As a journalism major I was taught the first line of any news story should answer the questions: Who? What? When? Where? And Why? Despite my reluctance to see this type of criteria for viewing art, it’s becoming apparent that the institutional art world is more comfortable when the answers to these questions can be checked off.
The opposing view is more romantic and probably also true: Curators judge a work by an unfettered gaze at it and it alone. It’s the hit in the solar plexus upon viewing that is the ultimate judge. The gallery owner Jeffrey Thomas said recently that “if I can describe a work of art over the phone to you and you ‘get it’, it’s not art”. That’s a little extreme and I think he meant it to be. He’s commenting on how, right now, the contemporary art world seems to prefer a lot of “words” to accompany an artist’s vision.
On one day recently I participated in visiting four artists in their studios in the morning with a museum curator and then a gallery talk by four other artists in the evening. The morning artists, who happened to be under forty, had been awarded by a museum. The evening talk was by established artists, most well over 50. The younger artists were very cerebral in their approach. Connections were made like “the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone”. The evening group, who also have at least local renown, had trouble finding words. Their approach was more intuitive and “web-like” –more holistic, perhaps, like meridians in the body. And their delivery rolled up and down like ocean waves as their emotion ebbed and flowed. Contemporary art seems to be of two minds.
I’ve been painting for over 30 years, exhibiting, teaching, studying hard, as much as I could when I could. But I have no MFA and my resume is thin. I’ve had some immediate success and awards and also years of obscurity. I’ve vacillated between wanting to know desperately “what do they want” and not giving a damn. Now, watching others in our group struggle with the same issues, I’m seeking clarity. But I honestly don’t think any is to be found.
From James Joyce to Dr. Seuss, the rejection of now famous writers is legendary. And Van Gogh is the most iconic painter to suffer endless years of desperation trying to understand the “salon-world”. These are the creators “they” didn’t understand.
As we move forward in a creative practice for some of us there is an interesting choice at hand. Listening to artists who are passionate and articulate can guide. Trying to put vision into words. Working toward things that can build resumes. Answering the questions. Or ignoring the world and following the heart. Or letting one inform the other and allowing the balance to come as it will. We all decide in our own way.
Below are two paintings by two different artists. Size is similar, format slightly different. One photo is professionally taken the other is not and is decidedly brighter than the actual work. One was painted a year before the other . The second piece is by Helen O’Toole, winner of a NW Contemporary art award this year. It is oil on canvas, entitled Stumble. Her work will be on display at the Portland Art Museum this month.