Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Innovate innovate innovate

I've had the good fortune lately to see several exhibits that have impressed me with contemporary artists' sheer inventiveness.  I saw it in three fiber exhibits at Convergence in Milwaukee (read about them here, here, and here).  I also viewed the recent Vik Muniz show at the High Museum in Atlanta, and recently I had the privilege of jurying a fiber guild show as well.  In each instance I was reminded that in a world saturated with images, innovation in art is essential to engage and hold our attention. The now-old modernist motto "Make it New" still holds.

The casual viewer at the Muniz show might identify his use of peanut butter and jelly to re-create the Mona Lisa, or black beans to reproduce the iconic image of Che Guevara, to be the extent of Muniz' innovation.  "Gee, I never would have thought to make art out of that.   What will those crazy contemporary artists think of next?"

Vik Muniz, Che (Black Beans) from the After Warhol series, Chromagenic print, 2000. 

But I think Muniz is deeper and more thoughtful than that. Unpacking the wall label information in the caption above is one way to start.  Che Guevara, the Marxist champion of the poor in Cuba and elsewhere, is rendered in the common food of the people he fought for.  The image is instantly recognizable because the Alberto Korda photo on which it is based has been reproduced endlessly and become a cultural icon.  Muniz's piece is part of a series called After Warhol, placing it explicitly in the lineage of Andy Warhol's famous silkscreened images of celebrities.  And the piece in the show at the High is a photograph, not the actual work made of black beans.  Muniz is playing with layered notions of what constitutes art--its materials, its sources, its "originality," its preciousness and permanence.  He is also reclaiming an icon, an image that has become a cliche, by using a novel material, black beans, to invest it with new meaning.

In another series, Muniz used garbage to create giant portraits of people who survive as garbage pickers in Brazil.  Dust and debris are arranged in huge arrays on the floor of a warehouse and photographed from above.  The arrangements compose images in the manner of classical works of art history.   They prompt us to examine the mental categories to which we in the first world might too often consign the poor.  Muniz reminds us in part of his title, "(Suellen)" that these are not generic poor people, this is not a cliche peasant madonna noble in her suffering, but an actual woman with a name. 

Vik Muniz, Mother and Children (Suellen) from the Pictures of Garbage series, 2008, Chromagenic print printed 2011.
Here's one more.  In the Pictures of Magazines series, Muniz re-created classic works of art as collages of paper torn from magazines.  From a distance the work appears to be an accurate reproduction of an oft-reproduced painting.  Up close, you can see deliciously witty and ironic details of advertisements and images torn from our contemporary culture.  Perhaps this image of a barmaid facing her patrons who are reflected in the mirror behind her is not so dated after all.  And perhaps Muniz is also commenting on the commodification of now-beloved Impressionist works that were once disruptive and controversial. 

Vik Muniz, A Bar at the Folies Bergere, after Edouard Manet,
 from the Pictures of Magazines 2 series, 2012, Chromagenic print. 
Novelty purely for novelty's sake is ultimately dissatisfying.  It prompts us to ask, So what?   The photographer-artist I live with, my husband Sam, derides such work as "rim-shots," one-liners that can feel like a slap across the face, a throw-away line that leads nowhere.  The old "shock the bourgeoisie" strategy must now reach further and further into formerly taboo subjects, materials and performances to grab our attention.  When it does there is, it must be admitted, too often nothing there.  

In my view the novel approach should arise organically from a new idea, an emotion expressed in a fresh way.  As with Muniz and other innovative contemporary artists, if we pause, look, look again, keep an open mind, and allow our thoughts to play over all that we see and glean from the label, we may begin to understand what the artist might be up to.  We must slow down and simply look, first of all.

When I was composing this post, this landed in my inbox:

The most difficult thing in the world is to listen, to see. We don’t want to see. Do you think a capitalist wants to see what is good in the communist system? Do you think a communist wants to see what is good and healthy in the capitalist system? Do you think a rich man wants to look at poor people? We don’t want to look, because if we do, we may change. We don’t want to look. If you look you lose control of the life that you are so precariously holding together. And so in order to wake up, the one thing you need the most is not energy, or strength, or youthfulness, or even great intelligence. The one thing you need most of all is the readiness to learn something new.
Anthony de Mello
Source: Awareness

The hardest thing for many of us is simply to slow down and look, to suspend judgment, drop our defenses, and allow ourselves to be taught.

What does this mean for my work and that of other tapestry and fiber artists?  Many of us are attracted to our medium in part because of its traditions and history.  Yet if we want to be anything other than antiquarians shoved to the margins of the contemporary scene we need to push our work to be conceptually rigorous as well as technically good.  We need to push our medium to behave in fresh ways and to say something to contemporary people at large as well as to our specific fiber tribe. 

 A tall order.  But as Sam likes to remind me, If it was easy you wouldn't be interested.

PS.  I'm experimenting with a larger font for this post.  Let me know in the comments what you think.

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