Friday, January 3, 2014

Art Blog: Ah, but WHAT IS IT?

During the very early years of art school, something happened during one of my classes that has stayed with me for decades. It was a true art life lesson. In fact, it was one of the best lessons I got during all those years of art schooling. It was an ordinary evening. I think the class was a drawing class. I had a professor I loved for his way of thinking. I was a kindred spirit. He had set up the slide projector (this is back in the old days!). The room was long and narrow. Easels littered the room like a forest of metal trees. I positioned myself in the far left of the very back of the room. After he fiddled with the projector, he calmly went over to the wall and switched the lights off. He walked back to the projector and said "Now, be quiet!". He then pressed the on button. Slides of images started glowing on the screen. All the photos were close ups of textures, forms, line, color, etc.

Almost immediately, students in the class started yelling stuff: "leaves, cactus, seashells, car tire, etc......" He yelled "STOP! Be quiet!" Despite his warning, people kept trying to identify each image that popped up on the wall. After a few minutes, the professor started yelling and quickly shut off the projector. Then, he ran out of the art studio. We all just stood there, finally silent. You could tell he was PISSED off. Most of us "wet behind the earlings" didn't understand why he was so upset. It took me a few years, but I finally understood his angst.

I had a flashback of this scenario recently on Facebook. I saw a post by
Frank Strunk III. He posted a pic of one of his works.

There was no title or description. It was just a beautiful metal form. It was a sculpture. People started to comment immediately and the nouns started to fly. It is THIS. It is THAT. It is WHATEVER. I commented it is a sculpture. It doesn't have to BE anything else. This made me start thinking about why we need to label things. Why do we humans feel the need to name what we see? Apparently, this is a common response to our world and especially, when we see art. Are we trying to make sense of what we see or is this a push to understand things we don't understand? It seems to have to be SOMETHING other than just art.

Almost simultaneously to this incident, I watched an interview with sculptor Richard Serra on the Charlie Rose Show. This same topic became part of the conversation. Currently, Serra is showing his work at two Gagosian Gallery locations in New York. The work is beautiful, monumental works of steel. Mr. Rose mentioned that one of the pieces was being referred to as the "Cemetery" by some patrons.

Serra balked at this reference. In fact, he seemed flustered for a moment. Rose saw his reaction to that interpretation and asked why it seemed to upset him. He went on to tell how giving things names limits our art experience. To use "monikers" tends to give in to a type of judgment that narrows the reaction to the art. He went on to describe what a cemetery was: burial ground with stones with words, things lie beneath, etc. He emphatically defended his work as being none of those things. Instead, he wanted observers to walk into the piece and experience the weight, form, and juxtaposition of the materials without a preconceived notion of what is was supposed to BE.

Serra at the Gagosian Gallery, NY
Runs through January 25, 2014


Greg Urbano said...

Great perspective on how we describe art, or why we shouldn't even try!

Sheree Rensel said...

From Roopa Dudley via G+
As an artist myself I say this. We cannot expect the world to stop believing and seeing what they think the painting or a sculpture means to them. It is in our DNA to make sense of our environment and that is what makes us intelligent. I also believe it is the responsibility of the artist to define their work so that people don't have to "guess". For example, the sculptor could have easily said in his statement "I like to explore and exploit forms, shapes and textures". But he did not. To me it feels like he wanted to create a drama and then he got frustrated because no one made the comments that he was expecting to hear. We all have responsibility as artists to express what we do and why we do it with clarity. As far as the next sculpture goes, it did look like a cemetery. Sorry, but we as human like to relate and to me that is exactly why I like being an artist.

Sheree Rensel said...

Roopa said: "We all have responsibility as artists to express what we do and why we do it with clarity."

I don't agree. Artists have a responsibility to make the art. The interpretation is the responsibility of the viewer. This is what I believe.

JafaBrit's Art said...

Great post, and I agree with you. I find it tiresome being told what I "should" do as an artist and what my responsibility is.

artjas said...

This is why I look forward to your post. Great insight.