Art is something designated more important than the space next to it. This explains why we stop in front of the artworks in a museum and not at the spaces in between. To call something art is to call it, in varying degrees, important, and ever since the advent of ready-made, that importance has, in a sense, been reduced to a purity. It can be cast like a spell onto anything. But pure importance is an unstable element to just toss into a human endeavor (human endeavors being prone to pretension and folly).
Art, like people, should be judged, not on the basis of its appearance but on the character of its content. It needs to live up to the degrees of importance it lays claim to.
Art has a public relations problem when its claims of important content appear to lack embodiment. When someone complains about art being too "artsy," they may be complaining about its pure importance. Art feels artsy to the degree it relies on its pure importance in place of a successful embodiment of importance.
Boise Art Museum recently hosted a play in which a painting's pure importance wrecks a friendship and it is currently showing work by painter Andrea Merrell, in which two small gray circles bear the title, Self Portrait.
The debate about what we call art has been around for decades, and though it seems to have lost its status as a major cultural drama, it hasn't exactly left the stage either. The play is a way into the artsy side of this discussion and Merrell's show is a way out.
The play, Art, is by French writer, Yasmina Reza. Lynn Allison of Idaho Shakespeare Festival, directed, and Richard Klautsch, Phil Atlakson and Gordon Reinhart, of the Theater Arts Department at Boise State, filled its three roles.
In the play, Serge, (Atlakson) has just purchased a painting for a large sum of money. It is a minimalist work—all white—about 5 feet by 4 feet. Serge, it seems, isn't exactly sure what to make of it, but he's sure it's important. The actual merits of the painting aren't important because Serge doesn't see them. His friend Marc, (Klaustch) is also sure of something about the new painting, mainly, that it is the symbol of a new Serge and he isn't interested in a new Serge. Yvan, (Reinhart) acts as the abused referee while Serge and Marc go rounds. It's a very funny play and the performances were terrific. And casting a minimalist work in the role of the painting was a stroke-apropos.
If anything is regularly said about minimalist works, it's that they are what they are and nothing else. But if the play's painting is anything, it's not itself and nothing else. It's wildly and hilariously much more than just white paint on a white canvas.
Robert Ryman was producing all-white paintings in the 1970s, which corresponds with the provenance of the play's painting. In an interview with PBS about his work he had this to say about what it required from a viewer: "The painting needs a certain reverent atmosphere to be complete. It has to be in a situation so it can reveal itself—since it is what it is on its own. It's not representing anything else—what you're seeing is really what it is ..." In other words, folks might miss the importance of the work if it's not put in a situation in which it is important.
What's he worried about? It sounds like he knows how easy it would be to mis-take his work. It's difficult because it's so self-conscious. He says his paintings aren't paintings "of" anything, but they are. They're paintings of painting.
It's our attention, to the painter's attention, to the paint. It's not a painting "of" anything, except painting, it's a reduction meant to amplify an aspect of painting—mainly the attention and involvement the painter has had with the paint.
It's a symbol, in which painting is embodied as an existential exercise. If we approach it as, "just what it is," we'll miss it. The degree to which it is art is the degree to which it is not just, "what it is." It succeeds despite its tenets.
Is it any wonder that people get confused? The painting only works if you get a copy of the script. No great surprise that work like this seems artsy.
Merrell's show is another example of the reductive impulse in modernism, however it doesn't veer as aggressively toward pure importance as an all-white Ryman does. In her case, it's a reduction to aesthetic fundamentals. She is reducing expressive form down to basic geometric shapes and relationships in an effort, as the accompanying gallery guide reads, " ... to better understand mathematical information she has always suspected is at the root of classic aesthetics."
Merrell's takes us toward not material but mathematical purity. The show's title, "Measure of Man," is meant to suggest the relationship geometry insinuates, the relationship it facilitates between man and nature.
We experience the facts of geometry as mysterious elegance, interconnectedness and balance. It's the measure we find fitting. In other words, it isn't just that it works mathematically; it also feels right to us.
We experience it aesthetically. Her themes: the Golden Ratio, the Fibonnaci sequence, the square, the circle; these things have a way of putting us at ease; they satisfy our minds. And this sense of sanity is imparted by her pieces. The range of grays she moves through, her calm surfaces and edges, and the way she employs empty space gives her work a meditative quality. It's a manner of reduction that doesn't feel forced toward any bleak conclusions, because what it seeks are essentials.
The North Gallery's treatise of mathematical relationships did this more successfully than the South Gallery's shrine of shapes, in my experience. The South Gallery, did feel a bit artsy at times; it would be hard to live up to the religious levels of importance insinuated there, but the North Gallery felt like a complete lesson.
Giving art its importance up front doesn't always pay, but it's worth the gamble if all it needed was a little important space to open up in.
Andrea Merrell's "The Measure of Man" exhibit is on display at Boise Art Museum through June 22. Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330.