Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Importance of Personal Narrative: Violence by Caravaggio and Tom Otterness

Art is personal. Artwork is tied very closely to the emotions and thoughts of the artist, making it difficult for audiences to objectively view one separately from the other. Because of this, we often teach the two as being intertwined and interdependent. And while this adds a new level of interest it also raises a host of issues regarding the separation of an artist’s life from their work; running into questions such as whether artists who have done horrible things should be allowed to exhibit in public spaces, how much personal experience is required for an artists’ concept to be successful, how we can fairly teach artists’ lives without manipulating information to conform to their work, and more.

One of the things I’ve noticed recently is the importance of an artists’ personal narrative; or rather, a certain type of personal narrative. When we read about artists such as Caravaggio and Gentileschi we view their work as being part of a struggle, as resulting from the personal demons in their lives. Even when it’s not true (Read about Artemisia Gentileschi and how critics and historians unfairly judged and defined her work based on her rape as a young woman here), we like to have a somewhat dramatic, and in a way, romanticized version of what made that person an artist.This narrative can’t be something simple, such as “Sally loved creating artwork, so she went to school and improved her skills, eventually creating an interesting body of work that people enjoyed”. It has to be something that we see as dramatic, traumatic, and exciting, but most of all, it has to fall within the range of accepted narratives. It’s almost as though we live in a sitcom, and we’re looking for tropes defining that character as the artist (Starving artist type? Check. Pretentious speech about the human condition? Check. Acting as a perfect, idealized love interest for the protagonist and gradually expanding their experiences and perspective? Cheeeeeck.)

We want our artists to be complicated yet simple all at the same time.

One of the ways we see the importance and status ascribed to certain personal narratives includes artists who were abusive, violent, and addicts. There are almost too many examples for these categories. I’ve already mentioned Caravaggio, who was known for boozing, brawling, gambling, and–the cherry on top of the dysfunctional sundae–murder.

Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601)

But does that make us want to remove his work from all of the great museums? Does that make us pick up our signs and picket the Met? Hell no! In fact, I’m pretty sure that anyone suggesting such a thing would be laughed out of their job.

There are a few things that I suspect contribute to our indifference towards Caravaggio’s behavior:

  1. It was about 400 years ago. We have trouble viewing the past as something that actually happened, we prefer to view it as a very dramatic, very violent story.
  2. We excuse his behavior because his work is so impressive.
  3. This is a narrative we, as an audience, approve of.
The third point is the one I want to focus on. Violence towards one’s self? Violence towards other human beings? This is the type of artistic narrative we expect, the type of narrative we sometimes condone.
I’d like to contrast this with something currently happening in Rochester. A Brooklyn-based artist, Tom Otterness, has been commissioned to create a sculpture for Memorial Art Gallery’s (MAG) upcoming sculpture garden. Otterness is creating a sculpture of a woman sculpting a man out of clay, a play on the Pygmalion myth.

A digital rendering of the artists' proposal.

The problem is, Tom Otterness shot a dog in a video performance piece thirty years ago.
There’s no denying this is horrible. Shooting a dog is not art, it’s just sick (And this is generally how all comments, articles, and any other types of statements about this issue are prefaced). A lot of people are outraged. There are groups protesting this decision (Actual protesting. Not just online complaints!), there are outraged articles being written, facebook groups being joined, charmingly titled petitions being signed.
But. And this is where articles generally state again that they don’t support violence against animals (Hey guys! I don’t support violence against animals!).
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Women in Art: Rachel Whiteread

Rachel Whiteread is one of those artists whose work you take one look at and just say, “Woah”.

House (1993)

Some artists have a technique that grows on you, that requires time and explanation to understand and appreciate, but not Rachel Whiteread. Her work takes you there the second you lay eyes on it (Or maybe that’s just me? I really enjoy her work).

Whiteread works with negative space. She explores the absence of an object and gives that absence a physical presence. We can see this in one of her most well-known and controversial works, House, which is fairly self explanatory as the concrete cast of the interior of a Victorian home. House is one of those pieces where you love it or you hate it as we see reflected in the widely varied responses to her work. While this piece earned her the 1993 Turner Prize (Arguably Britain’s most prestigious award for young artists, launching many careers) it also brought the K Foundation art award, a prize supposedly given to Britain’s worst artist (The K Foundation award is fascinating. Only given in 1993, it latched on to the Turner Prize’s artists and exhibitions, held shows made of money, burnt money, and was generally outrageous. Read about them here if you get the chance! It’s interesting that this type of performance doesn’t seem absurd today but was met with much clutching of pearls in the 90s. Then again, today we have Lady Gaga and Kesha. We have the tea party. We are not shocked by anything.) House was demolished in 1994.

Kind of interesting that House, a work about absence, was demolished. Does that make the piece weaker (as it no longer exists) or stronger (as it’s absent in physical presence which goes hand in hand with the concept)?

Whiteread is also well known for her controversial holocaust memorial, known asĀ Holocaust Monument or Nameless Library:

Holocaust Monument or Nameless Library (2000)

Her work is well suited for a Holocaust monument. As her works emphasize the idea of absence and death it’s well suited to the purpose and tone of the memorial. In addition, the cast of the library’s walls is composed of rows of books with the texture of the pages captured wonderfully, which many believe is a reference to both the Nazi book burnings and to Jews as a “people of the book”. Unfortunately the piece took five years to complete due to bureaucratic drama. It’s interesting to note that Whiteread’s process leaves pieces of the absent object in her casts; pieces of paper from the books, chipped paint, wallpaper, and tiny scraps of who knows what, they all leave their mark. It’s one of the things that makes her work relatable. We’re not viewing something that’s necessarily too clean and sterile, we’re allowed to see some of the memories, and the process behind the work.

Whiteread doesn’t simply do buildings, although she does tend to lean towards architectural pieces, she’s additionally created smaller, more personal works including bookshelves, doors, sinks, and other household appliances. Take a look:

Untitled (Mattress) (1991)

Untitled (Library) (1999)

Surface (2005)

In addition to working with concrete and plaster she’s also made a number of interesting pieces using resin. These pieces are interesting in that they experience more shifts in appearance depending on the state of the lighting. Apparently they’re especially beautiful outside where their appearance transforms with the sky: Continue reading

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