Alert: Miscategorisation of the artist Hipkiss

A spate of events over the past year have made clear to us that the misplacement of Hipkiss (historically ‘Chris Hipkiss’) within the sphere of ‘Outsider art’/ ‘Art Brut’, creating what has become a confusing parallel identity, must be laid to rest once and for all. In short, we are professional living artists with no qualification whatsoever for the genre or any of its subgroups. Dealers, galleries or academics who might claim otherwise are either poorly informed, or aware of the deception and acting in commercial self-interest.

Note for the uninitiated: this category is unique within art classification in that it depends not on style, technique or aesthetic but solely on the artist’s perceived biography. Some proponents attempt to extend the definition to cover anyone who was not formally trained in art, but this logic is flawed in that many contemporary artists share such a background. Moreover, a look at the documentation for any exhibition or publication focused on this field invariably demonstrates that the presentation is based only on the alleged ‘marginalisation’ and mental health of the artists (there are also racial subtexts to some definitions which are beyond the scope of this text). It is a field that’s therefore also unique in the sense that a living artist is the best qualified party to reject their inclusion on presentation of evidence that they do not have the required biography. At the end of this post, you will find a link to a table demonstrating that evidence in our case1, but speaking more generally, if an artist is in a position to write, and chooses to write, a rebuttal such as this, they do not belong in the ‘Outsider‘/’Art Brut’ category (while devotees might quibble over semantics, the former is a working translation of the latter; to us and the rest of the world, they are the same thing). Moreover, to apply such a label to an autonomous living artist without positive consent should be considered defamatory.

In 1992, at a very, very early stage of the development of our art and public identity, we met John Maizels, the editor of Raw Vision magazine, at the time of our first show in a small contemporary gallery in London. At that point, alongside other creative pursuits, we were making anarchic, cartoonish drawings inspired by our environmentalist and political preoccupations and the Riot grrrl movement. Our art career could have gone in any direction, or simply fizzled out. However, in what turned out to be a fateful moment, John offered us an article in his magazine, to be written by and about us. It was published in the summer of 1994.

In those days, the magazine was a fledgling indie publication whose scope included a range of what might literally be termed self-taught art. Since we had both declined art college places and our artistic style was undeveloped, we apparently, loosely, fitted the brief. In pre-internet days, researching what was a very niche domain at the time was virtually impossible, so we were reliant on its partisans for any information. Due to our being both subject and writer, the article also forced a perceived separation of us as a couple. For the ensuing 17 years, our way of dealing with this without excluding Alpha completely was to refer to her as an ‘agent’.

We were labelled ‘Visionary’. In France, we tolerated ‘Singulier’, another term that was not biography-dependent. Neither was correct, but worse was to come; with the advent of the internet after 2000, such benign categories were subsumed under the more-loaded banner, ‘Outsider art’, a label which, since mere months after writing the RV article, we’d been well aware was utterly inappropriate in our case. We first publicly denounced it in 19962. Since that time, ‘self-taught’ has also become a synonym for ‘Outsider Art’, and Raw Vision an international reference for the latter.

The galleries broadly within the self-taught orbit with whom we chose to work – Cavin-Morris in New York and Delmes & Zander in Cologne – never represented us as anything other than contemporary artists. None of our work was included by them in any ‘Outsider’ fair once the discourse (and the fairs’ remits) crystallised in the mid-2000’s. The same must be said for certain institutions such as Kohler, who make efforts to treat art on its own merits and its creators as the diverse and evolving body of humanity that they are, without resorting to carelessly-applied labels. Meanwhile, in the UK, we have been represented only by contemporary galleries.

Other notable voices of sanity came from the likes of Roger Cardinal (the original translator of Dubuffet’s ‘Art Brut’ into ‘Outsider’) who told us directly that he was puzzled by our inclusion. Jane Kallir of the prestigious Galerie St. Etienne in New York, whom we met in 1998, later wrote specifically about the non-fit of Hipkiss. Later still, James Brett, the creator of The Museum of Everything, discussed with us our miscategorisation and its bearing on his decision not to try to include us in his project.

However, various museums, writers and galleries did so label us, often without our prior knowledge or under the faulty pretext that it remains a ‘broad church’, and despite the abundant and freely-available evidence that we do not meet a single biographical criteria for any such categories. Without wishing to imply intentional ill-will on the part of the curators, etc., or lack of appreciation on our part for the efforts some went to to showcase our work, when dealing with what amounts to personal judgements on living people, more care is required.

By way of background, during the 90s and 00s, we were dealing with a couple of ongoing, time-consuming family situations alongside serious health setbacks and limitations of our own. In the early days, we’d both gone back to university and were considering careers in academic research. The myths being built up around the pseudonym, on both sides of the Atlantic, seemed beyond our control and, unsettling though they were, we didn’t assume that art would be any more than one strand of our professional life. Significantly, the inferences of the field dictated that we distanced Alpha ever further from the artistic identity due to the sensitive nature of her doctoral studies, despite her ongoing artistic input.

