Artists who leave meaning to you

In 'Making Sense,' an exhibit at the Contemporary Museum, three artists challenge modernism's assumptions.


June 04, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Contemporary art often seems confusing and difficult to viewers accustomed to the conventions of art in previous eras. A new show at the Contemporary Museum explores the ways three promising younger artists attempt to engage the viewer in the process of making sense of their work.

"Making Sense," an exhibit of paintings, prints, video art and installation by Ellen Gallagher, Liliana Porter and Christian Marclay, asks the viewer to reconsider how we understand the meaning of art.

Gallagher, Porter and Marclay can all be considered postmodern artists in the sense that each challenges the basic assumptions on which modernism rests. This is a vast endeavor that has pervaded the art world over the last generation -- though the jury is still out on how successfully the postmodern critique will live up to its claim to significance. It's useful to recall that modernism, too, encompassed a variety of approaches, some of which proved fruitful and others not.

Even so, many of the key elements of the postmodernist critique of modernism are evident in this show.

For example, the modernist perspective assumed that every work of art had an inherent meaning. But postmodern artists reject that idea, contending that artworks have no definable meaning outside the social, historical, political and linguistic context in which they are created and seen. From the postmodernist point of view, meaning is solely a function of the discourse that surrounds every work of art. Without this dense network of social relations and language, art objects are not only meaningless but also unintelligible.

A poignant pair of pigs

Porter's works attempt to make explicit the idea that art objects have no inherent meaning apart from what the viewer brings to them. Her photographs, prints and short video sequences all use dolls and other toys to create scenarios that involve the viewer emotionally and intellectually in little dramas of his or her own making.

In one video sequence, for example, two toy plastic pigs play a duet on a pair of snare drums for a few seconds. Then a light cloth drops over one of the pigs, ceasing its contribution. The other pig suddenly seems puzzled, anxious and lonely.

These aren't animated cartoons but ordinary toy figures that the artist has photographed in slightly different positions over a number of frames, creating the illusion of rudimentary movement. The painted expressions on the toy pigs' faces remain unchanged.

Yet after the first pig ceases to play, the viewer empathizes with the second little pig's distress and reads what before had appeared to be a happy expression as sad. By such means, Porter demonstrates that our reading of the change of expression in the second pig is wholly a function of the encounter, not an inherent quality of the doll itself.

By itself, the little toy pig is mute and meaningless. Whatever meaning it assumes for us ultimately is the result of our internal dialogue regarding what we already know about loneliness, anxiety and loss.

In one of Porter's paintings, two realistically rendered figures stare at a drop of raw paint suspended on the blank canvas between them. The expressions on both figures' faces seem to reflect dismay, as if they were interrogating the paint drop: "If you are a drop of paint, then what are we?"

The implied dialogue between the figures and drop of paint raises the question of what is real and what is illusion. The irony, of course, is that the raw paint drop is most realistic, while the two figures, which seem to be questioning their own reality, are merely painted illusions.

Porter's art is minimalist in technique; she uses only the simplest of materials and deploys her subjects with a lack of fanfare that borders on naivete. Yet by such means does she plumb the deep questions of how we make sense of what we see. Her answer suggests that we simply see what we already are.

Undercutting images

Gallagher approaches the problem from a slightly different perspective. Her artworks all employ motifs derived from racist stereotypes of African-American features, such as the exaggerated lips and bulging eyes of minstrel-show performers. Gallagher, who is African-American, abstracts these familiar images and recycles them as design elements and conceptual motifs that question the meaning of such signs.

In one painting, for example, Gallagher pastes ruled school notepaper to the canvas and covers it with dozens of rows of tiny images of blubberlips.

By using school note paper, the artist is asserting that such stereotypes are painstakingly learned early in life through constant repetition, just as one learns to draw letters and numbers. But Gallagher is also deconstructing that stereotype by showing that it -- like all stereotypes -- is an abstraction from reality whose meaning depends entirely on the social context that gave rise to it. Considered purely as a shape, the abstract image of fat lips conveys nothing.

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