Wednesday, November 3, 2010
In praise of art materials
Last Friday evening I went to David Cohen’s Review Panel at the National Academy Museum, and as usual, David’s wry sense of humor (humor? in the art world?) and nose for controversy, kept things moving at a good clip. This time the panelists were artist Greg Lindquist, Barbara MacAdam (deputy editor ARTnews) and John Perrault discussing current shows by Suzan Frecon, Oliver Herring, Liz Cohen, and Guillermo Kuitca. Perrault is a veteran art writer (Village Voice, and the SoHo Weekly News, for anyone who can remember that far back) who now writes a blog called Artopia. I find I disagree with almost everything he says.
We got off on the wrong foot not long ago when I was researching Olafur Eliasson and came across this on his blog:
All of this windswept wind-up is for nought (sic) because for all practical purposes Eliasson is more Danish than Icelandic; although he was born in Iceland and offers a series of landscape photographs of my beloved island, he grew up in Denmark.
Perrault loves Iceland and doesn’t like Eliasson, therefore Eliasson has no claim to being, in any but the merest way, Icelandic—rather like those who love America and dislike Obama. I wrote to Perrault with a correction, but no changes were made.
[Fact is that while Olafur’s parents were Icelandic, he was born in Copenhagen—Perrault might have checked Wikipedia. When they separated he went to school in Denmark but spent summers with his father, an artist, in Iceland. His mentor was his father’s friend, Gunnar, and Olafur had his first “exhibition” on Gunnar’s land outside Reykjavik. Olafur also speaks fair Icelandic, which can hardly be picked up a few photography jaunts—I can attest to that.]
But back to the panel where, when discussing Oliver Herring, who employs a lot of everyday stuff in his performance-based work, Perrault spoke out against what he termed the “art supply racket.”
OMG there’s been a movement against art materials going on and I didn’t know it? No wonder everything looks like crap!
Poor mute things that they are, I felt obliged to come to their defense.
Actually it’s something I feel strongly about and stress when I’m teaching. It’s not that great art can’t be crafted from anything; it can. But what fine art materials offer is maximum possibility for expression, for precision and nuance. If you never try using good materials, you’ll never know what you can do.
I’m always railing against Fredrix stretchers and Winton (student grade) oil paint. Perrault may love warped supports and raw, under-pigmented colors, but I find them terminally distracting. And enough with the glitter already. There are exceptions, but most of the time when I see art made with cheap materials, it all looks the same.
Perrault responded that art made with high quality oil on linen all looks the same.
Caravaggio…Monet…Rothko…I don’t even know where to go with that.
[But then this is the same writer who suggested, on his blog, that museums should rent out their spaces to high-end clothiers and “migrate to the internet” where the art could be “cloud-stored, eternal, with free access for all worldwide.” But here he really is kidding, right?]
I remember when my brother, age 7, wanted to learn the saxophone and our thrifty parents, not wanting to invest until they knew he was serious, rented him one that sounded like a duck in its last throes. His interest in the saxophone lasted about two weeks.
Musicians prize their instruments and no one gets on their case about it. Art materials are our instruments, and yes (I hear you whining) they are expensive. But, except for writing, anything worth doing is expensive. We’re professionals, remember? Or, if students, we want to be. Professionals use the best materials they can get. Does Mario Batali buy his olive oil at PriceChopper? Would you want your surgeon to use a cut-rate scalpel?
Art is more than line or concept—it’s about sensuality, which is why it doesn’t translate to the Web. Sensuality is what makes the difference between illustration and fine art, and requires a finesse that’s hard to achieve with magic markers. I got this even as a kid, which is why I wasn’t even interested in art until I discovered there was a world beyond crayons, construction paper and finger paint. To this day it’s the materials that inspire me. I see a great new Williamsburg color, or the PanPastels I’m currently so crazy about, and think, “Hmmm. What can I do with that?”
Anyway, the makers of fine art materials are hardly trying to rip us off. The ones I’ve known are dedicated, almost fanatical artisans; I’m grateful that there are people out there devoting their lives to making my art look good. And Verizon could take a lesson or two in tech support from the people at Golden acrylics.
If you believe in your vision, it’s worth investing in. Once I decided that working on pre-stretched canvases would “free me up.” Ha! I ended up working on them as long as any other paintings and then had to spend $300+ each to frame them so they’d look decent on a wall.
Racket, schmacket. But I love contradicting myself, and so will add that I'm in awe of what graffiti artists can do with simple cans of spray paint. Did everyone see this piece in Sunday’s Times on the Underbelly Project in the subways? Be sure to watch the video.