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The Door in the Dark: Selected Works from the Cunningham Dax Collection



The Door in the Dark brings together a specially selected group of artworks from the Cunningham Dax Collection. These works offer a unique invitation to enter the intensely subjective interior space of the artists. Above all, this is an exhibition about the capacity of art to provide an insight into the lived experience of others.    


These artworks exemplify the positive psychological effects of engaging with artistic practice as a creator and as a viewer.  That the experience of mental illness offers a cohesive context for these works is just the entry point in the encounter. Each artist has a vastly different story to share, and generalising preconceptions are not useful in the exchange.


And it is an exchange. To give due attention to what is expressed in these works is to give something of yourself; they are affective on a deep level. There may be ambiguity, even obscurity, it may be harrowing and there is darkness. At the same time, this exhibition makes visible things that are not usually seen and in this sense it is profoundly illuminating, with the potential for increased self-awareness and empathy.  


Many of the artworks in the exhibition were made in art therapy sessions in psychiatric hospitals between the 1940s and the 1970s. They have been chosen from 8000 such works that Dr. Eric Cunningham Dax collected when the hospitals were closed in 1980s. Dr. Dax believed that these works provided a way for the creator to externalise their mental state. From his psychoanalytic point of view, the content and subject matter presented in the artworks was symbolic of how the person was feeling, and could be interpreted quite directly in this way, in light of the person’s diagnosis and biography.


The institutional works selected for this exhibition speak with an artistic vocabulary that allows them to transcend their therapeutic and clinical origins. These works are fascinating from a number of angles; historically, socially, philosophically, and ethically, because they were not created for display and we know very little about the creative impulse behind them. From an artistic perspective they have an expressive quality that is rare, they are considered and consolidated, deliberate and technically nuanced. They communicate in a direct, yet strangely gentle fashion and they are all the more poignant when the conditions under which they were made are considered.


The exhibition also features artworks that have been independently created and donated by artists since the 1980s. Kallena Kucers’ large-scale digital prints represent one of the Collection’s most recent acquisitions. Kucers’ works depict an imagined interior space that is highly evocative and deals with her experience of dissociation as a result of trauma. The tendency of these images to obscure more than they reveal engenders a sense of ominous searching, as the viewer is left to imagine what may be hidden.


“My artwork is a drive, a need and an obsession … It is an expression of what I have experienced and what I feel yet most importantly it is a question and hopefully also a challenge. In my work I hope to evoke a response from the viewer, a feeling, an emotion - to connect to something in the viewer that will make them wonder, think and feel in response to the image.”


Kucers’ description of the nature of her practice reflects the key ideas behind the exhibition, and the mutual artistic aspiration to communicate something highly personal. One of the most often-sited ideas amongst these artists is that the creation of these works has been a source of profound self-reflection, and that the process of making the work is of vital significance to their lives and well-being


Rehana Dowler’s joyful glittering depictions of animals are representative of the common desire for comfort and happiness. Prolific and highly original, Dowler uses art as a means by which to contemplate all the positive aspects of life, and the sentiment is infectious. The intention of these works is undoubtedly uplifting, and it is a quality that can be seen in each line, in Dowler’s choice of medium (gel pen with glitter) and in her selection of colour.


But once you are familiar with Dowler’s biography its difficult to read the work as simply joyful. Even a cursory knowledge of Dowler’s history of mental distress shifts the frame, and the works are infused with a possible element of escapism. Just as the glitter pen stands out against the black paper, do these works shine all the brighter when accompanied with their dark backgrounds? That Dowler’s optimism has been sustained is testament to her character, but should these works be understood as being made in spite of her experience, or do they simply show another and quite separate part of her life.


It is interesting to observe the difference in the effect of the artworks once the accompanying stories are told. For many artists in the Collection, their personal history is a vital component when displaying their work, but the power of the artwork to convey, or transfer, a pure sense of emotion from the mind of the artist to the viewer lies in the domain of vision.


It is for this reason that unless requested otherwise the biographical information for each artist has been provided on a separate sheet which visitors may choose to pick up within the exhibition. It is surely the right of the viewer to be able to view these works as art first and foremost, to allow the artists’ voice to speak through their work. 


Graeme Doyle’s artistic voice is startling in its incisive yet cacophonous mix of humour and horror. As a contemporary artist, Doyle’s oeuvre is exceptional in its candid representation of his battle with negative self-perception. These works are complex in content and technique and they reveal the layers of Doyle’s internal monologue, which oscillates between dark and light;


“My work is full of happy misery and funny tragedy. Life is a mixture. Sometimes it ends up a mess, but somehow I don’t drown in it completely and bob to the surface again, give a wave for help, or just to say ‘hello’.”


Doyle’s work is a celebration of difference, he has embraced his eccentricities and uses his changing mental states as a source of inspiration and a well-spring of creativity.


The Cunningham Dax Collection is part of a somewhat controversial and certainly complex history of collecting, studying and displaying art that is made by people who for a myriad of reasons are seen to be different, or who live on the periphery of society; people whose lifestyle or experiences set them apart from the mainstream.[1] These works run the gauntlet of reductive catagorisation, being labeled as ‘Outsider Art’, lumped in with children’s art, folk art or art from remote areas.  At worst, simply viewed as symptomatic of an inescapable condition.


The status of artwork from the Collection is a fraught point, and one that cannot be ignored. To raise this issue is to perpetuate the supposition of difference, but to ignore it is to deny the source of the Collection, and indeed the hope of The Dax Centre; that by allowing an in-depth, truthful and open engagement with these artworks, the negative stereotypes associated with mental illness may be broken down.


So be guided by how these works make you feel and be open to the empathy this can instill. These works are honest, in some cases raw and naïve, in some cases polished and sophisticated, but in all cases they are compelling on an emotional level because their subject is the Self.


Both the creation and the viewing of these works have the capacity to transform thought processes, leading to increased self-awareness through inward reflection. This is important on a social and interpersonal level because “the illusory line that we draw between self and the Other is a shifting one, adjusted according to changes in our perceptions”[2].


Regarding the place of these works within the current sphere of art practice, the last word on the matter will be given to Nicholas Rothwell, who has recently described “work that lies across the borderline of the established art scene” from an entirely positive angle as, “work that shines by its own light, rather than the reflected gleam of accepted tastes and fashionable fame”[3].



In going from room to room in the dark,

I reached out blindly to save my face,

But neglected, however lightly, to lace

My fingers and close my arms in an arc.

A slim door got in past my guard,

And hit me a blow in the head so hard

I had my native simile jarred.

So people and things don't pair any more

With what they used to pair with before.


Robert Frost, The Door in the Dark, 1928



1. The collection, display and study of artworks made by the mentally ill have been largely twentieth century phenomena, beginning in Europe and continuing in the USA. Notable collections of this kind are the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Germany and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.

2. Rhodes, C. Outsider Art Spontaneous Alternatives, 2009, p.198

3. Rothwell, N. Exceptional journey into the realm of otherness, The Australian, July 5 2013

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