Beauty vs Decoration

Revisiting the bird silhouette that was a major element in my 2004 paintings has made me realize how much my experiences over the past 3-4 years have changed my approach to making art. When I first started using the bird silhouette, it was basically a copy of some hipster pop art I saw on Gallery Lombardi’s website. I say the bird was an “element” or an “image” rather than a “theme” because theme would imply there was some kind of meaning behind it. There wasn’t.

The same goes for a lot of hipster pop art. Art, for this sort, means a cool design with a lot of well-executed elements, but no theme or underlying idea. Which is why I really dug AMOA’s recent exhibit EXTRA-ORDINARY: The Everyday Object in American Art. The docent who gave the tour I went on admitted that a few of the pieces in the show didn’t really have a particular message, their purpose was more about the quintessential postmodern experience: to throw more questions back in the face of the viewer, to unsettle one’s perspective. Was it art or design… or neither? There was something deeply satisfying about hearing this question actually being acknowledged to the public by an art institution.

This question arose again as I re-worked my bird paintings. It was the first time I had fun painting in quite some time. The graphic designer part of my mind took over and went into cruise mode – the side that can easily make very simple things look interesting. Not that I don’t enjoy doing “real” paintings, instead the thought process at work there is a meditation on the execution of the piece.

Since most of my work over the past couple of years grown more in that direction, I embarked on the new-old bird paintings as a lab experiment in beauty vs decoration. Decoration makes people happy. Beauty makes them think. Decoration is cute, superficial. Beauty can appear ugly or pleasing, the beauty itself is in underlying (in the process, the meaning, the mystery).

I don’t think average people want to buy or learn or educate themselves about beautiful things these days. I’ve tried to see how/why one can call something art, and what goes into the making of it. I don’t think the bird paintings are art. They are design, they are decoration. Maybe there’s a little meaning – the bird is such an archetypal metaphor – but not too much. Just enough to make people feel elevated a little without dealing with the guilt of a message or solving a mystery. Art Lite.

On this note, I’m also conducting a marketing experiment during E.A.S.T. I’m not displaying any of my “real” work, only the Art Lite bird paintings. I get a lot of positive feedback about my plates and fabric paintings, whether to my face or whether I mill about my work at a show as a fly on the wall. But I get the impression that people don’t know what to make of it (I’m well-aware that I need to improve my presentation – I think that would help). If these decorative pieces prove to be more popular, I want to see that dynamic in action. Who knows, I might even sell one to a total stranger.

Then I’ll go back to painting on pillowcases.

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