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Against Spectacular Art

I see a lot of art these days. I see it online, via all the blogs and websites I have bookmarked. I see it in galleries and museums in Chicago, which I visit more regularly since I started writing articles about art for publications like Time Out and Hyperallergic. I see it in the corridors and studios of the building where I have my own studio. It gets tiring sometimes, certainly, but there’s one strain of art in particular that I’m growing very tired of—spectacular art.

By that, I mean objects and two-dimensional works that make a strong visual first impression, most often because they are made from unusual combinations of materials. Examples: portraits made from winding thousands of threads around the heads of pins embedded in a panel, so that the face gradually emerges from the accumulation of the unlikely material. Thousands of post-it notes apparently suspended in mid-air in a forest (created through digitally altered photos). Trompe l’oeuil face painting. Timelapse graffiti. Insanely gigantic sculptures of horses’ heads next to a river. Anything by Yayoi Kusama.

All this stuff definitely makes you say “Wow” when you see it. The level of skill, the time consumed in the making, is all impressive. It’s possible that all the work just cited makes people feel something emotionally, too. That’s fine. What I object to is that this kind of art is increasingly becoming what people think art should be, which in turn presents the danger that this is mostly what more art will become for the near future. If it doesn’t hit you like a big explosion of fireworks straight away, if it isn’t made from unusual combinations of materials, if it doesn’t fool your eye, then it might get passed over, even considered not to be art.

But I think the best art is unspectacular, less concerned with flash, and definitely unconcerned with the instant effect. There’s a place for unusual materials (and every artist should experiment, constantly), but only if it leaves room for something as old fashioned as paint, and wood carving, and all those boring bourgeois activities. So today I am standing up for grey paintings and drawings, things that don’t suck up to you via hot colours, or subjects that are comforting and familiar:

Cy Twombly

I am standing up for slow work over fast work:

Agnes Martin

Gerhard Richter

I am standing up for things that are not “colossal”, but small and indirect, that take time to reveal their meaning to you:

Christian Boltanski

With grey works of art, there's no room to hide, and your skills stand revealed in their barest essence:

John Tomlinson


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