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Simply shocking

Wren Wertin
Dawn BeaconThe human form has always been a loaded symbol for artists, be they classical or contemporary. It's also subject matter that often comes under fire.
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“Rush Hour” was more explicit in its footage – a man (note: one of the bad guys) has his brains blown out in the bathroom in full view of the camera. But by and large the audience was more offended by “Minimum Wage,” which included such scenes as a vacuum store employee “pleasuring” himself with a vacuum cleaner, though the camera only showed his face.

Though more emotionally disturbing, “Rush Hour” seemed to rise above shock value in its message, which included a portrait of a family on rocky emotional ground. “Minimum Wage” had its moments but ultimately didn’t deliver anything other than a glimpse into the stagnant lives of a few people living in a mountain town. It gave no context. So who decides what is acceptable?

“Ultimately the public decides,” said artist and art advocate Susan Mackin Dolan. “Can the message make up for a lack of taste? Yes, if you can get the message across. The message is crucial. … Is this some universal message that everyone will have some new understanding of something, like gender or race issues? Or is that just an excuse for shock value?”

Her statement was reiterated by Dean Sobel, director of the Aspen Art Museum. Sobel has been instrumental in trying to elevate the profile of contemporary art in the Rocky Mountain region.

“It has to be a work of art,” he explained. “More than a one-liner. You have to understand why they’re using the material that way – how it fits in, how complex and thought-provoking it is. It must transcend the simple.”

He believes it’s easy to think that contemporary art, be it fine art, film or music, is shocking – more shocking than anything that’s come before. He points out that artists working in the 17th century shocked their public. Of course, now their work is classic, either in content or technique.

Kent and Vicki Logan are Vail residents who began collecting contemporary art fairly recently. In a short period of time, they’ve amassed a collection in excess of 900 pieces and counting. In addition to donating several hundred pieces to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Denver Art Museum, they’ve built a private gallery next to their home. In this way, they can make the collection available to organizations interested in studying and discussing contemporary art.

Within the collection are graphic depictions of the human form. As Kent pointed out, the nude is one of the three classic genres of art; it’s nothing new. But the artists in the collection aren’t always going for a realistic interpretation of the body, and thus a celebration of it. They use it as a loaded symbol, as well as a means of expressing their relationship to the world around them.

In his book-in-progress about their collection, Kent writes:

“In terms of general philosophy, the collection has reflected our belief that art is a mirror or our culture, and that the best of it provides insight into issues that face us as individuals and as a society as a whole.”

Several local art teachers plan on taking their students to visit the Logan Collection. It will be an event saved for later in the school year when the teachers feel their students can process what they see.

“The arts have always been and always will be an extension of human understanding and experience,” said Berneil Bannon.

She teaches Art 1, Graphic Design and Photography at Battle Mountain High School.

“Students should see art for “art’s sake,’ not merely as an accessory to their interior decoration,” she said. “What I want students to take away from the Logan gallery is how the artists see themselves in their experience with issues in their lives, their cultures, their communities and from a global perspective.”

Bannon will be taking her Art 1 students in their third or fourth quarter. At that point in the school year, they will have a basic understanding of media, as well as an understanding of how artists interpret and use line, shape, color, unity and pattern to express their understanding of world events and their own life experiences. They will have had ample opportunity to interpret artwork – both their own and others’ – through writing and discussion.

“Unfortunately these kids have been bombarded with shocking images on T.V. and have kind of been numbed by it,” said Bannon. “The artworks will be shocking to them because the images are real – meaning that they can be touched (but won’t be allowed to). The T.V. screen somehow can

de-emphasize images because of the screen itself, not the same as seeing

it in person, if that makes sense. I want them to see the work in the

context of the artists’ reactions to the stresses of their lives and reactions to our society.”

“The Logan Collection is conducive to interaction between the work and the viewer,” said Gusty Swift, an art teacher at Vail Mountain School. “Many of the works are shocking, especially for high school students, but it is art and will force the students to open their minds. It will force them to think and to evaluate what art is and what their own relationship with the world is.”

One of the most shocking pieces, “Do you know what I like about you?” in the Logan collection is not a nude; it’s butterflies. Damien Hirst has become a hot artist amidst controversy. Much of his work deals with mortality. Famous for preserving animals in formaldehyde, he has a series of butterflies. In a room of canvasses thick with wet paint – each canvas a different color – he released a multitude of them. Where they landed on the canvasses they stayed and died. Butterflies represent a beautiful rebirth, perhaps a second chance. Yet that too dies. Is this a contemplation of the potential beauty in death, is it a cautionary tale of the fleeting nature of all living things, or is it simply a waste of life?

“You mention how television can be shocking,” said Bonnie Franklin, an art teacher at Battle Mountain High School. “Some artists choose to be shocking for similar reasons. Not all reasons are noble. Should we try to protect our children by sheltering them from the more extreme representations of our time, or should we teach them how to perceive varied work and understand a point of view that is not their own? As art teachers we are often in the position of trying to increase understanding of art that is less traditional.”

Obviously, putting the work in context is very important to art educators and collectors. As Kent has put it numerous times, he is most interested in work that reflects a particular context. It seems that he might be more lenient with art that does so.

“When I first saw Tracy Emin’s work, I dismissed it as profanity,” said Logan. “If that’s solely what a work is about I have very little interest in it. But often I spend more time on artists I don’t like than artists I do, checking myself. After watching a video on her life, I looked at it differently. Once you understand where it comes from, it’s got substance.”

So does this mean the message supersedes the work? Does context outweigh technique? When it becomes “art with a message,” that’s an inherent risk. As one artist put it, people are bored with realism. The camera can reproduce realistically – it’s up to the artist to do something else. And that might mean changing the human form to make a statement.

“Much contemporary art is utterly engaging for the general public and does not require advanced training to understand,” said Dianne Vanderlip, the Denver Art Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “Because it usually addresses contemporary issues, most of us can relate to the art objects and ideas directly.”

Which, to put it simplistically, could mean the brush strokes take a back seat to composition. And yet this piecing together of a world view seems worth it, especially if it helps people to live in a way that makes sense. Bannon puts it more poetically:

“It is a positive outlet to understanding the complexities of life. Art tells stories that words alone cannot express, it expresses universal emotions and can contribute to understanding the human experience.”

And perhaps that more than anything is what makes good art.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.


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