Category Archives: The Daily

What is the Value of an Art Label?

The increase in visual documentation regarding art in galleries has insinuated elaboration as a necessary component in the practice of exhibition. The art writer Daniel Grant has stated that art museums “have made their wall labels longer and longer, offering paragraphs of background information and interpretation to visitors who now spend as much time reading as looking.”

This practice of offering elaboration in the very context of exhibition is a two-edged sword. The functions of explanation and interpretation are important precisely because they are a means of exploration. They can provide pathways through which one can engage the work and consider its significance.

If there is any warning being offered here, it is that elaboration and explanation can blur as much as it illuminates. In presenting a pathway for our understanding, elaborations and explanations focus our attention. However, in doing so, they simultaneously detract our attention from other elements and possibilities within a body of work.

I would express my concern about the presence of these elaborations in an exhibition space to the direct extent that they insinuate that the work is deficient to express itself. My concerns are also proportional to the insinuation that the viewer is lacking an ability to parse out the significance and meaning of the works placed before them. Beyond these concerns, there is the fact that there are many ways to enter into a body of exhibited work.

I would like to suggest the notion that art always transcends the intentions and understanding of the artist who makes it and the understanding of the public spaces and curators that exhibit it. If this is true, and I think that it is, it suggests that there is something more to the work than can be immediately understood in the context of our initial encounter and the context of the exhibition itself.

Art, itself, is an object of consideration – a pathway for exploring and considering aspects our context, our perceptions, and our selves. Because of this, it requires prolonged periods of engagement and consideration in the very presence of the work and beyond it. We must ruminate on our experiences of an encounter with art in order to extract the most significant aspects encased in any artistic expression. Our considerations of the work and our dialogue with others about the work help us to find the treasure troves that are locked within the art itself. Often, this process extends well beyond the exhibition itself.

As I have said, I would tend to extol the presence of text panels in an exhibition to the extent that they aid in this process of consideration and I deprecate them to the extent they don’t. However, having said this, I can’t help but suspect that their verbose presence on the very same walls as the work itself is not only a form of institutional mediation, but institutional imposition as well. Practically, I understand how these panels can foreshorten the interpretive process in order to mediate access. However, this is precisely the form of my anxiety about their presence. I have a growing concern that this practice serves to subvert the mediation that happens through the individual and collective reflection of viewers upon their own encounter with the work.

Regardless, there is always a danger that helping a piece of art to speak can be a way of silencing that work and effacing it through interpretation. There is always the lurking problem that interpretation and elaboration can get in the way of a direct encounter with the work itself.

I guess the question at hand is the extent to which a work of art is able to speak for itself.

“I don’t allow statements in the rooms where exhibitions take place. They are generally cryptic, esoteric, ungrammatical and besides the point.”

 Ivan Karp, director of New York City’s O.K. Harris gallery

Making Our Own Inspirations

Several years back, my wife and I thought that we would participate in a bit of a social experiment. We decided that we would purge the major living spaces of our home of as many products of mass manufacturing as we could. Through a complex series of experiences and conversations, my wife and I had come to realize that we were surrounded by objects which had no traces of the human hand upon them and that, for all intents and purposes, were the manifestation of a distancing, cold mechanization. The motive for our experiment came from our suspicion that surrounding ourselves with the products of industrialization was having a subtle demoralizing and dehumanizing effect on our lives.

There is no doubt that industrialization has enriched the human experience in ways that we could barely imagine. It facilitated the division of labor and, consequently, allowed the majority of us the wealth and free time to pursue things beyond the activity of labor itself. Industrialization, for all its benefits, did leave its mark on the products it produced. By and large, it replaced the expertise and variation of the artisan with the efficiency and precision of the machine. What this eventually did was surround us with industrialized wonders that gave emphasis to the mechanics that had produced them.

For complex reasons, my wife and I had begun to wonder what kind of an effect it would have on us to surround ourselves with as many objects that were made by the human hand as possible. Slowly, we set about performing little tasks of transition. We eventually replaced all our plastic plant pots with hand-made ceramics and replaced mass-produced framed images with original works of art.

We created small, disciplined projects for ourselves that would aid in our goals. For example, once a month we bought a hand-made ceramic mug from the many potters we knew in our community to replace one of the commercially produced mugs in our cupboards. Every new mug meant a trip to the Salvation Army in order to relieve us of what we began to see as an icon of commercialism. The successes of this project lead to an accumulation of plates made by artists.

