Monday, June 30, 2008

A Welliver Sky

Scrolling through my collection of notes for blogs-in-waiting, I’ve turned up this quote from Peter Schjeldahl in the June 9 New Yorker: “Painting is a medium of concerted imagination, symbolizing consciousness. It’s not a flat dump for miscellaneous ideas.” This is an accurate assessment, and it strikes a chord with everyone who loves painting. Independent Curator Suzette McAvoy incorporated it into her lecture last week at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. She was talking about the simple act of seeing, as it relates to Lois Dodd’s paintings (whose exhibition remains on view through July 19).

Making a painting remains the solitary pursuit we've always thought it to be, and it is a complicated one, too. Cognitive theories are not much help to the painter confronted with a subject, a blank canvas, and a palette full of paint. If there is no subject, as is the case for pure abstraction, the complications multiply. So how is it that the viewing of a painting is a simple act, and one to which we must bring an open mind empty of theories?

Painting appeals to the senses. It’s visual, it evokes both sound and smell, it’s tactile (too bad that in galleries and museums we are not allowed to touch). I have a friend who once licked a Van Gogh – giving him perhaps an enhanced understanding of the painter’s struggle. Our sixth sense, intuition, or instinct, tells us whether we like the painting or don’t, but it also does much more. It brings up a host of visceral associations, and it is to this conciousness that we should listen first.

What a painting means in formal terms or in light of its subject matter and narrative, are layers to be discovered as one’s sophistication increases. But the simple act of seeing opens the door, makes the connection between the lived world and the depicted one, so that walking outdoors one fine day, with sudden insight we may see a Welliver sky or, driving through the city, come upon a Hopper row of buildings. It’s our imagination plus the artist’s skill that makes these moments happen.

Monday, June 23, 2008

If a Tree Falls, Is It Art?

If a gallery exhibits art and nobody comes to see it, is it art? In this post-post-modern world where art requires a viewer, possibly not. The participation of the viewer is part and parcel of contemporary art in all of its incarnations. Education as it applies to contemporary art is no longer about teaching people how to paint. It is about bringing people into the gallery, setting up dialogues, facilitating the interactivites that make the art real. Education is also about outreach. People have to know the art is “there” before they can decide to be part of it.

In most parts of this country, the fear factor is still operative. Fear of walking into a white box and not knowing what what to do. Fear of having to meet an artist and not knowing what to say. Fear of seeing an installation/painting/video and having no idea what it is about. When I was four, my grandfather died, and was laid out at home. I really wanted to see him so I could know what a dead person looked like. My parents, trying to reassure me, urged me to go upstairs to his room, because they said, he was with Jesus. But this only made me afraid. I pictured Jesus sitting on the windowsill waiting for me to make conversation with him. What would I say? I was too scared to find out. Now I know it was just a misunderstanding of what was actually in that room. Education, experience, involvement and perspective have changed my thinking.

Contemporary art forms, like great musical symphonies, are not revealed all at once. Consider the richness that is yours when you broaden your perspective. Walk inside that Serra. Experience the double videos that are Shirin Neshat’s view of Muslim societies. Turn yourself upside down in a Kapoor. Unravel a Meheretu. Get down with Contemporary Art.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Two Painting Shows and the Old Guard

Last week I wrote about the Olafur Eliasson show at MOMA, my disappointment in which set me up for the pleasure of the Merz installation one floor above. As I continued on into the Modernist collection, the vibrancy of the paintings and the engagement of the viewers were palpable. Even the old guys – Pollock, De Kooning, Warhol – flashed a freshness that I had become been inured to, what with all the hoo-hah about politically and environmentally correct work that holds sway these days.

Painting of course will never die, it just has to compete with a much expanded set of offerings. The knockout show of the season is at the New Museum, where on the top floor Tomma Abts exhibits a group of small acrylic and oil on canvas paintings, each eighteen and seven-eights by fifteen inches. She says this is for her an inherent size, and that she works on each one for a long time, making changes to color and spatial definition. As you read the paintings, you can almost follow her decision process, and though these the paintings have no direct subject, their purity most reminds me of Vermeer’s luminous renditions of perfect space and light. This show continues through June 29.

Here’s another show and I regret that it has just closed. Claire Seidl’s exhibition at the Painting Center in Soho is still on-line if you’re quick, and there’s more on her website. Seidl’s work is abstract but appears to me to be landscape-based. The overlays of semi-opaque paint remind me of the outer wall of forests where you literally can’t see the forest for the trees. But beyond the wall, and behind these overlays, lie worlds of colored secrets, slowly revealed by slowly looking. The more time you spend with them, the more you will discover

Monday, June 09, 2008

Arte Povera, Impoverished Art

Take Your Time, the Olafur Eliasson show at MOMA, has me wondering what people have not been seeing in their daily lives that would have them excited about this exhibition. At the top of the escalator in the third floor corridor, yellow lighting has been installed. The effect of this is to leach color from all viewers and objects, so that everyone and everything appears in shades of grey. It’s a curious phenomenon, but even more curious is the fact that upon entering the normally lit spaces of subsequent installation rooms, though color is returned to their faces and clothing, visitors maintain a zombie-like grey affect, as if their minds have been leached of thought. And no wonder, for there is little in this group of installations to challenge the imagination. A wall of moss is a wall of moss is a look-alike for foam insulation. You can see droplets of fog in beams of light. A rotating prism casts color bands and shadows on the surrounding walls, but leaves the zombie-viewers reduced to striking odd “look-ma” poses, or casting rabbit head shadows with their hands. The brochure accompanying the exhibition announces that “by making bare the artifice of the illusion, Eliasson points to the elliptical relationship between reality, perception, and representation.” Huh? This is Artspeak for take your time reading the text because it won’t take long to figure out that where nature and culture are concerned, there’s just not that much for the viewer to do or see in these galleries.

By contrast, Mario Merz’s single installation on the next floor up, Luoghi senza strada (Places without streets), is a rich metaphorical space that combines an igloo-shaped structure set on a bed of twigs, run through with a neon-lit Fibonacci sequence of numbers. Merz was an artist associated with the arte povera movement of the sixties/seventies, and connections may be made to Eliasson’s use of simple makeshift technical devices. But Merz goes further. Through the juxtaposition of icons drawn from nature and culture simultaneously, he accesses an archetypal world independent of time, and both asks and gets more from the viewer.

Here’s another curious phenomenon: work that’s all about creating a space where the viewer is told to be active, can have the opposite effect of making that viewer passive.