|Ten Pennies, whereabouts unknown, Steven Rhude|
"If he is to turn his notoriety into immortality, he needs the backing of public institutions and the praise of serious critics."
Sarah Thornton, Is nothing sacred -
The Tate Modern Stamp of Approval - Damien Hirst Retrospective
I have come to believe there is a great deal of subjectivity that comprises much of what we call a public permanent collection, and how that collection can be programmed to edify or usher gallery patrons into the fold of post modern ideology. Changing directions in contemporary art practise is one thing, but branding that change is the point where the public (dare I say consumer) comes in. Sure, I'm an artist - but I'm also Joe Public and I like to see what the Public Art Gallery is up to. However, even the best programs can crash with the constant blurring of artistic intent.
Ironically, and perhaps to the detriment of the contemporary museum, public permanent collections can marginalise a segment of the population. Reasons for this are complex and possibly insurmountable. As I heard a man on the CBC radio say: Jobs are hard to come by. I'm well educated with a family and working as a janitor cleaning toilets - why would I want to go to a public gallery to see one on display.
|Flaherty's Legacy, Chalk drawing, whereabouts unknown, Steven Rhude|
Commercialism and consumer culture play a big part in contemporary art. Consumerism is at once applauded or derided depending on the individual, their work background, ideology or political views. We seem to believe creativity still counts, yet consumerism is an easy target for artists influenced by the brand of pop culture initiated decades ago by Warhol and his Brillo Box. I'll never understand why some institutional artists consider the purchase of a work of art from a commercial gallery a guilty pleasure, when public art galleries (consisting of a directors, boards and curators) are not only unabashed consumers of contemporary art - but secular monuments to the consumption they exhibit. Conversely, they are also an osmotic repository of culture, establishing directly or indirectly a cosy comfort zone; an arm chair enclave reenacting something we are all exposed to - the effects of goods or services for popular consumption on society as a whole. It is usually a mixed celebration when most exhibits with the theme of consumerism reveal our cultural habits and the allusions to the god of capitalism. It also presents many aesthetic questions as post modernism comes to the crossroads of artistic identity - and Nova Scotia is not immune to the Damien Hirst effect.
But lately, provincial museums are having to do more with less in what seems like an endless era of government fiscal restraint. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has on display among other things, an important exhibition called Material World curated by David Diviney - also a remarkable artist in his own right. The artists in the show do not just draw upon common materials (that is undoing those materials and altering them back into art), but directly or indirectly address consumer culture and our relationship with it. I took the opportunity to view this show recently and came away with some mixed emotions and thoughts about public art and the entropic nature of post modernism. See link below for images from the show.
Faced with having to explore the vaults of our permanent collection more frequently, we can expect to see shows that are cobbled together at minimal expense and reveal art that has sometimes been mothballed owing to lack of floor or wall space in the gallery. Part of the reason for this, is the massive expansion of the AGNS's permanent collection during the years of Jeffery Spalding. The collection approximately doubled to 14,000 works during his time as director. Art works in the permanent collection must meet the criteria of public use so the gallery is generally responsible for the work in perpetuity. Many of these shows travel to other museums - sometimes for several years. All must be stored or maintained with high standards of conservation.
However, what are shows like Material World really showcasing? Well, material for starters. The stuff of art. Nothing unusual about that. Artists working in sculpture generally need materials to convey their cognitive process or expressive impulses. So everything from the found object to the humble penny cover the curator's expectations for the field of sculpture. This show may be seen as an approach to the contemporary art practise of sculpture imbued with a long tradition, for the use of the ready made or found object has been around since Duchamp was a cowboy. So here's your chance to see how far it has come.
Brian Jungen's Beer Cooler 2002, stands out with a tongue and cheek this Bud's for you kind of satire. A contemporary cedar box of the potlatch offering, with the residue of colonialism's cheap trick ills, you get the sense that he is reversing the offering of alcohol back on you the viewer. The top is also eerily carved with a liniar pattern of skulls and spider webs - something my son and I found fascinating. But if you're a sucker for the art of turning garbage into gold then have a look at the work of Kristan Horton. It is interesting that the work of a visual artist (sorry, are video monitors really now called sculpture?) has been included in a show ostensibly about sculpture but in this case the connection makes sense to me.
