The contemporary Choice: Consciousness or Consumerism?

September 1, 2015

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A visit to Newlyn Gallery

Recently, I returned to Cornwall and paid a visit to a favorite gallery of mine, Newlyn Gallery.

As part of the art community in Cornwall I have previously enjoyed attending exhibitions at Newlyn. The strong connection with the Newlyn School of Arts and their focus on painting and drawing really appeals to me, but my most recent visit left me feeling angry and frustrated to the point of shaking.

Based on what I saw within the exhibition, I felt challenged by the question:

What is good art?

Upon enquiring the content of the exhibition, I was informed that Newlyn Gallery now shows ‘only contemporary art’, which led me to another question:

What does contemporary art actually mean, and how do we define it?

Contemporary art means art from today. This is straightforward. But for me, the full answer must come from questioning the intersection of “good art” and contemporary art, leading to another question:

Who is contemporary art for? Is it art “for the people”? And if it is for the people, is it no longer for those of us who have a higher understanding of art and the subtleties of the visual language? And, if all this is true, is it ok for contemporary art, for the people, to be, essentially, bad art?

Art for me is…

Aesthetic. It involves the subtle language of space, texture, line, scale, surface, form, and much more.

Art is a visual language; it is a presentation of an idea. Although it can be ugly and send negative messages through negative presentations, or even political with deconstructive processes and manipulations, the mindfulness of the message through presentation is what makes it successful.

The success of art comes from communicating using a visual language of mindful enquiry.

This is what I expected to see at Newlyn Gallery: physical, aesthetic art that communicates using space, texture, line, scale, and form, to form a visual language of mindful enquiry.

What I found, however, were several performance pieces in particular, which really challenged my idea of good art and made me question the value of contemporary, digital art.

My quarrel with Newlyn’s performance art

A video as a performance can be excellent. When all the elements are considered there is a quality realized with skill and thought, which avoids mixing metaphors.

Art is physical – an image on a screen that sticks out of the wall and conforms partly to the accepted structure of art. Of course, video as a performance conforms to this physicality, but simply being in the context or environment of an art gallery does not make it good art.

The performance art on display at Newlyn Gallery was part of their In Search of Miraculous exhibition, an exhibition inspired by the 40th anniversary of the voyage made by Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch artist, who sailed alone across the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Falmouth, Cornwall, and disappeared en route.

The performance art on display, for me, was extremely frustrating. While the viewer may assume it is art due to the context, the visual language was not being used or manipulated in an artistic way, the black box did not communicate effectively with visual language within the space, and I was not challenged by any processes.

In general, the viewer was not made to consider how he is being manipulated, nor how his viewpoint is being challenged by the artists’ viewpoint.

Sandbags from nowhere

I found that while there were a few pieces I liked, they were overshadowed by one particularly poor installation video of a man pulling sandbags onto a self-made island.

Spread across three monitors, the man embarked on his own sea journey in his own primitive vessel, and made his own island. The visual was a man pulling sandbag after sandbag onto his island, making it slowly bigger.

My problem is not so much the idea that this is part of an exhibition, but that it is presented in the same space as the artists that came before it, instead of a specific performance space.

For me, this video performance was not challenging the same language as the painters and sculptures that have previously occupied this space at Newlyn, but a completely different language.

Historical Velasquez

The next piece was an art historian perspective of a Valesquez. The performance carefully represented a narrative and situation of viewer and painter. It was set up to mirror the way we consider the viewers of Velazquez painting ‘Las Meninas’, to look deeper at the message held in the viewpoints of the characters and positions of mirrors.

The artists’ method of representing this was to himself make the journey to see the painting while blindfolded, disorientated, and film the whole process, but not succeeding to maniplulate the viewer’s perspective using art.

The representation of how seeing is important by not seeing is interesting, but how does this effect art?

Surely to make this a contemporary within art, to be within the same language as art, one needs to actually question, practically participate and show evidence of how this has changed marks and abstraction? How has this effected art?

Rather than filming yourself making the journey, why not speak the same language and draw while exploring this performance, rather than merely filming yourself experience art?

The Greenwich Journey 

The third piece I found slightly easier to get a sense of: a man filming himself travelling the Greenwich mean line across England. But again, I felt it really undermined to rich history of painting and sculpture that is contemporary in the area.

