Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?

The contemporary art world, like any subculture, is a symbiotic community. While talent, hard work, and timing are factors through which artists and artworks find a place into the canon of art history, there is also a good deal of nepotism. This “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” state of affairs has resulted in a recent dearth of genuine art criticism—though this may have always been part of the system.

Writing on art still exists, but it often avoids stating strong opinions in black and white. An article in the February 2009 issue of Art in America touched on this in terms of market characteristics. The author lamented the loss of standards of quality which he claims has been one reason for such sharp increases in the valuation of art by living artists. A major point was that a pluralist view in the art world, along with a refusal to state that there could feasibly be some system of quality standards, has resulted in a lack of experts who can truly assess this.

I do not expect that the reviews written in major art periodicals and newspapers are going to be scathing censures of particular exhibitions or artworks. I have first hand experience with the inherent dilemmas of writing art criticism. When I was writing art reviews for a newspaper in Boise, Idaho I routinely wrote about exhibits and artists that interested me—ones I felt had merit. One gallery owner complained to my editor that his gallery’s shows were never covered. My assignment, with my editor’s full understanding that I would likely be less generous with my compliments, was to review their next show. The gallery owner didn’t complain again.

The art community in any region or municipality is small. Even New York and London have quite manageable art communities. You can accurately surmise that Boise’s is a rather small one. Even when my reviews were mostly positive I would sometimes point out problematic display issues or inconsistencies in the selected works. Once, after mentioning that the enormous frame on a particular landscape painting dwarfed the better features of the piece, the artist took me task. While attending opening receptions during the following Boise First Thursday festivities I was harassed and followed by the artist from one gallery to another. I eventually left earlier than I had planned and decided that large opening receptions were likely not the best setting to view works anyway.

I think this might be one reason for the lack of true critical writing. In the smallness of the art world it is far too easy to anger not only an artist, gallery director, or curator, but the associates of those same people. Unless the critic has a stable position with a particular publication she may be walking on very thin ice when negative criticisms are relayed.

However, all publications are complicit in this lack of true criticism. In an effort to publish what sells best, journalistic integrity is compromised. What we are offered, instead, are synoptic reviews that provide a written facsimile of the exhibition inventory and layout, while avoiding any meaty discussion of the works’ merit, or lack of it. Expert opinion may still just be opinion, but it has the backing of the author’s expertise which should carry the appropriate weight. It is always the similar opinions of many experts that create a consensus that work is of great value. The critical opinion of one bad review will not end a career.

This disappointment in a lack of real criticism was made manifest in an art review of an exhibition of work by Stanley William Hayter, printed in the March 2009 issue of Artnews (the exhibit was of Hayter’s work from 1940-50 at Francis M. Nauman Fine Art, written by Alfred MacAdam). I had been immensely disappointed that I was not able to view the exhibition. The artist’s work has made a significant impact on my own printmaking. I own the catalogue raisonne of his prints and have read most of the available literature on his life and work. I even own several of Hayter’s etchings.

I could have written a more accurate critical review without seeing the exhibit or even knowing which specific works were in it. This was merely a biographical snippet gleaned from either sources I had already read, or perhaps from the catalogue for this exhibit. I gained no new knowledge or insight on the artist, his work, or even this show. There wasn’t even a sense of what specific techniques comprised the works in the exhibit—how the works related both to one another and the decade in which they were created.

I don’t fault Mr. MacAdam for all this. He gave readers exactly what the magazine editors had requested. And the brief piece was helpful if only to provide an introduction of Hayter’s work to a much larger audience. At the same time, I wanted something more substantial from the review, and from many others that I read.

Instead of just accepting the way things are I take this as an opportunity to make what little difference I can. While this blog continues to be written with those who are somewhat estranged from the art world in mind, I now have more resolve to provide additional critical analysis than what may already be available. In fact, there will certainly be some attention paid to Stanley Hayter in the coming weeks. Assessing art and artists of our time is valuable for everyone and hopefully creates more interest in a field that remains insignificant to far too many.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

I didn’t set out from graduate school with a plan to coat absurd and obscure objects found in junk shops with gold. I was a painter and it was only logical that my artwork would reside mostly within the arena of painting. Yet I am a strong proponent of trusting in whatever direction the artwork is leading. And this gilded path is eventually where it led.

Innocent choices inspire fateful results. My Altarpiece of St. Thomas Eliot was the first official work I produced in the altarpiece format. The original concept for these pieces involved weathered and rusted structures that indicated items far older than their production date. They were like Protestant altarpieces left in the wake of reformational iconoclasm. With this work there was both the rusty grate and the weather stained wood. But when the wood was cut to size it left edges of fresh, clean lumber.

