I Wish I Was That Bird


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

I Wish I Was That Bird
"Jeffrey Krolick's documentary is minimally intrusive and proceeds at a gentle pace, letting Condos unfold his tale."

Ever since Jean Dubuffet began promoting the creations of psychiatric patients in the late 1940s, outsider art has had a particular cachet which, for its producers, is both celebratory and limiting. For James Condos, the question of whether or not to accept the label is a difficult one. He has mental health problems, partly thanks to a traumatic upbringing, but his dedication to his art isn't simply due to passion - it's also the most practical way he can make a living, given the difficulty he would have in the conventional world of work. He sees it as something that reflects who he is rather than what he is, but he also realises that the label is partly what makes his work sell.

Condos' medium is imagery; he's not nearly do certain when it comes to words, and struggles to put any kind of label on his work. Elements of collage collide with new material that is partly representative, partly symbolic. What gives it its power is its very personal nature. Even the simplest observations of the world reflect emotional experiences for the artist - and then there are the portraits of his absent mother as he has imagined her at various points in his life, and expansions on difficult childhood memories. Talking about his experiences, he reveals an early awareness that art could provide him with a measure of control and a means of processing his trauma. This immediately complicates the relationship with buyers who may acquire his works without having an understanding of their context at all - perpetuating the idea of mental illness as mysteriously, rather than logically, connected with the creative process.

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Jeffrey Krolick's documentary is minimally intrusive and proceeds at a gentle pace, letting Condos unfold his tale. It's lucidly shot but invites contrast between a drab environment and the rich colour of the artist's work, which is, notably, the only place we seem to see the colour red. The effect is not merely to contrast external and internal worlds but to comment on the exclusion that contributes to certain people being seen as outsiders, artists or not - Condos' world, commonplace as it is, is outside the scope of what mainstream art reveals to us about America. The colours are muted, the gloss is gone. This contrast tells us something about the reality of living with mental illness.

At once an interesting portrait of a highly skilled man and an examination of the human obsession with categorisation, I Wish I Was That Bird invites us to consider the real cost of art, and its real value.

The bird, incidentally, is dead.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2016
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A candid and intimate portrait of outsider artist James Condos. Filmed over a period of three years, the documentary follows James as he reveals his childhood trauma, meets other outsider artists, tries to sell his work and seeks to find his place in the community.

Director: Jeffrey Krolick

Starring: James Condos

Year: 2015

Runtime: 50 minutes

Country: US



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