There’s a particular feature that often distinguishes “outsider art” from its mainstream counterparts — particularly art created by people with severe mental illness. It’s the horror vacui, or fear of empty space. It is the antithesis of minimalism, the crowding of imagery into every available inch of space.
Horror vacui is also sometimes termed kenophobia, and it isn’t really an actual fear. It’s a description of a visual technique, or an artistic tendency to avoid leaving anything blank. It’s also something I find simultaneously beautiful and deeply unsettling.
The level of intricacy and detail incorporated into many outsider art pieces is an astonishing thing to behold, but it also imparts a tremendous amount of information. While horror vacui can refer to a piece entirely crowded by images, but words and musical notation are just as likely to appear. Some outsider works are astonishing amalgamations of art, music, poetry, and epic prose, all woven into a single piece. Some can be too stimulating to absorb, almost like the visual equivalent of sitting in a room full of clocks set to strike midnight exactly one minute off from each other.
It puts me in mind of a book I read as a child. I don’t remember the title, but it was a mystery book — an elephant held a grand feast for all of his friends, only for someone to make off with all of it before dinnertime. Like many children’s books, the pages were full of pictures, all of them beautiful, lavish, and very dense: animals dressed in fancy costumes, the rich velvets and patterned brocades of the elephant’s mansion, the gleaming china and polished silver of the feast itself. The reader’s job was to search every page for clues, from the position of the hands of a clock, to words spelled out in twisting tree roots, to code spelled out in the pattern of a rug. Missing or misreading a single one left the clues undecipherable, the mystery unsolvable.
Looking at outsider art that exhibits horror vacui gives me the same feeling I did reading that book as a child, and, to a lesser extent, books like the Codex Seraphinianus; the unsettling sense that there is something big and necessary held just out of reach, in the curve of a line or the twist of a limb. There’s always a sense that I’m about to stumble on something the creator didn’t intend to be found, or some secret the images might yield of their own accord.
This isn’t incidental, either. In pieces that aren’t considered outsider artwork, horror vacui is often employed to convey a sense of chaos or oppression, or even for artists to hide messages (or jokes, or slights) in lines and shapes too tangled for someone to spot them without trying. It’s also frequently seen in artwork created in a state of ecstatic trance, or through the use of entheogens. Makes sense, when you think about it — if nonordinary reality has secrets to yield from the margins of the real, the spaces and edges of artwork is where it would probably put them.
The funny thing about horror vacui is that, despite not being an actual fear, despite arising in trance, mental illness, and the deliberate depiction of chaos, it is a very ordinary and nearly universal feeling. What artist hasn’t felt intimidated by a blank canvas? What writer hasn’t experienced the fear of writer’s block, of being bested by an empty page? Who hasn’t been frustrated by the limitations of their materials when it comes to accurately depicting their inner world?