As a college coed I wandered into the art department while the art students readied for an exhibit. Their canvases scattered about the floor in a haphazard manner while the artists determined the best arrangement for the walls. I paused at one canvas, studying the interplay of squiggles and ovals and shadows from an undetermined light source. A bit miffed, the artist informed me that I was viewing it upside down. I responded that I KNEW I was looking at it upside down, but I didn’t know HOW I knew.
I know art enhances our lives.
I know artistic expression is important.
I know that thousands of museums throughout the world preserve millions of pieces of art worth billions of dollars.
But sometimes I just don’t “get” it.
Photorealism, Realism, Impressionism, Painterly, Expressionism/Fauvism, Abstraction, and Abstract are all art styles. (I didn’t know half of them existed till now when I Googled it.) For me art falls into three categories- art portraying recognizable figures, art that doesn’t portray recognizable figures, and Folk Art.
Folk Art is work produced by untrained artists who pick up a paintbrush or needle or blowtorch and have at it. Canvases and quilts and whirligigs appear out of spare time, minimal materials, and an uncontained spirit. I put Folk Art in its own category because of its naivety. I “get” the effort. I “get” the drive. I “get” doing the best with what you have at hand. Imagine a folk artist, giving up embroidery and taking up painting instead because of arthritis, displaying canvases in a drugstore window in a “let’s see what happens” attitude. That’s what Grandma Moses did. Look what happened.
On a recent outing to the Art Institute of Chicago, I joined my brother to view “Whistler’s Mother.” Except that’s not the real name. The real name is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.” (Wouldn’t you think that James McNeil Whistler could have thought of a better title?)
I “got” this painting. An older woman sitting in a chair while her son painted her picture. Quality time with her child – I bet Mrs. Whistler loved it! They probably chatted about family, work, and life while James mixed black and white into various greys. Then after each sitting did lunch, maybe even some sherry. I loved it when my son and I drank Bloody Marys on Mother’s Day. He hadn’t painted my picture, but he posed with me when I handed the bartender my iPhone.
In an effort to learn more about art, my brother and I hunted down Jackson Pollack to give him another chance. Was there more to his random squiggles than what I saw? The Art Institute of Chicago is a prestigious museum with many really smart curators working there. They spent a fortune to procure Jackson’s painting. What wasn’t I “getting” about Pollack?
On the JP hunt we stopped at the Modern Wing, which held Zhang Peili’s exhibit, a Chinese artist who works in video. This guy made Jackson look mainstream. In this installation an array of bricks is set before a television that plays a black and white video of the artist washing a chicken – for three hours. I only watched the first five minutes, and skipped the rest. I don’t think I missed much. The headset narrative explained the artist’s intent, but all I could think of was the poor chicken. She looked a bit put out. Couldn’t Zhang have used a duck? The duck would have liked it. Then I’d have paid attention to the audio lecture.
After watching the chicken washing, my brother and I wandered toward Terzo Piano, the museum’s restaurant. After giving us directions, a guide suggested we stop at the Bluhm Terrace and view the snowman. Snowman in late May? Apparently Peter Fischli and David Weiss, both Swiss artists, collaborated on this project. They came up with a snowman inside a six-foot freezer with a glass front. No coal eyes, no carrot nose, and no top hat jauntily sitting atop his head. Only three snowballs in diminishing sizes setting atop one another in a locked freezer. The snowman looked as put out at the chicken.
After lunch we finally found the Jackson Pollack – squiggly colorful “Number 17A.” I studied it from different angles, focused and unfocused my eyes, followed the rippling paint in its random directions. And it happened. I “got” it! “Number 17A” communicated life and energy and hope – unlike the wet chicken and imprisoned snowman.
And as far as I could tell, it was hung right side up!