Monday, March 07, 2005

Art Speaks

at the met museum
photo by Gregg Chadwick

"In ads, displays, altars, graphic design, fashion, magazines, signage, architecture, television, movies, web sites, on and on we’re being addressed and coddled and seduced and terrorized and we can't talk about it because we don’t have words for it. Visual "language" is a one way communication."
-David Byrne, entry from
  • david byrne's tour journal

  • I was at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles yesterday and was struck by the tortured language used in the wall labels. As soon as the text moved from historical information - artist, date, place, and provenance- the thoughts grew murky. Some of it is art historical posturing. But part of the difficulty is the lack of a contemporary vocabulary that engages visual communication as well as verbal communication. Yes, we are bombarded with visual stimulii. But the typical response from art critics such as Kenneth Baker, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, is to declare that this visual white noise makes certain types of communication impossible for visual artists. That what we are left with is a palimpsest of earlier images. And all we can do is pick through the tattered and effaced clues to search for meaning.

    Contemporary artists can and do use visual language to communicate. We have not given all of this power away to advertising agencies. At times we too, "coddle,terrorize, or seduce." But we also can create a visual field that communicates an idea such as peace or contemplation without verbal clues. This visual communication is powerful,almost shamanistic, and quite wondrous to watch.

    David Byrne is correct in stating that we don't have words for visual language. But, just as importantly, we do not use our sophisticated visual sensors to receive this communication. As an audience, many of us have not developed the slow and careful process of looking deeply at art. In museums and galleries we race by, gobbling up wall label after wall label, without taking the time to stop and let the artwork speak to us.

    One painting spoke more forcefully than any other, yesterday, at the Getty. A Jackson Pollock work from the late '40's, on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A. hung in a room dedicated to the Impressionists. Pollock's enamel and aluminum paint glittered next to a Monet. I sat and watched as the work stopped people in their tracks. A young girl grabbed her father's arm as he took her close to the painting's surface, almost into it. They spoke quietly and looked. And after a while, the girl stepped back and gently swung her arm in ovals miming the drip of wet paint onto a canvas on a floor.

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