Thoughts on Mappelthorpe

28 Oct

Last Friday October 23rd, a crowd of cold and wet Seattleites stepped into dry warmth for an evening of art at the Henry Art Gallery. Socializing with friends, enjoying drinks and good food, and taking in the new and old collections that make the Henry great, the school year started off with appreciation.

I spent most of my time checking out the new exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids. Robert Mapplethorpe created most of his popular art in the 1980’s. Though he studied and created in various media, Mapplethorpe is best known for his black and white photography. His subjects are usually friends and lovers, some celebrities, and many are homo-erotically themed. I am a fan of photography, specifically black and white, and so his instant photography methods intrigued me. The Polaroid allows for spontaneity, the quick capturing of a moment gives a unique intimacy to the pieces. Looking at the photos I felt I was peeking into personal spaces where the scene was perhaps quite meaningful yet through the direct composition and casual media that is a Polaroid, the scenes were made, I felt, accessible.
While enjoying the Polaroids, I listened for reactions of others for some blogging inspiration. And so it was, standing in front of a small black and white figure-study of a man, most likely a friend or lover of Mappelthorpe, that a phrase not uncommon to modern art galleries got me thinking.

“I could have done that.”

This phrase is most commonly paired with –“What makes this so great?” “I could have done this and been in a gallery.” Yes, I thought, and I could have drenched massive canvases in monochromatic paint, but Rothko beat me to it. I’m often frustrated by such a comment, but since Friday, it has been interesting me.

Every art or art history class I have ever taken has in some way begun with the question of “what is art?” How appropriate then to begin my art reviewing with a similar topic. As this pondering is often used in approaching the subject of Art, I can gather that Art with a capital “A” is a very ambiguous means of expression. Here I have already begun in my own definition –that’s a start? I believe art to be expression, but is it expression only when the artist has created it to express a certain idea? Can it express without incident? Some think Art can exist without a maker, the sky perhaps serving as a canvas. Some would refute this and more narrowly define Art as requiring skill, audience, intent. Can art be simply something that impresses, an emotion perhaps, on a viewer? Is the viewer necessary to qualify art? If a painting were to fall in the Henry and nobody were there to see it, was it art? Wait, that doesn’t make sense.

The question can be baffling and frustrating. I don’t have a complete answer, (perhaps that comes with the completion of an Art History degree?), but the question in itself is a good way to begin in the act of looking. From my experience I have found some people to have a hard time in galleries or museums in knowing how to approach artwork. They are confused of how to respond, how to comment, how to categorize their reaction. Is it Art? Why? As annoying as it has been to me in the past, the question grows on me, and can be helpful.

The Mappelthorpe polaroids may be easy to forge, perhaps the person I overheard in the Henry was right and could have done the same thing. But they didn’t, they just defined Art differently than some others.

The following night I saw a preview for a film called Untitled. A comedy staring Adam Golberg, it will focus on the same topic; is it art? The film looks interesting and funny; I think it is healthy to laugh at ourselves for taking art too seriously sometimes. I’ll see it and post about it here.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the Henry Open House was the type of event that makes us say “I should come to these more often.” Let’s follow up on that. Visit the DX Arts Concert tomorrow, the Jacob Lawrence Art Gallery, go back to the Henry, any (Mappelthorpe will be there until January 31st))…the options go on!

Milena

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