Monday, November 3, 2008

Seven Days in the Art World

A new book was recently released that attempts to offer a glimpse into the nebulous realm of the contemporary art world. Those who are not part of the inside conversation of the cultural elite tend to give this segment of society little attention. It isn’t difficult to understand why since contemporary forms and mediums are often non-traditional, at best, and the language used to describe and analyze them is coded and dense.

However, Sarah Thornton has made a noble attempt at demystifying art, artists, and the system that envelopes them with her book Seven Days in the Art World. The chapters are broken down into some of the main organizational categories that comprise the engine of this sub-culture. Topics include Museums, Galleries, Biennials, Art Fairs, and Critiques. These are the specific places and means by which the art world hums along.

I found the style to be engaging. Thornton draws us into the locations and people, even if the subject is quite new. Yet the book would require a little extra effort for those totally oblivious to the names and places that hold a particular sway over contemporary art and artists. This was noticeable in the chapter on the Venice Biennale. For those who rarely engage high culture, Thornton does describe what a biennial is—simply an exhibition, usually international, that happens at a specific institution or location every two years. She even reveals that Venice is the granddaddy of all biennial exhibitions. However, some of the names and activities could lose the uninitiated reader almost as easily as the labyrinthine streets of the canalled city. More importantly, though, is the maddening pace and sheer offering of exhibition venues that overwhelm a Biennale viewer. Thornton is fully able to convey the exhausting tempo of the Venice Biennale in this chapter.

My favorite chapter is on the group critique, or "crit," as the art school and MFA crowd call it. Thornton chose CalArts as the place to experience a crit in its fullness. While the coastal extremes of LA and New York continually vie for importance, the LA scene does tend to favor the conceptual, theory-based artist. Thornton spends an entire day—going well past midnight—with the art school students in their group critique.

The personalities of the student-artists come forth. The group of bohemians at times argues polar opposite views based in social, class, gender, and ethnic theories. The entire spectacle is seen as a performance-based work in its own right by Thornton. Everyone is striving to find his or her own artistic identity through the process of the critique. The class has its high and low points. The language becomes quite oblique at times and Thornton later has to ask students for definitions for some of the artspeak terminology thrown about.

This portrayal of a crit is spot on. Better yet is Thornton’s analysis of the MFA system and its successes and failures. Her description of how the art student comes to the MFA program confident in his or her abilities and artistic vision, only to be torn down to the smallest, most essential beliefs that can then be built upon, is exceptional. For over a decade I have attempted to describe this very process to former students and friends as they have entered MFA programs. No one seems to understand it fully until they experience it first hand. For this chapter alone, I would be willing to use this as a text for an undergraduate studio art course.

Seven Days in the Art World is a great starting point for anyone interested in contemporary art. Those initiated into the fold will see themselves and others they know within the pages. Those at the periphery will be welcomed farther into the circle.

Contemporary Altarpieces and the Italian Tradition

Ideas for artwork come from everywhere. For me, this is especially the case with my altarpiece assemblages. The first dozen were mostly conceived through reading I had undertaken in the mid-1990s, but that was just the starting point. As the series developed and there became a greater emphasis on the reliquary objects component, the overall design began to evolve. I don’t know that I even envisioned them as altarpieces, per se, initially. I am certain that the use of gilding was an afterthought, when I needed some kind of surface treatment to mask the freshly cut wood—weathered and grey on its other exposed surfaces.

Once I began the process of determining what type of objects should be used for the reliquaries for particular "saints," the form and direction took a new turn. When I asked a friend what object(s) might be appropriate for the St. Clive altarpiece she suggested Scrabble tiles. This impacted the entire composition of the work in ways I had not previously considered. Soon, I started finding objects that sparked ideas for new pieces and moved the constructions into a more conceptual realm—not based so closely on specific individuals.

Trips to antique shops and flea markets provided more than enough material to get me thinking. Old wire-rimmed spectacles brought to mind the accumulations of Arman, so I began collecting them for some undiscovered use. Cast iron bathtub claw feet would enable the pieces to come down off the wall and become more interactive. I did not, however, always know what some items would represent or in what way I would eventually incorporate them. One of my best finds, that impacted me greatly when I spotted it, though I did not know why, was a pair of battered, antique porcelain doll arms. I talked the dealer down to 50 cents. It took a few months of studying them to discover their meaning and in which piece they would work.

In October and November of 2006 I spent four weeks in Italy teaching a class on collage and assemblage for Gordon College. Until that point I had been scanning art history volumes in order to establish some of the design elements for my altarpieces. The opportunity to spend days studying functional altarpieces and reliquaries in churches, and others preserved in museums, was invaluable. I spent hour upon hour sketching and taking notes on architectural elements and ornamental structures. A flat photograph from only one view is simply not sufficient. Even detail photographs don’t provide adequate information about how the objects were created.

One day while cleaning out the studio spaces in the Italian convent where we lived and worked, I stumbled upon some spare fragments of old, punched metal screening. It isn’t that unusual of an item and I have even seen similar materials here in the U.S. In Italy, in the setting of a convent, and with imagery from churches and cathedrals swimming in my head, this provided a unique revelation. History is preserved in Italy’s architecture. There are ornamental embellishments on everything. The same types of designs appear inside and outside the buildings. The screen was reminiscent of the screen in a confessional. I had been sketching confessional booths for weeks at this point. The altarpiece I then had in mind would incorporate the idea of confession and would contain this golden brass screen in some way.

Again, this object provided just the initial concept. It would still take several weeks or months of sketching and planning to decipher the structure of the work and determine how the screen would be used in conjunction with other objects that had not yet been uncovered. Even though much of that has now been set down on paper, it will inevitably change once I begin building the structure. It always happens that way.

The process of producing these works is long. It often takes several years, but it always follows a similar pattern. The concept arises through something I have seen, read, or heard. I probe the idea through sketching, reading, and other forms of research. Some specific texts and objects assert themselves as appropriate and then I compile all the elements and design the structure. At that point one might imagine that I jump right in to finish the work. Instead, I work for a bit, put the piece side for awhile, then keep slowly revisiting it over several months or perhaps a couple years. I have found that the longer I let the idea gestate, the more it becomes multilayered, with the end result that I am seeking.