Thursday, August 27, 2015

21st Century Art, contemporary yes, Contemporary no

The New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA) has added a new wing to its facilities that includes the McKernan 21st century Art gallery. Susan Dunne, the Hartford Courant's art reviewer wrote a sneak-preview piece about this additional space in the August 23, 2015 Arts section of the paper.

I grew up in New Britain and I'm familiar with the museum and its many incarnations. But for decades the museum has operated with a discomfort and disdain for non-representational, (let's generally call it) abstract art. Yet the art that made American Art globally recognized is difficult to find and when you find the trace material, it is usually unrepresentative of the best or iconic work of the artist.  The one Jackson Pollock painting is a tiny seascape.  Even Pollock is reduced to the scenery painting that is near ubiquitously collected and curated by the museum ad nausea.

Susan Dunne writes that finally, "There are now dedicated spaces for surrealism, abstract expressionism, conceptualism, photorealism, pop art, photography, even 'bad art'. The museum has owned Warhol, Wyeth, Man Ray, Nevelson, Indiana, Gottlieb, Sage, Avery, Tooker, LeWitt, and more. Dunne writes, "while it is invigorating to see the work of time-honored masters - many of the artworks haven't been exhibited in a long time" without the slightest hint of irony. The masters have been in mothballs and the museum instead served up decade after decade of kitsch and geographically provincial absurdity and the museum has the gall to dedicate a gallery to presumably even worse art. Hopefully they're only recycling what's been on the walls too many years. If that's the case you can be sure it will be carefully guarded for the inevitable retrospective of the good old days when the masters were in mothballs.

The true subject of this essay is not the lack of vision that has plagued the museum in the past, it is the lack of vision described by Dunne in the Contemporary Art category. I know. You can see it coming already, can't you.

The McKernan Gallery is dedicated to 21st century art 2000 - present. The idea of categorizing Fine Art by year is absurd at face value. Historicity is a very outdated way to even think about past art, so we are already in troubling waters. A gallery dedicated to the Contemporary and PostModern is no more evident than the masters in mothballs pieces were all these years.

Dunne describes what will be in the history-biased gallery and it is little more than a litany of political commentary, "The exhibit offers an energetic array of styles and media, and the 40 works, installed side-by-side, point out a common thread in the NEW/NOW series that might not have been obvious in each artist's individual show; its longtime dedication to presenting art that makes a social statement". If your eyes aren't rolling yet they will be soon.

Some of the pieces Dunne describes, "Hung Liu's 'Relic 12' shows a bored woman with bound feet, a commentary on the limited role of women in traditional Chinese society". Dunne understandably misses the point just as the museum does. The bound feet are not about lack of opportunity, an American feminist meme - the bound feet are more likely about China's birth control issues (the last thing American feminists might complain about).  Not all Chinese women lounge around.  Visit on a search engine a high-tech manufacturing plant in China and take a look at their deformed hands sometime. There's no lack of opportunity in the sweat shops. But that American angle to the work isn't there.

Dunne goes on to list a litany of politically charged subjects, feminist statements, over-saturation of commercial imagery, immigrants trying to navigate the United States, post-911-ism, internment, pop-Christianity, guns and video game statements.  Taken as a whole, its a show of over-sized political bumper stickers collected as "statement art". FIFTEEN YEARS (or more) of statement art! Its enough to make a grown artist cry. And it explains why the art is categorized as it is by the politics du jour.

The most American thing about this state of affairs is that the museum has become a collection of stuff, lost causes, causes that never were, causes that bored us into inaction like a cluttered basement of a political activist with an obsessive love of kitsch.

American Art is more than this and the museum needs to re-evaluate the myopic obsession with representation, politics, and intellectual intolerance for Modern and Contemporary Art. I'm not optimistic. Graydon Parrish whose Cycle of Terror and Tragedy (yet-another-911-memorial-commission) is holding a discussion about his piece with a group of other artists who paint in similar style.  They call themselves PostContemporary artists.  What are PostContemporary artists? Well the work is an awful lot like pre-Renaissance, Cartesian-subject matter. You can't make stuff like this up but never confuse the label with the thing.

- Frank Krasicki, 082715

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