Do ask, Don’t tell 

A couple of years ago, I went to a gallery opening on Chicago’s North Side. As I walked in, a young guy who looked like an Egyptian god welcomed me, winking a green eye and handing me what I thought was his laminated business card. Instead it was a wallet-size reference guide on how to act and not act at an art opening. It said silly things like “Never interact with ‘interactive art’” and “Never ask about the process” and “Find the influential stars in the room … compliment them; lie if you have to.” The whole thing was cheeky, but I appreciated the message: Art world players have devised a set of rules for creating, showing, teaching, selling and appreciating art.

Local artist Phaedra Robinson takes the topic more seriously in Communicable Consumption, her solo show at Meadow Brook Art Gallery. In conjunction with the exhibit, Robinson recently moderated What Not To Do in Art Today, a panel discussion with Meadow Brook curator Dick Goody, College for Creative Studies painting professor Gilda Snowden, Ellen Kayrod gallery director Mary Laredo Herbeck and the associate curator at Cranbrook’s Network Gallery, Fabio Fernández. It was an interesting topic addressed by four art-world professionals who are also artists, and it proved a few things about rules: Everyone has them and few agree on them; artists may hate when rules are imposed, but they often become the substance of their work.

While the panelists were jousting about good and bad taste and etiquette (Goody hates allegory, Snowden likes abstraction, Fernández hates jargon, Herbeck likes metaphor), I was distracted, gazing around the room, trying to get over the fact that I didn’t think Robinson’s artwork was good. This was tough for me, because usually I like her ideas and artistic approach. But at Meadow Brook, there was too much going on — postcards, paintings, sculptures, wall scribbles, sketches and objects made with lipstick, charcoal, acrylic, coffee, hair, watercolor, beet juice, graphite, wax and chocolate soy milk. Several works looked so New Age I swore I heard wind chimes, and others reminded me of 1960s mail art and pop objects, made by artists way too cool for the patchouli sensibility in this gallery. What could she be thinking? I was incensed.

Here’s one of my rules about what not to do in art today: Don’t tell me, ask me. The work in Communicable Consumption is grossly illustrative. Paintings like “Wipe your Face — Third Eye” (2005) feature blatantly iconic, overly sentimental imagery.

Turns out Robinson knows what she is doing. Her work is the result of an attempt to shut off the internal censor that controls, even paralyzes, artists. In “Wipe Your Face,” Robinson tells me she thought about using a bright green highlighter for the eye. She immediately reprimanded herself, “Of course not!” That unconscious reaction became her mental cue to go ahead with a seemingly bad idea. Throughout this intuitive art-making process, while abandoning preconceived notions about what’s good, bad and ugly, Robinson realized she was indeed a trained artist. Even worse, she couldn’t differentiate her own ideas from those imposed upon her in school and in life. Knowledge is a virus. This idea isn’t necessarily contemporary, although it is symptomatic of the modern search for anything pure and untainted in an ugly climate.

At the panel discussion, Robinson said what defines good art is a subjective view created through training. That’s true. It’s a challenge to differentiate between good art and art you like, but that’s especially difficult as professional boundaries disappear — artists are critics, curators are collectors and teachers assign their own textbooks.

But I do think it’s possible to personally have an objective sense of what is good, better, bad and worse. And for me, it comes from a certain feeling I get during an artistic experience. It happened a while ago at a Van Gogh show, again at Les Enfants de la Nuit, an art exhibit about the lost children of Senegal, and even a couple weeks ago at a dance performance by the Italian-Dutch duo Emil Greco/PC.

The experiences were uniquely and beautifully unforgettable, stunning me into silence. And yet for some reason, each time I was nagged by an unsupportable sense of frustration. It’s happened several times now, and it’s aggravating because it’s preoccupying. I’ve often asked myself why I should feel unsettled, and have come to understand that at these moments I require nothing less than the whole world standing with me. I’m overwhelmed by the unshakable impression that we should all be there in the moment. I can only come to terms with the unrealistic wish by allowing that maybe, in good art, we are all there. It’s not that I may agree with the person standing next to me, but the universal sense of connectedness is a feeling as sure as skin.

So my biggest rule for art today: Don’t give up the idea that we are together.

Rebecca Mazzei is arts editor of Metro Times. Send comments to rmazzei@metrotimes.com

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