Monthly Archives: August 2012

Art Books On Viewing

A Beautiful Thought Machine: Some Notes on Art Viewing

Cézanne,_Paul_-_Still_Life_with_a_Curtain

Written in 1936, A life of One’s Own by Joanna Fields is a lovely, introspective piece of nonfiction, in which the author tries to observe the workings of her own mind so as to better understand herself and what will make her happy. In one passage she reflects upon the effects of passive thought processes, noting that it is when she stops trying to have meaningful, important or useful thoughts that her mind becomes open to aesthetic experiences. She cites an instance in an art museum, coming upon a Cezanne still-life.

Being tired, restless, and distracted by the stream of bored Sunday afternoon sightseers drifting through the galleries, I simply sat and looked, too inert to remember whether I ought to like it or not. Slowly then I became aware that something was pulling me out of my vacant stare and the colors were coming alive. Gradually a great delight filled me…

Rather than checking the Cezanne off the list of things one should have seen, or focusing so intently on it that she starts to doubt her own opinions, her mind let’s go. Her sentiments reminded me of my jetlagged stroll through the Centre Pompidou, or my state of relaxed engagement drifting through Hockney’s A Bigger Picture. Though many philosophers have tackled the question of aesthetic experience, rarely have I read a clearer—or more honest–description of a viewer’s struggle to appreciate a work of art. The idea that there is something specific in a particular piece that one “ought” to like, sometimes gets in the way of actually experiencing it.

What Fields calls passivity is similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls flow, a state of brain function where one is fully and unselfconsciously engaged in an activity. In his book on the topic,  Csikszentmihaly often uses artistic production as an example of flow because it takes a high level of skill and concentration, but he only lightly touches on how art can produce flow in the viewer. When he does mention it, he goes into more depth discussing the response of specialists. As one arts professional puts it:

[Works of art] that I personally respond to…have behind them a lot of conceptual, political and intellectual activity…the visual representations are really signposts to this beautiful machine that has been constructed, unique on the earth, and is not just a rehashing of visual elements, but is really a new thought machine…”

I love this description of successful art as a thought machine that generates ideas in the viewer. However, for the untrained viewer of visual art, to whom the mixture of historical, technical and theoretical concerns in a contemporary art piece may not be apparent, the thought of “I don’t get it” can shut down the possibility for a receptive enjoyment and for playful thought processes.

I am not advocating for the making of simpler art that will be easily accessible to a broader public–different art appeals to different audiences–but I do think it is worthwhile to consider how people experience visual artworks. The receptive and delighted viewing described by Fields is a state which can be achieved through avenues other than jetlag and exhaustion, and a thought machine can generate ideas in anyone’s head. But those processes need to be discussed and cultivated if we want to build a society which values art viewing for its own sake.

Fields, J. (1936. Reprint published 1981). A Life of One’s Own. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins.

Los Angeles

California Dreamin’

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous Los Angeles, 2009/printed 2011 (c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous Los Angeles, 2009/printed 2011
(c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

If this blog was started to dispel the myth of the Angelino artist as a bright, breezy, color-driven painter, then LACMA’s The Sun and Other Stars is the perfect show for me to discuss. The unsettling exhibition brings together the work of Katy Grannan and Charlie White, two California based artists who explore the often conflicting desires for individuality, conformity, and celebrity in American identity.

In Katy Grannan’s photographs, the harsh sun and white stucco walls illuminate drifters lurking in back lots and on city sidewalks.  A woman holding a plastic lunchbox snaps a photo on her iphone as her black hoody and skirt (seemingly out of place in this stark light) whip in the wind. A Marilyn Monroe lookalike grimaces with fatigue and regret–a companion image to Richard Avedon’s mesmerizing photograph of the original.

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous San Francisco, 2009/printed 2011 (c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous San Francisco, 2009/printed 2011
(c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

This is the dark side of Hollywood and west coast pioneering, away from the beach, the billboards and the success stories. But the photographs are classically composed and richly detailed, giving weight and reverence to the figures, and allowing the images to avoid being grotesque. The repeated title of Anonymous, drives home the obscurity of these individuals in relationship to the world of glamour and fame that they shadow, but it also draws attention to their refusal to be easily understood or encapsulated.

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print. LACMA, (c) Charlie White

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print.
LACMA, (c) Charlie White

In contrast to Grinnan’s ragtag group, the adolescent girls in Charlie White’s series of casting call photographs passively fulfill the photographer’s request for white, blonde, and slender blandness. Through these photos, White powerfully critiques America’s tyrannical lust for an empty ideal, and the resulting images are profoundly bleak. I wholeheartedly agree with White’s disgust at “all-American” or “valley girl” culture, but his cold and calculating use of these young women leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Also included in the exhibition is a television showing White’s animated series A Life in BTween. The series satirizes “tween” culture –texting, malls and gossiping—to such an extent that the combination of the animation and the photos feels cruel and reductive. At what point does this go too far? By creating these images is White participating and further trivializing teen girls?

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print. LACMA, (c) Charlie White

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print.
LACMA, (c) Charlie White

This vision of adolescence was particularly striking considering my recent encounter with Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs, and one of Dijkstra’s young bathers, Hel, is currently installed at LACMA just around the corner from White’s “tweens.” Unlike the tweens, Hel is photographed with tender respect and treated as an agent in her own right. It is hard to envision a photographer in Los Angeles making similarly earnest images.

In contrast to the world White captures, Grinnan’s harsh reality seems almost liberating–better to flounder towards the unconventional than to accept life as a cardboard cutout.