Art defies interpretation

Art: Unusual - but natural - substances are turned into works of art in the hands of Wolfgang Laib.

Fine arts

January 02, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In a famous 1966 essay entitled "Against Interpretation," the writer Susan Sontag complained that most art criticism "amounts to a philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone."

She argued: "Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable."

Since then, artists have adopted all kinds of strategies to avoid the burdens of the kind of criticism that seeks not only to explain works of art, but to explain them away.

The art of Wolfgang Laib, currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, might be described as one man's singular response to the crushing weight of interpretation heaped on artworks.

Laib (pronounced "Libe") creates works that deliberately resist analysis in rational or cognitive terms. His pieces are intended to be comprehensible only through the viewer's direct experience of them.

The materials Laib uses - beeswax, rice, pollen, milk - evoke the organic world of nature through a kind of ecstatic simplicity, as talismans of a spiritual order that only becomes evident through a profound contemplation of the commonplace.

In Laib's "milkstones," for instance, the artist sands a shallow, barely perceptible depression into the surface of a polished slab of white marble, then carefully pours milk into it until the top of the stone and the surface of the liquid are indistinguishable, creating the illusion of a shimmering, solid white object.

In another group of works called "pollen fields," the artist sifts the finely powdered dust of spores from hazelnut, dandelion, buttercup and other plants into the shape of large rectangles on the floor, where their brilliant yellow and orange hues radiate with a vibrant intensity reminiscent of the throbbing color fields of a Mark Rothko painting.

The impression such works make is intensely personal and unique to each viewer, and thus can never be completely described in words.

In a related essay published around the same time as "Against Interpretation," Sontag suggested that the distinguishing characteristic of the work of art is its capacity to speak to us directly, unmediated by the logic of words or critical theories.

"A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question," she insisted. "Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world."

Laib's works insist on their status as objects intended to shape our consciousness in extraordinary ways, rather than simply replicating things as they appear. The conventional representations of the visible world with which Western art has been concerned for much of its history since the Renaissance holds little interest for him.

It's fair to say many modern viewers accustomed to approaching artworks as images waiting to be recognized may initially be disappointed by these works, which are metaphorical and poetic rather than imitative.

I found the show challenging and even a bit intimidating until I realized that these extremely fragile artworks cannot really be appreciated without a willingness on the part of the viewer to participate in an experience akin to a mystical initiation.

Laib's works ask you to let down your guard in the midst of a public space full of distractions and, for just a moment, forget who you are in order to reconnect with the grand, transcendent rhythms of the cosmos. That's not something we do every day, and it takes some getting used to, but it is, as Sontag suggested, the only truly important function of art.

In an introductory essay to the exhibit catalog, Margit Rowell argues that Laib's art expresses the artist's search for a natural spirituality.

"Nature, in its purest and most intimate manifestations, is Laib's subject and vehicle of expression," Rowell writes. "As living, organic substances, the mediums contain the potential of the infinite in the detail, the eternal in the transitory . . . Laib arrives at his forms through a discipline of complete concentration in which he is no longer separate from the world of nature, but a participant in its organic process."

Laib has been deeply influenced by Asian art and philosophy, which stresses the ritual and ceremonial aspects of art-making to a much greater degree than does the Western tradition, and in which the transformative power of art is more important than its capacity for providing aesthetic pleasure.

Since the 1970s, he has made regular trips to southern India to study Eastern philosophy and religion. His works are intimately related to the qualities of simplicity and humility that he practices in his everyday life in the small town in southern Germany where he works and lives.

Sontag has written that "what a work of art does is to make us see or comprehend something singular, not judge or generalize. The act of comprehension, accompanied by voluptuousness, is the only valid end, and sole sufficient justification, of a work of art."

Laib's work is both sensual and spiritual, utterly of this world and an invitation to transcend it. It stubbornly resists easy categorization or facile description, yet for the viewer it can provoke a deeply felt unity of eye and mind that approaches a state of revelation.

The Hirshhorn Museum is in Washington, at Independence Avenue at Seventh Street, S.W. Hours are Sunday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. Call 202-357-2700.

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