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The Significance of Juxtaposition

Monday, 7. May 2018 0:39

A piece of mine that was just in a juried show was displayed in the center of a panel with two works on either side. To the left of my piece was a smaller piece, a watercolor, that was sold. Now, this particular show did not use the discrete quarter- or eighth-inch dots indicating that a piece was sold; rather they used red dots one inch in diameter. There was no question about whether the piece sold or not. What was apparent, however, was that that red dot influenced not only the piece to which it was “attached,” but the rest of the panel as well. It said, “Someone has paid hard cash for this piece, but not for the rest of these pieces.” It also said, “This piece is sold. Won’t someone buy one of these others?” It made viewers look at the other pieces on the panel differently.

Viewers were almost compelled to compare the pieces on the panel in ways that they normally would not. There was no question that the sold piece was good, but its status caused the viewers to examine each of the other pieces on the panel to determine whether they were actually of lesser quality, or whether the purchase was strictly a matter of individual taste. The red dot seemed particularly to invite comparison to the piece beside it. The pieces were not only different thematically, they were different media. No one would have ever thought to compare the two, except for that “sold” sticker.

In another part of the show, there were two pieces on an endcap. One was a framed oil painting approximately 24”x30,” and on a pedestal probably a foot away from the endcap wall was a sculpture about a foot high which was exceptional. I paused to look at the sculpture several times before I ever realized that the painting was there. Not only was it there, but it was excellent, and, incidentally, by the same artist who had done the sculpture. What was interesting was that the juxtaposition of the two pieces gave almost all of the focus to the sculpture. Had the painting been located anywhere else in the room, it would have been a stand-out. As it was, it was consistently upstaged by the piece of sculpture.

As usual, after I got home, I went through the catalogue of the show, and, as usual, found pieces that I don’t remember seeing in the exhibition hall. Now I wonder if I saw them, but they were located beside other pieces that took focus, either because of placement or quality or perhaps because of a red dot placed on an adjacent piece.

In a juried show, the artist has very little, if any, say over where or how his/her pieces are displayed. Likewise, the artist has no control over which pieces sell and which ones don’t; indeed, a piece may attract no buyers in one show, but sell immediately in another. The takeaway can only be that how work is displayed and what the adjacent pieces are is in no way a reflection on the artist. Similarly, whether a piece sells may also be a function of placement and juxtaposition and not a reflection on the artist.

Several years ago, I wrote a post called “Context Matters.” Now I find that that idea may now need to be expanded and refined to say “not only does context matter, so does juxtaposition.”

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The Importance of Venue

Sunday, 5. January 2014 23:56

In a recent blog, Seth Godin makes the point that if we think we are supposed to like something, we probably will. He uses the examples of laughing more at a comedy club, liking the food better at fancy restaurants, and feeling like we have a bargain if we buy it at an outlet store. In other words, the venue influences the perceived value of the experience.

Reinforcing this idea is the Washington Post experiment instigated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten and implemented by Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell. Bell, lightly disguised, played as a street performer for 45 minutes at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC on January 12, 2007. Only seven people stopped to listen and he collected a total of $32.17. Earlier the same week, he had played the same concert to a sold-out $100-per-seat house.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet once compared New York and Chicago theatre audiences in what seems to be a comment on the same phenomenon, “In Chicago, we just presume that the best theatre is going to be in somebody’s garage.”

This about more than the environment in which an art work exists, it is about the perception of value (the qualitative portion of audience expectation) based strictly on venue. Because of the prices we pay, and the location of the theatres, we expect New York theatre to be the best in the world, and consequently we like it more. As we move away from Manhattan, our expectations shrink and we expect to like what we see less; we are hardly ever disappointed. We look at the environment and adjust our expectations. Is it a union house? Are the actors professional? Are they students? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we modify our expectations according to the venue. We expect less and like it less.

This way of thinking does not apply only to theatre. We base our expectation of the quality of any art on the venue and the location of the venue. So when we walk into the hole-in-the-wall club in Tennessee, we do not expect to hear world class music.  When we visit an outdoor art fair in Texas, we do not anticipate seeing mature, masterful work. We do not really expect world-class anything outside of the “proper” context.

Like many of the passersby in the Washington Post experiment, many of us are so locked into the idea of how we are supposed to respond (according to location and situation) that we cannot hear the actual quality of the music or see the real quality of the art.

An earlier installment of this blog, “Context Matters” said, “The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.” Although certainly a desirable ideal, the more I learn, the less sure I am that decontextualization is a real possibility—at least for most people.

And although we know very well that quality is not related to venue, as artists we need to be aware of this phenomenon and realize that where we show our work does indeed matter to the majority of our audience. We may not like it, but we had better learn to deal with it.

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Context Matters

Sunday, 20. May 2012 23:09

Just as mise-en-scène informs the characters and their story in a film, the context in which we view art influences what we think of it. When we view a painting, for example, we not only get input from the work itself, but from the color and texture of the walls, the temperature of the room, the ongoing conversations. We become aware of the adjacent works and note how the juxtaposition of nearby pieces impacts the one upon which we are focused.

If you are one who tries to see a great deal of art, you already know that where you see the art can be almost as important as the art you see. There is a tendency to make certain assumptions about the art based on the viewing space and situation. Different venues generate different expectations and different art experiences. Consider the difference in viewing art at an auction, in a formal gallery, in a casual gallery, in a paint-spattered artist’s studio, in a tent at an art fair, in a friend’s apartment.

Consider too the other aspects of the situation. Is wine being served? In glass or plastic? Is there a crowd? Is there music? Is there lively conversation? Is there conversation at all? Are you alone or with friends? Does the lighting enhance the art? Is it daytime or evening? The list of contextual variables is almost endless.

Environmental factors are not limited to situations in which you might purchase art. There are also museums, each of which provides its own context. Sometimes that context can vary room-to-room or show-to-show. Some shows provide a great deal of solitude which allows you to really contemplate the work. This is very different from viewing art in an environment of timed entry and a docent in every doorway.

Each gallery and museum has its own unique ambiance and thus provides a different context for any piece of art under consideration. The purpose, of course, is to establish a context that will allow you to see the work under what the gallery managers and museum directors perceive to be the best possible circumstances so that you will have a greater appreciation for the work. If you have visited many galleries and museums, you have certainly noticed that some do a much better job at this than others.

Simply put, the environment, the context impacts meaning, impacts perception, impacts attraction. I know a person who saw the Michelangelo’s Pietà before it was put behind bullet-proof glass. He is very pleased to have had that opportunity, since, for him at least, the protecting acrylic diminishes the work considerably. Can anyone really believe that viewing the unprotected Mona Lisa would be the same experience as seeing the painting in its climate-controlled glass case?

Sometimes the context can be more powerful than the art. In those cases we remember the surroundings more than the work itself. Not long ago, a friend and I walked through a gallery that is rented on a per-show basis and can be modified by the tenant. The show that was opening was a photography exhibit that seemed to be very personal to the photographer.  Affixed to the walls above the photographs were somewhat clichéd quotations. The tiredness of the quotes was not the problem; the fact that all but one were crooked was.

After we left, we spent a long time discussing whether the slanting of the words was purposeful or simply careless application. In either case, it framed the environment of that particular show. That this verbal presentation became the topic of discussion rather than the art illustrates again the power of context.

The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.

[This post was originally published in the Gazette that was distributed as part of The Salon Show (February 18- March 24, 2012) at Pop Up Art House in Henderson, NV]

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