Getting Back to the Art

I really am going to start posting regularly again. Seriously this time. Oy.

Adjusting to my new schedule (or lack thereof) has been more difficult than I anticipated and I am STILL unpacking and organizing the new house, so blogging had to take a backseat for a bit, but I’m back and here to stay!

Speaking of the house — It’s amazing. We are settling in nicely and I have been doing quite a bit of cooking to break in the kitchen. I was even able to start hanging artwork the other day, so it is really starting to feel like home. Photos will probably happen within the next few weeks, if all goes well.

Today we are getting back to the art. In the depths of the archives, you might remember this post. I spent a long time working on the Big Question and now I’d like to share with you the first completed stage of my exploration. I call it the first stage not because the piece is unfinished, but rather because the Question is far too involved to answer in a couple thousand words. Scholars in every discipline could write tomes on this topic and never reach a perfect answer, but I hope that you will accept my simple contribution and enjoy the photos. The links within the text will take you to more images from the exhibition and information about the artists.

Why Do We Care?

I do not remember ever being without some appreciation for art. I remember looking at illustrations in children’s books that my parents would read to me and being able to tell, in my toddling way, why I liked them more or less than the ones in the book we had read the night before. I remember how I felt as I watched my first professional stage play, a performance of Woody Guthrie’s American Song, and exited the theatre full of awe and inspiration at the talent and creativity that I had witnessed. I remember reading Macbeth for the first time, sitting with my mother and taking turns reading aloud, and just feeling. I could feel the words that reverberate in your mouth no matter how softly you speak them, feel the tension that grew with each scene, swelling until there was nothing left for the characters to do but self destruct, and feel the emotion that makes each of those characters so human.

When thinking about art and “appreciation”, I tend to be drawn to empathy to explain why art matters to people. Empathy with the artist, his motivations to create, and the subject matter, are all reasons for an audience to care, but is this the only way that art can connect? If the audience doesn’t experience empathy, has the artist failed? What about art that is viewed without any knowledge of the circumstances of its creation? If I don’t know that Wheatfield with Crows was the last painting that Van Gogh created before he committed suicide, does that mean that I will not care about it? That it will have no meaning for me?

Wheatfield with Crows (1890) – Vincent van Gogh

Perhaps, then, empathy is not the only, or best, answer. The ability of art to make a person feel, to evoke emotional, intellectual, and physical responses, must be more than an audience simply understanding where an artist is coming from or what the topic is about.

The Exploration

The photography exhibitions, Lust and Longing, at the Jennifer Schwartz gallery are deeply personal. The first is an exploration of sexuality through the eyes of several different artists. The second reflects the mind-scape of an artist suffering from depression. In Lust, the personal quality of the subject matter is highlighted not only in the individual images, but in the structure of the show itself. Being a presentation of several artists’ work, the photographs vary widely in method and style with some pieces having more traditional sensibilities, while others are more abstract. From the capture to the processing and presentation, each image allows the artists’ individual voices and approaches to the idea of lust to come through. Images depicting lust are juxtaposed with photographs that find interesting ways to evoke it: there are nudes, images of full lips blurred as if seen from behind fabric or frosted glass, photos of inanimate objects, and even food. Objects of desire and why we desire them are explored at every turn. When you see a large image of a hamburger hanging on a gallery wall, you are forced to ask yourself why it is there, and then realize as you feel a twinge of hunger that it, too, is something that can be lusted after. The artists experiment with ideas of lust through their own preferences, as with Mary Ellen Bartley‘s diptych image of a nude woman seen past pages of a book. An unfocused glimpse is all we see of the woman, as if our faces are hidden behind this book as we peek at her undressing. Bartley’s artist statement explains that she chose this approach because she finds books to be sexy, and she showcases this well: there is an element of mystery as neither the woman nor the book are completely recognizable, but the sexuality of the image – in the softly curling pages, enticingly parted, mirrored by the model’s curves – is undeniable.

