James Turrell and Paul McCarthy, Beyond Traditional Concepts of Beauty and Craft

Posted on August 01 2013

by Sara Schifano.

Hello Arty Birds,

In the midst of thinking about something interesting to share with you in this installment and trying to survive New York’s heat wave, I asked myself what is the biggest challenge in discussing contemporary art with a non-art audience. This question comes to mind every single time I have to write an article, as my biggest accomplishment as an art writer would be to make everyone understand that art today goes far beyond the traditional concepts of beauty and craft.

This is very hard, as a lot of people approach art with a filtered mind: “I could have done that”, “that is just ugly”, “I don’t understand it”. It is also hard because ‘art people’ often don’t really make an effort to be understood. But, let’s face it, who said that art was easy anyway? With these thoughts in mind I decided to bring you two artists who are now rocking New York: James Turrell and Paul McCarthy.

I decided to feature them both in this post for a number of reasons: they are both big, established artists; they are both American; they are both exhibiting in great institutions; and finally they will both give you strong gut feelings, but in very opposite directions.

Since the late 1960s James Turrell has practiced art solely through one medium: light. His work at the Guggenheim, Aten Reign, is thought specifically for the notorious rotunda of the museum. Hundreds of daily visitors will find a completely transformed space, manipulated by both natural and artificial light. James Turrell invites them to slow their pace, get closer to their senses and perceive the physical experience of light. Like he said during the presentation of his installation, ‘light has the most power without image. My work has no image, no object, no focus. So what do you have left? A lot.”

You might take this as a free meditation class, you might feel like you landed in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and you will without any doubt, leave peaceful, relaxed, speechless. Could just anybody have done this? Doubtful.

So yes, art can be spiritual, meditative. But forget all that and meet Paul McCarthy, an artist who had to wait a long time to get fame and recognition. His extraordinary language is definitely not for everyone. WS, his latest project installed in the imposing space of the Park Avenue Armory is NC-17. Why? Remember Snow White? Make it White Snow and transform it in a weird sexual tale of American life. McCarthy, whose work always dealt with the dark side of American culture, presents what has been defined as a Gesamtkunstwerk (A total work of art). This installation, however, is much more than a twisted version of a classic fairy tale. It’s a hallucinatory trip through the artist’s own life and the imagery of pop culture. It is explicit, often gross, but also quite magnificent. The primal noises and images of a repressed sexual fantasy running in the huge video projections will torture your ears and maybe confuse you. You’ll be walked through a sick peep-show of the after-effects of all the debauchery spying through the windows of the exact copy of the house where the artist grew up and then abandoned for a walk through a real scale doomed forest. Call it violent, or maybe honest. McCarthy tricked you, because you’re not in New York anymore. The artist, very generously, invited you inside his personal delirium. Just be careful not to judge him too fast.

What do you think then? This is not traditional painting, it’s not really sculpture, it’s hard to collect and put in your living room, but somehow it’s capable of bringing you far from your comfort zone. Like a good trip, anything that brings us far away from our usual perspective is a positive experience and this is what, today, we should call ‘great art’.

James Turrell, Aten Reign at the Guggenheim June 21–September 25, 2013.

Paul McCarthy, WS at the Park Avenue Armory until this Sunday August 4th. Stop by if you are in town.

The post James Turrell and Paul McCarthy, Beyond Traditional Concepts of Beauty and Craft appeared first on All the pretty birds.


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