Am I Too Hard on Contemporary Choreographers?

Above pic is of Marissa Nadler playing at the Whitney Museum on Friday night at the Whitney’s Friday Nights Live event (soon to be renamed); and, in the background is — look, a Christopher Wheeldon Morphoses ballet! Just kidding — I’m making fun of myself for this post of course!

I spent the weekend largely looking at art. On Friday night, my friend Dee and I went to the Whitney’s Kara Walker exhibit, “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” about slavery and the Ante-Bellum South, which was excellent, and something everyone who has a chance should see. And the night before, my friend Alyssa invited me an opening of Shinique Smith’s show, “All Purpose,” at the Moti Hasson gallery in Chelsea.

This piece is titled “Thank You, Come Again.” I turned off my flash, because I’m always afraid it’s going to hurt the artwork, so the pics are a bit blurry, but this one’s comprised of several articles of clothing, all clumped together and affixed to the wall, a few scraggly threads trailing from the bottom looking to me almost like blood or tears, and a pile of socks with a sole red rose in the center beneath the wall hanging, on the floor.

Smith basically assembles her artwork from used / found objects, which reminded me of John Jasperse. Alyssa, who’s an Art history grad student specializing in African, told me using found objects rather than buying new is big among African artists right now because it symbolizes a rebellion against colonialism, globalization and the cultural imperialism of the West. (Smith is from Baltimore, but apparently is associated with African artists.)

I thought this one was charming. (Unfortunately, the gallery didn’t have the names of the artwork in its press release or on its website, so I don’t know all the names of the pieces). To me this looks like an animal, like a donkey, and I found the “head” and “ears” sweet because they’re made of a satiny fabric and tulle respectively, making me think of dance of course. Alyssa thought it looked “flamenco.” But the animal, who is carrying several adorable stuffed animals on its shoulders, appears to be carrying heavy bags on its side as well, so it looks a bit overburdened though not downtrodden.

I liked this one because it made me think of Ian McEwan‘s novel “Enduring Love.” There was a rope attaching the crate to a pole in the ceiling, so it resembled a hot air balloon, and that book opens with a horrifying hot air balloon ride gone heinously wrong. The doe at the bottom is nostalgic to me, maybe because it looks like something my grandparents would always keep in a glass cabinet in their living room.

This one, the ‘star’ piece, is called “Glutton.” It was made of gilded cushions, with a red velvet blanket spilling out underneath. Alyssa and her friends thought it looked like a Buddha, which I guess it does, but is Buddha associated with gluttony? I found it beautiful but somewhat hideous at the same time; like incredible wealth and how it can be so striking but can also pervert or uglify.

Alyssa in foreground with friends Alison and Kim (who is an artist in Connecticut) in back. We joked about how Alyssa is becoming the “Where’s Waldo” of my blog 🙂 It was a very well-attended opening.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it, just walking around sipping Vodka (compliments of the exhibit’s sponsor), chatting with friends, and observing, investigating the art, trying to figure out how it was assembled, what materials it was made of, what all of the component objects were, what the work as a whole meant, symbolized, or evoked for me. The whole exhibit had kind of an air of nostalgia to me and made me a bit sad, sweet as the sculptures or wall figures were.

But it made me think about Jasperse too. I liked a lot of Smith’s pieces, but nothing really blew me away the way Jasperse’s clothes hanger sculpture / set did, the same way that none of his choreographic uses of found objects knocked me out like the hangers. And yet overall I still really enjoyed the Smith exhibit. But I was hard on Jasperse, coming away from the performance generally more disappointed. And I wonder why that is… if it’s that I expect more from dance (or something different anyway), if it’s that I spend more time with a dance performance, or more money on it (assuming I’m not buying the artwork anyway). Maybe it’s that I was physically closer to the art, could investigate it more thoroughly and take my time with it, or maybe it’s just that the drink and friendly chatter added to my enjoyment? … Anyway, after this exhibit, I felt like I shouldn’t have been as hard on Jasperse.

