Author’s Note: In the printed version of this review, the publisher had removed the descriptions of several artworks that he found offensive. (Which, as you will see, underscores the need for just this sort of review…) The text below is my unedited version.
Conversations about contemporary art, even with other art-writers, frequently return to some expression of, “I don’t get it,” “I don’t know what to say about it,” or worse, “I don’t like it.” In honor of so many confused and disgruntled contemporary art viewers, I hereby embark on a mission to help it all make a little more sense. Here is a brief “Viewers’ Guide to Contemporary Art,” or something of the sort. Using real-life examples from current Philadelphia exhibitions, I pulled out a few prominent themes and concepts that often play a role in contemporary art. Naturally, not all artwork deals with the same themes, and these themes certainly do not represent all art. However, many artists enter the artistic dialogue through one of these points, and so understanding contemporary art requires paying attention to the following diverse elements.
Materiality and Found Objects
In much contemporary art, the materials used are at least as important as whatever image or product ends up being displayed. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp declared that a graffitied urinal was art and so launched the idea of “ready-mades,” a precursor to today’s found-object art. Subsequent art movements continued explorations of everyday objects and common materials, bringing in everything from historic handicrafts to mass-produced household items to massive industrial materials. For many artists, untraditional or re-used materials carry with them meaning from their previous lives or original purposes, and so add conceptual complexity to visual arts. In the current show at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, artist Merrill Wagner re-purposes scraps of steel discarded by a plumbing company to construct pseudo-minimalist, color field paintings with rust-preventive glazes and paints. By using the steel as she finds it, Wagner creates pieces with irregular edges and gentle oxidation, so the natural properties of the steel become central to appreciating the artwork. The heaviness inherent in the steel balances the delicate irregularities of the surface, and looming entropy contradicts the steel’s seeming permanence. Conceptually, using an industrial material provides an important contrast to her fascination with farm topography and sky-scapes. The material raises questions of the relationship between nature and machines, between that which is under human control (e.g., a tractor) and that which refuses human control (e.g., rust). In other pieces, Wagner explores another type of materiality by painting bands of solid colors using different brands’ versions of the same pigment. The paint itself, with its commercially produced variations, IS the artwork, while the image of the three or four stripes of color becomes secondary. In this way, paint, although purchased at a store, becomes a kind of found object as the artist avoids manipulating the paint and instead enhances its inherent properties.
Narrative and Voyeurism
Although some artists focus on materiality to the exclusion of representation or narrative, other contemporary artists continue to revamp story-telling genres, often with a voyeuristic slant in which the viewer is allowed access to a private or personal story. Modern culture’s enthusiasm for sharing someone else’s first-person experience, whether it be in the form of reality TV, blogging, or graphic news reporting, worms its way into artwork. Rob Matthews’ current show “Knoxville Girl” at Gallery Joe presents the details of a true crime – the murder of a young Tennessee woman – through the medium of exquisite pencil drawings. The scenes unfold chronologically around the room as the four characters (introduced through individual mug-shot-like portraits) carry out their violent scheme. Although the basics of the story could be gleaned from any newspaper article, the drawings provide a level of personal interaction and involvement as the viewer becomes a witness – perhaps even an accomplice – to the crime. Simultaneously, the gracefully rendered drawings seem to soften the violence through a comedy of exaggerated gestures and expressions, ending with a subtle moral and a final curtain call. Each drawing contributes a vital aspect of the whole story, so the individually framed works actually become one large artwork and the meta-narrative overrides the particular scenarios.
Repetition and Mass Production
The advent of mass produced consumer goods led to a corresponding artistic interest in reproduction and excessive repetition. Andy Warhol, for example, pictorialized the grocery store line-up of Campbell’s soup cans and repetitively reproduced images of pop culture icons. Many contemporary artists continue this study of reruns and visual homogeneity by creating serial artworks or repeating nearly identical forms. At Lineage Gallery, several of the artists in “Independent Residents” rely heavily on repetition and consumer imagery. Aiko Nakagawa combines religious and contemporary iconography in her “Kitty” series, imposing a Hello Kitty head over a Sacred Heart of Jesus torso and replacing the face with poker suits and her name, “Aiko.” Nakagawa repeats the quasi-self-portrait four times on separate canvases, invoking the obsessive reproduction common to animated figures, religious icons, and playing cards. Like two mirrors reflecting each other into infinity, this implied mass production of a mass production paves the way for continued distortion and dilution of popular imagery.
Viewer Participation and Site Specificity
Deconstructionist criticism of the 1960s examined literature and artwork in light of underlying frameworks and assumptions that were often overlooked or unspoken. In contemporary art, artists stopped thinking about artwork in the vacuum of white gallery walls and began overtly considering the implicit role of the viewer and of the surrounding space. The very structure of an exhibition became grounds for art-making. Now, artists love to involve the viewer, whether through passive voyeurism or direct participation, and many contemporary artists factor an active audience into the nature of their artwork. For example, in order to fully experience the sound art on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) “Ensemble” exhibition, viewers must lift lids and turn cranks and strike objects with mallets. Although some pieces produce sound on their own through various kinetic and electrical impulses, viewers become part of the artwork itself by giving life and movement and noise to otherwise inanimate sound-makers. Similarly, many contemporary artists consider the surrounding space to be an essential element of an artwork, creating work that transforms an entire space and that cannot exist in the same way in any other location. The current ramp project at ICA provides an example, as architectural drawings applied directly to the walls and windows perfectly fit the contours of the ramp between the first and second floors. The perspectival lines and floral accents cause ordinary white walls take on depth and character. Although elements of the artwork could be recreated elsewhere, new environmental factors would necessarily change the structure and feeling of the piece.
The next time you walk into a gallery of unfamiliar or incomprehensible artwork, try applying some of these themes to see if the pieces start falling into place. Understanding contemporary art isn’t impossible, after all, but is rooted in a context of art history and cultural considerations that requires a deeper look.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin’s Winter Culture Guide, November 2007