Taking the coal out of the fire?
By Tom Wachunas
“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” –Albert Camus
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
Though I didn’t mention him in my review posted here on December 11, one of the artists who deservedly earned an Honorable Mention in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum (still on view through January 5) is William (Bill) Bogdan. His piece, a large black and white woodcut print called Apis 8 – The Beekeeper 5/16, is the first image pictured above. The work is another solid example of Bogdan’s somewhat surreal, stark yet mystical iconography. Here’s a link to a past review of a group show that included his woodcut print called Shadows, also pictured here (below Apis 8): http://artwach.blogspot.com/2013/06/personal-capitulations.html And it’s Shadows that I re-visit here, if only in an indirect way.
During the opening reception for the aforementioned Stark County show on November 2, Bill surprised me with a 60-page booklet comprised of approximately 12 email letters he had written to a friend – David Girves - from his high school days, titled Understanding “Shadows”: A Field Guide,” and subtitled What I was thinking when I made the picture – the Girves-Bogdan Letters 2013. Bogdan’s motivation was, as he put it in his prologue, to “…explain to Dave the mindset of an artist; that is, how I view the world” by meticulously examining the symbols and process behind Shadows.
Here I must point out that the vast majority of you, my readers, are now - and very possibly will forever be - at a great disadvantage in fully appreciating Bill’s remarkable document. My copy is one of just four that he printed. The others were for Mr. Girves, of course, and one each for Lynda Tuttle, of Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center, and Craig Joseph, curator of Translations Art Gallery. Both Tuttle and Joseph have shown Bogdan’s work in the past.
There is certainly enough substance in Bill’s document – something of a mini-autobiography (some of it heartrending), really - to recommend it as an artful work in itself. His transparent, spontaneous writing style, free from arcane artspeak, is so disarmingly honest that he questions the efficacy of his own labors to explain, in words, the significance of his visual symbols. Toward the end, on page 48, he writes, “And this, Dave, concludes my little reading of my art – despite my reservations in imparting my meaning, thus blocking any meaning the viewer may bring to the piece.”
“…little reading…”? Bill’s humility notwithstanding, what makes his effort to communicate the nature of his art so very important to me, far beyond the specific work he addresses, is the sheer largeness of the philosophical questions it raises. For I believe that all artists, at one time or another (some of us constantly so), wrestle with the tenuous relationship between their creative intent and viewers’ perceptions – their “take-away.”
Do we expect artists to routinely translate problematic or challenging visual works into another form (the proverbial “artist statement” for example) so as to resolve viewers’ perplexities? Does such an expectation defeat the purpose or mystique of the art, destroy its essence, or render it powerless? Can artists live comfortably with an outcome wherein what is clearly significant to them may remain inaccessible to others? How much information is “enough” to engage the viewer on a cerebral and/or spiritual plane? Making art can be a risky proposition. Ultimately, all artists must contend with the reality of those viewers who either cannot (through no fault of their own) or will not (intellectual atrophy or willful ignorance?) stretch their own powers of imagination and cognition to appreciate a work of art – especially art of Bogdan’s caliber.
I’m reminded of the questions that vexed theologian C.S. Lewis in his efforts to understand theories of the Eucharist. Is the bread actually the flesh of Christ, the wine his real blood? Lewis wrote that for him, looking too closely at the idea in order to explain it was “… like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.”
Still, if an artist feels compelled to employ written or spoken language in interpreting a visual work, I don’t believe we can take it to mean that the work in question is necessarily incompetent or unsuccessful on its own terms. Nor do I believe that in so doing with Shadows, Bill Bogdan is summarily “blocking any meaning the viewer may bring to the piece.” He is not offering us a dead coal, as it were. Rather, in identifying his specific symbols and process, he draws us further into the glow of his passion.
For me, Bill’s “field guide” is an eminently generous and courageous act.