Saturday, December 20, 2014

Week Six: Art Now (November 25-27)

One of the challenges of understanding contemporary art is that a lot of it deals with questions like: is this art? It challenges the viewers notion and expectations of what art can be. This has led to a wide variety of practices and hence the art world has become vastly inclusive. In many ways, this is a positive thing. One example is that no one is excluded from making art based on the type of work and practice that they engage with.
A negative effect of this inclusiveness, is that, to the outsider, it seems that anything can be art. One could say that this is true, but it would be harder to convince someone that art is anything. Duchamp used this notion to challenge the art world during the early Modernist era. Artists like Rauschenberg, Warhol, Prince, and Koons have developed this idea further, bringing this method of artmaking (especially in Koons's case) into the realm of manufacturing consumer goods. Now, I'm not sure it is Koons's intention to create his work merely to make money, but it has set a precedent that other artist may pick up on and take even further. I think that art is in danger of losing its soul if it is created with the sole purpose of being treated like a commodity.
The often heard remark "my kid could do that" which applied to early Modernist painting has perhaps changed to "I could do that," when it comes to art that deals with appropriation.  The connotation here is that art is easy. Which is why it disturbs me when celebrities like Jay-Z and Miley Cyrus announce to the world that they are now Artists because they make objects that look like art using the tools of appropriation and Koons's practice as a model. Cyrus using ready made objects and Jay-Z appropriating strategies of performance artists like Abramovic.
The reason I react strongly to this is because these public figures are using appropriation not to critique or question the traditions of art, but to make consumer objects that are touted as high art and thus fetch auction prices. They are exploiting the cultural prestige that is normally reserved for art for their own self-promotional ends. I think this has changed the way art is perceived by the general public and how genuine artists create their practices.
Now what does this mean to me? I'm stubbornly devout to painting. I'm stubbornly devout to figuration in painting. How do I make an art that is relevant in the contemporary art world, but that also keeps its authenticity and its soul? I know that I want to make images that act in a way opposite to pop culture imagery; images that the viewer has to spend time with to unravel, that they cannot scan quickly and then move on, images that do not rely on shock or instant grabbiness. Does this mean I make an anti-art painting? Or a painting that strongly adheres to its tradition? So many questions, so little time!

I blame you, Marcel.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

Week Five: Postmodernism continued (November 20)

I want to talk about Jeff Wall's piece Picture for Her. I've come across Wall's work before when I took an Intro to Photography and Video class, but I didn't respond to it. I knew it was referencing Manet's painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, but I hadn't realized it was about the gaze.
When I first was introduced to this image, I was prejudiced against the validity of photography as a medium for art, mostly because I hadn't been exposed to art photography before. I'm also a devout believer in painting and saw photography as a rival medium, one that I wanted to fight against. This was mainly why I took that class; to understand the enemy. My initial reaction was that the image was too opaque for me to engage with. Partly due to seeing it in a class room on a large, poorly lit video screen, but also because it is very confusing; what is the artist or the model looking at? What is going on here? What is this space we are looking into? We learned that Wall used Manet's painting as a historical reference to the picture, but aside from the mirror in the image, I didn't get the reference or see why that was important. Was it just appropriating another artist's idea? There were too many questions for me to understand what was going on, so I tuned it out.
A few years passed during which I took ART 151 and a painting course. I learned more about Manet's intent with using the gaze in his work as confrontation. He wanted to question the nature of looking at a painting and how the Salon had created a strict tradition about what should be seen in a painting and how it consumed by the bourgeois viewer. Manet wanted to break away from paintings of seductive, submissive, and demure female nudes that would titillate the viewer. He wanted to turn the tables; have the model look out at you and make you, the viewer, self-conscious. Wall revisits this idea adding current Feminist ideology and how the viewer engages with art.
The traditional idea of woman as subject in art was being questioned and attacked, not only in terms of image of woman, but also how it functioned in the institution of the museum gallery. The idea of the male gaze was questioned; women are constantly under the visual scrutiny of men in a patriarchal society. Women no longer wanted to be objects to be consumed by the eyes of men. The idea of the gaze was reflected in the art of the past and museums were criticized for propagating this view by not having many women artists included in their modern collections. With these debates about equality for women in the arts happening, Wall presents us with Picture for Women.
The model in Wall's image is not an object for our eyes to consume. She stands to the left of centre, looking expectantly, almost bored. She's waiting for the artist to snap the shot. She is seemingly looking out at the viewer, but her line of sight is slightly above our right shoulder. She is clothed in what I would assume to be what the average woman would wear during that time. She is pretty but there is nothing suggestive about her. She's not coming onto you. She is standing there, waiting. Since she is not making direct eye contact, we wonder with whom she is engaged? She is looking past us.
What is slightly disturbing about her is we are left wondering what she is looking at. We figure she must be making eye contact with the artist who is to the right of the camera. This is where the confusion starts because then we realize that the background in the image is actually a mirror; it is reflecting back the whole scene.  To make matters more complicated, we realize that our first perception of where the model is located in the image is wrong. If our first impression were true, we'd see the back of her body and not the front. The whole image is the mirror; it is all being reflected back out at us. We are reminded that we are not looking into a two dimensional window but at a flat surface; the plane.
I think this image fascinates me most because it plays on that idea of image as plane that the Modernists were dealing with. I love how Wall has brought that into the context of photography; taking this image beyond representation. It's difficult to grasp the notion that what we are looking at is a flat surface with colour and shapes. These colours and shapes create an illusion of space and I think it's amazing that Wall broke out to the fourth wall using photography. And yes, I have a better appreciation for photography now.
Picture for Women, Jeff Wall

