If you are going to see any show out there right now then this is it. Knowing that the artists are offenders gives this exhibition both a unique and hard-hitting edge, but the quality of work shown and the spectrum of ambience from witty to meditative to exceedingly dark makes Art by Offenders a real success.
The eclectic mix of 140 exhibits picked from 6000 entries, as you would expect, has thrown up some incredibly talented artists including the winner ‘Michael’ in the Five pieces showing the scope of his ability and style. Also Joe Barnard’s Elephant painted collage and John Clowes conceptual square formations and the sketches by Anon (see photo Rat Race)
One of the most emotionally driven paintings of the exhibition has to be Yours Sincerely, the Tabloid Press. Depicting a point of view you wouldn’t normally consider; the treatment of a young man and his family by the press once convicted in what obviously was a high profile case. The sky is black and thunderous and ‘ticks and leeches’ is written on the bloody red wall. Depicting a stomach-turning moment the evil cartoon figures resembling Otto Dix like characters crowd around the young man, sneering and drooling, business cards, microphones and cameras thrust towards him.
Then there’s the humorous work Bug Life, by Patrick John Raggs who collected and framed insects that happen to have made their way into his cell. There is ‘Santa’ – Who came for Xmas and ‘Sid’ – who liked porridge.
The Last Duff is a monumental piece by Steve Langford and Steve Chamberlain, enormous in size this surrealist and symbolic scene remade from Da Vinci’s Last Supper is a fight between god and the devil, the condemned man in the electric chair while the families look on and prison life goes on around him.
Some has a solid message. Like being wrongly convicted, such as the sculpture The Three Wise Judge Masters by Peter Thomas depicting three judges, hands over eyes, ears and mouth respectively. The desperation for freedom; Noel Parker’s One Off a beautifully painted portrait of a man with arms out stretched near the shoreline of a beach. Or just pure anger and desperation like Recession, three black and blood red abstract paintings by Danny Morgan. However escapism plays a big part in the exhibition too, prisoners with imagination.
The poignant thing about this exhibition is that like most (good) art it reaches into the minds of the artists, but in this case it could be someone who is doing time for a serious crime. You get mixed feelings and you wade into a grey area that throws up questions. Should you eliminate the history of the artist from the work in front of you? How would you feel if the work on show was by a criminal who had harmed you in some way? Yet Art by Offenders and the scheme behind it run by the Koestler Trust which was founded in 1962 by writer Aurthur Kostler, a political detainee himself, is one of the best examples of art therapy you could possibly get, and has produced an exceptional exhibition.
All the paintings are for sale at very reasonable prices, from around £50 to £200.
Free and open till 8pm every night at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. Till the 6th of December 2009.