Irritating art

I enjoy modern art, with its profusion of styles and techniques. Some abstract art is a bit of a stretch, like monochrome painting, but other works are fascinating plays of color, texture, line and movement.

Then again, some art is simply irritating. Well, to be more accurate, what’s irritating are the descriptions attached to works of art in gallery exhibits. It makes sense to have some commentary on an exhibit, since a lot of contemporary art is baffling to a lot of people, and it’s useful to get a hint of what to look for in a work. At the same time, I often find that it’s more helpful to view a work without reading the accompanying commentary. If, for instance, I’m looking at an object that appears to be a blotchy mirror and then read that I am supposed to glean some elaborate sociological meaning from it, it’s more than likely that I’ll stare at the object for a minute or two and then say, “Nope. I don’t see it.”

Dan Siedell, in an interview with Image magazine, says that looking at art “is not about receiving a meaning that the artist intended. The artist isn’t intent on ‘communicating’ with me some idea that he or she is wrapping up in paint that I then need to unwrap.” A work of art, he says, is not so much an essay as a poem. I find this a helpful way of thinking about art. And maybe what I’m really irritated with is the sense that at times I’m being told what I ought to see — that some artists or gallery curators do see art as an essay.

But that’s still not quite it. Sometimes art-as-essay does work. For instance, last year the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina showed works by Kent Monkman, including a silent film that uses role reversal to question the idea of history, and whose history is authoritative. It works because it addresses a fairly straightforward question, and while not subtle, it is clever satire executed with skill and flair.

On the other hand, there’s that blotchy mirror. This is an extreme example from an exhibit called Let Me Be Your Mirror, also shown at the MacKenzie Gallery last year. According to the description, in this exhibit “the viewer’s position before mirrors, both real and represented, is placed in question as part of a larger inquiry into social structures that govern desire and its production.” Looking at the works in this exhibit may well raise questions about images, how we see ourselves and what is real, but you would not get to the level of interpretation in the description without reading the piece, and furthermore, knowing something of the theory behind it. On the whole, the exhibit did not seem able to bear the weight of the complex meanings attributed to it.

Then again, Dan Siedell points out that looking at art takes time and work. Maybe I should have spent more time looking into those mirrors.


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