I went to Julia Barello’s informative lecture the other day because I like her swoops and swirls of birds and pinwheels made from mri and x-ray film and I wanted to hear what she had to say. What I believe is wonderful about her carefully placed items is the creation of movement, the delicacy and the play of light and shadow. She talked of that but she also has other things going on. She has always been interested in using material which had one use and transforming it into something else. She has also been interested in memorials and making genderless jewelry matched to x-rays. In one slide she showed us a tableau of her grandfather’s robe hanging along with pictures of his slippers. She wondered aloud whether the picture of the slippers held less weight or carried the same weight as the actual robe. Of course, since we were looking at a picture of the robe and a picture of the picture of the slippers it perhaps made things harder to tell. When she showed us her latest works of the birds we learned that we were indeed supposed to think about the fact they were made from x-rays and mri film and carried on them bits of personal information from those x-rays.
My question- which I should have asked- is, “What is it you want us to do with that information?” Are we supposed to think of these birds as some sort of “tumorous beasties” to misquote Robert Burns? Are we supposed to think this information is being carried or whirled. I have talked to a number of people who share my feeling that the larger aesthetic of the piece is what they like rather than concentrating on this bits of information which for the most part they ignored, and, it seems would prefer to ignore.
I do not mean to pick on Ms Barello whose work I like, though apparently for the wrong reasons, but she has made me think once again about what might be called art deconstruction which seems to have been foisted on so many art students for so very long that they have forgotten there are other ways. What I mean by deconstruction is this belief that each small portion of an individual work is supposed to carry significant meaning by itself. I have written a bit about this in previous posts, but this lecture brought home to me how much this idea has infected the landscape-how many works are supposed to be minutely examined to reveal what might be all of the little bits of highly significant information. This reminds me of all those New Yorker stories from the early eighties which tended to consist of a distraught woman of certain means eating toast. We were supposed to deduce great things from the fold and length of her robe as it touched and slightly revealed a bare knee-from the way she held her coffee cup-from the silence in the room. All was apparently momentous; all supremely important bits of crucial information; all of it so tedious as to remove storytelling as any of us knew it from the public interest. It might be noted this was the beginning of the popularity of the personal journal-each of us supposedly having fascinating bits of personal lore to relate. Sorry I’m going a bit far afield, but like storytelling once concerned with narrative, visual art once upon a time, was about the whole told in purely visual terms whether it was the abstract expressionists with energetic swirls or purely representational art-any significant details aided in creating the visual whole. Kandinsky, Pollock didn’t obsess over the minutiae; Rothko was all about exploring color but his huge stripes were significant in relation to each other- Van Gogh had a very elaborate theory of color symbolism, but relatively few of the people who enjoy his works understand what the colors represent if they know they are to represent anything. What we like is the whole-the totality. In the Middle Ages, as I’ve mentioned before, there was a huge amount of symbolism contained within paintings, but everyone knew and expected to see the code. The same is true of the 17th century Dutch painters. Somehow that is different than this current desire to derive from an arrangement of some piece of balsa wood, or from the presence of random images within an object, some significance separate and different from the whole, especially as the significance is not derived from some universally understood symbol.
This attention to detail, this necessity to closely examine each part, this seems to me strangely related to another issue entirely. Most of the artists I have asked about this are male. This insistence on examining the minutaie for some major meaning instead of simply revelling in the swoop of the whole reminds me of nothing so much as the older sister or best female friend looking at your clothes and saying you know that green stripe is the wrong shade for those pants-or that scarf is in a pattern which clashes with your socks. And you are thinking -the shirt was clean and the scarf is keeping my neck warm-besides I think it looks great around my neck. But no there is that closed critical eye examing the parts. And of course, they are always right about this, but still, but still. the swoop of the bird, the play of light and shadow is so much more glorious than pondering bits of incomprehensible information on a bit of film become a bird and wondering …David Sokolec