Friday, October 31, 2014

On Choosing Not to Decipher

Robert Boyd

The name of the exhibit is I'll Imply, You Decipher, which could be the name of any number of contemporary art exhibits in the past 50-odd years. Much contemporary art can be described as abstruse, gnomic, hermetic, mystifying, inscrutable and impenetrable. For some viewers, this is off-putting. They may even feel insulted by it. They may feel that the work they're looking at (if not the entire enterprise of contemporary art) is fraudulent. Or they may feel that the work intentionally excludes them, they they aren't invited to the "club." That they aren't meant to "get it." They may feel that the work is a kind of puzzle to be deciphered. That it has a meaning that is hidden. The title of this show suggests that, doesn't it? But that's a game I don't play.

It's not interesting to me because "meaning" seems like the least valuable aspect of a work of art. The pay-off in drawing meaning out of an inscrutable artwork is almost always less than the cost of the effort put into the deciphering. If the meaning is right there on the surface, then I'll take it into account; otherwise, it's not worth the trouble. Because art has other qualities that--for me, at least--count a lot more. Artworks have presence. They may even have beauty. They have personal associations that are unrelated to whatever meaning the artist assigned to the work. All of which is far more important to me as a viewer than what an artist "meant."

But from the point of view of an artist like Kyle Earl McAvoy or Betsy Huete (who has written many posts for The Great God Pan Is Dead) there must be an awareness that their art may strike some viewers as difficult. Perhaps they realize that aspects of their art which presumably have personal meanings for each artist may not have that meaning at all for someone else.

Betsy Huete,  The Folly in Architecture, plastic bag, diatomaceous earth, thread, needles

For example, the use of diatomaceous earth in The Folly in Architecture by Betsy Huete. This white powdery substance is made of the fossilized shells of diatoms and has various industrial and agricultural uses. So if an artist uses a very specific "non-art" material like diatomaceous earth, she may be interested in some specific use of the material (as an absorbent substance for controlling spills of toxic liquids, for example), or in its nature as the fossilized remains of beautiful unicellular organisms, or because of its formal qualities (for example, its color or tactile qualities) or for some combination of unknowable reasons. Or she may be using it as a bricoleur, because it was handy. Maybe Huete just happens to have a lot of diatomaceous earth around.

But as a viewer, all I have if what is in front of my eyes filtered through my own experiences, thought processes, biases, desires, etc. And when I looked at  The Folly in Architecture, I mostly thought, "Bags of white stuff. huh."

Huete could have added a card with some information to help us interpret  The Folly in Architecture, much as has been done in the current show of art by Robert Hodge at the CAMH. I'm so glad she didn't. Such texts, while sometimes necessary, are graceless additions to a work of art. They never make the art better, just--at best--more comprehensible.

Betsy Huete, Harbor, 2013, dirt, table, concrete, meat, thread, needles, model trees/cacti, television, lamp

Huete's Harbor feels like a work of bricolage, except maybe for the model trees and cacti. It's an example of the time-worn genre of combining crap with crap. No aspect of it is elegant, not element of it seems new or particularly beautiful. The fact that it includes a steak that is undoubtedly starting to rot before our eyes just reminds you that Harbour may be many things, but pretty ain't one of them.

Betsy Huete, Harbor (detail), 2013, dirt, table, concrete, meat, thread, needles, model trees/cacti, television, lamp

What appeals to me--and perhaps only to me because it reminds me of a personal failing I have--is the tentative, unfinished quality. It's like she thought about making dinner but didn't get around to cooking the steak. She thought about doing a little gardening but only got as far as dumping some dirt out. Maybe making a model railroad would be a good project, but she only got as far as setting up the HO scale trees and cacti. Even relaxing in front of the tube was apparently interrupted, because now all we're picking up is snow. (The problem lies in this new antenna. If this damn set's broken, go to Allied TV Rental.)

Betsy Huete, Harbor (detail), 2013, dirt, table, concrete, meat, thread, needles, model trees/cacti, television, lamp

What does it all mean? The installation is begging you to ask that question. But I prefer to experience it as a strange presence, as if a bizarre interior decorator has installed a conversation nook in the back of galleryHOMELAND. The elements have no obvious relationship with one another beyond that we give them. And beauty? Well, why not--it's just "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table."

Kyle Earl McAvoy, 👍, socks, sandals, white briefs

By contrast, Kyle Earl McAvoy goes for more crowd-pleasing effects. Deciphering really isn't the issue with  👍 [sic, I guess]. Undies and a pair of muscular thighs are sure to get a thumbs up from about half the population. The individual elements of 👍, socks, sandals, undies and store-display half-dummy are all found objects (at least I assume the dummy is a found object), but they're all found objects that were designed to look good. Therefore it's not a surprise then that the combination of these objects looks good.

 Kyle Earl McAvoy, Solicit, 2014, mower engine, fumes

A lawn-mower engine, on the other hand, might be beautiful in the eyes of some, but it wasn't designed to look good. But McAvoy appeals to viewers in a different way here--with spectacle. The motor is bolted to the white pedestal, which is itself reinforced with angle brackets. Why? Because when you pull the rip cord and start the motor up, the whole thing bucks and jumps.

Kyle Earl McAvoy, Solicit, 2014, mower engine, fumes

It's a crowd-pleasing effect (as can be seen by the cheering Betsy Huete in the background above). There is an off-switch (which, if it is similar to other mower engines I've used, shorts the spark-plug to kill the engine) which the bucking of the pedestal eventually triggers. It's not quite a Jean Tinguely, but it does provide a few moments of pleasurable noise and movement (not to mention a lot of exhaust--on the opening night, galleryHOMELAND director Paul Middendorf had to open the gallery's bay door to keep the exhaust from overcoming the viewers).

Kyle Earl McAvoy, Solicit, 2014, mower engine, fumes

With Solicit, "deciphering" feels utterly beside the point. That's my advice for this exhibit (and really, for most art). It's an old idea and I'll defer to Susan Sontag (circa 1966). She said deciphering (or "interpretation," as she called it) was "the intellect's revenge on art." It's a wall between the viewer and experiencing the art. This viewer, at least.

I'll Imply, You Decipher runs through December 3 at galleryHOMELAND.


  1. Robert, thanks for taking the time to review our work. Just a quick correction: the wall drawing you've posted is actually "The Folly in Architecture." The single bag hanging from a string in the front is "The Comedian."

  2. Robert, thank you for this feature that many of us ruminate in prep, execution and post reflections. For me thee is a great deal of difference between "meaning" and background tales that necessarily shift as we are sifting through our sense-of-purpose, cultural influences, the intent/need of the commercial aspect and desired/expected response spectrum especially what is the hot ism-juice at the time.