Friday, October 22, 2010

Philadelphia Experiment (Alien Sedation); Vija Celmins

          Yesterday I visited a well-known office building in Philadelphia (the newest skyscraper in a city whose formerly modest, but old and attractive skyline, has been ruined by the incredibly mediocre architecture of its newest buildings; if it mattered more, you could call it a tragedy) and saw something unexpected and dreadful.


          In the building’s lobby, across from the shockingly awful Permanent Display Of Important Art (in the form of  several groupings of brightly colored, life-sized sculpted human figures, modeled to resemble Crackerjacks toys, posed in ways meant to suggest a cross-section of daily activities  in contemporary urban Philadelphia), is what has been described as “the largest four-millimeter LED screen in the world………spanning 83.3 feet wide by 25.4 feet high, the 2,100 square foot video wall bring[ing] spectacular original programming to visitors 18 hours a day”.

      Depressing as the sculpture tableau is, the video wall and its “spectacular original programming” are simply beyond belief in their vapidity, stupidity and vulgarity.  Projected in apparently random, quietly assaultive, but non-hypnotic, succession are computer-animated  clips depicting continuously and variously: (a) ugly, badly dressed human “worker-figures” dancing among enlarged Styrofoam coffee cups or on and around “worker-pod” desks and chairs; (b) these same figures riding toy rocket ships while wearing hideous mime-like ooh-and-ah facial expressions; (c) enlarged variations on spirit crushing cog-and-wheel and interlocking gear designs; (d) nature scenes (presumably from Planet Earth but unrecognizable in terms of their geography) denatured and made to look airless, lifeless and synthetic;  (e) the most banal Philadelphia cityscape scenes imaginable expressing the lie that our local highways are actually slick, rational and navigable.  There are also occasional, purposeless, bilaterally symmetrical scenes of 1920s "flapper" girls dancing on and straddling bi-planes.

        I have unsuccessfully attempted to locate interviews with the creators of these horrors to learn more about their artistic intentions.  To me, it seems as though they decided that the easiest way to undermine the human spirit was to distill the grotesque late-20th century sensibility of MTV (most artfully, in many  people’s minds, exemplified in Peter Gabriel’s dreadful “Sledgehammer” video) by removing all obvious elements of violence and cheap, clichéd social criticism, and substituting instead a Prozac haze patina.  I assume their purpose is to pacify and brainwash the building’s workers, invited guests, and pedestrians seeking the succor of the new, high profile “public art” display they’ve heard so much about in the local media.  The ultimate visual and emotional gestalt of this "wall of dearth" is pure Big Brother (George Orwell's, not the reality TV show).

Andy Warhol, Green Car Crash, 1963 


Jasper Johns, Target With Plaster Casts, 1955

          When I was much younger and was first thinking seriously about the function of art, I wrote an essay for an American history class about some figures I called “public artists”.  I focused on various 1960s American Pop artists and their precursors (Warhol, Rosenquist, Johns, Rauschenberg), as well as some other artists (Smithson, Serra) who seemed relevant.  It was an uncertain, highly imperfect student effort that contained a lot of inconsistencies, inapposite examples and theories shoehorned in to try to match whatever my main thesis was.   For all its faults, I think I did come to grips with the fact that the underlying function of art should be to communicate important things, not to deceive the viewer or waste his time.


Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1959 

         Art can be anything -- seditious, disturbing, happy, sad, angry, organized, chaotic, male, female -- but it cannot be sedative.   It should wake and stir the spirit, not lull or, worse, smother it.

James Rosenquist, I Love You With My Ford, 1961 


Jackson Pollock, No. 1, 1948


          It can be decorative (I’m thinking of rock concert light shows in the 1960s) in ways that are not clearly momentous (I'm thinking about Iranian mosques of the Safavid period), but it cannot be utterly trivial.

Fillmore East, Joshua Light Show (Big Brother and the Holding Company), 1968


Interior of Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, Isfahan 1615-18

          Remembering Egyptian and Mexican pyramids, Greek vases and temples, Islamic mortars and pestles, Chinese vases and Lascaux cave paintings (among thousands of other works and objects), I think this holds true throughout history.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Big Sea # 2), 1969, Graphite on Acrylic 

       The concept of “public art”, whether we're speaking of monuments, other objects for the town square, the work of a poet laureate or any other writer, pop musician, etc., seeking immediate communication with a broad audience, is an interesting subject.  However, so too are the works of less public artists working on a smaller, more intimate scale like the Latvian-born American artist Vija Celmins.  I have admired Celmins’ work since I first saw it in the early 1970s because she seemed quietly and naturally to key into the mantra I have previously cited that “the function of art is to imitate nature in her manner of operation”.

Vija Celmins, Explosion at Sea, 1966, Oil on canvas 

       Working in the finest, most dexterous manual detail, creating her depictions of natural objects and phenomena and reclaiming the sublime medium of grisaille, I have read (and I am not a Celmins scholar or any sort of scholar these days), that Celmins intends in her work to “dispel notions of the sublime” about nature.

Vija Celmins, Comet, 1992, Linocut 


       For me, however, Celmins’ art reinforces my belief in the possibilities of achieving quality and possibly transcendence through art, i.e., in the sublime.  

       As art critic Joe Scanlon wrote in a review of a 1996 Vija Celmins New York City gallery exhibition:  "these are pictures made for reasons beyond the express purpose of being looked at".

Vija Celmins, Ocean Surface, 1983, Drypoint

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