Sunday, February 18, 2007

counterforces two

Visiting the opening of a show of two Australian artists at the Seen Gallery in Decatur (that’s in metro Atlanta, Georgia, for global web surfers discovering this blog) brought home to me again the difficulty not just of marketing the world’s art but of simple communication about it.

I’ve mentioned already in my previous post the sophistication of small places close to the world’s intellectual currents, the conceptual art scene in Kosovo being a case in point. (Places in crisis do not automatically create good art, however. I recall an interesting booklet from a show of art made during the Eritrean liberation struggle, too, but Eritrea involved the past collision of a rich regional painting tradition with the art schools of the Italian occupation prior to the Ethiopian annexation, so there was also a base for representational traditions there. As far as I can tell based on a variety of weblogs, Timor Leste has produced no art whatsoever based on its ongoing conditions of crisis (in spite of local sculptural and fabric traditions), but the war rugs of Afghanistan are an uninvestigated story that needs investigating. Whose idea was it to incorporate abstracted pictures of Kalashnikovs, helicopters, hand grenades, and more recently the names of coalition forces into carpets? Alighiero e Boetti (if I recall his name correctly) commissioned a map of the world from Afghan carpet weavers for his entry in the famous “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition on the theme of global art, so there must have been weavers who could take designs and do the best they could to reproduce them. But it wasn’t a local habit as far as I am aware. Did some similar outsider approach the weavers in the refugee camps, or was it the spontaneous creation of local designers? Perhaps even the ones who worked for Alighiero e Boetti circa 1988? I’ll follow up on whether anyone has researched this.)

Persons familiar with my work from (where art-related posts sometimes appear amid all the other intellectual topics) or from my much earlier theoretical essays in Art Papers will recognize my habit of strategic digression. In this case, the digression was as far as one could imagine from the exquisite watercolor technique of James Boissett’s comforting Australian landscapes and Judy Hawking Burnett’s extraordary use of thickened acrylic to produce drip-based flower paintings. One would never know from these works that the little country just to the north (the aforementioned Timor Leste) was in the condition I have just described, any more than one would know from the vast majority of American art that there was a war on. (Atlanta, at the moment, is an exception to this, if one looks at Linda Armstrong’s show “In Exile from the Land of Reason” at Eyedrum, which includes work that was recently in ATHICA’s similarly themed exhibition in nearby Athens, a town that deserves recognition for more than R.E.M. and “how bout them dawgs.”)

Back to the attractive Australian artists. They fall in between available coverage in print-media sources in terms of local Atlanta marketing; not intriguingly different or noteworthy enough to be discussed in Sunday newspaper reviews, not cool enough to be discussed in youth-oriented giveaway tabloids, not innovative or conceptual enough to be discussed or advertised in the city’s international art journal, the aforementioned one which is my other employer. (I write Atlanta newspaper reviews as a non-staff freelancer and have done so for two decades, for those of you just joining us.)

It cost bucks to ship such stuff here even unframed, and will cost far more if it has to be sent back in its Atlanta-or-Decatur-added frames and mats. This is why there is a huge gulf between the subsidized or guaranteed-sales shows of the global superstars, the different shows paid for by university departments, and the very safe world art sold in the more conservative commercial galleries. In the case currently under discussion, the artists have techniques that are worth contemplating, though few things are more tedious than print explications of why something grabs hold of the viewer’s attention. Suffice it to say that the works have emotional appeal a bit beyond conventional prettiness, though they’re pretty much pretty on top of their other virtues. However, they’re far less slickly pretty than the decorator art that has compositional integrity but otherwise isn’t worth mentioning.

Be all that as it may, the world’s more conventional styles and genres will only get distributed and discussed internationally when they push the limits sufficiently to get funding from someone other than the casual purchaser. Gallery websites are the wave of the future in this department, with high-resolution jpegs uploaded for serious buyers as a followup.

Even that requires websites that gather information and links, but such sites exist in growing profusion. If you want an Australian watercolorist, you can probably find the one you’re looking for without the in-country contact that led to the Seen Gallery’s show.

Less categorizable artists confront a dilemma. American cities such as New Orleans have indigenous contemporary traditions (contemporary art has traditions, folks; we just don’t want to call them that) that are sometimes insufficiently recognized beyond the local collector base. In the case of the hard-beset Big Easy, D. Eric Bookhardt has done a splendid job of reporting the local idiosyncracies for decades, often enough in the pages of Art Papers, but there is still much art in cities around the world that is too far off the beaten track and too far out of the mainstream of contemporary currents to get much press anywhere.

There needs to be an editorially informed website, a vast online journal, if you will, wherein the most maverick yet informed of art writers present surveys of their scenes that can be perused briefly by those who are sort of interested, and studied in depth by those who really, really want to know what it means to make art in Pristina. (I keep returning to Kosovo because to cite North American cities would rouse unseemly regional passions.) This would include appropriately jaundiced discussions of why the artworlds of less currently-burdened and history-laden cities than New Orleans are dominated by the decorators, and the contemporary scenes are divided between the imitators of global trends working in isolation on the one hand and the workers in the truly global styles of graffiti on the other, with the occasional total isolate or collective producing pieces that the world ought to know about. (I do not have any city in mind when I write that; the condition is nationwide in America and I once encountered comparably cramped conditions in Germany, where one wouldn’t expect it.)

Unfortunately, mainstream conceptualist-contemporary on the one hand and mainstream decorator-friendly on the other are where the money is. It costs less than it once did to set up a major website, but hip web designers don’t come cheap. A site that big that was impossible to navigate would be worse than useless.

Envelope-pushing watercolorists painting outside the box in Pristina are probably out of luck.

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