May 30, 2010
It’s next time again.
A few years ago a sprawling factory in North Adams, Massachusetts was transformed into a gigantic museum for Contemporary Art, now called Mass MOCA. The vast high-ceilinged rooms have bare brick walls, wooden floors and massive clear spans. The brute physicality of the spaces cause most artists to break a bit of a sweat in order to fill them with large scale, site specific installations. Maybe this is one reasons a visit to Mass MOCA is so entertaining; most of the art shown there is the result of heavy lifting.
One good example is a recent work created by Tobias Putrih (b. 1972, Kranj, Slovenia). In a room which stretched over half the length of a football field, the artist strung 50 yard long strands of monofilament and then lit them dazzlingly with a single spotlight, projecting a starburst of dots into the center of the stretch.
This work, of course, could have been installed on a lesser scale but where, other than Mass MOCA, can an artist like Tobias Putrih really push a good idea like this one into something breathtaking and unforgettable? The magnitude of Mass MOCA provokes artists into coming up with big ideas and if they work hard enough they can realize truly grand visions. Mass MOCA gave this ethereal work a proving ground born of monumental space.
Mass MOCA’s new show, Material World, showcases the works of seven artists who investigate the artistic use of materials from the “modest to the precarious.” There is nothing slapdash about most of these impressive works. The enormity of the venue allows the obsessive compulsive natures of many of these artists to loom large. The show itself is a shrine to a virtue I admire in great art – hard work.
Once again I credit the writer Charles Michener for articulating this idea better than I ever could. In helping me with this concept he reminds me of a quote which he credits to “a great American theater critic, Stark Young, in his review of O’Neill’s ‘The Hairy Ape.’ " Charles thinks the quote was originally from The New Republic, in the 1920s. Stark Young said, "What moved us was not so much the play itself as the cost to the dramatist." Charles finds this, "A very useful distinction and criterion for understanding certain problematic works of art."
I’m sure there are great examples of artists who create spontaneously and quickly and perhaps without any effort at all. I just can’t think of any. Perhaps their art can be seen in a gesture like the elegant zen moment of an unpremeditated Japanese flower arrangement. However, I don’t look at the spontaneity in a Frank Gehry sketch or a Cy Twombly "doodle" as happening without effort and not without a lifetime of training and relevant experience. Sometimes, these days, and please forgive my crankiness here, art can be “found” in strewn garbage. It’s not the haphazard I mind, it is the apparent absence of effort that drives me nuts.
Do you think an artist’s effort should be factored in to your appreciation of the finished work? Or, does the finished work speak for itself? Do you feel what the artist went through to achieve it is perhaps irrelevant?
Thankfully for me, almost all the work I have ever seen at Mass MOCA has been overloaded with artistic effort. I admire this.
A wonderful example from the Material World show is a gargantuan, Baroque, obsessively-constructed forest of twisted paper conceived and realized by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen (b. 1979, Portland Maine and b. 1976, Little Falls, Minnesota) Their creation is titled, White Stag. It is another site specific masterpiece where the interplay of Mass MOCA’s vast spaces contribute mightily to the effectiveness of the work.
Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s flowing convoluted river of paper defies all logic and any attempt to discern how it was made. It slaps you in the face from the first moment you see it and then it continues to confound you as you slowly try to grasp the impossibility of its construction. You follow in it’s mysterious flow through the rooms and up the stairs as it breaks through walls and the floor with its tendrils and roots.
In a short conversation with museum founding director, Joe Thompson, he let me know the foundation of the piece was a plywood armature which was then painstakingly covered with thousands of yards of rolled paper. He said while under construction one of Frank Gehry’s top designers, Edwin Chan, saw the overlapping “scales” of the plywood infrastructure and they both felt the sculpture, at its core, evoked the spirit of Frank Gehry.
I find most often the works of art I cherish and which pose great meaning for me in my life are works in which the artist has invested enormous time, profound sacrifice and painstaking craft. These traits can be found in all forms of art whether in film, painting, sculpture, dance, music, architecture or drama. I don’t mean to imply all work which results from Herculean artistic effort is good. Hard work by itself doesn’t guarantee anything. I sometimes think art is the evidence of an arduous artistic journey. When I sense in a finished work, an artistic odyssey filled with exertion, adventure and risk – the art grips my attention. So what do you think? Should the “cost to the artist” matter?
The reason for the pilgrimage to Mass MOCA was a retrospective show on one of my favorite artists, Petah Coyne. The show was designed by her architectural collaborator Nate McBride who took full advantage of Mass MOCA’s gigantic opportunities. I’ve never seen her work look better.
Petah did not want her show at Mass MOCA photographed so most of the photos shown here are links from her gallery’s website: Gallerie Lelong.
Every piece in Petah’s show, Everything That Rises Must Converge has a back story. The title is a quote from Flannery O’Connor. Petah invests all of her pieces with iconographic meaning. Some of this iconography is very Catholic. Other symbology comes from Dante or Pantheism or death rituals or Literature. One moody piece references an evocative Japanese novella by Yasunari Kawabata: The House of Sleeping Beauties. The catalog to the exhibition explains “In this story men nearing death can sleep the night next to young unconscious women.” You don’t need to know the story to be moved by the work but you somehow sense it. You also don’t need to know that the sculpture is constructed from a shredded airstream trailer. The shredded trailer has become an industrial material called “car hair.” All of this back story is imbedded in the piece and its form and its power exude all this meaning which you mysteriously pick up in a visceral way.
Petah’s work often shocks you with a powerful sensuality or a brutal primitive uneasiness. You then get trapped in a whirlpool of meaning which sucks you into uncharted depths of artistic feeling.
Much of the work in her show features taxidermy and often of birds sometimes trapped in wax flowers or pools of black or deep maroon velvet. It is hard not to make comparisons with disturbing memories of oil soaked wildlife struggling in the polluted Gulf. Most of this work, however, predates the oil spill. Joe Thompson, in his after dinner remarks, credited the depth of Petah’s work which makes it somehow relevant in any timeframe. Perhaps this is another hallmark of really significant art?
There is unfathomable labor in every work birthed by Petah Coyne. Every meticulously waxed flower speaks of delicate craftsmanship. Taken on their own, each of these flowers is an exquisite creation. You try not to step on them as you explore the work because they are sometimes strewn on the floor surrounding the larger sculptures. But when you multiply the effort and the “cost to the artist” in that one flower and multiply it by the countless thousands it takes to create one of these large pieces, your mind and your heart just cracks open against the crushing tide of obsessive dedication that it took to bring this about. As you gape at her giant yet fragile hanging pieces you can’t imagine the logistics it took to install such a massive show; let alone how she painstakingly created the works. Given all this effort it is a comfort to know her show at Mass MOCA will remain open until March 2011.
Until next time with much love, I remain your,