Sunday, September 14, 2014

street art indoors -- the feral petting zoo

In the paper today, lex HL 9-14, a local university is presenting ‘Street Tested: Kentucky Graffiti Artists’ in their gallery. This in itself is an amusing idea, snarly defiant art insurgents participating in a sunday afternoon panel discussion, but maybe it will set some standards for fence and alley vandals in our fair city. Not that I’m not a fan. Never disappointed to be stopped at a train crossing so long as it’s composed of cars from all over. 

Somewhere in train yards, under threat of more than just justice, kids with spray cans make amazing art. They must be doing it for others like themselves because I can never figure out what it says and if I do I don’t know it means, but the color contrasts, the rhythmic balance and imagination crank very hard at fifty mph clicking past. They take these chances, train yards have private security, to send their tag out into the world and I’m looking.

Now that’s romantic and the art carries the load. Some of it’s so good and its reasons so pure, they don’t get paid, it almost justifies defacing the private property of some gigantic corporation. It can get out of hand. Chicago banned aerosol paint years ago so too bad if you want to paint a kitchen chair. Let’s face it, not everyone who wields the can has worked out the design beforehand or developed the deftness to apply spray paint, and not every blank space needs decoration.

Be careful what you sanction would be my suggestion to the progressive university, presenting semi-legal artwork “not meant to be auctioned to the the highest bidder” lest you find a heart in red spray paint on your own front steps. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

below grassroots -- politics of self

It isn’t just art about politics that’s political. It depends on how far you want to break it down. How a person feels about themselves has a lot to do with how they relate to other people -- how they treat other people, what they accept from other people, and pretty soon we’re talking politics. If you want to know how people feel about themselves look at their art.

Creating art is a human attribute and it follows us everywhere. A rigid hierarchical culture in Egypt yields the same art with minor variation for thirty five hundred years, while pre-Columbian ceramic vessels from the coast of south america reveal an individual inventiveness, ribald humor, and vivid imagination all indicating the cultural character of a long lost people. ‘Art history’ is about putting boxes in boxes, but history and art can be pretty interesting. Yes, the mentality of the renaissance was decidedly different from the preceding gothic era, and there’s a way we all know this. We see the art.

Nowadays is a free-for-all, all the influences churned together, and it’s possible to pull most anything out of the mix. In the present situation you’re on your own when deciding what sort of influences to come home to. Should you choose art that looks cool to all your friends or just what speaks to you personally? Do you choose art that reinforces your familiar view of life, or something closer to the edge? There isn’t any wrong since it’s just art, after all. If you’d like to own something of value buy original art, but no one gets to tell you of what. Decide who you are and buy the art that expresses it, or live with art you find appealing and find out who you are -- it works both ways at once.

Friday, September 5, 2014

reclaiming the pit -- flowers on slag heaps

The idea behind 'owning art' is reclamation and renewal of art’s grass-roots audience after the massive environmental degradation of abstract expressionist strip-mining, beginning about the middle of the last century. The reason this was done originally was largely political expediency in unrelated areas but as a result weeds abound in a wrecked landscape.

The forces behind the ascendancy of abstraction, in broad terms, were the extremely powerful who suffered severe discomfort at the consciousness raising ability of the universally understood criticisms made by Diego Rivera and others like him, they were legion. Abstractionists were also to benefit from a ruthless international competition in which the American government promoted abstract art as somehow more democratic and individualistic than the collectivized, state glorifying representational art in Russia. 

Abstract art won't cause anyone in power to lose sleep at night and academics can hide their ineptitude behind it, but its riddles all seem goofy in the end. Side effects of removing the depiction of identifiable content from visual art have been devastating for the individual and society, since a most fundamental means of human communication was silenced. The marketing of art has elevated an incestuous royal line of ‘masters’, visual entrepreneurs who turned some minor conceit into a trademark, and that glamorous load in big time galleries has degenerated into monographic imbecilities in just a few generations -- google Hirst, google Koons, google them all.

Representational art, still derided as ‘illusionist’ by old-school abstractionists and their progeny, is capable of transmitting mind to mind much more information than just the time of day in a wheat field, as anyone who has admired Van Gogh will attest. The representational image engages the experience, memory, and mind of the viewer, and even more effectively of the everyday owner, and its sensibilities then participate in whatever the person sees. Did you think art was passive? For those who subscribe to the epic that has become known as ‘contemporary art’, come out from behind your tiara-snatching masquerade and join the rest of us, sighted uprights who can speak without language using pictures.

Monday, August 25, 2014

art's one way mirror -- the invisible audience

Art folks have some pretty insulting ideas about everybody else. Why if it weren't for the progressives in bureaucratic positions passing out grants art would probably die, and the reason so many galleries fail is cretin sports fans are taking up all the parking. In art school students are taught the common folk have no direct interest in petty mind games and that’s probably correct.

‘Contemporary art requires much more from its audience’ intones the resident expert and there’s no doubt. It requires faith, a powerful force shaking the world about now in its more fanatical manifestations, but in art it just entails believing nonsense has significance -- seems almost benign. Damien Hirst has reduced his product line to polka dot and spin paintings done by ‘assistants’, and it’s difficult to compare them to world art and still feel good about our culture, unless of course we just declare ourselves obliviously self-absorbed. Happens all the time.

Not everyone gets on the bus and that includes most people. It doesn’t mean they don’t like art, wouldn’t respond to art, or wouldn’t buy it. They might prefer a more authentic effort from the artist, an image more relevant to their own experience, and maybe a work of art which establishes its presence without a pound of paperwork. Where is this art you ask, and the answer is it’s always been around. It may not have seen sunlight for a while although with recent climate changes new growth is possible. 

