Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dispatch from Underground Indianapolis

The Indianapolis Museum of Art with sculpture by Robert Indiana
Courtesy the Indianapolos Museum of Art
The Indianapolis Museum of Art has so much  to recommend it to potential members—stunning building, great collection, excellent programming, historic gardens, and its new 100 Acres of contemporary outdoor sculpture. If all that weren't enough, though, this would be the clincher: an annual, members-only vault tour. Jesse Speight, Supervisor of Storage and Packing, leads members through the underground sanctum where the vast majority of the Museum's collection resides.

When I took Speight's (rhymes with "eight") tour recently, it was the realization of a dream I'd conceived over twenty years ago when I lived in Boston. Then I was a regular visitor to Harvard's Fogg Museum. The nineteenth century building has a modern wing, but I always loved the old part best. One reason for my preference was that the route to the basement ladies' room led past the metal cage that forbade entrance, but permitted unimpeded view into an area of the vault. It wasn't that there was anything in particular to see ("Oh my god! Tintoretto in a tin!") but that the concrete corridor into the shelving units led where this Alice would have been easily, if insanely, led by curiosity.

And in 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, mounted a fascinating show entirely from storage. "Unlocking the Hidden Museum: Riches From the Storerooms" was a show about the history of taste and, implicitly, why museum storerooms are full. They showed work that interested people a hundred years earlier, implying that one never knows what the next generation's taste will be.

A Review written at the time in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/31/arts/in-the-attic-up-above-the-galleries-misfits-await-their-turn.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm) points out the aspect of wonderful surprise: "A piece eagerly acquired in one century may leave a curator puzzled in the next. That leaves room for discovery, even in the museum's own storage rooms. A recent survey of the museum's Japanese metalwork found a treasure that was hidden in plain sight: a copper bell by Unno Moritoshi, an important metal worker of the late 19th century. Such Meiji-era metalwork is enjoying a revival. For nearly 80 years, 'It was just sitting in a corner and no one had realized its importance,' said Joe Earle, chairman of the Art of Asia, Africa and Oceania department. 'It was not an area of Japanese art anyone was interested in.'''

The review in The Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/1990/07/22/secrets-from-the-storeroom.html) mentioned the other way that tastes change. "And then there are 'Matters of Taste.' Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga was hailed as a successor to Velazquez and Goya when the MFA purchased My Uncle Daniel and His Family in 1917; now, as one curator puts it, 'many people feel it's too ugly to even look at.' But the museum is aware of the cyclical nature of art fashion. It seldom gives things away."  

Jesse Speight leads a group into IMA storage
The IMA press office arranged for me to speak with Speight before the IMA tour began, which was fortunate, for it allowed him to dispel my assumptions that it turned out few other guests would share. For reasons related to the reviews above, I had thought it institutionally daring to open up storage at all. It struck me that a museum administration would have legitimate policy reasons to keep the public out. By permitting visitors, they might end up opening doors they'd prefer to leave shut: "Why are you storing that stuff; why not get rid of it?" "That painting's too important to be in storage!" "My mother-in-law donated this and I can't believe all you do is leave it in storage!" I thought that people would become involved in questions of taste, legacy, and the area where private and institutional interests conflict.

That was just me, it seems. Speight told me that visitors tend to be interested in the safety of the collection and in the preservation of its monetary value. They want to know how breakage and burglary are prevented, and what happens if the power goes off. If people look for anything in particular as they browse the shelving, it used to be that folks wanted to see Robert Indiana's "LOVE" painting, which Speight would occasionally set out in advance, so used he became to the request. Finally, Speight reported its enduring popularity to the curators who put it back on permanent display.

Underground at the IMA
Our 6:00 pm tour began in the Museum's lobby, which was quivering with crowds and cameras, booms and buzz as Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez arrived for some occasion that I never quite figured out. From that super-charged atmosphere the fifteen or so of us boarded a padded freight elevator that seemed big enough to carry a single-person aircraft with room to spare. It lowered us hushedly to a very deep subterranean level and opened into a hall 13 feet high, with concrete walls painted white. It was just the sort of antiseptic, spare, functional environment I remember from the basement  cadaver labs I once worked in at a medical school. The atmosphere was decidedly industrial and workmanly. Had we reversed our steps, we'd have entered the lift and been very surprised to have its doors open at the other end into an art museum.

