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An Art Commentary

20 October 08 words: Laura Gavin
"I'm interested in how the ordinary person, with no prior artistic knowledge hopes to comprehend all they see on gallery walls"

I’m standing face to face with a gallery wall. Confronting me rather gracelessly upon it, is a large mass of plasticine, the surface riddled with colours. It’s been stuck to the wall. And apparently, it’s art.

Now stop what you’re thinking. I’m not about to launch into a damning tirade in which I condemn the world of contemporary art to a certain kind of talentless hell. Jonathan Jones, in a recent online article for the Guardian discussing video art, compared it unfavourably to “proper art”. The plasticine offends me (or it did, when I spied it in York City Art Gallery more than a year ago), but not because it doesn’t meet my expectations of what art should be; it could have easily been as bafflingly pointless as a lump of clay or a mess of oil paint. Art today cannot be seen in terms of narrow boundaries, because the days of it being solely the realm of painting and sculpture are so by-gone, I wonder that even people of the oldest generation lament their passing.

Having neglected to keep up good artistic habits since graduating in Illustration and Art History two years ago, I recently attempted to re-immerse myself in that slightly foreign realm of contemporary fine art. It alarmed me how much of an outsider I felt and I became interested in how the ordinary person, with no prior artistic knowledge, might wander in and hope to comprehend all they were seeing on the gallery walls.

So how are we supposed to tackle an exhibition? The main issue for me is that I like to approach art informed. To know the artist’s intentions, their stimulus, social and political motivations and the many other circumstances out of which art can be born, seems essential for me to appreciate and understand what I’m seeing. But I know a lot of artists would have a fairly large bone to pick with this. It has been said that once a work is “out there” it is entirely up to the audience to decide what it’s about. All very well, I suppose, since, having spoken to members of Nottingham artists group Tether, there was a consensus that the audience should always be considered - remembering that the artist has a responsibility to their viewer is as important as indulging your own expression. A fellow graduate once argued quite convincingly that it is a “failure” on the part of the artist if, when looking at a piece, one can’t decipher the artistic intention behind it. But perhaps this misses the point; if a piece makes you feel anything, even frustration, can it be arguably successful?

There is often no right or wrong when it comes to viewing art, or at least there shouldn’t be, if the artist doesn’t wish to be prescriptive. After all, this isn’t communicative design we’re talking about. But the approach is certainly relative to particular artists and specific works. Looking around the Open Show at the Surface Gallery (the final exhibition in it’s Mansfield Road location), Sarah Brown’s coil of pages, which cascaded and pooled on the floor like a lock of hair drew me instantly with its appealing aesthetic. Later, when reading through the catalogue, I was stunned to find a heart-wrenching back story – a painstaking process in which the artist endured an 18th century working week to complete the work, as a tribute to a man who campaigned to work 83 hours instead of 84 and died later in prison. If ever there was a case, which unequivocally stated that you need to know the context of a work before you can appreciate it, there it was, I thought triumphantly.

All Smoke And No Fire - Tether

But sometimes the first-hand experience of the viewer is the crux of a show. All Smoke and No Fire, a collaborative Tether exhibition earlier this year in Brick Lane in London, involved “live” pillars that chased and eavesdropped on unsuspecting gallery-goers. Like the “happenings” embraced by early Conceptual artists in the 1960s, this sort of event reveals itself through participation, the viewer’s response to a space and, happily, large amounts of silliness. It places emphasis on the audience, not the theory behind it.  Finding instances of such non-egocentric behaviour also reassures me that there are some in the art world who don’t take it as seriously as we are led to believe by the small portion of artists that are reported in the press.

So how much awareness of art should a person need before crossing the gallery threshold? How must the casual gallery-goer feel, if I, after years of artistic education remain baffled in the face of some of what I’ve seen over the past few weeks? Perhaps my historical essay-writing background has left me with uncertainty about forming my own opinion until I’ve taken others into account, and until I read the blurb that sits on the wall with a mixture of relief and gradual clarity. I’ll admit the limitations of this approach and as online arts magazine, Scene 360 suggests, ignorance can be refreshing. Urging the public to interpret freely, the images on their web pages range from the boringly famous (Mona Lisa) to contemporary Middle-Eastern illustration (Future, Tomer Hanuka). “We invite you to become the interpreter, leave the history books and Google searches aside and make your own conclusions”.

My own conclusions are far from decisive. Attending a private view at the Hand in Heart gallery recently, I found their new show entitled Making Marks as far-ranging as it sounds. But I also found much to my liking, from obsessively inscribed sheets of hand-written paper (Rachel Eite's Why Fear Pain Now? Fear Time) to organic and beautifully rendered trees made up of angular mechanical parts (Aylwin Lambert's Utopia 2, Utopia 3). And what was more, there was no blurb in sight, not even the artists names adorned the walls. When asked the significance of this, the show’s curator, Aaron Juneau, responded:
“I gave the option for the artists to retain anonymity if they so chose…I think it’s an interesting choice to be given and it gives the artists the opportunity to obtain a kind of removal from the work and for the audience to perceive an exhibition in a more holistic manner.”

Have I proved myself wrong? I thought wonderingly, as I left the building. For in the absence of information, I had gazed long and hard at everything I saw, wringing my mind for answers that had only to come from me. I speculated on what would change in my perceptions if I were to learn what was behind those works of art. There are “levels of appreciation” in much of visual art, maintains Stephen Turner of Surface Gallery; the visual that draws you in, and the contextual that comes from learning the intent behind a piece. But maybe, such as the name suggests, Making Marks is about the one level, the surface level and the marks inscribed or indented upon it. Knowledge beyond that is perhaps irrelevant. Here, we must make up our own minds. And there’s definitely something I can learn from that.

Hand and Heart Gallery
Surface Gallery

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