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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Labels, Statements, Intent and Understanding


Perhaps the title to this post should be "How much or how little?"  Historically, art galleries have minimally used labels on the work they exhibit.  Usually, just the title and the name of the artist...perhaps the medium, but not always, perhaps the date.
"War Sucks" by Kristin LaFlamme

As I have mentioned before, in my previous life, I was a museum curator in historical museums.  I went the other way.  We identified the piece, we put it in its cultural context.  I viewed exhibition text/labels to be written like an outline.  The big headings, smaller parts, and once you got down the the label, the really fine bones of the work.  My viewpoint was, don't put a book on the wall, but provide the information if someone wants to take the time to read the individual object labels.  I thought that people would scan what they wanted and if they wanted to read more deeply, they'd go beyond the object name, date and materials.  If they didn't, they wouldn't.  Yes, in the case of the Artist Village at IQF, I would have welcomed something to identify each of the artist's works...instead of making me ferret, guess and deliberate....

I had been contemplating writing about labels and interpretation and had mentally been framing the discussion when Vivien Zepf wrote a really interesting blog post on understanding art included in Fiber Philadelphia as explained to her by Frank Hopson at the Snyderman Works Gallery.  If you haven't read the post, you may find it here.  Vivien was wondering why some of the pieces were included in a fiber show, even though they weren't made of fiber.  Frank ably led her to some new understandings and thoughtful considerations about art.

Which brings me to the above piece.   This is Kristin LaFlamme's work, "War Sucks" which is included in the Art Quilt Elements exhibition at the Wayne Art Center.  One of the people at the opening who was standing next to me took one look at the quilt and said "I don't like it."  Not being someone who easily keeps her mouth shut, I started talking to her about it, and what Kristin was communicating.  First, Kristin is an army wife married to a really neat guy, Art, who has seen I think 7 deployments as he is career Army.  This is part of a series that Kristin has been working on, or rather is related to a series called "The Army Wife" and reflects the observations of one who is up-close and personal with her subject matter.  I pointed out the chamoflage fabric taken from Art's old uniforms, the raw edges, because war is raw on every level.  The stuffed and unbound edges...the fact that the "batting" was an old army blanket.....and the choice of commercial fabrics, the patriotic ones contrasted with small floral prints...and the rawness of the slashing of the words across the "homey" aspect of a quilt.   Not all quilts are pretty.  Some quilts talk....loudly, but it is up to us to be able to listen and in this case, "knowing" Kristin and her work helped as there was little interpretation there (you had to be able to make it to the book which had the artists statements-- themselves  limited to 100 words-- in the opening crowd.

The quilt suddenly became something more...While it "spoke" it needed an interpreter who had some more information to make it understandable on more than a superficial level.  Kristin's blog goes more deeply into the piece and you may read it here.

"I Feel Free," Brooke Atherton, 
Across the room, hung Brooke Atherton's "I Feel Free".  While there was a brief explanation (again the 100 words or less) in the book, a couple of people were perplexed..."Where would this hang? Who would make such a long quilt, and why???  Too bad it had to be folded."  Well, I'm a little familiar with Brooke's work and explained that her work often came off the wall and flowed onto pillars.  I also explained a little of her method as you could see the wonderful "burned shibori" on this....which if you don't know Brooke's work again could be easily missed....Again, a docent or another interpreter brought (I hope) a deeper understanding of the piece....

But then again, recently on either the Quiltart or the SAQA Yahoo group someone shared her understanding of a piece which was on exhibition at the Crane Building for Fiber Philadelphia.  It was a large installation which the person saw as being Hijabs....and it spoke to her as to what she connected with.  She studied it for a long time...and the artist, who happened to be standing nearby came over and spoke to her about it since she had been looking at it for so long.  She explained what it meant to her....which wasn't the artist's intent at all....and then the artist explained what he was communicating, which she also understood.

In some cases with art, we don't have the knowledge of what the artist intended to communicate....we just have our own reaction and interpretation.  This understanding is valid and certainly a personal resonance is part of fully interacting with art....

Somehow, in the best of all possible worlds we would have the combination of the two...the opportunity to look at a piece and form our own opinions and understanding, then to go to a fuller explanation of the artist's intent.

9 comments:

Sherrie Spangler said...

Lisa, I ALWAYS appreciate an explanation of art because it helps deepen my appreciation of it. It can call my attention to subtleties I might miss on my own, or it could make me realize I'm completely off the mark. I like the info to be posted beside the work (I never read about it if I have to go back to the entrance and look it up)and to be just a paragraph or two.

Donna Kallner said...

Lisa, thank you so much for this post. As you say, people can read labels or not as they wish. Artists who don't want expanded labels with their work can decline. But when my own work is shown and when I see the work of others, I appreciate labels that provide context. Context sparks conversation and the exchange of points of view that can be different without being invalid.

Gerrie said...

Excellent post, Lisa. Thank you.

Kathie Briggs said...

Thank you Lisa for sharing these experiences. I feel I have a better understanding of why artist statements can enhance the experience of viewing certain artworks. Since my own pieces are pretty straightforward and made from conventional materials I've generally resented being required to produce a statement for an individual piece. Seeing the other side of the coin was enlightening.

Kristin L said...

So did she have a different appreciation of "War Sucks" after your explanation, or did she still dismiss it because it was ugly? I think there will always be people who are curious about meaning and intent and who are willing to look deeper, to ask questions, to add their own reaction. And then there are others who prefer the initial gut reaction and that's enough. I'm not sure having the labels would be of help with the latter. But I guess that's your point -- it's nice to have additional insight there for those who want it. I loved the story of the lady who got one (intense, and valid) message from the artwork, when the artist's intention was something else entirely (and yet equally intense and valid).

Iris said...

There is no end to all I learn from you Lisa! Content and delivery. Thank you as always!

Vivien Zepf said...

Thought provoking post, Lisa. I think it's important for viewers to come up with their own ideas of the artwork, but I think it's ideal when we can augment them with a better understanding of the artist and the context in which the art was made.

P.S. What did the viewer say after you explained Kristen's quilt?

Lisa Broberg Quintana said...

Kristin and Vivien: she said she changed her mind, that it had so much more to say than just what her initial reaction was.

The graphics are raw (but very striking), just what this quilt needs to make the statement. We are so clued into the visually "beautiful" pieces and often shy away from the pieces which have a statement which hits us between the eyes.

However, the pieces which are the most meaningful and best, I think, are the ones which stay in your mind the longest...and sometimes, it isn't because of color, or texture..or....but because of the statement.

Don't get me wrong, a quilt like Kristin's has to have good elements of design, and hers does...and certainly, beauty or quilts done to explore mood, texture, line, or whatever also have a place, but I think that ones like Kristin's go into a special place.

The viewer's understanding was enhanced and she appreciated it much more. Would she buy it to hang over her breakfast table? Probably not.

Sorry it has taken me so long to get back! Thank you all for your positive comments.

Kristin L said...

I wouldn't hang my quilt over the breakfast table either! Nor the sofa. I'm glad to hear that the viewer walked away with a new perspective -- making a connection is really what it's all about.