As we locked up our purses and backpacks in the Registrar's office, Speight explained that we wouldn't visit the vault itself. The vault is a room in the Registrar's department into which any acquired or visiting item enters the museum for cataloguing. Here the item will be given its condition report, an initial description in minute detail of any irregularities. The registrar assigns the item a number that remains with it. If any insects are discovered during the inspection, the work goes into isolation for freezing, fumigation, or whatever process will kill the intruders. The bug remains have then to be removed so that they themselves don't become a source of contamination.

One of our number asked about molds and fungus, and Speight pointed out that the Museum's controlled climate is supposed to prevent their growth. ("We once had a chair made of 'green' twigs. The twigs were still filled with moisture, and fighting mold for that piece was a real struggle!') But the ideal humidity and temperature for the collection are unvaryingly maintained. To insure this, there is a formidable system of back up generators in case of emergencies that might knock the power out. Furthermore, he told us, during last year's particularly harsh winter, the Museum brought in fuel  trucks and parked them on the grounds so they would be in place should they be needed to back up the generators. No one wanted to get caught needing them only to find conditions too icy for them to make it.

Speight ushered us down low-lit corridors lined with labeled wooden crates, to the massive double doors of storage which, like every threshold we crossed, was protected by electronic security. Behind the doors we found: the massive basement of your friendly but obsessive uncle; the super-clean garage of an automobile enthusiast—someone who keeps every conceivable specialized tool and every project neatly stored, and leaves not a spot of oil anywhere behind.

But that's the idea, isn't it? Whether an item be in a flat file or cabinet, on a shelf, or hung on a sliding rack, a registrar or curator can step up to it as if drawn there by a magnet. Each stored item has its acquisition number assigned by the Registrar, and it sits on a row in the room, on a shelf or rack, and in a position each identified numerically. Every item has a Tokyo-style address.
Painting storage

The numerical coding has several advantages. Insurance auditors regularly inspect storage, and they audit to be sure that the location codes work and that every piece is where it should be. In addition, because the Registrar can locate a work by grid numbers, lighting in the room can be controlled very specifically. As few lights as possible are turned on, and only where they are needed.  As Speight reminded us, light is destructive to art, so its use is vigilantly controlled. Works on paper and textiles, I was stunned to learn, spend three years in dark storage for every 9 months they spend on display, exposed to light.

So nice to come home to...
Looking into the storage cabinets was a little like looking at the newborns in the sanitary hospital nursery. The cabinets, Speight assured us, are made of enamel baked onto metal: There is nothing that could break down to produce gases that could affect the works stored inside. He's also careful not to "mix the chemistry" in the cabinets: No animal hides on the shelf below the silver. Even so, the cabinets are equipped with every precaution: charcoal filters, gaskets, and leveling systems: Nothing's too good for these babies.

Speight has made significant headway with a project of providing every object (dishes, masks, small sculptures, implements, jewelry, etc.) in the cabinets with its own, custom-designed box so that it will not simply sit on the shelf. The motivation for this is the fact that the New Madrid Fault that begins in Missouri runs toward central Indiana. In the event of an earthquake, individual boxes will stabilize the holdings,  preventing them from knocking into one another. The other reason to have boxes is that they cut down on the handling of the items. If curators need them, they can pick up the boxes without touching the art. It's another way to preserve the collection. "Preventive health," he calls such work, which allows him to get to know each piece more intimately and therefore to be better able to plan for its problem-free future.

The people in our group were fascinated by shipping crates. We thought we saw a lot, but Speight told us that there are rooms filled only with them. A crate is custom-made for each artwork in the collection, and is kept for the duration; whenever the work is shipped, it travels in its custom case. The condition of every case is carefully monitored, for it must protect the art work absolutely, under any circumstances. The case must not only cushion the art from breakage, but it must be waterproof.

Speight has conducted tests on crates he designed, measuring them against crates from a  New York gallery and a European museum. His two-part experiment, using packed-up watercolor paintings he made himself, first involved placing all three cases under running showers for a half-hour. Only the case he made remained complete dry inside; one took on so much water that the watercolor was deemed by the consulting conservator to be barely salvageable. The second phase of the test placed all three cased paintings under water for forty-five minutes. Again, Speight's case prevented any leakage at all, unlike the other two, which failed in degrees moderate and drastic. This has become an important professional credential upon which Speight justifiably piques himself.

