A couple of weeks ago we returned from a trip to South America with the Aspen Art Museum. Sixteen people and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director of the AAM, went to private collections, artist studios, museums and galleries. Here are some of the things that surprised me.
I was surprised that there is such an emphasis on young artists and/or on the artist’s age. It seems that a lot of the collectors are looking for the next great thing, and actively seek to be the one to discover very young talent. Age was always mentioned. Do not age and experience mature an artist’s vision, work and worldview? Don’t most people get better at what they do over time? I found it interesting that age was so high on the list of talking points about an artist.
The thing I found interesting about the studio visits was that the artists really didn’t have long involved explanations of where their work fits in the art world or what their work is a response to. It was always more along the lines of, “I like this”, and “I am attracted to that”, and “the interplay of these two things is interesting to me.” I thought an artist with such a unique ideology as Nicola Constantino would have all sorts of deep reflections on the iconography in her work, yet she was straightforward and uncomplicated. We also spoke at length with Ernesto Neto. One day he saw how sand stretched his mother’s stocking into an organic form, loved the effect, and his art style was born. He likes sensuality, he likes organic forms, softness, and interaction with the viewer. I figured these international players would be expert pontificators but they said nothing too complicated, and not much artspeak. That is the job of the others players in the art world.
A lot of the conceptual work by young artists seemed to straddle the line between art and design, like Jorge Macchi’s etched panes of glass set up sequentially like slices in a bread loaf to look like a cloud when viewed from the side. It was cool and could be very useful in set design or something like that, but what is considered “conceptual art” always surprises me. It also seemed like there was also a lot of “chatter” from the young artist studios (like Jorge Macchi and Leandro Erlich) – lots of ideas thrown against the wall to see what would stick and art made about seemingly random little ideas, often some personal feeling or idea of the artist. I suppose if conceptualism releases art from the medium then distinctions like art vs. design are meaningless. I also got the impression that many artists have to “cover the bases” as it were, even if the additional medium did not seem that useful in addressing a particular statement. Video installation? Check. 2D version? Check. Sculptural interpretation? Check. Sometimes it seemed formulaic.
Which brings me to the next observation: If the “new idea” is imperative to being a conceptual artist and an artist hits upon an idea that sticks, like Ernesto Neto and the stockings, how are they going to top it, or how many worthy ideas are they going to have? The idea either becomes a one liner or the artist starts repeating it, right? Or the artist sits there having to dream up another good idea? Where does he go from here? He seems to be fine repeating his idea of organic stretched textile forms. This dedication to work continually in this one particular artistic language in one medium resembles formalism, yet is he considered a conceptual artist. There seem to be lines drawn between genres but the lines are actually blurry. The whole “conceptual” thing seems to have reached a point in its development where it contradicts itself.
I was surprised to find that virtually no artist we visited worked alone. They all had crews that did varying degrees of the work depending on the workload and the artist. Ernesto had eight people making his sculptures regularly and more when he is getting ready for an event. In some studios the helpers did more touching of the work than the artist. There goes the romantic bohemian idea of the artist! I thought “commercial avant garde” was an oxymoron. So then conceptualism has been really commoditized – leading one to ask what the art then even mean anything without the marketer, and which marketer’s opinion counts more? The conceptual movement is all Marxist when it comes to who is an artist, but not when it comes to sales. Quite the contradiction. Which led me to my next observation:
The conceptualists assert that process doesn’t matter at all and the final product is not as relevant as the idea behind it. This reminds me of what the comedian Steven Wright said: “My art is abstract – really abstract. No canvas, no brushes…. I just think about it.” Or maybe the point is that process only matters in formalist art. I certainly have a way of seeing when I am painting well. It is a state that is hard to achieve and can’t be forced but the conditions that support it can be learned and accommodated. It feels like an altered state, and to me the work done when I achieve that zone is easy, thoughtless and usually more creative than works I have had to over – think. I get a dialogue going with the piece and the medium and it no longer seems to be a process of me, the external artist, drafting my ideas in paint. A sort of gestalt occurs. Sandra Cinto did say that she enjoys the meditative process of completing her wave drawing installations, and that it is important to her that the people who help her complete the drawings achieve that meditative state as well, so process counts for something to her. If, however, she could print out the large drawings and hire a company to wallpaper the space with it, the work would not be devalued (according to the tenets of conceptualism.) Even Guillermo Kuitca did a giant color photocopy of one of his 8 x 10” printer experiments and then traced the photocopy to start a larger version of the original If process doesn’t matter, why not just put up the photocopy?
Out of the whole two weeks of grueling travel (Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Inhotim, Rio) and tens of stops, my favorites were Nicola Constantino and Ernesto Ballesteros. They both seemed to me to be legitimately unable to not follow their deeply held obsessions, and to me at least, it showed in the work and the discussion and in the studio practice. For pictures from the trip, visit my facebook page: facebook.com/taniadibbsart.