Three Loosely Related, Worse than Provisional, Meditations Towards Resolving the Unsatisfactory Condition of Regional Art Criticism. Plus a Kibbee Gallery Review. Keep Scrolling Down, It’s There
expect a rewrite, even if one never comes; corrections welcomed
What Is To Be Done, Part One. Preliminary Considerations, or Prolegomena. Or Whatever.
Reading Deyan Sudjic’s The Edifice Complex (The Language of Things has me working backwards through his oeuvre), I realize, and not for the first time, the degree to which contemporary art and architecture appears in an intellectual arena divorced from intellectual history in general.
For a concept-laden field so taken with its own interdisciplinarity, this seems extremely odd. Granted, the field admits only a limited number of literary figures, just as literature admits only a limited number of artists and architects into the imaginative realm of the verbal. Each seems inordinately proud of the degree to which its own area of discourse encompasses the entirety of human activity.
Of course, there is only so much any one area of specialization can do. Art makes use of language in a way quite different from that of literature: there are fewer words, usually, and what words there are usually spill over into the more image-laden areas of discourse, such as film and video making, fields which at one end of their spectrum have simply been incorporated into art—as contemporary literature has not been incorporated into philosophy and sociology and anthropology and political science…although all of those fields are pleased to be superior analysts of art, literature, architecture, and the creative endeavors in general; and, at least in the case of writers such as J. M. Coetzee, the compliment is returned by novels that incorporate theoretical essays.
Each field tends to incorporate only those aspects of the others that it (or a practitioner of it, to be more exact) finds most interesting or valuable. This is normal. But the world of visual art, and to a slightly lesser degree architecture, seems to be shunted to a sidelines that is not visible as such only because the specialists in the sideline have the possibility of earning enormous sums of money, or because they themselves don’t keep up with the general-interest journals in English. (But online compilers like Eurozine, summarizing publications from all over Europe, and signandsight—despite its punning name—seem to suffer from the same site-blindness.)
One can read the New York Review of Books for a very long time without ever coming to much of a perspective regarding contemporary art, in spite of that publication’s tendency to commission articles that go far beyond mere book or exhibition reviews. Book reviewing publications in general, however, don’t seem to cover exhibition catalogues. NYRB does, but very selectively and even more historically than is the case with its surveys of science—and its economic and political book reviews consciously supplement its coverage of current events. Events outside the museums tend to be relegated to the realm of generally uncomprehending journalists, though the demise of print newspapers is rapidly changing this for the even worse.
The problem with this is that people of a certain generation who get their news from print aggregators like NYRB or the various multidisciplinary intellectual journals never even learn what it is they aren’t learning. One has the feeling that some of them would let loose withering salvos at the art world, if they could be stopped long enough to consider it. The art world might return the compliment if it had time to contemplate these particular men and women, rather than the slender selection of them who become the thinkers du jour for the various curators and critics of the planet.
Sudjic’s wonderfully disgruntled survey of the social compromises made by contemporary architecture has the distinction of understanding the contexts of the many buildings he is discussing…apart from his confusion or conflation of two of the secondary territorial claimants in the Munich Crisis of 1938, I haven’t found any significant miscomprehensions in the social or political background he lays out, including the history-of-religions situation of Richard Meier’s visitors’ center for Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral.
Sudjic is one of those glorious exceptions who ought to be critiqued (for like any other thinker, he rides his particular hobbyhorses to excess) by assorted anthropologists of the contemporary, at the very least. He at least knows a great deal about both his field and the forces that shape its day-to-day preferences, and as I noted regarding The Language of Things, coming at contemporary art from the related but differently blinkered field of contemporary design suggests a different set of problems and perspectives, and that the two approaches ought to be brought into dialogue with one another.
What Is To Be Done, Part Two: The Look of a Multidisciplinary Regional Website
Thanks to my own blinkered perspective, I tend to consult Denis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily almost on a daily basis, and, since I like to be reminded of past contexts and perspectives when viewing the new, I look at the essays page of Erik Davis’ techgnosis.com irregularly instead of subscribing to an RSS feed.
Davis’ field of interests doesn’t overlap at all with Dutton’s (you not only won’t find his essays in Dutton’s daily roundup of the intellectual journals, you won’t even find his subject matter), but the two pages possess some of the characteristics that make such websites superior to even the most wide-ranging and multi-authored of blogs.
Mostly, for me, it’s the extensive amount of information that can be gleaned at a glance, without ever scrolling down the page; Davis prioritizes his own work (sometimes bringing back some essays from the journalistic equivalent of Late Antiquity) so that his main interests can be perceived at a glance (along with sidebar updates on what he’s up to in the lecture and performance world), and Dutton reaches for a range of topics limited only by his own prejudices and preferences, which he tries regularly to overcome at least a little.
It’s that range-of-topics problem that defeats most regional-art websites. I believe it was the poet Robert Dana who told the story of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop seminar that involved the usual disparaging of poems written by little old ladies in Dubuque, which led to the retort from one of the students, “If little old ladies in Dubuque didn’t write that stuff, little old ladies in Sauk Center wouldn’t have anything to read.”
This is the case with some of the more godawful flower paintings that bedeck walls of galleries from Timber Creek to Timpson’s Key (I hope neither place exists, since I just made those names up), and some of the most hideous examples of the genre—the ones that would make both contemporary practitioners and the painters of the Dutch Golden Age shrink back in horror—sell for many thousands of dollars in urban shopping malls, and raise issues of just why so many codes of social pretension owe nothing either to tradition or to contemporaneity, but only to…well, that is one of the topics that a good regional online journal (anywhere in the world, almost) would want to discuss.
