As anyone who has ever attended an exhibition of contemporary art knows, sometimes contemporary art is difficult. Not only is it difficult to understand, but sometimes it is also difficult to recognize. Perhaps we have heard stories of people confusing the humidity recorders in galleries for works of art. In today’s art world, where the emperors occasionally walk around brazenly naked, such confusion is not without justification. High-visibility art controversies—what might be dubbed headline art—receive greater media attention, leading some of us to believe shock to be the primary modus operandi of most contemporary artists. This perception is not helped by entrepreneurial enfants terrible who continue to inflate the art market bubble with exorbitantly garish products while seeming to thumb their noses at the general public. Because the excessive examples of self-reflexive posturing tend to be hyped, it is understandable that many of us approach the bewildering mélange of contemporary art with an automatic hermeneutic of suspicion.
I recently had the chance to visit the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa to view their major biennial exhibition of recent acquisitions entitled It Is What It Is. The title, lifted from a bright-white neon text work by Vancouver’s Ron Terada, is a familiar piece of pointless circumlocution that seems to be constantly recited by athletes on the losing side of a contest. It is what it is, like the backhandedly apologetic notion of art for art’s sake, is one of those familiar clichés uttered by someone trying to avoid any genuine interpretative thought or insight. In this way, the title is apt for describing the curatorial rationale for displaying these works together, that is, it simply is: a collection-driven show with no overarching theme or starting point for interpreting the works.
Among the inquisitive, perplexing and often difficult work, we find:
- A barricade of sandbags constructed from men’s suits by Rebecca Belmore
- A reimagining of Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire” (the museum’s most controversial aquisition) with pink wool and felt by Luanne Martineau
- A room sized installation by David Altmejd featuring a giant disemboweled werewolf in a mirrored crystal snow garden
- A cube of black PVC pipe by Steven Shearer that looks very much like a Borg space ship
In many ways, It is what it is is a good microcosm of an art world where the terms “postmodernism” and “pluralism” are frequently used to describe an inclusive aesthetic for collecting and exhibiting works that celebrate variety and incoherence. It is, however, a radical departure from the way most of us are used to looking at art in a large gallery. Part of what a work of art means within a museum context has to do with where it is shown and what it is shown with. We can understand most work by positioning it in a progressive story of evolving styles. Even if we are not fond of the work of Frank Stella, for example, we can at least identify the goals and features of the minimalist movement he is identified with. But what do we make of these works? Where do they fit in the chronology of art’s evolving history?
For those patrons accustomed to receiving curatorial advice when approaching art, this exhibition offered no strategies of relief. Faced with such a bewildering premise, it is easy to fall back on the language of preference—letting our response be dictated by the limitations of likes and dislikes. But do we know what we like, or do we just like what we know?
The problem is that we think we know why we like the art we do. But aesthetic opinions are often fragile things swayed by a great deal of subconscious social-psychological factors that influence our appreciation and judgment. When we find art difficult, what we often mean is that we don’t have anything in our experience to compare it to. As children, we very quickly develop a language for interpreting our social reality by creating conceptual structures for what is culturally appropriate—and these assumptions frame our engagement of art. But contemporary art often deliberately places itself outside our frame of reference. All profoundly original art, as critic Clement Greenburg once mused, looks ugly to us at first.
Rather than considering the aberrant quality of much contemporary art to be a decentive, its anomalous character can provide us with a common ground for looking. While it is very easy for me to catalogue a great deal of 20th century art into schools and movements, the contemporary scene is often devoid of catchy new “isms.” Even art experts readily confess that they have lost the ability to provide a coherent description for much contemporary art. We need to rid ourselves of the fear that we are not “getting” it, that we have missed the primer course and there is a secret message that the artist is trying to convey to us. Understanding and appreciating contemporary art is not about breaking the code: it is about being willing to be surprised.
My favourite experiences in art galleries are the moments of fortuitous confusion when I confront something so unexpectedly disconcerting that my initial engagement can be nothing but wide-eyed wonder. When I attended the biennial exhibition in Ottawa I was accompanied by my children, both young enough to have not solidified their expectations for art. Their favourite piece, The Straw Man by Montreal sculptor Valérie Blass, is a life-size wooly green Yeti-like creature that sits in a Thinker pose with its foot on an Egyptian pharaoh bust. Looking at this stimulating but unruly sculpture was a whimsically genial experience. While it is clear that Blass charges her work with conceptual intent, there is a level of appreciation that can just revel in its glorious quirkiness. I embraced it that day with my children as a splendiferously idiosyncratic piece of eye candy. Approaching contemporary art with the eyes of a child is not such a bad idea.
Wonder is the first step to asking good questions about why the artist made the choices they did. As we enter a gallery of contemporary art, the thing that may strike us initially is the extraordinarily diverse variety of materials and mediums used. Because much contemporary art challenges our expectations of everyday materials, we might want to ask ourselves how the artist transforms materials in surprising ways—and how, in turn, does this challenge us to think critically about contemporary life and society? By asking these questions, we are already on the right track to discovering that understanding art is more about genuine curiosity then certitude.
Much contemporary art, rather than reflecting life back to us on a canvas, chews it up, digests it, and regurgitates it back. It’s often tough and it’s rarely pretty. But exposing ourselves to art that is outside our zone of familiarity can shake us up and startle us in ways that allow for genuine astonishment. It may take us out of our comfort zone, and it may challenge some of our core assumptions about art in unsettling ways, but the only way to engage both the problems and possibilities of contemporary art is to turn and face the strange.