Monday, 28 May 2012

Questions and an answer

Fifteen under-paintings Megan Chapman & Stewart Bremner
In a little over a month, Megan Chapman and I will be having an exhibition of new works at the Art Center of the Ozarks, titled "A place called home".

Megan and I have a home each, spaced four and a half thousand miles apart and we have both spent many months visiting each other's homes. Neither of us having planned to ever engage in such a long-distance relationship, there was never an expectation that not knowing where home was would ever arise. That was, of course, before the internet changed things, leaving us at a point where the places we once called home are no longer quite as clear in our minds as previously they had been. Where, then, is our home?

Given that this has become such a prominent, if unanswered question, and also that both of our recent bodies of work are so autobiographical, it therefore seemed entirely apt that we should title our next show with this in mind. Due to the nature of exhibition scheduling, these considerations, and the title that sprang from them, took place some time ago.

Now here we are, back in the sticky heat of an Arkansas summer and we have a lot of painting to do. Already we have began fifteen pieces, all of them underpaintings that contain a mix of shape, colour and texture. As these pieces progress, we are faced with squaring up the work we have began with the title we have given the show. This seems a difficult task, although one that as abstract artists we have faced before.

The problem has led to several discussions and not a few hours of missed sleep. In the heat and in the stress, the solution was not forthcoming. And then the answer occurred to me, the answer that is always the answer and yet is one that seems somehow to be easily forgotten. The work will conform to the title because the idea behind the title is so very much at the forefront of our minds that in our mark-making, we cannot help but reflect it. This is to hark back to the idea of ├ęciture automatique, that I touched on almost a year ago. Basically, if we relax and just keep painting, we should find our way to a cohesive (and hopefully great) show.

Now to put that into practice…

Friday, 11 May 2012

Not quite crystal clear

A few days ago, less than a week after returning to Northwest Arkansas, Megan and I made a visit to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The museum, which opened in November 2011, holds a large and diverse collection, housed in a purpose-built, glass, steel and concrete structure in a snug river valley. It is the fruition of many years work, that was funded by Wal-Mart scion Alice Walton.

Rosie the Riveter
Norman Rockwell, 1943
On a bright and sunny afternoon, the approach to the museum is lined with brightly-coloured wild flowers, in the midst of the endless, verdant, treescape that covers much of this part of Arkansas. The museum itself is housed below and almost out of sight of the entry way, making for a slightly confusing and unimpressive beginning to our visit. Likewise, the entrance foyer is another counter-intuitive space, further muddled by a profusion of crowd barrier tapes. After some backwards and forwards wandering, we found our way into the first room of the collection and began our tour.

Before I'd even clapped eyes on any piece of art, an attendant pounced on us, asking if we had visited the museum previously. On discovering I had not, I was given a lecture on the rules of the museum: do not to get within eighteen inches of the art; do not point at the art; do not use flash photography. It was an embarrassing and intrusive beginning to our visit, which made me feel unwelcome and intimidated. A few minutes later, when Megan forgot herself and did indeed point at a painting, an attendant was on us in a heartbeat, telling her off.

While I understand there are likely to be many visitors who had never been to a major art gallery and therefore might not know how to act around art, this only makes the intrusive approach more wrong. As a visitor who has been to many large institutions and understands how and why not to fuck with the art on the walls, I felt intimidated by the ever-present attendants for much of my visit. So to I was fearful of getting to close to a painting, as I always want to and have often done in the past, lest I should be further accosted. It is hard to imagine how much more intimidated first-time gallery visitors must feel.

Mask with Golden Apple
Georgia O'Keefe, 1923
Given the funds the museum appears to have available, one can only wonder why they do not simply invest in some museum-grade picture glass and some rope. Maybe then their attendants could stop intruding and leave the visitors to engage with the work on show.

Art should be an enriching and valuable experience for all and the potential for Crystal Bridges' approach to nip latent interest in the bud is dangerously self-defeating. If their visitors really have so little gallery experience, and the evidence of our eyes and ears on our visit seems to confirm this, then it is even more important that they are not put off on their first visit.

After the initial experiences on entering the museum, it took a while before I could even really begin to look at the art. As it happens, the museum is laid out in chronological order and so this did not prove to be massively problematic. The entrance floor hosts work from the colonial to late nineteenth century period and I found little here to engage me (although this is not an uncommon reaction for me to have with art of this period). This is a subjective opinion and no real judgement on the collection, although even so there are a few stinkers in here, including James Earl's Lady Mary Beauclerk, Daughter of Lord Aubrey and Lady Jane Beauclerk (1793-94).

George Tooker, 1971
The twentieth century work is found on the lower level of the museum. Again, the initial impression here was a little odd. The first galleries are self-contained and windowless rooms built within a glass pavilion. It seems a somewhat perverse way to lay out a purpose-built museum, however in them I found the first pieces in the collection that genuinely engaged me. 

