Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Second Look

Ear to the Ground: Earth and Element in Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art features eighteen artists, each represented by a work selected from the museum's or the artist's  collection. As suggested in the title, all relate to the four elements: water, earth, wind, fire, and the natural world through various media. The exhibition occupies the contemporary art space on the museum's second floor.

After walking through the display and reading the detailed wall texts found next to each work, I spent some time in front of two pieces which captured my interest for different reasons. My encounter with Persian Waterfall, 1990, one of the famous "Waterfall" paintings from Pat Steir was a non-event. A rapid glance revealed white drips with splashes on a black background and I carried on with the visit. My first impression is never final and I went back for a second look. What did I miss? The seventy-eight-year old artist is in the news lately with two well publicized exhibitions: ongoing at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia with eleven commissioned works for Silent Secret Waterfalls and upcoming, a site specific exhibition for the circular space at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC. This time, I walked TO the painting from the show's "entrance" all the way back, staring at it, ignoring the surroundings. It grew bigger as I came closer (no surprise!) but it also became alive. Immersed in the painting, twice my size in height, even larger in width, I finally "saw it". Through the techniques introduced by the Chinese "ink-splashing" painters centuries ago, Pat Steir captures the spirit of nature. Splashing, pouring paint on the canvass, by chance, the artist created the powerful and dynamic waterfall with skills she describes as control of the "fluidity, gravity and timing... the timing of the pour" making her Waterfall paintings qualify as performance art.

Who would not be attracted by The Hinged View, 2017, from Olafur Elliasson? The artist, also involved in creating waterfalls in New York City (2008), this time deals with the visible light spectrum through six glass spheres lined up on a black metal stand. Walking by, the visitor animates the display. Like planets, the spheres appear to rotate, changing from black to transparent, and even reflect an upside down pic of the viewer at some point. Their respective color seeps in and transforms them in vibrant red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet orbs when facing them. About color, light and beyond, alluding to the unseen spectrum and other dimensions, the piece is in the vein of Elliasson's works.  I was just baffled by the wall text next to it which states: "created against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Elliasson's sculpture seeks to heighten perceptual awareness as a way of counteracting the polarizing nature of current political discourse."... Would the artist endorse these comments? Can we look at art without searching for some hidden political intend? Art can be political and sometimes it is not.
It is a great responsibility to be the viewer, it takes second looks!  I cannot agree more with Olafur Elliasson who during an interview in 2018 stated: "Without the viewer, there is nothing"

photographs by the author:
Pat Steir "Persian Waterfall", 1990
Olafur Elliasson "The Hinged View", 2017

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