I could have used another hour or two in the remarkable laboratory of storage. But in the hour we had, I learned a lot more than I thought I would when Speight told me that policy issues didn't often come up. To find the massive bottom of the iceberg to be so weighty and solid in scientific detail was stirring. The hallmark of love is often in the unromantic—in rational, organized, forward-thinking action—just what Storage and Packing does. I don't think I will ever again see a work on display in a museum without awareness of the miracle that it's been preserved at all; without being mindful of the active devotion and many levels of effort that have allowed it to appear at all for public study and pleasure.
Lights out.

Of the works themselves that I saw in storage? I have to admit that I was barely curious at all. They were like Christmas trees on the Boy Scouts' lot. We fuss about choosing the best, worrying that we'll get something awful. But even the tree we choose at random relaxes, unfolds, and turns out to be a beauty. How was it that we just happened to select the best after all? Sufficient space and the accident of our desire allowed the tree to become visible. What we can look at can attract us.

Until artworks are needed and chosen, storage seems like a room of slowly breathing cocoons. In one of those rests the exquisite, exotic luna moth. We'll never know it in the basement, though, because it's attracted to the light. Upstairs, one day, there it will be, as if it had been accustomed to the spotlight all along.
Above ground at the IMA. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ceramist Joe Bova: Fully Formed Figures in Tacit Stories

I'd never heard of Joe Bova before I received the announcement for his show at the Sherrie Gallerie here in Columbus. Shows at Sherrie Hawk's gallery are always worth seeing because she has a fine eye, lots of information about her specialties—contemporary ceramics and jewelry—but, best of all, she is infinitely curious. Because Sherrie learns from every artist she brings into her space, I'm rewarded with great conversation whenever I drop by. Even when my first impression of a show leaves me cold, fifteen minutes of looking at it with Sherrie always gives me a solid understanding of the artist's motivations and process. I may leave the gallery with no more taste for the work than I came with, but I'm always filled with respect for the artist.
The crossing, detail
Joe Bova's work captivated me immediately, however. His ceramic sculptures that depict animal and human forms are life-like and refined, seemingly composed from clay only in the metaphorical sense that we all are. The textures he achieves are uncannily true. The skin of babies calls out for caresses. Frogs gleam with moisture. Ravens' wings have a low, waxy shine, but not so much to reveal them in the moonlight if they fly by night.

The infant dream of slumbering Dierdre
In general, I'm not a fan of art that painstakingly imitates reality, but Bova's captivates me because he so minutely describes protagonists of dramas that he otherwise hasn't written. Each piece implies a story that we will understand only by making it up. A baby sleeps with no apparent anxiety on the back of a raven. Is the raven outsized, or is the baby a tiny Thumbelina? Where are they going? Where have they landed? Has the baby been abducted? Is the baby being saved, or delivered?

Likewise, in a piece titled, "Emigration," a crowd/family/army/refugee band of frogs surrounds One set off in a circle of blue. To what end are they sailing on the boat? To deliver their King to a new place where they will found a colony? Are they escaping a war/persecution? Are their motions free or forced? And why are frogs going on a boat instead of in the water? Maybe they are enchanted humans. In such a manner, each of Bova's pieces suggests an unknown history that has delivered the situation we see. To what destination or destiny the characters will travel or drift remains unknown.

I find that when each sculpture lands us in whatever imaginary world we create from personal associations—fairy tales, folklore, myths, Bible stories, animal fables—the literalness of the sculpture lends substance to the otherwise fabulous story. The story emerges from the fog of enchantment. In my favorite, "Infant Voyager," for instance, I connect the image to the tale of baby Moses in the basket woven of bulrushes. In the story, Moses is discovered by a queen and comes into good fortune. But the suggestion of risk to a vulnerable, unwitting life disturbs me, and this clay image pulls that out. It also makes me think of infant exposure, and of the Viking practice of floating the elderly onto the ocean to die. None of these associations hang together in narrative, but all come together seamlessly in the reality of this work that embodies vulnerability, innocence, risk, birth and death in one experience.
Infant voyager
In a gallery talk at the show's opening, Bova explained that the work in the show at Sherrie Gallerie was all  made during his 2011 Fulbright Scholar year at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. Used to around-the-clock studio access at home, he was flummoxed to find the College's studios closed on weekends and late nights. He spent time delving into Irish mythology, pre-Christian, and early Christian stories. The raven and baby refer to the tragic story of Deirdre; another work refers to the banishment of snakes from Ireland by St. Patrick. Knowledge of these stories will enhance works in a particular way for viewers familiar with them. Still, I felt nothing lost by my ignorance of them. That specificity of figure in the wide-open context produces fertile breeding ground for stories.