I decided that since so many renaissance era altarpieces were coated in gold that this would be a suitable finish option for those edges. I went to Boise Blue Art Supply (one of my favorite places in Idaho) and purchased a little gold leafing kit. It was actually imitation gold leaf, which is really brass and considerably less expensive. It worked perfectly but it soon presented another finishing option.

There are chemical treatments (surface patinas) that can be applied to brass and other metals if one wishes to give them an aged appearance. Since that was really part of the whole concept I decided to try this with a couple of the next pieces—Altarpiece of St. Francis of L’Abri and Altarpiece of the Martyrdom of St. Bon. After that I have never used real gold leaf because the manipulation of the imitation gold was much more appropriate for my purposes.

What you will find is that the use of gold (or silver or copper) in the works vacillates from worn and degraded to bright and pristine. Aside from referencing age, the treatment of the metal leafing in the altarpieces is quite similar to the use of nude figures in the painted passages of these works.

The figures, referencing saints, take an elevated position in the works. Ordinary people are paid honor and reverence because of their extraordinary character or deeds, At the same time, their nudity places them on the same level or sphere in which you and I inhabit each day. The gold (or imitation gold) that covers the reliquary objects causes those objects to seem valuable, exceptional, and even holy. Yet it can tarnish. These are the common materials of this world that operates in transcendent ways.

By the act of plucking common and unusual objects out of their original contexts I am re-presenting them to the viewer. This allows for a new kind of thinking, a re-imagining of the purpose and power within the objects with which we so easily interact. It enables a reconsideration of the gracious quality that the material world possesses.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why Art is Essential, Even When the Economy is in Freefall?—The Art of Cynthia Gusler

It is entirely too easy to nominate art as superfluous and extravagant while weathering an economic climate that is shaky, at best. As a member of the creative class (see Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class for an excellent analysis on this segment of the population) I can attest to how acutely the artists among us feel the downward spiral. Not that things aren’t hard all over; I do appreciate how the economy has effected millions of others. My point here has less to do with the struggles of hundreds of thousands of jobless—sometimes overqualified jobless at that—than with an overarching lack of respect for the place of the arts in our society.

We write off art when the economy is bleak because we, as a culture, essentially write it off when times are good. Barring private academies, primary and secondary schools do little to foster an understanding of and interest in visual art for future generations. While athletics are extracurricular activities that involve a minority of students, funding for arts programs—invaluable programs that should involve every student at some level—are routinely placed on the chopping block before sports unless there are specific state mandates that prohibit this.

This sad state of affairs is born out of a misunderstanding of what art is, what it is for, and what it can be. If art is limited to the pretty—and I don’t mean beautiful, rather simply innocuous and pleasing colors and scenes—then it risks existing as merely decoration. If it is meant to simply be in the background then it really is non-essential.

Yet art is so much more. It intersects with every aspect of life in ways that make this planet a better place to inhabit. No matter what other topics in this world interest you, there are artists creating extraordinary works corresponding to those ideas. Some do it with humor, some with grace, but no doubt somewhere you will find an artist working on art that resonates with several key aspects of your personality.

This brings us to the unusual work of Virginia artist Cynthia Gusler. Socially conscious art is nothing new, but Gusler’s version of it displays her specific brand on it. A professor at Eastern Mennonite University, Gusler takes concepts from the studio to the classroom, and ultimately into the wider community.
With the success of television shows like Project Runway, Gusler’s students’ Trash Fashion shows are not completely original, but their combined impact on the EMU community is likely greater than Tim Gunn’s impact on Manhattan. Recycling old clothing materials (bell bottoms made from neckties) is but one of the options for the designers. They are also encouraged to incorporate unusual discarded materials that one would never expect to find on a hanger in the closet.

The point of producing a runway show with these reused products is to engender wider commitment to positive action when it comes to product consumption and disposal. Gusler’s concern for the environment and our relation to it is extended from herself to others, and from that small group to a larger group. It isn’t the typical form of "performance art" but it does act in a similar way, motivating others to consider their choices and actions.

When it comes to Gusler’s own studio work comparable concerns are addressed, but in various ways and with slightly different materials. Her geode project is a good introduction. Here, the reuse of discarded materials is not the only factor at play. In these sculptures the artist also incorporates craft materials not typically associated with fine art. The work attempts to break the boundaries between high and low art. The materials may not be those sanctioned for use in fine art, but their low state is essential to the message.

The geodes are produced in a tromple l’oeil (fool the eye) fashion. They mimic naturally occurring crystal formations. In fact, you would guess them to be just that when first approaching them. The illusion, however, may not last very long. When using the glass from a shattered car windshield the appearance of crystallization is maintained. It is when softer materials like paper and acrylic pom poms are employed that the geodes lose their sense of illusion. This is not to say that they are poorly crafted or are missing the mark. On the contrary, part of Gusler’s project is to cause viewers to question these objects.