Week Four: Intro to Postmodernism (November 13)

Postmodern art is elusive. There doesn't seem to be a way to visually recognize it (outside of postmodern architecture), which was not the case with movements like Minimalism or Abstract Expressionism. It's the philosophical underpinnings of the art where the postmodern-ness of the work comes in.
We talked about a few key characteristics in class. One of the aspects that I find interesting is the idea of introducing irony into art work. Irony is saying something in a way that means something else (often the opposite of what appears to being said). You see that in Mapplethorp's photographs, such as Self Portrait with Whip. What at first glance seems to be a sexually graphic image of the artist with a whip up his butt, is actually a tonally beautiful black and white image. Formally, it is a lot like a Modernist image, but it's the content and the reasons behind the creation of the image that takes it into the postmodern sphere. The irony being that is a depiction of graphic sexuality is done beautifully in a traditional sense. One would think the image would be shocking or inappropriate to the viewer, but the image, in terms of technique and finish, is very traditional, even conservative.
The idea of plurality versus singularity is brought up with Postmodernism. The Moderns were trying to create a singular image, a reduction of everything into one thing. Artists reacted against this by bringing the world back into art, only this time, the world would have associations to artist's social class, race, origin, sexual orientation, etc. This meant that each artist's world would be vastly different from the other, leading to a multitude of visions and versions of what reality looked like. In Mapplethorp's case, dealing with issues of sexual identity. I find the idea of plurality kind of ironic in itself. The fact that each artist has their own view (which is unique or singular to them) which is then placed into the pluralist realm of art: a multitude of unique views. It takes many singular views to create a pluralist ideology.
I think the trickiest part about understanding what it means to be Postmodern is the idea of multiple truths. In terms of art, one artist's depiction of reality being just as valid as another artist's depiction which may be contradictory. As an artmaker, how do you decide which is the truth that you want to depict? How do you know what you are depicting is the truth? Is it important that it be truthful?
Part of me thinks that Postmodernism is just bullshit, but then I see the irony in that statement because that's my own truth that I'm expressing, which is Postmodern in itself. It becomes this weird cyclical argument leading to much anxiety when trying to decide on what to paint or make. Perhaps it's the expression of this anxiety which is at the heart of contemporary art?
Flowers, Robert Mapplethorp

Self Portrait with Whip, Robert Mapplethorp

Week Three: Performance and Video art (November 4-6)

