Britainís best-known Outsider artist is rarely seen in Britain. Until a couple of years ago, when the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester acquired some, you had to go to the Collection de líArt Brut in Lausanne to find works by Madge Gill. The nine-metre-long paper scroll that was briefly on show in the second part of the Gill exhibition at the Nunnery Gallery in Bow (the third and final part is on until 31 January) is a mad marvel of black and red ink. For most of its length, black and white checkerboard patterns, paths, stripes and fences, strange pieces of aerial geometry, surround or hem in clusters of ethereal-looking women. The only areas not covered in ink or hatching are their pale, anxious faces. The women are jostled, muscled out by the solid shapes around them, as if deprived of air. (Or maybe theyíre afraid of it: Gill seems to have had a horror of blank space on the page and towards the end of her life rarely left her house.) They are dressed in red coats and hats, red fading to pink, some clutching fans, some wearing fingerless black gloves revealing feathery fingers. Some have older faces weighted down by enormous, extravagant feathered hats or square pillar-box ones. They look like the confections of Aubrey Beardsley. Others are younger with wispy hair and what might be flowers tucked behind their ears: itís hard to tell, because background and ornament blend into each other in a complex series of recurring forms.
LRB 24 January 2013 | PDF Download