Bronx Museum of the Arts
Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary (which is the only dictionary I can get my hand on at the moment) defines “art” as:
1. Creative or imaginative activity, esp. the expressive arrangement of elements within a medium
2. Works, as paintings, that result from this creativity.
Now it’s intriguing to me that though “art” is a noun, the first and therefore primary definition of the word is about action: creative or imaginative activity. We as artists and we as audience often focus on art as the result, but the dictionary leaves the product (or “works) as the secondary definition.
Hmmm. Art is activity. Art is activity. Art is activity. Art is activity.
What has me thinking about art is a recent visit to the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Last Wednesday I went to the Bronx Museum to check out the One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art exhibition. After walking through the exhibition, my mind was in a whirl. Being surrounded by art called up so many images and thoughts and references in my head. It caused me to think. Every time I go to an art exhibition it amazes me how much interaction viewing art calls forth. It seems to me that the act of viewing art is “creative activity” in and of itself. The act of appreciating (or critiquing) art, is a creative process. The viewer is required to create relevance, make connections and formulate meanings for the work. As you stand in front of the piece (or read a work or listen to some music), your brain accesses memories, facts, images, stories, and experiences that relate to the images you see. The artist is not there to offer you interpretations, so you start creating—you create interpretations and concepts and meanings.
When I stop to think about it, the whole concept of art is somewhat bewildering. The first piece I saw at the exhibition was an untitled Basquiat piece. It was classic Basquiat with the cartoonish drawings and handwriting and doodles scrawled across the canvas. In the center of the painting, Basquiat painted a man with his hands up. Our guide told us the painting referenced Michael Stewart, a young black graffiti artist, who was beaten by the police in the early 90s. Now I’m a painter, and when people look at my work, I can’t stand for them to ask me what this means or that means, but whenever I go look at work, I always want to see the title. Often, I have a million questions I’d like to ask the artist and I love it when the tags have brief descriptions that explain what the art is about. That is profound to me. That this inanimate object can mean something different to me depending on what information I have. If I’m not into Basquiat aesthetically, then seeing a piece of his is only going to move me so far. But knowing what the piece is about gives me a place to enter, a means to connect with work that may seem foreign to me.
My father has a poem: words have meaning, but only in context. It’s the same with art. In any art form, if you don’t understand the context and the references of the work, you miss the entire experience. [Recently I went to an open studio of rock sculptor named Ken. He does these detailed carvings on rock surfaces, and most of them are carved with one continuous line. Beautiful work. The next day I was walking down Broadway in Soho. As I was stopped by a “Don’t Walk” sign, I looked down at the ground. Drawn in the concrete, was a design constructed of squiggly lines I immediately recognized as the work of Ken, the rock sculptor. Sure enough, on the edge of the design Ken’s name appeared. It was dated in the late 80s. I’ve been living in New York City for five years. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked down that street. I may have seen those squiggly lines drawn in the concrete a million times, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t understand it or relate to it, I never even recorded seeing it into my memory until I had a reference for it. That trips me out. Lines on the sidewalk which meant ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO ME FOR FIVE YEARS, all of a sudden had meaning after I spent one hour with the artists’ work.]
What do you buy when you buy an artist’s work? Are you buying the visual object? Or are you paying for the memories and sensations it invokes in you? Sometimes, looking at a piece, you get an image of the artist creating the piece. In addition to the hip hop show, there was a smaller show up in a side room called Context: Recent Art from Cuba in the Permanent Collection. All the artists are Cuban born and currently live in Havana. There was a piece by Carlos Esteves entitled “The Dark World of Desire (El oscuro mundo del deseo)” that triggered a childlike fascination in me. It was a huge, beautifully rendered representation of a moth. It was in dark reds and brown and it was the size of a large mirror. I peered closely at it, trying to figure out how the artist had done it. The piece looked like a print, but the tag listed watercolor and pencil as the materials. As our guide started to describe the artist’s process, I got a clear image of an artist leaning over a huge piece of paper, pressing layers of watercolor onto paper to result in this amazing print-like effect. For me, this becomes part of the piece. The beauty does not just lie in the result, but in my admiration of the artist himself. The work that went into the creation of the art brings value to the final product.
Sometimes it’s just the work that went into a piece and not the product that moves me. One of the most memorable pieces of the hip hop show was called “Sometimes the Top 40 Makes Me Feel Like an Empty Maine Coastal Cottage in the Dead of Winter.” It’s by an artist named Dario Robleto. Robleto constructed a doll-sized cottage from melted vinyl records (from the Top 40 of the past 28 years). He dusted this cottage with fake snow and used dust from record grooves, lint, and debris collected from used record bins to fashion a cloud above the cabin. I definitely don’t want a doll-sized replica of a cabin nowhere near my house, but I’ll always remember that piece because of the artist’s distinctive process and materials. I’m left thinking how did this guy come up with this? It delighted me, it made me laugh, it called up admiration, and made me start thinking about what type of artistic expression I could engage in that would be outside the box of convention.