I'm glad that we are covering the beginnings of video art in class this week because aside from painting, this is the medium that excites me the most. Video art has a lot of potential for me, I think, because it a) it's familiar to most of us who grew up watching television, and b) because it includes the visual languages of painting and performance, but also includes sound.
Video art deals with a language that most of us in the western world are intimately familiar with; television. It uses moving images on a screen but unlike film, the images can be broadcast in real time so there is an immediacy to it. In this way, it also has voyeuristic connotations (which Acconci explores in a work like Theme Song). There is an interesting tension created between the viewer and screen, and the artist and camera lens. The artist knows we will watch them at some point, but they have to perform the work with no audience creating an element of self-consciousness. As viewers, we become very aware of the camera as foreground to the work. This heightens the sense that perhaps we shouldn't be watching this or are watching this by accident because the artist forgot to hit pause on the recorder.
Video art uses sound. This makes it a more attractive medium than photography because it involves more of the senses (in a general sense). You can see the influence of Cage in using the ambient sounds present during the recording instead of overlaying a traditional musical score.
Video art also uses time. Moving images require space/time to move through and thus engages the viewer in a prescribed duration of time. Unlike a photograph which you can potentially scan in a few seconds, video art asks the viewer to spend some time with the work. These early pieces also do not use any editing so the duration of the piece is the same for the artist as it is for the viewer; a shared experience.
What I like about learning about the beginnings of Video art is to see how the artists were searching out the language of the medium: experimenting and seeing what would stick. Nauman moving through space, Baldassari lifting his arms, Serra grabbing pieces of lead that are dropping from above are all very minimal actions and may be boring for some viewers. I think it is because these actions are boring is what makes them significant. Using these simple actions enabled the artists to be free of resorting to a traditional narrative as in television or film. The viewer is left with the questions what are they doing?, what is going on here? In the tradition of minimalism, what you see is what you see, enabling the video art piece to become art.
The fact that these pieces are not edited makes them seem more real because there is no polishing done to them. I think this is an interesting point; a medium that relies on a pre-recorded sequence of images mediated through a screen seems more like our lives. Perhaps this is how we perceive the world?
My only criticism with Video art is that it relies too much on technology and gear. Photography shares this same problem. It will be interesting to learn more about how artists have tried to deal with this issue. I'm aware of the work of Mark Lewis, Bill Viola, and Douglas Gordon so it will be fascinating for me to see how this develops.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (in situ), Douglas Gordon

Week Two: Process, Performance, Installation, and lead in to Video (October 28-30)

I wanted to write about the question of where the art is? Whenever there is a new and radical art, one of the main criticisms of it tend to be that critics can't seem to identify where the art is in the piece. This had a precedence as far back as Duchamp and possibly even as early as Goya, but especially now that we are talking about Concept and Land Art, it seems like particularly relevant point to think about.
Traditionally, the art object is where the art resides. A work of art, made skilfully and adhering to accepted traditions, was easy to define as art. It was an object that you could seperate from the world as distinctly Art. It wasn't until the Avant-Garde (and especially Duchamp) began to question the idea of what made an object Art; everyday objects were used to blur the line between Art and the world.
I think Conceptual Art and Land Art have taken and expanded on this idea. In fact, it propels the work. Partly due to the commodification of art objects and the rise of the art market, these artists wanted to make art that defied those institutions. They were reacting to the seemingly decorative and elitist Formalist art that Greenberg had championed and which seemed to be a dead-end for art.
Conceptual art makes the idea more important than the form it takes. The form then is secondary to the idea making the object almost redundant. This practice made art that was ephemeral like LeWitt's wall drawings that would be painted over once the exhibition was over. This idea breaks down the art as owned object in a radical way because if the object isn't important, then the idea is the art: is it possible to own an idea?
Process art pushed this idea further. An artist would create an art-making strategy by using the language of their given media and to accept the results, no matter what the form took shape as. The making of the thing became more important than the thing. A work like Long's Walking in a Line is shaped by the process of his walking in a field to create a line on the landscape (leading to Land Art, below), but the form it takes is secondary to act of its making. It is also ephemeral and goes beyond being an object that someone can own.
Land Art develops this idea another step farther and takes the art beyond the confines of the gallery and into the landscape. The art is defiantly beyond object so there cannot be ownership of it. Smithson created a large spiral in a salt lake, drawing/sculpting into the earth itself; making the world a canvas or frame of reference in which the art exists. To make the matter more difficult, the viewer must seek the art out, which is often in an isolated site.
This begs the question again, where does the art reside? I'd say that the art resides in the idea of opening up art to the larger canvas of the world (and cosmos like in the work of Holt or Turrell) and there is something poetic about that. We live in the canvas on which art is made. There are no limits to the canvas. The world is ever-changing and alive, therefore so is art. The Avant-Garde tried to bring the world into art, but Land artists have made art out of the world.
James Turrell, Crater's Eye from Roden Crater Project

