Narrative and the Visual Arts: An East Coast Odyssey
In many ways, I am an old-fashioned man. E. A. Robinson's lines about "Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn" could have been written about me. I too have "mourned the ripe renown/ That made so many a name so fragrant"; I too have "mourned Romance, now on the town/ And Art, a vagrant." For, truly, nowhere is the pomp, grandeur, and spiritual superiority of past times more evident than in its visual art.

In the past, even the most high-falutin' critics, artists, and audiences operated on the principle that the purely visual qualities of a work were subordinate to the moral or emotional significance of what the work depicted. Like peasants in a feudal society, an artwork's visual qualities were thought essential and profoundly noble--yet, only appreciable, indeed, only comprehensible, in their proper place, in service of lordly Narrative. In the past, the combination of picture and story did not automatically get relegated to comics, advertising, or porn.

Nostalgic for this lost time, I took went to see two major exhibitions in two East Coast cities. First, I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts 107th Annual Student Exhibition, in Philadelphia. Then, I visited the temporary exhibits at the Atlantic City Art Museum, located upon a rotting pier along that city's infamous boardwalk.

Anika Gjerdrum's "Quaint Memento," on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts 107th Annual Student Exhibition, examines the simultaneously trivial and serious, beautiful and ugly, compelling and repellent, phenomenon of nostalgia.

As I walked through the halls of the Philadelphia exhibition, I thought, "Now this is what I like." A solemn vista of blurry yet structurally flawless fields, vacant lots, old factories, commercial seaports, boxes, skulls, and human figures unfolded before me, accurate proportions set off by romantic, messy textures. The unfortunate, less original paintings of this type were more than compensated for by work like this:

UNTITLED, a coldly majestic 6 by 8 foot painting by Michael Ciervo

The aestheticians of old believed that only flat, elaborately unrealistic history paintings could have a story, paintings where the issue was not how the figures looked, but whether or not they have assumed the proper "expressive," i.e. retarded, poses.

However, the best narrative paintings--unlike the best stories--are precisely those that stray from the point, lingering on sordid sensory details. They have a deadpan tone and a solid underlying structure, belied by bizarre surfaces or subject matter. They need not even contain human figures, as shown in the work of one Anika Gjerdrum.

A bunch of white doll houses lead the viewer's eye up to a white crib on a white table, which contains the torso of a white skeleton emerging out of some kind of gauzy veil. As with the best works at the exhibition, composition and technique are inextricable from the subject matter. The white room tells a tale of morbid fussiness. We see an enervated princess who spends her days mulling over the distinctions between different shades of white--and, somehow, we are attracted to that way of life.

At the Atlantic City Art Museum, there were some WWII photographs of fine young men. I suspect these photographs were made much more poignant by their surroundings: a decrepit gambling town where some of the same people depicted in the photographs (or their co-evals) now sit hunched over hamburgers or video poker screens as their very bodies decay, where the chime of slot machines is punctuated by the clunk of oxygen tanks.

If you are in Atlantic City, I recommend getting a fried Twinkie from one of the boardwalk vendors. They are fine complemented by a simple chocolate sauce.

Posted by xerxes on Fri, 30 May 2008 18:27:57 -0400 -- permanent link

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