Sunday, June 13, 2010

Art That Does Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs

by Drew Martin

Many years ago, I was in a fairly decent fine art museum in the South with some acquaintances. As we approached a large, open area, one of them ran ahead into the space, spun around and excitedly yelled to me "Wouldn't this be a great place for a Super Bowl party!?!" Needless to say I winced. I may have even gasped.

I love art most when it is contemplative. Multi-purposing a museum with raucous, unrelated events seems like an invasion of the barbarians. This is not about whether a museum is elitist or tries to relate to the common citizen, it's about not selling out. There are many kinds of museums: some are pristine white boxes, while others are interactive and playful exhibits in industrial spaces. Whatever the flavor, the mission and vision of a place should not be lost to a quick-buck venture. This is not untrue of galleries, even though they are money driven. Ironically, they mimic the aura of a museum because that is part of what they are selling: a museum quality status.

Renzo Piano is one of the most important living architects and one of the best museum designers. I had the privilege of seeing his new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago under construction and was amazed by the consideration to details of perfection and the execution of the flawless design. I recently listened to him talk (online) about museums, and I embraced his thoughts. He speaks of the museum as a place where you "mentally take your shoes off" and enter a new dimension: of silence. He mentions how important it is to protect this "silent dialogue" in order for us to understand why a museum is a museum.

A great example of an art space that is true to itself and maintains critically acclaimed shows (without all the fanfare of over-marketed big-name artists) is The Drawing Center in lower Manhattan. I encountered quite a different kind of space the other day in SoHo. I walked over to a cafe on Sullivan Street to take a look at some paintings being displayed by an artist I know. On the way there, I passed by the semi-subterranean SoHo Gallery for Digital Art (SGDA). It looked intriguing, so I stopped by on my way back and spent about a half an hour in the space.

SGDA is actually less about digital art and more about being a digital gallery, although, everything shown there is digitized. The Gallery has many things going for it. It's an interesting idea: a space with sixteen large LCD screens cycling various images, thus maximizing the display capacity of the one-room gallery and it has the ability to change the show quickly from the central computer that runs them. It would be an ideal venue for a photography group show.

The screens can be rotated to cater to landscape or portrait formatting. One drawback is that the artwork shown in the screens has to fit into the set dimensions, which would be overwhelming for miniatures and limiting for oversized works. Unfortunately, the neatly framed, white-boxed screens have to compete with columns, radiators, covered windows and other structural, architectural and mechanical elements in the low-ceiling space...but perhaps I am simply too influenced by my current reading of Robert Irwin and his fetish finishes, which apparently the New York gallerists gawked at in his time.

The screens were not changing in synchronization when I was there but I assume that is intentionally done, since they are centrally controlled. Perhaps it would be overwhelming if they did so. While the advancement of the images is not something the viewer can manipulate, nor should he or she be able to, the effect is disorienting in a very good way. I quickly found that the best manner to view such an exhibit is to not stand before each display and watch it go through its loop, but to revolve around the gallery. What happens when you do this is that you do not fixate on the flipping images but the room becomes a continuum: you keep moving around it and each time you see a very different display.

What surprised me most about the peripheral distractions I mentioned above, was the amount of chairs stacked around the room as well as tables and podiums. It turns out that the SGDA is really a multi-screened event space for "you name it" parties and occasions including birthdays, bar/bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, graduation, engagements, bridal showers, weddings and wedding receptions, baby showers and anniversaries. There are even packages for these occasions including: Penthouse In Paris, The Little Chapel, Exploring the Moon, The Seven Hills of Rome Heart of Japan, and Jerusalem: The Holy City.

This is a disappointing discovery after reading their ambitious mission statement on their press release that the SGDA has been established "to revitalize and revolutionize the art world" and that it has "set its sights on restoring SoHo to its former place as a hub of artistic creativity."

The show I saw at the SGDA was OTHERWORLD, featuring science fiction illustrators. While most of the work is what you would expect: overdrawn details of buxom cyber chicks, space stations and exotic planetary terrains, two artists in particular: the more painterly John Harris and stunningly architectural Stephan Martiniere were a breath of fresh air with their atmospheric sensibilities. Though, overall, I do love how honestly and intensely absorbed the fantasy illustrators are in their own magical worlds.

The SGDA has only been plugged in since November. I look forward to seeing how they grow as a center for art and I am curious to see how future exhibits take advantage of the unique gallery space.

The comments by Piano were from Great Museums - Riches, Rivals, and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America.