There's a Pony in Here Somewhere
Every so often, I get a semicoherent piece of hate mail that makes an interesting point: What I do is worthless.
I'm not, mind you, referring to the usual bleating of aggrieved partisans, the rabid billets from fans or gallery owners or artists' relatives. For those objectors, I have one response: I've got the column. You don't. Q.E.D.
Occasionally, however, I get a more interesting and legitimate complaint, one that contains some version of the "King's X" theory of art, the argument that words are inferior to images, or simply have no application to the visual world. In most cases, the claim rests on two hoary old saws. First, there's the myth that pictures are worth a thousand words. And second, there's the even more common belief that the making of images is an endeavor somehow more privileged and more legitimate than the churning out of mere words.
Craighead-Green Gallery's show of emerging artists, the Ninth Annual New Texas Talent: A Statewide Exhibition, proves that these assertions are usually--but not always--untrue. Curated by Murray Smither, the show contains roughly 30 works (canvases, drawings, photographs, pieces of sculpture and hybrids). The artists also submitted slides of work not in the show, as well as statements of intent, which are invaluable, since it takes words--in some cases, a few hundred--to decipher most of the pictures in this show.
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Alas, the offerings quickly break down into typical categories. First, and worst, are the artists who crank out images less as a tool to communicate than as a form of discount therapy. David A. Dryer, for example, creates abstract oil paintings as an exercise for exploring the real world as well as "such things as perception, motion and gravity." Like too many abstract artists, he doesn't much worry about what the viewer gets out of his work. Susan Lecky, in turn, sees her art as a type of joint therapy, and, like many artists, she assumes too much cathartic power inheres in art. Her submission, "Remembered Echoes of Magical Moments," is a canvas dense with colors, vaguely organic shapes and geometric designs intended to "present, through form and color, my feeling about man and nature." The result, Lecky believes, is that "the viewers are stimulated to bring, due to their own sensibilities, additional interpretations to these relationships." Unfortunately, her bright, complicated and abstract offering functions like extremely colorful series of Rorschach blots: Their significance lies wholly in the viewer's interpretation. The result is so much visual noise, pretty and interesting in the way a kaleidoscope is, and for about as long.
Some artists are compelled to create images because they lack facility with words. Takako Tanabe concedes that he has always been "bad at" words; he is compelled to create art to "fill up [the] empty spots" created by the "many things that are missing from communication." Unfortunately, he's not much better with visual smoke signals. His drawings of simple, anonymous shapes rendered against white or gray backgrounds may suggest trees, or furniture, or lamps, or planets, or nothing at all. They may invite communication, but on the artist's own terms, and the result is a selfish, self-indulgent art, one that confuses difficulty with originality or profundity of thought.
Not that mere clarity of image or idea is any guarantee. Derrick Snell, for example, creates black-and-white photographs that attempt to "explain the unexplainable": that is, to convey the subjective experience of a moment, of "how it felt to be there on that day." His arresting, beautifully composed, Eakinesque images of men and women jumping off rocky outcroppings into a lake achieve the stated goal. But while they succeed in communicating, the viewer is left wondering why this innocent, banal "subjective experience" is worth slapping on a gallery wall. This brings us to another category of artists, the neo-symbolists, who advocate art as cheap philosophy. Catherine Ray Wright's black-and-white photographs of her friends and family holding single rosebuds are example A. Blatant and simpleminded, they are intended to symbolize the "fragility of both" lives; mostly what they symbolize is the difficulty of finding an original, interesting thought underlying an image. Susan Cheal's large pastel-on-paper offerings, "Crown" and "Slinky," are marginally more interesting, but more for their formal qualities than for any Deep Thoughts beneath. Rendered in white against a blue background, the drawings depict exactly what their titles suggest: a symbol of monarchy and a 20th-century toy. In her statement, Cheal explains her fascination with "agents of socialization," or the institutions suggested by these artifacts: the church, the monarchy, consumer culture. In installations, Cheal subverts these images in various ways. Removed from the context of her installations, however, hanging on the wall at a group show, the drawings become mere curiosities, interesting for her competence as a draftsman, as well as for certain odd distortions and lapses from perspective.
The problem with such shows is not entirely the fault of the artists. As the critic Dave Hickey has argued, the problem is that artists have been nurtured on a destructive nostrum, the idea that art is intrinsically virtuous.
In fact, as Hickey has said, making art is, at bottom, a "bad, silly, frivolous thing to do," a "wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are sorted out." (Ditto art criticism.) Thus, one way for both art and criticism to legitimize themselves is through tackling such issues.
Ever the anarchist, Hickey advocates art that is "bad-acting and wrong-thinking," that is "courageously silly and frivolous." Craighead-Green's show contains too much conventional thinking, virtually no bad-acting, and much that is frivolous, but hardly courageous. Still, redemption can come in many forms: in beauty, in a good story, in a keen wit--and in the extremely rare case in which an image is worth a thousand words. Erik Goen's black-and-white photograph, titled "Craving," achieves this remarkable feat. His image of a man with needles stuck through his shaved pate, licking the palm of his own hand, is supposed to "explore...anxiety, pain and fear" in order to "help us confront and question our own fears." But what it does, in fact, is much more elementary: It presents a wholly original, graphically arresting portrayal of addiction, a visual metaphor a thousand times more compelling than the usual monkey-on-one's-back.
Others, like Ann Huey, are born storytellers. Huey's submission, an oversized painting of a kitschy, flowered tumbler of the Kmart- or gas-station-giveaway variety, is rendered in a style as hokey and awkward as its subject. It is a gloriously, exquisitely bad painting, caricatured and exaggerated and full of formal lapses, as absurd as its subject. And there are some genuinely witty, inventive submissions. Wayne Wolfe's kitsch photographic fictions, consisting of pop-culture scenes or homey portraits projected onto vases filled with grandma-ish flowers and surrounded by props (toys, circus memorabilia), both revel in and satirize the antique-store aesthetic. Likewise, Philip D. Foster's photographic constructions play with notions of time in interesting ways, providing neat little Twilight Zone episodes of punctuated reality. Finally, Oscar Silva's organic sculpture--a geometric, woven box shape sitting atop a resin platform, with long twigs rising toward the ceiling--is at once primitive, elegant, mysterious and quite sophisticated, beautiful without being banal, and thus, its own little rebellion in a box.
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