13 July 2021

I can't breathe, is context everything? part 1

Is context everything? Is it the essential ingredient of Contemporary Art? 

I think of this often when perusing articles about contemporary art which sometimes seems like a big inflated balloon of contextual ideas and images dispersing in the wind.

Being ultra discreet in my person, as the French put it. Though I do believe in my own artistic vision I do not place that high enough  to imagine that I am more important than the art work which I am making, certainly not contextualised to the point where I (my person) has superseded the art work. 

I understand that many people would not agree with me. My education was different, which is the only way I can explain it. Unlike many of my generation I was told to avoid the zeitgeist  and not to seek to be part of it. To ride it like a wave? Or be the guy who makes the wave(s)? Are they mutually exclusive?

Without a context (it seems) a work of art cannot breathe in today's world, it cannot come to a life of its own. (I am not trying to be cheeky in saying this just because of the I can't breathe movement which I support completely)

What I mean by this is that I only wish to make something which bypasses the contextual thought process. I want to make an image which lives on its own, without any ideas which keep it propped up. My desire is always to make an image which can render the viewer mute of words. I think that is one of the main purposes of 'Art' as we think of it even as a utilitarian object. 

In front of a Japanese 18th century rice container bowl one doesn't need to say anything. Nor does one need to comment in front of this Van Gogh. What is to say anyway?

I have often broached this idea over the past eleven years of writing in this blog and my thinking has certainly changed over this period  as well. My thinking has primarily changed by the the activity of Painting but also by contemplation of painting, and by looking at everything. One can never look enough at everything in the Painting world whether one likes it or not. For a painter, this is always an education of the mind and the eye.

And curiously, this brings me back to this idea of the role context plays in art today, specifically, Contemporary Art. 

Yes, certainly, I live in a world far from the contemporary artist whose preoccupation is with social issues, gender issues, race issues, among so many these days. And yes, I was brought up a privileged white male from the sleepy world of the fifties. And, (to piss nearly everyone off) I studied almost exclusively the art of Western "civilation". But all this does not at all make me insensitive to the pressing issues in our life today of which there are so many. It just means that my priorities are very different than many others. 

In regards to this idea of context in Art I was thinking recently of the Renaissance, but also earlier even; Giotto, for instance. Whether Giotto was a religious man or not I know nothing (but I'm sure that one could find out easily enough) When I look at Giotto's paintings (frescoes) I see the painter Giotto, not the religious or spiritual Giotto, just the painter. When specifically, I see his angels careening around his deep Ultramarine Blue skies, I do not see them as religious or spiritual, but just as elements in a complex, (and far out) composition rendered with a coloured medium. Yes, they are angels, and they are crucial to the contextual subject of the composition but for me as a painter, they are but elements ingeniously conceived, and primarily appreciated as Painting (Art for Art's sake) not as an illustration for a story. But saying that, I do also appreciate his painting as extraordinary illustrations in the Christian story. 

On the other side of the coin is the religious person who sees only the story, not the Painting. 

I always think of Giotto as 'other worldly' because of the way he renders the human face. I first saw his images in my father's art books as a child and I was frightened by the severe expressions on the faces of the figures on the page. I still am.

And so I this brings me to my old friend Christian Martel, a painter from Montpellier who sadly died two years ago. Having been brought up under the twin dark shadows of his village Rémuzat and the Catholic church, he  never developed an appreciation for any works depicting Christian images, no matter how well painted or beautifully conceived. We once drove together through Rémuzat (Drôme) years ago, a sad-looking place hidden in a steep valley. He explained that in the winter it received no more than 30 minutes of sunshine. Ouch! Suddenly, I fully understood a lot about him from just that quick drive through his childhood village. But anyway, he hated anything to do with Christianity, like not a few of my French friends. 

"Oooof,,, Je ne peux pas les supporter ces choses!" He would declare with an obstinately when I tried to show him bits of a Titian or an obscure wooden crucifixion from 14th century Spain. I learned early on to stay away from the subject which was difficult because though I was not emotionally connected to religion, I seem to be obsessed with Art.

Unlike so many these days, I was taught to look at Art primarily through the senses, through the eyes, not by my intellect prowess.  

And I was taught that the work is everything. There should be no explanations necessary, nothing with which to prop it up. Everything is in place for it to be complete in itself. Like a lotus flower, it is perfect. I have been educated to search for a replication of that perfection in every artistic endeavour I pursued. 

A tall order! One quite impossible to achieve yet, like a lighthouse, it guides me home. 

Music, poetry, theatre, sculpture, cinema, and architecture, are all things to be sensually savoured.  

So the question still lingers: How did clever messaging, much like advertising, take up so much room in the world of Art since the 1950's? 

            Barbara Kruger


                           Richard Bell from Australia


                               Jenny Holzer

So, today we live in the aftermath of the contextually contradicted messaging of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Richard Bell among so many, many others. These are catchy and subversive worlds which mirror the Madison Avenue of yesteryear. But hey! It is what it is, and Jenny Holzer is the cleverest of the three.

I do often find them clever and interesting but only in my mind, and it never lingers long. The problem for me is this Art has been reduced to messaging; political, social, and emotional tag lines which do not last.

So questions come up for me. Does Art have the power to change culture and/or society? Can people be moved to change their ideas about life from art? 

More to be revealed...

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