Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Access to Art?

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space
The Geffen Center at MoCA, Los Angeles
December 12, 2010-February 27,2011
Access to Art?
As personal art collections increasingly become visible to the public, either through donation to an established public museum or through the founding of a private museum open to the public, a logical assumption would be that a broader audience is desired. Los Angeles has a diverse collection of contemporary art, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), LAXART (an independent arts organization), to the Hammer Museum (originally a privately funded museum now under the auspices of the University of California Los Angeles.) The opportunity to view contemporary art is admirable in this city. But, if the art is there for residents and visitors to view, does it mean that they have access to appreciate it?

A curator is a facilitator for access to art. A possible description for the work of a curator is to display art for the reception of an audience. In this way, a curator becomes a potential mediator between the art and the audience. His or her interpretation becomes a factor in the relationship between artist, object, and viewer. This is a unique position to fill: as an individual who is presumably educated and informed in the theories, methodologies and history of art, the curator is an “insider” of the art world. However, the curator, particularly of a museum, presents the works to a broader audience. It is a destination where the general public (not only “insiders” of the art world) expects to experience artistic culture. The art museum, as compared to an independent art-space, gallery or biennial, is a codified institution in the broader reception of art.

The curator of contemporary art is participating in the discourse of art as it is being produced and received. Art production and critique in the twentieth century shifted the parameters of artistic interaction with the audience away from the object on a wall or pedestal, to an experience of process or engagement, often resulting in dematerialization. Restructuring the cultural paradigm in this way is exciting and holds the potential of more engaged access for a broader audience. However, it is essential to remember that the developments in artistic production are new. The general audience still does not know what the symbols are that artists are using. The semiotics of contemporary art has not been translated into a communicable language for the public.

The art object has been privileged in cultural appreciation to such an extent that audiences have an expectation of this when appreciating art. Without an object, art is often difficult for a general audience to process. In an effort to look at the curation of contemporary art beyond a binary approach, I have resisted referring to the general public as the “mass.” The reception of contemporary culture is more nuanced than a dual audience of “elite” and “mass.” I would, however, like to appropriate Clement Greenberg’s definition of kitsch as pre-digested cultural experience. As I stated earlier, the evolution of art appreciation has produced an expectation of a certain kind of object, preferably a painting, drawing or sculpture. While the referents within the art object may be unrecognizable to a broader audience, the ability to recognize that they are experiencing art has long been predicated upon the object. Discussions with a number of art appreciators who have difficulty accepting certain more explorative contemporary art practices as art (despite the development of conceptual, installation, and performance movements in the last sixty years) complicates the dual audience of Greenberg. It also complicates the role of curator to communicate contemporary art to an audience. The meaning should not be pre-digested by the curator for an audience.

As an artist, the process and production of art may be to push the limits of expectations. As a curator, it is also valid to push the expectations of an audience. But if you want to expand your audience (as the market necessity of a museum demands) there remains a responsibility to attempt to provide access. The exhibition space, again be it a museum, gallery, independent organization or a biennial, is a space of communication. It is often iterated that contemporary art attempts to make art more accessible to the public. That it attempts to break down the division between audience and art.

Alma Ruiz is the Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles where her current exhibition, Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space, is being shown. The exhibition includes five large scale pieces by artists from Latin America. Presenting works from the mid-twentieth century, Ms. Ruiz is showing artists who explored the use of light, space and color. Artists working before better known California artists began playing with these media in the nineteen-seventies. The works that she includes are successful in bringing the audience into direct physical contact with the art. Visitors walk through the blue, plastic threads of Jésus Rafael Soto (fig. 1), feeling the work against their bodies. For an even more thorough immersion, one can swim in the pool of Helio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida (fig. 2), an artistic duo from Brazil, watching the reflections of their video installation play across the water. The physical interactions continue with explorations of light by Lucio Fontano, Carlos Cruz-Díez and Julio Le Parc (fig. 3). In order to engage the audience, Ms. Ruiz has surpassed the expectation of visual contemplation of a work of art and selected artists who work in multi-sensorial media. She has curated an exhibition that collapses the space where a visitor might ask “Is this art?

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space accomplishes the goal of material immersion with a work of art. The challenge will be to provide contemplative access to audiences for works of art that do not facilitate physical engagement.

-Sheeka Arbuthnot

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