Sunday, October 18, 2009

An OTN alphabet

If you’re going to start an art alphabet (and we are) what other word can you kick it off with? We did consider Attic. Even though we all love the idea of Damien and Jeff and Richard and Olaf being awash in cash, there's still a sneaking belief out there that a little hardship goes a long way in art production. A is for Animal art was another favourite, but after the embarrassment of the fake painting snail, no thanks. Go for A is for Assistant and you’re right back in the awash-with-cash bin. A is for The Agony and the Ecstasy was a front runner until we realised that Lust for Life is the best art movie ever made, and that starts with an L. So A is for Art.
Illustration: Pippin Barr.

If an artist were ever to wash up on a cartoon desert island complete with an iconic single palm tree, chances are his (always his) head would be shaded from the sun by an equally iconic beret. Like the easel, the palette and the smock, the beret has often stood in for the creative spirit. Originally headgear in the Basque country (although Rembrandt did paint a self portrait wearing a version of one back in 1630) the beret was cemented as an art icon in the twentieth century by Picasso, who probably popped it on his head as a symbol of rebellion. Since then the beret has been worn by countless artists, and many, many actors wanting a quick symbol to turn them into one.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Art’s paper trail the CV feeds off production and display. The format rarely changes: biography, solo exhibitions, group exhibitions, collections and biography (me, me, we, we, and me again). Sometimes, as careers grow, more is seen as less and embarrassing lists of small town shows are collapsed into the more opaque ‘selected exhibitions’. Conceptual artist Julian Dashper wouldn’t have a bar of it. His work CV grew like a watered weed, every detail of his career noted, one under the other, page after page. More recently the academic world has jumped the CV shark. Now art school CVs spawn their own exhibitions targeted at university cash wranglers and grading masters. Publish and be in demand.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

We probably should have given this one to the letter G now that many art dealers, finding the word ‘dealer’ kinda offensive, have moved over to the more toney ‘gallerist’. The other reason for the drift was possibly because in the über good-times cutting a great deal was not a skill that needed flourishing. The selling proposition moved from Duveen’s “You’re not ready for that yet” to “We’ll put you in the queue, but no promises.” And yet, although the auction houses are jostling hard, it is the art dealers who largely set the pace and the prices. All this in an opaque world centred on the iconic question, “What’s it worth?”
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Bernard Berenson had one. Michael Jackson didn’t. A good eye has always been connoisseurship’s black box, the cunning apparatus that could sort the visually beautiful sheep from the tawdry, badly-drawn goats. Good-eyes can spot great art works in the shabby surroundings of junk shops, household auctions and estate sales, seeming to be instantly attracted by the glint of diamond in the dirt. A good good-eye can elevate its owner to giddy levels of expertise through the ability to eye ball art and successfully separate the culturally significant wheat from the populist chaff. Its choices are always authentic and important and superior, unless heaven forbid, they are fake.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Frames help tell us that paintings are art. As Frank Zappa put it, without one “You can’t tell where the art stops and the real world begins.” The F in frame also stands for fashion. In the seventies stripping frames off old paintings became a museum passion. Modernism’s love of simplicity and objection to decoration helped, as did formal abstraction’s appreciation of the edges of the canvas and the authenticity of paintings as objects. Frames didn’t have a chance. The best they could hope for was standing in for past glories as a thin sliver of aluminium as for a time no frame was the best frame. In New Zealand Colin McCahon caught the fever, famously declaring, “ I’m finished with frames and all they imply.” Museum storerooms took on the look of local mints with gold frames stacked in piles. Times change. Now, once again, lavish gold frames are crafted specially to highlight the works in museum and private collections. Noland, Kelly and Ryman are probably safe for the twenty-first century but in the world of framing, the gold standard never really goes away. “If I spit, they will take my spit and frame it as great art.” - Picasso
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Green walls come and go, red paint is rolled on and painted over, but in the world of art white walls rule. This powerful context was identified by Brian O’Doherty in his 1976 essay in which the white cube gives as much meaning to the art as the artworks themselves. For a while in the late 1980s there was an attempt to argue this context was in fact neutral, but it was always a lost cause. In New Zealand dealer galleries often started as reflections of the artist’s studio, the front room at home without the fireplace. Then came the two-room gallery that has evolved over the years and now can run to polished concrete floors, dockways and loft-like spaces. There’s a nice rhythm to it all. The shows go up, the shows come down and the walls are patched and rolled out white ready for the next one.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Hang on. Most art makes physical connections and most of those are with the human body. Physically lifting a painting or moving a sculpture tells you a lot about its place in the world. As curators and artists are firmly ushered out of the exhibition design, hanging and installation process, many exhibition hangs have more to do with abstract design concepts than with the effect of one artwork physically relating to another.
Hang it all. Another effect of curators being separated from the physical side of hanging is the everything-that-will-fit-on-the-wall exhibition. Removed from the physical reality of hanging, curators end up pulling together as many works as they can find on their theme and passing them over to technicians and designers to fit them into the space allocated by management.
Hang ‘em high. See above. Welcome back Academy hang.
Hang about. And whatever happened to our ability to hang things straight? In some cities that knowledge is being lost like the language of a threatened tribe. The professional installer holds the knowledge like a witch doctor, the last person left in the village who can make the paintings in private collections hang in a straight line.
Well hung. Don’t go there. 
Illustration: Pippin Barr

