Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Best Show Yet, Or Why Haven’t There Been Better Ones?

Freya Grand, "Gulfoss," oil on canvas, 2002

By Jim Creckhorn

When I saw the work going up in the long hallway on the way to the Katzen Museum, I got really excited. The text for the show had not yet been posted, and I asked several people, “What is this work for? What is this show?” I was particularly excited to see work by some artists with whom I was familiar only from online encounters (Suzanna Fields, Susan Jamison, and Rosemarie Fiore, to name a few).

I soon learned that this body of work was for the Washington Project for the Arts Annual Art Auction Gala, which is on display in conjunction with a small show on the first floor of the museum, “Selections from the WPA ArtFile.” In viewing this (tiny) show, my favorite works were by Betsy Shaw who created small block paintings, which projected from the wall. Shaw’s paintings looked like they might deal with microorganisms as subject, and I was interested in the way she painted the sides of the paintings, emphasizing the paintings’ identities as objects. I also enjoyed the mysterious narrative I tried to create as the result of looking at Freya Grand’s “Gullfoss.”

So there were a few pieces in the museum that I spent time with, but I continued to find myself stopping to study several pieces in the hallway/Gala show. I had conversations with quite a few classmates and undergraduate students as well, about our excitement over and interest in the hallway art.

After a few days of this, I began to feel amused by the fact that the Katzen museum’s art I have been most interested in viewing was not even on display in the Katzen museum. I was amused by this, but I am starting to feel annoyed.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of the Katzen Museum. Since I’ve been a student at AU, my feelings about the museum have ranged from mild puzzlement to enraged befuddlement. “Why is this being shown here?” is a question I have asked myself on more than one occasion, and the few times I have actually voiced my concern, I have been met with something more or less along the lines of “He went to school with so-and-so,” or “She used to be a teacher here.”

Don’t get me wrong: Botero was a big deal. Botero was a HUGE deal… because he is Botero. And the subject matter of that show was particularly timely and important. That work was difficult to view, and I believe this was in line with the artist’s intent. But it was Botero, and he was making “Boteros.” I would have been more impacted by the show if Botero had chosen to create work focused on Abu Graib without his typically stylized figures. Had he not chosen to create such easily commodified work, I would have given more attention to the content of the show, and less to the artist, which would have seemed appropriate, BUT it was BOTERO.

To some degree, art appreciation is a matter of taste, so I realize I am commenting on my own sensibilities when I write that some of the shows in the museum since I have been at AU have just been god-awful. Why is it necessary to create large-size paintings using a grid of ovals to veil some sort of squiggly abstract expressionist wannabe conglomeration of paint blobs and spray paint and glitter? Okay, so maybe the artist wanted to see what would happen. Fine- much artmaking could be considered experimental in the sense that an artist “just wanted to see what would happen if” he or she made whatever. BUT why show it in a museum? How am I, as a viewer, supposed to interact with this work? “Wow, that’s a lot of ovals…” This is the kind of work that gives artists a bad name: it doesn’t look like anything, it’s not apparently about anything, and it’s ugly. Again, I ask, why show it in a museum?

“Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators” meant well, but it suffered for me, because I had so recently seen “WACK!” “Some” American feminist originators just weren’t enough, and I remember so many more examples of formally satisfying work represented by the “WACK!” show than by the Katzen’s exhibit. The main thing I recall about “Claiming Space” was a lot of ugly, flat paint. This is not to say that was all the show consisted of- hardly; however, this was my overall impression of the show, “ugly, flat paint” was my main memory. So once again, my complaint about the Katzen comes down to a matter of taste. (I much prefer beautiful flat paint to ugly flat paint.)

So we’ve had work that was not about anything and that was ugly, and we’ve had work that was about really important things that was ugly. Is this part of the Katzen’s mission statement as a museum: challenge viewers’ aesthetic values so much that they don’t want to look anymore? Though they didn’t even really want to look in the first place? Actually, Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the Katzen Museum has quite a different vision for the space:

“…As we celebrate our second birthday, we are not only walking, we are running! This year we will present 26 exhibitions that mirror AU's aspirations to be the premier Washington-based, global university. Our programming puts the best art of our region in a national and international context. Our collections enable us to present the art history of Washington, while our Kunsthalle attitude brings the most provocative art of our time to our place.” (as quoted from the Katzen Museum’s website)

I would suggest that, if this is really the goal for the Katzen Museum, that the museum secure a more consistent collaboration with the WPA, because the shows of WPA-based work currently on display have been the most successful in coming anywhere near this statement of purpose out of anything I have seen (or have heard about) exhibited on AU grounds.

Unless “Kunsthalle” actually means “We don’t give a crap.”

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