Outsider art – a term coined in 1972 by British art historian Roger Cardinal –was often displayed in the 1970s without the artist’s name, who was rarely even invited to openings of exhibitions that featured their work. In fact, disabled artists and their perspectives often weren’t considered integral based on the assumption that they produced artwork “in spite” of their disability, were void of intention and unable to develop their craft to begin with. They were more spectacle than work of art.
But even in the 19th century, artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – whose genetic disorder pushed him to take refuge in art when he couldn’t participate in physical activities – were able to make a name for themselves. And of course, Claude Monet, the renowned French Impressionist painter, had impaired vision later in his career due to double cataracts, leaving him only able to see and paint in a range of blues, which became his predominant palette. He lived in perpetual fear that his career was over because of his disability.
“These legacies of outsider art still haunt us,” says Eliza Chandler, artistic director of Tangled Art Gallery, the first art gallery for disabled artists in Toronto, that is also entirely accessible. “We work hard to dispel the assumption that disability artists aren’t professional while also bringing attention to the systemic and attitudinal barriers (facing them).”
Tangled is featuring works that don’t shy away from the differences they represent, whether that means hanging it at a lower level, captioned video and audio or the use of 3D printers to produce tactile versions of every piece.
The hope, Chandler says, “is to establish a new standard of artistic excellence to which all galleries will have to comply.” It’s a noble goal that began 15 years ago when Tangled first started operating as a non-profit arts organization dedicated to cultivating disability arts by supporting the professional development of artists who identify with a disability.
With their first brick-and-mortar gallery at 401 Richmond West, Toronto’s premiere establishment for the independent arts and one of the only accessible art buildings in the city, Tangled is hoping to open itself up to a wider audience.
“This gallery gives a permanent home to disability arts in Toronto and having this home in a building as culturally significant as 401 Richmond signals that disability arts is a main contender in the Canadian arts ecology,” says Chandler.
With an emphasis on art that places a positive light on difference, it makes sense that Tangled would launch the gallery space with “Constructed Identities,” an exhibit by gay, feminist Canadian artist and writer Persimmon Blackbridge, who has been practicing disability art for 44 years.
With a self-proclaimed “in-your-face insistence on pride in our identities,” but also a “quiet beauty” in her work, she is indelibly Canadian, and yet, also someone who has explicitly experienced the isolation of being a disabled artist in a largely inaccessible world.
“There are many ways that people are closed out of art – stairs to galleries or works hung at heights that tell people who use wheelchairs that the work is not for them; written text that closes out people who can’t read, audio elements that aren’t translated for deaf folks, or visual elements that aren’t translated for people with visual impairments,” Blackbridge says. “As a person with a learning disability, a psychiatric diagnosis and more recently, kidney disease, my art has referenced disability since the late ‘70s, and so it has been important to me to make my work as accessible as I can.”
In fact, galleries like Tangled have challenged Blackbridge to make her work even more accessible and take into account exclusions that she wouldn’t have noticed in her work otherwise.
Featuring 28 figures of mixed media wood construction, and poignantly touching on themes of disability, diversity and sexuality, the title refers to “both the way the figures are built and to the ways that identities are inscribed on our bodies.”
“When an artist makes a figure, they are confronted with all the identities that society reads onto our physical selves: gender, race, size, ability and disability,” says Blackbridge. “You can grapple with how to represent our complex and diverse selves or you can pretend that some default normal body represents us in all our wild human difference.”
In other words, it’s work that is relatable to everyone — if they’re open to it.
“Some pieces are in honour of friends who have died, others combine materials that have personal meaning for me, like the oxygen tube my mother used when she was dying of cancer,” says Blackbridge. “But these stories aren’t explicit in the work. Instead, they allow for the audience to read their own stories into the pieces, which is a different kind of strength.”
Although she cites Tangled, Vancouver’s Kickstart and Gallery Gachet as groups helping to make change, Blackbridge still finds progress towards greater accessibility moving at a slow pace, particularly considering technology’s rate of growth. “Discrimination, lack of access and just an all-round lack of understanding is still rampant, and change is happening very slowly,” she says. “There’s a long way to go. But opening the world to the particular creativity that people with disabilities have always had to incorporate, into both our art and our day-to-day lives, would bring huge benefits of strength, delight and new ways of thinking to Canadian society.”
“Artists feel freer to claim their various overlapping, intersecting identities instead of hiding them and feeling like they need to identify just as an artist and not as a disabled artist or a trans artist, what have you, in order to be taken seriously,” Blackbridge says. “The freedom that younger artists are demanding is an inspiration to me.”
And it’s that generation that is helping to continue the wave of change Blackbridge hopes to develop. With the singular objective of embracing difference and diversity in its art and artists, Tangled is bringing the outsiders in, abolishing the label and creating a new, inclusive home.
Blackbridge’s exhibition concludes on July 4, after which Tangled will feature “Points of Origin,” large-scale textile work by mel g. campbell (July-September), followed by an exhibit of the painting installation “Mad Room,” by Tangled’s current artist-in-resident, Gloria Swain (October-December).