Thoughts on Museums, Art Making and other stuff…

This is an essay that I wrote for a book called Perspectives@25, published by the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, TX to comemmorate the 25 years of their “Prospectives” exhibition program. In light of my recent complaints about the new MOMA and the fact that I haven’t posted much here about my life as an artist I thought some of you might like to read it.:

My exhibition in the CAM Perspectives series happened in 1996. Curator Lynn Herbert and I put together a show that drew on works of mine from the previous six years to make a kind of retrospective glance at an idea, at an image that that been percolating through my work through those years: the image of a rabbit. As we sat down to think about what works would be in the show, we talked about what the things meant to me and how Lynne saw them operating. The resulting show was a modest “greatest hits” package that allowed me to reassess my direction and to move onto some thoughts for what to take up next. Lynn’s sympathetic and acute catalog essay also provided me with the welcome feeling that all this effort had been tending somewhere, and in her deft weaving together of various strands of my thought I was able to find renewed possibility and excitement in the process.

The show also allowed me to handle again some of my departed pieces; the things I’d made that had been sold and moved on to other homes, or worse, the ones consigned to the limbo of gallery storage, in dialog with nothing but the cardboard and bubble wrap that encased them, their lives cut short. That’s what we’re talking about, life: art objects live by been seen and influencing the shape and activities of other objects; a colloquy in form that we can see carried out in the best exhibitions. Sometimes the discussion is one that the artist is having with the distant past, sometimes with the impressions and objects of the present day. Things get formed out of ideas that had their genesis in the artist’s earlier pieces or out of things made by others.

What does showing mean for artists? For the most part art making is an activity that looks like doing very little. It is a long process of sitting around, fidgeting, rearranging; because it is a process of thought. And thought in all of its unromantic peculiarities: thought about the size of a line, or the way to get a piece of wire to stand upright. Thoughts about the amount of red you can afford, or how doing the dishes would be really appealing right now, how anything would make you happier than sitting and trying to puzzle out these bits of minutia. But some how you rise up, you lift your arm and make a line, that is so long and not that long, and you add some red, or you crack the last piece of Plexiglas in the studio and you realize you have to find some way to use it anyhow. You think of that song that just played on the radio, or that disagreeable thing your lover said to you last week or the slippery white glaze on the ashtray you made for your grandparents when you were eight. And all of these hesitations, and bits of the mundane, and fits and starts result in an object, an object that embodies culture because it is the result of all of these decisions, emotions and motions, some that you inherited, and some that you inflected and some that you invented. And the passing of those memories and reflections and the ways of reacting to them is the action of culture through you. You are one of an endless chain of people who has reacted to the fact of being alive by making something. That sounds very grand, but at the same time it is essential and simple, one of the few thinks that marks us as human. We make culture because we’re human, and we make culture live by passing it along.

Because we value the uniqueness of that activity, that pulsation and passage of culture, we set up places to celebrate it. Museums are one of those places. But for artists something odd happens when the thing you thought about in that halting way, that loose constellation of gestures and influences makes its way to the museum. You see that it has become somehow powerful, authoritative; people see it and feel bossed around by it. Museums can still seem to have the whiff of homework and medicine about them; good for you, but a duty rather than a pleasure. And of course from the outside other people’s insecurities always look like certainties to us (a fact politicians eagerly exploit). And now your bumptious offspring has grown up and become a bit of a prig, and you are slightly embarrassed, wondering how you can let people know that you didn’t mean for them to feel hectored or overwhelmed.

For viewers, museums can also be places of puzzlement, mystification and at worst, annoyance. The show should be where another person comes in and has their experience with the art object, their moment of taking their insecurities and mumblings, and laying them down against those that the object represents. It should be a situation where we can flirt with unknowingness, to use the things another person has made to encourage the tides of our own reverie. But this so rarely happens. Because we have so often been told that Museums contain Important things, we often feel that we don’t have a right to own reaction to them. Because going to museums is expensive we feel that we can’t just look at one thing, or a couple of things: we have to race through the entire buffet, stuffing ourselves on sensations and yet trying to appreciate them, until we are exhausted. We become convinced that what ever we are thinking about the things in front of us, it can’t be right, so we “don’t get it”. We scan wall labels and peer down halls that seem to lengthen, forcing ourselves to “get through” shows as if they were tiresome social calls paid to our employers. Often people in museums are unable to literally see what is in front of them, confounded as they are by the authority of the trappings of the place. I see this often happen around my own work: someone will ask me a question about something I’ve made. If I ask them to tell me what they see and to describe what it resembles to them, almost inevitably their perceptions are acute and profound. They’ve seen what’s going on but they wouldn’t let themselves trust their own thought.

Art Museums are then curious institutions: public places where we gather things that are the result of awkward, complicated individual processes of creation, so that we can have particular, complex, private interactions with them.

Some of this is the result of what museums can represent to us socially, and some of it is due to the particular case of museums of contemporary art, which by their nature are dealing with objects very early on in their life as part of the culture. We think of things in museums as having passed “the test of time” as it used to be called, and thus in a way no longer open for debate. And yet we most value those art objects that continue to generate discussion and debate, those things that we can return to again and again with new thoughts, new assertions, and yet not exhaust. When this type of authority is combined with the newness of contemporary art we can often feel that our only options are bafflement, acquiescence or rejection.

Programs like Perspectives are a corrective for that. They offer a way that the distance of the museum can be ameliorated by intimacy of setting and gesture; a place where the presumption of authority can be countered by writing and curating that is sympathetic both to the circumstances within which ideas arise and the various ways in which they might be received. By focusing on specific ideas, they allow artists to reconsider their practice and viewers to find a relationship with the work without being overwhelmed. By presenting the newest work, they teach us to value the making of art as part of the play and spark of ongoing discussion, rather than as the parade of topics that are forever foreclosed to us. As makers and viewers, as people who are striving to make sense of our world and to pass on our impressions of it , these are all things that should fill us with joy. I can think of no better reason to celebrate the twenty years that CAM has pursued this most significant mission.

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0 Comments +

  1. They’ve seen what’s going on but they wouldn’t let themselves trust their own thought.

    i really enjoyed this sentence. art has, in my opinion, gone through its cycle back to the point where it is a matter of prestige instead of for the masses. we feel that as the common person we can’t really know art. we need more artists standing beside their work saying…”it’s ok to see what you see”.

    thank you for the post

  2. Much love for CAM: my intro to contemporary art. I recall the squiggly, polymorphous foaming in my belly, gorging upon(among so many others) Ed Ruscha, Carolee Schneebaum, and Lauri Anderson in the mid-80’s.

    That weird sunbaked aluminum slit you have to skip through to get to the art.

    alternatively and cattycorner, the old MFA used to have these squishy Oldenburg’s in the lobby followed by Remington bronzes. And later, an “industrial” film series featuring James Herbert and Jem Cohen back before Cohen made features.

    but, I always wanted CAM, austere, refreshing, CAM.

    and, later, the Menil.

  3. Thanks Nayland, such an eloquent discourse, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
    ‘public places where we gather things that are the result of awkward, complicated individual processes of creation’

    As an artist I also often feel this way about museums and galleries…seeing the works as so many strangers in the same space, their creation being so private but all there together, on display, crying or yelling, on the toilet or squeezing pimples in the mirror. The minutiae of human emotion and endeavour plastered exposed to the public.

    A glorious Bedlam of artists documentation. I love it. thanks again

    cheers, Matt x

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