We Live Only Through Ourselves
“What is the good of this work? The question contains a challenge to contemporary practitioners…that is connected more to what we have become than to what we might propose…The challenge is the supposition that artists today—whether they like it or not—have fallen into a trap that is predetermined by their existence within a regime that is centered on a rampant capitalization of the mind.”
–Liam Gillick “The Good of Work”
Two prevailing ideas driving the discourse of contemporary art run counter to core notions about what makes art successful. Stifled young artists are forced to choose between accepted artistic permissions in order to participate in this discourse. One idea, states that narratives about the History of Art have run their course and artists are free to pick and choose, mix and match at will to create something new. Another says that we are still unpacking the narratives that led just to this moment, placing us back in that familiar linear narrative arc.
The challenge for contemporary artists becomes one of rising above this restrictive, style-driven milieu. In addition to transcending classic mind/body, high/low dichotomies the artist must work outside restrictive historical narratives if he is to make work of any significance in this moment. Given the practical challenges of merely getting into the studio in this economy it is easy to understand the difficulty in moving beyond professional art regimes. To transcend all of this takes a special kind of finesse.
Ben Buswell creates poetic objects that have presence and gravitas because they open up new liminal spaces that allow viewers to engage with the sublime and feel ascension. He has a reductive aesthetic that is more about focusing thought upon the material and how it is worked and less about carrying the torch of any one movement or style. Restrained small gestures and marks, bordering on the obsessive, represent grand shifts in thought. Whether using construction-grade insulation foam or some strange epoxy the rest of the “art world” has likely not heard of, Buswell has demonstrated, with increasing prowess how to join material and concept toward making work with finesse and import.
We Live Only Through Ourselves is an exhibition of new artworks that incorporate a range of sculptural objects and framed works, some freestanding and some wall-mounted. Buswell presents a tent, a vessel and trapezoidal forms that house embellished photographs at human scale. The works speak poetically about a range of issues related to time, loss and their relationship to work. Photographic images of sand and water are embellished with lines made by scratching away the emulsion. Like picking at a scab to reengage the feeling of a healing cut, the scratching reveals the paper beneath at once reading as part of the image while simultaneously allowing us to see through the actual image to some of the inner workings. Like the familiar image of prisoners marking time with a day corresponding to a line, this evidence of the hand marks time. Yet the time it took to make, the time it takes to view and the concept of time in general become conflated as we experience the aesthetic pleasure of viewing Buswell’s objects.
Among the half a dozen works When the Cathedrals Were White stands out as a particularly poignant piece. At just slightly smaller scale than a “real” tent it is a simple triangular prism form created out of graphite marks on and holes cut into polypropylene, a sort of plastic paper, stretched on a frame. The prismatic form evokes a classic pup tent and is completed with a simple sleeping mat. Lighting from within the tent creates a mesmerizing play of light and shadow in the space around the object. Made of a near perfect combination of formal elements conspiring to engage every sense, this object seductively nudges us toward transcendence.
We Live Only Through Ourselves is an important reflection of our selves at this moment in history; Ben Buswell employs a reductive, poetic approach to object making with this purpose. There is no hint of blind adherence to dogma. Art historical references are smashed almost as soon as they are conjured, leaving us to face the objects and the work that went into making them. In the presence of these objects, traditional narratives of history are scratched away, allowing for the possibility of working up something more productive, something that lets us feel free from restriction.
Bryson Gill’s painting, Cosmo (Backdrop) does that thing that great paintings do, it calls you forth, pushes you back and then calls you in again. Like a dear friend it’s hard to let Cosmo go. Gill combines oil paintings, works on paper and sculpture for his solo exhibition The Friends and Neighbors Effect, at Triple Base in San Francisco. Throughout the exhibit repeated forms, image fragments and moments of artistic strategy slowly reveal themselves and the echo of these moments creates a feeling of immediate intimacy, compelling us to get lost in the visually rich world created by Gill. This particular combination of different mediums is a risk with a solid payoff despite a nagging feeling that the drawings and sculpture seem less developed. The real gems, however, are the paintings.
The seven modestly sized oil paintings that Gill presents are comprised of two main motifs, what I am calling the backdrops and the icons. The icon paintings contain central dominant objects that appear to be from non-Western culture, painted in the vernacular of the still life then obscured by simple painted geometric shapes. The overt collage feeling that these paintings evoke negates an interesting rumination on painted space because the potential for a specific reading of collage as source material is too much to get away from.
