Sunday, April 27, 2014

Impressionable Artist

Long ago, when I was in college, I went drinking with a strawberry blond boy named Jonathan.  At different times, we hoped some romance would blossom between us, but never at the same time, and so it never did, which is just as well, as we had not much in common.  The last memory I have of him is him emphatically and ineffectually trying to explain to me that the water filtration system he was selling was not, indeed, a pyramid scheme. 

Well before that, however, one evening we were up in his dorm room, and he showed me a painting he had recently done, an abstract.  He said it was a personal piece to him, along the lines of a self-portrait and I giggled and said, “colorful.”  He put the painting to the side then, and gave me a disappointed and somewhat condescending look, at which point, I sighed, and went on, “I see the slash of red working though it as a representation of the anger that runs through you that you both try to suppress and secretly enjoy, but that the blues and greens behind it are more accurate to your core self, which is more placid and flexible and liquid, if less aggressive – that’s where you peacefulness lies.  Over here, in that dark corner, I see a reference to the grief that you carry with you – your father’s death, perhaps – but this explosion of shapes and color over here, that seems really joyful to me…”  I went on at some length, weaving in whatever I had gleaned about him through brief conversations and what I had intuited about his personality and way of being in the world, and connected it into that painting, a complicated line of compliments and complaints wrapped in a filmy gauze of bullshit.  I was a twenty-one years old English major, after all; seat-of-the-pants critique and rampant symbolism was my world (see http://www.artfulmistakes.com/2010/12/dualism.html for another example of that). 

By the end my explication of his art, Jonathan’s eyebrows were pulled together in creeped-out alarm.   He turned the painting to the wall, out of view.  Shortly thereafter, he shuffled me out the door. 

This is the thing about art: we want to be known through it, but then we don’t.  We use our own codes and symbols, hide our truths in plain sight, and then see who catches on to the joke – or attempts to rewrite our lines. 

In senior year of high school, for instance, a lot of my notebooks have this symbol:
which I made up because it has all the letters of my crush’s name built into it, along with a modified eye because he had ridiculously pretty extra-long eyelashes, and I personally felt a little too self-conscious under the watchful gazing eye of society and nice-looking boys. My little logo served the same purpose as writing his name with little hearts around it, but in a less mushy, more abstracted way. 

Given that my way into art has always been through character, through the emotional world of the writer or painter (including when that artist is me), working in an art museum poses somewhat of a challenge. Although my literary knowledge is broad, I have zero formal education in art history, and scant teaching in painting technique from several short art classes.  What I do know is hit or miss through whichever signs I’d read in art museums I've frequented or the artists I've researched or tried to mimic stylistically.  I can tell an impressionist painting on sight, but I can’t tell you exactly why.  I've limited information on the revolution it posed.  I can tell you they used purple for shadows. 

I know Modigliani figures have elongated faces and long necks, and those graceful long lines give me some insight into how he must have been as a person, someone full of romantic ideals and yearning – but that is entirely imagined on my part, even less informed than my armchair analysis of Jonathan’s painting given I’ve never shared a beer with Modigliani.  Modigliani was ill for much of his life, and hid his illness with excesses of alcohol and drugs (which obviously came with its own set of problems).  I feel that secretiveness and despair in the way he presents people in the world.  But these are simply my own loosey-goosey thoughts on a famously tragic artist that died young. 

Mood and style are only a small part of the conversations of the art world, where artists are categorized into larger schools of thought, movements across time and society.  Artists rise to the top given the tastes and values of that time.  Warhol’s fame could not have launched in the era before mass-media advertising and a growing cult of iconic celebrity and narcissism.  The rise of photography likely impacted the fall of realism.  Art museums carry on the cannon of the accepted norms, expanding what qualifies as art only once it has been debated in the smaller galleries.  Not too long ago, photography was considered a science experiment, not fine art.   Now, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg (where I work) has a curator dedicated to its extensive photography collection.

While the sociological implications of movements of art intrigue me, they don’t fascinate me the way individual stories do.  My leanings are toward the microcosm, the personal, the individual, the emotional, the right brain.  Self-taught artists, especially those that are working through their own demons, particularly attract me.  My left-brain knowledge of the therapeutic effect of art creation is extensive.  I read reams of journal articles on art therapy, particularly as it applies to PTSD, performing research for a former client. Their project was to create an art therapy software program for combat veterans.  The user’s final product for that software?  Graphic novels.  Yes, comic books, that “low” art form currently enjoying a renaissance of reevaluation.  The MFA recently held a panel discussion with some of the leading comic artists, a sure sign that comics’ inherent “artiness” has been clearly established. 

These are conversations I seldom have at work though; I work in Development, not Programs or Curatorial. On our end of the hallway, our mission is to keep the financial wheels turning.  We speak eloquently, but sometimes vaguely, about the importance and relevance of art.  We seek to open eyes and hearts through museum programs, but also pocketbooks and wallets, as without those donations, the doors close, and Curatorial down at the other end of the all will have no opportunity to choose who among the many are worthy of display in the next exhibit.  The give and take between serving the community and being supported by the community is a tricky line in the art world.  There are days where I yearn for the purity of academics, where you get to dig into the meat of your chosen issue without thought of how it will affect funding.  [pause]. And here I recognize the naivet√© of that idea too – if you, for instance, take your thesis advisor’s work to task, you may find your academic career brief; if your research and grant applications hold interest only to you, be prepared to fund them yourself.

The humanities always work within that strange context of trying to tease out, in a logical, left-brain way, what our right-brain just “knows.”  Minor keys sound sad.  Bright colors evoke strong emotion.  Short sentences spike up the action.  Humanities seek to quantify the techniques that raise some people’s art to, in some people’s eyes, exquisite levels. An art museum is but one forum, albeit at times a stodgy one, where that conversation takes place. 

And there are times where that conversation is just the rambling of young men and women wondering about their place in the world.  I’ve no idea what happened to Jonathan, if he still paints or sells water-filtration products or went on to do something totally different, finding ways to feed the hungry or shelter the rich.  I work part-time at an art museum and ruminate on art and emotion and wrestle with my odd paintings while trying to keep my geriatric cats alive.  Amedeo Modigliani died of tuberculosis in 1920 when he was ten years younger than I am today, leaving behind a body of work that continues to move people in ways they can’t fully articulate.  

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