Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Have You Seen Me? or Miscellaneous Post

Have you seen this guy?
That fellow wearing the suit made of plastic bags is Michael Spires of Columbia. I ran across this photo recently and laughed and wondered what ever became of the notorious Mr. Spires. I think he told me he was leaving school to join some branch of the military. This photo was taken by one of his classmates after he got up in the middle of working on one of his projects and decided to make and model a suit of plastic bags. This guy was a hoot and I joked with him that in 20 years he'd probably be a senator in our fine state. I have not checked any government websites, but if you know Mr. (or Senator) Spires and know what he's doing these days, please let me know.

The summer has been productive so far and there are new sculptures and drawings on the website. There should be a link to the website right over there. You'll find a few new sculptures and 2 or 3 new drawings. There's also a new exhibit coming up in Tryon, NC.
There's lots more reading and thinking and sketching going on, so I'm hoping for more creative production soon.
Cute kid alert:
For some reason this reminds me of the mid 1980's. Or that vampire movie starring Jim Carrey before he got famous and started talking out of his rump. I suppose watching cartoons teaches children certain things about visual communication. Tonight he pointed to a drawing of a frog with a down turned eyebrow and said, "OOOOOh, look, he's MAD!". That's a pretty subtle clue for a little guy to pick up on. Then he took me to his room and told me we were going to watch TV. He instructed me exactly where to look on the wall while he took a ladder from his fire truck and used it as a remote control. I think we watched several shows before he turned the wall off and went to bed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

You Keep Using That Word

What is it that makes something beautiful? What do we mean when we say that something is beautiful? Most of us have been conditioned to think of beauty in terms of visual appeal. We may think of a famous painting, a lovely person or a sunset as beautiful. But why?

Is Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” beautiful? Truly this subtly smiling lady would not be deemed beautiful by modern fashion standards and in fact, we may even admit that she’s a bit homely. Perhaps it’s the painting itself that is beautiful. Closer inspection will reveal a simple barren landscape behind the modestly clad female subject but nothing that we can really say that would stand out to us as beautiful. The painting, however, is excellently crafted by one of the greatest painters ever to live. Is that what we mean by beautiful?

Visual attraction does exist in humans and we need look no further than romantic interest to find evidence of this fact. We may, in fact, find someone so visually appealing that we stop in our tracks and stare. The basic makeup of most humans is the same: two arms, two legs, a head, a torso. Nothing breathtaking about that. Yet we distinguish between two very similar humans quickly labeling one ugly and one beautiful. Is it the combination of physical features? Does it matter if these features are real or manufactured? Is this really beauty…or perhaps simply sexual desire?

The most stunning of sunsets that many of us have captured with our cameras at one time or another indicate how light from a star is bent and scattered as it enters Earth’s atmosphere and makes its way through dust and pollution to our rods and cones. There’s nothing inherently beautiful about the science of how we see a sunset, yet we pause at what we call beauty and gather our cameras to capture that moment. Perhaps it is not the clouds and atmosphere and light that we find beautiful, but rather it is that moment we are privileged to experience.

Beauty is more than visual.

One of the time tested definitions of beauty as it relates to the visual and performing arts is that an object, performance or event provides the spectator with a moment of transcendence. This moment occurs when the object, performance or event becomes something more than a literal interpretation of itself. At this moment the art urges the viewer to think about something beyond or greater than itself. In fact, the object, performance, or event no matter how glorious or visually appealing simply becomes the pathway that allows the viewer to travel to a different level of interpretation and acknowledgement of truth. Writer Don Miller said that the purpose of art is “to point ourselves and those around us to a reality greater than the one we know and toward which only the imagination may point.” It is this experience that gives the viewer the internal feeling of having experienced something beautiful. Consider the following examples:

"Under The Table" by Robert Therrien
In Robert Therrien’s “Under The Table” (1994, 10’ x 26’ x 18’) the viewer is presented with a gigantic dining room table and chair set. Therrien has recreated a very common image and a sight that most people in western cultures see every day. Yet the dramatic increase in scale of this everyday image creates a moment of transcendence for the viewer. To be sure, there is nothing exceptionally beautiful about this very simple wooden dinette set, yet the immediate response of the over sized furniture is one that takes the viewer out of the present and into their past. One of the first things a viewer will realize when looking up at the large table and chairs is that the last time they had this particular point of view was likely when they were children playing in the kitchen floor of their homes. At this moment, the viewer is no longer looking at a generic table and chair set, but they are taken back to specific childhood memories and to the fears and joys those memories may bring along. The viewer moves beyond analyzation of a physical object in space and into the contemplation of the beauty of innocence, hope and promise. Memories of such individual experiences will most certainly vary from person to person and the reactions to such memories may range from the very positive to the very negative.

