Monday, 26 April 2010

The Cult of Obscurity

Why has art become an extension of the cryptic crossword? Try as I might, I’ve never come up with a reasonable answer to this question. Most of the time, therefore, I try to ignore it. Sometimes though – for instance, when visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney this week – ignoring it becomes impossible. Instead, I find myself staring in bewilderment at ‘artworks’, thinking: ‘Why?’, and ‘When did it happen?’; and ‘Is there any chance it will ever change?’

Mind you, I should have known better. It was such a lovely day. What stopped me from lying down on the grass in the Domain and staring up at the sky for an hour and a half? I don’t know – living too long in German speaking countries, where the idea of the Kulturausflug is respected rather than ridiculed, may have had something to do with it.

Anyway, for whatever reason – probably just curiosity - I entered the gallery, paid 10 of my hard-earned dollars and went down into the basement to see the Archibald portrait prize exhibition, the Wynne landscape prize exhibition and the Sulman prize exhibition. As usual, the Archibald portraits were all pretty dreadful – although many of the painters are clearly technically very able, it makes no difference: the art of portrait painting has been lost somewhere along the way – and most of the landscapes lacked any real presence. The finalists for the Sulman, which is a prize for subject or ‘genre’ painting (is that a very jargony word, or has it always been a way of describing a painting?), were also a pretty uninspiring lot.

All the same, even within that rather pitiful company, the winner seemed unusually undeserving. It is called Paintings, prints & wall hangings and is a ‘large-scale, multi-canvas, text painting [that] precisely replicates a newspaper column and is derived from actual published classified advertisements of paintings for sale, which [the artist] has been collecting for some time now’. That is, it looks like an enormous page of classified advertisements. The label beside it explains that ‘It is a conceptual painting, which wryly addresses issues surrounding cultural meaning and the commodification of art.’ According to the artist, ‘The painting contains a distinct paradox - it is banal, an elevation of the everyday. However, by presenting it in a gallery context it becomes quite radical, absurd and humorous in the manner of Duchamp’s work.’

If you have to explain that you are being humorous, I think you may be in trouble, but clearly the judges didn’t agree.

I went upstairs, passing a baby grand piano that someone had decided to fill with straw, and came face to face with a canvas thickly crusted with layers of paint in various shades of greyish brown. A propellor had been screwed into the middle of it. This was Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Glaube, Hoffnung and Liebe’. The label said this:

‘There are two powerful strands to Kiefer’s work since the early 1980s, a philosophical investigation into the problems of representing transcendence and experimentation with materials and images to create hybrid forms between paintings and sculpture that confound traditional representations of space. Kiefer describes both these enquiries as journeys into the unknown. The idea of the journey is a metaphor that he often includes in images and in material processes. In Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, the journey is potentially a flight that would take us from the material plane into the heavens, and yet the propellor is made of lead and will never fly. The words in the title are inscribed on all three blades; they are St Paul’s cardinal virtues; faith, hope and love. Perhaps Kiefer is implying that neither technology nor the exercise of virtue can achieve literal transcendence, and yet he is constantly asking the question, ‘Why not?’
Applying an object such as this lead propeller to a representation of landscape contradicts the logic of spatial representation. Where in the space of the painting do we locate the object? Is it lying on the rock shelf or hurtling through space? In fact, it is not in the space of the painting at all, but hovers as if in a separate dimension or representational register. Yet the two kinds of space are magically integrated so that we don’t see one or the other but both at once, something akin to the strange behaviour of quantum physics.’

Are they saying that although Kiefer can’t paint like the old masters, he could build the Hadron Collider, if he felt like it?

I scurried away to Tom Roberts’s ‘Holiday Sketch at Coogee’ and Streeton’s ‘Railway Station, Redfern’, both beautiful pictures that need no dreary essays to hold their little canvas hands.


  1. I have a theory - one of several, but I shall spare you the others! - that if one has to explain one's art, in any way, then it's probably not very good art. Likening one's output to that of third-rate Futurist Duchamp's is also a sure way to put me off. That's just my opinion, obviously, and if it makes a philistine then I guess I'll have to live with that :-)

  2. Im with Gadjo - I have a best friend who's a pretty well known 'conceptual' artist - and he often runs his ideas past me for an opinion before making things - I always tell him exactly what Gadjo says - if you've got to explain it's provenance in order for it to make sense, then it probably isn't very good. Naturally, my friend and I argue like dogs over this!!

  3. Gadjo and Worm: I agree - but the dominant strand in contemporary art seems to be the conceptual stuff. Is it because art schools are almost all attached to universities now and so they have to justify their courses within academic frameworks?

  4. I think Duchamp, having invented that sort of conceptual art, went on to exhaust its possibilities. It's a mystery how it keeps going.

  5. zmkc - sweeping statement I know, but I think its mostly down to a lack of genuine artistic ability. Why strive to be a technically amazing artist when it's easier to bamboozle people with concepts they have to take on your word?

  6. Gaw - yes, I agree, and I think his 'jokes' were fairly feeble to begin with.
    Worm - I don't know. In the portrait prize section of the exhibition, plus a similar prize exhibition I saw at the portrait gallery in London last year and another I saw at that place near the ICA that champions traditional painting, there were lots of paintings that showed technical ability, but they were absolutely dull. Giles Auty used to write interestingly about how people like Velasquez (if that statement makes any sense - was there another person like Velasquez? {but you know what I mean]) were apprenticed from about 8 years old and did nothing but paint ever afterwards, and now no-one can ever get near that level of understanding of how to move paint about on a canvas, because they never get that familiar with the process.