“My art speaks for itself,” is a statement M. Stephen Doherty, editor of the recently revived Plein Air Magazine, has heard all too frequently from artists when he asks them to talk about their work. Doherty was guest speaker at the opening of the 31st Annual Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors (ANEAW) in Old Forge, NY last weekend. He then went on to explain several of the paintings in the show because, well, they don’t speak for themselves. Paintings never do. They are by definition, limited, and very specific in context, released from artist’s imagination for reasons no one can truly gauge without some additional exposition.
The ANEAW show is one I have wanted to see for some time, and it did not disappoint. This is one of the top juried watercolor shows in the country, demonstrating a range of styles and subjects that was quite broad, while still reflecting personal and local tastes. So how do you look at a painting borne of a place and time and particular person’s imagination, and immediately understand it? And is it necessary to understand it?
A novel should speak for itself. If it’s not on the page, then there’s nowhere else the story’s coming from. And you shouldn’t need a playbook to understand a movie or play. But other art forms—like music, poetry, painting and sculpture—are meant to be interpreted more intuitively and less literally. To relate to a song, you only need to hear it. To relate emotionally to a painting, you only need to see it.
But that’s not the whole experience. Next comes the intellectual exercise of understanding it—that foggy gray area Doherty was addressing. You can like a song, but if you don’t understand the lyrics, then the statement behind it is lost (in many cases, a good thing). Interestingly, while many songs lose personal meaning when you actually listen to the lyrics (eg, the chauvinist message to a lot of beautiful 60s songs), they develop a new historical perspective (Gary Puckett and Tom Jones should be taught in high school history classes for a great insight into why the Feminist Movement happened).
And then there’s fine art. A painting hangs before you, separated completely from its original context. You can’t hear the backbeat or synthesizer to place it in time, you don’t know where it came from, and without a verbal message to explain the context, you are left with just your gut. You like it. You don’t.
If likability were all that mattered in art appreciation, only works by Claude Monet, Thomas Kinkade and a handful of others would be valuable. And yet art values soar based on the weight of far less pretty works by Dali, Vermeer, Goya, Picasso, Rivers, Kandinsky, Munch or several thousand other artists with distinct points of view to share.
As Doherty eloquently demonstrated, paintings are borne of context, and they are doors to a much richer universe of meaning than the simple image you see. They are full of accidents and cognitive incongruencies. They capture slivers of emotion the artist may not have even intended. And they are most definitely products of the time and place and the personal experience of one artist.
Technique can be copied and taught, and there are only so many subjects that can be rendered, and so many ways to render them. The originality comes from the unique point of intent, where one artist, one day, picked up a brush. Doherty’s point was that understanding the history of a painting, including technique and the biographical history of the artist vastly increases its relevance. Because words matter, even for a painter.
And maybe that’s why exhibition curator Miriam Kashiwa asked the artists to write a statement about their technique as well as their intent, which appears next to every entry. If you can get to Old Forge to visit this show, so beautifully exhibited at the new View building, then you will have the opportunity to think about why each painting was done in the first place, and this will enrich the entire experience.
The show continues through October 8, 2012.
© Copyright 2012 – Arts Enclave