Art lite

It is with regret that I am going to participate in a favorite pastime of DC art bloggers, and take issue with an aspect of Blake Gopnik's article in the Washington Post today on the Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures on New York Avenue. Gopnik's denounces these for "not being weighty" and therefore, not art. (Incidentally, I say "regret" because I find the knee jerk reactions to Gopnik's articles to be almost as annoying as the articles that inspire the criticism themselves, but that's a separate issue.) I actually mostly agree with him that the works are simplistic, though aesthetically pleasing, so picking out exactly what rubbed me the wrong way was tricky; but I bristled after reading this paragraph:

These works aren't being billed as sweet decor, as cute pick-me-ups or as crowd-pleasing tchotchkes. The museum is calling them "world-class art." But if that's the case, we have to wonder why the art we settle for outside on our streets should be so much less weighty than what we hope to find inside our museums. Titian, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Cassatt, Cézanne, Picasso -- they're hardly purveyors of good clean fun that gets us smiling. Not all the art we've valued most has been grim; some has even been cheerful. But one way or another, all of it has been substantial.

I suppose this mindset goes hand in hand with the idea that art needs to have conflict, the same way you need conflict to make an interesting movie, and how we like to imagine our artists as tortured souls; or that any art which is cheerful also has to be ironic in some way à la Andy Warhol, or how we dismiss artists who commit the sin of creating pieces that are "decorative" as though that automatically makes them lesser work. But this is a slippery slope. Art can be light-hearted and substantial at the same time, though not all of it is necessarily, and the idea of denouncing it because it wasn't as provocative as a giant vagina you could walk through (one of de Saint Phalle's earlier works he cites) seems unfair. Though I'd be kind of curious to see that on New York avenue.

Why definitions are distracting

Okay, here's a pet peeve. Art writer/critic finds an obscure and/or arbitrary definition for a term that already has a perfectly adequate definition (eg, illustration, photography, absurdism), then goes on to claim that something in particular does not fit into said obscure and/or arbitrary definition. This isn't criticism so much as a high school English paper assignment, and tells the reader nothing about the work on display, save that the writer finds pleasure in defining terms. Please note that I don't think we should shy away from analyzing the hell out of our opinions, and asking ourselves why we think the way they do. Those are fascinating questions, whether they apply to art, or your friends, or Tucker Max. But I cringe every time I see that whole, "That's not art! It's illustration!" line thrown around, or a convoluted essay that concludes with, "Ergo, according to this guy, this isn't that." Not because the writer is wrong, per se, but because the writer is inventing an argument where there are no rights and wrongs. Rather, he drew lines in the sand, backed it up with a few arbitrary opinions, and gave us a distraction rather than a discussion. And the real message? Because I have concluded that this doesn't count, I do not have to care about it.

I say, grab a copy of Webster's and work from there. And that bizarre "illustration is not art" consensus needs to go off into a corner and die already, but that's a different diatribe.

G40: Works in pieces, but not as a whole

Say what you will about the G40, but with the right cropping, it photographs beautifully. So beautiful, in fact, that instead of seeing what I expected to based on the media coverage, G40 greets you, with...florescent lights and gray office carpeting.  Which has a presence throughout the show as strong as most of the work on display.

I wanted to like this exhibit, I really did--a curated show with over 500 artists, many of whom like to spray paint things at random, couldn't have been easy to pull off. But its location at a nondescript Crystal City office building (which requires a trek through one of the most depressing underground malls you'll ever see in order to find) just doesn't work, and the exhibit comes off as clumsy instead of fresh.

Which is doubly a shame because of the good stuff that's included--though I believe the show could've been cut to about half its volume and crammed into one floor, with more attention paid to getting the work to overwhelm the viewer, and fill up more of the blank space--which in an abandoned office, is glaringly obvious. As it is now, the energy of the show is muted by its environment. Instead of coming across as, "We do art because we just can't help ourselves!" the show says, "Yup! We're here, even in inappropriate settings! Weird, eh?" Content seems a bit sparce, too. Most of these artists are excellent draftsmen, but subject matter-wise, quirky portrait after quirky portrait becomes repetitive.

Anyway, some of the highlights below.

This in-your-face sculpture is created from wire and buttons:

G:40 Summit DC

The setting, however, is not doing it justice. Oh, those lights!