But the problem is one of priorities. What was recently described in a local symposium as the entertainment-oriented “butts-in-seats” outcome is a desirable one, after all: little old ladies in Sauk Center need to be kept up to date as to what little old ladies in Dubuque are up to and when they are coming to do a reading. And in the fields of literature and theatre and fashion and rock and hip-hop and folk and flower arranging, this seems to happen already. But in the field of visual art, it does not happen.
And this is in part because it is impossible to craft a site that will appeal equally to the interior designers and the serious collectors and the even more serious conceptualists and the casual connoisseurs of lowbrow and pop surrealism.
But somehow Dutton’s visually boring site offers an equal playing field for a variety of intellectual topics, with teasers that draw you off into the world in question—or not. Art is seldom or effectively never one of those worlds on Arts & Letters Daily, but I cite his site only to suggest that some similarly simultaneous sense of diversity is what we are looking for. The very neutrality of his layout allows for quick decision-making (and allows one to forgive Dutton’s particular peculiarities of choice—but the site we need would cover just about everything going on in a particular time frame).
Since critics are accustomed to writing to the peculiar specifications of editors, who will rewrite without hesitation if they don’t like the finished product, I suppose it is theoretically possible to produce a descriptive opening paragraph for a piece with a link to the more art-critical component, if there is one. No critics are psychologically neutral, anyway; even a description contains implicit judgment just in what it highlights and what it leaves out. Sometimes even a photograph of a gallery installation contains implicit judgments, as a gallery installation itself certainly does.
What Is To Be Done, Part Whatever: The Impossibility of Avoiding Distortions
One perennial problem is that regional (and not-so-regional) critics are mostly young, or very poor, or both. If they are not poverty-stricken, they will be after a career of expending the proceeds of their day job on going to every gallery in town after work, in order to write something about one of them for a pittance, or for no money at all.
The blinkered perspective of the critic in question is the next problem after that.
But once we have accepted that there is no universal perspective and that nobody can write about everything and get even a tenth of it right, we still have the question of how the art shows of a region (or of all the regions of the world) are to get reasonable coverage so that an audience of whatever size can know that they are there.
And that is always the first problem: no one can go to anything if they do not know that it exists, or do not know from the capsule summary that it is something to which they would like to go.
Atlanta’s Kibbee Gallery presents an interesting case study. The downstairs space in a house is effectively too small to harbor more than a tiny crowd on opening night; once the friends of the artist arrive, there is often already no room to look at the art or sit down to watch the longer video. (I have often thought it productively ironic that what used to be called new media have produced viewing situations that are akin to Eastern Orthodox church services; instead of ranks of seats focused on the central stage, there is an indefinitely arranged space in which devotees stand for up to two or three hours, hopefully transfixed by the ritual being enacted.)
And since almost no one comes to art galleries after the opening, Kibbee is open for viewing thereafter only by appointment with the artist. This is the case with many of the world’s alternative galleries; and given the increasing dominance of what used to be called new media, it presents the ongoing problem of forgoing more than one-night events, or hauling personal equipment onsite to meet the request of a single viewer, or risking breakins during the run of the show for the sake of the viewing equipment. (Hardly anyone has ever had a burglar steal emerging artists' paintings, though it has happened, and more than once.)
One wonders if advance viewing of the work by would-be writers would solve part of the problem. Movie critics and theatre and music critics currently have an advantage over art critics; they have a pretty good idea of what is going to be onscreen or onstage, at least in the case of theatre companies that engage in rehearsals or do the same type of improv work on a regular basis. Critics of installation or performance are seeing things that did not exist prior to presentation to an audience, and sometimes will never exist again in the same format.
One would like to see spaces like Kibbee get their due, without being artificially highlighted. And this is the problem: in small spaces, success chokes out the possibility of a satisfactory experience (we have all had performance events we abandoned because it was impossible to see what was happening) but subsequent viewing opportunities seldom attract more than the handful of hard-core fans who came to the first event.
But as can be seen from a look back at various shows of emerging artists (I leave to one side the largely marvelous “Buy Local” show currently at Emily Amy), those who miss such exhibitions often miss moments like the fabled occasions when now-famous musicians played to audiences of half a dozen at local venues. (I still cherish the long-ago time when a future Whitney Biennial artist hung his photographs on the walls of Sylvia’s Art of This Century—or was it Sylvia’s Atomic Café?—a moment that keeps me coming back to Sylvia Cross’ current venture, Sycamore Place Gallery and Studios.)
Anyway, one really ought to consider “In the Flesh,” the current Kibbee exhibition by two freshly minted SCAD BFAs. McCalla Hill has created a couple of provocatively documentary or poetic videos on issues of feminine identity (the poetic allegory of “The Rice Eater” in sharp contrast to the intercut two-screen interview format documenting issues of gender and weight and circumstances of birth), and Kelly Cloninger has transformed the main exhibition space with delicate Micron-pen drawings that are extended onto the walls by webbing that echoes the cellular implications of the drawings. Cloninger allegorizes conception and gestation in botanical parallels that deserve to be looked at in detail.
The exhibition, which I am told runs through August 1, can be viewed by contacting the artists at 2055637359 (or more accurately, one of them; I’ll let you discover which one). I add “I am told” because I have learned never to trust closing dates even when informed by one of the participants.
And, I have now learned from an unimpeachable source (I resist the two parenthetical jokes that occur to me re my adjective), there will be a closing reception on August 1 from 6 to 9 p.m. for those who missed the opening and would rather not go through the hassle of making an appointment. There is much to be said for this way of doing things.