Saturday, October 06, 2007

Non-Declarative Art at The Drawing Center

The Drawing Center is the only fine arts institution in the country to focus solely on the exhibition of drawings, both historical and contemporary. I visited it for this first time this afternoon to see the "Non-Declarative Art" Fall Selections, 2007, which presents the work of thirteen emerging artists.

According to the press statement, the artists in Non-Declarative Art
intelligently explore ambiguity, the minimization of information, and the rejection of overt meaning. If "declarative" art seeks to inform the viewer about the artist's views, non-declarative art seeks a lack of explicitness, putting the onus on the view to determine its meaning. By obscuring clear and obvious readings, these works allow for open-ended interpretation, empowering the viewer and activating the viewing experience.

Which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative. A lot of catchphrases too. The descriptions of the individual artists also declare what they are about. For instance, "Disguised as an aethetician, Gianna Commito (Kent, OH) makes works that look at first like regular formalist paintings and drawings, but turn out to have no traditional compositional order or aesthetic ambition." (Apparently, ambition, like formalism, is a dirty word.) The artists do not care to declare the "content" of their work, but declare, declaim even, their aesthetic aim and approach (style is probably also a dirty word). That declamation is fine when the subtlety of the works themselves supports the aesthetic ambition, but, when the works themselves are slapdash and thin, the rhetoric sounds hollow.

Contrary to what the press statement claims, obscuring clear and obvious readings does not, by itself, empower the viewer and activiate the viewing experience. More often than not, in this exhibition, obscurity bored this viewer. "Non-declarative" art declares, over and over again, the same things: ambiguity, indeterminacy, open-endedness. So-called declarative art declares the same things, but with the richness of clear content. Communication is always fraught with difficulties, even what seems crystal clear at first hearing, or first viewing.

Having got that off my breast, I must say I enjoyed very much the works of three artists in this exhibition. The drawings of my friend, Sally Tittmann, continue to provoke and suggest. I think the drawings' white frames do the works a disservice. They look like boxes against which the rock-like forms rattle. As such, the frames rob the forms of some of their suggestiveness.

Sally Tittmann, "Untitled (#56)," 2007. Pencil on Paper, 20 7/8 x 25 1/2 inches.

Howard Rosenthal's stones provide an interesting contrast with Tittmann's rocks. The stones emerge out of the blackness, unlike the airiness of the rocks in the white space. The hyper-realistic stones look the same, and to that extent, have their individuality erased. In contrast, each of Tittmann's rocks, despite their obvious pencil shading, is an individual entity in time and space.

Howard Rosenthal, "Rock 18," 2003. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 24 x 30 inches.

Michael Diaz's lines are made up of dashes (of different thicknesses), gaps, and erasures, on handmade Japanese Inbe paper. They have a meditative purity. One, not shown here, crawls from the middle of the right edge of the paper to the middle of the paper. It looks like a fine crack in the wall, a notion I find moving.

Michael Diaz, "Untitled #79" (detail), 2007. Pencil on handmade Japanese Inbe paper, 30 x 22 inches.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting post!

There is a distinction between the art itself being "non-declarative" and what the necessary press release, curators and artists "declare" about the work. This point seems to be muddled in the statement "Which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative." To follow your logic, it would be a contradiction to talk about or discuss "silence", because silence is supposed to be about not saying anything. "Non-declarative" doesn't mean the art can't be, necessarily, descibed or talked about.

In addition, in dicussing the description of Gianna Commito's work you blend together "aesthetic ambition" and plain old "ambition" in your parethetical phrase, "Apparently, ambition, like formalism is a dirty word". Did you think about the term "aesthetic ambition" and what that might mean? And what kind of ambition are you referring to- artistic ambition, personal ambition or something else?

It's so interesting that it was the curator's intent to exhibit work that lends itself to reveal the "aesthetic ambitions, "values" and "prejudices" of the viewer and that here in your post is an excellent example! Being non-declarative is fine with you as long as it's not "slapdash and thin". And the work you responded too was indeed the least "slapdash", the most formally considered, the most careful and in a tradtional sense the best crafted.(And personally I like each artist's work very much).

To say "Non-declarative, art declares OVER and OVER again the same things" to be a bit of an exaggeration taking into account their weren't that many artists in the show, you liked three of them and there was only one room of the stuff.

Everyone, has the right of course to be bored for any reason. And your form of boredom seems to have been a very active one. A more passive and a truly mindnumbing kind of boredom is quickly forgotten. Who thinks about being bored waiting at the DMV three minutes after leaving? It's certainly nothing somebody would post on their blog!

Essentially, boredom is a form of frustration. Perhaps the boredom you felt, being different from the boredom felt waiting at the DMV, came from unmet expecations, being denied "clear content" where you thought it should go or simply too much slapdashery that you've seen all before.

The press release doesn't "claim" that obscuring clear and obvious readings will, by itself, empower the viewer. Here again this is what you read into it. If you were to read the curators statement in the beginning of the Drawing Papers catalog you will see a series of QUESTIONS(yes, rhetorical!) posed. It is not, no matter how much you'd like it to be, some kind of manifesto. They are questions without easy answers provided. Or any answers for that matter. They are questions that the work itself seeks to ASK. The answers are left to the viewer to ANSWER. If they so choose to be listening.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I reply in the post dated Sun October 14, 2007.

Anonymous said...

Hello. It's me again.

Press Releases are, almost by definition, compact, incomplete and very frequently cliche ridden. They are meant to pique your interest and wet your appetite. They are meant to get you to a show. Not explain the work. In that function the press release was successful. You seem to have been piqued.

But then you took it to a whole new level. I feel it was unfortunate that your whole experience viewing the show and the fulcrum of your beef was based on the contradiction you saw in the press release and the work shown. I believe it was kind of unfair. That's what I wanted to address.

I don't believe what is written about visual art is essential or even necessary to the viewing experience. Period. If you had written on your blog, "It all sucked" and hadn't mentioned press releases etc...then fine. What can you say to that?

I don't believe this line of discussion can really procede any further. It seems we're getting caught on the semantics of generalities and for me, that's boring. I think you should read Drawing Papers, rather than simply the press release, if you choose to critique the philosophy behind the show and offer an in depth analysis. Of course now, it's all too late.