planning to reopen atop a Fiat factory in Italy later this year, before returning to an as-yet-undisclosed location in London in the autumn.

Dean Kissick
Why is this the “Museum of Everything”? Where did the name come from?
James Brett It came from a gentleman called William Brett, who is now 80-something, lives on the Isle of Wight and is not a relation of mine. He took all the bits and pieces of his life and displayed them in a few giant rooms; it’s basically this huge installation of everything, and he called it the “Museum of Everything.” I found out about it by accident many years ago and I always said to myself, “If ever I manage to do something with all the art I like, I must call William up.” So last year I did, and I asked if I could use the name, and he said yes.

DK I’m interested in how your collection is organised, and I’ve been thinking about Jose Luis Borges’ description of “a certain Chinese Encyclopaedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that animals are divided into: 1. those that belong to the Emperor, 2. embalmed ones, 3. those that are trained, 4. suckling pigs, 5. Mermaids, 6. Fabulous ones, 7. stray dogs, 8. those included in the present classification, 9. those that tremble as if they were mad...” and so on. How do you even begin to organise a Museum of Everything?
JB Have you ever seen a movie called The Couch Trip with Dan Aykroyd? I’m all about low culture, and in The Couch Trip, which is quite amusing, Aykroyd plays a mental patient who escapes from an institution and masquerades as a doctor. In one scene he decides to take all the patients to a baseball game, and he starts to organise them: “Schizophrenics over here and over here; bed-wetters, you go to the back...” And the reason I’m mentioning this is because of the idea of classification. I dislike categories that work against themselves, that work against functioning, and that’s why the Museum of Everything seemed like such a good name, because it’s inclusive by definition; it’s everything.

DK Is there a difference between established, commercial art and self-taught art?
JB It’s a complicated question but I think, really and truthfully, that this style [of self-taught art] is actually the origin of all art, the origin of creativity and form, because it’s coming without prescription and without any intention to fit into certain categories. And one of the biggest differences between these artists and established artists is that lack of self-categorisation. Also, contemporary art has a lot of concept, which is an intellectual value, and in my view intellect is second to emotion when it comes to art. But coming back to the question of difference, listen, I don’t really talk about “outsider” art, and actually you haven’t either.

DK I read that it was an inappropriate term to use.
JB Well, you can if you want, but it’s not very helpful. Everyone reads L’Étranger [Camus’ The Stranger] when they’re at school, everyone wants to be an outsider, and it doesn’t really mean anything, truthfully, because everyone is an outsider. All of us feel alienated, all of us feel excluded. But I’m interested in people who have an artistic vision, which they pursue to a degree that’s almost impossible. And at what point are contemporary artists different? It isn’t clear and the boundaries are blurred. If you ever talked to Andy Warhol you’d think he was a savant artist; he was so enigmatic and unsure. There’s playfulness and childishness, and there’s privacy and secrecy, and all those issues are connected.

DK Can you talk about your interest in mediums?
JB The thing is, I don’t really believe that the other world is calling, but I am fascinated by the idea. Downstairs [in the Museum of Everything] there’s a whole corridor of faces, and that’s just one spirit drawn over and over again by Madge Gill, a medium from the East End of London. And there’s a painting downstairs by Augustin Lesage, a French miner who was guided by voices, and this chap called Bernd Ribbeck [a German contemporary artist] has written that if you look into the painting you’ll see a connection to the other world calling you, if you just let yourself go and look inside. That’s quite an engaging idea, that it’s a portal.

DK Maybe the connection between art and religious fervour is similar to what you’re talking about. I’d like to ask about your idea of building a chapel here inside the museum?
JB I’m a Jew, so that was a big step! But I love Revelation; I love fire and brimstone. That’s probably the truth of it. Some of the earliest works I bought were some carvings of the devil by this little old man from Kentucky, who used to draw the devil with a big erection, appearing out of buckets and pots and all sorts of things. The idea was that if you don’t behave, the devil will get you – there he is, he’s everywhere. I find the idea of salvation interesting, and I liked the idea that we could create a space that feels like a chapel. There was one particular artist I found, Sister Gertrude Morgan, who was quite well known in New Orleans as the self-proclaimed Bride of Christ. She used to make beautiful images of her marrying God or Jesus, and she’s black and they’re white. Somehow there’s a real lyricism to what she drew, and she was also a singer, so the music in the chapel is hers. She’s so positive and happy, and it’s all about optimism and salvation. Whereas in the adjacent room of the chapel there’s the Reverend William Blayney [a born-again Pentecostal lay preacher], who’s a filthy, nasty piece of work who just wants you to fester and repent because you’re going to burn in hell. I find this passionate belief far more fascinating than someone quoting faith, because that’s too easy. So, for instance, Henry Darger was  a very religious man, who went to mass three times a day, and what does that faith do to you? What does it do to your vision?

DK Maybe we could talk about Henry Darger, who’s probably the best self-taught artist. Are his drawings of children morally compromised?
JB Henry Darger is complicated because there are the facts and there is the conjecture. When people first looked at his drawings the idea of paedophilia came up, and it was projected that maybe his imagery showed a sexual desire for children, whereas in fact that seems very unlikely. And if you really look at the work, the point of view is always that of the children, and it’s much more likely that he’s the subject. The truth of Darger’s life is that he was abused as a child, he saw a lot of abuse, and he ran away. And in the process of running away he experienced a lot of different things, he had comic books to take with him, and he escaped to the city [Chicago], where he lived on his own. So what you’re seeing in those pictures is the artist reinventing himself as a bunch of little girls on the run from adults who, when they catch them, violently attack them and then abuse them, effectively, although you never actually see sexual abuse. The imagery has nothing to do with sexual perversion in my view, and everything to do with sexual abuse. Our cynical nature makes us go in one direction, but the truth is probably much more painful and complicated. What happens to somebody that so torments them that their life is taken over; they’re obsessing on this one idea, on this one story? The best storytellers use their own life as their material, and Darger’s in there and he wrote that book. You know he draws these little girls with penises and we find it so unsettling, we’re all freaking out, and I think that says so much about us and so little about him. But do I find his work meaningful and substantial compared to Jake and Dinos [Chapman]? Hugely! I’m humbled by his work because it’s so private, and we want to be really respectful, we want to say, “This is the greatest artist of the last century.” §