The main exhibit at the Guggenhiem when I visited in early March 2012 was the work of sculptor John Chamberlain (April 16, 1927 – December 21, 2011). His signature media of steel junked car parts formed the bulk of the exhibit, though I also noted a few pieces that used polyurethene foam tied together with string.
I found myself feeling alternately fascinated, annoyed, and amused by the artist and his work. Chamberlain was a noted wild man in his heyday. Getting arrested after a major exhibit for fighting with a police officer was only one of his escapades. He left studies at the School of the Art Insitute of Chicago after arguing with his professors and accusing them of being narrow minded. He insisted that he worked with no thought of its meaning, and was clearly irked by the ever-present associations of the auto industry and car crashes with his sculptures. He claimed he used junked auto parts because there was a lot of the material lying around. Perhaps my favorite story associated with his work is that several of his sculptures were carted off to the trash as they were sitting outside of a gallery, waiting to be brought in for exhibition.
All of this definitely added to Chamberlain’s allure in my mind. Irreverence is a character trait I personally admire. On that note, I had to wonder if his foam pieces were a “screw you” kind of joke on his patrons. When I saw one at the Guggenheim, I couldn’t stifle my laughter. It seriously looked exactly like the foam mattress I had myself tied up and put in the garage. I really couldn’t see what was going on with it, other than looking like, well, a junky tied-up foam mattress. Its form was not dynamic in any way. I don’t think it was conceptual art. I think it may have just been crappy art. A joke, conceptual art, crappy art… personally I feel if the viewer finds herself tossing these terms around to describe someone’s artwork, something is likely wrong.
His steel sculptures were another story. They do indeed look like abstract impressionist paintings in 3D. Twisted, huge, hulks of color and metal, they forced me to stand up and take notice. In fact, there was so much energy in his work, I could feel it propelling me excitedly from piece to piece. Some art invites you in slowly contemplate every nuance. Chamberlain’s sculptures made me want to circle round excitedly, jump up and down, run back and forth… which I think I did actually, probably to the consternation of the other art admirers at the museum that day. The sculptures are vibrant, colorful, full of energy, full of life.
As a welder, I did peer closely to see if I could determine how his pieces were put together. There was nothing special about the welding, but I really have no idea how he twisted the metal to meet his exact idea of what each piece should look like. At first I thought he must be just making them on the fly, but the maquettes on display proved me wrong.
I read later Chamberlain veered from the steel car-parts sculptures to foam and other media only for a shot time in the middle of his career, and then went back to the car parts. I opine that this was a good decision, for the energy, color, and form of the sculptures made from this signature media are unique and arresting.
While in NYC, one of our first and most coveted stops was to the Museum of Modern Art. While inside, I could not help but feel my heart beat stronger as I saw up close the works of some my favorite artists. However, I was also intrigued by how, upon seeing certain artists’ works up close, I became a new fan of work I had before not been so interested in.
Henri Rosseau (1844-1910) surprised me. I had seen examples of his work in print, but being in the presence of both “The Dream” and “The Sleeping Gypsy” brought up a wonderful feeling of joy that totally took me off guard.
Rousseau is known as a post-impressionist “primitive” artist. He was self-taught, and did not seriously begin to paint until he was in his forties. His work is seen as being dimensionally flat, colorful, and dreamlike, with exotic subjects that were trending as artists began to explore European colonies.
What grabbed me in the MoMA about Rousseau were the vividness, in person, of the dream Rousseau was presenting. The paintings were large, intensely colored, and I felt as if I could walk closer to them and more magic would be imparted to me. In print, the images seem interesting, if not only for the subject. In person, they were mesmerizing.
Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) work was in the same room as Rousseau – in fact, they were friends while they were alive. Frankly, I hadn’t given Picasso much thought in many years. He is such a standard, and I think after I had been to the Picasso Museum in Paris when was younger, I had been properly blown away and then tucked the memory of his work into the recesses of my brain.
But seeing Picasso’s work in the MoMA rejuvenated my admiration. When I had first seen Picasso’s paintings up close, I had not been an art student. I had not come nose-to-nose with the brushstrokes as I did now. I was surprised how loose his strokes were, how confident. Seeing “Ma Jolie” and “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” showed me what a master he really was.
What I find interesting about both Picasso and Rousseau is how the legends built around their personalities and personal histories has influenced the popularity of their art. It is rare for art to be appreciated for itself alone; the life of the artist is almost always as infinitely picked over as the asthetic aspects of the work. Rousseau’s reputation as an “untrained” artist made him all the more fascinating; Picasso’s romantic & political life and talent for self-promotion are also tasty subjects for conversation. Sometimes, I struggle with this, and believe that these legends deserve to be forgotten and let the work stand alone. And yet I also know that the interpretation of the context in which the artist created can provide another important aspect of the art itself. Regardless, seeing the works of Rouseeau and Picasso were fascinating to see in person.
Putting on an exhibit of WNMU student work in New York City was just fabulous, and our experience was undoubtedly a total success. We were two students (Anna Davis and moi) and a faculty adviser (Peter Bill) in New York for a week, during Spring Break 2012. The exhibit was the heart of the trip, though we also had a serious agenda of attending museums and galleries.
I’d been to Manhattan before, and to some of its museums, but having my own work shown during our stay there changed the tenor of our visit. We weren’t just observing and taking notes as diligent art students. We were participating in the very pulse of the art scene, adding our own lifeblood, changing the color and sounds of the city for anyone who saw our work. And when I walked in to galleries, festivals, and museums as the trip progressed, I held my head a bit higher, and I felt like I could meet this city and any artist in it eye to eye. That was an amazing feeling.
Our preparation for the trip was crucial, and everything we did paid off. Midterms very not conveniently were right before our trip, and as we neared our final day of class, I was practically living in the lab and felt like I was close to losing my grip. So, Lesson 1: set deadlines, in stone, far away from exams. Still, we were pretty organized. I had set up a spreadsheet on Google Docs, and we had a schedule for each day of the trip, including setup and breakdown of the exhibit. We tested all our equipment beforehand. The rear-projection screen (Anna’s wax paper innovation) worked. The DVD player worked. The projector worked. The RCA cables worked. Our DVD looped properly. Remotes and extension cords were packed. We were ready.
However, as much as we tested everything beforehand, there were still aspects of the exhibit left, somewhat, to chance. We could only bring what we could fit in a large suitcase ($25 charge, thank you very much US Airways), and there were items that we would need to get on location. This worried me. I lost sleep thinking about what could go wrong. What if our bag was held up at the airport? What if we couldn’t hang our 9’ x 7’ screen from the ceiling or walls of the gallery? And on and on. We had pored over specs at length of our space, but… it was hard to believe it would all work out.
As it turned out, everything was fine. We arrived early to the Phoenix airport, giving security plenty of time to ponder our plethora of electronics. Once in New York, we bought a dowel for the screen at a hardware store near the exhibit space, and with a little duct tape, wire, and troubleshooting the sound system, we were set up in about two hours. When I stood outside our finished window display, watching the passersby slow down and taking in our student work, I felt like I had a burst of energy that went right to my ambition and my pride. Which, as an artist, can be a hard feeling to come by.
We pulled off the first WNMU exhibit in New York, and that is no small thing. Anna and I sat talking in the dark gallery space after we broke it down, and we both realized, we could do this again. We could do it in New York or anywhere, we could do solo exhibits, we could do group exhibits, installations, interactive media. What can I say? We did it, we did it, we did it! Of all the experiences I have had as an art student, this really has had the most impact on what I know I can accomplish.
Elizabeth (BJ) Allen