Saturday, August 29, 2009

Is the Art World Just at Big Nut House?


Philip Koch, Windward, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2"
2008

I'm surrounded by a sea of young artists two days a week for seven months of the year. It's the Maryland Institute College of Art which shares with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the distinction of being the two oldest continuously operating colleges of fine art in the country. Some amazing painters taught here- Eakins' old buddy Thomas Anschutz taught life drawing in the same room where I do! 

As anyone with any awareness of the contemporary art world knows, there's some pretty nutty stuff being made as art. Something that's big right now is for artists to try to bring their art out into the world itself, forgoing painting or the sculpture pedestal for installation work. This is challenging stuff and to be honest, very many of the installation pieces I've seen fall short. 

It is tempting, especially when I'm tired and grumpy, to dismiss the entire direction of installation art. But I confess once in a while I have seen it done very well, where for a brief moment the installation transports you to another place and makes you feel something new. If someone asks me whether over time I have seen more mediocre traditional landscape paintings or more ineffective installations, just in sheer numbers I'd have to answer landscapes.

Shouldn't art reflect reality?  The answer is yes. When art is good it reaches deep into the unconscious of the viewer, stirs things up, and acquaints the viewer with a part of him or herself they've forgotten about. I care less about the medium an artist chooses. What matters most is that they get genuinely involved with their vision. Vision has two parts- what you see outside yourself, and what you can glimpse of your innermost nature. Both sides of this coin have to make it into an art piece if it is to be successful.

One of the best ways to think about it is to recall a vivid dream one has had. Our dreams after all are part of who we are. The were provided to us by the great hand of evolution. They are part of nature just as much an an oak tree. I remember a scary dream I had years ago where I was in a Nazi concentration camp facing execution. A frightening witch-like woman appeared who wore a hooded robe. She pushed two small metal rectangular plates upon me and commanded "take these." I realized they were powerful magnets, and to my amazement, discovered that by manipulating them, I could fly over the barbed wire fences and escape to freedom. 

Now of course I can't spell out exactly the meaning of this dream, but I awoke that morning feeling shaken but also energized and curiously hopeful about my future. Part of my personal reality was revealing itself to me in this dream. It carried a powerful message that whatever was "imprisoning" me in my life could be overcome. Heck, I'll take all the messages like that I can get. Sometimes we live in a world that presents itself in a straightforward way. Other times our lives are nothing but mysterious and confusing. But potentially all of our experience can serve as fodder for art making. It's just really hard to do it well, whether you're painting oil landscapes or doing installation pieces.

The above painting is an oil I did partly reflecting on these issues. I'm in the small boat trying to navigate between these big dark rocks and probably unseen reefs as well. It is of course, a tip of my hat to our old friend Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School who painted some similar imagery. In the painting at least, I'm making my way forward, into the oncoming wind.



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