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Art Institute Trip pt. 2.

February 5, 2013

Modern art is challenging stuff. Perhaps in modern art we see more than ever the battle between the icon and the idol. If you look at art history, you can see, in the late nineteenth twentieth century, a movement away from representational art to a kind of obscure symbolism, where every shape, design and autographed urinal had a “hidden message,” so to speak. Modern art, instead of aiming at showing “real things,” instead operates in an oblique way, providing mirrors, signs and symbols instead of a concrete reality. Modern artists may truly be said to “look through a glass darkly.” Whether this method is successful is a different question entirely.

The painting that I paid most attention to in the modern art wing was Marc Rothko’s “Untitled.” Apparently, Marc Rothko had a hard time coming up with names for his pieces. This is probably because most of his pieces did not look like anything at all. However, while I was looking at the painting, a kid walked by and said, “Look mom–it’s the sun,” thus picking up on a resemblance so obvious that an educated scholar like me was sure to overlook it.

Untitled (Painting)

Untitled by Rothko

     Between this painting and another Rothko painting, also called “Untitled,” but made up of the colors purple, white and red, I spent several minutes. This painting does not have any discernible message or form–at least, there was none that I was able to discern. It is, however, visually arresting. You want to stare at it. When you do stare at it, you find yourself floating in an ocean of color. (It is a big painting.) The same applies to the other Rothko painting. Perhaps Rothko’s purpose was not to have a didactic or propositional “message” in his paintings, but simply to experience his paintings, to experience bright color, the “yellowness” of yellow and the “orangeness” of orange. Like a Zen Koan or an ice cream cone, the point of this painting is not to find a rational “meaning” behind it, but simply to experience what it is.

Or is that the point? For I cannot help but think that in the way we experience the painting, we still bring some sort of message to it. The Eastern Mystic, the Western Materialist and the Christian Follower may all experience the same ice cream cone, but the way that they experience it is different. A mystical experience is not something separate from dogma–in fact, it goes hand in hand with dogma. What kind of mystical experience is Rothko trying to evoke? Is it an Eastern style pantheism–there are no lines, no pictures, only color? Is it a nihilistic, art for art’s sake kind of rebuke of rationality–in a world with no meaning, there are no pictures, only colors arranged differently. Or can Rothko be forcibly baptized and brought, perhaps kicking and screaming, into the Christian fold? Could we, taking a cue from St. Francis, think of this painting as a celebration of “Brother Orange” and “Sister Yellow,” a thankful appreciation of pure color as a gift from God and a part of the creation? Could we read it in light of G. K. Chesterton’s statement, “Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” Can Rothko’s painting defamiliarize these familiar colors and make us realize that there is no reason why Orange actually has to exist–why everything can’t be green?

After Rothko, everything got weird. While in the building, I formulated a simple, three-step guide to observing modern art.

1.) Look at the painting

2.) Find the sexual reference

3.) Move to next painting

Many of the works were designed, intentionally and unintentionally, to destroy any semblance of meaning or beauty. Jasper Johns’ “Corpse and Mirror II” consists merely of patterns of yellow, blue, and red lines on a white background–like an especially hideous wallpaper for an elementary school classroom. Johns said about the pattern, “I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me—literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.” Here the artist himself is intentionally trying to create something anti-art, something that is in fact stupid. William de Kooning’s Head #3 is a hideous, contorted visage, like an orc–a man’s face warped beyond all recognition. Cy Twombly’s two part Return from Parnassus looked like the obscene musings of a bored seventh grader with a kindergartener’s artistic talent.Throughout the entire gallery, I saw a lot of bitterness manifested in the pieces, especially in the ones that dealt with more political or feminist themes. It seemed like there was an overflow of angry nihilism. A few well placed works that proclaim horror and despair can be powerful–think Picasso’s Guernica. But when every other work is proclaiming the same “everything is meaningless” message, it starts to lose its force.

Corpse and Mirror II

Corpse and Mirror II by Jasper Johns

   The other thing that was grating about some of the artworks was the facile, in your face symbolism. One work was about how the disabled are marginalized in American society or something like that–it featured a blind cane and an American flag attacked to a pole. Another one was a cross that incorporated Coca-Cola bottles, making a not-so-subtle jab at consumerism. Yet another was an especially ugly painting filled with feminist slogans along the lines of “I feel good about my fat thighs.” The worst example was a memorial that one artist had made to his dead partner. It consisted of a bunch of hard candies piled in a corner. They somehow symbolized the nature of this man’s death by disease. Visitors were encouraged to take a candy and eat it, symbolizing how the man lost weight as he suffered from consumption. I wonder if someone will make a memorial to me when I die–perhaps a stack of empty pizza boxes or a pile of granola bars. My main reaction to these pieces was not “how dare you!” but “Is this it?” While I can understand the meaning behind these sorts of works, they seem to fall flat. Memorializing your lover with 130 pounds of off-brand Jolly Ranchers seems like the artistic equivalent of buying a beautiful house and then putting gnomes and flamingos in the front lawn. (“They are a bold statement about the capitalist hegemony of modern Amerika.”)

Hinoki by Charles Ray

     However, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that anything new or weird must be bad or low quality, let us turn our eyes to the sculpture Hinoki by Charles Ray. This work is a sculpture of a giant log that Ray found while driving and fell in love with. (Not in a literal way–you never can tell with these artists.) Ray writes,

It then struck me that the breath or life of the sculpture could be manifested in the very act of sculpting. Making a wood carving of the log by starting from the inside and working my way out would bring a trajectory of life and intentionality to this great fallen tree. With several friends, I transported the tree, cut apart by a chainsaw, back to my Los Angeles studio. Silicone molds were taken and a fiberglass version of the log was reconstructed. This was sent to Osaka, Japan, where master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoshi and his apprentices carved my vision into reality using Japanese cypress 

This is not a bitter or angry piece. Instead, it is a celebration of nature, of the particularity of a single piece of log. Ray takes the Romantic ideal of art imitating nature to an entirely new level. In doing so, he raises the question of whether art should seek to imitate nature. Even though the reproduction of the log is incredibly detailed, it is still a reproduction. You can see the seams and screws that hold it together. Hinoki is not a real log, but a symbol of a log. Perhaps it is designed to make us more aware of real logs, real trees, real beauty that surrounds us and that we are oblivious to. It opens up new territory in the discussion of the way that art is a symbol, either of truth, or of falsehood.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephanie House permalink
    February 7, 2013 3:54 pm

    I have found your insights intriguing and helpful, especially in terms of how we view music as an art form. Just wish I could think as deeply. It seems that,
    just as I am about to form a thought, it slips over the edge of a cliff and is goine.

    • Stephanie House permalink
      February 7, 2013 3:54 pm

      Oops, “gone”

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