A running commentary that accompanied our walk through the show was: “They tell me this is art.” Art is such a slippery thing to define. Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary says “creative or imaginative activity”. That’s a pretty generous definition. And the artists in the One Planet Under a Groove exhibition took that wide definition to heart. There was a surgical gun-wound first-aid kit (gauze, saline, angiocatheter, epinephrine, instructional magazine) concealed within a Glock 9mm handgun (Mel Chin), a police baton/night stick with a microphone attached (also by Mel Chin), and a fake hip hop kit featuring silver fronts made from gum wrappers, a gold chain made from painted macaroni, and so on (Kori Newkirk). The exhibition was bursting with imagination. It felt like a high school science fair. I don’t mean that as a commentary on the artists’ work, I mean it as an example of the level of experimentation and fun present in the work. The artists seemed to be attempting to actualize their imaginings. Someone put speakers in a tree trunk, someone else made a go car with a huge sound system. And each piece seemed another answer to the question: How do I recreate what’s happening in my mind in a 3-D setting? And seeing what the artists have given to the world through their imaginations gets my own gears turning. My imagination is stimulated and I start thinking about myself, about art, about what I can create, about innovative ways to express myself and my life.
One of my favorite pieces of the evening was in the Context: Recent Art from Cuba in the Permanent Collection exhibition. To create the piece, Fernando Rodríguez/Francisco de la Cal stacked a whole bunch of dolls on a wooden platform. There had to be over 100, maybe even 200 dolls in the pile. At first, I was skeptical. “This is this art?” I asked. “Why would anybody want to have a stack of dolls in a museum?” I stopped to take a good look at the piece. I noticed that each doll had a pleated shirt front and pants with seams stitched on. Someone had taken the time to hand stitch each doll. Then I saw that the dolls weren’t just piled there in any fashion, they were all laying interlocked. Rather than simply stacking them on top of each other, the artist had almost woven them together. I was blown away by the dedication it must have taken to create and set up the piece.
Once I saw all the work that was involved, I thought I should at least try to understand what the piece was about. I looked at the title: “Comfortable” from the series “From a Collective Experience” (“Cómodo” de la serie “De una experiencia colectiva”). My wheels started turning. “Comfortable.” “A Collective Experience.” As I turned these words over in my head and looked at the dolls, I thought, Wow, maybe it’s about how we lean on each other to be comfortable. Maybe it’s commenting on how the comforts of our lives are so dependent upon and intertwined with other people. When I took a few steps back, I noticed the larger shape the dolls made. They were laying in a bed formation. There were some dolls stacked higher than the rest, this appeared to be a mound of pillows. The rest of the dolls lied in a square mattress formation. Suddenly I imagined lying on that bed, how would it feel to lie on all those little dolls. The image I created from the artist’s arrangement of a bunch of dolls shocked me. It was as if the artist had delivered a concept straight from his head to mine. I felt as if the piece was saying, to be comfortable, we humans would lie on all of these bodies. This idea made me think of the human experience. I thought about how we might degrade others or at least accept that some people will suffer so that we can be comfortable. I stood there considering my life and how I live and if it would be possible for me to be comfortable without laying on top of or “crushing” others. I guess that is art’s power. To cause the viewer to wrestle with images, to create relevance, and ultimately, for the viewer to consider and examine their own lives.
That same evening, Carl Hancock Rux had a performance at the museum. He commented on the hip hop exhibition, noting that it felt good to see the culture being treated with reverence and contemplation, but at the same time, he said the exhibition felt strange. It was as if, he said, someone had taken his toothbrush from when he was in high school and the rag his mother used to tie her head with and put it under a glass and said here’s art.
That night, he read a poem called “Won’t Be No Black Male Show Today.” (Or maybe that wasn’t the title, maybe that was just the chorus of the poem.) The poem had been written in response to the Whitney having an exhibition on the black male as an icon. It’s bizarre because art can do that too… yank away people’s identities and put it under a box to be scrutinized and examined and ripped apart and misrepresented or at least taken out of context (Is the Whitney the context for any conversation about blackness?).
And I think about one of the Basquiat pieces which is a chunk of a wall set in a frame. Someone knew Basquiat would be famous, so they found a wall he had doodled on and ripped out a section of the wall. I didn’t spend too much time looking at that piece because how it came to be exhibited is disquieting to me. There is something predatory about ripping out a wall someone doodled on. It feels like a violation of the artist’s privacy. If Basquiat was creating a doodle to be framed and exhibited, maybe he would have put it on paper or canvas or even wood. One of the Keith Haring pieces exhibited came through a similar path. Apparently Keith Haring used to throw up his drawings on the blank spaces where subway ads should go. Someone took the whole frame from the wall in the subway and now this creation, this expression, belongs to them. And they can hang it in a gallery, or in their house, or do whatever they want with it.
On a tangental, but not completely unrelated topic… did you hear that a white couple, I think the woman’s father was a bus driver, auctioned off the bus that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in? Turning an act of defiance into a pathway for commerce upsets me (I guess people do it with religious iconography all the time). This is somehow related to art. The space in which a woman took a stand for her human rights becomes a commodity. That bus is valuable because of the act performed in it. Now it is something to be sold and profited from. The people who auctioned the bus (the couple pocketed thousands of dollars from the sale) are the children of the people who enforced the oppressive laws which forced Rosa to have to take a stand in the first place. Those who create oppression, create a space for resistance, for creativity and for art. Those who benefit from oppression create commerce from acts of resistance. I think about Basquiat. And his anger and his forms of resistance and his value as a commodity. And the places where his work hangs. The people who live with his work around them. What do they make of his cryptic symbols and scratches and scrawls? Do they have any reference for understanding what he was up to when he was creating that work? On what levels does the work have resonance to them? What is lost in the translation?
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
I had a surprise acceptance about two weeks ago. The short short I mentioned in the “freewriting & asemic writing” report (using the words: ancient, magic, now, lamppost, migration, roaring) is going to be published in the Spring 2002 issue of African Voices. The acceptances and rejections are once again even.