What I found more relevant to the work was finding that Bova spent a lot of his East Texas boyhood hunting and fishing; that his knowledge of animals was gained by skinning animals and learning them from the insides out. So, where he sculpted the tiniest figures by hand from solid pieces of clay (at his kitchen table, in lieu of studio tables at night), the larger forms like the dog and the bobcat, are hollow because he creates them by draping flat sheets of clay—by working with skins, as it were. His intimate knowledge of animal anatomy, surfaces, and volumes; his life-long observations of animals he's killed have suffused the clay ones with uncanny life, in action or relaxation.
Blue Serenity

"Blue Serenity" may emerge from Bova's childhood memories of days hunting with hound dogs and plying swamps on a pirogue. This dog is one of the larger, hollow figures that he created by draping clay; it's a resting, resurrected dog from the viewer's own memory or fantasy. There are colors of gray that breeders will tell you constitute "blue" in dogs, but this life-like dog is a color one will never see in nature. With one paw up, she seems to be relaxing, not dead. Why her color? Is the pirogue docked or floating? Like all of Bova's characters—babies, ravens, skulls, or snakes—dogs strike a deep, primal chord with most people. Our imaginations respond to them. The dog is a faithful and good character: What is her story?

Bova lives now in Santa Fe, New Mexico, retired after an international career of teaching, residencies, and engagements as guest artist around the world (see his website). My visit to his site was prompted less by desire for biographical details than for a look at his earlier work. Everything I found was very clearly from the same careful hand: the great attention to modeling details, the animal protagonists, the careful choices of glazes and finished textures. But his earlier work seems as closed as the current work is open.

In his posted statement, Bova said, "For much of my career I have been making social and political commentary art, often also involving eroticism. In 2003 I began work that was responsive to the misguided policies of my government. As the Republican senator from Missouri, Charles Schurz said in 1861, 'Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right, when wrong, to be put right,' I have been trying through my work to do my part." He continues to say that in 2006-07 he sought "respite from the polemical."

The current work appears to be the opposite of polemic. In polemic, the message is a statement, complete and self-contained. As a story, it has no development. The viewer may sympathize or not, agree or disagree with the program, but the point of such an attentive hand as Bova's—the result of the unarticulated human process beyond the political message—may well remain entirely overlooked.

There's no overlooking any detail of Bova's skilled hand now. There's no ignoring the generosity with which he applies mastery in the service of an extended art form. His new work is an ignition that fires the imaginations of his viewers. The closer we get, the better it works.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Painting to Take Home and Love: "The Assassination" by James Ensor

Emil Nolde
Sunflowers in the Windstorm, 1943.
Oil on board, 28 5/8 x 34 5/8 in.
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art
The Columbus Museum of Art is currently showing "Monet to Matisse: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Sirak Collection." In 1991 the Museum acquired this nonpareil private collection of European Modernism that includes among its panoply, the title painters, Degas, Pissaro and Renoir; Nolde, Klimt, and Klee.

"Monet to Matisse" presents Sirak masterpieces that haven't been permanently installed. Like couture models on the runway, these paintings appear to us evenly spaced and well lighted. We do the walking, of course, from one breathtaking beauty to the next. There are so many! It's hard to linger over any one in our anticipation—and sense of obligation, perhaps?—to experience all. The show is a glorious embarrassment of riches.

"From Monet to Matisse," 2011, Columbus Museum of Art"
An embarrassment of riches—a treasure chest of culture—can quickly resolve into a mere democracy of the Unique and the Chosen. This happens too often in museum shows. The institutional method of presentation—the neutral, non-evaluative, evenly-spaced line-up of paintings could be compared to a pharmacist's well-ordered shelves, a library's stately row of reference works, or a drawer of cleanly arrayed specimens in a zoological lab. In an art museum, we've also come to expect lighting that allows us to see with equal clarity every detail of the work displayed. Does the lighting choice make us pseudo-detectives, scientists, or historians, needful of perfect, objective illumination? The spotlighted painting becomes something vulnerable to the visitor's inspection. It's like a specimen or a suspect that we expect to yield something up to our waiting scrutiny.

