An Informed Vision
It’s easier than ever to join the art fray; just open your eyes and take it all in.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
“I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” – William Morris, artist, intellectual, socialist
Steve Hauk, who for 23 years has owned and operated his Hauk Fine Arts gallery in downtown Pacific Grove, tells a story that might be instructive of local attitudes about visual art.
“We had this couple, and just the woman came in and the man stood outside,” he says. “I asked her why he didn’t come in. She said, ‘He’s not interested in art.’ I went outside and talked to the man, asked him what he likes to do. He said he likes to go to Yosemite. I told him ‘You know, if you didn’t have a lot of early artists, you wouldn’t have Yosemite. The artists sent Yosemite artworks to Washington, D.C., [during conservation efforts] and it was preserved, instead of destroyed.’ All of a sudden, it means something to them. They don’t stand outside the gallery if the gallery has interesting work that talks to them.”
What Hauk describes might apply to many people in Monterey County who, for various reasons, don’t go inside the myriad art galleries or important museums that tell the region’s history in art. Various leaders in the local art community speculate why that might be: busy lives that don’t allow for contemplation; a gallery atmosphere that intimidates; missing arts education; a bounty of less challenging choices.
John Berger, in his important 1972 BBC documentary and book of art criticism, Ways of Seeing, pointed to an international study that found the less education a person has, the less likely they are to visit an art museum, and feel comfortable inside one: “The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery which excludes them. They believe that original masterpieces belong to the preserve (both materially and spiritually) of the rich.”
Western art once did belong to the elite world of the rich and powerful and educated, or was installed in hallowed places like cathedrals, to be worshipped from a diminished distance. Some of that proverbial pedestal still remains, though Berger calls it, in our modern age, “an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.”
Theresa Del Piero is the chair of the Monterey Museum of Art’s Collectors Guild; her husband Eric is on the museum’s board of trustees. They are also collectors who have been buying primarily early California art since about 1987, so Theresa’s had a front-row seat to art patronage here.
“What’s interesting about our area is because we’re a tourist destination, there are a lot of locals who don’t know what incredible museums we have,” she says. “There certainly are things that attract local people like the [Monterey Museum of Art’s] Ansel Adams exhibition a couple of years ago. When you look at the numbers, the majority are from out of the area. The museum is like the Aquarium: People typically take people from out of town.”
A lack of fundamental arts education (“so many arts programs are being cut back in the schools,” Hauk reminds) widens the gap between the masses and visual arts. Will Devoe, co-owner, along with Imelda Suarez, of Salinas’ underground and urban SOMOS Media and Gallery, has encountered this.
“If you ask people what type of art [they] like, a lot of people, I bet, wouldn’t even know the terminology, the jargon. Surrealism: ‘Oh, I like that Salvador Dalí guy.’ Sometimes they don’t even know what it’s called. They’ll ask me what it’s called. I’ll ask people if they hang out at art galleries. ‘No. I think that’s a certain demographic they cater too.’ They’re not trying to be classist.”
Hauk says people should ask questions about art, but admits previous negative interactions may shut down and pre-empt that kind of conversation.
“Is that a watercolor or a print?” he offers as example. “Is it Impressionism? What’s Realism? People will hem and haw: ‘This is sort of a dumb question… ’ No. It isn’t. That sounds like [that person] had a bad experience at another gallery.”
If every person deserves to know the transcendence of art, the way it can elevate consciousness, deepen connections to others and the world, then world-renowned artist David Ligare, who’s slated to be given a retrospective at Sacramento’s Crocker Museum in 2015 and who lives in Corral de Tierra, offers a dilemma that might halt people.
“‘Does art have anything to do with my life?’” Ligare suggests people may ask. “It’s a perfectly valid question.”
But art, he points out, is in everything around us, from TV commercials to car design to fashion to magazines. Like Hauk’s example of the Yosemite preservation efforts, it’s moved people to action: Photographs of widespread poverty were used, Ligare says, by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration in the 1930s to sway Congress to pass bills to remedy poverty. More recently, he says the poster art of Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey – who was influenced by Andy Warhol – changed how people thought about Obama and his candidacy.
Ligare says while he was teaching 20th-Century art at Hartnell College, he would draw a figure on a chalkboard and invite his students to guess what it was.
“They would take these stabs at it. Birds on a telephone pole. A linear tree. No one ever guessed: ‘It’s the Japanese character for rain.’ I said, ‘You can’t see this because you don’t know the language.’ The language of art is that way. We see what we know.”
“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Pablo Picasso, artist
Visual artists want, first and foremost, their work to be seen. That convergence of what the artist sees, knows, feels and experiences meeting with a viewer and all their experiences. And in Monterey County there are many more venues for it to happen than there are for theater, live music and books combined. There is an implicit open invitation from the art community for people to come in.
“A common misconception is that the visual arts require education to enjoy,” says Mat Gleason, an L.A.-based curator and art critic for Huffington Post. “With technology allowing access to so many venues and accelerating the learning curve, the visual arts fray has never been more easy to join.”
He could be referring to the limitless online resources available to help people navigate and draw nearer to art. One is the Google Art Project, which lets visitors inside 16 of the world’s most important art museums to take virtual 3D tours that work like Google Maps’ street view, with artist information, viewing notes and videos to unravel the works.
“Simply find the museums and galleries in your neck of the woods,” Gleason says of the real-world experience, “and check them out on a regular basis. It is like flipping channels. Eventually you will find the program you like.”
Or, as local painter Johnny Apodaca puts it: “Look, look, look.”
