Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Practical Magic
  by Sara Ellis
January 2006

Conversation; The Real Art of the Art Opening

Should you ever find yourself interested in the newest additions to the contemporary art world, steer clear of art openings. However, if you are interested in free booze, name-dropping, and little pieces of cheese on toothpicks, then step on the gas.

I am a full fledged supporter of the arts, and I enjoy going out a couple times a month to investigate new shows at the various galleries around town. I have my beef with art galleries in general -- especially in America. Most of the time pieces are shown in utterly austere environments. Flat, eggshell walls, rectangular pedestals, and antiseptic lighting do little to set the mood.

I understand the necessity for such functional settings, but I sometimes yearn for the spiritual experiences relayed to me by a friend who had recently returned from Italy. He had visited a museum with original sculptures by Auguste Rodin. He walked through the gardens and into a small clearing, where all alone, draped in sunlight, stood John the Baptist. He wept. He was so inspired by the experience and Rodin's work that he choreographed a ballet consisting of several pieces derived from his sculptures.

I accept that most galleries don't have the luxury of gardens, or Rodins, for that matter; so despite my distaste for pragmatism I venture forth on the noble quest to Look at Art. I usually do this after a show has been around for a little while, because at a really successful art opening, you can't look at the art.

I experienced this first hand a few weeks ago. There is a local venue that hosts several galleries. On certain nights all the galleries open up to the public and you can wander from show to show at your leisure. One of the galleries had a joint opening for two artists: an Icelandic painter, and a photographer better known for his work in front of the lens as a film actor.

While the work itself left something to be desired, the crowd was impressive. After my friend Valerie and I wedged ourselves into the doorway we had to ford a swift river of people to reach the paintings and photographs.

Everyone was dressed to the nines, in Look at Me Los Angeles Style. Valerie commented that it was the largest flock of expensive coats she had ever seen in one room at a time. Men with haircuts more expensive than their girlfriends' designer shoes glanced briefly around the room and made vague comments about Iceland's striking landscape and the use of color before strutting to the open bar and getting down to the real business of the night: being seen.

I think through the course of the evening I got more critical looks than most of the paintings, save one arched compliment that my hat was "the best thing (he'd) seen all night." Valerie, however; failed to be seen by an older woman in blue suede that ran into me and screamed, throwing her red wine all over Valerie's white skirt. Valerie went in search of a bathroom, cursing under her breath that if you're at a crowded art gallery you should only drink white wine if you can't hold your liquor . . . literally.

I work part time in a comic shop and my boss Mark is a local artist. He's had a few openings of his own, so I sought his opinion on the matter. Apparently we are in agreement about the frippery of the art opening.

He told me about an evening opening where he had to park a couple blocks away. Two women parked in front of him and walked to the gallery at the same time. They stopped short of the gallery to mingle with the large crowd outside. It was crowded inside, too. There was a deejay and it was too loud to converse. It took Mark at least thirty minutes to get close enough to some of the pieces, which weren't bad, he kind of liked them. As he left the gallery "those two women were still outside. I am not sure it was that art that really drew them," Mark says, "or the rest of the crowd. I think that is typical."

He also agreed that most people dress to compete with the art, and are frequently successful. I think back to one of the galleries Valerie and I wandered through, but I can more easily conjure the image of the short round man with bleached hair and a poofy black and white fur coat than what the curator had displayed.

Mark explained that people spend approximately one third of one percent of their time looking at the art. They spend the other two thirds of one percent of their time talking about the art. Within the crowd the people that really stand out are the ones that are trying to sound, or actually are really, really hip. The latter being "all the more frightening," says Mark. "Sometimes they will deride or compliment the work by making preposterously obscure references."

So how can we of the casually un-hip blend in with the post post-modern masses? Easy. Make crap up. As long as you sprinkle in a few well placed isms and drop words like iconoclastic and post-war misogyny you'll do just fine.

Don't know your Monet from Manet, your Duchamp from DeKooning? No sweat, here is a quick run down of the basic art movements.

Impressionism: Monet, Renoir, Degas. Sissy art. Soft colors and dream sequence lighting are the trademarks of this movement that is likely to be found hanging in your doctor's office, or your little sister's bedroom.

Post Impressionism: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne. In the closet sissy art.

Expressionism: Munch, Shiele. Almost any artist with a German name is likely to be an expressionist.

Cubism: Picasso. If you don't see actual cubes you'll probably see body parts in the wrong places.

Surrealism: Dali. This movement and what constitutes genuine surrealism is subject to a lot of debate. It is supposed to be expressions of the unconscious mind, but most people just give up and accept Dali as surrealist. It's likely to be high brow fantasy, like dolphins in space. Highly intellectual dolphins in space. Exploding out of a woman's face.

Abstract Expressionism: Pollock, DeKooning, Rothko. Often the pieces that people exclaim a five year old could do.

Pop: Lichtenstein, Warhol. Comic books and candy labels, but bigger

Minimalism: Hrm...You don't really tend to remember the names of guys that make big red squares.

Dada: Duchamp, Ernst. The anti-art. Almost any art that seems to be making fun of you. It can be anything from a toilet installation to throwing potato salad at innocent bystanders.

I have purposely omitted concept art from the list because, frankly, I wish it would die. It seems to be ubiquitous in contemporary art galleries, a fact that disgusts me unless the art is big. Really stinking huge pieces are the only concept pieces I can stand. Everyone's seen an otherwise blank canvas painted with the word DUCK, but if that DUCK was sixteen feet tall? Beautiful.

I asked Mark to define concept art for me, (can you hate something you can't describe?) and he explained it thusly: Art can be broken down into two parts. Form and content. Concept art is where they try to make it all content. The idea is the most important thing. There is no discussion over color, composition, or balance. What does it mean, that is the main thing.

I thanked Mark for the overview so he could get back to work. Before I left he turned around in his chair with an afterthought.

"Actually, I think you can break down art into three parts. Form, content, and pretension."

Art and pretension will forever be bedfellows, but don't let that stop you from exploring what's out there. Occasionally you get lucky and find something that really touches you. For everything else, I offer you the perfect last words to any art opening gone awry, to be spoken with utter disdain. You can still be derogatory while not technically insulting anyone.

Gesture vaguely around the room, straighten your fuchsia beret, and declare,

"I'm beneath this." Walk out as if everyone were watching you.

They will be.

If you live or will be visiting in Southern Califorrnia, come brave an opening on February 18th that is guaranteed to have good art, including the works of Jason Alexander.

February 18th

Subject Matter
2930 Bristol St. Suite A101
Costa Mesa, Ca 92626
Ph: 714-668-9887
Web: www.subjectmattergallery.com

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