Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Trace elements: My journalistic past covering visual arts, too, has left its mark


As I was interviewed last week about my career in arts journalism  for "The Arts Exchange"(WICR-FM), questions put to me by Tom Akins and Bobbie Donahue touched on the visual arts as one of the arrows in my critical quiver long ago at The Flint Journal.  Apart from a feature or two and a one-off review, at The Indianapolis Star that weaponry remained idle during my 26-plus years there.

I have many fond memories of writing about art and artists at the Michigan paper, though I was never as comfortable in that area as in the performing arts. I had taken a couple of art history courses in college, one while studying in Germany. The one on my home campus got me tagged with the second-lowest grade of my college career, a "C."  The professor's procedure was slide lectures in a darkened classroom. The class took place right after lunch, and my mental focus was usually blurry.

I had two other disadvantages writing about the visual arts:  I've got a bit of color-blindness in the green-gray part of the spectrum, and I never had the benefit of studio experience.  Music and theater had drawn me in as a participant during my school years; I knew what went into making performances.  But it wasn't easy to compensate for my ignorance of the properties of materials or the techniques that have been developed to make art out of them.  Once when a painter-professor was guiding me through a department show in Flint, I remarked in front of one painting:  "I didn't know acrylics could look so thin, almost like watercolor."  He replied: "Then you don't know very much about acrylics, Jay."  Touche.

But I was enchanted by the cultural backdrop of painting and sculpture and moved by imagery, symbolism and expressive gesture.  My excitement was, and still is, particularly linked to art that suggests motion, drama and contrast.  This made me a somewhat acceptable art critic for a middle-sized city.  What's more, I think this orientation also fed my understanding of elements often considered static:  balances of dark and light, angularity and flow, event and inertness.

Let me reach back to a seminal text: The creation narrative best known in Western culture starts with the separation of light from darkness, immediately preceded by triggering words: "Let there be light."
Time starts, storytelling starts, and the subsequent all-at-once-ness of visual art carries clues of what comes before and after what we see. It invites us to wonder what the formal poise of a painting or sculpture may say about the struggle of opposing forces for mastery and how the artist has moderated that struggle.

Franz Kline's Mahoning (1956)
Abstract painters of the 20th-century often clarify these matters for us, setting aside the attractive clutter of objects and creatures. In the work of Franz Kline, thick strokes of black segment an off-white canvas. On the one hand, they look rough and impulsive, but they are also purposeful, declaring their own order. Their energy implies that they continue beyond the painting's edge, or have come from somewhere out there. Kline illuminates on a large scale the germinating narrative of gesture.

  Rembrandt's The Night Watch. (1642)
In the Rembrandt painting known as "The Night Watch," the tension between the well-lit figures in the foreground and those nearly shrouded in the gloom of night establishes movement and direction. The group is on a deliberate course, but alive with action. An even light is best for portraits and still lifes, genres that deliberately set time aside. Light and dark in conflict, even neatly managed, as here, remind us of the shifting texture of time. As a linear thinker most responsive to time-bound arts like music and theater, I'm excited by this kind of art — not because I can verbalize a story behind it, but because it both releases the viewer from the prison of time and acknowledges its inevitable rule. The company of Capt. Frans Banning Cocq and Lieut. Willem van Ruytenbach has assembled from places we don't see and is headed toward others we can only imagine; not only that, but as so often in Rembrandt, the light slants in from above and to the side, its source unknowable.

"The Raft of the 'Medusa,'  by Theodore Gericault (1819)
Romantic art tends to be explicit about physical or mental struggles at their extremes.  Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" memorializes a horrible post-shipwreck voyage, with survivors on a large raft, originally numbering 149, now down to 15. Despite the vivid depiction of agony, the artist has organized his human forms into angled lines toward the upper right, where some of the desperate passengers signal and point.

Light has a crucial role to play in leading the eye toward this part of the painting, with the glowing horizon hinting at the persistent, if forlorn, hope of rescue. A story is told here that can be understood solely in visual terms of balanced composition (notice how the sail and the line to the mast moderate the intense pull to the upper right) and the thrifty use of lighter colors.

Laocoon and His Sons,  2nd century Rome
Another favorite of mine is the  ancient sculpture showing the doomed battle of Laocoon and his sons with two huge snakes. A landmark in sculptural history for the breadth and independence of its forms in space, this piece has that dramatic impact that can capture someone more used to the arts that explicitly celebrate process. As in Gericault's painting, this work takes extreme suffering and makes a formal dance out of it. The sinuous shape of the reptiles is partly replicated in the twisting torso of Laocoon, with his head cocked toward his left shoulder. Yet the human forms oppose to that sinuousness the angularity of creatures with an elaborate bone and joint structure. The angularity would be more explicit if the sons' arms were intact, but even so we can sense the opposition of human and serpentine movement.  And it's pretty clear the latter has the upper hand, as it were, as our eyes are riveted by the central struggle.

The eventual defeat of the Laocoon group in this fight is told by visual means alone. We don't even need to know the punishment has been divinely ordered, or that Laocoon's death is a kind of martyrdom in Roman culture, since he had warned in vain against the Trojan horse.  That famous trick precipitated the city's downfall and the flight of Aeneas westward, leading to the legendary founding of Rome.
Barnett Newman's Onement I (1948)

Sometimes an artist's reductive manner preserves the vividness of action, however abstracted it might be from real movement. Barnett Newman's "zip" paintings could be said to state the "anti-Laocoon group"  position. While the sculpture's struggle in its division of serpentine and human energies is explicit and detailed, this Newman painting (the first in a series that made his reputation) probes the most basic of divisions, exploring the most muted possible conflict — between narrow vertical band and expansive field, with a placid background energized by a fuzzy-edged zip of light down the center.

We are thus back to Genesis, the place where narrative and the first cosmic visual contrasts originated in the cultural tradition closest to most of us in the West. Division is what we're forced to understand in life, though we may aspire toward unity. The undefined and undifferentiated push back against what we're able to define, hold dear and remember intelligibly. The visual arts find forms and textures that provisionally settle such endless conflicts.

The works I've looked at here, among many others, help accustom us to our imprisonment in time.  There is common ground between  the explicit "And then" of narrative or time-dependent arts and the more subtle "And then" of two- and three-dimensional artistic forms in space. I have no difficulty leaving behind writing about art, but looking at it has taught me so much through its complex simultaneity about beginnings, middles and ends and their necessary connections.