I can follow the performers’ journey, but I can’t see, touch, or feel, his own marks on the journey – he himself is barely contributing anything of value.

What if the ‘performer’ actually did a drawing of his journey or drew as he walked and made a piece of art that developed his hand eye processes that revealed a metaphor through the process of the visual and physical process of making art a journey rather than a video which is removed from nature?

The Marks of an Artist

The idea of the changing notion of an artists’ marks was something that came up often during my visit.

The language of Art should encompass still the subtlety of mark, hand eye, development of ideas, and materials being used, all the tools and language of objects surface, textures, lines, tones, space, material language, truth to the materials, etc.

The manipulation of paint or image by the great artists should be able to be seen within the language of a video installation, but for me, it wasn’t there.

For these performances, the marks were digitally produced film, showing more than one view at the same time, as a painting shows a number of compositions of situations, for example; in a narrative position.

While film can be manipulated, and digitization can be explored as a medium, these works do not communicate to me the subtle variety of marks of the fingers or inks or paints, or clay or sand or way or any type of manipulation you care to mention.

The connection between nature and hand and mind seems to be losing it’s meaning.

Can you ask whether technology is actually just the same as drawing? David Hockney plays with the boundary towards this idea.

It is a kind of drawing but the video performance artists of which I speak did not ‘draw’, they looked through the eye of a machine that is pointing at the view but they missed the poetry of the hand gesture, like a dance, or a piece of music, coming directly from the body.

It seems the artists in this exhibition are art critiques or people who see art, but are not making it. They perform what it is to be an artist through a screen, but they do not make marks themselves. They add nothing to the body of work that came before them.

The message is there but the subtlety is lost because the connection between nature and hand and mind is losing it’s meaning.

The sensitivity we need to really SEE and physically feel is being passed by and lost, it feels like many skills, closer to nature and materials, these are the places we need to return to.

An Aside: should the shop front reflect the gallery?

After having been explained to that the gallery “only exhibits contemporary art now” by the man at the front desk, I was once again challenged, this time by the shop front.

First off, the prices of the craft objects in the contemporary art gallery were clearly set very high purely to suit the rich pocket of some tourist passing by.

Sure, there was beautiful skill in designed forms but with no language within it except to say that he was using recycled material to create a natural form. No intuition, all well made artisan control, no development, a very high price. The artisan copper work which has gone before in Newlyn, some of which my grandfather owned, is following in this tradition and now the high price gives it Kudos instead of it’s artistic value (although it is not contemporary art). The beautiful clay vessels are more considered as a visual form and were on a window sill somewhere between the café and the main gallery upstairs.

And, after accepting the contemporary choices of the gallery, I struggled to find a link between the ‘for sale’ section, and the work on display in the gallery.

While I appreciate that it is good to keep the tradition of copper artisans from the artistic hereditary that has gone before, and to respect that within a high price, surely that undermines the contemporary motives of the exhibition upstairs?

If your wish is to promote the visual art upstairs by creating a small selection for sale downstairs, then there needs to be a strong relationship between the two.

How does a video installation of a man following the Greenwich line relate to the product for sale downstairs? How could it work possibly?

It could. Could it be about mapping, about media and how we see the world now with the development of the internet as patterns and textures, forms that influence the objects we see around us, influencing the symbiosis of human tissue and technology? It could, but it didn’t. Some books did.


A few weeks later I looked at Rodin again; He was an artist I loved passionately whilst at art school. I loved what he represented, how he could begin with a hand and finish the whole gesture of the figure from such beginnings. How he used gesture in clay. He balanced an intuition with a formal language and demanding techniques, the way the figure emerged from the marble he worked on, leaving it half emerged a dream like subject, emerging from the sub conscious like a poem.

I opened his book and I saw it with new eyes. I saw its limits, its problem areas, it’s struggle to create, I saw with mature eyes.

Every artist, whether contemporary or not, has limits and struggles. Perhaps I was simply glorifying the past? My memory clouded by my excitement of seeing great works at Newlyn when I have visited in the past?

Everybody has the right to make art. Everything is an art.

But consciousness is the issue.

Today, there needs to be something that defines quality within the poetics of the visual language.

We need to make a choice; consciousness or consumerism?