Kultur: Wednesday, February 01, 2006
The dramatic tale of one rectangular-shaped block of color falling in and out of love with another rectangular-shaped block of color unfolds in Sean Scully’s Caravaggio-esque paintings.
Deep Thoughts

B.S. in the ivory towers, in the streets, and, yes, probably in your hands.

Art museums, as you probably know, have a hard time drawing crowds. When faced with the choice of either looking at art or, say, eating a four-star meal, most of us, understandably, opt for the immediate, obvious, and short-lived gratification that food brings. Ninety-nine percent of us are also better equipped to appreciate food; we’ve been eating, y’know, our entire lives. Even those of us who’ve been looking at art for decades have only really been looking since young adulthood, when the concepts and contexts that form and frame the essence of art begin to make some sort of sense. Studying beyond young adulthood is not for the weak — or for people who want to grow up and have real jobs, like the rest of the normal, non-self-loathing population. What we’re left with then is a teensy-weensy community of art appreciators who by dint of their passion feel compelled to support the scene single-handedly. Every opening, every gala, every call for artists is peopled by the same couple of hundred usual suspects. And they’re not getting any younger.

Taking their cue from the worlds of fashion, graphic design, and rock ’n’ roll, contemporary art museums across the globe are trying to attract new, young crowds by peddling flash. Sometimes, as in the case of Paul McCarthy’s inflatable sculptures, it works. Sometimes, as in the case of the Guggenheim’s Armani exhibit (essentially underwritten by the designer), it doesn’t.

The problem is that contempo-art museum curators know that no matter how hip they try to be, their institutions are still judged on their permanent collections, and their permanent collections are still judged on the quality and amount of non-hip, esoteric, and non-contemporary work they contain. The more, the better the reputation. The better the reputation, the more money to purchase additional important, non-hip, esoteric, non-contemporary work. For museums to keep their new, young visitors in the house for longer than it takes to chug two or three imported beers, curators must whip up inventive ways of selling new, young visitors on the old stuff.

On the list of what not to do, Kultur would highly rank curators’ speaking to potential patrons in what I call “artspeak,” that smarter-than-thou, fluffy diction that art-world establishmentistas believe is music to potential patrons’ ears. By employing frivolous, innocuous, and mostly generic art-world jargon in press releases and interviews, curators do nothing but reinforce the destructive, false notion that the art world teems with know-it-all flakes.

I got to thinking about museums, new patrons, and flakin’ out after recently receiving an invitation to an opening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. On the cover of a greeting card is a series of rectangular-shaped, perpendicularly arranged blocks in shades of purple, gold, and white. Inside, you’re told that the design is a detail view of a painting by sixtysomething artist Sean Scully; “Wall of Light Beach” is part of Wall of Light, a full-scale exhibition of his work at the Modern organized by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. One line in the invitation comes across as pure artspeak: It says, “Scully’s exploration of surface texture and abstract forms in these works evokes a range of emotional and narrative themes.”

Hmm. First of all, how is a theme evoked by, well, anything, especially an inanimate object like a painting? A theme can be stated, discussed, written, created, even cut short — but evoked? Secondly, how can the curators divine “emotion” and “narrative” from several rectangular-shaped blocks of color? In a painting of Christ’s crucifixion — yes, I could see how someone could say there’s a narrative at work. I could also see how a person could sense anger and frustration in one of Pollock’s action paintings or Basquiat’s self-portraits. But “emotion” and “narrative” from innocent-looking, neatly situated geometric shapes? Really?

What’s going on here is indicative of museums all over the globe: Curators regularly impose history and meaning on art to humanize or de-academicize its potentially stuffy subject matter or form. The “narrative” behind the Scully exhibit is that a trip to Mexico more than 20 years ago inspired him to contemplate “light and shadow playing on ancient Mayan ruins” (as opposed to contemporary Mayan ruins, I guess). The “emotional theme” comes straight from color theory — Scully uses warm, organic colors, the kind that are capable of activating the twin sensations of peace and equanimity in viewers’ hearts. To the unwashed, Scully’s paintings are kind of like nautical flags but not as inventively designed and loaded with way more engaging, beautiful colors. The End.

Looking back over the past couple of years, the Modern may be doing more for Scully than any other museum in the world to establish him as a top-tier artist. In addition to putting on Wall of Light, the Modern owns and once exhibited for a long duration the artist’s huge Catherine series. And why the hell not. Museums are just like other commodities traders — they do what they can to create value for their “portfolios.” The Modern doesn’t have the moolah to go after rising stars, such as David Salle’s accidental protégé Elizabeth Peyton, huckster Jeff Koons, or glorified graphic designer Laura Owens. So chief curator Michael Auping and his gang concentrate on dedicating wall space to less-recognizable, often regional voices.

Still, no matter how much the Modern tries to talk you out of seeing Wall of Light, take my word for it: Go.

The exhibit opens on Feb. 12, at 3200 Darnell St., and will run until May 28. For more information, www.themodern.org.

The Art of Man-dingo?

At the other end of the jargon-filled communiqué from on high is the quote or press release that preys on viewers’ sense of morality. You’d have to be a mean, heartless son of a bitch to say anything bad about The Art of Man, a group show at the Fort Worth Central Library Gallery in celebration of Black History Month. All of the artists, as far as I can tell, are of African-American descent, and most of the several dozen paintings, sculptures, and mixed media pieces on display are direct, often heavy-handed responses to the African-American condition. Since I’m not mean and heartless, I’m not going to say a specific word about all of the crap on exhibit — and there’s a lot. Rather, let’s, as they say, accentuate the positive: Osei Akoto Baffour’s “The Dream Within,” a tall, narrow wooden sculpture of a black woman standing with a pot in her lap, looking like she’s about to open it; Michaelangelo Antoin Sanders’ “Hurdles of Life,” a richly textured, ominous-looking abstract work that’s nearly ruined by its literal title; and Frank Sowells Jr.’s brightly colored Cubist exercises.

Let’s also talk about how The Art of Man throws into relief the extent of the Modern’s Scully-related drivel. On the opposite end of the entrance to the Central Library Gallery hangs Warwick McDonald’s painting “Relationship III,” the only abstract artwork in the entire show. If the Modern had hung Art of Man, I bet the museum folk would have said something like, “... and in his abstract painting ‘Relationship III,’ Warwick McDonald explores the way that a superficial quality like color recklessly and almost naturally distorts interactions among people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions.” No, “Relationship III” is just a bunch of sharply overlapping chunks of color that has no explicit meaning — just like most of the stuff you’ll see in the Modern’s Scully exhibit. As one of my favorite art critics, John Berger, once said: Use your eyes — not your head.

Contact Kultur at kultur@fwweekly.com.

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