This change of climate is simple exposure to the public, the first imperative of retail markets everywhere, and it’s happening now. More art is going up in businesses and shops, and galleries are claiming spaces within walking distance of the new 21C hotel. As more art is seen in galleries, hotels, and alternate venues all around town, worthy area-produced art will rise toward the surface and become visible to the local population. It would be wrong to suggest quality would go down since artists respond to attention and support and get better. People who spend their own money on art can self-educate pretty quickly too, and almost always recognize the better piece side by side. Eventually the art around here might become more relevant and authentic to the community, and more important to people’s lives.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

unquenchable thirst - whiskey river bottled up

There’s an article in the paper today, here in bourbon country, about the burgeoning speculation in bottles of whiskey. There’s a picture of the proud collector of fifty four bottles of the same whiskey, a different label for each of the playing cards in a standard deck, plus both jokers. Somehow this sounds so familiar. Here are people paying fabulous amounts for whiskey they never intend to drink. The magic is in the bottle it comes in and not in the contents. We are now all required to assume this bottle contains an ambrosia so transcendent that if we ever to taste a drop we would immediately try to punch a best friend, abuse a spouse, and pass out contentedly for a three day coma but it could be just coke and vodka for all anyone will ever know.
Spirits are a product I’m not fond of but the parallel works for art because the medium has so little to do with the message. There’s a peculiar mechanism that takes hold when wealth becomes too staggering, and it’s happened in other cultures at other times as well. Rich folks wind up competing to piss away the most money, and without further discussion it’s blatantly unhealthy. The Northwest territories tried to pass a law against the ‘potlatch’, the celebratory burning of furs and breaking of canoes as a form of hospitality among well-to-do native peoples, but it was more likely hard times that finally made them see the light.

There’s nothing wrong with art, itself, but someone’s going to have to crack the lid, break the seal, pour a drink. Better yet let’s open up the bar. Some folks prefer coffee, juice -- there’d be more customers don’t you see? In fact, maybe we should lose the investment pitch altogether, collecting art like vintage cars and porcelain roosters. A better conversation whould be about owning art, living with art, and support for living artists from around here, wherever here happens to be. What’s in the bottle would suddenly be more important than the bottle, and what’s so wrong with that?

Monday, August 11, 2014

painting by numbers -- square one revisited

So what’s a painting about, any painting? Representational or abstract, it doesn’t matter. Here is a flat surface, probably rectangular but even that isn’t real important. On it is an arrangement of colors and the same questions apply -- does it have presence, does it command the space it occupies, and would a person continue to look at it even though they see it everyday? 

Could be minimal, could be contemporary, might be a visual cliche -- Van Gogh painted pots of flowers. However the artist chooses to get it done, historical or religious references, found labels and ticket stubs, appropriated cartoon characters or any other sort of image, doesn’t matter. It either sticks in your head or it doesn’t. Not only is the subject secondary to the main point of painting, it won’t be made better because a famous person painted it. Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, could paint a raised fist that would read dynamically from a block away, but it was his paint and not his reputation that made this happen.

Might seem strange to knock down all the fences and let all the art mingle, hip to square, museum old to contemporary, famous and unknown, but these distinctions have always been plastic and arbitrary, the province of art bureaucrats and professional experts in their castles made of matchsticks. Does the art convey a message, well, maybe it does but that’s a separate issue. Could be about religious faith, celebrating a sports hero, or selling soap, and being good art would aid those causes, but they aren’t the art.

Starting from the same blank surface that’s always been there art has it’s own agenda, and a successful work of art is self-contained, true to its own logic, and speaks to the viewer in some fundamental way beyond the subject. It’s up to the individual to find, in the avalanche of visual sludge drifting by, the art that doesn’t get old for them. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

realism in art -- exalting the audience

Just saw a movie about people I’d never meet doing things totally beyond my everyday experience, yet every line and every gesture seemed completely authentic and totally human, based on what I’ve seen in my own life so far. It was a significant work of art and the last by one of the premier actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman, but somehow it seems out of place among the comic book heroes and undead horror-comedies. It was about spies, but Hoffman’s character didn’t leap from a helicopter onto the top of a moving train or do any of the other standard spy-movie stuff like walking calmly away from huge explosions and artfully dodging bullets.

For the audience who sees both it must require an enormous shifting of gears. The action movies seem so joyously filled with conflict and mayhem following plots that lurch along made up on the go as all manner of jagged 3-D objects fly out into the audience, and folks seem to love it. As guilty pleasure some of this stuff is pretty guilty. You’d think real life wouldn’t stand a chance. Real life is slow -- waiting for elevators, smoking a cigarette, talking in a car.

What we have here are two different visions of art and life. The fantastic movies are called escapism, meaning real life is tedious and stagnant so stimulate me so much I’ll forget for a while. Afterward the traffic leaving the parking lot seems to stand still and the burger from the drive-thru tastes flat -- no kaboom, no chases. The other point of view, called realism, uses its resources to recreate a situation and plot that people with common experience can self-verify as plausibly true. They leave the theater thinking about the story, the motives of the characters, and maybe even their own lives. A fair number seem to like it this way too. 

Side by side, box-office vs box-office, it’s hard to say which one wins since they compete for the same production dollars, in the end based on ticket sales. Wouldn’t it be interesting if realism began to kick fantasy’s ass, although this isn’t a prediction you understand. Just something in the breeze suggests that an appetite for authenticity and self-verification along with the dedication of serious actors and writers might turn the tide.