Evergreen: Politics Before Pretty? by Joseph Young

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On the front lawn of the Evergreen Mansion,as part of their Biennial Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition, are two Sioux tipis, some 20 feet high, made of canvas and raw pine. In looking at them, one can’t ignore their political and social dimensions, questions of history, power, and race. These questions, as important as they are though, seem to me a bit obvious, and ultimately less than interesting.

There are few among us who do not understand the historic and contemporary import of our country’s relationship with Native Americans, the necessity of maintaining our awareness of that relationship, a knowledge of how it shapes our political and social culture. Still, what struck me in approaching the tipis was how artistically arresting they are, how beautiful, the remarkable sculptural forms they make. The white cones against the green lawn,the spiked crowns of pine wood against the sky, they are elegant and powerful. What hit me is that, taken out of their native West, put into an art show in Baltimore, made objects of art rather than cultural artifacts, they are visually and tactilely compelling.

The brochure that accompanies the exhibit, Interventions, guest curated by Andrea Pollan, by and large focuses on the social, political, theoretic. The text that describes the tipis, which are named Hideouts by artist J Hill, speaks about the railroading past of the Garretts, builders of Evergreen, 19th and 20th century industrialists and patrons of the arts. The Garrets, we are to understand, were integral to the western expansion of the United States, to “Manifest Destiny.” In contrast, the text avoids the aesthetics of Hideouts, barely touching on them at all for any of the sculptural pieces. Seems strange.

Another interesting piece is Brian Balderston’s Memorial to an Ambitious Idea (Remnants of the Solar Cell). From the outside, this sculpture consists of an odd white rhomboid sitting near the bank of Stony Run stream. Coming around to one end, you see that it is hollow, that inside is a portable lawn chaise, a kind of weird throne tucked inside a dark tomb, the walls inside as black as they are white on the outside. Visitors can enter the sculpture and sit in the chaise, the walls radiating heat and darkness, the verdant grass and trees just beyond the entrance almost another world entirely.

The text for the show gives the history of Memorial, focusing on the irony that history evokes. But, though the sculpture’s past gives us a handle on why it was conceived, perhaps how it ended up at Evergreen, it doesn’t do much to deepen the question of Why? to immerse us in the mysterious force of the art, the experience of white and black, outside and in, dark and light. The immediacy of the object is not found in the concept of its execution.

Is it possible that many artists, curators, writers are uncomfortable in discussing aesthetic experience in contemporary art? Are they uncomfortable in leaving the general public with impressions of beauty, or ugliness, without the mediation of politics or ideas? Are they afraid there is not enough aesthetic value within contemporary art to hold the general viewer’s interest? Of course, this is one show, one curator’s take, ten artists among thousands working. Generalizations can’t be made. Still, though, I find it strange. I go to art mostly to stand in front of it and feel awe, or disgust, or mystery. It’s there in all good art, historic and contemporary. Certainly, ideas, politics, these are integral and important. But are we forgetting aesthetic experience in favor of obvious political questions? Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway, we’d do well not to.

– Joseph Young

Photos from Ten Tigers blog and Eileen Wold. For an additional review, go to Eileen Wold. AND – for an additional additional review, look at this week’s Citypaper.

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