Art can ask a lot from us. It can be naive, ugly or unyielding, resist the paradigm of art itself and court controversy with no apparent contriteness. Engaging with it can not only represent a challenge, but feel pointless. This is true for even the most erudite art lover.
How then, can we meaningfully engage with mind-boggling art? A good place to start is by thinking of it as a puzzle. The key to this puzzle may sit with the subject, medium or materiality; it may also relate to the context in which the work was created, like an utterance made in conversation. More interesting still, is that the quality that deters viewers sometimes be the key to understanding. Why is that work so ugly, strange or childlike? Because that’s the point.
Why is it ugly?
Some conflate art with beauty. While art is and can be beautiful, the beauty it offers us is not always visual, existing instead in the illumination of an idea, experience or truth. To expect all art to be visually joyful, would be to miss the spectrum of ways it feeds, challenges and reveals us.
Anne Marie Hall’s ‘Schizophrenic Tart’ for example, is no beauty queen - and that’s the point. Rather, frantically dancing with buggy out eyes, Hall’s subject embodies the neurotic dance we perform everyday; the psychological impossibility of fulfilling all the roles imposed upon us. Feminist theorist Simone de Beavoir’s words come to mind:
“Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis.”
The visual fraughtness of ‘Schizophrenic Tart’ is thus not a failing of Hall’s, but an emotive strategy. She is giving a pointed voice to the subjective experience of womanhood.
Is that just a copy?
Appropriation in art has a long and storied history. It gained traction when Marcel Duchamp plonked a mass-produced urinal in a gallery and called it art. In the 1980s, feminist artists like Sherrie Levine copied the work of famous male artists in their critique of historical inequality. Both Duchamp and the feminists used appropriation as a way to challenge the dominant meaning of an image, imploring us to see it anew.
In his work, Philippe Le Miere follows suit, filtering Modernist masterpieces through the accumulation of history. His practice is “data driven”, steered by what works glean the most at auction. What do you think he’s trying to reveal by appropriating auction record-breakers?
In his renditions of Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Shaike Snir raises questions of originality, authenticity and authorship. He applies a Warholian lens to emphasise how the ‘Mona Lisa’ has been commodified, reproduced ad infinitum. She is severed from her original context and like an image dispersed online, absorbed by the audience. In echo of Warhol’s Marilyn Munroe, Snir’s Lisa is a close cropped head, preserved in a strange, technicolour palette.
If you were to judge Sonia Payes’s ‘Porn #7’ by its title, you may be anticipating something blue. Upon sight however, this expectation melts; this is not porn, it’s a dance of ambiguity. Captured at the 2004 Mardi Gras, ‘Porn #7’ invites us inside a moment, distilled in intensified terms. Intimacy, heat and desire permeate.
As one critic put it, Payes both “seduces and challenges the audience, beckoning them into a world of heightened sensation.” At once a historical document and aesthetic experience, there’s no need to blush at ‘Porn #7’.
Is that a blob, scribble or circle?
“A child could have painted that”. We’ve heard it before - and it’s not necessarily wrong. As Pablo Picasso once wryly noted, “I spent four years trying to paint like Michelangelo and a lifetime trying to paint like a child”. This desire is echoed by Roar artist David Larwill, whose lively free-form compositions take after children’s drawings. He admired the spontaneity of their creation; the directness with which little ones transcribe experience.
David Rankin’s ‘Summer Headland’ may look like just a scribble. Where’s the beach, sky and seagulls? For Rankin however, the landscape is not about visual specificities; it’s about a feeling. His gestural landscapes, inspired by the Aboriginal concept of place, all over painting and Asian cultures, evoke how it feels to confront the land’s sublimity.
While Rankin’s work still alludes to reality, not all art follows suit. Hard-edge abstractionists like Sydney Ball for example, are not interested in representing reality at all. On the contrary, their modus operandi is about form in and of itself; like an aural composition, he arranges shapes in a visual symphony.