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CRITICALITY AND WHERE
IT ISSUES FORTH

JOHN O'BRIEN


Richard Serra, “Double Torqued Ellipse II,”
weatherproof steel, outer: 11’9” x 27’6” x 36’/
inner: 11’9” x 28’6” x 19’6”, 1998.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art,
the Geffen Contemporary.
Photo: Dirk Reinartz

The puzzle of determining how writing about the arts and meaning in the arts is best put together to see where criticality issues forth has driven many to an extreme. One extreme might be aptly called the strategy of unreason, which seems to center on an inflexible will to negate any verbal content in the work of art. The other might be called the intextualization of art, which seems to want the literate and verbalized value of the work of art to supersede and eventually eradicate any perceptual values that might have. Both of these positions have proponents and voices in the arts community. I am not tempted to argue for some mediated middle ground or anything else of a vaguely conciliatory sort. I am interested in how both of these positions regard some fundamental misunderstandings that are generated by works of art. For that is in turn related to the multifaceted nature of art and interpretation. It seems to me that the total intellectual and sensorial meaning of visual art supersedes the legislation of sense that language gives it. This opens the visual arts up to multiple and conflicting legislative efforts. As far as an analogy, this is something akin to herding cats. So let me tell you how to go on a round-up.

I have spent a number of years now putting my words and others' objects and images together in an attempt to elicit new meanings from them and then pass those on to an editor and, thereby, to readers. It has been a pleasurable exercise in a kind of advocacy, since I could write and think about the things in art that interested me. Most of what I have concentrated on has been writing a type of descriptive prose which, at its best, makes for a kind of rough scaled, verbal mapping of the things I saw and the way they moved me. In this way I was able to sustain and specify what I found of value and mark off its’ significance to me. For the rest of my writing, I mostly held myself to the task of historically and situationally contextualizing art. How an exhibition or artist or work of art fit into the world of its peers, past and present. Those were the values I sought in writing about the arts. My intent was primarily to divulge and to dwell on works poetically.

Occasionally, however, I have attempted to "read into" art a sense which goes beyond the physical properties and contextualization of the things themselves. Though I only did so on those occasions when the object(s) ineluctably drove me to do so. That kind of reading I likened to an archeological reconstruction, in which an entirety was to be assembled using a few fragments. I preferred it as a discursive practice because I found its' fluidity and ultimate instability to be better suited to speech than writing. Now, I purposely say "read into" things rather than critique, criticize or understand them because this accentuates the property of being an actively projected interpretation. This interpretative mode, which much of contemporary art imposes on the viewer, seems to me to be, at worst, misplaced; and at best, to have productively misunderstood the master track along which the canon has been constructed. That left me with the dilemma of how to resolve the task of interpretation without falling into the traps of feigned (and drastically overstated) understanding, or of giving up on an understanding in favor of simply power playing. The dilemma remains. So far, I have not been able to structure a single methodological process which unerringly allows for me to overcome my own subjective projection into what becomes the completion of the interpretation I call the work of art. I do, however, have a better idea of how systematic doubt or skepticism helped evolve the dynamics of my interpretative interaction. So, now that the cats are all grouped, let's get 'em moving.

Pauline Stella Sanchez, “g wiz. . . .POP”, installation, 1998.
At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

(Editor's note--sorry, no screen
image accompanies this picture--
but see the detail below.)

 

Pauline Stella Sanchez, close up view of “g wiz. . . .POP”, installation, 1998


I'll begin with my first assumption: if it has to do with language, I've probably misunderstood or been mislead. I can state, based on experience, that words are all wrong for the job. Just like the light reflected in painting and the space surrounding an object, the words to read into art are in continuous flux and redefinition. Yet nothing about them suggests that as their nature; for all intensive purposes, they look like they are unequivocal. This is problematic and, worse yet, there aren't any alternatives to them. So I watch and direct my attention to the most obvious of misunderstandings.

For example, a productive episode in criticality occurred with a recent appearance of the word ‘rhetorical’ during a conversation I was having with a friend regarding a contemporary art installation. It started me thinking about how this question of misunderstanding in words functions programmatically. The person who I was speaking with had just seen the
Richard Serra exhibition of Torqued Ellipses at MOCA. They were talking about the rhetorical value they found in it. I assumed that the reference to the word ‘rhetorical’ referred to the radio and television publicity about the exhibition on one hand, and the bombast of the historical lineage of high modernist sculpture with its' emphasis on alienated, macho libidos, on the other. With that understanding in mind, I took off on a conciliatory note, pointing out that although publicity involves hype, all contemporary museums are facing similar problems with raising consciousness about high art in the age of mass communications. I also pointed out that Serra, strangely enough, had finally come up with what might be a paradoxically philosophical lightness in massive steel plate. I had found the actual work and the museum context to be relatively free of bombast and rhetoric. To my surprise the person speaking informed me that it was to figures of rhetoric that they were referring to, not to rhetoric. So my friend's intention was to situate the terms of rhetoric within the work of art itself and not within the methods of presenting the work. That led to something altogether different.

I had always thought of the art of rhetoric and rhetorical devices such as understatement, hyperbole, synecdoche, and simile in connection with describing methods of oration and, to a certain degree, of writing. It had been a long time since I had heard of it being used in specific conjunction with describing a work of art, and never in conjunction with a visual work. I was enthusiastic to put this misunderstanding to work. Our list of questions amassed quickly. Were the torqued steel plates that comprised Serra's installation rhetorical as a single entity? Were the separate plates rhetorical with respect to one another, and in what way, or was it this installation with respect to an other installation? Were these questions even remotely connected to that work? In truth, we accepted the appearance of the word rhetorical and worked with as though it were a functioning cipher in the deciphering of Richard Serra; but in the end, it took us elsewhere. We began to examine the specific techniques grouped under the heading of rhetoric to see if they applied to the visual art. The further we got into this the more clearly we realized that our misunderstanding was constantly being fueled by our desire to achieve linguistic closure on interpretation. It got us thinking that overstatement was the primary rhetorical tool of Serra's installation and the paradoxically delicate quality of the bent metal surfaces was what gave this overstated display of male mastery a beautifully poetic twist. Satisfied the work was indeed rhetorical, we gave up trying to match our tally with the artists' intentions.

But the discussion didn't end there. Recalling how one rhetorical technique allowed for a part to summon up the whole, we got into a long discussion about Tim Hawkinson's fragmentary optical puzzles. Gutted and re-materialized Farfisa organs changed places with torqued steel as the rhetoric unfolded. Synecdoche became the principle with which the viewer completed Hawkinson's puzzling object acrobatics. The minute detail and the entirety of the work played off of one another in an imagined succession. We asked if hyperbole was the rhetorical figure that punched through Pauline Stella Sanchez's eye shattering installations [one is still on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art--Ed.]. Did her propensity for large and visually stunning accumulations indicate a tendency towards the hyperbolic, or were they paradoxically understated? The poetry of similes was put to the test in Tom Knetchel's modern day comedy of manners.

Was the painter as angel as circus performer a specific analogy to today's L.A. art scene or was it a larger metaphor for existence on this planet? And on we went. It was getting late by the time we finally stopped. We suspected that in our frenzy to bridge interpretative gaps, we had overstepped the sense of the words. And having done so, we parted ways satisfied. The cats were finally corralled. It was time to rest. Soon, we'd have another chance to talk.