There’s a story in the biography of Lord Duveen – the fabled Edwardian art dealer – that has him guiding a collector down a red velvet lined hall to the furthest recesses of his gallery. As they passed a door slightly ajar they saw, bathed in light, a jewel-like painting by Fra Angelico. The collector is entranced and begs to have a closer look. Duveen laid his arm across the collector’s shoulder and cooed, “No, no. You’re not ready for that yet.”

Welcome to the world of the inner sanctum. Every dealer has one, the place where all the good stuff is stored and deals are done. Even at art fairs, where desks and databases are in full view, secret white on white doors open into tiny sanctums just big enough for a couple of collectors with room to close the door and the deal.

And then of course there is the inner-inner sanctum.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

In the analogue world artists had to schlep their slides around dealers if they wanted to pitch for a show or a place in the line-up. Was there ever anything more dispiriting than a dealer holding up a sheet of slides in one hand and turning to talk to someone more interesting at the same time? Slides sold art history and played their clickety-clack music on the carousel projector. But no longer: enter the JPEG. Blessed with an acronym that sounds like an institutional curatorial selection team (Joint Photographic Experts Group), the JPEG saves artists from full-frontal humiliation. Sure the dealer or the curator might be reading amusing extracts from Jacques Derrida at the same time as mousing through the images, but who’s to know? The dark side of JPEGs is their assault on copyright and loss of control. While this skirmish is still in its infancy, over-exposure or inappropriate use via JPEGs is still a luxury problem.
Illustration: Pippin Barr (step back to view)

No one seems to have a very clear idea about what the Karangahape in Karangahape Road means. There is some suggestion that it refers to ‘a winding ridge of human activity’ and that sounds about right, but others claim that the name refers to Hape, a Maori chief who lived in the area. To most people K Road has always been synonymous with being propositioned, revealing all, drunkenness and getting screwed. More recently it has become the contemporary art centre of Auckland so in that respect, not much has changed (just kidding).
Illustration: Pippin Barr 

If French philosophers were want to scrap among themselves, you’d never have known it in mid-1980s New Zealand where they were lined up like collegial lead soldiers to marshal deconstructive arguments into order. The French connection also brought with it bemusing language that, far away from France, prompted essays headlined by pithy titles like Further toward a deconstruction of phallic univocality: deferrals, without so much as a hint of irony. So, a thought for Jean-Francois Lyotard who (ironically) had a particular aversion to generalities. And while we’re at it, a moment please for Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who, through no fault of their own, helped make New Zealand art writing almost impenetrable for around 20 years or so.
Illustration: Pippin Barr 

SOLD! (… maybe.)

Illustration: Pippin Barr

N is for Nationalism

The argument has died on the vine along along with a lot of other art theoretical sour grapes, but there was a time where art about New Zealand and art about the world were at loggerheads. It really should have stopped in 1968 at the moment Jasper Johns painted his global local redux American flag. As it was, our stags locked horns (it was mostly stags) in the eighties fighting it out under the harsh New Zealand light, abstract butting against pictorial, United States hard up against united regionalists. All gone now, and through it all our flag remained unchanged. Salut.
Illustration by Pippin Barr

 O is for Opening

The best guess date for the invention of cheese is somewhere around 6,000 years ago in what is now Iran and wine too had its origins nearby at about the same time. That means we can probably nail the first wine and cheese event to around 3900BC, or thereabouts. Not that you see much cheese at art openings these days but the wine thing is still going strong. Back in the day the wine usually came from a cask or (at upmarket events) from a bottle via a cask but now, like the shoes curators wear, the quality has gone way up.

Apart from the quality of the wine though, you do have to ask why openings have stayed so…er… the same for so long. Since the first director had the brainwave of asking four or five notables to get up and thank everyone within reach while those invited to the opening stand around waiting to see what they actually came for (the art), things haven’t changed much. TV has conquered nightlife, the internet has changed our lives, man has landed on the moon and one of those satellite things has headed off to Mars, but we still listen to directors thank their staff for doing the jobs they were paid to do (most often by us via our rates and taxes). One day perhaps a museum will hold an opening that tells us a bit about what we are about to see and then lets us in to see it. Got to take 10 minutes max.
Illustration by Pippin Barr

Designed to raise statues up from the common people, the plinth got a bit of a battering in the twentieth century as sculptors came down to earth. The plinth did still have a life in museums where even ground-based work is raised up to stop it being kicked or scuffed. If there is one unquestionable twentieth century museum icon, it is the white plinth topped with a Perspex box. And the rest is just puns like, “someday my plinth will come”.
Illustration by Pippin Barr

