material nature–the nature of materials

I’ve been blogging a lot about shows around town but today I thought I’d take a little break to talk about art itself, and the nature of the materials we use to create.  As someone who has a background in the creative arts as well as museum studies, I often am conflicted in terms of how I look at the material nature of the craft.  On the one hand, art is creative, often messy, and very much physical in its creation (well, most–I’ll save the discussion of the artist’s “hand” in art for another blog…).  In art institutions, however, emphasis must be placed on preservation and therefore distance between viewer and viewed, whether that manifests in how many weeks of the year a piece may be shown (very short for works on paper including photography) or the physical distance at which a viewer must stand from the work.  In my mind this creates a conflict in terms of the relationship between the artist’s intentions and the viewer’s experience and we might even extrapolate that this creates a tension for any modern viewer of art between seeing and experiencing the work.

This past weekend I had a chance to visit MOCA grande with my 2 1/2 year old twins.  In some ways, kids are just completely honest when it comes to the viewing experience and I truly love introducing them to contemporary art because it leaves so much room for them to interject their own emotions and experiences.  I really enjoyed the Personal is Political show because it included many of my favorite artists such as Annette Messager but for them, the highlight was the Lynda Benglis exhibition.  Benglis created sculptural works that are extremely tactile and approachable.  The works create spaces around the actual material that embrace the viewer and intrigue the eye and my little ones immediately sensed and enjoyed the physicality of the works, especially the dripped paint piles in the middle of the floor, but they became slightly frustrated, asking again and again why they couldn’t touch or walk on the the pieces.  The answer is absolutely true, you can’t touch the work because if everyone touched it, it would no longer exist, the piece would be destroyed by the interaction.  At the same time as I say these things though, I am myself frustrated, because the work calls out to be touched, the materials are sensuous and intriguing and the works are most interesting in the imagined experience of physical contact.

Duchamp’s important work, “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” is often cited in terms of the importance of material and acceptance of its nature as part of the work itself.  Duchamp spent years working on the piece which was painted and etched on glass.  When the work was broken during shipping, Duchamp repaired the piece but embraced the unintended change of the web of cracked glass as part of the nature of the material that was intrinsic to the art itself.  Today the piece is closely guarded and protected at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The protection is essential given the historical importance of this work, but again, we must just think about how it changes the art to be so removed from its own material nature.

Earlier last week I mentioned in passing the work of Doug and Mike Starn, photographers who have built a huge market following for their often art historically inspired collaged photography.  I first became acquainted with their work in the early 1990s when they were first achieving prominence and major prices for their art.  At the time, I remember one of the big debates and issues being that they had used non-archival materials like scotch tape for their early collages and that these were starting to come apart and mark the photographs.  The materials used were tearing apart the works of art and, obviously, no one is going to spend that kind of money on something that won’t last!  The market drives our obsession with the archival nature of art and to be “museum quality” is the goal for all photo papers with non-color-fade lives of at least 100 years.  I suppose this was the point of photography in the first place, to create something that would freeze and preserve a moment in time (much like taxidermy, Annette Messager famously insisted).  On the other hand though, it is the time-sensitivity of the media that has always intrigued me, that we can preserve a moment but for only so long, that all life eventually fades and the age and time of a work as well as its material nature are all a part of what makes the art… well, Art.

As a photographer by training, I am accustomed to the white glove treatment in dealing with art prints and works on paper despite that fact that my own work has often been sewn, stitched, painted, manipulated, punched out and shredded.  This is in part why it was such a shock the first time we visited Cuba and met with very well known artists who stood with cigar in hand quickly flipping through their own paintings, prints, and drawings bare-handed and encouraged us to do the same.  What originally felt strange and awkward began to feel exciting and drew us further into the works we were viewing.  My experience became more aligned with the the artist’s, the act of creation that much closer to my act of viewing, my own physical presence that much closer to the artist’s.  It is still a shock to see the works of some of these artists preserved in museums and galleries today.

I still enjoy most the works that engage me as a viewer on that physical plane, the ones that incorporate some part of my physicality, whether through an auditory sensation, an immersive experience, or a tactile component to the work.  I think the more a viewer is touched and engaged on that level, the more likely they are to be moved by a work.  The closer we get to the tactile nature of art, the closer the viewer can come to understanding the materiality of the image or sculpture that they are viewing, the closer they are to feeling the artist as a part of that work, and to understanding the work, the art, itself.  Ah, but in the end, the part of me that is a historian and theorist just can’t let the art in our world be destroyed even in search of an authentic experience of the work.  Is knowing and preserving more important than feeling and understanding?

"The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," Marcel Duchamp

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