Don't be scared
It may come as no surprise that there's a new book out in the For Dummies series. It's called, of course, Art for Dummies, and it purports to alleviate the dreaded fear of art, a condition that strikes terror in the hearts of God knows how many people. Or so its author, former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving, contends. He should know, his résumé insists: Hoving, after all, is the man credited with the advent of the "blockbuster" exhibition in American museums, having cooked up the Tutankhamen show single-handedly back in the early 1970s. The show brought out so many of those citizens panicked by the thought of Looking At Art.
Hoving is fun to read if you like the wittily opinionated, and his book is easy to peruse; hell, it could even help would-be art lovers who suffer from gallery or museum intimidation. But even he admits, "Reading about art is OK, but looking at it is the only way to appreciate it." Another bit of sage advice for first-time collectors: "Collect living artists. That way you'll never buy a fake. You'll also gain great satisfaction in knowing you're supporting a cause not usually known for its economic well-being." Hoving maintains that anyone who gets out there and looks at art, and even buys some, will have his or her life enriched, spirits lifted, and capacity for fun enhanced. But only after you buy and read his book, no doubt, can you maximize the experience. Pardon me while I clear my throat.
In addition to a tastefully brief outline of significant periods and movements in art, Hoving's book is filled with his pithy observations, such as: "Art collectors are the snobbiest folks on earth and pride themselves on looking down their noses at newcomers." He uses the Socratic method to instruct the reader on how to tell good art from bad, and he unabashedly favors Top 10 lists in a chapter that includes the 10 greatest art works of Western civilization (according to him), the 10 most interesting artists (and why), and 10 artists worth watching (and why).
It's that last list that raises our eyebrows -- not because of who's on it, but because of who's not (like, well, everybody). Hoving may not actually be a dummy, but the man hardly knows all. If he did, perhaps he would have included two Texas artists being teamed up for a Dallas premiere of their work by Kenneth Craighead, who runs Craighead-Green Gallery with partner Steve Green.
Craighead paired longtime Dallas artist and art professor Gordon Young with Houston-based painter Joan Bohn for an exhibition that's an unlikely coupling of two strangers with dissimilar approaches. Oddly matched and even mismatched artists often make good openings for art rookies (or, in Hoving's parlance, dummies), and this work makes an uncanny art connection and an interesting gallery show. Bohn's strangely detached abstracts and Young's intensely dense and complicated riddles in his part-figurative, part-abstract paintings are a good choice for any gallery virgin's first time. And as everyone knows, the first is always the best.
Gordon Young might take exception to being tagged as someone's maiden voyage into gallery-going, although it should be noted that the Craighead-Green show is his first commercial exhibition. At 60, Young has spent most of his life making art, but Craighead says he's reticent about showing it. "He's very timid about his work," he explains. "When we brought some pieces into the gallery about a year ago and the work started selling, he was shocked. But everything we get sells. Everything we brought in before this show is gone."
An art teacher with the Dallas County Community Colleges since the mid-1970s, Young's ideas reflect a degree of thoughtfulness and self-analysis he's none too shy to share. He says his art describes his life, and in a way, showing it is the ultimate act of self-revelation.
"I got a teaching job to make a living, so I could explore art in my own way and in my own time," Young says. "My life is my construction. I don't blame anybody else for what I do. If, when I die, they come in and burn everything, it would have no impact on me at all. I've had the freedom to do what I want."
What Young wants is to create short stories, poems, and riddles through his paintings and collages. Craighead offers that Young's work possesses "a real thick, luscious, painterly style about it. All of Gordon's pieces have a story in them, but it's not the whole story. You have to figure out the rest of it."
Young says that when he begins a painting, he's never sure where it will go. "The challenges and transformations through which a painting goes are the painting," he says. In "Requiem," he experiments with repeating photocopied images, layering rows of black-and-white icons on paper over and under painted images, creating what appears to be conflicting content. His combinations create friction between symbols that are difficult to relate; hence, the riddle.
"I like ideas that are decadently romantic, and I construct a sort of narrative history painting," Young says. Twelve of the look-alike images in "Requiem" have bullet wounds, each painted with a different color from the color wheel. "I wanted to call it 'Death by Art,'" Young says, laughing. "It is about brutality directed against the outsider. Political meanings become hidden under the decoration, which in a way is sort of like art superseding reality."
The detached intellectualism of Young's work parallels Bohn's outside-looking-in abstract images. A sort of cool, emotional indifference from each artist pervades this show, though it would be difficult for a viewer not to have an emotional response to any of the work. For her 14 paintings, Bohn crafts plywood panels of varying sizes and fits them together to form a rugged but unified panel. Each of the small panels is painted with rich colors and heavy textures, though the artist is apt to remove as much paint as she applies. "My paintings physically develop through a process of construction and deconstruction," Bohn says. She uses razor blades to scratch and scrape away paint. "Digging back," she says, "discovering beauty through loss. What was removed is as compelling as what remains."
In addition to an appreciation for the textures in Bohn's work, the viewer gets a sense that her vertically oriented panels, with horizontal bands, represent windows with a view of strange, vague landscapes. "They do have an organic or nature feel, rather than a landscape," she says. "A couple look Asian or Oriental, and the textures suggest fabric with a worn feeling, or something sheer or something that shimmers."
In a series of four paintings named for the seasons, Bohn creates a nearly all-white "Winter," and a rusty, brash "Autumn." For "Spring," she tops the panel's bands of color with a sunny yellow, as if to express the rising warmth of the season; for "Summer," the bottom band is an equally bright, but deeper yellow, positioned like light from a setting sun. Bohn says one viewer told her he wanted to "embrace" one of her paintings; that sentiment captures what she hopes to achieve. "For me, it's very important that the paintings be explored," she says. "I think they should grab you and suck you in when you walk by. If that happens, then it's successful."
Bohn's paintings are almost textbook examples of the illusionistic qualities of abstract art. Young's paintings defy description with their obsessive layering of colors, shapes, images, and ideas, but beg to be studied. There is literally no end to what you will see in them. "It's not necessary for the viewer to understand what I mean or go the same direction," Young says. "I expect everyone to get something completely different out of it."
No telling what Thomas Hoving would get out of it. He shares a bit of his philosophy of contemporary art in Chapter 16 of Art for Dummies. "The bad news about contemporary art is that there's a lot of ugly stuff out there calling itself high art, ghastly junk masquerading as 'real art' with few experts willing to blow the whistle on it," he writes. "It's still very hard -- maybe impossible -- to predict which artists working today will become the old masters of the future."
Still, Hoving ends up with an inclusive statement, one that applies directly to Bohn and Young -- whether they're on his Top 10 list or not. "Dive into contemporary art," Hoving says, "and start swimming."
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