"From Monet to Matisse," photo by author.
This democratic presentation, with every item displayed like merchandise in the same neutral manner, makes it easy to wander without focus through an art museum's collections of the rarest and finest. Free to choose any chocolate in the box, it's difficult for the browser to decide which is the best—whatever "best" means. Museums help us avoid this by sorting work into galleries that represent periods, or schools,  nationalities or genres (17th century Dutch; photography; Asian art). If we stop to engage with a work, it's because something about it "grabs" us—its colors, subject, composition, or our preexisting interest in the artist.

Kees Van Dongen
Lilacs with Cup of Milk, 1909.
Oil on canvas, 44 3/16 x 36 7/8 in
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art
A display principle unlike the museum's, though, is the personal collector's—collectors like Howard and Babette Sirak, who filled their house with all the art that the CMA now holds in trust for us. A special aspect of "Monet to Matisse," is, in fact, its recognition of this fact, indicated by the inclusion of photographs documenting the collection as it was, in situ at the Sirak's home. Seeing "museum quality" paintings in a domestic setting is a stunning reminder that while the museum houses the work and is constrained by necessities to choose a single, neutral way to present them, we viewers are free to understand the works in our own contexts—to place them in our own "interiors."

The photographs show the rooms of the Sirak home to be high ceilinged and formal, graciously appointed with classic, boxy couches and chairs upholstered in neutral fabrics. Side tables and sideboards hold lamps, vases, and classical sculptures. Decorations are restrained in number and design. Each room provides a visually quiet, simplified setting for the art on the walls.

Sirak bedroom
In the largest rooms, the paintings are hung individually, separated by space on the wall. In more intimate rooms, they are grouped in fours or fives above a bed or couch. Paintings are "museum framed,"  in the same heavy, carved, gilt wood that frame them still at the CMA.

In the photographs of the Sirak home, many artworks are individually lit by oblong lamps suspended in front of them from the top of the frame, casting the most light over the top and the middle of the painting, thus leaving some areas obscure. The light is not always evenly dispersed, nor is is always of that clinical, shadowless quality we have come to expect through our experience in museums.

Another surprise is the distance that furnishings often enforce between viewers and the art. Works aren't hung at ideal eye level. When an easy chair, side table, or sofa intervenes, we would not be doing as we do in the museum and nosing up "to examine the brushwork."

The Siraks were connoisseurs who had to be as well informed as curators to build their collection. Their
acquaintance with the professional world of art was deep. After all, they had all the information they needed to display their works in any way they thought best, probably a combination of the professional and personal. Yet the Siraks and their advisors evidently concluded that their enjoyment of the great works they loved and brought home wouldn't be diminished if the viewer couldn't stand mere inches from every surface, or inspect each painting in lighting like an optics lab's.

Chaim Soutine
Melanie, the Schoolteacher, ca. 1922.
Oil on canvas, 32 1/8 x 18 1/8 in.
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund.
Twenty-first century art museums have extraordinarily complex missions. While they provide social and educational services throughout the community, they also engage in collaborative original research in art history. All this while managing, conserving, and showing their collections.

The one thing that no museum can do, though, is make a viewer focus. It can't make anyone stop in their tracks because of curiosity, wonder, outrage or joy. It's up to viewers, once they've come, to engage.

Paul Klee
Thoughtful, 1928. Watercolor
and graphite on cream paper,
laid down, 15 9/16 x 8 7/8 in.
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art
Not that engagement's a walk in the park—or a stroll through the halls of culture on a free Sunday. It's not just a result of excellent lighting or an uncrowded display. Like all relationships, engagement is a matter of  time. Great paintings and drawings, like  people, are to be lived with in order to be appreciated in their depth and subtlety.

At the end of the visit to a museum or gallery, I ask myself which one or two works I'd take home if I could. Which ones have the potential to hold my interest in the long term, or to reveal new meaning and importance as we age together. Which will keep provoking  and providing fresh interpretations of me?

These are not necessarily the questions an art historian would ask. But they suit someone who wants to live with art as an interlocutor or significant experience—not as a thing.

