Monday, January 30, 2017

Here, Look at This

My job title at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was Gallery Guide. This means that I was a security guard who wears a button that says “Let’s Talk Art” accompanied by a working knowledge of the artwork on display. One of the reasons I found my position rewarding is because I had the opportunity to spend many hours over the course of months with exhibitions and the individual works of art that make them up. I also got to observe and speak with visitors viewing the art. Thousands of them.

And not all of these visitors were happy. The Guggenheim has a good collection of early twentieth century modernist paintings. These paintings are what many people who visit the museum want to see. However, a very small selection of this collection is on view at any given time, often occupying just one or two galleries away from the main rotunda for which the museum is known. Large temporary exhibitions generally dominate the exhibition space, often featuring artists about whom the general public is unaware.

This arrangement presents an opportunity for visitors to be exposed to a new artist or even a whole new era of artwork. It is exhilarating to meet people who meet this opportunity with enthusiasm.

“This is a great show! I’ve never heard of this artist before. I need to learn more about them!”
“So much fun!”
“So beautiful.”

However some people shut down when they realize that their favorite artist is not on display. They complain to anyone who will listen, generally a gallery guide about their shattered expectations.

“You have 150 Kandinskys. Why don’t you show them all?”
“This isn’t art,” pointing at an abstract painting by Moholy-Nagy. “That is art,” gesturing at a Camille Pissarro Impressionist painting, “the Renaissance!”
“The American museum is no more.”

Last year the Guggenheim mounted an exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern and North African art entitled, “But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise.” Some people expressed disappointment that we dedicated three galleries to artwork untried by time and art history. They felt that they had wasted their time and money coming to the museum to see the combination of this show and the extensive and critically acclaimed Moholy-Nagy retrospective. Perhaps they did. But I would argue that it was not the fault of the museum, but because these visitors chose not to take the opportunity to think critically about the work that was on display.

Upon a casual and somewhat cynical viewing, Mohammed Kazem’s Scratches on Paper (2014), featured in “But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise” is simply a huge blank piece of paper stuck to a wall. Many angry visitors see only this. Their faces curled upwards into a snarl of disgust, or they gave a single sharp mocking laugh. They gestured with their palms upward in violent circles or pose for photos in mock contemplation, their arms crossed and chins pinched between their thumb and forefingers.

If a visitor takes a moment to look at the artwork, they can see that while it’s about eight feet tall and four feet wide, it is a scroll, rolled up from the floor at the bottom of the piece implying a substantial length. Warm light rakes across the surface making it stand out in contrast to the cooler ambient light flooding the gallery. This glow reveals a subtle texture to the paper. Its surface is a sea of tiny bumps with channels between them suggesting that perhaps this effect was created and not simply part of the paper making process. The edges of the paper are deckled, creating an edge at once soft and jagged. The paper seems to fade away at its borders. Once the viewer gets close enough to see these details they are fully immersed in the work because of the scale of the piece. One’s entire vision is occupied by this monochrome landscape, each feature roughly the same size as the next and the thousands all around.

On top of this, one can read the wall text next to the work to discover that it was created through the intense physical effort of scratching the three meter piece of paper with a pair of household scissors thousands and thousands of times. It is intended as a physical record of the sound resulting from the creation process. I suggested to curious visitors that it is “the artifact of an action.” Also, I’d mention that the word scratch calls to mind the physical scratches manifested on the paper, but can also describe the sound that the action of scratching makes. It is related by inspiration to several movements of art throughout the twentieth century.

Scratches on Paper, Mohammed Kazem, 2014
Photo: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Some visitors were impressed by the effort that went into the piece. Others liked the optical effect of the waves. A few were interested in the concept, particularly people willing to throw around words like “indexical.” And many walked away unimpressed. But these people put effort into their experience at the museum that day and I believe they had a more satisfying visit than those who immediately dismissed the entire exhibit because they are determined that they “don’t understand” or “hate” contemporary art. 

I can relate to cynical viewers. I began my addiction to visual art in my late teens, but did not formally study until I was in my mid-thirties. As a self-directed young student of painting and art history, I limited my experience to art with which I immediately connected. I also developed the unfortunately popular ideology that if an artwork doesn’t immediately connect emotionally with its audience, then the artist has not done their job. I was confused by artwork which didn’t fit the criteria of a traditional art object. I was frustrated by work accompanied by a wall full of curator-speak. It seemed to me someone was simply trying to justify the work. I would also skip entire swaths museums because the work didn’t fit into what I saw as my favorite artwork. I walked right past most prewar American art, French Academic Art, British Portraiture.

In my thirties, I went back to college to study art history and decided to take classes in styles of art that had never appealed to me, or whose history I was simply unaware. In my spare time I read books and articles on contemporary art to try to understand the confusing developments since the 1960’s. The result is that I now have a much better time at museums and in galleries. Art, which had always been my focus was now a richer world for me. I don’t like everything, but I’ve learned not to dismiss anything.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you drop everything and spend all of your time studying art. From a practical point of view, it is a terrible idea. What I am suggesting is that you actively decide whether you like something or find it interesting at some level. I’m not blown away by the concept of Kazem’s Scratches on Paper but I do find it visually attractive. You don’t have to, and you’re really not supposed to love everything you see in a museum.

Imagine that you are at your local bar or cafĂ©. There is someone there that you don’t know, but who clearly knows the owner of the establishment, instilling in you a modicum of trust. This person approaches you and says, “Here, look at this,” and presents you with an object. What would you do? First, you would examine the object. Maybe it is immediately recognizable, maybe not. It’s something you find beautiful, ugly, confusing, intriguing or uninteresting. But, regardless of the initial assessment, I think one’s natural response would be to ask, “What is this?” or “Why are you showing this to me?” And the person who is sharing the object would explain. Maybe this would increase your understanding or appreciation of the object, but it would definitely explain why they shared it with you. Because you gave the presenter the benefit of the doubt, you could make an informed opinion of the object.
“It’s gorgeous.”
“It’s disgusting.”
“At first, I was wondering why you were showing me this, but it’s actually really interesting.”

I think that if people were to give curators the benefit of the doubt in this way when they enter an exhibition, they would have a more rewarding experience than if they simply refused to look at the work being presented. Just the act of taking this brief journey into critical thinking is rewarding. Even if you decide that you hate that piece of art, you have had a more valuable experience than if you dismissed everything that you see because it’s “too modern”, “too weird” or “boring.”