If Art is a language, do we know the alphabet

Since May, Julia Barella’s excellent show “SWIRL” has been hanging at the Ruben Center on the UTEP campus. She precisely dissects and hand dyes pieces of discarded MRI imaging film and x-ray film to make delicate shapes which she fastens to the wall.
In the downstairs entrance, a large portion of the wall is covered with what appear to be swooping birds placed in such a way as to give depth and movement to their forms. There are pinwheels and other shapes. It’s an interesting use of and transformation of material. What this has to do with my topic is that in the excellently written catalogue for the show Kate Bonansinga, gallery director writes of this work “The tension between a body focused material and beyond -the- body subject matter synopsizes the artist’s two primary intentions, which are diametric. The first is to remind us of our physical beings and consequently, our frailties and mortality. The second is to involve us in our surroundings to the point that we extend beyond the corporeal.”
Everytime i read something like this, I am reminded of an old Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown and Lucy are lying on the grass looking at clouds. What do you see? asks Charlie Brown, and Lucy goes into a long metaphysical description. How about you?, Lucy asks. “Well, I was going to say a horsey or a cow…”
In reading much contemporary criticism this is often how I feel. In the case of Barello’s work she may be wanting to make us think of human frailty, but the individual pieces of mri film are so small that I tend to not look at the them that closely or to remember what they used to represent; I become lost in their current shapes. I admire the artistry involved in making a large wall of swooping birds, but I am perhaps too superficial to reflect on, as the catalogue suggests, “celebrating individuality while also acknowledging intra-species similarities, and the inevitable loss of self.” I am not saying that’s not there, I am only saying that it would not have occurred to me.
All of this leads me to my major point which is that I wonder if we have created a vocabulary so piece -specific that we have lost the abilty to effectively communicate to anyone but those who have the decoder ring.
Back in the Middle Ages say, everyone understood what was being expressed. The use of specific colors carried a universally understood meaning, and when the Madonna looked at the child as a child rather than straight out then it really did signal a major change of consciousness.
Today almost nothing is understood and I tend to think too often critics rush in to fill a gap left by an artist who is either not particularly trying to express anything or who might be going the other way expecting their work to carry more information than any of us will notice. There is a tendency for some to weigh each work with symbolic meaning in a world which has no idea of even the existence of the symbol let alone an awareness of it, if it in fact exists at all.
I once knew a woman who attracted a great deal of attention with her idea linking Jewish mysticism and theories of literature deconstruction. the gist of her argument was that in the same way that Jewish mystics see in each letter of the Jewish alphabet a great deal of meaning, so the deconstructionists did something similar with language.
For many visual artists today something similar is also happening in that they tend to load their work with meaning or many critics seem to feel that they do which close analysis and description will somehow reveal. But in the case of the mystics, everyone understood the meaning and the symbols-those did not change but were merely brought out. In the case of much contemporary art, nobody understands what, if anything, the symbolism means. We are often reduced to minute description and speculation because there is no longer any universally understood alphabet-there is no longer any certain idea of what anyone is trying to convey, often including many artists. I am not including Julia Barello in this last bit, but she is giving a talk at 6 pm on August 30 in the gallery and it should be fascinating to hear her take on her own work.-david sokolec

One Response to “If Art is a language, do we know the alphabet”

  1. alexgarciafineart Says:

    This post resonates with me very much because in many ways I have had
    the same type of questions in my mind. Is it even possible to have a
    universally understood or codified language of art in the current art
    world? If so what would that look like? I guess this goes to the root of
    the question of what is art or what is the purpose of art in a society?
    And then we must ask ourselves whose art will we include in this
    codification? Will we include the realist or traditional painters/artists?
    The classical painters/artists? The folk artists? The lowbrow artists?
    And so forth and so on.


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