Audacity in Art
A number of years ago during the Orlando Museum of Art's opening of the exhibition Jennifer Bartlett: A Print Retrospective (1994), I overheard a conversation the artist had with a local collector. "I like your work," said the patron, "even though I don't really like contemporary art. I much prefer paintings done at the turn of the century."
"Well," Bartlett replied, "in its day that art was contemporary, too."
I've thought about this exchange over the years, and how beautifully Bartlett conveyed the idea that contemporary art, beyond a style or philosophy, is the art being done today. Whether abstract or representational, conceptual or retinal, contemporary art reflects the world in which we live while at the same time acknowledging its place in the progression of art history.
The work of two artists featured in this exhibition clearly exemplifies this idea. The young artist Kamrooz Aram takes as his point of departure patterns from traditional Persian rugs but animates them with abstract gestures and stickers that he applies to the surface of his paintings. Wangechi Mutu, who was born in Nairobi, Kenya, educated at Yale University and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, creates work reflecting a diverse mixture of worlds. She appropriates print images - typically stereotypes of naked bush women from sources like National Geographic - and then transforms them through drawings that empower the figures with contemporary clothing, jewels and mythological associations. The results speak both to Mutu's native mythology and her understanding of Western art history (fig. 1).
To be successful, art must be transcendent. By this, I mean it must have a transformative effect, one that takes you beyond pure matter. Most painters take paint from the tube and make it something else on the canvas. Pat Steir paints the elements and her images of waterfalls work because there is an exchange of energy - the paint becomes the water falling at the same time the falling water is pure paint.
Katherine Bowling looks to the landscape for inspiration, and again there is an exchange between allowing the paint to exist in its pure form and creating a representation of nature and light. As the contemporary art critic Donald Kuspit pointed out, "Van Gogh, among others, believed in the religion of art, which whatever else it involved, made it clear that art is more than the sum of its material characteristics and not simply a reflection of everyday life."
Certainly to understand and appreciate contemporary art can be challenging both visually and intellectually. It often takes active participation by the viewer. As Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, noted closed to a century ago, "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."
To collect contemporary art takes as much audacity as it does to make the art - in both cases, the daring to challenge convention. Buying a contemporary work of art can often be a leap of faith since no history may exist for the artist or art and it remains to be seen if that artist will be written into the art history books. Collecting contemporary art, particularly in today's competitive and financially driven market, also takes a commitment of both time and resources. This exhibition provides a look at the taste, interests and "audacity" of a number of Central Florida collectors.
Dr. Robert Feldman and his wife Lisa exemplify this type of forward-thinking collector. Together they have acquired an impressive array of contemporary art ranging from well-known artists such as Terry Winters, Kiki Smith, Jane Hammond and Elizabeth Murray to younger, relatively unknown artists such as Erica Svec and G. Bradley Rhodes. For the Feldmans, collecting is an ever-evolving endeavor.
"What I've realized over the years is that contemporary art collectors see themselves as non-conformists, and to an extent we are," Feldman notes. "But at the same time, collectors often buy the same, established artists. Recently, Lisa and I have redirected our focus to collecting young, mostly unknown artists. It's definitely taking a chance - some of the artists will catch on and others won't. But it's more fun living at the edge of new creativity. We like getting to know the artists, and support at this time in their careers can make all the difference for them."
Jacqueline Bradley has been collecting art for more than 20 years with her husband Clarence Otis, Jr. She notes that they also have moved their focus in a similar direction. Within their collection of African-American art, their recent acquisitions have included work by younger, perhaps more experimental artists, such as the two pieces in this exhibition by Chakaia Booker and Deborah Grant (fig. 2). Yet, within this move, there is a connection. As Bradley explains, "We feel it's important to provide a voice for these younger artists and what we realize is that after all these years of collecting art, we have put together a collection of artists who are very influential to the younger generation. There is a continuum of concerns, with ideas of the self, race, and feminism. Right now, these younger voices are the chorus, but someday some of them will become lead singers."
The Acquisition Trust of the Orlando Museum of Art has been in existence for close to 25 years. In addition to building the Museum's contemporary collection, one of the tenets of the Acquisition Trust is to educate its Members about contemporary art and to teach connoisseurship, often by visiting private collections and artists' studios. For example, Members of the Acquisition Trust who traveled to Venice this past summer had the opportunity to meet glass artist Laura de Santillana, granddaughter of Paolo Venini, founder of the prominent glass factory on the island of Murano. Her work is represented in this exhibition. A second studio visit took the group to meet another Venetian glass artist, Massimo Micheluzzi. Work by this younger artist was also acquired and two of his pieces are included in the exhibition.
