Monday, August 08, 2005

Subject Matter

The visual arts carry a monkey on their back that none of the other genres of the fine arts have to deal with: the proprietarization of subject matter.

So, no contemporary artist would dare to, let's say, paint ballerinas (sorry but Degas closed that subject), or harlequins, etc.

And some subject matter, by the nature of the subject itself, would be labeled as saccharine by the nicest of critics. Say kittens, horses, puppies, mermaids.

Do we have a screwed up sense of what makes the visual arts tick or what?

This powerful painting, titled "Allegory of a Gay Bashing" by Scott Brooks has been receiving a lot of attention in the "nude gallery" in Seven. It is an homage by Brooks to the brutal murder of Matthew Sheppard.

And this painting swings representational painting's most formidable weapon (and the one that keeps painting as king of the hill in spite of all the critics and curators trying to kill it): The ability to convey an entire and diverse range of emotions with just one glance.

"Allegory of a Gay Bashing" delivers horror, beauty, politics, history and homage all in one swoop.

And this tremendous work will probably never be sold to anyone by Brooks, because it would take immense courage to display this work of art anywhere in this nation; not just DC, but anywhere. Someone can prove me wrong and buy it from Brooks and display it in their home, or office or even a museum somewhere - but I doubt that there's a collector or museum in the USA with the cojones to hang this work.

Brooks puppyAnd to get to the beginning point of this ramble, in spite of the horror delivered by "Allegory of a Gay Bashing", many people get stuck on one area: the cute puppy and kitty at the bottom of the castrated nude.

I've been in the room when I hear people discussing it. It seems like the cute puppy and kitty sitting on the ground, and staring at the viewer, evoke a higher sense of revulsion than the castrated man himself.

I've noted people's sense of repulsion caused by juxtaposing the two disparate sets of images. I think that they are repulsed by the cute animals being forced to share a scenario with a tortured man. Why are they there? people ask each other, a note of discomfort in their voices. Even the eloquent Amy Watson was disoriented by the presence of the animals and (in her terrific review of the show) felt that they undermined the painting.

Brooks' kittyCute kitty and cute puppy... taking the attention away from disturbing image. How dare Brooks paint cuteness, especially in this context?

I don't know why Scott did it, but I think that it is the key that makes this painting truly repulsive and immensely successful all at once. Take them out, and you have a strong, powerful painting. Put them in, and you create a million questions, enormous angst and a desire to physically remove the creatures from the canvas itself.

And maybe without even realizing it, Scott has also reclaimed an artist's right to paint or draw anything that he or she so desires, and take the unjustified saccharinity of a subject and turn saccharine into anthrax with a few deft strokes of a painter's brush and a disorienting sense of juxtapositioning of subject matter.

Update: Sam Wolov has some thoughts on this subject.

Bailey on the WPA/C

Bailey jumps in on the issue raised last week by the City Paper on the subject of the WPA/C Directory, and in the process James gives a rousing endorsement to the WPA/C's current interim Executive Director (Kim Ward), which I second vociferously.

Read Bailey's posting here.

Containers/Contained at Target Gallery

"I had no particular impression of Containers/Contained in mind when I began reviewing the submissions for this show; so many potential directions were possible. But after repeated viewings, a common, and timely, approach to the theme began to emerge: artists working in a wide range of styles and materials were using the notion of containment as a tool of cultural, social and political critique."
So begins the juror's statement at the Target Gallery's current exhibition: Containers/Contained.

Comprised of 23 works by 19 artists from around the nation, and juried by Twylene Moyer (managing editor of Sculpture magazine), the exhibition opened yesterday and runs through August 28, 2005, and this is one juror statement that hits the focus of this show dead on: the notion of containment as a tool of cultural, social and political critique.

Take the work of the Best of Show winner, a piece titled For Those Who Serve (Evidence), by J. Barry Zeiger, comprised of old thread spools set atop a gold leaf frame on the floor of the gallery. The juror explained that the "spools came from an old New England factory out of business, and delivered a sense of nostalgia, and... [she] could appreciate a sense of things past and anonymous human beings."

Mmm... this is a very elegant and intelligent show, and in fact I think that this may be the best show of the year so far at Target, and a perfect good bye gift to area art lovers by the gallery's departing director, the fair Claire Huschle. However, considering the outstanding range of truly outstanding sculptures chosen by Moyer, the Best in Show choice left me a little baffled.

You see... it's a large, ah... gold leaf picture frame on the floor, with ... ah... some antique thread spools set atop it.

A bit baffling choice, especially when there are some truly outstanding sculptures in this show (and a couple of photographs too!).

My choice?

As I looked around the room, I realized that three of the 19 artists in the room are either represented by our gallery, or have exhibited there recently (Tim Tate, Mark Jenkins and Alison Sigethy). So let's leave them out of the running (although I must mention that Tim Tate's clever "One Day I Met the Devil at the Crossroads" glass reliquiary won one of the four prizes, as did Alison Sigethy's "Homeland Security").

Steve Dolbin ConduitAnd my eyes fell upon J. Barry Zeiger's neighbor on the floor of the gallery: Steve Dolbin's "Conduit," a large sculpture made of hollow concrete and stained with acrylic.

Steve Dolbin ConduitThe concrete sculpture offers a hidden paradox; sort of a magician's box (the kind where the woman is sawn in half), but in this case Dolbin has the cast feet at one end, and a tangle of hands, fingers and otther objects poking out of the larger, other end. I found it not only visually interesting and technically superb, but also well within the notion of containment expressed by the juror. It would probably have been in the running for my choice as Best in Show.

In addition to Zeigler, Sigethy and Tate, other artists awarded mentions by the juror were Laiung-Chung Yen, for a small cigarrete case piece titled Cages, which has a clever sense of carrying your vices around your fingers at all times.

My kudos to Moyer for selecting a superb show. The exhibition is open to the public until August 28, 2005.