Week One: Minimalism leading into Post-Minimalism (October 21-23)

For the journal entry for this first week, I wanted to respond to the idea of beauty in contemporary art. Beauty is a difficult idea to talk about. What makes something beautiful? What is beautiful when it comes to appreciating contemporary art? Why is beauty important especially since there are so many other criteria in which to evaluate a work of art?
In class we talked a little bit about Kant and the difference between something being beautiful and personal preference. The difference is beauty is in the thing and it is something you can agree on or describe that is outside of self. Personal preference is about how you like something, subjective, and relies on criteria you have set out yourself. We talked about beauty in art being supplanted by various things like talent, expression, etc. There are other ways to evaluate a work of art aside from whether it is beautiful or not and it seems that generally, beauty is out of the equation in contemporary art. I think, though, that even though beauty is no longer how we judge an artwork, that's not to say it's not a part of the work. Beauty, according to Kant, seems to go beyond a mere appreciation of the formal or visual qualities of a work of art. It stimulates an intuitive response, a felt response that you cannot explain rationally. It also goes beyond our own personal experience, towards a universal appreciation.
Beauty in art has been closely related to Academic painting and is synonymous with good taste. The criteria for something to be beautiful was dictated by the authoritative nature of Salon painting (the Academy telling you what you should consider to be beautiful). Beauty then has associations with the notion of bourgeois taste and this is something that any Avant-Garde art would have tried to distance itself from if it wanted to be truly progressive. You can see this as evident in Duchamp's Fountain as you can in Andre's Lever: art that challenges the current bourgeois idea of what art is.
I think the reason why beauty isn't discussed often in art anymore is because it seems outdated, kind of like saying art is magical. I mean, it certainly could be seen as magical (ie. illusionistic space on a flat surface), but most viewers may back away slowly and smile nervously if the artist presents the work in that way. I, personally, think this is a product of modern life, we don't seek beauty anymore. We are cynical about it, don't trust it.  Instead we rush to and fro, doing errands, being good consumers, a tamed mass, acting like productive members of society. But then we wonder why it all seems so empty, and that's because it is. That's where the role of beauty in art kicks in, it feeds our hungry souls when the meaninglessness of our lives begins to show at the seams. And we either search for beauty or continue to numb ourselves with consumer goods, the vicious cycle continues. I think it is our job as artists to connect to other people and shake them out of this cycle, or at least show them some glimmer of meaning beyond everyday consumer goods and experiences.
When it comes to beauty as it relates to Minimalist work, you could describe Judd's pure cube shapes as beautiful because they deal with elements of craft and precision (terms which are often packaged with beauty). In Andre's stacks of bricks, you get the sense of the beauty in the way that he is actually carving into lived space, the bricks are just a convenience and also very neatly stacked. Minimalist work may be obdurate (to use one of Judd's words) but you can get a sense that there is some meaning beyond the object even though the art is art about the art.
I doubt that the Minimalists would ever say "I wanted to make something beautiful," but they made beautiful things anyway. Perhaps it was through avoidance that beauty crept back into the work. I think beauty is essential to art because that seems to be where the soul of any work resides. As Duke Ellington said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre

Friday, December 5, 2014