May 15, 2008

A Contemporary Barometer

Photo: Jasper Johns' piece, Painting With Two Balls--a painting made in response to his work being called "ballsy".

Manthony and I attended a lecture at the Seattle Art Museum last night, which was given quite masterfully by Michael Darling, SAM's enthusiastic modern and contemporary curator. The lecture was focused on Thermometer, the 'prolific' painting by Jasper Johns that belongs to the museum--or more accurately, to Virginia and Bagley Wright, Seattle's very own contemporary art guardian angels. As expected, the auditorium was filled with trustees, art snobs, art teachers, art students, and us. I think we were the only ones who noticed that Michael Darling was wearing an aubergine, corduroy suit over his delicate, floral-patterned shirt. I've never--ever--seen a man (a straight man, no less, who is married to a straight lady) wearing a purple suit before, unless you count Barney.

The presentation focused on Jasper Johns and what his influences and motivations were behind his often-unexplained American Pop/Abstract Expressionist pieces, with special emphasis on Thermometer; the many quotes Darling had of Johns was helpful only in realizing that Johns liked to mess with people, and delighted in confusing his fans and critics. The painting itself looks like my 9-year old threw a box of crayons in the dryer with a canvas, stenciled some numbers in the middle, vertically, and then placed a thermometer in the center. It was impressive to me only when I heard that the thermometer actually worked. Otherwise, it was like a lot of experimental contemporary art from that time period (1950's, 1960's): messy, undefined, and hard on the eyes. That being said, I like a lot of what I've seen from Jasper Johns' artistic catalogue; some of his "color" paintings--paintings that include color words, like 'yellow' and 'red'--are my favorites, as well as the number series. The "color" paintings are ironic (read: he's messing with you), because those colors are rarely shown in the paintings, but they're aesthetically-pleasing in an organized, naked kind of way. I hadn't studied Johns before, but I was very familiar with his former art buddy lover, Robert Rauschenberg. I always liked Rauschenberg because his artwork--which included found household objects and a whirlwind of weirdness--was a bit more inclusive. Then again, I've always found the Abstract Expressionist period to be somewhat guerilla-ish. Most people think of the great masters, which usually translates into this: the artwork has been mass-reproduced in mainstream society to the point of mindless recognition, or the artists' bi-polar past has been made into a major motion picture (Pollock, anyone?). But a lot of what those artists were doing back then was anti-art, or intellectual art, or non-art; instead of the pretty picture of a flower or a woman, it was a gritty, thought-provoking, barren landscape filled with greys, blues, and forks--or something cold and utilitarian. It wasn't art for the sake of art, it was art for the sake of thoughts or ideas.

Looking at a Jackson Pollock can go a million different ways; the interpretation is subjective with such abstract, often disjointed paintings. Looking at a Georgia O'Keefe painting--her work being abstract, but also crisp, intense, synthesized--you can say, 'that's a flower, and it makes me feel __________.' With abstract expressionism, you get to have your own interpretations. Some people might look at Pollock's brush strokes for answers, some would be inspired by the amalgam of colors, someone might see their cheating ex-wife within the painting; the interpretation is up to you. I was always a bigger fan of Kandinsky than Pollock, but I'm starting to get back into the local scene. I hope that Darling will continue to curate some of these massive stars of the Abstract Expressionism art world--like Jasper Johns, Rothko, Diego Rivera, de Kooning, Noguchi, Aaron Siskind (a brilliant photographer influenced by this time period)--but also hope that he continues to raid the Seattle art scene with his unfaltering, practiced eye. Junko Yamamoto is showing there right now, which is unbelievable--she has that happy, cartoon contemporary feel to her work that might not be as marketable as Takashi Murakami (whom Michael Darling curated in 2001 at LA's MoCA--it's called Superflat, and is worth seeing), but is more approachable than Murakami's work has ever been. That whole Louis Vuitton sell-out thing really 'chapped my caboose', as my boyfriend would say.

Other artists I would love to see represented in the contemporary collection: Matt Sellars, sculpture. Everything he touches turns to artistic gold, I swear. His pieces are heavily influenced by architecture, which would appeal to Darling, since he's a design junkie; I read in The Stranger that his doctoral dissertation was done on the furniture of 20th-century American designer, George Nelson, who is phenomenal. R.M. Schindler would be a great survey at the SAM, with his Frank Lloyd Wright leanings, and clean, contemporary architectural designs. I also feel, with so many Northwest artists going unnoticed, that Blake Haygood would be a nice addition to the fray, with his intensely gorgeous world of abandoned farm machinery, nuts and bolts, woods, and land; he's showing at the Missoula Art Museum right now, but I would love to see his work more widely represented. It's sparse, but compelling. And what is contemporary art, if not those two things?

The entire evening was fun. My favorite audience member question was this: "Have you ever thought to put {Thermometer, the painting} in another room and expose it to different kinds of light to maximize its' showmanship?" No, the heavily-degreed curators of this multi-million dollar museum have never even thought of showing one of their most popular paintings in a room with good lighting. My response to Anthony was, "Have they ever thought of--call me crazy--putting it in a room?" That might be groundbreaking, too. After waiting in what felt like a receiving line, we spoke with the curator (very nice; shiny), asked a few questions, and then headed to Taco Time. Sometimes you have to balance out your pretentiousness with a crisp beef burrito or two.


Manthony said...

Weeeeeeeettttttt fishes!

FreNeTic said...

Now I'm confused. Did he or didn't he paint that with his balls?

If not, I stop shaving tomorrow and will have a new gimmick in about say, six weeks.

Snotty McSnotterson said...

No no, you misunderstood me: those ARE his balls.