First was Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter (1943). It is always strange to encounter such an iconic work, where one often feels a mix of familiarity and wonder, and this was such an experience. It is a big work, that is as defiant and robust as anyone would expect such a patriotic American work to be.

In the same room, I was also drawn to Georgia O'Keefe's Mask with Golden Apple (1923), for its captivating and elegant simplicity, and the glowing twilight world in Maxfield Parrish's The Lantern Bearers (1908), the colours of which seem unlikely to ever be re-produceable, no matter how many thousands of prints are made of it.

Our Town
Kerry James Marshall, 1995 (with visitor)
In the contemporary area, George Tooker's Ward (1971) stands apart, although not in any obvious manner. It is a quiet painting and, located in a small side gallery, it could easily be overlooked. However once it has been noticed, the undercurrents of disquiet and alienation in the work arrest the attention. The faceless and near-identical bed-bound figures, together with the partly-covered flags, hint towards the flow of dead and injured returning from the then ongoing Vietnam war. All the while the upright members of society, barely healthy themselves, turn away and in that act give hints towards Dixie's "look away, look away" and its pro-slavery viewpoint – for while those in the beds may be helpless, those looking away are just as much slaves. It is a powerful painting and one which signals that Tooker was an accomplished artist, with a strong social awareness.

Another similarly hard-hitting piece is Kerry James Marshall's Our Town (1995). This massive work dominates one whole wall, positively shouting its disquiet to the viewer. Here a perfectly-rendered suburban American Dream is subverted. Like the elephant in the room, the children at the centre of this picture unexpectedly have neither blond hair, nor blue eyes and with troubled expressions, they ask "what about us?" Elsewhere crude and rough daubings obscure the unrealisable dream. From its scale and the brightness of its colours, this piece at first appears a large and fluffy work, it is only on second glance that its political subtext begin to shout.

Kenneth Noland, 1959
Almost the antithesis to these two strong pieces is Kenneth Noland's Round (1959). Using stains rather than brushstrokes, Noland sought to remove the artist from the art, to instead concentrate the focus on the colour and form, on simply the art itself. It seems to my mind a rather futile undertaking, wilfully at odds with what art is for. Nonetheless, this did not stop me from appreciating the composition of this rather unfinished-looking piece. Standing front and square in front of the work, not much further away than the regulation eighteen inches, gave the colours of the work quite a breathtaking dominance of the field of vision.

Towards the end of the museum, Wayne Thiebaud's Supine Woman (1963) was also strongly attractive. Thiebaud's best-known work featured products and items of food, painted in a realistic style using artificially bright colours. Here in a lesser-known work, the absolutely motionless figure is rendered in the same manner and through this product-perfection gives rise to questions about woman's place in the a male-dominated society, that sadly seem increasingly relevant in contemporary America.

Crystal Bridges both confounded and reinforced my expectations. As a new museum, there are of course few big name works, while many of the works by big name artists collected here are at best lesser ones. The Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock pieces currently on show would arguably be lost to the mists of time, where it not for their creator's later efforts. Added to this is the restriction to only show work by artists of the United States, which gives the museum something of a provincial air.

Supine Woman
Wayne Thiebaud, 1963
It would be easy, in light of these points, to therefore leave the gallery feeling that the collection is a bit thin, that it is simply a large collection of second-rate work. However, that would be to overlook the merits of a collection of lesser-known work. Herein are many hidden and unexpected gems. If it is inconceivable that a corporate-bought, patriotic-seeming, American-only art collection could hold such political works as those above, consider also Marsden Hartley's Madawaska–Acadian Light-Heavy (1940), which is one of the most homo-erotic paintings I have seen in any gallery or museum. One can only stop and congratulate the museum for housing such works.

The museum, in all its modern architectural glory, sits in a lush green valley, surrounded by a system of trails and it is undoubtedly a beautiful place to look at and be in. However the collection is hit-and-miss, while the atmosphere is somewhat unwelcoming – other than the intrusive attendants, we saw many cleaners noisily at work (during opening hours) and the cafe inexplicably closed at 3pm on our visit, six hours before the museum (there were no hints as to whether or not it would open later).

In its defence, Crystal Bridges is still a young museum and it is only to be expected that the bugs in experience are not quite ironed out. Should these subtle yet many flaws be attended to, Crystal Bridges is sure to become an important destination in the art world.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Hello Arkansas!

Yes, I'm back in the land of trees, thunder and… something else beginning with T… um… trucks! It has been almost six months since I was last here, which seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. Right now I am quite jet-lagged an unfocussed. Please do come back soon to find out what exciting plans are afoot!