Around Town . . .
By Christopher M. Manfredi
It is the artist's misfortune that his work cannot be judged solely on its own merits, nor even within the context of a specific type of art. The enduring and universal purpose of art is to represent through an image the artist's insight into some facet of man's experience or environment. The artist's success in transforming insight into image is the standard by which any artistic endeavor must be judged. Indeed, this is the cause of art's beauty. A beautiful image is not simply pleasing to the eye, but to the mind as well.
This is not to transform art into a mere intellectual exercise, but to posit a relationship between what pleases the mind and what pleases the senses. Beauty does not reside simply in the material of which a thing is made, but in its form; i.e., in what ties its matter together to create a coherent whole. It is this combination of matter and form which is the source of beauty in art.
Sculpture is the example par excellence of the relationship between matter and form. While the material of which a sculpture is made may have pleasing characteristics (e.g., it may be shiny or smooth to the touch), it does not become beautiful except through form. This is why, for example, a bronze statue may be beautiful while a large mass of bronze is not. The form of a sculpture is provided by the thought or insight that its maker injects into its material, and a good sculptor is distinguished from the mediocre by both the importance of his insights and by his skill in manipulating matter in a way that most powerfully reveals those insights.
Therein lies the deficiency of an exhibition of sculptures now on view at Scripps College. The campus of the college is currently functioning as a large gallery for five sculptures that are the result of collaborative efforts of students and a visiting artist, Helen Escobedo. The description accompanying each sculpture explains that they are "site-specific temporary sculptures" which are meant to "grow harmoniously with their environments." The description-written by Mindy Lorenz, curator of exhibitions at Scripps' Lang Art Gallery-goes on to explain that "this project will continue to provide each of us with many new insights about ourselves, our work, and our environment." Furthermore, the aim of the project is "to heighten people's awareness of the art-making process as it affects our daily life in all its inner and outer dimensions."
Each of the sculptures-which were conceived and whose sites were chosen after lengthy deliberation-is designed to interact with its environment to produce a kaleidoscopic image as autumn becomes winter. Falls: A Waterfall for Leaves, for example, consists of three long tiers of wire mesh placed under a row of trees. The piece is designed to catch falling leaves, creating a "waterfall" effect with "splashes" of autumn colors. So far, however, the wind has not been very cooperative.
When viewing this exhibit, one's first reaction is puzzlement. It is extremely difficult to discern what the sculptures are supposed to be without closer examination. Of course, this is not sufficient in itself to criticize the exhibit. In this case, however, it indicates that something is indeed missing. That something is, precisely, form.
That this is the case can be understood by considering one of the pieces, Where Autumn Came, full Summer. . . . It is a collection of seventeen rolls of wire mesh painted in the colors of autumn leaves and placed upright on a rectangular piece of lawn bounded on all four sides by trees-or at least one assumes that they were placed upright. Most of the rolls are now lying on the ground. A sign next to this sculpture explains that it has been vandalized three times. The sign does not indicate whether the vandalism consisted in knocking the rolls over or in setting them upright. Common sense leads one to believe that the former is more likely, but anyone who had not seen the piece in its original state could not be certain.
While the colors in which the rolls have been painted are attractive to the eye, the piece as a whole fails because of this uncertainty. The blame for this can be attributed to the sculpture's formlessness and lack of permanence. The temporary aspect of these works is particularly bothersome. An artist does not produce something with its destruction in mind, and yet this is precisely what the word "temporary" implies. Art is the individual man's attempt to place something in the world that will endure after his death. It is his grasp at immortality. Art in all forms is also the collective legacy of one generation to the next. It is a partial guarantee that one's presence in the world will not be forgotten. To plan the passing out of existence of one's art is to defeat its purpose.
The formlessness of Where Autumn Came, full Summer . . . is made evident by the impossibility of reconstructing the image shattered by the vandalism. The artist's concern over the vandalism seems strange since the temporary nature of the sculpture renders the vandalism insignificant. The sculpture was never meant to endure, and it is unimportant in the context of its meaning that it was vandalized. There was no form to destroy, only matter to rearrange.
There is a lesson to be learned from this exhibit, and in this sense the artists have provided us with an insight. They are guilty of a peculiarly modern view that denies the existence of form and understands everything, including man, as mere matter. And formless matter is infinitely malleable. The sculptures illustrate clearly the modern insight that nothing is really enduring and that life is simply flux and change. It is no accident, either, that the sculptures are called in one place "experimental." Modern man, released from the constraints of form, is free to experiment at will with matter, including his own. The act of vandalism in this case is as valid an experiment as the sculptures themselves.
To be sure, the artists do offer us an "insight about ourselves, our work, and our environment" in this exhibit. However, it is not one in whose beauty we can find comfort and joy.