Questions of high and low, real and fabricated, natural and synthetic, sustainable and disposable are all offered. At times the work may seem humorous, but the intent is still deadly serious. For those interested in matters pertaining to the environment, consumerism, and materiality these works will find an audience. The works’ low art style, a barrier to some, is just part and parcel of the larger concept.

Humor is an even stranger element within the birdbrid (hybrid bird sculptures) pieces. Again, Gusler makes reference to the role humans play within nature. She taxidermies small birds she finds dead in their natural habitats and then combines them with other elements. They may become mobile when combined with toy cars or allude to sacramental practices when gracing a PEZ dispenser.
Humor, however, is not the end point but a vehicle for the message. Birds are often utilized as metaphors in art and literature. They appear as messengers of the spirits or gods. Doves and ravens make appearances throughout the Bible, acting in this very mode.

Gusler’s work, like that of so many other artists, imparts essential wisdom to our culture. Why is it essential? Couldn’t she just list the facts and figures of pollution, recycling, and sustainable products? Isn’t that the point? It is part of the point, true, but Gusler achieves something more by creating these complex pieces. When viewers question her materials and processes they internalize the fullness of the message. They have participated in an interior dialogue that requires much more of them. And though not all artwork is based in socially conscious concepts, all good artwork requires something similar of viewers. This is why we need art. We need to see it, live with it. We need to purchase it and support its production. It may be possible to exist without art, but it is not possible to live in a life in fullness.

What’s in a Name?

Sometimes the words spoken or written by someone else impact us in unexpected ways. My altarpiece series of personal saints is almost entirely based on my study of the writings of others. There are, however, several altarpieces that are currently in the construction stage that came about by much more haphazard means. For instance, the concept for one piece was born out a fairly minor point in a sermon I heard a few years ago. I think it was a Good Friday sermon, but who knows now because what I retained was a vivid image that took me in a direction that my priest would certainly not have anticipated.

The most unusual case like this began sometime in the mid-1990s. The band Sixpence None the Richer, long before they had a hit song on the teen television (melo)drama Dawson’s Creek, released a CD entitled Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. I was always struck by this title and kept it in the back of my mind for some future use.

About four or five years ago the title became the impetus for an altarpiece exploring the concept of prayer. The only problem was that I had no idea what a prayer wheel actually was. I used the term to conjure up my own meaning and imagery. Upon researching the term I learned that a prayer wheel is used in Buddhist practices and that Annie Dillard, of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek fame, had actually first written a poem that shares the title, which is included in her book of poetry of that same name.

I came to the phrase through the backdoor, but by the time I recognized the genesis of the term my personal conceptualization of a prayer wheel was well underway. My prayer wheel would need to present a characteristic similar to a carnival game. My reasoning was that our concept of prayer often expresses a quality that resembles games of chance (for this I owe a debt to both Joseph Cornell and Robert Indiana). The prayers in my game/altarpiece lack a certain amount of faith and are often self centered. They are somewhat like the prayers that Anne LaMott, in her book Traveling Mercies, places in the categories of Help Me! Help Me! Help Me! and Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! Sometimes that is all we can muster. And I am well aware that, when uttered in desperation and faith, God answers them. This rudimentary format is, nevertheless, the basis of the practice of prayer and so this almost comical side had to come through.

One of the first objects, or relics, I envisioned for this altarpiece was one of those sets of chattering teeth that you wind up. I looked high and low on trips all over the U.S. and could never find them in any store. I think I would have had better luck checking the back pages of comic books, and could probably have found some X-ray specs, too! Just before I was settling on purchasing some chattering teeth—ones I didn’t even like that much—online I stumbled upon a much better replacement. (along similar lines, I am currently searching for a small plastic chameleon and always appreciate a good lead!)

One Saturday morning I was wandering the streets of lower Manhattan, on my way to visit the galleries in the Chelsea district, when I stumbled upon a flea market located in a parking garage. I found out some months later that this was one of the last Saturdays the flea market was still open. It no longer exists. Always on the lookout for some specific or not yet discovered/uncovered object, I stopped inside. Amongst the oddments I saw them. A slightly oversized set of teeth. These plastic teeth are the sort that a dentist uses when showing a patient the proper method for brushing. In fact, there was also an oversized toothbrush, but I passed on that, even though the dealer really wanted to unload both items.
I was able to talk the dealer down to $20 from the $30 he was asking, I spent the remainder of the day traversing the streets of New York with these oversized choppers in my Timbuk 2 messenger bag. I can only imagine the private conversation the teeth held with my Mac laptop. I suspect the prayers had already begun.

Now the teeth are gilded in silver and gold. That was always my intention. Their size was much more appropriate to the task than the wind up teeth. They invoke the same humorous presence, but the gilding elevates their station. They are now a relic. They possess a presence of holiness that belies their common and humorous stature. The gilded teeth are much like humans—crass and comical, we are created with much more dignity than we often display or comprehend.