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Madge Gill Retrospective,

The Nunnery Gallery has re-launched with a new cafe and the first in a series of exhibitions on the infamous Outsider artist Madge Gill. Although her work hangs in permanent Outsider Art collections around the world, this is the first time that her work has been displayed in a solo exhibition for her modern day neighbours.

The selection of work on display in The Nunnery is a Madge Gill Introduction: it lays out all the themes and images that will be explored in greater detail in the next two exhibitions. There are three distinct but loose categories on display: abstract, women and faces. They all share the sense of a dreamscape, lacking a centre and ignoring perspective. Edge to edge crammed with lines that cross, curve and sweep. Some areas relentlessly drawn in with dense criss-cross markings, others heavily outlined, some hardly touched.

The pictures of solitary women are both simple and exaggerated. Wide, open faces with a re-imagining of what seems to be late Victorian dress: heavily patterned outlandish skirts, hats and bonnets that inhabit a background that is almost familiar. One is twisted as though playing a piano, another stands in what could be a hallway with steps going off at different angles and rare patches of barely white rectangles presumably intended to be windows. There is speculation that these women are Gill’s self portrait, suggesting that she inhabits a world somewhere between her own spiritual mindscape and a more literal, recognisable reality.

A reality all but abandoned in the purely abstract pieces that use rich colour combinations and are littered with single, poorly spelled words that are either signifiers of something greater, or just another attempt at layering, a fear of leaving empty spaces. This is most marked in the other abstracts, where dozens of distinct, ghostly faces peer out from a frenetic, densely patterned backgrounds. Just as the women supposedly represent Gill herself, these many androgynous faces have been cited as an attempt to reach out and recapture the two children Gill lost: a son died in 1918 of Spanish Flu and a stillborn daughter followed in 1919. This second death is attributed with triggering the artist’s latent creative impulses. 

These are easily the most haunting and intriguing of the works on display. They linger in the memory and it is not because Gill has directed the eye, rather because they exist almost organically, seamlessly inserted into the hectic space in which foreground and background have merged. From single detached faces blurred with a hint of colour, to every space that is not patterned or written in having eyes and a mouth that peer out at the viewer, or seem to contemplate the organised chaos within its own small yet somehow vast boundaries.

Madge Gill is an hypnotic and fascinating artist who shunned publicity during her own lifetime. The nervous, obsessive energy of her work creates a sense of immediacy, an underlying fear about the loss of control which within the context of her life makes some sense. Being repatriated to Canada by Barnardos at the age of eight to work on a farm, followed by the death of her children, compounded with intense spiritual belief create the outline of a woman struggling to claim her identity yet eager to throw it away at the same time. Gill always signed the pictures “Myrninerst” and rejected the offer of an exhibition because she claimed the work did not belong to her.

By creating something so intensely internal, Gill’s work takes on an aspect of otherness that is somehow familiar to us all. There is no perspective, no narrative, no biography. They remain relevant because without context they are timeless. It is a free exhibition, put on in a space with its own rich spiritual history as a former place of worship for Carmelite nuns. The ideal place to contemplate the complex artistic landscape of a true, East End artist.

Hayley Marshall.