G:40 Summit DC

As we know, Ben Toleman is a must-see:

G:40 Summit DC G:40 DC

More examples of pieces I considered stand-out:

101_0049 G:40 Summit DC G:40 Summit DC G:40 Summit DC G:40 Summit DC

By the way, what country do you think this artist is from? The answer may surprise you!

G:40 Summit DC

(It's France.)

Review of the Graphic Masters III at the American Art Museum

I want credit for my good taste, is the unspoken rule of collecting art (and books, and DVDs, and forming opinions about such objects). And an art collection that's thoughtful and well chosen, is special not only because it's aesthetically pleasing, but because it forms a mini autobiography. I adore the print of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover I purchased at Eastern Market along with that old 1950s advertisement framed in the bathroom, and the Woodzianski painting I won in a scavenger hunt, and my Andy Moon Wilson business card, and the "Understand Modern Art Breath Spray" I purchased at a gallery in Bethesda whose name I forget but that I first saw the artist in the Palais de Tokyo gift shop in Paris, and the three framed drawings I did awhile ago, the presentation of which my asshole well-meaning friend insulted at a party. I like that there are little bits of information behind these pieces, meaningful to me, but nothing that would be of much interest to anyone else. And although this is far less flattering to admit, I see these objects as bragging rights of sorts--even though I had no involvement in their creation. I've done nothing but acquire this art, yet still think highly of myself for doing so, much in the same way a good book will look great on your shelf ("Look! I am the sort of person who appreciates the nuances of both Harry Potter and Richard Yates!"). Of course it's unfair to take credit for your opinions, because you just have them, without really trying, but I (and I'm sure others) still cling to the idea that the cultural things we enjoy are positive reflections of our characters.

There is a show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum now called Graphic Masters III, a title which tells you very little--it consists of drawings on paper, some of which were studies for larger works. But it contains some fantastic pieces; a still life of a cat by Saul Steinberg (because it's Saul Steinberg, this is far more interesting than it sounds) and a drawing of the New York subway by Paul Cadmus wherein he strove to capture ugly people, and an exquisite profile of a nude girl wearing an animal skull of her head by John Wilde. It is a very quiet show, but nonetheless fantastic, and I think everyone should go see it, appreciate the brilliance of the work, consider how good my taste in art is, and reflect upon the knowledge that had it not been for me, you never would've found this treasure of an exhibition in our fine city. You're welcome.

William T. Wiley

I adore the current William T. Wiley retrospective at the National Museum of American Art, partially because I'm a sucker for all things cartoonesque, but also because he nails what absurdist art should be--namely, an engaging romp through someone's head, nonsense, contradictions and all. Even the exhibition title, "What's it all mean?" doesn't come across as a challenge to the viewer to come up with a plausible answer, but a question he's been mulling over thoughtfully. One of the treats of the exhibition are Wiley's notes--most of his work contains some sort of text wherein heated, and not-entirely-legible debates with himself occur. "No one is going to read all of this!" he proclaims in one piece. In another painting, he chides the viewer for looking at a particular spot on the canvas: "Why are you looking at this? There's nothing here!"

Review of Ami Martin Wilber: Gestation at the Flashpoint Gallery

Ami Martin Wilber at Flashpoint DC - Photo by Brandon Webster Photography (Photo by Brandon Webster Photograph)

During a critique in a painting class in art school, I once suggested that if a classmate had changed an element or two in her still life there would be an implied narrative (the illustrator in me, of course, thought any sort of narrative was an improvement to all art).

"Yes, that's true," was my instructor's response. "But then it'd be your painting and not hers, wouldn't it?"

I've always remembered this exchange, which perfectly illustrated the fine line between critiquing a piece of art for being bad, and for criquing someone's work simply because you would have not done the same thing.

And it was how I felt when looking at Ami Martin Wilber's work at Flashpoint. I didn't have any critiques that would make her work better, per se--and the eggs she had fashioned out of alabaster were lovingly crafted--only critiques that all began with, "Well, if this were MY work, I would have done XYZ." Mostly, I wanted to see the idea of gestation explored as a process in which something turns into nothing, when very small things that no one can see turn become large and alive. Instead, there was no sense of process--there were white polished stone eggs placed carefully on the floor, but nothing that suggested that gestation has a beginning and an end. Rather, putting the eggs on the ground implied that gestation is something you happen to come across almost accidentally. A valid interpretation, but not one that I necessarily agree with.