Oct 24th 2011, 10:13 by E.H. | LONDON
JAMES BRETT, the founder and curator of “The Museum of Everything”, believes his two new shows are “the most important in Britain”. This might seem like a bold claim, particularly as one exhibition is tucked in the basement of Selfridge’s department store in central London, while another takes place in the artfully dilapidated Old Selfridge’s Hotel next door. Yet both the big show and the smaller retrospective of work by Judith Scott, a self-taught American artist who died in 2005 at 61, are indeed interesting, not least for Mr Brett’s enthusiasm for them.
Mr Brett began The Museum of Everything in 2010, “by accident more than anything else,” he says. After travelling round the American south and becoming taken by the Folk Art there (“unpretentious, immediate, and kind of cool”), he felt inspired to create his own curatorial enterprise showcasing “outsider art” without using the term. The result is “a museum that’s not a museum,” he says, which he markets with a distinctive brand of British eccentricity (sea-side red-and-white striped entrances, English-rose girls on the door). This mix of novelty and savvy has been an effective way to introduce the work of mostly unknown artists to a wider public.
By placing his latest show in a department store, Mr Brett says he is staging a “friendly attack on mainstream art criticism and curators”. It was a deliberate move to place Scott’s work in “such a visible place as Selfridge’s”, given her own relative invisibility. Self-taught artists such as Scott, who was also born deaf, mute and with Down syndrome, don’t get the recognition they deserve from the art establishment, says Mr Brett. The recent closure of the Folk Art Museum in New York seems to confirm his point.
However, the works featured in The Museum of Everything can be a tough sell. The issue is not necessarily with aesthetics. Many of these pieces are more appealing than, say, Tracey Emin’s controversial “My Bed” from 1998. But unlike Ms Emin, these artists can rarely articulate the intent behind their art. These works are “very intentional, but not necessarily intended as art,” Mr Brett concedes.
Scott’s work is indeed both sculpture and something else. Her fiber pieces are wonderfully colourful and vibrant, intricate and massive, painstakingly made and yet seemingly spontaneous. Still, these objects only become meaningful when viewers know a little something about how they came to be. Scott made them from objects found at the Creative Growth Art Centre in California, which serves adult artists with disabilities. It took her time to find a medium she felt comfortable with, but once she began working with fiber she began making epic works with found objects. For her, these pieces were works of “communication, after 30-40 years of isolation,” says Mr Brett.
Many will argue that context should not be necessary to appreciate a work of art. I would normally agree, and yet I found it almost compulsory to understand Scott’s story in order to fully appreciate her work. Mr Brett is quick to nip in the bud any resulting existential questions about the nature of art: “You don’t have to like it,” he says, “but it’s art”.