Artists Need Storytellers Too
Tonight I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH). It was the end of a very long and trying day that also happened to include strong feelings of inadequacy for a variety of reasons, most the direct result of feeling that I “should” be someone/something different than who/what I am. You know, those kind of super productive, helpful, and delightful feelings of inadequacy.
I knew I didn’t want to just go back to my hotel and wallow, so I realized it was Thursday, and Thursdays are the day that a) the MFAH has free admission (the CAMH always does) and b) they were both open until 9. What better way to recenter my thoughts than with art, right? (he asks in a structure that clearly implies that the exact opposite happened…) Because of course, being surrounded by the work of incredible artists from all walks of life, displayed in a prestigious museum…that definitely didn’t help the feelings of inadequacy.
One of the things that has always struck me about art museums, especially with regard to more contemporary art (specifically within the last century), is the descriptions given by the curator. A piece that was immediately striking upon my entrance into the MFAH’s exhibit “Between Play and Grief: Selections from the Latino American Collection,” was Teleraña II, a sculpture created by Juan Carlos Distéfano, which I took a short video of below:
I often find myself wondering where the content of these blubs come from. Is it something that the artist themselves said? It’s rarely cited, if it is. Is it something that the curator interpreted? If so, does knowing who the curator is not matter to us as a viewer? Sometimes the blurbs are less about what a piece meant and more about its place in the history of art, such as in the case of El ángel, by Alberto Heredia (though to be fair, it does a bit of both):
Reading that, I find myself wondering at what point this artist became well-known and regarded enough for the curator to speak so easily about his “horror and waste” aesthetics, as though we should have already know that those were two of his aesthetics as an artist. Yet, so often, I just accept statements like that blindly, as an observer of art. “Oh yes, good to know, this artist had aesthetics, and two of them were about horror and waste. The fact he had aesthetics means he is a True Artist™.”
I don’t mean to insinuate that Mr. Heredia isn’t actually an artist; I actually found his work to be incredibly compelling, but these blurbs gave me pause. It makes me think of the line from Hamilton, spoken by George Washington to our eponymous protagonist: “You have no control;
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” So much of our work as artists depends on who chooses to tell our story. The “best” artist in the entire world likely went completely unnoticed because the right person or people didn’t notice them or didn’t deem them worthy of their attention.
Sometimes artists are very good at seeking out that attention, at puling it in toward themselves; a lot of times, especially in contemporary art, I look up the artists and find blogs and books and articles they wrote about their art and their perspectives on the world to draw people in. But more often than not I think that is is really just the continual creation of work and the luck that the right person stumbles across it at the right time and in the right mood.
At CAMH, one of their two rotating exhibits was inspired by Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, and was a curated collection of work by queer artists from all different backgrounds. One of the displays was covered, due to its sexually explicit nature, and it was made up of these notebooks full of collages made from old gay pornography magazines and, I’m guessing, DVD covers. They were collages, not much more, some with the occasional scribbling in the margins. Unlike modern art pieces like a Pollock or Rothko, which many people think that they could do but really couldn’t, the creation of a collage does not require a great deal of skill. Perhaps a good eye, a good artistic instinct, but what made these meaningful as pieces of art were the lives of the people who made them, and the context in which they were made. It was these elements, I think, that caught the eye of the curators for this exhibit, beyond simply the content itself.
And it was on this thought that I moved into the final exhibit of the evening, the biennial Teen Council-curated exhibit at CAMH, this year entitled Shape Shifters. Composed entirely of work created by teen artists from around the city of Houston, it was comprised of the CAMH Teen Council’s selections from over 700 submissions on the theme of shifting shapes.
There were some incredibly creative and compelling interpretations of this theme, but two stuck out to me at the end. The first, Replacement by Justin Skweres, consisted of a mirror set above a pile of newspapers (not pictured), into which was set a white panel directly over where your face should be. In the center was a small sim card, such as you might have in your phone or your wallet. The second, Self Image, by Isaac Bremauntz, was a sculpture of an emaciated and deformed object only barely recognizable as a skeleton, highlighted with blood-red paint in a striking way.
This didn’t solve my feelings of inadequacy, if I’m being honest. If anything, seeing brilliant artwork created by people half my age was simultaneously beautiful and demoralizing. But these two pieces reminded me more than anything else tonight how little control we have over how others perceive us; we can only really control how we perceive ourselves.
It’s not a sexy answer, but the true work of art (because art is work) is rarely sexy. The honest reality is that many of the “best” artists in the world will never be known outside of their communities or perhaps even their families. We artists have zero control over who tells our story, but that can’t and shouldn’t stop us from telling the stories that we know need to be told.