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Art Crud

We visited the Rockford Art Museum today, to see the “Spaces Within” exhibit. Very disappointing, and I say that relative to the modest expectations one might have of any large, suburban art museum.

Judging modern, abstract art can be difficult even for aficionados; merely saying something meaningful about it lies on the edge of art-ignorant yahoos like yours truly. One can judge representational art by how accurately it represents objects. One can judge surrealism by how effectively it shocks. But abstract expressionism? There’s no solid landmarks, no fixed points of reference; anything that becomes so fixed is, almost by definition, obsolete. And without such standards, it’s hard to distinguish real talent from con artists—pun intended—especially for us art yahoos. Most of the “Spaces Within” exhibit just looked ugly and amateurish.

But how can someone without an art education dare stand up and say so? “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” isn’t enough. If we don’t appreciate art, is it because we’re insufficiently sensitive to see it, or because there’s nothing worth seeing?

I’ve worked out my own method to answer to that question. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start to understanding. If people, art sophisticate or not, react more-or-less consistently to a piece, the artist is doing something; I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt as to whether they’re sufficiently skillful to be doing what he intends.

The Nicholas Sistler pieces produced a consistent reaction. I could not have put it into so many words, but having developed an intellectual reaction of my own, I’d have to agree with the critique I read afterwards, describing a tension created between the viewers sense of being big before postcard-sized frames and a sense of being small created by a low, exaggerated perspective in those frames. I’m not sure we needed twenty or more paintings doing precisely the same thing, but I can only conclude Sistler was communicating what he intended, since both I and the curator saw something similar.

The rest of it, however, looked like the work of an art student faking his way through a course: aimless squiggles, repeated figures, and commentary looping around the subject with vague comments about the juxtaposition of arcs and lines and a sense of being both inside and outside. Whatever the hell that means. None of it gave me a sense of being inside or outside. My parents didn’t see anything worth comment in the paintings and sculptures, either. My conclusion: this was bullshit trying to slide by on Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome.

Satisfied we’d seen all there was to see of the exhibit, we visited the basement exhibit, and e contrast was stark. Most of it looked pretty neat, even if I couldn’t tell you why. I haven’t the vocabulary of artistic theory to do so, but I liked virtually everything downstairs better than virtually everything upstairs. And no, it wasn’t for being more concrete and representational. My favorite piece, titled “Storefront I-J,” depicted a fire in a prisn-like residential block that had a sketchy quality reminiscent of Bill Plympton, but there were two curious portraits on brown paper and a drawing of surreal totem-pole figures meant as lakeside signs taken from a photo, all at least worth looking over for a minute or two. Mom and Dad felt the same, reactions developed independently since we’d drifted apart taking the main exhibit at different paces. The uniform sense that this was all better than the stuff upstairs reinforced a sense that the main exhibit was trash posing as real art.

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