Month: April 2009

Professional vs. Amateur…Hard to Tell the Difference

I’m clearly no design critic, but at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Spring Show (Industrial Design, Illustration, Material Culture, Visual Arts and Technologies, Integrated Media and Foundation, etc.), it was hard to imagine that what I was seeing was student art and not the professional, polished work of major design companies. If not for the blurb on the flashy eye-candy posters “Sponsored by Hummer” or “Sponsored by Proctor & Gamble” I doubt anyone like me walking through could ever have figured out that these were actually created by 20-somethings who still party ’til 2 am most nights.

Is this the “state of things” now at design schools? That students are all as polished as professionals? (Or is CIA just “that good?”) If so, then that’s great. It must be hard for design/ad/engineering companies to choose from such a talented field. (Also makes it that much harder for students graduating to get a job.) But on the flip side, if student work IS as good as that you see splashed all over glossy magazines, then does that mean that graphic design/ad companies aren’t stepping it up to the next level? Once these students get jobs, do they peter out? I have no idea, just throwing that out there. I guess I just haven’t seen a case or a media where the student/professional similarity was so striking.


Struck By the Artist’s Words (As Much As the Work?)

Wow. It took me awhile to figure out what I was going to say about the recent John Sargent III show that I saw with a friend of mine at the Tregoning Gallery. In case you were wondering, 1) Yes, Sargent is grandson to THE John Singer Sargent and 2) Yes, the Sargent show coincided with the Pekoc show that I wrote about yesterday.

Sargent’s talent is clear, but I was struck moreso about what he had to say verbally (not only orally, in person, but in text in the xeroxed-program guide/handout, of all things). I kept chiding myself that maybe I couldn’t get all that he had written in his “world view” two-pager by staring at his paintings. It’s obvious that anytime you are able to talk with the artist through his exhibit, you get a much richer view. But how about if his written or spoken thoughts/views/ideas are so compelling that they move you… maybe even moreso than his canvas? This is really odd to say, coming from me, a very visual person (I draw Venn diagrams ALL the time, about anything and everything… at first work-related, it has infiltrated my daily to-do lists).

Perhaps all of this means that he’s a really great writer, and that there’s poetry in his words as well as his art. I once went through life thinking that some artists need/use art as the vehicle to better convey their thoughts. But Sargent is just as gifted writing it all out on two pieces of plain white paper stapled together. Well, at least enough to move me (the visually challenged one? now I’m starting to get a complex!). 

Here are some of Sargent’s pearls of wisdom:

  • “When I began painting, it was enough to create a likeness. Today that is the least of my concerns. A painting must now stand on its own and speak for itself.”
  • “A finished painting… has a visual voice.”
  • “These recent paintings are emerging conversations. They are not conclusions. Ask me today, and I will say what I have to say. In a month, in a year, it will all change.” (This is something I struggle with. I always set my goal and figure out the dots to connect to get there.)

In Art: The Constructive Process Is Where It’s At

Christopher Pekoc Gallery Image 1
Christopher Pekoc’s Night Visions 1975-2000 at the Tregoning Gallery, Cleveland

When I walked into the Tregoning Gallery on Saturday to see Christopher Pekoc’s exhibition “Night Visions: 1975-2000”, I took one look at a collage comprised of a to-scale black and white photograph cutout of the looming Cleveland Public Library’s Reading Room (see in above photo, far right) and said “Gothic.” The gallery owner looked at me pleasantly and said “Well, not Gothic.” Wince. I see a black and white photo of a big gothic-looking building and it reminded me of something out of Batman – Gotham City, Gothic City, whatever – and “Gothic” because of its ornamental detailing. I can parlay the architecture allusion into contemporary mixed media, right?

But for the next 20 minutes I switched gears to ask about the gallery building itself. The owner told its tale: built in 1905 with roots in carriage manufacturing, it’s still sprouting from the weeds of West Side Cleveland. Just the building made me want to move in and pop an artist’s lifestyle. Shiny floors, thick brick everywhere, lots of open windows, miles of track lighting… (and for real cheap too! according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.)

Back to the art. Pekoc’s collages were striking, yet they were all very different in composition, technique, and construction. His evolution: First Vogue magazine cut outs pasted together on canvas. Then pieces of photos arranged and shellacked, accentuated with gold leaf. Some studies with random materials sewn together, hand stitched as he turned his mother’s machine’s carriage manually, and then glued it all to handmade paper from Cambodia. Then chalk rubbed – layer upon layer, its pigment deepening — into canvas with a thumb. An enormously architectural, to-scale photograph cut out and overlaid with vivid paint (in a fusion of confusion, to me). And on and on.

