Best of 2015
DSAP director Patricia Maloney selected today’s installment for our Best of 2015 series: “Ashley Stull Meyers doesn’t shy away from calling out an exhibition with as grand a title as The Great Debate About Art for what it leaves unexamined. The effort to determine the limits or properties of what constitutes art is a quixotic task, and Meyers acknowledges the absurdity inherent in the premise right from the outset. Yet she doesn’t give the work itself short shrift, and it is her description of one in particular that keeps this review in mind at the end of the year. In unpacking Max Cleary’s To See You Again (2015) as ‘the exhibition’s most visceral attempt at affirming the trials and tribulations of makership,’ she encapsulates the challenge all artists and writers perpetually face: determining when a work becomes its ‘finished’ self.” This article was originally published on August 13, 2015.
“Art” is a contentious word. Endless positing over any succinct, defining properties has spawned countless op-eds, theses, and textbooks. The topic is comparable to that of discussing religion in mixed company—differences of opinion have more than once drawn blood. The Great Debate About Art, currently on view at Upfor in Portland, Oregon, is a small group exhibition contextually centered on Roy Harris’ 2010 book of the same name. Co-curated by Upfor and Envoy Enterprises (NY), seven artists—Ben Buswell, Srijon Chowdhury, Max Cleary, Anne Doran, Zack Dougherty, Erika Keck, and Rodrigo Valenzuela—present ten works that (like Harris’ writing) philosophically wax and wane in their proposals.
Harris insists that the purpose of his research is not to further instigate a battle between mediums, schools. or –isms. Instead, his aims are epistemological. Is the trouble with the term “art” a linguistic issue? Should we suppose a standard of technical skill? Or is it content that wins the day? Who decides, and more importantly, what gives them the authority? Upfor and Envoy Enterprises optimistically postulate, “the artist.”
Ben Buswell’s Your Value Is My Law (2015) plays with notions of anti-art in its refusal to reveal an overt image. Beginning with a photograph of a purposefully unknown subject, Buswell alters the surface emulsion with a needle to create an arrestingly texturized white verso. The effect is historically reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing. The photograph, framed backward, leaves only questions for the image that was. “Art,” for one thing, is about its ideas. Buswell embodies this presupposition not only in his layered choice of media, but also through the work’s title. The artist dually contributes ABRACADABRA (Perish Like a Word) (2015) to further consider “value.” Buswell acknowledges the nuances of technical dexterity and its effects on both the perception of skill and an artwork’s place in the commercial market. The drawing is composed of graphite and non-photo blue—a graphic-design material used to create marks visible to the eye, but not to the camera. In the presence of the original, each meticulously drawn striation is visible. The digitalized and printed counterpart, however, becomes something else entirely. It’s clean. It’s a cheat and thus holds considerably different value to a viewer with other (likely commercialized) aims.
Zack Dougherty delivers a humorous take on art-historical ghosts and their contemporaries with his work Dynamic Frame (2013). This digital depiction of a Herculean bust is motion-sensitive and activated by the viewer’s approach. The image beckons and glows from a distance, but disappears when met at close range. The piece offers poignant insight about proximity, both spatial and ideological. One’s relationship to any given work of art is subjectively dependent on one’s curiosity (and mental proximity) to its foundations. It is these questions of proximity, visibility, and receptiveness that inform “the great debates” in Harris’ essay.
Max Cleary’s To See You Again (2015) is the exhibition’s most visceral attempt at affirming the trials and tribulations of makership. A diptych of rock photographs conveys the sculpting and folds of an artist’s struggle to bring something back from the dead. Having previously photographed and printed images of these rocks, Cleary attempts to reinstate the three-dimensional physicality that becomes lost in the image-making process. His pursuit of a marriage between oppositional perspectives and forms is unsuccessful, but the work’s candor about process is not. It is vulnerable in its insight into the studio and determining when a work becomes its “finished” self.
The Great Debate is engaging, with a majority of its seven artists experimenting within expanded notions of their respective genres, to a purpose. The exhibition’s premise is largely approached with humor, optimism, and the overwhelming sense that “art”—whatever that may be—is not dead. But what are the implications of a curatorial venture, like The Great Debate, scaling the mountaintop of a big philosophical question with only fog at its peak? While the minimal tightness of the show does justice to the tenets of well-edited exhibitions, there is a lot that goes unexplored. Harris’ writing examines many historical figures and philosophies regarding art’s definition, purpose ,and value, with an entire chapter dedicated to art in the context of the institution. To parse the implosion of these conditions in a space that simultaneously assigns monetary value to art works has an ironic twinge. But irony, much like the term “art,” perhaps becomes the psychological joke of the thing. As an undercurrent, the idea of “a great debate” as an exhibition seems to aim at something closer to Beuysian social sculpture. At the very least, Upfor and Envoy Enterprises have appreciated the need to be allied and introspective, as they mutually create space for a new generation of makers.
The Great Debate About Art was on view at Upfor in Portland, Oregon, through August 29, 2015.