On Tuesday night, I headed down to the ICA to check out the new Beware Wet Paint exhibition. There were a few good ideas, some bad – its real lasting impression though was bringing to the forefront of my mind a question that’s been brewing for a while: what am I not getting about contemporary art?
Responses to a piece of modern art seem to fall into one of two categories: the non-artist/non-art lover who thinks it could all be done by a 5 year old or perhaps her/himself and the artist/art lover who can appreciate the concept or execution, if not the aesthetics.
As an artist and art lover, I feel like I should mostly find myself in the latter category. More and more, I find myself pulled into the former. I just wasn’t impressed by a lot of what I saw at Beware Wet Paint.
Take Christopher Wool’s Untitled (P535), 2006. “Based in New York, Christopher Wool is regarded as one of the most important living American painters of our time.”
An affable security guard standing nearby asked me about the works on show. When we turned our attention to Untitled (P535), he immediately fell into the first category – he believed a 5 year old could have made it.
Though it would have to be a pretty damn precocious 5 year old, I had to agree I wasn’t impressed. Little of it grabbed me.
“Seemingly immediate and raging, the gestures found in his more recent ‘gray paintings’ can be read as extremely balanced and mechanical. This becomes increasingly apparent as Wool starts to return images of earlier paintings back into new works, screen-printing them directly onto canvas and engaging in a process of reproducing, vandalising and renewing through manual intervention.”
It’s good to understand context. But with such little apparent connection to the work itself, reading the blurb did nothing to help my appreciation. If anything, it made the work feel even more distant.
The frenetic winding style did not feel ‘extremely balanced to me’, nor did the fluidity of the strokes suggest anything ‘mechanical’. The concept of reproducing and riffing is an interesting one, though it just came across as self-indulgent and insular without having sight on his earlier works. It also made me think of the greater energy and excitement of communal reproduction, such as with internet memes.
I should of course now delve into Wool’s back catalogue to fully understand this context and his artistic journey. I might be missing something spectacular. Might. There are far more artists and works I would rather spend my time researching based on what I saw with Untitled (P535) – this is the same feeling you get when finding yourself a chapter into a so-so book, given the vast number of superior alternatives on offer.
Other works, such as David Ostrowski’s F (Brooklyn Bridge), 2014 and Jeff Elrod’s White Sands, 2013, evoked similar responses from me.
A work that did immediately stand out was Nikolas Gambaroff’s Untitled, 2014 – a collage of comic book art.
According to the blurb, Nikolas “engages with both the language of public discourse (newsprint, advertisements, supermarket posters) and the architectural language of display within the once-sanctified white cube gallery space.”
Standing in front of the work, though, I soon realised the main draw was the comic book art itself. The stripping away of the layers was interesting (a technique known as décollage), but I felt the arrangement didn’t add much overall. I’ve seen this arrangement before (on the walls of comic book shops, for example); it even reminded me of wrapping presents with the comic pages from newspapers, something I did a lot when I was a child.
Would I like Untitled on my wall? Probably, yes. But honestly, what I’d really want is some great comic book art on my wall – not an unspectacular collage/décollage arrangement of it.
I enjoyed the scale of Parker Ito’s The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet, 3 Hook-Ups Girls, 2014. And I responded well to the familiarity of some of the imagery – the stock image of the smiling woman, which I had seen on numerous pages of unsold web real estate, and the manga style ladies. (Interesting to note this as an example of communal reproduction.)
As with Nikolas’ Untitled, I didn’t feel the arrangement add anything special though. It felt too cluttered and actually reminded me of a broken website (which, admittedly for a work referencing the internet, might have been intentional).
I do think the institution of art and exhibitions is set up to make it difficult to freely move between the two aforementioned categories – particularly for someone that doesn’t know much about art but wants to learn.
Either you’re stuck in the ‘5 year old’ camp, firmly out in the cold – exhibitions are like school, quiet and passive experiences; you stand silently in front of works and try to discern meaning, without the opportunity to discuss and evolve your response with others; your only recourse then is to read blurbs that often make little sense to what you’re seeing.
Or you’ve already moved into the ‘art lover’ camp – at which point, collective pressure to ‘understand’ – to cave to that little voice in your head stating ‘You just don’t get it’ whenever you want to vent a negative opinion – keeps you trapped within.
I think the reality is that you can never fully understand a work of art if you haven’t made it yourself – and even if you have, understanding might be hazy! In the same way that we can never truly know what it’s like to be another person – to see the world with their eyes and brain – we can never truly know what it’s like to see the world with their art.
Given this inevitability, I think that all we can do is respond naturally to works that we see – trust our initial judgement about the concept, execution or aesthetics and just see where we end up. If we like it, or find at least something interesting and thought-provoking, there might be value in looking deeper. If not, there’s no harm in moving on. So liking The Most Infamous Girl… mainly because I recognised an overused stock image from my internet surfing career, for example, is totally legitimate.
I’ll end on a quick note about the exhibition title: this comes from Richard Hamilton’s recollection of Marcel Duchamp saying the words “beware wet paint” slowly, with additional emphasis on beware, which underlined the “disruptive potential of what might otherwise be considered a traditional art form.”
The fact the exhibition is named after such an esoteric reference only fuels the category divide – either you get it or you don’t. And even after the reveal, it remains a distant and inaccessible event.
As such, I’m reinterpreting “Beware” as follows: beware not trusting your opinions about art and beware feeling like you can’t leap nimbly and freely between categories.
Beware Wet Paint runs until November 16th. For more information, click here.