Last week, Geo and I had dinner with a couple, both artists. In the middle of the conversation, my friend claimed that art should be self-explanatory and asked no more than looking. (Oh, well. I guess the museum docents should all be laid off under his administration.)
The exhibition from Hernan Bas at the Brooklyn Museum shows the opposite.
Although the paintings are in general narrative, the figures are mystified and actions non-revealing. I feel that I am prying at the public space into someone’s private diary. (I guess Facebook has trained us unabashed of doing that.) To some extent, the exhibition is an invitation of being a voyeur, to peep at Hernan touching his body erotically, or examine his daydreams. Yet at the same time, his works refuse to be deciphered: They are neither the state of being nor the state of becoming, just lingering between ponderous literature reference, vivacious Victorian dandy, and explosive structured paint layers. They are not much different from a politician’s answer to a touchy question: so much has been said with so many beautiful words, yet so little is meaningful or makes any sense.
To some extent, this reflects why I have my reserves on some contemporary works: They refuse to be self-explanatory, or more precisely, they invite all sorts of explanations.
Under circumstances that no consensus or agreement exists, the criticism becomes democratized and everyone has his say. This effect becomes mind-liberating when compared to the public’s interaction with works by old masters or even of 19th-century art. When viewing a painting on which numerous scholars have published studies from biographies to paint analyses, we all feel intimidated or even stupid to speak out our own opinions. Yet for an emerging artist, there is no authoritative opinion (a lot of contemporary artists refuse to label or even comment on their works); therefore, the viewing invites thinking and probing or even questioning compared to passive accepting or adopting the official conclusions.
But what will the public see from the current Hernan Bas exhibition? In some paintings, the ambiguity defies one opinion more preferable against another yet more or fewer viewers can find some common grounds. However, the majority of them, like the turbulent water in the dark palette, just reflect what is in viewers’ minds. If you look for it, you will find it. I have found some opinions pathetic because, with enough wording, even a mundane matchbox can be associated with the architecture of Philip Johnson. I simply didn’t see the commentator’s logic from the painting itself, instead, I had to be dragged to the words that are half personal and intimate, half abstract and philosophical, thus leaving no room for others to participate. It is like a youtube response to a youtube video, no better and no worse, yet shedding no light on why the works are worth viewing.
Great art should be a duality of assured manifestation and defiant uncertainty. It would strike the minds like the first light to a newborn baby, like a deafening fortissimo that blows away any doubt of its legitimacy regarding subject, composition, techniques, and colors. Yet the delicacy would invite the eyes to search further and defy any effort to frame it in words, like a pianissimo upon which words fail.
If you look for it, you will find it! Art criticism should not be exercised like a mind game. Let the art speak for itself!