Posts Tagged ‘art’

Acquiring more tools to get to the good stuff

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Too often we rush through an exhibit and decide within a second or two if a work is worthy of more attention. Are we using the right language to make a judgement, or have we never acquired the tools for negotiating the visual unfamiliar in the first place? We take for granted that the eyesight most of us have been granted arrives with the same filters and “instructions” for interpretation, but the lack of an education on how to read—or at least enter—a work of art forces some of us to respond only viscerally to new work. Without some degree of  comfort with this language, we ignore art that has the potential to captivate and enrich. We don’t stop to look because of the difficulty of making judgements about how the work communicates its intentions and how original—or even unique to the artist—the piece is. By this, I mean two things.

The first are the formal elements that allow us to “diagram the sentence.” We understand the roles that nouns, verbs and prepositions play in our ability to express ideas, but many of us are clueless about the architecture of a visual sentence. Some depend on shorthand phrases, learned in an art history course or absorbed through culture, to help them navigate. Learning to understand how these are put together to construct bigger and more complicated ideas—first a sentence, then a paragraph—takes commitment, but repeated direct encounters with art can help you engage in deeper ways. Is that shape in the painting attempting to describe a three-dimensional object? How is color affecting the way I understand this piece of sculpture? Why are these two very different objects displayed side-by-side? And so on.

The second is the personal visual vocabulary that marks a piece as the work of a particular artist. Recognizing an artist’s “accent” is not just a quick way to establish what might be at play in a piece because of its connection to a particular time period or school. If you know the artist, it is also a way to establish a dialogue between any past work with which you are familiar and the new work you encounter, and that itself creates another dimension of insight. Your understanding deepens because you are not just comparing the work to all art, but drawing conclusions based on decisions that the artist has made—or not made—in the past. You can build this new responsive muscle, exercising your eyes and mind, by sharing a space—and time—with actual artwork.

I know that enlarging your vocabulary is a difficult task, but I have what might seem like a counter-intuitive suggestion. The next time you are at a museum or gallery, look for art that disrupts your assumptions or offends your sensibilities instead of work that calls out to you. Instead of rejecting it out-of-hand, spend some time with it. Your struggle to find meaning, together with the time you put into it, will reveal things that a quick walk past it never can. It might change how you conduct a subsequent visit to a museum. It will certainly have given you a new experience.

Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

An exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums currently has a tease of an exhibit by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. Why a tease? Because we are shown only a few of her pieces. In this case, that turns out to be a plus if this is one’s first encounter with the work—it gives one permission to spend time with the pieces, make connections, and ask questions. The way in which the work is displayed contributes to being able to really look at them—the rooms are of a size that provides plenty of space around each piece, performing the double duty of inviting one in and letting the focus stay on the art. Each series is contained in a single room, but the arrangements suggest understandings based on seeing the pieces both as individual works and together as a complete whole.

The artist’s themes include victims, oppression, political violence, and war, but one does not need to aware of the art’s pedigree to make larger connections to a world in which aggression and greed rule the day. There is a real, physical presence to the work that makes the viewer aware of not only the kind of force that forges new relationships, but also the existence of absences—perhaps a different type of evidence of the same thing.

Too often, art that concerns itself with commenting on social injustice employs the tools of a documentarian—images, documents, and other types of “evidence”—to assemble an experience for viewers of the work. The results are often confusing, since it often appears to be delivering information intended to educate, and at times, promote a specific course of action. Something you’d expect from a news source or political group because of the language it uses.

This is not that. Here, the suffering and confusion of a world operating in the absence of a common morality is turned into poetry, which allows one to take full responsibility for a reaction. Or perhaps, engage in no reaction at all.

Work Happens #1

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

New work by Robert B. levers

Time and Art

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about time and its relationship to different forms of art. Though I have never questioned the necessity of time for letting ideas unfold in music, film and theatre, I had never built that into the equation for painting, drawing and photography. My maintaining a position in front of a Degas, as other visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts rushed past, provided the opportunity to change that understanding.

In the past-paced world in which we live, one has few chances to “live” with things that don’t demand our attention. Because our environment is filled with images that constantly come and go, it’s hard to think of a two-dimensional piece of art as rewarding you in new ways when you give it some face time. If you resist the temptation to move on, a painting or drawing can reveal what a glance will not. Your own experience of discovery may even in some ways resemble the “story” found in a play or piece of music. I’m not talking about the implied text of a painting with recognizable elements. What I’m getting at is the recognition—in the language of the particular art form—that something has taken place. Perhaps with you.

Different Strands: Sheila Hicks and Fred Sandback

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

In recent exhibitions in the Boston area, we were able to view the work of the artists Sheila Hicks and Fred Sandback, both of whom use various types of thread, yarn, and string. Though they share similar materials, their work couldn’t be farther apart.

Hicks makes work that has a real physical presence, sometimes with relatively flat woven pieces that take advantage of insights gained from her travels around the globe, at other times with huge colorful tendrils that fall from the ceiling or with coils of fiber arranged in loops on the floor. Over a long career, she’s explored many ways to employ the same materials to articulate different understandings of form. Sometimes the color is paramount—not surprising since she studied with Josef Albers, though exposure to Alber’s wife Anni, a textile artist and printmaker, might have had a lot to do with Hicks’ original move into fiber. At other times, texture or patterns are more important. A lot of the work explores the tension between two dimensional work and sculpture.

