Appreciating the Appreciators

Our second season is off to a great start.

Before I begin with the news of our group first show and two solo shows, I think it’s appropriate to thank my partner—both in life and in the gallery--Wendy Luttrell. So much of what the gallery is are the results of Wendy’s hard work, persistence, and vision. Her ability to curate and hang work is astounding--especially for someone who has no training as an artist. I have always admired her keen eye and her ability to articulate what she sees and what she likes about a piece of art. Also, she trusts herself to be moved by a piece, even when she can’t necessarily find the words to describe it, or words are not enough. 

In her work life, Wendy is a sociologist and the head of the Urban Education Ph.D. program at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center.  For years I have witnessed her apply her emotional intelligence and sense of social justice to her research, teaching, writing, and the guidance of researchers-in-training.  The level of care that she takes to honor people’s perspectives and understandings is especially clear in her newest work, which analyzes the photos and videos of young poor/working class/immigrant youth taken over time, at age 10, 12, 16 and 18.  Their images of school, family and community are an equal part to her sociological analysis and interpretation of how young people see and capture their own childhood and growth. 

We have always shared a love of art and, most importantly, a love of appreciating art. Over the years when Wendy is asked if she is an artist too, she responds, “No, I am an appreciator.” Indeed, it this “appreciator” stance that makes her visual research with the young people so compelling.  She calls her approach visual research method which explores the many layers of meaning and emotions that the young people attach to their images, “collaborative seeing”.  I am excited that this work will be exhibited at Preservation Hall on September 1, 2018 where viewers will be invited to look, reflect, and consider the lenses they are using to “read” and “appreciate” the images.   

More and more as an artist and a gallery director I understand and appreciate the role and need for appreciators. Art appreciators are to the works of art what writing appreciators are to literature. Art appreciators bring fresh eyes, and can offer a language to express what they like and don’t, what moves them and has no words, and what they read/see may be beyond what the creators of these works had imagined. Artists need these eyes, these analytic abilities and these heart of appreciators.

I love when people come into the gallery and ask questions about the images, techniques and meaning of particular works. This ranges from having to create a narrative of what one sees to make sense of the artwork—“ok, I see the shape of a horse in the clouds”; to appreciating an artist’s choice of colors, or graphic line, etc.; to appreciating how a piece of art about a place that is known to the viewer is (or isn’t) a successful representation (in image and feeling) of that place. Appreciators have allowed me to learn about the many, many ways appreciators appreciate. I use this word not only as liking but also as “recognizing the full worth of”, “recognizing the implications of”, “grasping” and “fathoming”. 

Once, a few years ago, I was at the ICA in Boston seeing an exhibit by Mark Bradford, who created many maps and images of New Orleans, post Katrina I learned about yet another way, a profound way, to appreciate art. I was standing in front of, Corner of Desire and Piety, a collage consisting of 72 FEMA posters, collected by the artist, each poster announced the delivery of propane to FEMA trailers. Bradford is known for taking posters/ads for consumer goods, divorce lawyers, etc. and working/adding screenprints, gel media, paint, etc. on their surfaces. Taking these mass- produced posters and making 72 unique works of art, variations on a theme, I believe speaks to points of view; and the enormous size of the finished work speaks to the magnitude of the calamity in New Orleans.

Taking this work in, I was interrupted by a young girl, maybe 11 or twelve, running over to this piece and saying to her mother, “Mommy, mommy, how long do you think it took the artist to make this?” As an art educator, I was in awe of this child’s insightful question. This ability to look at a work and know that it is a result of an artist’s vision, politics, skills, etc.—but also his/her time and hard work, added yet another dimension and layer to what/how appreciators appreciate. So how long did it take Bradford to survey and amass the posters/ads in post-Katrina New Orleans? What was the process of taking 72 of the FEMA posters and keep them intact enough to see the repetition of the text while making each one a distinct piece of art? What was the process of moving from one poster to another as one part of a total work? What different skills were used to connect each poster as well as to differentiate each one? What skills did it take to assemble the posters for exhibition? These questions touch on only some of the work of making this piece.

  Corner of Desire and Piety 2008  72 collages: acrylic gel medium, cardboard paper, caulking, silkscreen ink, acrylic paint, and additional mixed media 135 3/4 x 344 1/4 in. (344.8 x 874.4 cm)

Corner of Desire and Piety 2008
72 collages: acrylic gel medium, cardboard paper, caulking, silkscreen ink, acrylic paint, and additional mixed media
135 3/4 x 344 1/4 in. (344.8 x 874.4 cm)

Getting back to Wendy, as a serious scholar and writer, she can spend much of her time editing and reediting and editing those reedits of her own work and does the same close and careful editorial work of her students’ dissertations. In this I realized that the young girl and Wendy appreciate that artists are engaged in using their hands in making their art; they work and rework and step back, leave a piece for a while, then return to work on a piece again. In this way, many appreciators appreciate the habits of work of an artist. So alongside being moved by a piece of art, finding words to analyze content, image, line, color, texture, etc. appreciators like Wendy and the young girl honor those habits.  They realize the real work it takes to amass/practice artmaking skills, work on a piece or a series until it “works” for the artist, learn from the making and being able to articulate—and remember—why and how a particular piece is made: how to mix a certain color again, what pressure the print press was set at, how transparent the ink was, what paper works best, etc. And of course, there is the physical labor and repetition, editing and reworking that is a part of the process of making a finished piece.

I am fortunate that I have Wendy to look at my individual works and series in progress. She gets to see the works in various stages and then when a work is called complete. She sees the ways in which separate works in a series echo and share themes each other but are also unique. She also knows the days and hours I spend on any body of work, hours and days in the studio. Then for an exhibit, there is my curating of my own work, finding titles and framing, which I do myself, I am happy to have her eyes and words to help guide to puzzle over when a piece needs more work or when a piece is done. 

So to Wendy, I say thank you, and I appreciate your wise eyes, wise head and wise heart.