Seeing Past the Future on the Other Side of the Mountain

Jane and Kimberly ask, what are modern artists doing when they impose contemporary realities on art from ages past.  What happens when an artist can’t look at a seascape without seeing an oil spill?  Without adding a frame of abstract art?  Are we opened up to new points of view or closed out by such reconstructions; that is the question.   

JAS: I read a thought-provoking article in the NYTimes about an exhibit by Minerva Cuevas who takes actual paintings from the distant past – like a seascape – and drapes them in tar to merge her pov of the old painting when the sea was depicted as a pastoral scene inspiring peacefulness with the pov of today where the sea is understood as ruined beyond repair with oil spills.  I’ll skip the question of whether using paintings to make statements is really art for the moment to focus on the interactive aspect of such art.

The exhibit challenges the viewer to think about what’s happened to art created long ago and, in particular, what’s changed in our worldview since it was created.  I personally find the exhibit more political than aesthetic but there is something going on that piques my interest that I’d like to talk about.  Artists today, for sure, have a wider world perspective than those who created works of art a hundred years, a thousand years ago.  Let me see if I can get the question right.  Is the way we look at an old piece of art – changed by what we know?  Are the famous seascape paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Turner changed by our modern pov?  Do we see them different than viewers of their age?  And then there’s a more subtle question, are the paintings changed by their own aging – dulled, damaged, restored or reframed; do we see them differently?  Asking how change in the viewer’s pov and, or the painting itself strikes me as significant question.  So, the exhibit – be it art or not – is provocative, thought provoking, and I’m curious to hear what you and, hopefully, our readers think.

KC: If you look at the art historical timeline, you can see a line that follows what you are talking about. In the beginning, art was about visually depicting the grand themes of mythology, classicism, and religion in a way that grounded humans in their world, reminded them of their faith, rooted them in their culture. Then as Humanism and the Renaissance took hold, as we saw humans become the center of their own universe, art was about exploring this concept alongside our human potential. Art became a documentation of the world around us; a glimpse at our lives and the uniqueness therein but also provided a resonance of being. This eventually led to going inward and the Surrealists pioneered this by exploring the depths of our subconscious to inform fantastical explorations into the unknown, the interior. This really changed the course of art from a documentation of life to a documentation of the ephemeral. From this point, art changed, it could be about feelings, it could be about personally responding from a person’s own individual context to social and political concepts, it could be about remarking upon life and society. So much art arose in response to this, from the Pop Art of the 60s that remarked on the burgeoning advertising deluge, to the Mexican murals of the revolution. Yet during this whole course, one thing has always remained true: artists have always mined the past for fodder, have always considered what’s come before as either an anchor point or a jumping off point for the new. What’s interesting about the kinds of exhibits you are talking about is that they are not merely using historical art material as personal inspiration, they are physically using the old work as a contrast and comparison to the new.

JAS: So, you think of this “tar splattered,” interactive art as part of an historical evolution of art and the pov calling attention to how times have changed by using the old art itself IS modern art.  It’s different but also on a continuum? 

KC: Yes.

JAS: I’m resisting a bit because it’s making a statement, one particular to the artist who is altering the art.  I like the thought provocation but I’d like more freedom on the part of the viewer.  I’m recalling an exhibit where artist Sylvia Baechli, a woman artist, interspaced her modern paintings/sculptures between paintings/sculpture from antiquity to encourage an experience that took both into account simultaneously.  She created a viewer experience that stimulated contemplation but did not insist on a finished conclusion.

KC: I recall that exhibition and what excited me about it personally was that the viewer was given the opportunity to reflect on what came before and what was here now but separately. No connective lines were drawn between the two. But in their presentation together, I got a sense that there are no new stories, only evolutions on the same age-old themes, in a way that was oddly comforting. It made me feel that although artists’ subject matter seems grounded in these common, universal themes, our reactions to it from the psyche of an individual artist will always produce new art. It’s interesting to see how generations have tackled the same subjects yet with different outcomes depending on the climate of humanity at any given time.

JAS: So, when you view an old painting smeared with tar, you’re drawn back to the old and connected to the new?  You feel the span of the ages?

KC: Yes. I think of the person who painted the original seascape and I’m led to wonder what they thought at the time while depicting this awesome subject. What was their world like and how does their painting reflect that? As opposed to the world of the tar-smearer, looking at the sea as the grand receptacle for trash that we have today. I am feeling connected to both creators and reflecting on how the world has changed.

JAS: I’m remembering the freshness I felt when I saw myth sculpted by the hands of Yoko Kubrick. She referenced ancient mythology that had produced much of what we call classical work – like Rodin’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne – and created modern marble sculptures that captured the curves, rhythms, and energy of the myths but the sculptures did not make explicit representations of character or story.  Instead, she caught the energy of Apollo chasing, Daphne escaping and, in the case of Aphrodite, did not offer a female likeness but rather sensual, feminine curves that give rise to arousal.  What this brings up for me is a comparison between preservation of a classic archetype from which all else springs or an evolving, changing, responsive archetype that is forever elusive however referential it may be. It brings up for me a shift in pov that simply couldn’t have existed in ancient times and shows it.  That moves beyond comparison, beyond the statement to a different way of seeing that, at least for me, truly feels modern. 

KC: Ah, this is exactly the oxymoronic nature of art I am referring to. When you say: “What this brings up for me is a comparison between preservation of a classic form of archetypes from which all else springs or an evolving, changing, responsive archetype that is forever elusive however referential it may be,” I personally feel those are the same thing. The classical archetypes are our seeds, but what they end up sprouting ARE those changing, responsive, fluid archetypes. I don’t feel there is a split between the two. In my own work, this is coming up for me of late as I work on a series on all the Pieces of Me, and even though I am striving to make this about the complexity in a woman by showcasing the individual aspects of me, I can clearly see how all of my aspects spring from preexisting archetypes. As a matter of fact, I am racking my brain to come up with any artist who has done something so original, in effect created a new world or identity of their own making to present to us, that hasn’t been seen before or had roots in something prior.

JAS: Well, referential is one thing but evolution, where the original archetype is affected, is another.  I think it remains an open question.  In returning to the meaning of art and how old art is manipulated – adding pov of an oil spill or curating – interspacing old with new or (as also happened in that exhibit) wrapping new pop with old antiquity or vice versa – art may be evolving but is the archetype?  One seems to have to do with loosening up a viewer’s perspective while the other has more to do with being inspired by old and infusing old with new.  We may be like a people on the verge of discovering the color blue.  Vibrations may be coming visible, art felt and seen and revealing a cultural edge yet to be fully discovered much less represented.    

KC: I like to think that there is always that potential of discovering that new color. I like to think about virgin vibrations as yet unseen. Or, of feelings informing new versions of the concrete in art. But I think there is still so much in the world that we are trying to make sense of, have been doing since time began, and I don’t think that process is anywhere near completion. Yet I have hope. If anyone can create a whole new world, one in which our reference points are invisible and the canvas is truly blank, it’s certainly the artists I would believe in the most to do so.

JAS: Yes, just like that which is revealed in Bruce Nauman’s message poetic spiral The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.

KC: Right, and isn’t the nature of those mystic truths that they do not change? Only the ways we look at them and the ways we materialize and react to them in our present consciousness?

JAS:  Not sure about that. 

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