Friday, 20 January 2012

Stop in the mighty river

Art is such an ambiguous word that it can be open to almost any interpretation. Every artist has their own take on what it means, likewise curators and viewers have their own ideas and all of these ideas, on everyone's part, are likely to be altered by context. This morning, for example, when reading an article about art I realised that I had entertained a thought that was diametrically opposed to one I had earlier in the week. Less than an hour later, those diametric views have been forgotten and I find that I am unconcerned by their occurrence or loss.

Untitled, Arrangement with Black
William Johnstone, ink brush drawing, c. 1975
The idea that everyone has a role to play in defining art is very close to the subject of the current exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. Beholder, which runs until February 18th, focuses on different people's perceptions of beauty in art and therefore comprises a very mixed show. It was refreshing to see such a variety of work in one place, even if personally there was no particular piece that represented beauty to me. Of course, in many ways that is the point.

Beauty for me, however, is a hard thing to grasp in the grey depths of winter and so it was consequently something of a surprise to find it lurking in the Scottish Gallery's William Johnstone retrospective. Until walking through their doors a few days ago, I had no idea that there was a local abstract expressionist contemporaneous to the big names of the field. (This probably says more about me than it does about the world of Scottish art.) There are some powerful pieces in the show, however it was in some of the stark ink on paper works that I really saw something special.

The most lingering effect of the show has been to give me the feeling of a connection to the past. Hitherto, I had been under the uninformed impression that abstract art did not have a local history, that it had taken place mostly within a small group of New York-based artists. I therefore saw myself painting in something of a rootless, borrowed environment. While seeing Johnstone's work means that I am still clearly not at the cutting edge of art, it also means that I am no longer quite so adrift.

Painting by Doug Randall
Another person whose art I encountered this week and who is similarly far from the cutting edge is Doug Randall. Doug is an impressionist painter from Fayetteville, Arkansas and a friend of Megan Chapman. This week Megan and I had our own late Christmas day and Megan gave me a small painting by Doug as my gift. It is one of my favourite pieces from all that I have seen in the past few weeks.

In a less personal way, both Megan and I were also very drawn to four textile pieces by Phoebe Anna Traquair, so much so that we visited them twice. As part of the permanent collection at the Scottish National Gallery, these works from the end of the nineteenth century are located in the furthest and darkest part of the gallery. Even in their dim corridor, they sparkle with richly-coloured life, made with an assured, painstaking hand.

These recent experiences have given rise in me to a different way of thinking about art. Both my work and Doug's have their genesis in eras before our births, yet we are by a very correct definition contemporary artists. Thinking about this and my recently-discovered local history, I began to see art as something like a mighty river, yet like a river whose delta is often springing new separate rivers, all flowing ever onwards.

The Progress of a Soul
Phoebe Anna Traquair, thread on linen 1895-1903
With this in mind, I thought further about Traquair's pieces, which do not appear to be from a particular period. In photos, she is clearly a Victorian lady (even if she acted little like that imagined stereotype). This idea of her seemed almost irreconcilable with her work and it gave rise to a further thought; that who we are as artists is of far less importance, within that great river, than what we make. We do not enter the river, only our art does. Art is all that is important.

The river of art, today, seems less about beauty than ever before. Whilst the Beholder show demonstrated that beauty can be found in many disparate art forms, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art's Sculpture Show (that Megan and I visited last week), gave strong clues that beauty is no longer such an important element in art. Even less palatable than this revelation though, was a further one which suggests that in the world of art, the art itself seems to be losing its importance.

In one of the only rooms not to be currently housing the Sculpture Show, is Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #1136. The gallery notes that "drawings such as these exist as a set of instructions that are then carried out by a team at the Gallery who make the drawing themselves…"

The suggestion that the artist does not need to make their own art is unwelcome enough on its own, however that the artist need not even go near their work is worse still. More dammingly, the statement goes on to note that the piece, which is painted each time directly onto a gallery wall, will later be painted over. We can therefore be delivered into the unhappy conclusion that the actual piece of art is less important than the idea behind it. In many ways this interpretation of what art is for is the most challenging and potentially disastrous of all. When the idea becomes more important than the art, can we still actually call it art?

Back in that immense river, as the delta spreads, the main channel grows slower and weaker. Indeed, there are so many other channels now, that for all we know maybe what we once saw as the main one will soon wash up in a mud bank. Or maybe the time for such a simplistic vision has passed. It is an entertaining thought.

In the mean time, I'm going to keep on contributing to one of the less well-regarded channels. It may not be a fashionable one, but for me it is art.

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