My stance on modern art has mostly been that I hate it. And I do still hate it, if we’re using the strictest sense of the word “modern.” In my view, art took a sharp decline with Cubism and never bounced back. The aspects I found most lamentable about 20th century art were the lack of technical ability required by some of the major movements (expressionism), the lack of meaning behind the art (Dada-ism), the weirdness factor in some of it (ahem…surrealism), and the just plain ugliness of it (I’m looking at you, Bauhaus).
Art is best when it is beautiful, thought-provoking, and a reflection of its times. For most of my life, beauty has been missing from contemporary art. In recent years, though, I have seen the beauty coming back. I’m so lucky to live near the Speed Museum, which has such wonderful curators. They are willing to demystify the meaning behind modern art. The curators create exhibitions with wonderful new artists who are bringing back technical ability and whose messages aren’t so obstructed by the abstract.
Ebony Patterson is my new favorite. I saw her installation, …while the dew is still on the roses… a few weeks ago with my children. Today I went back in order to linger in the galleries and read all the placards. After taking the time to learn more, I realized that the exhibition is much more than just beautiful. Every detail there has meaning. The gorgeous yet poisonous silk flowers are placed at eye level and interspersed with fragile glass pieces to remind us of our own mortality. The triptych-style compositions of some of the pieces are meant to mirror Western European medieval and religious art. The glittering tapestries and textures contrast with dark themes of violence, death, decay, and victims who are voiceless. It’s symbolism is thought-provoking and beautiful; it’s eye candy, but with depth and meaning. It’s the best kind of art.
After finishing up in the contemporary galleries, I decided to do another walk-through of The American Library by Yinka Shonibare CBE. I had walked through these galleries on the way to a couple of lectures recently, but I hadn’t had time to stop and understand the meaning behind all the books covered in African-style cloth.
The theme of this installation is the way cultures have mixed to make our unique American culture. The fabric that binds the books and clothes the mannequins has come to be associated with Africa, but its origins are Indonesian and it was produced by Dutch companies. Each book is bound with the fabric, and many of the books’ spines are stamped in gold with the name of an American who immigrated here or whose ancestors did, and who contributed to American culture. There are iPads where you can search the names of these people who contributed to the American story.
In the next gallery there were more sculptural, mannequin-like pieces clothed in the colorful African cloth, as well as hanging pieces that looked like they were inspired by Dutch masters, which featured subjects wearing elaborate historical outfits made of the colorful cloth. I love the idea of cultures mixing, and ideas and designs being exchanged and reinterpreted. It’s is a really interesting way to use art to describe the diversity of the cultures in our country.
I’m not sure if the quality of contemporary art is improving, or if museums and curators are just getting better at elucidating its meaning. These two exhibitions at the Speed have made me feel really excited and encouraged about how beautiful contemporary art can be, and what powerful messages it can convey.