Misunderstandings about us and the work as a result of our assumed connection to OA had become the norm. By its very definition, the purpose of ‘Outsider’ art is assumed to be some kind of catharsis – an expression of, and release for, some inner turmoil or reaction to trauma, past or present. Naturally, our early identity as a single male didn’t help. Our work – though very much born out of our reactions to what’s going on in the world – comes from a light, shared space filled with humour and an enjoyment of one another’s company. There is no aspect of introspection at all.

In the same vein, the figures that appeared in earlier work were often described – with typical male-world-view assumptions – as female ‘objects’ while, in reality, they were icons for both our young selves. Between 1996 and 2006, they were primarily based on Brian Molko, an androgynous musician, whose style and voice inspired us. Before that, they were influenced by our frequent attendance at Pride marches. The last incarnations – just before we grew out of the need to populate our drawings with figures – drew on Lady Gaga and new ideas of fashion. Their meaning could not be further from the received assumptions, of dark and obsessive fixation, that constitute a strand of the OA canon.

Our reluctant sufferance of the confusion faded when the culmination of various events meant that art sales became our only livelihood in the early 2000s. In 2006, we privately consolidated Alpha’s legal position in the partnership by registering the artist pseudonym ‘Chris Hipkiss’ (and later, ‘Hipkiss’) in her name. Our concerted efforts to correct our path and confine ourselves to the contemporary world were undoubtedly thwarted, in part, by our early miscategorisation, despite the help of our two galleries. We lacked agency not for the reasons usually associated with the ‘Outsider’, but precisely because we had been wrongly stigmatised as such in the first place.

Our success in correcting the error came gradually, but by 2011 we had largely escaped, declaring ourselves as the duo we have always been. However, a confected, parallel version of Hipkiss has continued to exist, with variations on early ‘Chinese whispers’ from our three-decades-old, self-penned article cited as historical fact.

A major issue with these labels, as well as the ‘broad church’ logic, is that their literature tends to make blanket statements regarding the mental state and intentions (or lack thereof) of the exhibited artists. Whilst no-one has lied outright by inventing a specific mental health diagnosis in our case, quite a number have tried to paint a picture of social marginalisation, and among the mythmakers were people with whom we socialised as intellectual equals, or dealers whom we had met and who were well aware of our lack of ‘credentials’ for the field. Their “Chris” (always the familiar terminology, and no mention that Hipkiss was a pseudonym) was variously: an obsessive who used art as self-prescribed ‘therapy’; a guileless ‘common handyman’ who created art by accident; or some variant of the idiot savant.

Implications such as these, in most spheres of public life, are not to be made flippantly; without positive supporting evidence and/or affirmation by the subject themselves, they’re considered derogatory. However, in this backwater of the art world, many of its champions are more than willing to wander into defamatory territory. We would advise anyone exploring it to do so with an awareness of this tendency.

Christopher and Alpha Mason, circa 1992-3 (copyright Hipkiss. Do not reproduce without permission)

When we accepted free publicity as any aspiring artist would have done, we were 28 years old, with no more than a few dozen works to our name and little notion of how we wanted to present ourselves. We treated the article as a creative project, not gospel writing. Nonetheless, we did not fabricate an ‘Outsider’ biography; we were careful not to actively categorise Hipkiss, while making our best attempt to fulfil a brief we did not fully understand, and which the editor himself now concedes should not have been offered to us. We were too young to have a ‘history’ and far too early in our artistic development to be branded. We, along with a number of respected writers in the field, have publicly refuted our inclusion on multiple occasions2.

At the heart of the matter is a habit common in this often cult-like corner of the art world, almost akin to scrap-booking or butterfly collecting, and the ‘story’ is part of the curio. This becomes highly contentious when an artist is alive and engaged; it is an attempted hijack of someone else’s existence. Speaking personally, only we know the facts of our lives – for example, the significance of and reasons for various decisions we’ve made, the impact of circumstances outside our control… what inspires us, how we’ve worked together all these years, the process of our dual creation, the dynamics of our relationship.

Yet a couple of actors within the field have accused us of ‘rewriting history’ when we’ve corrected the concoctions that have been made of our lives and artistic practice – challenged the metaphorical tattered tabloid snippet they’ve guarded in their heads all these years and reclaimed our own past. One Folk Art auctioneer claimed recently that we must have known what we were getting into with the Raw Vision article and had thus irrevocably labelled ourselves (which is ironic, since self-determination should be antithetical to one’s inclusion). According to this self-appointed judge and jury, we should serve a life sentence (and beyond) in the wrong genre for the crime of ignorance; one foolish mistake, almost thirty years ago. Many murderers spend less time in jail.

