Arte Povera–that is the movement identified and organized in 1972 by Germano Celant a young art critic was intended was the perhaps the last consciously constructed art movement of the twentieth century, including those who were not only reacting the political ferment of the 60s but also the growing materialism of post-War Italy.
Arte Povera American Style: Funk, Play, Poetry and Labor @ Cleveland Institute of Art / Curated by Julie Langsam and Bruce Checefsky
by Saul Ostrow
Arte Povera–that is the movement identified and organized in 1972 by Germano Celant a young art critic was intended was the perhaps the last consciously constructed art movement of the twentieth century, including those who were not only reacting the political ferment of the 60s but also the growing materialism of post-War Italy. Their aim was to make an art that was poor in spirit reflecting the alienation and decadence of contemporary culture and art. Now, some thirty years later "Arte Povera American Style: Funk, Play, Poetry and Labor" organized by the painter Julie Langsam and Bruce Checefsky showcases the work of Diana Cooper, Lucky DeBellevue, Lisa Hoke and Jim Hodges. The work of these four artists is paradoxically and quintessentially both modernist and post-modernist in its orientation. In spirit they obey Francois Lyotard’s dictum "that to be post-modern, one must first be modern."
Don’t let this modern/ post-modern dichotomy confuse you, these artists like their Italian predecessors work within a tradition that begins with Picasso and Braque’s collages and which supposedly came to an ends in the post-modernism’s discourses on semiotics. It is important to note that collage was the most significant innovation of the twentieth century, it established that with a piece of wallpaper, newspaper, children’s colored construction paper and a charcoal line one could make a painting. It led Marcel Duchamp to making his Readymades, which proved that any object could take the place of sculpture and Kurt Schwitters extended its principles into assemblage and then demonstrated art could be environmental. The final step in this genealogy would be an artists such as John Cage or Alan Kaprow–who came to the realization that the art object could be done away with altogether–things in the world being just or at times perhaps more interesting than those called art. The long-term effect of this assault on art’s conventional forms, rules, and classical aesthetic was an approach to art making that no longer required any special skills–all it took was imagination, a good idea or a way to re-contextualize the familiar. The triumph of this tendency coincides with the end of modernism, yet remains to an great extent unacknowledged by post-modernist theorists because it is either thought of as being derived from traditional formalism, or its antithesis l’informale, rather than as a hybrid that is neither.
To give you an idea of the range of these artists works I’ll quote the descriptions supplied in the artists bios that are part of the press kit . To begin with we are told that a recent art journal describes Cooper’s work as resembling "unique biomechanical systems that reflect the obvious frustrations of the of the art process as well as the human mind’s inescapable desire to create order." These constructions often include pompoms, pipe cleaners post-its, doodles and xeroxes. DeBellevue’s sculptures are made from knitting together pipe cleaners, and include such materials as PVC piping and decorative magnets. In turn, Hodges is "known for transforming everyday objects such as cloth flowers, scarves, mirrors and napkins–into thought provoking sculptures, evoking a transitory experiences for the viewer." Likewise, Lisa Hokes is drawn to material that she refers to as "second class citizens" materials" from spools of thread to drinking straws. From such mundane materials she makes works that have been discussed both in terms of their "formalism as well as their hard to define emotional punch."
So, with some rubber bands, wine glass, craft paper, huge spools of thread writing on the wall, pipe cleaners, doodle like drawings, knitted forms, folded paper constructions–in other words everything but traditional materials craft and skill–the artists included in "Arte Povera American Style" artists address issues of interactivity, eccentric form, social relations, phantasmagoria, and taste, while tacitly avoiding the question; is what they do art? The more important point is that in these days when the question of beauty–"what is it?" and "how does one judge it?" still haunt us, the most important aspect of these works is that they reverse the tendency to shy away from aesthetics issues altogether unless they can somehow be tied to the social. After all the aesthetic–is an evil associated with taste which in the vernacular becomes associated with discrimination, a class point of view and the imposition of a value system which is ultimately demeaning to those who are subjected to it, or so it is often represented by those who oppose it. The major problem with aesthetics though is that those qualities that appeal to our senses involve judgement and they can not be standardized or quantified.
Yet, the type of aesthetic values that are recuperated by Cooper, DeBellevue, Hoke and Hodge’s works are ones associated with playfulness and humor. These are capable of providing physical as well as intellectual stimulation, rather than aspiring to just one or the other. In the 60s such qualities along with that of bodily pleasure were associated with resistance to instrumental thought or the institutional logics by such political theorists as Norman O’Brown and Herbert Marcuse. It was believed that the types of experiences induced by non-directed play brought the passive, non-participant back to themselves as beings in the world. It was proposed such experiences could transform the mere observer or victim into someone who once having derived pleasure from their senses of being would seek to instill it in all aspects of their life. Obviously such a project is a tall order for modest, nearly ephemeral works that vacillates between the ridiculous and the sublime, fragility and unrelenting presence. Yet, it is this flux that substantiates that art, which is poignant, provocative and elegant, today is still capable of challenging our taste and judgment.
"Arte Povera American Style" proves that such work need not become precious, lyrical or merely formal–that it is able to carry multiple contents while exploring varied forms and concepts. What it does not do is try to is be coarsely anti-aesthetic or overly clever. So, if there is anything poor about this art, its poverty does not reside in the works effects but only in the material employed since these artists have a shared taste for everyday materials or those more associated with craft than with art. While its materiality and often its kitschiness or off handedness might seem to be irreverent, it is not aggressively so. There is an inescapable quality to all of this work in which these artists infuse the most humble material or unassuming form with a sense of dignity and refinement.
Unlike Arte Povera, the Italian style of the 60s and 70s which was haunted by high art’s historical precedents and was imbued with a sense of nostalgia, and metaphysics, the works of Cooper, DeBellevue, Hoke and Hodge optimistically extend the viability and potential of making works that are at once personal, poetic and aesthetic. The impermanence, labor or process intensive-ness and modesty that their works exudes, brings to mind that once forbidden term: sensibility. Consequently, they have more in common with such U.S. artists of the period as Richard Tuttle, Alan Saret, Alan Shields and Tom Nozkowski whose works are also irksome in that in their simplicity they seem neither self-assured nor apologetic, but indeterminate. Such works in forgoing the literal and literary shed light on the potential subversive-ness of ambiguity and aesthetic judgement versus the danger of being beguiled by the banal satisfaction derived from an over determined conceptualization.