Sunday, January 25, 2009

Art in a New Era

I started this blog after Barack Hussein Obama’s election because I wanted to see how my artmaking might change when we finally got rid of George W. Bush. Now, after months of anticipation, we’ve finally arrived at my first post after the inauguration. I thought I should do a little reflection about whether there actually has been a difference.

I spent quite a bit of time in the last few weeks setting up an exhibit on the second floor at SPA called Publish That Poem, exhibiting published collections of poetry. This effort culminated in a poetry reading by 13 of those poets on Friday, January 23 in Cora Brooks’ studio. It was great, with a wonderful diversity of poems, each a gem – some funny, some heavy, some in Japanese! And it was so good to have the Visual Arts community in the same room with the Written Word community – making our own little effort to avoid insularity and create connections. I’ve been thinking about how the Obamas will (as was true in the Kennedy White House) be inviting poets, philosophers, musicians, writers and other artists to join the public life of the nation and the First Family. Obama said in his inaugural address that we need to return to the values of “tolerance and curiosity” and included “unbelievers” in the list of American religions we need to respect. Wow.

I actually spent three consecutive days in my studio this week, continuing to work on the Disarmed (or is it Disarmament?) pieces. It has come to me that the absence of arms means powerlessness. But can’t giving up power be a good, healthy thing? I am thinking of Israel pounding Gaza, of altogether-too-many examples of a display (and employment) of American power and arms. I am thinking of how animals turn over and show their defenseless bellies when they wish to surrender in a fight. And then the fight is over. Although it appears it’s not that easy in human affairs.

It also became clear to me that these figures I’ve been making have gender. They are female! I have made so many clearly male figures (I’ve been called The Penis Lady by some wags because of the frequent appearance of that organ in my work), it's a bit of a surprise to find myself making female figures. And powerless, armless females at that. But I think there are other kinds of power than the power of arms. Several posts ago there was a figure with milk squirting from her breasts: the power to feed and nurture. This week, it was birth: the power to create something new. I feel a bit embarrassed that these stereotypical female virtues/functions are making their appearance, but...

A few words about meaning in art. A friend wrote to me a while back saying “Why are you always trying to make meaning out of your art? Isn’t it enough for it just to be art?” Well, when I am making work, it is not a didactic exercise. Some other time I'll talk about what that process involves, but right now I'll say that I don’t try to make a point, preach, or politicize. But after the work is made, I look at it as an observer (just as others must) and think about what might be going on with it. Often what I find (as above) surprises me. I believe that good art is not illustration, not propaganda. Five people can look at the same painting, installation, or sculpture and have five different thoughts, feelings, conclusions, or insights. Diane Swan read a poem on Friday night about a painting called Fox Hunt by Winslow Homer . Her poem asked if she was the only one who thought the painting was not about the fox being hunted, but about the fox as a hunter, out in the snow, going about its natural business. When I look at art, it is not just about form, color, and composition for me. I guess I am practicing the curiosity that Obama just advocated – wondering whether Thing A might connect with Thing B. Making those connections enriches the experience for me.

And finally, I made something last week that seems to me like just plain fun. And cute. Though if I worked at it I could probably draw some important moral tale from it. But I don’t want to. The tail is made of sheepskin I got at the Re-Store, which has re-located in BARRE!


Maggie Neale said...

Hoorah Janet! So many thoughts and tweaks for the curiousity. I've always seen these Disarmed pieces as female and was so intrigued by the one giving birth in your studio following the poetry reading, which was a great piece of work in itself.

Eva said...

I love that fun thing on wheels with the sheepskin tale! Love It! Yeah!

janetvanfleet said...

Well, Eva, you can see it at the Lazy Pear, as I took it to them this afternoon. I'm thinking it should be called Homage to John Updike, in recognition of his Rabbit novels.

Anonymous said...

Dear Janet:
I really like your work. I like the female figures, the rawness, if you will. Very interesting.
Lee Klein