Ted Willcox, Unitled (Pin-Ups), ca. 1940–60, tapestry, 21 1/4 x 45 5/8". From “Exhibition #3.”

Ted Willcox, Unitled (Pin-Ups), ca. 1940–60, tapestry, 21 1/4 x 45 5/8". From “Exhibition #3.”

“Exhibition #3”

The Museum of Everything

Ted Willcox, Unitled (Pin-Ups), ca. 1940–60, tapestry, 21 1/4 x 45 5/8". From “Exhibition #3.”

Rooms filled with works by outsider artists in the first exhibition at the Museum of Everything in 2009–10 made the institution’s mission clear: This was a place dedicated to the self-taught and the strange. “Exhibition #2” was a three-day display at Tate Modern in May 2010 of the work of more than 250 undiscovered and untrained artists who had responded to a national open call. “Exhibition #3”—which is on view at the Museum of Everything’s home base of Primrose Hill, London, and based almost entirely on the artist Sir Peter Blake’s personal collection of curiosities—also celebrates difference. Whereas “Exhibition #1” had focused on outsiders as creators, however, Blake’s exhibition looks on their works as spectacle. And instead of being a straightforward curatorial project, the show is a colossal installation—a grand journey through Blake’s thoroughly English mind.

Inside, nothing is as it should be and everything is the wrong size: There are postcards of midgets and giants, books of bearded ladies, wonky circus mirrors, huge banners advertising freak shows, raunchy tapestries, and bizarre feats of taxidermy. Broadly speaking, the objects are by-products of a peculiarly British taste for observing transgression: Freakishness, violence, caricature, and slapstick have long been entertainments on these isles. Nowhere is this clearer than in the puppet show Punch and Judy; and sure enough, Blake placed several sets of Punch and Judy puppets at the heart of his installation. Punch is a trickster figure with tremendous disruptive force; he can get away with doing, saying, and hitting almost anything. His violent jester energy is something that explodes time and again within British culture, from its comedy to its contemporary art. Blake himself has occasionally channeled it, using his work to humorously expose British eccentricities. “Exhibition #3” is no different: Like Punch, Blake has orchestrated a disturbing and hilarious moral entertainment, built around artists who share his mischievous spirit.

Among the best is Ted Willcox, a World War II rear gunner who learned a simple quarter-inch loop stitch while in therapy, then used his newfound skill to create porny, perspectivally crude embroideries of writhing pinups, as well as an Alice in Wonderland tapestry cycle specifically commissioned by Blake. Alice’s brief appearance gains more resonance toward the exhibition’s conclusion, when viewers enter Walter Potter’s extraordinary world of Victorian animalia. Potter twisted taxidermied animals into absurd anthropomorphic scenarios: In Athletic Toads, ca. 1850, for example, the amphibians enjoy a sunny English afternoon, exercising on swings and seesaws. Potter’s work even explores class politics: In The Upper Ten, date unknown, squirrels play cards, smoke cigars, and drink port in a gentlemen’s club, while directly opposite them, in The Lower Five, ca. 1860, working-class rats carouse in a drinking den, getting trashed and playing dominoes.

Above The Upper Ten’s fireplace is an eerily Damien Hirst–like butterfly display. In fact, Hirst lent a work by Potter for the installation. He also gave an interview for the accompanying publication in which he acknowledges the impact that both Blake’s work and Victorian taxidermy had on him. This is arguably the most important thing about “Exhibition #3.” Instead of belaboring a point about outsider art’s overlooked qualities, Blake has created a compelling case for viewing British Pop artists (like himself) and their YBA offspring as part of a long, carnivalesque tradition, as contemporary contributors to a bubbling history of British humor and fantasy that occasionally boils over, with remarkable results.

Anthony Byrt