Q is for qualification

The MSc asks “how?” The MPhil asks “why?”, The MFA asks “tap or bottled?” An oldie but still a goodie.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

R is for Review

They say those who can do and those who can’t teach but in fact they probably review the work of those who can. Peter McLeavey once said that it didn’t matter what anyone said about art as long as they spelt the artist’s name correctly and it is true that a good review can put a few more bums through the door. Most artists claim to not read the reviews and if they do are unaffected by them, but it is probably in the same way that everyone else says they don’t watch reality television. The trick is to remember that even when the reviewer who’s opinion is worth less than an ant at a picnic gives a good review, it is the same ant talking. But even when the review is good, as Dustin Hoffman once said, “it’s just a stay of execution.”
Illustration: Pippin Barr 

 S is for the Stendhal Syndrome

Visitors are often overcome in museums (ok not always by the exhibits), but pity poor Marie-Henri Beyle (better known as French writer Stendhal) who, when exposed to too much art, couldn’t pop into the gallery café for a quick macchiato or quietly browse in the bookshop. Instead, overwhelmed by the beauty of Venice, Stendhal was pole-axed by fainting spells and hallucinations.
“Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Illustration: Pippin Barr

T is for Tape measure

“Gather near the fire, my children. The darkness closes in and it grows cold.”

“Tell us a story great-grandfather, a story from the way back.”

“Very well… back then, long, long ago …before the times of much money, our people would take their art and hang it on their walls by themselves.”

“Straight, great-grandfather…. They would hang it straight?”

“That is so. Every painting, every print, every bas-relief we would hang on the wall absolutely parallel to the ground. It was always so in my family and in all the families of our village. Until, one day, that knowledge was lost.”

“How great-grandfather, how did it go?”

“The Straightening Man. He came from nowhere with his measure tape and his laser beam. Before long the Straightening Man hung all our pictures and all our prints, for by that time we had stopped buying bas-reliefs. Carefree we forgot the old ways until one day no one could remember how to hang a painting.

“The knowledge had vanished from our family, our tribe and, I fear, from all the world.”
Illustration: Pippin Barr

U is for underbidder

Woulda, coulda, shoulda

Illustration: Pippin Barr

V is for visitor

As theatres opted for bums on seats, art museums have gone with feet through the door as a measure of success. (click, click) Not that turning up has anything to do with experience, but what’s a poor museum to do? (click) One NZ institution reached out to sparrows. (click, click, click) The Dowse once discovered its high number of visitors was being complemented, well almost doubled, by birds flying in and out of the main door. (click, click, click, click) Local council officials turned over the director’s office looking for kilo packs of birdseed but it turned out the birds were just in it for the art. (click) Besides, unlike the birds, not all museum visitors are voluntary. (click) Kids marshalled in by schools, old people packed into vans, back in the day they were accounted separately in annual totes, but nowadays whatever your motive or intentions, if you're through the door, you're part of the score. (click, click)
Illustration: Pippin Barr 

W is for watercolour

John Singer Sargent remarked that painting in watercolour was ‘making the best of an emergency.’ That probably rings true for anyone who has given it a go. Being able to knock up a good watercolour was once an essential skill for any educated traveler but, like portrait painting, it was elbowed out of the image bank by photography. Still, as they say, even paisley ties will come back one day and watercolours seem to be having quite a resurgence after long years in the shadows. Any quick tour of dealer galleries will turn up at least one exhibition of impressionistic works on paper created with pigment and wash. As David Hockney once mysteriously said, “Watercolours are wet colours in water.” Er…right.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

X is for don't touch

Museum exhibits live in the space between protect and present. The art is almost always there to see and not touch and that's tough lines for sculpture, touch’s front line in the art category. The principle is that an object may be ok with one touch but with many it risks the death of a thousand cuts. And so the barriers, stanchions, taped lines, light beams, skied paintings and, yes, do not touch signs sprinkled round the galleries like measles. And that’s not to mention guards, staff and docents most of whom apply gentle persuasion and stop short of the direct approach taken by Kah Mun Rah in the museum flick Night at the museum: battle of the Smithsonian, “How dare you! If you touch that again I shall kill you right now.”
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Y is for Ying and Yang

In the art game, as in everything else, it is best to be kind to those you meet on the way up for you will be meeting them again on the way down.
Illustration: Pippin Barr

 Z is for zombie editions

They say you can’t take it with you and so most of us have to leave our stuff behind to be sent to the Salvation Army by our kids. Artists though can live beyond their natural span thanks to zombie editions – the works of art that are made on an artist’s behalf after their demise by helpful supporters.

And so new works to the market are created by casting from old molds, giving a lick of paint to rejected works left in the studio, and - in the purest form - newly born out of sketches and concepts left in notebooks and on scraps of paper.

Zombie editions: giving new meaning to the expression ‘the shock of the new.’
Illustration: Pippin Barr

Thursday, October 15, 2009