Friday, May 28, 2010

From the Left Bank to the Right Brain

by Paul Edmunds

It was completely coincidental that I visited the Gagosian's 'Claude Monet: Late Work' and Pace Gallery's 'Carsten Nicolai: Moiré' on the same morning. Both artists ostensibly explore the optical experience, and, in retrospect, both have engaged with the nature of artmaking in their practice.

On paper, Carsten's was the show which should have really appealed to me. He has a bit of that left-brained, rational approach to making art that I like to think my practice shares. Nicolai is ostensibly very hip, involved with nightclubs, music, and makes whacky works with jellyfish and an architectural proposal so bold as to alter one of the city's sacred cows: Frank Lloyd Wright's untouchable Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim tomorrow (possibly)

With Monet, I guess, it depends who's asking.

I've never doubted that he was the father of modern painting, and all the work in that lineage, from Jackson Pollock to pure Greenbergian abstraction, has always appealed to me. That might have to do with how it was taught to me in art school, and that it seemed a lot more exciting than early Renaissance painting (in light of an earlier experience I may have to revise this too). On the other hand, his work is so darned pretty and we're taught to mistrust that. Also, it's not that far a leap from Monet to this:

Claude Monet: 'It wasn't me'

Or is it? Perhaps too much is made of the relationship between early experiments in photography and the gestural colour mélange characteristic of much Impressionism; and maybe this detracts from the likes of Monet whose painting appears so uncalculated and so born of an instinctive response to what he saw.

Carsten's monochromatic exploration of the moiré effect is doubtlessly engaging and provides plenty of visual candy for the likes of me. In one work he creates interference by stretching black chords across a wall, shining a light on them to produce parallel shadows behind. This light moves up and down on a track, causing the shadows to move. In addition, the 'wall' is actually made of latex which inflates and deflates continually causing the shadows to warp, sending shifting patterns of interference across the chords. A lot of trouble, but a bit contrived, perhaps?

Nicolai's claim that his work does the groundwork for scientific and aesthetic exploration of the effect is a little tenuous, and I remain uncertain of where he thinks this can go, and how it goes further than what anyone has done before. I'm not sure that he reaches a conclusion, and I'm not sure that leaving that up to the viewer is likely to yield any results.

Perhaps the work's value lies in the fact that Nicolai undertakes these experiments and sets up conditions for these experiences in an artmaking context. And it is great to see ink drawings, LED's, inflatable PVC walls and brain-warping computer graphics, but ultimately, it's a little like a sculpture at a science fair, only here the scientists are wearing black coats.

I don't think Monet set out to explore colour, light and surface in a predetermined way, it was just that the way he saw things, and how he articulated his observations, disassembled painting's conventions and reconstructed the practice in such a way as to explore its very nature. But he did this without putting a full stop (or a period, as we say here) at the end of his sentence. Now there's progress!

So, while the way may be fraught with uncertainty, some things are unchanging. Like happens all too often these days, I was reminded of my age at the Monet show when I found myself wondering what it cost to insure.

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