Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Launch of "Big Tomato Arts"

Art speaks. I will write about how local art speaks to me.

I am pleased to announce the debut of Big Tomato Arts, a blog dedicated to the arts scene in and around Sacramento, (the Big Tomato itself).

A little over ten years ago, I wrote about the arts where I lived, in Seattle, Washington. In the late 90s there was a fine internet startup called I wrote for ArtCurrent for two years, exploring the scene in Seattle and interviewing local artists there. To introduce how I intend to write about art in Sacramento, I am going to re-post a piece I wrote in Seattle. I do this to demonstrate my pragmattic, exploratory approach to art. That is to say, I will approach writing on art neither as an arbiter of taste nor as a detatched critic. Instead, I will seek to understand how the art speaks to me as a viewer and as an artist myself.

The following article concerns the work of Felix Gonzales-Torres.

"Untitled (America)
Originally published on, 1998

by Douglas Newton

Felix Gonzales-Torres began creating works from lightbulbs in response to the death of his lover in 1991. Gonzales-Torres himself died five years later, according to the Henry Art Gallery's wall text, a history which infuses this work with a poignancy it would otherwise almost certainly lack. Having said that, twelve strands of lightbulbs outlining a hallway does manage to powerfully evoke the emotional and psychological terms of its origin. Furthermore, the installation's nontitle (or title): Untitled (America) does much to escalate the referential value of the work in this viewer's mind. And given the looks people gave the piece as I sat writing notes for this article, these resonating suggestions work a certain magic with the museum-going crowd. The cryptic title and the subtlety of the work draws the viewer in with the easy grace, similar to how the eye feels generally compelled to watch birds in flight. This natural, seeming lack of grandiose pretense undermines the formality of it, letting the symbolic and metaphoric qualities of the piece rise to the surface.

Somehow these lights suggest a canopy of hope within the process of grieving: a means of investing heat and energy into the isolation of grief: a process in which heat and energy may seem unattainable--even ghostly. An undeniably human quality permeates the hallway, along with the heat from these light bulbs, all of which transcends what might look like Christmas lights at first glance. Twelve strands of lights adorn the hallway in all. The strands mostly follow the contours of the walls and ceiling, only to end up on the floor in tangles near the outlets. The floor accommodates many lights that violate the more orderly look of those hanging in evenly measured increments above. As you look at such a work, the name Untitled (America) flashes back into the mind. America? How does a rather unremarkable set of bulbs represent America? But then, perhaps the word Untitled modifies the word America? Are the lights flat allegorical symbols, or are they just meant to encapsulate the uniformity of a mythical America? Are these dully lit bulbs meant to tell us something about social organization?

Whatever the inspiration, clearly these bulbs resonate with Gonzalez-Torres' understanding of America.

He writes that America is, ". . .a place of light, a place of opportunities, of risks, of justice, of racism, of injustice, of hunger and excess, of pleasure and growth." The wall text states that this work hung originally over a street, something which brings the work into direct contact with its purported subject, at least superficially. The arrangement of lights in Untitled (America) does seem to suggest demographic metaphors and insinuations about the socialstructure of America. The longer the mind considers the terms involved, the more the open-ended metaphors crawl out from the work. Are Gonzalez-Torres' social concerns embedded in how strands of light become jumbled at the bottom, even as lights at the apex gain greater space and more attention? Strands of lights easily translate into thoughts of how we are connected or independent of one another. After all, lights are connected to each other and any interruption in the flow of current affects the totality. Does this emphasize how interdependent cross-cultural patterns really are? On this level Untitled (America) seems to be an allegory fleshing out the structural terms of what creates or alters a community.

It is noteworthy that none of the light bulbs in this piece is burned out or broken. I imagine the piece must have looked more fragile and exposed when it hung outdoors. Certainly the tangled wires suggest a kind of defeat, even as bulbs collected on the floor put out a brighter light when closer together. Does this tell us something about the separating nature of affluence or of the cohesion known to communities under duress? We are left to draw our own conclusions from this cryptic work--left only the clues from the wall text and the ambiguous title. In the end however, Untitled (America) does revitalize an awareness of just how meaningful art can be. In becomes difficult to avoid the feeling that art can be an effective tool, useful in making sense out of quandaries that resist the utility of twelve step programs. Art's strength lies in what form suggests to an open mind, and Untitled (America) quietly fulfills this outlet. The heat and arrangement of Gonzales-Torres' bulbs addresses an egalitarian impulse in form that most Americans have yearned for, despite whether justice or meaning proves ultimately effective in a democracy."


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