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Columns : Art Life - Susan Mackay Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

What is Art?
By Susan Mackay
Sep 27, 2006 - 3:59:29 PM

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What is Art?

The NE3 Exhibit opened at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas in Nassau on the 6th July. It was stunning in its singular vision of Bahamian art as contemporary and conceptual. The exhibition was introduced by works by abstract expressionist artist, Kendall Hannah. Hannah has been painting in this genre for many years and though this style is unusual in the Bahamas, as the curator Krista Thompson points out, Abstract Expressionism first hit the international art scene in the 1960’s.

The work displayed quickly moves into more aggressively conceptual pieces. The gallery explains each piece in simple language in a note giving the audience some immediate understanding and context for the art.

One piece that seemed to cause the greatest stir was the lawnmower resting on a square of real grass. The piece by Clive Stuart is called “Work Permit: This Lawn Will Die without Care” 2006.

‘That’s NOT art’ a patron asserts.

A heated conversation ensues. What is art? The National Gallery has been ruthless in its determination to propel the Bahamas into the 21st century’s understanding of art. On the surface it seems an insult to all those excellent painters, who portray the lush foliage, the aqua oceans, the quaint houses or even the interesting characters so prevalent on these islands. But Art, like beauty is not only skin deep. Those paintings that are so soothing in their familiarity, by old masters to impressionists, and in their day, caused a stir; and certainly expressed more than the image alone.

Even as far back as early religious paintings of the mother and child the paintings are beautiful and rich beyond the image. A dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost; Mary’s blue dress symbolizing purity; or red to remind us of the original sin. Artists even then were implementing a plethora of techniques to add to the overall message of their work. Colour, light, shade, composition, perspective, angle; all these components affect the ‘message’ of the painting. Even when painting something as innocuous as a still-life, an artist is able to express, even in these figurative pieces, emotional timbre and even political beliefs.

So, it is not just an ‘illness’ of today to want to express something beyond superficial prettiness. “Work Permit: This Lawn Will Die without Care”, is unashamedly tackling a contentious issue in Bahamian society today. Stuart’s method of expression is no longer the archetypal tools of paint brush and canvas - but that does not negate its veracity. In fact, by presenting the actual lawnmower, the viewer is challenged to interact directly. There is no hiding from the message in this piece. There is no hiding from our feelings towards it. There is no frame, other than the frame of the wider environment and context within which it sits. Discomfort is intentional. Living in this country we cannot fail to be aware of immigration issues. This certainly does not sit with a conventional view of what constitutes art.

So what is art? We continue the discussion over pizza and sodas after the show. As artists, my friends and I passionately promote the work exhibited at the National Gallery. The civil servant, in his suit and tie argues that a lawnmower is no more art than his cup of coffee and a flower arbitrarily placed beside it.

He is ironically, correct. It is the seeming random and inane moments in life that actually offer us a potential new insight. It is only with this sight that we can see the beauty in the banal or a deeper understanding of ourselves and the society we exist in. Contemporary artists can supply us that uncommon vision. The cup of coffee and the flower are compelling and are art as much as the lawnmower; as it is an observation of a moment of life. An observation and a commentary of relationship. The juxtaposition between the coffee cup and the flower - a story.

In the photographs presented at the exhibition we can see this moment in time captured. Sabrina Lightbourn’s silver gelatin print “Nellie’s Hands” 2004 is a simple image of a woman gently holding her shirt. We cannot see “Nellie’s” head or feet. The hands are large and aged but the pose is delicate, tender and compassionate. In the portrait of the hands the character of the woman is expressed. The picture is beautiful, simple and eloquent.

In Erica James‘, (Director and Chief Curator) foreword for the exhibition, she discusses the ‘responsibility’ of artists to consider ‘form, content, composition, mastery of medium, knowledge of human anatomy, relevance, daring and communication with one’s audience’ and that “art” being ‘expressive does not absolve’ artists from considering these issues.

James is reminding us all of the necessity of critical analysis with regards to art irrespective of style, genre or medium. This becomes the common structure from which all art, the conceptual to the figurative and pretty, must consider.

The NE3 Exhibit shows art in diverse mediums ranging from paintings, sculptures, ceramics, mixed media, photography and installations. They all offer us a view of life outside the traditional understanding of “What is (Bahamian) Art?”, and reveal piece by piece a new insight into ourselves and our lives.

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