Even in less intentional instances, some purveyors have made such poor or non-existent attempts at research that they still describe us using a single male pronoun and obsolete pseudonym. For example, a GSCE exam paper included a question on the categorisation, citing our pseudonym among only three artists, clearly without any attempt at fact-checking.

The tendency to forego due diligence and dialogue with artists seems to be an extension of the DIY, art-world-rules-defying nature of the ‘Outsider Art’ world. In all likelihood, we are not unusual among artists in having started out unaware of our rights to control how and where our work is used. In the mainstream world we now inhabit, we know that it is a requirement for institutions and galleries to sign an agreement before any show – in other words, to obtain the full consent of a living artist. A recent chat with a curator at Christie’s revealed that this is also the case with auction houses. No institution in the OA world would consider such a move, and we never signed a contract with a gallery to entrust them with the right to act on our behalf.

Unfortunately, this slapdash attitude to artists (which is, without doubt, largely due to most of the big names being long deceased) has been unwittingly amplified by some highly-esteemed mainstream institutions. The invited curator of the exhibition, or the collector donating a collection or selling a work, is assumed to be somehow qualified to have labelled the artists involved. The Tate has recently become aware of their own errors in showing the Musgrave-Kinley collection so unquestioningly and has corrected them accordingly; the Whitworth, to which the collection was ultimately donated, has also worked to account for artists who should never have been included under the banner. However, not only are these cases rare, but the institutions should have obtained the necessary consent from any living artists before showing them in that context at all.

Fellow artists also fall for the anti-hype. In one example close to home, a Turner prize winner appropriated, blatantly and extensively, from one of our outsize early works, having spent – according to the curator – a considerable time scrutinising it at a show. Normally, the bigger artist would boost their less-well-known counterpart with a mention; such a courtesy was not forthcoming. A case of faulty memory, perhaps, or a failure to notice the original artist’s name? Not so. In his more humble days, a link from the artist’s site to ours had enabled a collector friend to become acquainted with our work in the first place. What this story demonstrates is that art perceived as ‘Outsider’ is regarded – with a few big-name exceptions – as a free, homogeneous resource that can be cherry-picked à la volonté, with impunity, and sometimes wholesale.

Under intellectual property law, we alone can dictate how our work and the identity of its creators is to be credited. This applies to every work we’ve ever made. No outside party has the right to portray us or our art differently, and we retain both copyright and intellectual property rights even after the sale of the work. Should a dealer, auctioneer (or magazine, etc.) attempt to sell us under false pretences, please let us know.

To those who may run a site or blog, or are otherwise contemplating writing about this field of art, please take note of the foregoing facts and leave Hipkiss off your list of artists. If you are able to edit a past article to remove us, please do so. Should you have a public collection of this kind of art in which our work is included, please contact us to discuss how to proceed. In the meantime, we request that a note be definitively added to documentation to the effect that, while we tolerated the label ‘Visionary’ in the 90s, it was always inappropriate; any inference that we are, or were ever, ‘Outsider’/’Art brut’/’self-taught’ or any other euphemism, should be removed.

To those collectors who have acquired our work under these banners, we apologise for the confusion and sincerely hope that you appreciate the art on its own merits. We are indebted to you for the support you gave us. It was never our intention to mislead.

For anyone looking to re-sell a Hipkiss they acquired within this context, the best course of action is to contact us for advice and the provision of a valid certificate of authenticity for the work. Please note that auction houses such as Slotin Folk Art and Christie’s New York “Outsider Art” department are aware that they should no longer include our work, as the ‘fair use’ exception for the dissemination of our images is nullified by the inappropriate context. This applies equally to galleries of the genre, who have no right to publicise our work for sale and thus further confuse the public. Please find a list of our approved agents here: https://www.hipkissart.com/agents.html

Referenced documents (PDF downloads):

1: https://www.hipkissart.com/Criteria-Outsider-vs-Hipkiss.pdf

2: https://www.hipkissart.com/Evidence.pdf

All content copyright of Alpha & Christopher Mason, 2021. Not to be reproduced, in full or in part, without permission.

Further reading:

Jonathan Griffin’s critique on Sotheby’s blog: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/from-bill-traylor-to-jim-carrey-whos-an-outsider-anyway

Adam Geczy’s no-holds-barred essay: https://www.itstartswithadam.com/blog/is-outsider-art-just-a-big-fraud

Frank Maresca’s definition from inside the ‘Outsider’ world: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/expert_eye/how_to_collect_outsider_art-5742

This post is a personal account of our experience, from a Western-European perspective; here, the (mis-)categorisation of artists under these banners tends to be justified by its purveyors via pseudo-paternalistic, projected notions of class, education level and mental health status. We are not qualified to comment at length about the complexities of the labeling in the US, where race can be decisively added to the list. Artist Kevin Sampson spoke to Priscilla Frank of the Huffington Post on this subject and the article is well worth a read: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/should-we-stop-using-the-term-outsider-art_n_579113d4e4b00c9876ce87e6