Conversely, the backdrop paintings open up and allow for plenty of room to move. Take Cosmo(Backdrop) for instance, from far away, Cosmo reads like a grand landscape with a daytime sky. As you approach the painting and the components become clearer, the spatial relationships become more complex and we are denied our initial feeling of concrete clarity. Is this a painting of a painting or a painting of a scene painted on some sort of backdrop? And just like that, the space collapses.
Two important shadows drive this collapse, one cast on the “sky” from what appears to be a modernist sculpture made of simple geometric shapes on top of an ancient looking column and the second cast by the “sky” itself on a surface presumably just behind. While attempting to make sense of this space a cast of characters appear on cue to conflate any sense of order. Hard edge, stenciled flora that physically juts out of the canvas, a curious delicate mobile floating somewhere in front and the fact that this “sky” is a thick mess of paint that appears to be slathered on with a knife (which betrays any sense of lightness that a painting of a sky should have) all conspire against any easy reading. Cosmo(Background) has contradictions to spare, contradictions in space and scale delivered in a pleasing palette of blues, purple, mocha and red serve not to confuse but to create the kind of space necessary for real philosophical thought.
If our friends are allies out of choice, our neighbors could be seen as allies out of necessity. While all of the pieces in The Friends and Neighbors Effect seem to belong, only a few of them will remain true friends. Cosmo(Backdrop) and the other backdrop paintings command attention with a satisfying color palette and hold our interest with the tensions of many contradictions challenging us to find something larger just under their rich surfaces.
On Art and Water
as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
Regardless of taste, education or aesthetic inclination, people engage with the visual arts for personal reasons and the greatest artists can touch large numbers of people in very intimate ways. Consider that art affects each person, as differently, as there are types of people who participate and it becomes clear that creating powerful art is no small task. For some people living and breathing Art is secondary to drinking water, for others it is like visiting the mist tent at a hot summer music festival, some form of relief.
Like the visual arts, the discourse surrounding water is inherently public, carried out in both scholarly and popular media. Of the numerous articles and volumes written about water, most begin with an eloquent delivery of statistics imparting the value of water and its necessity in the genesis and sustaining of life. Water is a very special liquid by itself and in the right hands it becomes so much more. Artists throughout history have depicted and used water in compelling ways. It is a medium with potential to reach everyone because the need for water is pervasive. Artists can reach audiences beyond their community so effectively and so clearly that it is truly possible to reach an international, global audience in addition to the local.
The physical composition of water provides for it’s place of esteem among elements and is similar in import to the work of Icelandic Artist Olafur Eliasson. By creating thoughtful, moving and poetic installations, Eliasson affects large numbers of people. With in his artwork the relationship between concept, audience, message and medium is fluid. Engaging with this work one gets the sense that each component, whether conceptual or formal, works together and harmoniously as if intentionally conceived with respect to the all of the other elements.
To create conceptually tight and visually impressive artworks requires skill.Imagine the tension required to manage the various components necessary to create moving artworks at a grand scale. Basic physics describes the surface tension of water as similar to an elastic membrane in which each molecule acts to keep all other molecules together and thus fluid. Eliasson’s work Beauty (1993) consists of an illuminated source of mist, on the ceiling of a dark gallery. A simple description, a simple premise. Yet, however, in reality encountering this work is actually much more grandiose. A sparkling rainbow beckons you to enter the other wise dark gallery, shimmering, it appears to float in some visible breeze.
This rainbow conjures numerous associations that draw you out of the gallery momentarily before the mist hits your skin and you feel the temperature drop suddenly and unexpectedly. The tiny drops of water collecting on your skin pull you back inside the gallery. And while everyone has this experience, not everyone, has this experience exactly. Depending upon your entry, the crowd, where you wind up etc. everyone sees a rainbow in the illuminated mist but each rainbow is experienced differently because of the random nature of mist, the equally random nature determining your position, as well as the random nature of personal histories affecting the experience. Everyone will not see the exact same rainbow. Beauty demonstrates an artistic elasticity that allows Eliasson to reach numerous participants on their own terms. Giving them an opportunity to transform.
A cursory glimpse of the current conversation surrounding the contemporary state of water includes stories about shortages, dosing, chemicals and disaster. The need for respite is justified. Whether one possesses the specialized vocabulary to engage in an academic dialogue about the contemporary state of water, or one refers to water simply as a liquid, everyone experiences the physical properties of water. Thus charging water with power adept artists like Eliasson can use to transcend platitudes and give people true common ground to stand on. Water represents an objective truth because it acts according to scientifically established principals all humans relate to and because everyone needs it water has the potential to reach truly everyone.