Thinking Out Loud About Art!

By F. Lennox Campello

Thinking Out Loud About Art!

A few thoughts on a few things which should be of interest to all artists:

Public Art: Selecting artwork for an American public collection is a fine art in itself, as the artwork has to avoid the appearance of remotely insulting anyone or making any sort of social statement that may be offensive to any segment of the public. Thus we usually end up with a lot of abstract, non-representational art in most public venues, and nudity needs not apply – I have called it “airportism” in the past.

Over a decade ago, when the then “new” Washington Convention Center unveiled its art collection to the public (selected curiously by a Chicago firm), they introduced the then largest public art collection in Washington, DC, with over 120 works of art, sculpture, paintings, photography, graphics and mixed media. They spent around four million dollars, of which half was allocated to DC area artists. The plan was to keep “adding” works to the collection in the mostly empty and cavernous WCC – not sure that ever happened.

The DMV quite possibly has the largest and most diverse set of public art in the nation – between all the WPA era projects, all the private and city-funded murals, all the homage statuary by the federal government, by the city and by the embassies, we have a wide ranging variety of public art – including a form of public art which almost no other American city has: nudes.

Granted, all the naked statuary adorning our area is in some cases over a 100 years old, when it was curiously OK to put up a nude statute under the auspices of classic art, where no city in this country would dare to nudify anything being paid or offered with tax payer money.

Back to the Convention Center: My favorite piece there is Jim Sanborn’s Lingua, which is perfectly located in the Grand Lobby of the center. Sanborn has delivered two sixteen foot columns, like modern standing stones, that flank the visitor as one enters the center. The columns are etched through in eight different languages (with parts of historical texts recalling gatherings (conventions)) and it is lit from the inside. This projects the words onto the walls, ceilings and people as one walks through. Sanborn has reacted with a very powerful answer to this call for public art for a convention center. The ability of Lingua to marry a modern view of an ancient ritual, in my eyes makes it the most successful piece in the collection.

However, I am a Virgo, and there’s one small, but bothersome issue that I must point out, as I suspect that Sanborn may not be aware of it. The eight languages cut through the columns are French, Ethiopian, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Russian, Onondaga and Spanish. And it is with the Spanish orthography used in the columns that I (and I suspect anyone who can read Spanish) have a nagging issue.

The Spanish paragraph cut through at the top of the left column describes Columbus’ triumphant reception in Barcelona. But whoever cut the words through used a generic alphabet to create the words, rather than a Spanish language alphabet. Initially, the differences, letter for letter, are small. But once you start assembling words together, Spanish, like all Romance languages, uses a complex set of accents to indicate the correct pronunciation and spelling of a word.

And the column’s Spanish text is missing all the accents, and thus is full of misspellings and gibberish. For example, the word “bajo” could mean “short” as in “he was a short man” but if you add an accent to the “o” at the end, as in “bajó,” it can translate as “came down” as in “he came down the ladder.” I suspect that the French text suffers from the same type of errors.

As I’ve noted, the placement of Sanborn’s Lingua is perfect, and so is the spectacular location of Pat Steir’s Red on Blue Waterfall, located on Level 2 at the L Street Bridge. And in fact, nearly all the work is placed in very good locations.

And yet, considering all the empty space all around the center, there are some questionable placements that come to mind. For example, I don’t understand why so many photographs have been grouped together in a rather isolated area on Level Two. I do realize that whoever selected the locations thought that by grouping seventeen photographs into a small corridor (“small” is relative in the convention center sense) they were creating a “photo gallery.”

Doesn’t work.

Airportism: As you travel across this great nation, airports strive for unique individualities – but the one common denominator is how boring and predictable the public art which decorates airports has become over the decades. There are exceptions – such as the rare airport which also boasts of built-in art galleries, which rotate shows as any gallery would – of course avoiding any of the taboos mentioned above.

Art History: The number one spot in my top ten most influential books (on me) of all times has been occupied since 1977 by The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe.

I think that this book should be required reading for all art school freshmen across the nation, as it will prepare and armor them against all the bull that the art world will be about the heave at them. If you have not read it, please do.

Can I start by saying that this book “saved my art life”?

Let me explain. In 1977 I started art school at the School of Art at the University of Washington in Seattle, as a not so impressionable 21 year-old with a few years as a US Navy sailor under my belt. But in the world of art, there’s a lot of re-molding and impressions being made upon students by a very galvanized world. And although I was a few years older than most in my class… I was probably as ready as any to swallow the whole line and sinker that the “modern art world” floats out there.

Then I read The Painted Word – it was given to me by Jacob Lawrence, a great painter and a great teacher — although I didn’t get along with him too well at the time. I read it (almost by accident and against my will — it was a get-a-way weekend with my then-girlfriend – it went sour). And this book OPENED my EYES!!! It was as if all of a sudden a “fog” had been listed about all the manure and fog that covers the whole art world.

I used it as a weapon.

I used it to defend how I wanted to paint and feel and write. And it allowed me to survive art school.

And then in 1991 – as I prepared to look around to start my own gallery – I found it again, at The Art League library in Alexandria, VA. I read it again, and to my surprise Wolfe was as topical and effervescent and eye-opening as ever!

Wolfe has a lot of bones to pick with the art world – a ton of years ago!!! He destroys the proliferation of art theory, and puts “art gods” like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg (who have ruined art criticism for all ages – by making critics think that they “lead” the arts rather than “follow the artists”) into their proper place and perspective. He has a lot of fun, especially with Greenberg and the Washington Color School and their common view about the flatness of the picture plane.

Here’s my recommendation: If you are a young art student (regardless of age) or a practicing artist: SAVE YOUR ART LIFE! Read this book!

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