In a 2005 live performance by the band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy provides a different kind of transcendent moment for his audience. Starting out the Chicago concert the band plays Tweedy’s song “Misunderstood” and at one point Tweedy begins to sing the word “nothing” over and over and over again (36 times if I counted correctly). As he continues to repeat the word into what seems like infinity while the band also repeats the same chord along with the word a change begins to take place. The listener has time to move from thinking about the novelty of repeating a word in a song for emphasis to becoming slightly annoyed by the monotony of the repetition to wondering if Tweedy is lip synching and the recording has hung up, to finally moving beyond the literal nature of the single repeated word and into thinking about the symbolic meaning of someone speaking this word into infinity. Somewhere along the way Tweedy is able to transcend the literal interpretation of the single word and gently direct the listener toward something beyond. (To experience Tweedy's moment, check out Wilco's 2005 release "Kicking Television" Live double album. Specifically, the song "Misunderstood" right around the 4 minute 25 second mark.)

Mural by Mark Mulroney
Mark Mulroney creates large scale murals that change how a viewer interacts with an interior space. His paintings make use of a flat presentation of planes of color that rely heavily on a good sense of design and a good sense of humor. The images Mulroney uses in his murals are representational but maintain a healthy ambiguity that prevents the works from being read or interpreted too quickly or easily. Many of his images are reminiscent of things seen in comics, coloring books, or print ads and Mulroney's use of such subject matter allows him to tap into a more wide ranging collective viewer lexicon. His paintings present themselves without pretense and bank on the fact that most viewers will recognize at least pieces of the images and that they will then try to connect those images in some sort of narrative in order to form an interpretation of the work.
While Mulroney's images are clean and well crafted the subject matter can tend toward the dark, threatening or downright bizarre. The human forms are not "pretty" or idealized and many images are distorted to suggest pain. It would be easy for the viewer to quickly dismiss the idea that any real beauty existed in his work without taking the idea of transcendence into mind. Subjects in his art works are painted in various sections of the walls sometimes but not always connected by visual cues. These visual elements may not be in a linear order but may be arranged as a writer would arrange elements of a sentence to communicate a coherent thought. As the viewer engages in this visual act of translation, the sum of the collection of images becomes much more important than the individual parts. It is here that a moment of transcendence is achieved and the viewer is moved beyond the images and into the greater meaning of the symbolism. The hieroglyphics on the wall may be interesting as individual symbols but the greater meaning is derived from understanding the meaning of all the symbols together as a complete thought.

Beauty has not been the most popular term among Contemporary artists and perhaps this is due to the misunderstanding and misuse of the word. When the Post Impressionists stepped more toward the area of Abstraction they also stepped away from the goal of simply portraying visually appealing objects on canvas. Instead of leaving beauty behind they were, in fact, pursuing a better definition of the word and attempting to point us toward a greater reality. These early visual pioneers were beginning to understand that beauty was more than a desirable object and was something that could not be communicated in literal terms. They needed to discover new ways to communicate ideas that were beyond the reach of words and just outside the grasp of the literal image. They and the stylistic movements that followed them have helped us realize that beauty is more than just the presentation of an appealing image; it is an experience that moves us beyond that image and into a transformative moment.
(As for the image at the top, don't judge me. Katie Holmes is pretty)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Thin Places

"Italy Series Village I" by Marge Loudon Moody

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend an artist lecture given by Marge Loudon Moody, an abstract painter living in South Carolina. I was impressed by the straightforward approach Mrs. Moody took in addressing her audience in a small gallery setting. In such institutional environments it is not uncommon to hear artists wax poetic about the lofty goals they have for their work and to fill the air with large vocabulary words and references important only to those who may have majored in Art History in college. This type of approach does nothing to endear the audience to abstract art and if anything it increases the width of the great chasm between the average person and contemporary art. In this context Mrs. Moody's honest and personable approach was fresh and comforting.

