Both Lassies came home

Artscape: This year, dogs were out in full force, but in a previous year, canine hero look-alikes were met with official contempt.

Fine Arts

July 13, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A merciful break in the heat made the weather glorious Sunday for this year's Artscape Festival. Wandering among the crowds, I noticed that many people were out with their pets.

No one bothered them, but the sight of so many dogs with their masters reminded me of an incident from a previous Artscape involving my own beloved pooches.

We had taken our two collies, Simon and Bridget, to Artscape that year, decked out with ribbons in their hair and colorful leashes. Lots of people came up to pet them, and invariably they compared them to the Lassies of television, movie and book fame. After a while, we were all feeling a little glow of reflected glory; Simon seemed on the point of handing out autographs.

That's when the police stepped in.

A stern-faced officer informed us that dogs were prohibited on the Artscape grounds. He directed us to leave immediately on pain of fine or imprisonment.

I am not one to ignore a direct order from the cops, but it did occur to me that, given the lighthearted mood of the afternoon, perhaps we might have grounds for appeal.

"Surely officer you would not evict Lassie, one of the greatest canine actresses of all time, from this event honoring our city's commitment to the arts," I began.

"Lassie has graciously consented to lend her presence here today, accompanied by her mate, in order to underscore the importance of the arts to our children, our future and, indeed, to our daily lives."

As if on cue, Bridget, who did a fair Lassie impersonation, ran up and sniffed the officer's shoe.

"Out," he said.

And so we departed, exiled from the festival of the arts.

I had a flash of a headline on the next day's front page: "Lassie Kicked Out of Artscape!" or some such. But then I stopped dreaming, drove the dogs home and gave each of them a nice, juicy bone to take away the sting of humiliation after their ordeal.

The absence of titles

Walters Art Gallery curator Joaneath Spicer points out that my complaint in this year's Artscape review about artists not titling their work raised an interesting issue.

"The fact is, artists aren't usually too concerned about titles," Spicer said. "Titles are more important to curators, because they are the ones who have to catalog and describe the works. Most paintings have titles only because curators or catalogers have given them one."

So what should a title tell you? I considered the question in light of Sarah Vezina's whimsical installation, "Nut and Bolts," in the Decker Gallery at Mount Royal Station.

The piece consists of a small space decorated with nut-and-bolt pattern wallpaper and filled with soft fabric constructions sewn into the shapes of screws, nails, nuts and bolts.

"My father was a contractor, so I grew up around all these tools and materials," Vezina said in a recent interview. "And I guess the piece is a little about sex, too."

My question is: Who'da thunk it? How can a viewer glean the details of Vezina's family history from this piece, or know for sure that it's about sex rather than, say, sewing?

The title doesn't really help, because Vezina's piece isn't really intended to depict nuts and bolts in quite the same way as a painting by Winslow Homer, for example, is intended to depict a boat on the open ocean.

Rather it aims to create an experience for the viewer that is beyond words and, in a sense, beyond "subect" matter.

One can say Homer's picture is "about" man's smallness and nature's vastness. But "Nuts and Bolts" is not, strictly speaking, "about" anything except the experience the viewer has in the encounter with the artwork.

The experience has to do with some sort of transformation that takes place in the viewer through his or her meeting with the cheerful, patterned wallpaper and fluffy stuffed objects.

A piece like "Nuts and Bolts" means whatever it means only in and through that encounter. When Vezina told me it was "maybe about sex" I felt my own response to the piece had been vindicated, though I still don't understand precisely how or why I knew that.

I do know that contemporary art does not at all depend primarily on our visual sense -- of line, color, form, etc. -- in the same way the art of earlier eras did. It is an art that exists beyond purely visual meanings that can be summed up neatly in a "subject."

What's new about contemporary art is that it employs a rhetoric of intuition and emotion that exists beyond words and titles. All art demands that we listen to our hearts. The new art asks us not only to trust what the eye sees but also what the heart tells us.

(In last week's review of Artscape, two paintings in the Harlem Renaissance style were incorrectly identified. "Lady Singin' the Blues" and "Jammin' at the Playground" are by Gary A. Mullen.)

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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