Spot On: Guilt by Association

By Patrick Collier

The first word that popped into my head was “rococo.”

I was in Elizabeth Leach’s front gallery looking at Willy Heeks’ large-scale paintings, and to describe the work with this single word would be going out on a limb. The flora represented in the work is more  Art Nouveau than Rococo, even though Heeks appears to have stenciled branches of leaves in some of the paintings. However, considered as a fractal-like counterpoint to the mathematics of the Baroque, the label might hold.

Might. As a strictly historical reference, “rococo” is inadequate, for these works were neither ornate nor embellished in that tradition. Nevertheless, they were a bit too much for my eyes to take in, a sensory overload, which is why the word came to my mind in the first place. Merely a loose association.

And I must say I wasn’t overwhelmed by the work. The paintings felt… unfinished? No, that wasn’t it, and I shouldn’t be so presumptuous. If anything, they maybe could have used some editing. There were some rather nice passages in the pieces, more than snippets, mind you, as if each canvas was a page of notes with its own set of annotations, some more developed than others toward a thesis, yet all left on the page as a testament to the process toward that theme.

In this light, the title for the exhibit, “My Findings,” seemed wholly appropriate, and with that, the piece entitled, “The Finding,” is the most successful of the bunch.

Willy Heeks, “The Finding,” Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Some of the titles of other pieces in the show—“The Eccentric Study,” Present Meanings,” and “The Research”—suggest I am not too far off the mark. If not, then this is a most courageous exhibit, every painting besides “The Finding”  a provisional part of a process culminating in that one piece. Yes, artists know that this is how it gets done, but can the audience be expected to have the same faith in the journey? And will buyers refrain from fighting over that one painting when the rest, while perhaps pivotal to the process are, as the artist seems to indicate, not wholly realized?

On the other hand, viewers often appreciate and engage more when they understand the process, though a subtle artistic hand requires the availability of a subtle mind on the receiving end, just as a rote gesture allows understanding for those of scarred knuckles and dull countenance. Much exists between these extremes, including determinations of the curatorial kind, which in this case have made for a smooth transition to Leach’s back gallery and Robert Hudson’s recent sculpture.

The abstracted flourishes that Heeks does with paint, Hudson lyrically wields in metal, and in that the Rococo movement is perhaps more popularly known for its three dimensional design, the association persists. Yet, another word forces its way into my assessment of the work: “glut.”

Robert Hudson, “Loop Mask,” Elizabeth Leach

As Rococo is typified as excessive, Robert Rauschenberg owns welded found metal because of his “Glut” series. But this is a subjective reference I would not expect all to share, and for that matter, Hudson’s work more closely resembles that of John Chamberlain. There have been many artists similarly inspired by these materials, if only for their ready availability and the direct commentary that their ubiquity allows, and rightfully so, if only to make someone’s junk into art.

Although Hudson’s work shares similarities with the above two artists, his sculptures can almost be seen as drawings. They are decidedly more representational, and perhaps a bit more whimsical as well. The titles for the pieces offer us clues as to what we should look to see, or rather, try to find in the work. It should also be noted that several of Hudson’s pieces can be spun on their bases.

***

Although I’m bringing a little art history to bear on Heeks and Hudson, I have to admit to a comparative deficit in that particular field of study. This is why, no doubt, I play the association game, as a way to gain access to the work. Nevertheless, and not unlike my knuckle-dragging friends above, exposure hopefully allows for some modicum of knowledge to stick, upon which I can then build. (I suppose this is a hope we all share, artist, arts writer and any other sentient being alike. To actually do so is entirely another matter.)

By way of another example, Ben Young’s work at Victory Gallery suggested his familiarity with Jean-Michel Basquiat and the history of a graffitied wall. It was the latter that intrigued me, for as slapdash and over-painted as the work seemed, it was the the technique of painting over that left me with the most questions. Several of the pieces seem to be caught midway  through the process of obliteration, much in the same manner a municipal crew might set about painting over graffiti on the wall of a public building. It was as if these paintings had been rescued from that fate, but to what end?

Ben Young, “Gasol,” Victory Gallery

It may help knowing that the bulk of the paintings are two and three years old. A look at Young’s website confirms what might be anticipated: Much of what is on display at Victory, while finished work, is transitional. The change can already be seen in “Gasol,” but later works have less of a trace of precursors. While steeped in a similar aesthetic, Young manages to do more with less, which to my mind shows a confidence and insight that matches his industry.

To misquote Santayana, those who do not know history are unable to reference it.  Making associations, and hence, inevitable comparisons with other artists might be considered unfair; or, inasmuch as the work is of one artist’s making, regardless of any inspiration from predecessors or contemporaries, it must be assessed on its own merits. While not always an easy or necessary task, both the artist and art critic must somehow get beyond the echoes of art history. After all, without doing so, creativity and analysis remain cursory.

3 Responses.

  1. Mat Gleason says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of judging a work based on its extant self and not an artificial context of history, a fool’s construct which is no more than a series of fantasies, tall tales and manipulations of legends to serve any number of agendas.

  2. It is nice to hear someone critic an artists work. Rather than take was is being shown in galleries. Many artists try to make edgy work that is marketable. I try to make art that speaks in a Universal language, the more and diverse people I can reach is how i measure success of a work. You cannot fake art there is no where to hide. I try to answer great artists of the past by developing my voice, also knowing when to stop is very important .. thanks for your time.

  3. The key word in your comment, Mat, is “agendas.” We all have them (I traffic in truisms), which may be the biggest disclaimer a writer can make, yet it largely goes either unsaid or is used to build an apologia of sort. Critics and historians are equally guilty. Educators too.

    Similarly, to suffer under the illusion we have an obligation to make a case that will be seen as the “final word” on an artist’s work disregards a more productive endeavor: To draw some meaning and purpose from the art we write about, regardless of the motivations for doing so, should be recognized in the end as a learning experience (for all), and inasmuch, it must proceed with certain degree of humility, along with a generosity of spirit to match.

    That said, cynicism also has its place.

    And Adolph, good luck with your work.

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