Monday, September 29, 2008

The Marriage of Form and Content

It has been weeks since my visit to NYC and my last post. Like many in Cincinnati, I’ve been recovering from the storm, but mostly, I’ve been reviewing many of the works I saw on my trip. Unlike most visits, this time I devoted a couple of days to the Chelsea galleries.

Up until last year, I’ve spent most of my time working as an historian so would more likely venture into museums, so my visit to Chelsea caught me off guard. The number of galleries truly surprised me and I was not sure where to start. Because I was not in the city on a Thursday, I was unable to take advantage of the gallery openings that are normally scheduled that evening. But the handful I did visit proved there are incredibly interesting discussions in the art world from social, political, to formal that challenge.

At Stefan Stux Gallery I was confronted by Aaron Johnson’s large paintings that make up the show Star-Crossed. Many were humorous and yet others were frightening as the artist combines a comedic style to very serious subjects that implicate the current American culture. His subjects include the linking of church and state, patriotism, and the current wars. But it is not these themes that are as interesting as Johnson’s reverse painted acrylic polymer peel method. He paints completely in reverse onto plastic film building multiple layers of acrylic polymer. Then he applies these directly onto American flags peeling away the plastic. These frightening images on the American flag indict our patriotism. Johnson's painting method captures best his political message.

I’m not sure Cincinnati’s average gallery hopper would be comfortable walking into a gallery filled with Johnson’s work, but I am certain Cincinnati’s artists would lap it up. Not just content, but the focus on form, style, and medium as integral to the work is what filled the galleries I visited in NYC. I think this recognition of the marriage of form and content is what is missing in many local exhibitions. Cincinnati's arts calendar is filled with thematic shows and exhibitions centered around medium, but I seldom see works that recognize both as integral to the whole. This is what I hope to see in the coming season.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Art memory

Teaching art history for a few years and studying for much longer, I feel pretty confident about my ability to notice certain visual details in art. And happy to have introduced so many to the same. Those who have taken art history classes know the challenge of sitting in a dark classroom being fed slide after slide of images with the hope that enough detail is retained for the essay exam or that awful art identification quiz.

My current visit to NYC museums and galleries including The Met and MoMA has taught me that no matter how well we can identify works of art or even analyze these works, seeing them in person refreshes our eye for detail. I've often shown students J.M.W. Turner's emphasis on light in his history landscape paintings as a technique pointing towards the Impressionists. But my visit this week to the Turner show reminded me that seeing Turner's later works in person is no match for the digital slides I showed in class. The later paintings by Turner that make up the end of the exhibition are almost indistinguishable from Monet's well-known landscapes. Every gallery I have visited in New York this week reminded me of the same point. No matter how well versed we are in the arts, we must remember to resist relying on digital reproductions of works of art and insist on seeing them in person as often as possible.

In the coming days I will write more about the importance of visiting museums and galleries as an exercise in engaging art honestly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

To things lost

I really did not expect to be moved by the 350 or so dresser drawers that make up Jana Napoli’s Floodwall: A Katrina Memorial currently on display at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center here in Cincinnati, OH. Though, I was immediately surprised by the grandness in scale of the wall. These drawers of various sizes and styles and clearly tattered are arranged in a grid over 8 feet high and 96 ft long that almost eerily evokes stability. It is this blending of strength in form and the fragility of loss that left me a bit unsettled.

The interactive nature of the show is what excites me most about Napoli’s tribute. The viewer can touch and even carefully open and close the drawers. We find in the drawers expected dirt and debris and in one instance, I found a lone sock. Viewers are also encouraged to leave a note in any of the drawers with a promise from the artist delivery to its former owner effectively personalizing the memorial.

Walking behind the wall, I saw the artist had addressed each drawer. These addresses and the show’s map marking the sites each drawer Napoli collected seem to recall home. But perhaps because I’ve never visited New Orleans, this information does not really touch my sense of place. Not until I watched the accompanying video clips of different parts of the city. These videos are displayed on four separate screens labeled according to the part of city and Katrina’s flood level at that location. They appear to be home movies depicting everyday life, life before the flood. That the videos are black and white and grainy, I think is meant to offer a sense of nostalgia. Though, that may be a bit heavy handed on the artist’s part since the flood did not occur that long ago.

Finally, it was Norma Jackson’s story that put me over the edge. I remember hearing many stories like hers. Stories of those who did not evacuate when warned so were stranded for far too long. While watching her tell her story videotaped for the exhibition, I along with a couple of other visitors shook my head. I was reminded of the embarrassing failure of response to those who needed help. A week after visiting the show, I am still haunted by Ms. Jackson saying, “after 3 days, we ran out of ice.” Three days?!

Forced to exit the show through the main gallery I tried unsuccessfully to avoid the sight of the massive wall of drawers Napoli constructed. I was saddened, embarrassed, and even angered by the unnecessarily great loss of life after Katrina. This large collection of drawers, which the artists suggests represents what we the viewers “hold to be precious and sacred,” pointed out to me instead a wall of things that were rescued. In Napoli’s attempt to humanize the loss through the displaying of everyday objects as treasured items, she dehumanizes us. And I think this is a well-deserved implication of the loss.