David Beales – Old Asylums: The New Dispossessed

Institute of Psychiatry
Camberwell, London

**** 4 stars


As a self-taught artist, David Beales has developed a unique style to portray significant moments in his life inside psychiatric hospitals and in the community, writes Mark Drinkwater.
Unlike a lot of untrained artists who have experienced mental illness, Beales is not a ghoulish painter. His images are more controlled, with a flatness to them not unlike cartoon animation. The bright, clean effect is achieved by digitally scanning his sketches and then blocking in colours using the digital imaging software Photoshop.
While the subject matter is often dark, referring to troubling moments including the death of a fellow patient, the caricatures lend a warmth to the scenes that make the stories easier to digest.
The 20 or so A4-sized images on display are snapshots of his life. Perhaps the most interesting are the depictions of psychiatric hospitals where he was an inpatient in the 1970s and 1980s. They often have a dream-like quality, with characters frozen in time. One assumes there may be a little re-creating of history – since all the characters are neatly posed looking in the direction of the artist – but the result is somewhat arresting.
Accompanying the images are a set of matter-of-fact notes. Read alongside the images, it’s touching stuff; graphic storytelling.
Beales’ pictures make parallels between life inside and outside hospital. It’s not just the goings-on inside hospitals that troubles Beales. In ‘High Street’, the late-night drinkers, surrounded by rats, share the same anaesthetised look of Beales’ inpatients. The rituals may be different, but the faces are similarly emotionless. Maybe Beales feels that the revellers are just as trapped.
The Institute of Psychiatry aims to further an understanding of mental illness, and its gallery exhibits art that shares this aim. Taken together, the works in this solo show look almost look like a storyboard to a film. It brought to mind a quote by Italian film director Fellini, that “all art is autobiographical”. Having spent just a short time with these vivid scenes, I certainly felt like I knew a great deal about Beales both as an artist and an individual.
Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in Southwark, south London. 
Old Asylums: The New Dispossessed runs until 22 May.  

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