When we visit a well-lit museum where masterworks hang in individual glory, we may certainly appreciate the brush work that text books tell us to look for. But we might want to think about technique domestically, as it were. We might want to get close to a work in the way we do to friends whom we seek to know, who become special parts of our lives, the individuals we've chosen from many. We want to notice "brushwork" not because we are painters, but because technique reveals emotion and thought.
©2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /SABAM, Brussels
James Ensor
Belgian, 1860-1949
The Assassination (L'Assassinat), 1890
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak, the Donors to the Campaign for
Enduring Excellence, and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art

Incorporating favored art works into the "the house" of daily life grants time to digest difficult topics and complex, heavy emotions through the mediation of art. Among the paintings the Siraks displayed in their home is "The Assassination" (1890) by Belgian James Ensor. "The Assassination" shows masked carnival figures in vivid costumes and feathered hats, lined up in a gray room with shadowy graffiti on the wall. Spectators reach through two skylights and marvel at the drama the costumed characters play out in the room. A piper plays on the left and skeleton beats his drum on the right, while the central revelers cut the throat of a screaming man who is held down on a table, bleeding copiously into a dish on the floor. It is a grotesque and fascinating scene that presents, front and center, the gruesome act baldly named in the title. But the scene is cast in layers of irony and mystery, given the assassins' fantastic costumes, the masks; the bare, dirty room; the unknown interest of the spectators, who may be for or against the action, or who may be out-and-out voyeurs. The painting is beautiful, comical, and gorey. It's disturbing, as if Commedia dell'arte met Marat Sade on a canvas.

How could anyone have such a painting as a decoration in a beautiful, orderly house? I want to take "The Assassination" into my house because home is the safe place where we  celebrate or suffer the extremes of life —the events that take months and years to contemplate and digest. At home we have the time and safety to endure, heal, and attempt to digest pain or horror. The events pictured and suggested metaphorically in "The Assassination" are matters no one has ever glanced at and forgotten--neither a tragic event in an 1890 basement; nor assassinations, bombings and murders that occur moment by moment in the 21st century world. But these events are the human condition and must be studied and must remain on our minds in ways we can manage.
Man's inhumanity to man is an eternal theme that no one ever wants to contemplate. In this painting, Ensor puts it in compelling visual form that engages the eye, and dares the mind to reject. "The Assassins" is one of those interlocutors I can be engaged with—learning from, avoiding, reinterpreting, rejecting and applauding—for many years to come.

"The Assassination" installed at the Sirak home
But alas, I am terrible at dusting. And heaven knows that I can't afford to insure the thing, so thanks to the Columbus Museum of Art for handling the complications of owning great art! I want to take "The Assassination" home, but since I can't, I know where to linger among the sirens in the Sirak Collection.

In the democracy of the Unique and Chosen,at the museum, each of us can be a collector, investing ourselves every bit as much as the Siraks and their peers did. It's important for the rest of us to choose works of art to stop and engage with, works that speak (however quietly) to us. The investment of time over several conversation makes you start thinking that you're into something valuable for the long run.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Schedule for Contemporary Art

In a conversation this morning with a potential new reader, I was pleasantly surprised by his excitement to find that I was writing about contemporary art.

"Do you travel?" he asked.

"When I can," was my wistful reply. I always hope to. And I do. I shall, and I will.

"Were you at the Venice Biennale? My wife and I spent four days there with friends from California. I wondered if you'd written about it?"

I had to say that I had neither attended nor written about it. Other writers have it pretty well covered, I reckon.

This encounter reminded me that the expression "contemporary art" has a particular meaning for many. It's celebrity. It's fast and cool, cerebral and young. It signifies an international, cosmopolitan, high-end art scene that is indeed well-covered in cultural journalism, in the New York Times and in peer publications aimed at a well-educated general readership.

But contemporary art is also made by many people one rarely if ever hears of, and it exists in every form. It's made by the members of the local plein air society as well as by videographers in computer labs. It's outsider, insider, borderless, closeted, environmental, classical, hide-bound, nostalgic, playful and experimental. It's local, global, romantic, raw, childish or transcendent. "Contemporary art" is made now, it's resurrected now. It's on people's minds coming, going, and slamming the door.

If you're looking at art in any gallery or museum; if you're making it in a studio or lending a hand at a neighborhood mural project; if you are involved in public policy or funding; if you are reading, writing, or studying art; if you make sure that the children around you know art as a normal part of life—then you're thinking of contemporary art in the way that it interests me. Contemporary art's a fact of being alive now. It's activity, whether you're making or looking. It doesn't wait for a jury, or need two years to get our attention.