Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Real Big Flowers at the Airport

<>Viewing art at the airport is a little like catching a band on the late talk shows – it’s a substitute for someone who is too lazy or busy to actually go to the show. Still, it’s good to get some benefit out of the time at the airport, especially in the summer when there’s a pretty good chance everything is running hours late, and Susan Knowles does a great job of getting work that is well done, works in the space, and captures stylistic and regional variety.

Right now one end of the ticketing concourse has Monica Quattrochio’s multi-panel photos of flowers taken at extremely close range and blown up to extremely large size. The results are intensely colored, fleshy and moist. The flowers have beads of liquid on them that could be dew but seem more like their own secretions. A photo of a tulip bloom focuses in on the white pistil surrounded by the black or deep purple stamen. The petals of the flower form a blurry background.

<>Floral and botanical art seems to be a fairly common theme in galleries around Nashville. Often it comes with some claim to be a commentary on ecology and nature, its fragility, transience, or developmental processes. However, a lot of times that seems like an effort to give grander aesthetic rationale to work whose appeal rests on something a lot simpler. Pictures of flowers are pretty. They are nice to make, nice to look at, and you ought to be able to sell a few. One of the discomforts of a market-based art world (as opposed to say institutional or individual patronage, which have their own problems) is a conflict with an artist’s sense of integrity and higher purpose. Those things are great, but why are they worth anything to a purchaser? When you think about the nature of the financial transaction (and when someone buys art they beyond postcards we are talking about a fairly significant exchange of money), there are fortunate cases where the buyer writes the check sheerly out of aesthetic appreciation, but you can’t get around the fact that some people with the money to buy art are practical people. That’s how they got to be people with the money to buy art. And for some number of those practical people, the financial transaction represented by buying an art work is an investment, or a very nice way to decorate the house or office. When you paint floral paintings or take pictures of flowers, unless you have a Clyfford Still-like pickiness about whom you sell to, some of the sales will be serve the pursuit of higher home design.

Quattrochio finds one way to get around this, which is to push the images into such extremes – the close-ups emphasize the richness of color but also bring out the less comfortable aspects of the natural world, like the fact that living things excrete stuff. Where the focus on the very small brings out one kind of edginess, the large size makes for a degree of discomfort of the opposite sort. The big size makes the image overwhelming. I first saw her photos in a show at the Downtown Artists’ Coop in Clarksville, a nice second floor space in an old downtown building. The photos fill up the space and their slick surfaces nearly light the room. In the airport, the works look more like something put on a monumental scale to respond to the challenges of this terminal room. The size also means you cannot easily buy and display the entire image in a house, undercutting the tendency for the subject matter to devolve to decoration scheme. As I recall, Quattrochio offers individual panels for sale, something still pretty but more abstract and that may not be readily identifiable as a flower part.

Quattrochio’s photos walk a line for me. The combined scale effects give them a kind of concrete object presence, but I’m not sure the images go as far past pleasingly pretty to give them sustained aesthetic power and to lead into the kind of threads of thought and association that I enjoy most from the experience of art.

3 Comments:

  • Threadless thought and anti-association are probably the preferred types of art for municipal spaces like the airport. I haven't seen these photographs, so I won't draw a parallel here between "elevator music" and "airport art."

    I am interested how the line is drawn between what is "safe" for these public arenas, and what would be considered too controversial. Especially in airports. What other public environment is so consistantly and thoroughly regulated on so many levels, not only creating a facade of safety and control, but allaying natural feelings of fear, discomfort and anxiety? Maybe Disneyworld.

    On one hand I'm sad that large public areas like this cannot be used as forums for inspiring and challenging thought. On the other hand, I'm glad that someone is making art (that seems to be) solely intended to provide aesthetic pleasure, rather than to sell me candy or software, or cologne.

    By Anonymous Jason Driskill, at 7:12 PM  

  • I see a lot of airport art, and some of the patterns are kind of predictable - a locality's sense of its own artiness and wealth. So Seattle has things like a case filled with one of William Morris' (I think) collections of glass sculpture and a Frank Stella unobtrusively stuck in a concourse. Bush Intercontinental in Houston has art (I think a di Suvero outside near the road entrance) but Hobby, the poorer people's airport, doesn't.

    Susan Knowles curates the art program at Nashville's airport, and Lain York has a role like Asst Director or something. In some ways the selections remind me of the Tennessee Arts Commission gallery - broadly representative in style and geography, occasionally reaching towards the edge, but hard to imagine anyone taking offense at any of it. I think what would be considered the edgiest thing was one of Kristina Arnold's pieces. To me one of the most successful were Martha Christian's big geographically inspired weavings.

    I don't know what lines Susan works within, if they are explicit or understood. Nudity? Sacriligious? Containing swear words? Overt politics? It's an interesting question - does the airport authority spell out what is verboten, or does one naturally self-regulate when programming some place like this. We all know what will get a rise out of people.

    I may post furhter response. The space itself has some interesting characteristics, and there are also some people who have worked with the dynamics of airports as transportation systems. I'd have to dig that up.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 8:59 PM  

  • Dave-Thanks for your comments on Quattrochio's work. I agree about the confrontation with moist secretions. She equates the scale with the intimate acquaintance with nature she experienced when giving birth, which certainly implies all of that and more.

    Your assumptions about the Airport art program are mostly on the mark. Its a balance, but also dictated by what comes to us from TN Artists so it fluctuates and we flow with it as best we can and the space allows.

    Some of the more intellectually challenging recent shows have included Bryce McCloud's "Friend or Faux?" which was about questioning our assumptions about other people; Goldsmith Press (Cindy Marsh at APSU) community projects "The First Amendment" and "Words on War." We placed comment boxes so that people could repond and had a wide range of responses that indicate that the whole spectrum of public opinion from far right to far left passes through Nashville's Airport, which was very gratifying. In general we find that there is an audience out there for everything we put up. When we have both pro and con comments on the same work, we feel like it is succeeding for the artist.

    By Anonymous susan knowles, at 10:16 AM  

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