Another interesting discussion ensued amongst us ladies: whether you need to know something about the artwork in order to appreciate it or whether a work of art should stand entirely on its own. Funny to me because Jolene and I had just had a similar discussion on her blog (see comments here) regarding the two new abstract ballets ABT just put on. Alison said she didn’t necessarily need to know very much about a work, but titles and little notes did help. Sometimes. For example, the title in the top piece, “Thank You, Come Again,” which the artist’s note says is made from “ex-boyfriend’s clothes,” made her realize the pile of socks wasn’t just a mound of dirty underwear sitting on the floor for no purpose, they were remnants of the subject’s ex and they illustrated her sorrow and emptiness, a feeling made all the more powerful by the rose in the middle.

But, Alison added, Mark Rothko (whose art at least in his later years was extremely abstract, usually consisting of a sole geometric shape or different colored horizontal lines on a canvas) could give detailed names to all of his paintings until he was blue in the face and she would still see only abstract shapes.

I remember from the Kara Walker exhibit a drawing of an old white man, shirtless and with saggy male breasts, who was kind of breast-feeding a black baby. But he didn’t look so happy about it; rather, he tried to shield his rather disgusted expression from the baby’s mother. The image was striking and I kind of understood the racial aspect, but it meant so much more when I read in the curator’s explanation that the white man was famous abolitionist John Brown. So Walker is commenting upon the futility of white-led abolitionism and questioning the patriarchal reverence with which this man is held.

Another silhouette appeared to me, on first look, like a woman was jumping up excitedly, kicking her heels in the air, doing a little happy dance. But it also looked like her wrist was falling off and there was a spill on the ground below her that looked like a big mess. After reading the curator’s words I realized it was a pool of blood; she’d slit her wrist, and was dancing in excitement because by committing suicide, she’d freed herself and performed her own small role in abolishing slavery by depriving it of property.

(image copied from Kelly Salerno online art gallery)
Even just the silhouettes themselves: I hadn’t realized this little decorative art form was a fixture of, first aristocratic, then haute-bourgeois households, the poser usually being a delicate white woman; in fact, portraiture technique in the 1800s became a way of training “good ladies.” So, by painting most of her subjects in this way, Walker was turning an upper-class white art form on its head. The curator’s notes also say that the silhouette mimics the reductiveness of stereotypes, which I thought of as I was viewing the exhibit. But not knowing the history of silhouettes, I would have missed out on the class issue.

Anyway, sorry this post is all over the place. I’m starting to blab so am going to go to bed now. I also just wanted to point out that there’s a great conversation taking place on Apollinaire’s blog regarding dance-makers’ obligations to their audiences. Go here to take part. The dance blogosphere is becoming fun!


  1. What’s interesting about contemporary artists is that they always have written statements of narratives about what their work is “about”. Most of the contemporary art narratives are pretty obtuse anyway.

    Art should NOT require knowledge to get the “message”. But the more you know about the artists, and the work the more you can get from the experience. This is no different than anything… ballet… architecture… music… cooking. Knowledge should never be a prerequisite because that plays to some sort of elitism. And we have plenty of that mixed in with classism and racism and ismism.

    Lots of the WOW we feel is almost intuitive and needn’t be “understood” but the knowledge may open up some different WOWs for us in the future.

    I believe too much of contemporary and abstract work produced in the arts is way too esoteric and leaves the viewer scratching their heads… ha? What’s this about? That’s a failure.. unless making the viewer feel completely clueless is the objective… lovely.

    I realized the who “cognoscenti” meme when I was watch a basketball game some 10 yrs ago. I do not follow sports, but I know how most of the main ones are played and as I watched it on TV it was just a generic game… didn’t know the good players or the bad… except as how they performed in THAT game to my eyes. Dance is the same… When I first began to attend ABT I didn’t know who was who and it was just what washed over me. Now I know a wee bit and I see differently.. and Tonya’s critiques help too. hahaha. They DO!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, SanderO. I totally agree with your “WOW” paragraph. I think the greatest art speaks to you on a fundamentally intuitive level, so that you don’t need to know more. But I also think if you do know more, it helps you to better appreciate something. Knowledge is always power, and enlightenment, and you can never have too much of that! Also, sometimes things just take longer to understand. Maybe I’m not always patient enough with dance. Then again, it gets expensive to see things again and again…

Comments are closed