Respecting the Art
By Tom Wachunas
First, consider the following statement from Robert Smithson, a highly seminal influence in the proliferation of, among other 1970s art forms, Earthworks. Here’s the beginning of his 1972 essay, “Cultural Confinement,” originally published in Artforum magazine:
“Cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition, rather than asking an artist to set his limits. Artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories. Some artists imagine they've got a hold on this apparatus, which in fact has got a hold of them. As a result, they end up supporting a cultural prison that is out of their control. Artists themselves are not confined, but their output is. Museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells- in other words, neutral rooms called "galleries." A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world. A vacant white room with lights is still a submission to the neutral. Works of art seen in such spaces seem to be going through a kind of esthetic convalescence. They are looked upon as so many inanimate invalids, waiting for critics to pronounce them curable or incurable. The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of society. Next comes integration. Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise. Innovations are allowed only if they support this kind of confinement.”
On one level, Smithson’s fraught words read like a manifesto sounding the potential death knell of a long-standing exhibition system, woefully declaring the impotence of white-walled art galleries. He paints a picture, as it were, of artists as powerless victims, indeed prisoners, of a stifling paradigm that in turn renders their art powerless, “…reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise.” I sense also a veiled insult to the viewing public, as if we’re merely a herd of unscrupulous shoppers, incapable of discerning relevance and meaning in the art we encounter in a gallery.
Say what you will about the state of contemporary art in a blatantly consumerist culture such as ours, the fortunate fact of the matter is that real art galleries are still very much with us…just not so much in the general Canton area. With the exception of The Canton Museum of Art, The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, along with Ikon Images Gallery and The Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography in downtown Canton, the venues regularly promoted as displaying visual art in Canton’s so-called arts district aren’t actual, dedicated galleries at all. For the most part they’re retail stores wherein an honest experience of art can be all but completely smothered by the frenetic clutter of diversionary commodities and entertainments surrounding it. I’ve always preferred undistracted encounters with genuinely engaging artworks, in a clean setting designed solely for that purpose. If that sounds too much like cultural snobbery, so be it.
In any case, I’m elated to tell you of the recently opened William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Visiting Artist Gallery, located in the Fine Arts Building on the Kent State University at Stark campus. Whew. That’s a mouthful. Henceforth in future ARTWACH posts, I’ll be referring to the space simply as The Lemmon Gallery.
Thanks to the thoughtful design specifications by Jack McWhorter, Associate Professor of Painting and Coordinator of the Kent Stark Art Department, here is a new, pure space, stunning in its simplicity, its airiness, its pristine and elegant neutrality. It’s a superb example of what a true art gallery should be and, Mr. Smithson’s perceptions notwithstanding, certainly not where exhibited works would lose their charge or become ineffective.
On the contrary, this is precisely where viewers can and should disengage from the corruptions and distractions of their outside world long enough to really see and savor the art on its own terms. Welcome, then, to a place where art is presented not as incidental visual fodder but rather a wholly satisfying feast for the eyes and mind.
The art visible in the photos above is that of visiting artist Carol Diamond, on view through September 21. Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Friday, 12:00 to 5:00 p.m. Look for my review of the exhibit here in a few days.