August Issue 2002
A View From Down Under
Exposing Naked Emperors
by Judith McGrath
In my capacity as an art critic, I approached
an exhibition of celebrated contemporary artists from around this
state with the expectation of enjoying some thought provoking
examples of cutting edge art. CRASH! Big let down. The exhibition
was full of mindless stuff flung around the floor, dangling from
the walls, teetering on plinths. It was visually painful and I
wanted to weep. But there was a job to do, so I fought past the
disappointed "me" to reach the objective, analytical
"we" to properly critique the exhibition.
One exhibit consisted of a photo-documentation of a week in the life of the artist. Not one image ignited interest as there was nothing creative about them; no play with light and shadow, no thought to cropping or framing the shot, no manipulation of scale or depth perception, no experimenting with the developing process. Actually there was nothing about these pictures that differentiated them from the normal collection of happy snaps, processed at the local mall and found in every family album. The pictures showed people and places that were somehow meaningful to the exhibitor but we weren't privy to their significance.
There was an installation that involved a standard
ironing board, opened in the work position with the iron standing
upright on the floor beneath it. It was titled "Untitled".
We suppose the artist was making a statement about the domestic
environment so we looked for something, anything that could be
interpreted as credible. All we saw was a collection of opposites
- large/small, wood/metal, vertical/ horizontal - and all we could
reference was some salient segment on Sesame Street we remembered
from our formative years.
Then there was a series of landscape paintings by one artist. The initial response was 'bad' but we must not judge before making a thorough investigation; look beyond the surface, discover what is being communicated, define its relevance, seek originality, evaluate skills. We read the "artist's statement" posted on the wall. It was a well-written document, double-spaced and typed in large font for easy reading. It commented on the ephemeral aspects of nature and how all great landscape paintings of the past were myth making. The exhibitor had a valid opinion, one that could be argued if relevant examples were used to back it up. Instead we were faced with four clumsy images painted on flattened cardboard cartons. The paint used was house paint, cans of incorrectly mixed colours deemed unsaleable by the paint store and gladly given away. The images were poorly composed, badly drawn and the paint slapped on with a lack of finesse.
A charitable person might say these pictures are examples of naïve style, except in art terms naïve means "untutored" and "honest". This guy has a Masters in Fine Art and attends art workshops. Is that untutored? In defence of his ghastly work the artist wrote how all paintings are lies and if art really wanted to imitate nature it too should be ephemeral. His argument would have been more plausible if he weren't trying to sell the already decaying exhibits for such exorbitant prices. Is that honest? Critical Judgement: Good statement, too bad about the art.
We were surrounded by pretentious examples of self-absorption, bad kitsch and poorly presented exhibits that were totally mute and needed written explanations to hold them together. There wasn't a work of art in the place so "we" became "me" and instead of viewing the exhibits I began my usual practice of watching the lookers to observe their reactions to the display. It soon became evident I was experiencing a clear-cut case of the Emperor's New Clothes' syndrome. Although different people reacted differently to the artless stuff, all seemed to accept what they viewed as "good art". It had to be; after all it was done by artists and exhibited in a public gallery.
I enjoyed following two mature ladies around the show. They stopped every so often in front of an exhibit, declared it "very contemporary" and spoke knowingly in church whispers about various art movements in relation to their times. They were more involved with their discussion then the exhibits as their conversation was in no way related to the work on display. It was as if they considered a gallery the proper place to talk about art, no matter what's on show. I gathered they weren't sure if they liked the work or not. They would wait and see if it stood the test of time then with hindsight, they'd know if it was good or not. I must admit, their judgement had merit.
One retired couple lingered at each exhibit. They looked from object to catalogue to object again with shaking heads bent close in a conspiratorial manner. When engaged in conversation, they admitted to being impressed by the information in the catalogue, which assured them the artists must be important but confessed in apologetic voices to not liking the work. They found no rhyme or reason for the exhibition and nothing significant in any of the exhibits. Although they reiterated how they didn't know about art, I believe, of all the visitors to the gallery, this couple saw the exhibition in its true light.
The work on show lacked the mantle of creativity and as such disrobed the artists of any respect earned in their early years. The emperors of the new art world are all naked. So "I" turned around and "we" decided to head off to another gallery to review a different exhibition. Why bother writing about this stuff, no matter what is said about the work it cannot be validated much less made to seem important as no one will even remember it next week. Besides there is nothing to be gained by exposing Naked Emperors, it only embarrasses those who see the barrasses!
Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writting on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).
A collection of her articles which have
appeared in Carolina Arts can be
found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).
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