The influence of the Acquisition Trust is also reflected in many local collections. Artists whose works are included in the Museum's permanent collection - Pat Steir, Thomas Nozkowski, Tom McGrath, Malcolm Morley, Katherine Bowling, Edward Ruscha, Bill Jensen, Marc Handelman and April Gornik - also have work featured in this exhibition. Over the years, Members of the Acquisition Trust have either visited these artists in their studios or the artists have come to the Museum to participate in programs or attend exhibition openings. The opportunity to meet artists and personally experience their thought process deepens a collector's understanding of the artist's creation.
One aspect of "audacity" in art is the wide array of experimentation with materials characteristic of the 20th and 21st centuries which, beyond the traditional use of oil and canvas or ink and paper, includes wax, tar, rubber, wood, vinyl, thread stickers, ribbon, beet juice, aluminum foil and the unorthodox treatment of glass. These experimental works range from the thick paint stick drawings with their sculptural surfaces by sculptor Richard Serra to the wall sculptures made from recycled tires by Chakaia Booker. Other "audacious" approaches to art making include the hand-altered photographs of Doug and Mike Starn (fig. 3), the textile floor sculpture of Orly Genger and Margarita Cabrera's delicately sewn and constructed "backpack." Although Edward Ruscha is represented in this exhibition by one of his work prints, the work for which he is best known, as a young artist he experimented in the 1970s with a wide variety of strange materials including gunpowder, blood, fruit, axle grease and grass.
Glass, a material that is both historical and contemporary, is widely collected in Central Florida. Since the first exhibition showcasing contemporary glass at the Museum in 1986 (European Studio Glass: Thirteen Contemporary Artists from Eight Countries), local collectors have become more adventurous. In addition to acknowledged masters who have been displayed in the previous two collectors exhibitions, such as William Morris, Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra and Harvey Littleton, local collections include classic reflective cubes of John Kuhn, the organic forms of Robert Mickelsen and the glass dog and shoes of Marta Klonowska.
Fred Wilson, who was the United States representative for the 2003 Venice Biennale, offers an unorthodox twist on the use of glass with Drip, Drop, Plop (2001). This work, created in black glass, looks like fallen teardrops. As the artist explains:
I wanted to use black glass because it looks like a liquid. It represents ink, oil, tar, and a lot of the titles in this series refer to what liquid does. I hope some of these images come through for people because that's how I'm thinking about them. Some have cartoony eyes that bring it back to the social and historical, relating to my own experiences as a child. For me, because of 1930s cartoons that were recycled in my childhood in the 1960s, these cartoon eyes on a black object represent African-Americans in a very derogatory way. Any material that was black could be made into something that represents an African-American. That, to me, is an extremely sad commentary. So I sort of view them as black tears.
As Wilson's work demonstrates, beyond the "audacity" contemporary artists can achieve with an innovative use of materials, there often is a message being conveyed. For example, Margarita Cabrera's pink backpack and its contents are perhaps not only the replication of a young girl's belongings - they might also represent for the artist, who is Mexican, the items an immigrant might take with her when crossing the border (fig. 4). Yet, the full meaning remains enigmatic. As one critic notes, "like the lost articles of a missing person. the rich heavy rosary beads...incite a narrative without giving away the ending."
Tom McGrath's monotype from his Scenic Route Obstructed series builds on his ongoing theme of urban scenes and the transformation - and perhaps destruction of - the landscape. James Rosenquist, best known as a Pop artist, subtly takes on global concerns of the environment in his work. Just as artists a century ago were inspired by political and social changes to create pictures of the city's new public life, Kristopher Benedict's work looks at the role of the individual in the contemporary city and examines the changing relationship between public and private space.
The last 20 years have seen the integration of photography into the realm of contemporary fine art and this trend, too, is reflected locally. The exhibition includes two works by German photographer Loretta Lux, a young artist who has made a name for herself with her haunting photographs of children. Although her subject is contemporary, the sources are often art historical and one feels more than sees the references to Renaissance masters such as Botticelli and Raphael. The scenes are simple yet highly controlled. "I never allow them (the children) to wear their own clothes," says Lux. "My work isn't about children. You can recognize them, but they are alienated from their real appearance."
This exhibition pulls together a vast array of work, ranging from established, historically important artists such as Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell and Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann to artists who are showing in a museum for the first time. In addition to these more well-known in Orlando, but nevertheless have a presence in the larger art world such as Eva Lundsager and Peter Doig. Also included in the exhibition are a number of works published by Flying Horse Press, a print atelier at the University of Central Florida with a national reputation. As a whole, this exhibition offers an insight not only into currents of the contemporary art world from a global perspective, but also reflects the commitment and "audacity" of our local collectors.