"See", Ana England

By: Amanda Dalla Villa Adams

Photographs courtesy of Eric R Greiner

Faced with the end of modernism, art historian Hal Foster attempted to define the role of the critic within post-modern art in “Re:  Post” (1982).  Ultimately, he suggested that postmodernism allows art to go “beyond the limits of critique,” because there is no longer one all-encompassing way of evaluation [Think of modernist critic Clement Greenberg’s dogmatic search for “purity” within the medium itself].  More recently, conceptual artist Daniel Buren commented on the restrictions of Foster’s way of thinking in the November issue of Modern Painter.  With postmodernism, Buren states, “the museum takes everything in and thus flattens everything out…it accepts everything without setting up a hierarchy.”  He goes on to explain that “people writing about art in national newspapers often don’t really know what they are talking about…I cannot believe that the art world as it is today can satisfy people in their 20s.”

Given these two opposing viewpoints, what is the role of criticism and how is it defined if we accept every “minor” form of methodology and critique? In a culture where resolute and passionate beliefs are often seen as intolerant and parochial, can we evaluate good versus bad art, and are these defining terms even useful.  Is the critic one who judges merit and the critique still worthwhile?   Given much art that is being produced, it seems likely that many have decided to sidestep criticism or evaluation and merely hope for the best.

Such sentiment seems to be present in the latest show at Bromwell’s Gallery, Flora and Fauna.  A group show, organized loosely around how “nature is found, observed, [and] remade in elegant ways,” allows the better artists to shine through while the remaining fall flat.  Unfortunately, the inviting and opulent interior of Bromwell’s does nothing to highlight many of the works.  Given the limitations of the space, it seems that perhaps only an exhibition on institutional critique would work effectively in the gallery.  Situated on the second floor, the open gallery space is divided into several rooms accented by towering open windows, a large and imposing fireplace, rich hardwood trim, exposed brickwork, and even big plush furniture and room settings.  Instead of complementing and enhancing the work, the interior competes with and engulfs many.  Consider Ana England’s beautifully crafted Quercus with Fungus, a three-dimensional bronze cellular structure with an accented white ceramic fungus placed in the center.  Compact, understated, and elegant in both form and subject matter, I nearly missed it because of its placement overshadowed by the fireplace.

The exception are Katie Parker’s and Guy Michael Davis’ porcelain and paper works, Hy-Que Monkey in Captivity and Hanging Dead Project, which balance the line between everyday kitsch, meticulous craft, design, and luxury.  With these works, the lavish gallery seems to frame them in a way that invites the viewer to consider the contradictions and juxtapositions in meaning that are present.  In fact, what I found most compelling about the work was also my biggest criticism:  namely, might the work exist just as well in a Target or Ikea ad as it does in the current space.

Anita Douthat’s photograms provide another centerpiece to the show, though the space does little to detract from or add to the work.  Cameraless photographs of organic fibers, made from the sun’s reflection onto light-sensitive paper, create both delicate and energetic lyrical compositions.  Each photogram, a visual record of a moment, points to a larger discussion about history and the appearance of timelessness.

Yet even with these positive inclusions, I left the show wanting more and wishing to have seen work that challenged the space and the viewer’s perception. In actuality, there seemed to be little reason for combining these artists together and the show lacked a strong cohesive thread; the divided gallery space only exacerbated this problem.  Instead of forcing me to wonder and question my surroundings, I felt unengaged and apathetic about the work as a whole.  Perhaps that’s what literary theorist Roland Barthes was referring to in his discussion on the difference between the “text” and the “work.”  Setting one in opposition to the other, Barthes argued for a “Theory of the Text.”  For Barthes, the text exists within discourse and has infinite meanings.  It is interdisciplinary and cannot be contained within any hierarchy, nor is its meaning created by the author/artist.  Instead, the text favors “playing” or re-producing the object each time you encounter it – this ultimately creates pleasure in the viewer.  Thus, it is eternal and active, played out within narratives, social spaces, and real time.  It always exists and reproduces itself because it is not a static, tangible “work.”


Therein lies the crossroad.  Erased hierarchy allows for openness and reproducibility, but it also dilutes the finished product as Buren maintained.  As a viewer, I look for art that allows for discursive meaning and encourages an open interpretation.  Simultaneously, I have a remaining desire to see critically engaging work that stands out from the rest because of inclusions and exclusions based on some quantifiable form of judgment.   Somewhere in the middle of this contradiction lies a plumb line that is only approachable through discourse and debate.  The critic is but one involved — along with the help of historians, viewers, and artists — in navigating this string of narratives.  Foster wrote about the critic within postmodern thinking nearly thirty years ago when post-modernism was a new term and hotly debated.  In light of these shortcomings within the gallery scene, I think it is time we readdress these ideas.

Flora and Fauna, May 5-July 14, 2012 at Bromwell’s Gallery, 117 W. Fourth St., Cincinnati, Ohio, 45202, Monday-Saturday, 10-5.




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