Bending steel into a human allegory

A sculpture for Artscape exemplifies the event's focus on the contemporary.


July 16, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Staff Writer

For contemporary art sophisticates, Baltimore's annual Artscape festival, which begins next weekend, offers a chance to catch up on what local and regional artists are doing in relation to developments elsewhere in the art world.

But for casual viewers unschooled in the latest trends, Artscape can be an infuriating enigma. "What are these guys up to, and what are they trying to say?"

The problem isn't new. A hundred years ago, artists took up the rallying cry that the purpose of art ought to be to "shock the bourgeoisie." Today's young artists often seem bent on shocking just about everyone, including themselves.

Most often the "shock" comes in the form of objects offered as artworks that in any previous time or place would never have been considered art. The last half century has seen a momentous expansion in the kinds of objects that can be considered art and an equally revolutionary transformation in the way art is understood and appreciated.

Simply put: art today is not defined by how it looks, but by what it means. Anything can be a work of art so long as it's "about" something, and it embodies the meaning of what it is about.

One result of this new formulation is that an artwork need not be "beautiful" in the conventional sense, nor need to be made out of traditional art materials -- paint, marble, bronze, etc. It can, in fact, look like the most commonplace objects and be made of practically anything -- a famous example is Andy Warhol's "Brillo Box" of 1964, a plywood sculpture that looked exactly like the ordinary containers in which the cleaning product was shipped to stores.

What made Warhol's "Brillo Box" art and not just an ordinary box was the meaning it embodied. Warhol viewed the ordinary world of everyday objects as aesthetically beautiful, and "Brillo Box" was meant as a celebration of the visual qualities of the commonplace.

Warhol showed that the mass-produced products of industrial society could be thought of in a new way, not as a necessary evil to be tolerated merely because of their utility -- which is how artists of the 19th century might have viewed them -- but as objects of delight and beauty, what Warhol called "the poetics of the commonplace."

This "transfiguration of the commonplace," to use a phrase of the critic Arthur C. Danto, meant that there was sometimes no way of telling the difference between ordinary objects and art just by looking.

The melding of artwork and ordinary object has been the source of endless confusion, among writers on art and art historians as well for the public. The trick for critics nowadays is to get meanings from artworks that distinguish them from ordinary objects and to show how individual artworks actually embody their meanings.

A massive sculpture

For example, last week I looked at a large, outdoor sculpture by Baltimore artist Chevelle Makeba Moore Jones that will occupy a prominent site when Artscape opens next weekend. The work can be appreciated on many levels, both visually and conceptually, and as such it's an excellent introduction to many of the exciting new ideas that have been percolating in the art world over the last decade or so.

Jones' piece, titled "A Month of Sundays," is a 7-foot-tall welded steel structure that will sit atop a 42-inch-high concrete pedestal on the median strip opposite the Lyric Opera House on Mount Royal Avenue.

Jones is known primarily for her colorful paintings of African-American figures that incorporate mythological and religious themes; here she has created a sort of three-dimensional analogue of her painting style, using quarter-inch-thick steel plates cleverly cut into the shapes of people, animals and houses.

This massive structure, which is painted black and weighs nearly a ton without the pedestal, depicts a female figure with long, braided hair striding across the threshold of a house that is represented by a steel wall with a high, pitched roof and chimney at the top and a doorway cutout below that is shaped like a man wearing a slightly askew formal top hat.

In one hand, the striding woman holds a dove or bird of paradise; in the other, she clasps a small fish. Beside her, a menacing, wolf-like animal stands in the doorway facing the opposite direction, and next to the doorway two more fish, supported by a thin pole, seem to swim in endless circles.

It's easy enough to conjecture that the piece is about some sort of transition; we associate doorways with rites of passage and the changes that result from them. But what sort of change is the artist referring to?

One clue comes from the doorway's shape. In Jones' paintings, the man in the black top hat is always associated with some sort of menace or threat, as is the wolf-like creature who also occupies the doorway. But the woman is passing through this obstacle apparently unhindered, and the fact that the animal faces away from her suggests that it, too, refers to some past adversity that the woman has now overcome.

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