Untitled Diptych (Hip) – Mary Ellen Bartley

Longing, though just as personal, is a very different viewing experience from Lust. This exhibition showcases the work of a single artist and, where the images in Lust are tied together only by their shared theme, Longing is a cohesive and consistent body of work. Rounding the partition wall in the middle of the gallery, the viewer moves from the varied and somewhat chaotic selection of sensual imagery to a different world. There are only a few photographs in this series, but their size fills the space as the the pristine images transport us to a tranquil beach environment. The colors and simplicity of the images evoke a sense of calm, but this is not just destination landscape photography. There is deeper feeling living just under the surface, a profound feeling of loneliness, that is conveyed through the composition and content of the shots. These large images are highly detailed but very empty, with each one having a very small subject shot from far off, as if the photographer is unable to interact or make a personal connection and can only watch the world go by. The subjects, though dwarfed in the complete image, do not only convey this distance, but also depict escape and evoke a sense of hope. The individuals in the photographs are all pictured moving away from the photographer into the expanse of empty beach around them or flying through the air on hang gliders. This, along with the escapist quality vacation images can have, seems to offer a solution to the confining loneliness that fills the images. Such a solution undoubtedly offers hope, and what better than the freedom of flying, being lifted up and soaring on air currents into the sunlight, to depict such a feeling.

Untitled No. 0357 (2010) – Kerry Mansfield

The personal nature of these two exhibits and their themes seem to correlate to the personal response that is evoked in the viewer. The themes and feelings depicted are easily relatable, but become more relevant when presented in a genuine way that shows how a real person, the artist, actually thinks and feels. In the case of Longing, Kerry Mansfield was in a state of severe depression at the time that she captured the images, so the visual tension between the open spaces and the feelings of lonely separation, as well as the hope for escape, may have been inevitable as it can be difficult to prevent such strong feelings from bleeding into the work. The viewer feels these emotions because the work is permeated with them. Just as when someone can tell without asking if a person is upset, it’s as if the feelings have a life of their own. Lust explores not only the photographers’ feelings on the subject, as with Mary Ellen Bartley, but also their thoughts and commentary. Michael Grace-Martin, for example, has an thought provoking artist statement for his photograph Emerge. He puts forth the argument that his model, though beautiful, is not doing or wearing anything particularly seductive, so if the viewer picks up on a sense of lust he should consider whether the photograph or his own feelings toward it are the cause.

Emerge – Michael Grace Martin

But where does this leave us on the topic of why art matters? Empathy, I think, still plays an important part – after all, why would there be any study of art whatsoever if viewers did not have a desire to understand it? – but, again, there is more to feeling than just understanding. Feeling is not always rational. We often feel before we think. Perhaps all of our art study is actually an endeavor to justify the feelings that art evokes.

To really get to the root of this, I think we must examine both parties, the artist as well as the viewer. I do not doubt that art will always exist in some form, even if there is no one who wants to look at it. Artists tend to create because they feel a need to do so, whether to organize their thoughts, to vent their emotions, or because they have something that they want to say to or about the world. This need is what we see when we view their art. The passion of the artist for his subject, and his own empathy for it that allows him to see it in all of its detail and know what to highlight about it to communicate his message, even one as simple as “look how beautiful spring is”, are the mental states that allow an artist to create. Art made to satisfy such a need has an immediacy and urgency that highlights the passion with which it was created. Communication of such passion requires an artist to open up and make himself vulnerable to the world, and this may be why art is so universally relatable. We feel first when we can see the emotion and the passion that is being shared because we know the dangers of opening up in such a personal way, either because we have experienced them before, or because we avoid them, lacking the courage for our own expression. Art is capable of inspiring and exposing our emotions because, intentionally or not, it has been infused with its own by the artist, and making a person feel something – whether love, hatred, happiness, or sorrow – is undoubtedly the most effective way to forge a connection.

I hope you enjoy the piece. As always, I love to hear your thoughts, so comment below!

-DH

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