Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why I like contemporary and abstract art

Trying to explain to someone why abstract and contemporary art is "good" is often a difficult thing. Mostly because it takes a lot of art history. And a lot of time. And patience. And opening your eyes. And redefining what is beautiful. And seeing work in real life. (That last one is key).

I spent the summer after I got married in Washington DC and for the first few weeks was jobless. I spent most days in the Hirshorn or the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I learned to love abstract art that summer. I appreciated it before, but often I too was wondering, "What makes this valuable or significant?"

After spending days surrounded by it, I found that it is valuable and significant because it questions the viewer and makes the viewer raise questions. Even if the only question is, "What is that supposed to be?" Often contemporary art is difficult beauty. It doesn't immediately draw you in with warm colors, engaging textures and lovely subject matter. It's coarse. It's raw. It's confusing. But in the way that the familiarity of realism draws a viewer in, the obscurity of abstraction makes it just as alluring.

Here's an example: Say you see a painting that while lacking in realistic details, was obviously extremely time intensive to make. Maybe it has twenty thousand similarly sized marks put down in a conscientious and meticulous way. Maybe the image isn't even that great. But what does it say about time? The value of time? About meditation? About cleanliness and order? About using our time in an orderly way? This is the power of contemporary art. It uses not just the subject matter to relay concepts, but relies heavily on the medium and materials used to raise questions in the viewer's mind. Hopefully those questions lead to pondering and thought and a change in behavior or manner of thinking that improves the viewers life (or day, or moment, or outlook).

The other day a friend asked me about an artist, Casey Jex Smith. I'm familiar with his work and have met him before (incidentally his mom was my art teacher in high school). She said a friend of hers sent her a message regarding his work. It said this: "I want to know why he's good. I can see that he has talent, obviously, but what about his art makes him worthwhile in the art world?"

  Casey Jex Smith. Through three corners, 44 x 31 inches, pen & ink, marker, acrylic, and colored pencil on paper.

I can't tell her exactly why the so-called "art world" (whatever that is) thinks he's significant. I think a lot of it has to do with politics and networking like in any other profession. But this is why I find his work significant.

One of the biggest reasons I find his work engaging is because he's a Mormon Artist who deals with Mormon themes in a way that doesn't resemble the commercialized Mormon Art. It's about as far away from the propaganda of Jon McNaughton as you can get. As I see it, this is a very good thing. Even though he deals with religion, he does it in a way that is inclusive of other faiths. Society's relationship to faith and spirituality is a increasingly significant theme in contemporary art.

I am personally drawn to the way that he represents the spirit or the divine. It's a large colorful mass that seems to be in constant motion. To me, this representation comes closer to illustrating what I've felt in moments of inspiration and at times when I feel close to my Heavenly Father than anything representational could. How are artists expected to illustrate intangible things?

Casey Jex Smith. We draw near..., 68 x 56 inches, pen, marker, and colored pencil on paper.
Bottom line: I like contemporary and abstract art for the way it makes me head work. I like feeling my brain turn a bit when I look at art. I like hearing the whir of motion as my mind takes off. I like finding new ways of seeing and understanding others experiences a little better by the way they represent experience. Experience is something you can hold as much as it is something you can represent. Naturally, abstract art fills the space left when experience is over and a story needs to be told.

1 comment:

A Mitton said...

Paige, I appreciate you putting so much thought into this. If I still lived in Provo I'd want to talk to you about it for real, because I know very little about art. But I definitely feel like you helped me understand a bit better.

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