Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Armory Show, MECA, and the human condition

My day began around 8 a.m. with a moose in the back field, and a little later on, a hawk soaring overhead. So I have a hard time understanding the current predilection among artists for making images that conjure up imaginatively mangled human forms that are intended to shock but generally don't. There were examples of this in gallery after gallery at the Armory Show in March, but a film there went even further - the artist nailing his own foot to the floor. Was there a point to this? Was this intended to call attention to the suffering of millions, or only to the artist's own aesthetic dilemma? Though each blow of the hammer driving the nail down further was difficult to witness, even at the remove of a filmed action, my personal discomfort then does not extend into the realm of memory today. That is, right now, I feel nothing more than I would if I were reading about Chris Burden's having been nailed to the back of a Volkswagen in 1974.

Given that art is always cutting its own new edge, I was surprised to find, at the BFA Thesis Exhibition at Maine College of Art, large-scale paintings of classically robed figures, wholly present, but with the action of the paint brushing out hands or feet or midsections. This kind of artistic obfuscation leaves more to the imagination than any careful illustration of macabre fictional details. A new web-based exhibition series permanently showcases the art and ideas of the senior class at MECA. Here I learned that Preservation, one of the contexts for their work, "reflects the joining of the artists [sic] relationship to the history of their medium while adding fresh, individualized aesthetics and viewpoints accrued from a contemporary context." In the case of the figure painter who, I think, is Gregory O'Neill, history directly references Greek and Roman art and might also include Neue Sachlichkeit and other classically inspired movements.

If the reason for depicting pain is to call attention to human suffering then the pain must be real, it must be timeless, and it must be shared. The statue of Laocoon and his sons, like the Crucifixion, puts us in the presence of all three. Contemporary art that seeks to contextualize pain will only achieve its objective if it can do the same.