Moody began with personal background information and made sure the audience knew that she began with a very traditional arts education in Scotland where her focus was on observational painting. After relocating to the United States in 1982 she unexpectedly began working in non-representational collage. This move was unexpected because of her traditional training yet it was a path she would follow for the next 20 years. Her most recent work (and the body of work about which she was lecturing) is representational in that it begins with observations of her immediate surroundings but she has abstracted her imagery allowing the colors, forms, and spaces to take center stage.

The gallery was filled with large and small canvases Moody has covered with vibrant colors, strong lines, and implied spaces. Some paintings give way to pieces of landscapes or chunks of architecture and hints of interior and exterior light sources. Each painting tends to attract visual attention from across the room and the placement of the subject matter draws the viewer closer into illusionary space. The hints and nudges of almost recognizable objects play a cat and mouse game with viewer's need to interpret and solve each work of art.

After getting the historical items out of the way, Moody moved confidently into discussing how often viewers wonder about the validity of abstract art. She quoted people who had wondered aloud if they or their children couldn't produce something just as good with no artistic training. Reference was made to viewers who clearly thought that artists just threw paint at a surface and carelessly produced art with no meaning and then made up stories about it after the fact.

Moody did not dismiss these ideas as always false nor did she dismiss the people who had these thoughts about abstract art. She simply explained in the tone of a kind friend over coffee exactly how she went about the process of creating her paintings and exactly what she was trying to communicate in her work.

In describing that she almost always began by observing a specific physical location as the subject of a painting, she also touched on exactly why a certain location might lend itself to being the focus of a work of art. One idea she introduced was the idea that some places we experience in our personal lives retain some special meaning or importance to us. These places may be significant because of some event or personal experience we observe there but sometimes a place can just feel special to us for reasons we can not explain logically. Some are drawn to a stream in the mountains. Others are pulled by the tides to the seashore. On a smaller scale though, there may be locations we see everyday that retain this idea of significance. For some it could be a certain water tower half covered with vines that they pass on the highway commute. For others it may be a room in their home where they have tea and unwind by a window.

Moody spoke of a grassy field near her home, a particular view through a couple of rooms in her house, and the view from a window in Italy. She spoke of her feeling of closeness with each location and compared this feeling that defies logical explanation to the idea of "thin places" an idea held dear to the Celts in Britain and Ireland for centuries. She cited examples from poets and writers who defined these "thin places" as specific physical locations where the veil between the physical world and the spiritual world is very thin. These "thin places" were thought to allow overlap and passage between the two worlds. These places were the sites of ceremonies and gatherings held by the ancients and many are still spots frequently visited today. Moody suggested that these "thin places" may exist anywhere, even in our immediate surroundings.

A part of what Moody is attempting to do is explore just what makes these places feel so special. She is attempting to assess the physical and emotional contents of such places and to find ways to communicate those ideas to her viewers. Here is an example of the artist trying to find ways to convey her questions, ideas, and feelings to the viewer instead of simply passing along factual information. This seems to be one of the important aspects of high quality abstract art. Whereas a realistic rendering of a landscape or community may tell the viewer exactly what something looks like at a particular time, such a rendering will often fail at conveying a range of feelings or questions. For the abstract artist, being able to observe and render the subject matter accurately is not the ultimate goal, but rather it is the first step in a process of discovery and communication. Instead of simply making a statement of fact, the abstract artist is interested in engaging the viewer in a conversation and a transfer of ideas. The abstract artist is not saying, "That's the way it is" they are saying "Here's what I've been thinking about this idea, what do you think?".

This relationship between the artist and the viewer is one based on mutual trust. Sadly this trust has been broken over the years by poor quality artists who work under the guise of "abstract artist" when they are simply taking the easy route to making personal or political statements with their work and by viewers who dismiss abstract artists as people who have no real talent other than passing themselves off as real artists when they should probably be working as ad copy writers or political speech writers. Each breech of trust feeds the other in a continuous cycle. If this trust relationship is to be repaired it will be by artists like Marge Moody who are stunningly honest with their audience about what they are doing and why they are doing it.