By the book
Because their audiences can connect a face and persona with the work, pop musicians and movie stars are, insufferably, the most high-profile and well-paid among the artistic crowd. The full-blown image of film actors and rockers was built upon the foundation of "widely available" -- thus, instant and personalized -- hooks for the lazy culture hound. Even the most casual reader of doctor's office magazines knows the tale behind Hugh Grant's decision to do yet another repressed comedy, or the catalyst of Courtney Love's latest identity-confused tantrum.
Our high-strung fascination with and repulsion by these sometime-artists has evolved right along with rock and filmmaking itself, right along with the information age. The printed page and television -- and, more recently, the Internet -- have guaranteed and will always guarantee that we'll know exactly what she was wearing on Oscar night, what he was drinking before he pissed in the airplane aisle. So the vessels of rock and film have always been required to deliver the image goods: It's the unspoken yet unnegotiable article in the celebrity's contract.
And somewhere along the way, all other cultural outlets -- literature, architecture, and certainly visual art -- were pushed to the back of the celebrity line. Even the most collected visual artists aren't called upon to pose for prodding lenses and explain their latest work for millions and millions of celebrity-obsessed fans. For the few thousand that buy Artforum every month, sure. But for Vanity Fair and the rest of the world? No way.
Granted, Austin artist Julie Speed might have a hard time explaining the implications of her shadowy and ominous painting "The Yellow Pope," and if she did manage to choke it out in some strained oration, her meaning might be lost on the impatient masses. Visual art in general hasn't been nearly as easy or accessible as Steven Spielberg or Stone Temple Pilots; then, there's nothing particularly simple about a film like American Beauty or the songs of Kurt Cobain, and that didn't stop the world from taking a crude magnifying glass to such works, nor did it stop every journalist from slipping into the role of amateur psychologist. While people are willing to dig for information about accessible personalities, very few visual artists cultivate the kind of public personas that a mass audience bothers to delve into.
But Speed doesn't accept the non-explanation, non-accessible tradition of visual art. A retrospective of her work, on display now at the Dallas Visual Art Center, is accompanied by something that provides a tangible and compelling persona to accompany images she creates. The paintings themselves are often remarkable, the talent behind the images unmistakable, but for an uninitiated viewer, the maker of the art and the desire to get to know her could remain as elusive as visual artists have been for decades, if not centuries. So what happens if we're presented with information about the artist in a way that rivals the most probing Rolling Stone interview? Lo and behold -- we start to dissect the work with the same tenacity our little brother displays when talking about Cobain's angst.
Speed, who has a fear of public speaking, has devised a way to sidestep the pervasive and oft-alienating "artist lecture" template. Instead of spiking her art openings with the usual slide-show-question-answer fodder (usually for a few dozen devotees who already know about the artist anyway), she creates large tomes called "Books of Conversation." The show's viewers, unhurried and unintimidated by pretentious cocktail-hour openings, can at their leisure write down what they would most like to know about Speed and her work -- "What kind of music do you listen to while you paint?" or "Why do you put a third eye on so many of your subjects? It hurts to look at it" -- and on the adjacent pages, Speed writes her thoughtful answers to their questions. To wit: "Tom Waits. Hank Williams, Shawn Colvin. Did I mention Hank Williams?" and, "What your eyes see is not what your brain assumes it should be seeing, so the brain needs to adjust itself and think of things from another point of view. I think the adjustment hurts a little."
She places these books out on a table, and anyone strolling through the exhibition can stop to read them or to write their own questions. It's the kind of personalized, interactive element that can cause a serious "before" and "after" effect: The way you look at her work before you read the book (removed, cautious) contrasts with the way you view it after (familiar, affectionate), the same way you find the work of a movie star more engaging once you've read his or her profile in a magazine. The age-old problem of keeping the art and the artist separate, of letting the artwork stand on its own, is a diminishing proposition in these exploitative and info-hungry times. Speed's solution satisfies this growing public need for intimacy with its celebrities, even if she hardly comes off with the conceit of a star.
Speed paints with the precision and light-sensitivity found in Flemish oil still-lifes, the dreamlike creepiness of Hieronymus Bosch, the rounded narratives of Bruegel the Elder. This is painter's painting, and her invented iconography begins to wrap itself around your brain as you walk through the show. Tense animals, flesh wounds, suspect members of the clergy -- all approach unconscious and universal significance. Her images are sharp but not so specific as to be alienating. Sure, these stories have a defined, if not buried, meaning for the artist, but Speed never leaves the viewer out in the cold. Both the figures and adapted visual aesthetic are recognizable, helping the viewer along the path of Speed's difficult tales. Too beautiful to dismiss, too disturbing to swallow whole. Only, Speed has got a leg up on her more obtuse competition. Want to know what painters Speed admires? Go to the Book. Want to know why she paints an extra jaw on her tigers? The Book tells all.
About the only thing missing from the formula is an Annie Leibovitz photo spread. But then, viewers are likely to associate the ever-present subjects of Speed's paintings -- pale-skinned, wise-eyed redheads in the tradition of, say, Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth -- with the artist herself. The public will fill in the blanks if given enough start-up ammunition. But when a viewer writes, "How do you develop your imagery?" and Speed answers, in her pensive, swayback cursive, "For me, the best place for finding the pictures in my head is the bathtub. Driving around out in the big empty parts of Texas and Mexico also works...then the pictures will sneak up from behind," the gaps to fill are no longer threatening. You feel as though you've just had a pleasantly thorough phone conversation with her.
It's hard not to walk back through the show with new eyes after such connections are made and such soundbites and tangibles are provided. And in this context, it's hard to ignore that the charismatic Speed, if not painting, is far more deserving of widespread appreciation than some of our other so-called artists and their art.
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