Through this experiment, our lives became less plastic or universal and more humane or particular. Over time we found our house saturated with objects that reflected the expertise and wonder of an object created by the human hand. It also surrounded us with objects that were individual and a manifestation of the wonder of human creativity. The result of our experiment was that we were increasingly surrounded with objects that existed nowhere else in the world but in our home, increasing our sense of their value and meaning.

Fundamentally, our experiment provided us with a living environment that was saturated with objects of inspiration and which nurtured our creativity. Over all, it created an environment that enriched our souls and I think we are better people for it.

Curiosity and the Demise of Cats

Curiosity may have, indeed, killed the cat. However, the question remains, did the cat die happy?

This proverb about a cat and the precise origin of its demise is meant to issue a warning about the dangers of poorly-motivated and unnecessary investigation. However, it is a fool’s game to assume that the warning about the dangers of curiosity is universal.

Exploration is fundamental to the advancement of human knowledge. After all, what we will come to know in the future lies beyond the limits that our current knowledge sets. If we are to discover new things to understand, we must be curious about what things can be known beyond the current boundaries of our knowledge. And, since art is a modality of human knowing, curiosity lies at the heart of its motivations and exploration is one of its primary operations.

As an artist, I create in order to explore and I explore in order to discover. In making art, I follow my intuitions, believing that my curiosity about their origins will lead me to something that will look, for all intents and purposes, like something meaningful.

It is always a good reminder to make art that explores more than it explains.

Rising to Low Expectancy

It is a terrible state to be when the great majority of the tales we hear and the images we see have modest aspirations. Nothing could be worse for us than a great body of art that rehearses and reinforces conventional notions that play on either our prejudices or our fears. However, we should not be surprised when this is the case. Pandering is, after all, a way of falsifying achievement and garnering an empty success.

Artists need to keep in mind, however, that not everyone who looks down on a page and who looks up at a painting is expecting an endorsing affirmation of all the things they assume. In fact, it is likely best for artists to adopt a notion that this is never the case. After all, there is likely nothing of substance to be gained within your work by being cynical about your audience.

When Marilynne Robinson, the longtime teacher at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was asked what advise she would give to young writers, she responded by saying that they should always assume that their readers are smarter than them. I agree.

I would argue that greater work will emerge from artist if they find themselves daunted by what they feel is expected of them. If they assume that their audience is looking for highly ambitious work from the labor of their hands, they are more likely to produce something of significant meaning. It is hard to imagine, after all, that anything of great value is likely to emerge if their ambition only rises to the level of an assumed low expectancy.

Artists should produce bodies of work for an audience that they assume is looking for art that is expecting something from them, hoping something for them, and demanding something from them.

If this approach is not the case of making art, art is likely to both reflect and produce nothing more than a cultural malaise.

The Hounds of Doubt

From time to time, in the solitude of my creative moments, I have lifted my head from a painting I am working on or an article I am writing only to question the value of the endeavors in which I was engaged. In a fit of paralyzing doubt, I find myself asking what does this endeavor of creation mean and why, for all the work of it, does it matter?

Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime teacher at the famed Iowa Writer’s workshop, has seen the hounds of doubt bark at the minds of her most talented students. And, faced with their haunting question about the meaning of what they do, she has been forced to ponder and to extract some answer that will do the question justice. In her article, On Beauty, Robinson offers her considered response. She states, “I tell [my students] we are doing something so ancient, so pervasive, and so central to human culture, that we can assume its significance, even if we cannot readily describe or account for it.”

For a greater part of human existence, individuals have scrawled some shape or form onto some surface in order to express something of their experience and something of the meaning that they thought they could find in it. Whether these scrawls took the form of language or an image, they sought to bring forth some significant definition of what we actually are. Therefore, whenever we pick up our tools of expression, we find ourselves participating in a continuity that stretches back for millennia and we immerse ourselves in the long and flowing stream of collective and individual human consciousness.

With Robinson, I agree that we should follow the grain of our humanity and acknowledge that the words we write and the images we paint are always beautiful and shapely. When we produce them, we should be aware that we are participating in the mystery of human being as surely as Shakespeare and Michelangelo ever did.

Therefore, we need not be distracted from discovering the pleasures of our own genius or be distracted from expressing the most basic aspects of our humanity by means of our doubt. At the most primal levels of our existence, the functions of our mind watching the activities of our hands expect to find something astonishing and beautiful in the prose we write and the paintings we create. And, even if we fail in the enterprise, that expectancy persists.

Activities like sculpting, painting and poetry are significantly more than modest activities. They are, after all is said and done, audacious acts of courage that seek to pull our human understanding up the rope of our consciousness to the higher levels of our being.

In the moment of our doubts, we need to be reminded that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses looking down upon us from the vantage of our own human history. In us, these witnesses hope to find people exposing themselves to the possibility of learning more. They hope to find us with an utter loyalty to our own humanity that our doubts are all too ready to challenge.

In Art, is Seeing Believing?

Before the Modern era, Arthur Danto states, we held to the assumption that art was about copying visual appearance through various mediums. This notion of art, the American art critic stated, was built upon the assumption that there should be no difference between looking out a window and looking at a painting.

Though the tide of modern art has certainly gone elsewhere, the popular notion that there should be some correlation between what a painting presents and what we see around us has not faded much. Painting, in the minds of most, is still related to the concept of pictures.

Danto is astute when he points out that, when we express doubt that something being presented to us is art, we typically mean that it does not belong to the assumption that art is about pictures representing the world of objects that we see.

The assumption that a painting should look like something we see, as powerful a concept as it is, has not always controlled the human understanding of art. The American writer, Jamake Highwater, points out that, long before the domination of this idea set in, images had little concern for particularity and appearance. He states that earlier primal images obsessed themselves with concepts of being visionary rather than merely decorative or representational. In these cases, even when the objects that were presented were recognizable they were intended to be the expressions of grand visions of the reality that lay well beyond, or deep within, those objects. In this way, Highwater points out, these images were spiritual in the purest sense of the term.

Modernist painters, with their dedication to aspects like shape, color, scale, and texture and their conceptual divorce from a dedication to representing objects that we can see and recognize, were attempting something approaching this visionary state. In the end, they presented to us visual representations of the creative process, the interior experience, explorations of form’s relationship to content, and the very act of expression itself from a vantage point that was far from concerns about the re-presentation of the world of objects.

These Modern images have challenged our perceptions of the world by presenting to us images that could not be compared to other things in order to find their value. In this specific way, they deeply challenged our sense of things. They asked us to look beyond the surface of appearance in search of something they hoped would be more meaningful or, dare I say, truer and more authentic to reality. Their failures in execution are not to be taken as failures of their intent.

In the end, Modern “images of nothing” are asking us something about the very nature of reality. They are certainly asking us if what we see in this world is really all there is in regard to reality.

Our Visual Language

“Those grown children had, almost all of them, bent their heads over whatever work she gave them, even though their bodies were awkward and restless with the onset of adulthood, fate creeping through their veins and glands and follicles like a subtle poison, making them images of their parents and strangers to themselves.”

Marilynne Robinson, Home, page 20-21

Peter London, a Professor of Art Education in the United States, argues that making images is as natural to humans as speaking.  In his most popular written work, No More Secondhand Art, he points out that, though both verbal and visual language are practiced by all children, both these functions do not always survive into adulthood. He suggests that this is the case because we learn to be embarrassed by our artistic efforts and to feel so inept in regard to our visual expressions that we simply stop making them altogether.

London argues that we have been robbed of this significant and natural means of expression because we hold to disabling myths about art.  He contends that our collective assumptions about what it is, how to do it, what makes it good, and what it is for tends to exclude the great majority of us from the practice of art.

Normally functioning people, once they have learned to speak, go on speaking throughout their lives.  Though the vast majority of us will never achieve the apex of eloquence found in Shakespeare or the profound forms of self-expression found in Emily Dickenson, we continue to converse in order to relate our expressions to those found around us.  Sadly, this is not the case with visual language.

London laments this terrible loss of expressing ourselves through a visual language as an unnecessary one.  He calls us back to visual expression, suggesting that art is a natural and full human language that enables us to do two powerful things – to speak about our world and to create a world of our own choosing.

Today, maybe it would be appropriate to remember the unabashed confidence of our youth and pick up a pencil in order to explore either what we see in the world or what we want to see through a visual language.

Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen

“It is important to look at death because it is a part of life,  It is a sad thing, melancholic but romantic at the same time.  It is the end of a cycle – everything has to end.”
Alexander McQueen

I have, for a long time, appreciated the aesthetic work of the Alexander McQueen design studio.  It is a creative ethos with a rich tradition given to the conceptual as much as the fashionable.  It has continually made interesting and complex cultural statements through the fashion shows, clothing, and media expressions it has produced.  In addition, it has not failed to cast a critical eye on the fashion industry itself.

Therefore, it is no surprise that this beautiful and gothic image, which promotes the work produced by the Alexander McQueen design studio, would be produced.  This image pulls on the 16th and 17th Century Dutch Vanitas tradition in order to make a highly nuanced and ironic commentary on the transcendent aspects related to fashion.

The Dutch Vanitas tradition of painting sought to remind the viewer of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the inevitability of death.  This aesthetic movement used symbols and objects that were, simultaneously, present and fading.  Bowls of rotting fruit or flowers wilting in vases pervaded these images.  In addition, more heavy-handed symbols like skulls would also be used.  Carcases of animals that were inevitably going to rot were also present.

These images of the Vanitas tradition were cautionary tales.  However, they were not merely warnings against wanton self-indulgence.  They were also images that suggested the need to pursue lasting, significant, and meaningful things.

I would argue that the pheasant carcass in this image is a complex symbol.  Like the symbols of the Vanitas tradition, this carcass warns about the transience of life and also stands as a warning against the meaninglessness of our materialism.  In its context, this carcass offers a critical analysis regarding the wanton materialism that is symbolized in the purses also found in this image.

The carcass, though gothic and dark, is also beautiful and lush.  This makes it a complex object that, simultaneously, evokes both horror and attraction.  From this point, I would argue that the pheasant carcass is also a symbol that offers a polemic for the acquisition of material objects.  As a symbol of beauty, the pheasant suggests that one can transcend materialism by finding another motivation for ownership.

The suggestion seems to be that beauty is justifiable warrant for consumption.  Through the acquisition of objects that are not merely dedicated to use, but beauty as well, the individual is saved from the condemnation of being hopelessly materialist.  This image alludes to the argument that the pursuit of beautiful material objects can, simultaneously, the pursuit of lasting and meaningful things.

Though there can be plenty of argument about whether this is, in actuality, sincere coming from the fashion industry, I would suggest that this image is offering much more depth than we may think.  In addition, I would also suggest that this image may, in actuality, be a manifestation of our aesthetic anxieties – our fear that our love of beautiful objects may, in actuality, be nothing more than a sophisticated justification for being unabashedly materialist and shallow.

Piper/Melanson

Marion Piper is a writer, artist and gallery assistant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her writing is a mixture of poetry, reviews, non-fiction and critical commentary. Her art making practice examines the role of personal text and memory in the face of trauma.

In this collaboration with page51 founder, Ross Melanson, there will be an exploration of communication over great distances using text and images.

Journaling

Over 15 years ago, I took up journalling and it was one of the most important decisions of my life.  The choice to start this practice emerged out of my growing awareness that there were many moments in my day when I heard something, read something, or thought something important and then, subsequently, forgot it.  Journalling became my way of capturing this profound encounters and it provided an opportunity for me to return to them and reflect upon them.

My practice is not like that of a diary.  I am not recording the biographical aspects of my daily life.  Instead, I record the important ideas and flashes of inspired thinking that cross my path or happen in my own head.

I write poetry lines that come to me, ideas I have for art projects, concepts that challenge or provoke me, and anything else that seems like it could be of some value to me at a later date.

If you are not doing this already, I would highly recommend it.  This practice has deeply enriched my understanding and my art practice.

Here is a poem that emerged from my practice of journalling.

in one moment

the heart can fl(utter)

like bird’s wings

and tell us

that

life is in the living and not

         the giving and taking of breath

         the rising and falling of chests

         containing a pulpy, meaty, treasure

         of pumping blood and

         we are literally living  by a metaphor

         reaching down    or

         reaching out  from

         transcendent spaces  and

         hidden places

we imagine  to be

above us

beyond us     and yet

within us

these thoughts take place

take up space

that we only imagine

is in our head

and yet we

place ourselves in time

pace ourselves to clocks ticking

itching to mark our passing

while making us no promises of

anything more than what we already have

but our minds make up mis(placed) hope

laced with the poison of thinking that

     tomorrow or

the tomorrow after that or

the tomorrow after that

is the day we begin to really live

but both the bible and its sparrows

tell us otherwise