Thursday, July 6, 2017

Finding Art

What might the artist’s message be?  What was he trying to say?  Thumbtacks secured a length of string reaching from the floor to the wall and Carey pondered the installation with concern.  All she could get from it was, well, office supplies.  Was she really that shallow?  Sigh.  The eyeball projected on a glass ball was equally bemusing.  But wait.  What is this?  She spotted a series of ridged gills emanating a stream of air.  Inhalation and exhalation.  Breath!  The sustenance of life!  She glanced about, smiling with satisfaction, eager to share her insight with some other patron.  

Something held her back though, and she studied the oeuvre more closely.  Hmm.  Ah.  Upon closer review she realized the structure was… an air vent.  Oops.

What is art?  Centuries ago, it was defined and regulated by the church.  Artists worked their craft in light and shadow, color, portraiture, movement, and emotion through religious themes. I’ve wandered wearily through the galleries of the Uffizi and Accademia in Florence glazing over at one Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection after another… and don’t get me started on the torments of the saints.  Agony… for everyone involved.

With a little inner remonstrance to pull myself together, I’ve sought to get past the themes and focus on the paintings’ elements: depictions of village life, building interiors, fashion, and drapery; the extraordinary skill in realistic representation; the emotion conveyed with paint on canvas.   While I prefer Hudson River landscapes, I recognize artistic skill and beauty.  Go back a few centuries and the “what is art?” question is unnecessary. 

It’s the use of feces as a medium that really throws me.

But I do understand that art can inform and provoke.  On a recent trip to The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, Dave and I were transfixed by a series of photographs taken at an African diamond mine. Laden with ponderous sacks, black laborers, so numerous that any identity was obscured, waited in line to scale rickety wooden ladders up a cliff. Startling in his unblemished shirt and arrogant whiteness, an overseer stood with his clipboard amid the sea of sweating, over-burdened workers.

It was a grueling scene and underscored how little I know of exploitation, how supremely fortunate I am in my life.

As Dave and I continued on toward the Monda Gallery, a mother and young daughter emerged.  The child spun, skipped, and bubbled with excitement.  “That was SO much fun!” she said.

“I knew you’d like it!” her mom replied.

Fun? I was still haunted by the diamond mine, and fun sounded good.

We entered a dimly lit, lofty room hung floor to ceiling with ribbons, thousands and thousands of multi-colored ribbons, a sea of swaying stained glass.  Soft classical music and birdsong conveyed a sense of cathedral quiet and deep forest, yet all who entered added their own melody of pure joy and discovery. 

Small children whirled in giddy circles shrieking with laughter.  Teenagers chattered and took pictures with their phones.  Others walked slowly in a moving meditation, the ribbons parting and falling gently into place as they passed through. 

Smiling as ribbons slid over my face and skin like a breeze, I held out my arms to let the ribbons flow from them like waterfalls.  Every movement was novel, a personal creation of sound, color, dance, and joy.

What is art?  It’s still an open question, but I found it in “Pathless Woods.”  

Note: Anne Patterson, the creator of “Pathless Woods,” has synesthesia, a condition that causes sensory perceptions to overlap; when she hears sound, she sees color.  In this installation, the artist helps participants experience that same merge as they create their own path through 8472 ribbons - the equivalent of 25.6 miles – cut into 16’ lengths.  If it comes to a museum near you, GO!