Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TMI or Not Enough Information?

David Politzer 
Ten Gallery, New Orleans 

There was no supplemental material, no wall text, no list of titles, and no artist statement at David Politzer’s exhibition. I have been thinking about the way many artists communicate about their work instead of through their work. I saw David Politzer’s show without supplemental material but, disclaimer, I have known his work for many years. So when a member of the Ten Collective asked if I knew an artist to fill a gap in programming I called David who lives in Houston. While I was happy to walk into the gallery and find a density of serious art without the paperwork, a friend viewing the show with me sought out the supplemental information, wanting the artist’s direction in how to approach the work. So I began wondering when it comes to supplemental information at an art exhibition how much is TMI? What is the JRI (Just Right Information) when it comes to showing artwork?

Artists (with the exception of the highest echelon, I suppose) are currently in the habit of applying for shows, grants, residencies, and jobs that require them to re-articulate in words what they have already articulated with images or materials. This habit has positioned itself for many artists in front of the making (Horse, Cart). Enter the ever-present project. I should capitalize and italicize that: Project. A Project is a mode of working directed by a fore-statement. The problem is that often the work retains this heavy outline. Just color inside the lines, folks. And if the work manages to transcend its outline, artists often insist on redefining the outline in the artist statement. The collective habit of the artist statement may also be traced to uber-schooling and an emphasis on careerism. In graduate school we were told to know our elevator pitch. How cynical.

There are situations in which the artist statement makes it easier to represent, promote, sell, and buy artwork. Here in New Orleans, the dominant model for galleries showcasing contemporary art is the artist-run collective. This model puts artists themselves in the role traditionally left to the gallerist, curator, or dealer. Artist statements exist as the Cliff Notes to the work so viewers (or possibly art professionals who lack vision) can avoid the heavy and time-consuming task of looking at the art.

Upon entering the gallery viewers of David Politzer’s show were confronted not with a desk or podium of paperwork but a video projected on the wall. The rest of the wall space was occupied by photographs, mostly in pairs. Lurking around the photographs were small, unframed works on paper that combined text with graphic or photographic images. There were also ready-made (I assumed) vintage-looking Boy Scout merit badge handbooks about hiking, photography, and backpacking  on three occasional pedestals against the wall.

While there were no titles available to viewers, neither on a list or on the wall, I discovered that the photographs are titled on the artist’s website; these titles are mostly descriptive, noting subject, location, and date. The one that was different was Big Bend Lodge, Outside Looking In 2012. This title situated the viewer and knowing the perspective made the image more quickly readable. The titles also lead the viewer to believe (correctly) that these images are not digitally manipulated. All photographs but one in the exhibition were, the artist informed me, printed from negatives. A list of works may have informed the viewer wondering if the images were “straight” or manipulated. Some photographs of interior spaces included mural-scale photographic images of the outdoors, resulting in a strange but for me not unreadable space. I did not require titles or notes on media to facilitate my reading of this work but I look at a lot of artwork. I don’t think a list of titles would have been TMI, but in order to communicate titles and media a textual element would have been introduced to the viewing experience. The spell of images is fragile. I would vote to limit the reading to the text within the works on paper, which had a poetic minimalism.

I have chosen to talk about this show in terms of information because I found the artwork itself provided all the information I needed to have a meaningful experience. We viewers can only nurture our visual intelligence if we use it.

The video, titled From the Rim, was comprised of a sequence of amateur videos of people arriving at and posing in front of the Grand Canyon. My friend, the one who sought the artist’s statement, said that before speaking with the artist himself, she was under the impression that he had filmed all of the clips in the video. But no, she would have known after viewing the entire piece or viewing a few minutes attentively that these clips (there were almost one hundred) were the memorabilia of a cache of strangers (from YouTube actually). Her supposition had been reached very quickly. I am not picking on my friend; as a culture we have not emphasized the most indispensable tool to acquiring knowledge about art: looking.

What information would I like to see accompanying the artwork in a gallery exhibition? I would like to see very little. I would like to be trusted as a viewer. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that an artist statement has never, ever made me like a show more or make the work seem better than I thought it was before I read it. (I read statements only after looking at the work.) When read in person with the work an artist statement is a little like a comedian telling a joke and then explaining how he thought of it and why it was funny. I appreciate knowing the titles of works but I raise an eyebrow when particularly heavy-handed titles accompany work that doesn’t live up to them. But more about titled in a future post. Finally, prices and red dots: they’re just facts but they nonetheless inject information into my experience and I am seeking a commercial experience. But whatever.

This was a good show. There was a lot to look at but there was a base note that unified and kept it from feeling excessive. The only thing I may have omitted were the Boy Scout handbooks. They steered toward kitsch and the show was more sincere than kitsch. The show seemed to be about looking for the mundane in the context of the extraordinary, looking for the banal on vacation. The video, full of people, informed the photographs, which were empty of participants, and vise versa. I imagined the works on paper as the slightly nervous inner thoughts of the one traveling through these vacation spaces of the American West. The text in all the pieces seemed to be in the same voice. There was a kind of quiet self-doubt in the voice, an urgent need to chart not only these wild spaces but the wild terrain of his response to them. If the photographs were the viewpoint of the speaker in the experience of leisure, the textual pieces were the interior monologue asking, Am I having fun yet? Do I belong here?

Of course this was just how I read the work. But I was perfectly content not to know exactly what the artist was thinking.

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