He says he had a visitor at his Carmel studio gallery who, after browsing the large abstract paintings that line the space, admitted he just didn’t get it. So Apodaca recounted a timeline, from prehistoric cave drawings to Roman art, the Renaissance to the Baroque, Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism, a brief history, in a one-hour conversation, on the story of art. Afterward, Apodaca says, the man told him, “I get it now.” That man was an engineer.
The Story of Art is also a book, written by E.H. Gombrich in 1950, that is considered one of the definitive (and subjective) chronicles of that story in print. There are many others that offer people new to the art scene a way into that vast and varied world. Steve Hauk suggest California Art by Nancy Maure. Mat Gleason, the Huffington Post critic, offers up Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word as “the greatest book, on 20th-century art’s failings as victories, ever published.” The BBC series Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting were a big hit in England and later in the U.S. on PBS, partly for Wendy’s rabbit-toothed smile and breathless commentary, and partly for the nun’s highly personal but astute observations.
Finding out about art helps unlock some of the mystery of its language. That’s the responsibility of the viewer, part of the deal that artistic communication hinges on. And resources – beginning at the library and extending through to artist lectures – are plentiful.
Jacqui Hope, executive director of the Pacific Grove Art Center, says the DVD series How to Appreciate Great Art did that for her parents: “They figured out the code with that.”
E. Michael Whittington, executive director of the Monterey Museum of Art, which is in the process of unfurling six major exhibits in its two locations, is academically trained to deconstruct a painting on sight (see sidebar, left), but promotes a primal approach to art.
“Art can be appreciated on so many different levels,” he says. “I visit a lot of museums all over the world and enjoy looking at something beautiful that takes my breath away. It happens so often.”
Lila Staples is the Department Chair of the Visual and Public Art Department at CSU Monterey Bay.
“There are multiple truths to every work of art,” she says. “Your truth. My truth. The artist’s truth. They are all true, and are rooted in our own experiences. That said, it can certainly enrich our experience to know a little contextual information on an exhibition, through labels, or a catalog, or a docent. But our first reactions should be without guidance.”
Hauk’s clients include marine biologists and oceanographers who seek paintings of the sea, and people who work in the state and national parks who collect landscapes and wilderness scenes.
“Locally, you can go all the way back to the great marine biologist and friend of Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts,” Hauk says. “Ricketts’ friends included painters Judith Deim and Ellwood Graham and James Fitzgerald and Bruce Ariss among others, because some of these artists painted themes that interested Ricketts. It was a meeting point.”
“Good art is not what it looks like, but what it does to us.” – Roy Adzak, artist
When locals show visiting friends and family around the county, the locals get a chance to see the familiar through the fresh eyes of others, and feel that joy of discovery all over again. The art community wants to engage with people who are new to art for much the same reason, and they’ve set up ways to start that relationship.
“I can talk about art all day,” says Lisa Coscino, a former gallery owner and current executive director of the rebranded Museum of Monterey. “Any time you come in, somebody’s willing to talk to you. We have [free] films in the back theater. They’re brilliant. Cheech talking about collecting art, how to look at it. It’s easy access.”
The exhibition of Cheech Marin’s small paintings collection will be accessed soon by 100 students from San Jose State University and six classes of about 40 students each from Hartnell College’s Latino studies class.
“Our community isn’t just the Peninsula,” Coscino says. “It’s anybody who wants to touch us.
“Art doesn’t want to exist in a vacuum, in a cave or a box under a bed; it wants to be seen,” she continues. “It confuses you enough to engage you, but not for you to drop it. I have one [piece] in my office and I look at it all day long. Why did they paint the arm blue? A blue arm doesn’t mean anything, but the why drives me crazy.”
In addition to inspiring and stirring emotions and reflection, looking at art may also lead, down the line, to buying art, a prospect that can change the relationship one has to it.
Collector Theresa Del Piero says, “You don’t have to have a lot of money to buy good art. You could spend a couple hundred dollars for a painting that’s worth a lot more than that.”
Scott Grover, owner of the Alternative Cafe in Seaside, says another way into purchasing art is to start on the ground floor. His ground floor consists of the fresh, young artists of underground or lowbrow art. He says it’s exciting to watch that scene grow nationally, and its artists gain more acceptance and stature.
“In any art form, the newcomers are more accessible,” he says. “They’re younger or newer to the gallery scene. Underground art is a relatively new art, inspired by the punk movement and street art. Being relatively new, the price point is more accessible, the art less intimidating: It’s not a big white canvas with a little red dot in the corner you have to understand. It’s a little more straightforward.”
Their signature show, New Brow, soon returns for the fifth year, and has featured in the past key artists from the genre like Ron English, Eric Joyner, Ann Faith Nichols and Shepard Fairey. And the gallery has created a companion documentary by the same name that introduces the whole scene, from start to present.
PGAC executive director Jacqui Hope doesn’t have a degree in art, but says that she comes with a lifelong appreciation for its various incarnations: Her family was immersed in theater, her sister has an art degree from UC Santa Cruz, and her brother is Pacific Repertory Theatre founder and artistic director Stephen Moorer.
“There’s nothing else that will access different parts of yourself and will explain yourself to yourself,” she says. “When someone attempts art and goes into a museum or gallery, then they can appreciate it more.”
To that end, the center offers art classes for kids, including instruction on manga art, for free, which can remove the barrier of money. “We’re also casual here,” she adds. “If you want to go to a gallery here after the beach, you can do that.”
Whittington at the Monterey Museum of Art seconds such a notion: “Being in a museum should be enjoyable. You don’t have to hush your voice; you’re not in church.”
Conversely, Hope says, “Art can quiet the world for a minute.”