HEATHER TAYLOR reviews CATCHING DREAMS, CRIMES AGAINST ART at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre

The rise of ‘outsider art’ over recent years has meant its gradual infiltration into the mainstream. This current trend in the contemporary art world and market is reflected in the Southbank’s current exhibition of convict-art entitled Catching Dreams, described as ‘art by offenders, secure patients and detainees’. These artists are the ultimate outsiders; literally sealed off from society, they naturally possess a very different perspective on existence compared to those of us who are free. This exhibition demonstrates the importance of freedom as a filter through which we view our lives.

Several curators have worked on the project, each commanding a separate section of the exhibition. Each one revolves around either a theme or concept, although some are grouped together through seemingly arbitrary relationships between the works. For example, one curator chose works by artists named “David” in order to avoid any personal bias clouding his selection. In accordance with the contributing artists, each curator is a reformed criminal, a participant of the Koestler Trust’s Mentoring Programme. The trust runs an arts centre based near Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London, providing the opportunity for offenders to engage in artistic production and curation as part of their rehabilitation. Through them, we are provided with another layer through which to see what ‘an offender’ sees in art and how it may be a constructive, cathartic and developmental aid. The curators become a bridge between the offender-community and the general public, breaking down preconceived ideas the latter may possess regarding the artistic ability of “criminals” as well as their intellectual capacities and propensity for self-expression.


The overarching theme of the exhibition is “dreams”; a word which becomes particularly pertinent when applied to a state of confinement. The initial painting which greets the spectator is entitled “Ce n’est pas possible.” The artist comments that “I took my inspiration from painters that look at the world from an alternative point of view”. Is this a necessity of prison life? Surrealist themes and motifs run throughout many of the works, particularly clocks, and the viewer becomes increasingly aware that these artists are at the mercy of time. One painting depicts a man attempting to destroy a huge clock, pulling the hand backwards and removing the roman numerals, suggesting a simultaneous desire to destroy time and reverse it. Another artist comments, “I dream of future nightmares.”

The theme of “others” is also evident; portraits fill the exhibition. There is a loneliness in the works, and a sense of hopelessness in the need to surround oneself with people, an impossibility for these incarcerated people. “Clint” depicts a glowering Mr. Eastwood, gazing imposingly down on the viewer like a particularly well-chiselled divinity. The artist clearly iconises him and he is perhaps symbolic of another, happier era in their life. Perhaps in the mind of the prisoner, fame, success and celebrity epitomise all that they are not.

Political images also emerge as a recurrent theme. Denied freedoms that we take for granted, there is a sense that the artists are liberated by the opportunity to use artwork as a platform through which to express their opinions. One painting shows a hospital surgery, a naked patient being dissected by a team of enthusiastic surgeons wielding scalpels under a sign which states “NHS Cuts”. Despite being cut off from society, these artists are able to contribute to the socio-political conversation. Indeed, the entire exhibition reminds the spectator that “convicts” are individuals who possess emotions, intellect and have the potential to positively contribute to our culture and society. Through the universal language of art, we are prompted to reflect on the very nature of incarceration and rehabilitation.

CATCHING DREAMS is open until 30th November 2014, daily 10am-11pm. FREE ADMISSION.

CategoriesArt & Design