A Tale of Two Exhibitions

7 11 2011

In this blog, I have repeatedly advocated art that exists outside of the confines of the institutions of art—outside of galleries, auction houses, and museums.  I have gone as far as to propose the idea that anything can be art.  This does not mean that I believe that just because anything can be art that everything is art, and certainly I don’t advocate a notion that everything is good art.

Last Friday I went to two gallery openings in the Boise area.  Each of these focused on its own particular kind of art, and each form was something a bit outside of the category of “high” art.  One, in a college gallery setting, was concerned with meaning and therefore relied heavily (too heavily, as we will see) on language.  The other, in the setting of a commercial gallery, was commodity-based and displayed artwork that was more concerned with appearances than any coherent meaning of a body of work.

Pagans, Pigeons, and the Architectural Index is an exhibition of prints and photos by Benjamin Love in the Rosenthal Gallery at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.  The work centers on one aspect of the history of the building the gallery is housed in:  Blatchley Hall.  Cursory research into the building (at this website:  http://hcap.artstor.org/cgi-bin/library?a=d&d=p54) reveals that, while it was originally constructed with Ionic capitals on the columns on the porch, they were removed during the 1950s.  Campus legend has it that “a president’s wife” had them removed for various reasons:  a. the reasons are unknown; b. “to deprive pigeons of a perch;’” or c. she was trying to “rid the school of evidence of a pagan culture.”

There should be scrolled Ionic capitals on the top of these columns. There aren't.

The entirety of Love’s exhibition is based on this one paragraph in the Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project website.  There are a few series of three prints.  One triptych is simply the text from the website, with the individual reasons inserted as the last sentence.  Another triptych consists of recreations of photos of the alleged “president’s wife,” Martha Pitman, with text at the lower part of the picture plane.  Each print is nearly identical except for the text giving the reasons for removal of the capitals.  The larger portion of the gallery contains small, 4” by 6” photos of various structures in and around Caldwell that include Ionic columns.  I presume this is to refute the idea that “pagan culture” could have been chased out of the town or even the campus (many of the photos are examples on the College of Idaho campus itself).

The entire exhibition is based on a single concept.  This kind of single-issue art leaves very little for a viewer to do, especially when text is relied upon so heavily.  The prints are literally telling you what they mean—there is no need for further investigation on the part of the viewer and the communication between artist and viewer is decidedly one-way.  Once the message is understood (and it doesn’t take long when it’s spelled out for you), the viewer has little reason to have continued interest in the artwork.  Perhaps the less text-reliant portion of the exhibition, the photos, could have at least provided something aesthetic and visual to the collection.  But the photos were small with uninspired compositions; many of them were of houses and seemed to be taken from across the street—making it hard to see the columns in question.  What’s more, their display—tacked to the wall with small thumb-tacks—seemed to be an afterthought.

I think any artist is striving to make a sustainable connection with a viewer—whether it’s purely aesthetic or vehemently polemic.  If art is created to establish a meaning-making interaction with a viewer, this exhibition falls short.  As I stood waiting for a connected presentation on the history of ionic columns in Idaho, I noticed that there were upwards of 30, maybe 40 people in attendance.  Not one of them was looking at the artwork after 15 minutes of the show being open.  Not one person.  Now, certainly, art openings are as much, if not more, about socializing as about artwork, but typically the conversation at least touches on the subject of the art, or what print or photo may have been someone’s favorite.  I did not overhear any of those conversations.  If I were asked to pithily summarize the work exhibited in one sentence, I would describe it as “Hack crap and bad photos,” a summation that could encompass many conceptually-based shows.

The most engaging part of the evening was Dr. Lee Ann Turner’s presentation entitled, “The Iconic, the Ironic, and the Ionic.”  During this lecture about the history of Ionic columns in Greece and in Idaho, the collected audience was engaged fully, and not just with the history being presented.  In this scripto-visual slide show, again heavily reliant on language, Dr. Turner augmented and expanded upon the issues Love was only hinting at with his small photographs—specifically the notion that columns are used all over American architecture, with varying degrees of historical accuracy or awareness.

I came away wondering how much more engaging the exhibition could have been had the presentation been a more integrated part of the work.  One of my maxims in art is that “presentation is everything.”  In that, I’m not singling out lecture-style presentations like this one, but I’m focusing on the fact that the entirety of an artwork—from what it is representing to how it is framed, hung, and contextualized within a gallery (or street corner, or theater).  In this case, Love’s didactic prints and photos, with their bare-bones presentation in a spare space, fell short of fully engaging the viewer.  However, Dr. Turner’s presentation proved that a deeper connection with viewers was possible.  It took more attention to presentation and a willingness to engage the audience on a personal, even conversational level.

The same night, I went to Visual Arts Collective, which was holding the opening reception for Bloodwork.  The exhibition featured new works by Noble Hardesty, William Kirkman, and Kelly Knopp.  The work here is quite some distance from the conceptual, language-based work at the college gallery earlier.  While the paintings and neon wall pieces had some sort of content to each, there was no overarching theme encompassing the three artists’ work, or even different works of each individual artist. Hardesty and Knopp’s paintings are graphic and stylistic and fall into a category some refer to as “low brow.”  The works of Hardesty in particular stood out to me, partially because of the large size of the paintings.  There was a painting of a “wave of pigs,” as described by one viewer, one of an unidentified Norse Goddess in battle, and a monstrous version of Grape Ape skateboarding on a city bus.  Included with these (and others) were sketches that led to the paintings, all done on what appeared to be cardboard bar coasters and the backs of postcards.

Noble Hardesty, Grape Ape Exits Shady-Vibe Town, 2011

Hardesty’s work doesn’t “mean” anything. Grape Ape wreaking havoc is not some allegorical painting regarding corporate consumerism or an investigation into ancient architectural styles as revived in the United States.  It’s a painting that looks cool.  And the viewers were looking.  And buying.  Visual Arts Collective sold somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,500 worth of artwork at the opening alone.

If you’ve paid any attention to my previous posts on this blog, you know that sales do not define quality in artwork for me.  But, in this case, they are a hard-number indication of the interest the work was generating on the part of the viewer.  Not only were the viewers looking at and discussing the work, they were purchasing the work in order to continue their relationship with it at home.

These are two wildly different exhibitions.  On the one hand, you have the language-based, conceptual work of academia, and on the other hand, you have the image-centric, commercial art of the low-brow market.  Both are working to make a sustained connection with the viewer.  In this case, on this night, in this location, it was the non-academic—the low-brow, the illustration—that was doing the better job.

Benjamin Love:  Pagans, Pigeons, and the Architectural Index will be on display through December 16, 2011 in the Rosenthall Gallery on the campus of The College of Idaho in Caldwell.

Bloodwork:  New Work by Noble Hardesty, William Kirkman, and Kelly Knopp will be on display at Visual Arts Collective (3638 Osage Street, Garden City, Idaho) through December 3, 2011.

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