Tuesday, June 28, 2011

If you don't have anything interesting to say . . .

by Stephen Cummings

Nicholas Nyland, Flemish Lines, 2011

I get it. Art has diverged fairly radically over the past century and a half from what the general mass of humanity expects or recognizes or accepts or wants art to be. Obviously. It is thus no wonder museums feel the need to provide some kind of written context for much of the work they display. English, after all, is generally intelligible — certainly more broadly intelligible than art — in English speaking countries. (One exception unfortunately: artist statements.) So, in addition to titles, dates, media, title cards are also adorned with little blurbs of information, presumably to illuminate things about works of art that we might not otherwise have noticed. Sometimes it's helpful, but I would like to offer some unsolicited advice to the Seattle Art Museum: If you don't have anything interesting to say, please, don't say anything at all.

Case in point: a trio of sculptures by Nicholas Nyland, loafing away the summer at SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park.

From what I can tell (and I can't say for certain because I haven't seen the other work in person) Nyland's sculptures tend to be a bit more interesting than those in the park right now. The wacky playfulness that brought forth odd, colorful piles recalling Antoni Gaudi and Lucio Fontana, what Jen Graves called "sweet messes", seems to have given way to bland geometry. Bland because these geometric forms that demand to be considered in themselves have been mussed by hollow, arbitrary colors, as though the geometry were not enough. Bland because the haphazard geometry of the two brick pieces is not enough. And bland because what should have been three sculptures made of rope, are for some reason to be considered as one, as though each unit were not enough in itself. To consider them together removes the simple power of any one.

So Nyland didn't quite hit it this time. It happens. But! here's the Seattle Art Museum to save the day! Just a little context will make your whole viewing experience worthwhile — unless it turns out the museum basically tells you nothing. As an example, let's examine the label for Nyland's Embroidered Path, a piece made of bricks splotched with color, laid into the floor of the park's meadow.

Using bricks he painted with vibrant glazes and then fired, Nicholas Nyland created Embroidered Path, a sculpture masquerading as a garden path. Placed directly into the soil so that each brick is seamlessly integrated into the Meadow, this modest work recalls decorative walkways used in formal and backyard gardens, further revealing our attempts to shape nature. Visitors are encouraged to walk on Nyland’s Embroidered Path through the Meadow.

There are several problems in this short description, which we'll consider in turn:

  1. Do we really need a physical description of the piece directly in front of us? It's right there.
  2. The description is inaccurate. Each brick is not "seamlessly integrated into the Meadow". Some are clumsily tilted out of the ground, and I'm going to go ahead and say that even if they weren't, the meeting of brick and earth with plants growing out of it necessarily includes a "seam". What is the point of calling it seamless?
  3. "[T]his modest work recalls decorative walkways [...]." No shit.
  4. "[F]urther revealing our attempts to shape nature"? Where does this come from? Was there something else that partially revealed our attempts to shape nature?
The only thing really to be gained from the museum's helpful little tidbit is that visitors are encouraged to walk on the piece. The rest is fluff, trying to make the work bigger than it is, and making it kind of sad by being so feeble. The other labels are not much better, mentioning the nautical context of proximity to Puget Sound, but failing completely to suggest or consider what that might mean.

So what's the museum's alternative? Pointing out something about the work that isn't blatantly obvious is a good start. It might also be good to say things that don't seem to come out of nowhere. What artistic traditions does this work draw upon? (Besides the fact that it's a path. Obviously it's a path.) Is the location actually important, or are you just saying it's important? Are these site-specific works, destroyed upon removal? Alternatively, perhaps some of the artist's biographical information could be included. Who is he? Where did he come from? Is all his work like this?

The answers to these questions are not to be found at the Olympic Sculpture Park this summer. Maybe next year. Or, and I know this is crazy, the museum could say nothing, and the work could be left alone, forced to speak for itself.

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