Collage is my favorite media. I like it best when an artist takes trash, crumples it up, and glues it to a canvas (or a rotting piece of wood. Whatever.). First, I get riled up trying to figure out how it all came about. Then I (try to) calm down, take two steps back, and ask “What the heck was (s)he thinking?”

One other thing became evident. Going too long without submersion into a contemporary gallery renders one absolutely haywire when one gets there. And so I was all over the place. Jumping to conclusions about composition, structure, theme (as with the Gothic example, you often miss the mark!). It was hard to reign myself in as I tried to quickly reconstruct how something was made. It’s ok to take this unleashed, wild ride, but then to really figure out the piece, you’ve got to center. It’s about immersion and getting into the artist’s head. Getting there is the most challenging part. Is that the exercise that art is all about?

What Stimulates the Artist? Other Art

The Gagosian Gallery features works painted by Picasso in the decade before his death.

The Gagosian Gallery features works painted by Picasso in the decade before his death.

I got more and more excited and inspired as I read Roberta Smith’s review of “Picasso: Mosqueteros” at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. And I’m not even an artist! I’ve written recently on Picasso’s late period, talking about his inventive works that escalated into even more inventiveness-slash-craziness as a non-phenomenon that should be expected. Face it, we all get crazier as we get older. And it manifests itself in every way we communicate — at work, in writing, on canvas.

But what I found most compelling in all Smith’s breathy wonderment of the show didn’t come until the very end of the article when she gave the ultimate tribute not only to Picasso, but also to artists everywhere:

Anything this charged and unforgettable is bound to nourish anyone who sees it, but especially artists, regardless of affiliations of style or medium. It reveals one of their greatest going all out, providing a breathtaking reminder that art can be anything an artist wants it to be, as long as it is driven by inner necessity, ruthless self-scrutiny and a determination to make every attempt not to repeat the past.

It’s a refreshing reminder about what art is for and what artists are striving for. In his last decade, Picasso threw the ultimate hail mary.

What Art Can Cure

When you think of art therapy, you may think of trained art therapists working with people to alleviate stress, work through traumatic experiences, increase cognitive abilities, etc. However, must we always rely on art therapists to help us connect the dots and get centered again? Isn’t a trip to the art museum therapy in itself? It’s true that people with severe cases may need the guidance of a licensed professional. However,  inner conflicts can be resolved in some small way just by looking at the art of everyday. I think the CS Monitor makes a valiant point here:

As beautiful strains of Bach’s “Chaconne” rose from Joshua Bell’s Stradivarius in a Washington, D.C., subway station one morning during rush hour, commuters raced by… Only a handful stopped to listen. Meanwhile, fans can pay over $100 for a ticket to listen to Mr. Bell perform in a concert hall.

The performance, in which Bell’s appearance – but not his playing – was disguised, was an experiment set up by The Washington Post, and Gene Weingarten’s story about it, “Pearls before breakfast,” won a Pulitzer Prize. Over two years later, that free concert still reminds me how much good is unseen, even when it’s right under my nose, or at least in earshot. “Stop and smell the roses” has become a cliché, but this incident made me realize how often I don’t.

Recently the Guardian wrote about the exhibition Madness and Modernity at the Wellcome Collection in London which “examines how art responded to the birth of modern psychiatry in Vienna at the start of the 20th century.” However, in this collection, it was the artists themselves who’d had the nervous breakdowns. One artist repetitively drew birds on a canvas, only to cover them in writing. This might be thought of as a way to contain stress rather than to explore it.

Any way you look at it — whether through stopping to smell the rose that just popped open on your balcony, or sketching frantically on a piece of paper — art can somehow help out.

Josef Karl Radler: Recto (Self-Portrait) 1913

Repetitive release… Josef Karl Radler: Recto (Self-Portrait) 1913: Wellcome Images/Christian M. Nebehay

Art conveying concepts v. tangible objects

Art is partly about drawing out feeling. Contemporary art is often the search to find another way to express an object, idea, or concept other than the way it is usually visually represented. For example, if someone wants to portray a dog, the artist might paint a tree with a dogpile at the foot of it. Not only does the viewer think “dog” but it also erupts feelings about the dog, such as annoyance that a dog just  ran havoc through their yard. If the artist were to just paint a dog, there likely would be less feeling elicited on the part of the viewer. Art is about drawing out feeling.

Often artists try to convey concepts, such as unemployment, and since concepts are not concrete, they require creativity to pull off the representation (see Unemployment, below). So that makes sense that you’d have to stretch the imagination. But the other mental exercise in composition is to take something that already exists in a tangible form, and figure out how to invert that tangible object, so that you get a concept (see Garden Print below). So in one case, artists are taking a non-tangible object and making it tangible, and in the other case, they are taking a tangible object and making it non-tangible.


      GARDEN PRINT: 1987