Horton's video Cig2Coke2Tin2Coff2Milk, 2006, is an agitated look at the way objects in consumable culture accumulate and transform ie; a package of du maurier cigarettes into a can of Coke. Horton conveys the observation that we express our nervousness through what we may have on hand, objects banal but possibly important. Certainly for Horton not ignorable. In fact there is a direct sense that he can lure the viewer through an anatomy lesson of the familiar into something more serious than the expected quotidian result we have come to associate with objects of mass consumption. Horton is a magician, and here magic is art.
In Material World one can also notice the familiar NSCAD heroes whose names arise from years of interconnectedness and personal allegiances, contributing to a rather obvious preferential agenda - (probably Nova Scotia's worst kept secret in the arts). For those viewers looking for more plurality in programming from the AGNS, that is outside their enduring marriage with NSCAD, forget it. It looks like this is how the breadth and depth of art in our region or province will continue to be explored. Which leads us to the signature work in the show.
In the middle of the gallery, Gerald Ferguson's one million pennies (sounds grander than ten thousand dollars worth of pennies) are piled up in an abstract mound of coppery glitter. Keep in mind that Ferguson's conceptual idea, One Million Pennies takes on a recent change in irony. Sarah Millroy stated in the Globe and Mail: "The work... exists only as an idea, awaiting fresh withdrawal from the bank every time it is staged, literally incarnating the notion of the value of art." (This changed in 2004 when the gift of the artist was made possible by Scotia Bank) Try conserving that!
"All ideas need not be made physical."
With the fazing out of the penny by the Federal Government, allusions to the "value of art" or Ferguson's hoax, conjures up new possibilities. Limited edition - One Million Pennies? Worthless pennies? A penny for your thoughts? You be the judge. Personally I find this form of conceptualism pretentious, but back when the work was conceived (1979) provocation was the name of the game and museums lapped it up. Heck, they still do when they think no one is looking. However, the exhibition catalogue contains a stellar essay by Sandra Alfoldy (Professor of Craft history, NSCAD), refuting the reductive proclamations made by Craft theorist Glenn Adamson. Here's a dandy from him: Modern craft is a story that is ending, replaced by post or trans-disciplinarity where we no longer need to identify ourselves, we simply 'make things' and do what 'we like' with out becoming moored in a specific identity.
There you go, just make things and leave tradition behind. Is there a factory out there mass producing this kind of deskilling rhetoric?
Immortality through Art
When it comes to the business of art, one of the most critical individuals of western contemporary expression, and certainly one who no longer cares for the agenda of the establishment; therefore expressing his dismay with so called institutional best practises, would be the Australian born Robert Hughes, art critic and historian.
Robert Hughes has spent a lifetime pondering and writing about the relevance of art and its influence on the mind and materialism of western man for Time magazine. His superb effort The Shock of the New, portrays our historic and artistic march to a modernist Utopian vision in the twentieth century with unflinching accuracy. He is no stranger to the curatorial world, or that of the questionable relationship between museum exhibitions, the club curatorial, and the marketplace. The following five minute video (see link) portrays Hughes the old curmudgeon, adroitly stripping the husk of pretention away and revealing the hubris of the immortally driven collector, expecting a showcase of museum proportions owing to an all consuming ascension to pop nirvana - a collection of 800 Warhols to astound us with. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUh_NSpiTsY
Exploring the nature and use of materials - transforming them into art has an enduring and engaging history all of its own. That's why so many of the exhibitors in Material World also convey through their sculpture/craft or craft/sculpture, theoretical trends in the appreciation of materials which are cross disciplinary and driven by issues popularised by today's consumer culture. But lingering in my mind as I left the show, was a sense that consumer objects like money, cigarettes, diamonds, shopping carts, beer coolers, party balloons, cars, and so on will always claim a place in the pantheon of contemporary artistic expression. Think of them as a hybrid to the seven deadly sins in the lexicon of artistic expression, hoping to be transformed into something they can't be - immortal.
Materialism, consumerism and culture in society do not bring about immortality. For that matter neither does art or the museum blockbuster. You don't need a marketing department, focus group or pollster, to draw that conclusion. But a show like this does do one thing; it reveals how driven we can be as a society to prove otherwise.
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS.