Meditating with Contemporary Art...
In 1986, after a regional electronics manufacturer went belly-up, local arts patrons and politicians went to work transforming the old Sprague Electric plant into a state of the art performance venue for contemporary art too big for most museums. Thus, Mass MOCA - the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts - was born with the help of Williams College and the leaders of North Adams, MA - and came to life in 1999.
Now, contemporary/modern art is clearly not every one's cup of tea. Art historian, Roger Lipsey, makes the case that unless you can appreciate "the four keys that make abstract art sensible" - analogy and symbol, the energy of the image, style (playful or refined, etc.) and a works inner life - most of us will find modern art impenetrable. Indeed, the many cartoons in The New Yorker testify to the fact that a lot of contemporary art is not only misunderstood, it is garbage. What I find uniquely exciting about the totality of modernism as well as contemporary art, however, is the artist's commitment to freedom and her/his willingness to explore and fail.
This weekend we encountered three different experimental exhibits in the sprawling showcase in North Adams and each worked in its own unique way.
The BADLANDS: NEW HORIZONS IN LANDSCAPE was a collection of paintings and sculptures that exposed the contemporary American badlands of the 21st century with the same verve and honesty as both the Hudson River School of the 19th century or even the 1960s Earth Art
Three artists in particular grabbed my attention: Mary Temple painted a corner of a room in the shadow of a window; her work first constructed a life size room with two walls and then she painted the shadow onto the wall and floor in a way that looked as if the sun were, indeed, being blocked. It was so carefully executed - and subtle - that you couldn't not go back over and over.
Jennifer Steinkamp's video installation of a tree blowing in the wind - and moving through 4 seasons - was equally engaging and meditative. And Leila Daw used tapestry to create volcanoes and rivers that extended beyond the limits of a traditional frame so that the power and chaos of nature spilled onto the walls.
Two other exhibits spoke to both my head and heart, too. EASTERN STANDARD: WESTERN ARTISTS IN CHINA gave me a visceral awareness of the enormous changes taking place in this Olympic nation in ways that are both heroic and challenging. And JENNY HOLZER: PROJECTIONS took a football field size auditorium and turned it into a screen for two poems - and throughout the darkened room were overstuffed bean bag chairs for people to lay upon and take in the slow movement of the words - so that "the space was transformed into a meeting place where people, word and light interact."
In his book, The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, Roger Lipsey note3s that:
The spiritual makes itself known slowly in the course of (a work of art.) It needn't even be called "spiritual," but words of some kind will be found to describe an intelligence, a vitality, a sense of deliverance from pettiness and arrival at dignity that always seem a gift. It includes a perception of grandeur in the world at large, which cannot help but strike one as sacred, quite beyond oneself and yet there to be witnessed and even shared in. How everything fits together - one's own small life with the cosmos, one's own brief illuminations with whatever enduring light there may be... (p. 9)
As we wandered and watched - meditated and meandered - I kept thinking of something that was said about another contemporary artists, Mako Fujimara of NYC: "The idea of forging a new kind of art about hope, healing, redemption, refuge while maintaining visual sophistication and intellectual integrity is a growing movement... and Mako is in the vanguard."