Saturday, March 8, 2014

Art and Voodoo

Today was beautifully sunny and the smell of fresh spring grass filled the air. The optimistic sound of melting snow could be heard around every corner. The snow that was melting all day today, however, only fell just yesterday... it snowed all day yesterday! To beat the gloomy weight of the gray sky, my husband and I spent the day in Denver. We went to see the brand new exhibit at the Denver Art Museum called "Modern Masters." I'm so glad we went - the exhibit was fantastic and we spent an amazing day exploring the city.   

Frida Kahlo - now on view at the
Denver Art Museum
The art exhibit displayed works that ranged from 1880-1980, demonstrating the trajectory of visual vocabularies throughout the twentieth century. Emiliano remarked that this exhibit would've been the "whole chapter" in an art text book on the 20th century, and I agree with him - all the canonical artists were there, from Georgia O'Keeffe to Roy Lichtenstein. There were several rooms filled with pieces from the early avant-garde of the 10s, 20s and 30s, and other rooms displaying pieces from the avant-garde's subsequent resurgence in the 60s and 70s. Art decorated room after room of gallery space, leading the viewer on a journey through some of the most iconic images of the last century.

I learned so much at this exhibit. For instance, I learned that I am a huge fan of Arthur Dove and Clyfford Still, of Chaïm Soutine and Giacomo Balla. I also had the opportunity to see, for the first time in person, some works with which I already felt a great connection. One of those works was a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. I had never seen her work up-close and personal before, and it was truly a different experience than looking at reproductions in books. To the chagrin of several other museum-goers, I stared at the piece for quite a long while...

Recently, my attention has been so focused on medieval art and writing; perhaps for this reason I found myself shocked and almost overwhelmed with surprise in this exhibit. I had a sense, as I moved from room to room, that the twentieth century was already a distant past of human history - no more distant or near to us as than the medieval. But how can that be? I was born in the 20th century!

The themes and techniques of the Modern Masters on display in Denver seemed, in many ways, to be of a bygone era. The 20th-century sensibility: informed by two world wars and a cold war, death and rebirth on national scales, the advent of the modern car, the dishwasher, the video camera, the home computer, and a moon landing. The demands on artists and art viewers seem to have been so different then - with artists often seeking deliberately to antagonize their viewers and their viewers frequently responding with defiant enthusiasm. The role of the academy even seems to have been more successfully eschewed by artists prolifically producing new aesthetics faster than the academy could appropriate and normalize them.

This feeling that the 20th-century was now a distant past became especially acute when I approached what became one of my favorite pieces of the entire exhibit: "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash" by Giacomo Balla (1912). The study of movement, reproduced in paint almost "frame by frame" in a pre-film art world:
Giacomo Balla - now on view at the Denver Art Museum
Yet at the same time, as I look again at this piece, I realize that maybe the concerns of 20th-century artists are closer than I think. Are we not still grappling with understanding how the world moves and how we witness that movement or mark our time spent moving in it? Isn't that what 21st-century performance art and installation art attempts to address, at least to some extent? What do you think?

While it is true that we now have tiny universes in our palms (smart phones) and that we can photograph or film anything we want whenever we wish, we are still astonished by our own movement, shadow, landscape, transparency, time. Painting is a technology, just like a tablet or a smart phone. We are still obsessed with putting our technologies at the service of artistic aesthetics, still using it to launch ourselves faster into the future of cultural production, evading standardization.

I have so many thoughts on the exhibit and plan to dedicate some future posts to artists that I discovered there. In the meantime, here are some photos from the rest of the day, which included wandering around the permanent collections, grabbing an amazing fish-fry, and then standing in line (in the snow) for about half an hour to experience the mind-blowingly delicious doughnuts of Voodoo Doughnuts.


Until next time - keep rustling!

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