Growing up in blue-collar Glasgow in the ‘60s and ‘70s I was never really exposed to modern and contemporary art genres, at least from an intended artistic perspective. In fact, I don’t think I truly experienced avant-garde creativity until I was well into my twenties and that would’ve probably been somewhere else entirely, like Canada. There may well have been a thriving modernist community and movement afoot in my hometown but I had never had an introduction nor had I stumbled upon it.
Like most, I use art categorization terms sloppily and interchangeably even though there is chronological sequence intended by Modern, Post Modern and Contemporary. What I refer to spontaneously as modern is properly labeled contemporary: The art du jour, the new cutting-edge stuff. It always surprised me that our modern art is what my grandfather would have grown up with, should he ever have had the notion to care about anything so impractical back in the early hardscrabble 1900s.
I took art in high school, and from what I sketchily recall, we seemed to focus on impressionism and post impressionism, which did leave me with the unique impression that the greats were narrowly definable as Van Gogh, Modigliani and the like. Later, when first introduced to contemporary works I was, for the most part, dismissive and to a lesser degree, a little disdainful. I wondered why communities would devote such extensive resources as buildings and personnel to accommodate confounding randomness. Old battered paint cans strewn about, wrecked cars brought from the dump to be displayed with great care, complete with do not touch signs, or [insert your own inaugural new wave favorite here].
In large part, my father shaped my formative contemporary artwork experience. “Are you guarding that?” he once asked a serious-looking, neatly-dressed guard who was standing vigilantly over what appeared to be yard-sale remnants scattered across the floor in Washington DC’s Museum of Modern Art. Certainly we have all had one of those WTF moments with the white paint on the white canvas hanging on the white wall.
But over time I have developed a keen interest and, indeed, perhaps a fascination with contemporary artworks, albeit more with some approaches than others. I find works that immerse or envelop me, literally and figuratively, can be highly enjoyable, and nowadays for the most part I’m looking to experience more than room after room of two-dimensional drawings or paintings hung on walls. I like it when it engages and involves me, when I can meander through it, sit in the middle or at the edge of it, hear it, touch it, or use it as some kind of outlandish backdrop.
I like it when it shines light on me and anyone standing next to me, and when it causes me to stop and think, what’s going on here? I like to be challenged to actually go read the little placard to see if I guessed the meaning or, at the very least, the appropriate theme or label. In conventional museums I usually only feel moved to read the placard to see when an artist died. But after all that contemplative speculation, scrutiny, assessment and half-educated guesswork I’m often met with untitled. Why bother with the placard? Here’s a guy who spent months on some big piece of expressive something and you’re left to figure it all out for yourself—what it means to you. At that point I usually reach my investigative terminus, give a faintly detectable shrug and move on to analyze the next mystery. At least give me a hint, point me in the overall direction. All that hard work and I’m left thinking he just likes big rectangles.
Some pieces that I remember vividly, months or years later, ascend toward art-world legend in my mind. About twenty years ago I recall an exhibition in Ottawa, where the artist had spent year after year covering miscellaneous items in successive layers of plaster to the point where a dead fish or an old shoe had now become large unidentifiable, amorphous white-bandaged blobs. But that wasn’t the best part: When entering the room the lights went off plunging the exhibit into total darkness, which was immediately accompanied by loud sound-surround maniacal laughter. You felt awkward and guilt-ridden at first, when you triggered it coming in, but then you joined in laughing heartily at the next unsuspecting punter. Now, Rembrandt’s Night Watch doesn’t do that for you.
Certainly you wonder how some of these objets d’art will mature, become more valuable with age and make their way through coveted private collections. I can’t really imagine Christies auctioning off the mumified fish sometime in the next century. “A unique presentation of vaguely identifiable forms, each developed with the artist’s recognizable and repeatable motif. Every alluring shape offers powerful expressions that are entrancing but gloomily evocative of the effects of immutable, growing, sedimentary layers of time. Includes an automatic 200-Watt light switch, 50 feet of cable and a CD player.”
Some exhibits where I have recently relished embeddlement are Tasmania’s MONA, Bangkok’s MOCA, Sydney’s MCA, Bangalore’s NGMA and the newly refurbished Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. Pressed to pick one intriguing exhibit from each would I would choose MONA’s vagina wall, MOCA’s powder puff girls, MCA’s Grayson Perry ceramics, NGMA’s Radhakrishnan bronzes, and the Renwick’s big bizarre ceiling net, which is part of the Wonder exhibit. That said, I’m off next to the Het Noordbrabants Museum to indulge in the devilish Renaissance works of Hieronymus Bosch, assembled in celebration of his life, five hundred years ago.