[This is obviously not my usual fare. But it’s been so long since I have posted and I really have been writing just not my normal blog kind of material. Below is my final Art Criticism paper. As I read it aloud to some members of my family I found it oddly difficult to not get choked up. I do not think it was just because of stress and sleep deprivation. Rather I think it is because my heart recognized something in Weed’s exhibition my head will need to ponder a while.]
Successful art has meaning beyond its aesthetic appeal. Perhaps a work’s intent is simply to look at life, the stuff of life, or the physical world in a new way. This fresh way of seeing invites the viewer to engage with the work. It connects, makes a bridge, from the mind and experience of the artist to that of the viewer. Complete understanding of the artist’s standpoint is not required however, to appreciate art or even receive from a particular work a new perspective. At the same time, the more art prods the viewer to examine that which would prefer to remain hidden the more successful it becomes. As a caution, the line between provocative art and the perverse can be quite narrow. Meaningful art walks that line. Art which pursues truth and pushes the viewer to join the hunt (even when it means wrestling our own demons) deserves our attention.
Last month graduate students, Rebecca Weed and Steph Johnsen, had a joint exhibition in the University Center Gallery at the University of Montana. While neither artist’s work was particularly provocative Weed’s swimsuit series seemed to examine questions each of us face using the familiar in unusual ways. Johnsen’s prints dealt more predictably with a fairly universal theme. Showing the bold Johnsen silkscreens and the bald Weed drawings together is a bit like displaying watermelons with cranberries.
Johnsen’s prints fill the page. From print to print her message is clear: life cycles. In one print cool green and blue hues swirl and rush like a river over snow covered banks or break through the surface like a fresh new spring. In another, earthy warm red, brown, and orange twist together and explode from one layer to the next displacing the rock and dirt above. At times the wild curving lines speak of new birth. At other times less energetic strokes remind us of decay. The prints each show distinct layers. But, the layers are not impenetrable. With great force the surface is transformed. Finally, throughout her work Johnsen hides body parts as if to remind the viewer humanity is not left out of the cycle.
By contrast Weed’s drawings on tracing paper are both austere and static. Their message: less overt. In one drawing fronts, backs, and profiles of swimming suits cluster together along a horizon with a break about two thirds of the way down the line. In another, an empty swimsuit floats above a body of dense dark water. In a third, a lone starting block and a drooping finish line flag break the horizon of a deep abandon pool. Strung on a separate wall of the gallery tracing paper cutouts of not quite life-size swimsuits hang, slightly wrinkled, with drooping straps. On the opposite wall, a young woman flies naked through the air. She is the only figure in the show from an artist who in past exhibits has utilized the female figure extensively.
Like Johnsen’s prints, Weed’s drawing work together to deliver her message. Using the figure, primarily represented by swimsuits, and water as subject matter Weed explores the themes of loss, endings, abandonment, and grief. One need not know that Weed once competed in swimming to understand her drawings but that information helps us understand why the artist chose these specific images to explore these particular emotions. Even her materials–black ink and graphite on yellowing tracing paper–contribute to the feelings of loneliness and isolation by avoiding color and adding a sense of fragility to her work. Filling half and two thirds of their pages respectively the opaque water in both the abandoned pool and the empty floating suit drawings seem to descend to an infinite bottom establishing the idea that grief can be an equally endless emotion. Flat and silhouette-like, the placement of a lone black suit above the turbulent yet not quite bubbling ocean communicates Weeds message again: loss is truly felt in isolation. Just like an abandon pool our grief cannot be shared. A gap in the line of swimming suits illustrates the empty space our pain inhabits. The sagging finish line, the dangling rope of the backstroke start grip, the string of hollow swimsuits–each delicately made mark increases the weight felt in Weed’s series.
Of her own work Weed states, “My work involves both oil paintings and drawings on tracing paper. On the one hand an oil painting takes time and patience; on the other hand a drawing is loose and immediate. Both speak to an element of measuring and remembering. An oil painting is meant to stand against time, a drawing on tracing paper is meant to succumb to it.” Ironically, Weed’s drawings give the viewer both an immediate and lingering sense of presence. Perhaps time will eventually erase their evidence but Weed’s drawings create a place of recognition for anyone who has experienced the end of something, abandonment, profound loss, or sorrow.
Contributing to Weed’s statement in her most recent exhibition is her history as an artist. Still relatively young, Weed has most often shared with her viewers windows to life through which we see her characters as slightly comical figures, much like a Norman Rockwell take on childhood. Using herself as model past work has included a series titled, Self Portrait: Waking Up and Kept Awake by the Scent of Bubble Yum. These whimsical drawings, the first of a young woman basically rolling out of bed and the second of two figures perhaps in bunk beds or the same figure in two separate time frames, lying awake, the bottom figure blowing a bubble, delight her audience while revealing Weed’s wit and ability to have fun with herself and to see the world from a light hearted angle. Her past use of the figure to let us laugh at life lends import to this show’s single female image. Naked and alone the young woman caught in mid jump represents, perhaps, Weed’s transition as an artist, her willingness to wrestle with deeper content than she has before, to ask questions for which she might not have ready answers, and to invite the stranger-viewer as witness. Such vulnerability holds promise for Weed’s future as a significant post-modern artist.
While any one of Weed’s swimsuit drawings succeeds to explore the concepts of grief, loss, abandonment, and endings, together their point: that we are indeed alone, is inescapable. Addressing these specific ideas in a poignant manner is one thing. Bringing that same touch to other issues may prove more challenging. If Weed has a weakness as an artist it may be that her figures are too quaint for the era in which she lives. Rockwell’s art was for a simpler, quieter time. Along with her charming figures Weed’s past tendency to employ a light hand to her drawings may prove a significant obstacle as well. Will Weed’s future choices transition as well as this most recent exhibition? Time and future displays will tell.
Our appetite to abandon, let go of, even destroy former ways of looking at life seems to have gained traction in our post-modern world. In her favor, as a post-modern artist is Weed’s apparent willingness to utilize materials, like tracing paper, that allow her to challenge some of our former ways of thinking about art, for example as a means of capturing a moment of time. Here Weed appears to part dramatically from Rockwell whose charming paintings from his annual Saturday Evening Post covers are most readily utilized today as calendar fodder.
The University Center Gallery exhibition marks a significant achievement in Weed’s career as an artist. As she distances herself from her immediate contemporaries including fellow exhibitor, Steph Johnsen, we who were fortunate enough to take in the UC show, have been treated to break through performance. Rebecca Weed, it seems, has found her voice. What is left to be seen, is whether that voice will be a shout or a whisper.