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.

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