A Deeper Look

Rumi Koshino Untitled 1& 2 2015Rumi Koshino. Untitled 1, Untitled 2. Watercolor on paper. 2015

By Zachary Johnson

Studying art history in college, the question that arose in every class was, “At an exhibition, what do you look at first, the artwork or the text?” My answer was always the text. In every exhibition, I’m hungry for information. Who is this artist? What brought them to make this piece? What were they influenced by? Why? I fixate on the wall text, my eyes scanning rapidly for answers. Such text is ubiquitous. We can expect to find its large paragraphs in almost every exhibition we encounter.

On rare occasions, I find curators who push beyond the traditional blocks of vinyl text. A strong example was at UICA during Art Prize 2015. They paired bold quotes by the artists with brief explanations of their work and a pictogram depicting which senses the work engaged. Simple, eye-catching, visual – I loved it. Another divergence was at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. In a special room, they delved deeper into a large work of art, combining explanatory text with the artist’s sketches, and images of related art historical works. Last year when recalling these I wondered, “What other approaches are out there?” I was reminded of what my co-worker, Okazaki-sensei would say when we were teaching English together in Japan, “We must try to teach English through English.” He argued that trying to explain English grammar through Japanese muddled the students’ understanding of it. I wondered,”Is it the same with explaining art with text?” What if a viewer were invited to understand an image through an image? It was from this line of thinking that I came up with the idea for Influence, an exhibition currently showing at the Avenue for the Arts [Gallery] Space in Grand Rapids.

For the exhibition, I asked four artists to create an additional piece to show alongside their artwork. The aim of the new piece, I explained, would be to illustrate the inspiration and influences behind the other works on display. I sent the artists questions to think about, such as, “What random chance or experimentation lead me to my current work?” and “What specific emotion or experience influenced this artwork?” I left the physical interpretation of the assignment open. Naturally, the four artists produced very different pieces,  each illuminating their own distinct creative process.

Nathan Vernau Yourself dancing 2016Nathan Vernau. Yourself, dancing. Paper, colored pencil, string. 2016.

Nathan Vernau, a Chicago-based artist, took the assignment most literally and ambitiously. For the exhibition, he created four original artworks in his trademark style of cut paper and colored pencil. Each work contained a multitude of depictions of his influences: friends’ bands, childhood comics, famous artworks, a post-it-note doodle, etc. If a viewer can’t decipher Vernau’s miniature drawing of In Utero by Nirvana, he provided a cheat sheet of sorts spelling out what each image depicts. With that knowledge, his other two works reveal themselves not as the cryptic images of an idiosyncratic artist, but products of the experiences and passions of a fellow human being.

Mara Baker, a Chicago artist who exhibited last fall at UICA, took a different approach. The new video works she created for the exhibition came were the result of experimentation with materials. To illustrate this, Mara shipped me the objects she’d used in the animations (neon plexiglass, patterned paper, a large rock, etc.) along with a diagram of how to display them. Examining the objects, a viewer can imagine how they themselves might manipulate them. Upon turning to their right, they can see Baker’s animations and witness how she ultimately chose to deploy her objects.

Jihyun Hong Untitled 2016Jihyun Hong. Untitled. Plaster, plastic, gel. 2016

Jihyun Hong, a New York-based artist who exhibited at UICA last fall for Art Prize, chose to focus on the sensibility that inspires her artwork. Her small, colorful sculptures sit inside a medicine cabinet, and her explanatory piece, a light-hearted work of fiction, is taped to its mirror. In it, one can feel the attitude from which her pieces are created. “One time, she undressed me and redressed me with a strange pink plastic bag,” it states. “It was February. It was still cold, and I was wearing my favorite fur jacket that made me look fabulous all the time. I am still wearing that ugly plastic bag, and my gorgeous fur coat is under her rocking chair covered with weird colored paint.” The playful document shows Hong as an artist who approaches her work for what it is–pleasure, thereby setting the tone for the viewer to do the same.

Rumi Koshino, a former resident at the Pentwater, Michigan-based Shared Space Studio, revealed yet another aspect of the creative process. Her thirteen small colored pencil works come from a personal goal to complete one hundred drawings in as many days. Glancing at one of her pieces, one may spot a shape or color that recurs in the next one. Or, the viewer may sense a tone developing between several works. In examining the pieces, once can experience the artistic ideas, experiments, and tendencies of Koshino at a certain point in time.

In preparing for the exhibition, both Hong and Vernau had sent me artist statements. I printed them, but ultimately chose not to put them on the wall. Their text was clear, well-written, and easy to understand. I wondered however, if reading the statements would be more enjoyable for the audience than what I had proposed. After all, text is easy; we encounter it every day. But in the challenge of understanding art through art, it is my hope one can understand a piece more deeply, that through an artist’s visual language, the viewer might come closer to that artist’s ineffable creativity. I remember trying to explain the words “the”, “a”, and “it” to my Japanese seventh grade students. We told them that those words have no Japanese equivalent. You just have to experience them in English.

Wednesday, June 22, and Friday, June 24 are the last opportunities to see Influence.  Gallery hours are 9AM-5:30PM.  The closing reception is 7-9PM Wednesday, June 22.  The gallery and reception are free and open to the public.

Avenue for the Arts [Gallery] Space
307 S Division Ave
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
Open hours: 6/22, 6/24 9-5:30PM
Closing Reception: 6/22 7-9PM

Influence Ave Arts Space Gallery 2016Influence, Avenue for the Arts [Space] Gallery, Grand Rapids, MI. 2016

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