The show, at the newly reopened Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art, also included some of the commercial pieces which paid the bills and an engaging video of the artist commenting on her work as she arranges photos for the book that became the catalog for the show. As a whole, the exhibition revealed a keen explorer of her materials.

Sandback, on the other hand, describes space without really taking possession of it—in the show at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum his geometrical shapes made of acrylic yarn and acrylic cords ask viewers to reevaluate their relationship to the spaces around them without something massive in front of them. He is essentially drawing in space, using the line of the cord to react to architectural interiors and asking us to reorient ourselves. In one piece that stretches from the fifth floor to the second, we come to understand the building as a work itself instead of just a box of art. In fact, I briefly considered lines that were part of the ceiling as works by Sandback.Though he once spoke of using yarn like a No. 2 pencil, it is often the contrast of his pieces with their surroundings that make his “lines” act as edges of 3-dimensional spaces. One might think of these pieces as being simple—and in terms of materials they are—but the range of expression from a few simple colored lines in space in his hands is tremendous.

Unfortunately the Hicks show is no longer at the Addison, but it can be seen at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania beginning on March 24. The Sandback show closes on March 6.

Mark Bradford at the Institute of Contemporary Art

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Mark Bradford at the Institute of Contemporary Art,
Boston, Nov. 19, 2010—March 13, 2011

In text found on the ICA website, 2009 MacArthur Fellow Bradford is said to explore “issues of class, race, and gender in American urban society.” That may be true, but those issues are only the starting point for works which are ultimately a feast for the retina. At the end of the day, formal concerns which include surface texture, color, and edge are what make his best work successful.

His layering of found paper, such as commercially printed posters and billboards—and the use of string to draw dimensionally—provide a wonderfully mysterious surface which he partially excavates and covers with sanding, painting and collaging. Organizationally many of the large works in the show resemble maps or overhead shots of cities, but this aspect of the work is not really a key to understanding what’s going on. Rather, it is color, the dimensionality of the surface, and the partially revealed shapes which animate the surface—in this, he is an artist with very traditional concerns. That said, this a show you should not miss.

The Photography of Bruce Peterson

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

When the photographer Bruce Peterson told me that his goal was to make his personal and commercial work indistinguishable, I think he was referring mostly to the visual treatment he gives the objects in front of his camera. I’ve been living with a large black and white photograph of his for about ten years that I traded for one of my prints, and there are many things I appreciate about what he does that he would probably concede are unique to his personal work.

The things that both the art images and the advertising work have in common are really wonderful: a sense of scale that forces the viewer to think differently about the subject; lighting that emphasizes an object’s three-dimensional qualities without totally eliminating its mystery; and a sharpness and focus to the images that shouts “I am!”

While he’s made some serious contributions to the visual language of advertising—much appreciated by this graphic designer—it is his own personal work that has particularly captivated me. He has said that he “tend[s] to be attracted to things that are used, or worn—unique objects that have already had a life and have some character.” What I’ve noticed is that these objects are often put into whimsical combinations which inspire serious reverie—not infrequently old toys which speak to contemporary and serious themes. In this work, too, there are no backgrounds except for the occasional shadow; the only reality are the objects themselves—divorced from a context, we conjure up stories and reasons for their existence. And finally, his placement of the subject matter within the picture plane—sometimes cropped, other times in one corner or another—plays with our own relationship to his material.

At some point, I hope that he has an opportunity to exhibit this body of work in a gallery. (He’s about to have a show within an advertising agency in Boston, but it would seem to be a private exhibition for the folks who hire him for commercial work.) For now, you’ll have to explore his portfolio.

Memory, Presence and the Present

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Janis Joplin performing in San Jose in 1968. (Photo by Jim Marshall)

History changes with time. Views of the past are said to be products of the era in which they are examined, and  I think this is also true on a much smaller scale: how we, as individuals, understand the world at any given moment.

From time to time, I will revisit something—a recording, an artist, a piece of literature—to see if I still dislike it. Occasionally I change my mind. Why? Just as our understanding of historical events changes because of where we sit, so, too, does our take on specific examples of culture because of the time in which we live or the experiences we’ve accumulated over the years.

Last night I decided to do the opposite of my usual exercise—rather than wanting to check on whether something was as “bad,” as I remembered it, I wanted to verify that I was holding onto a memory that still resonated with who I am now. When I was in 9th grade, Janis Joplin returned to Austin, Texas after a long absence to give a concert. My remembered experience places the performance among the best I’ve ever seen. That is saying a lot—I see live music as often as I can, though it feels more and more like “I’ve heard that already.”

A music blog I was reading recently included a link to two clips of Joplin performing during the last years of her life on the Dick Cavett show. She goes from being interviewed (about 2 minutes in) to a stage with her band and inhabiting the songs in a way that most musicians can only dream of. Her official recordings—mostly done in a studio—do not reflect the amazing transformation that took place on those television studio stages. As I had only these albums as touchstones, I began to doubt the validity of my experience. I am happy to report that the videos I saw eliminated any doubt about my memory of the concert I attended.

It occurs to me I was also confirming something about myself. We accumulate a wealth of core experiences throughout our lifetime, and these things contribute to defining who we are. There was something about the honesty and directness of Joplin’s performance that made me realize how important it is to remember what is possible in a world defined by the status-quo. It takes courage and commitment to get to magic. Maybe we should reprise the slogan “Be Here Now.”

Excuse me, I have to sign off now. I’ve got to watch that video again.


Check out the book Trust: The Photographs of Jim Marshall.