We always want to know why.
The risk, of course, is that the answer is somehow dissatisfying - not what we expected, not what we wanted it to be. But we yearn to know in hopes of making a connection; desperate to feel a little less alone with our own unique reasons for doing and being.
When you look at a piece of art it is possible to ignore the fact that it came from somewhere, disregard that it burst from some Zeus' brain onto the gallery wall. But the moment always comes where you start to wonder how the work was made, who made it, and eventually, why on earth did they do it?
On view through October 9th at the Winkleman Gallery is a show titled Used Books, curated by Ryan Frank and featuring Brent Birnbaum, Danielle Durchslag, Michael Galvin, Morgan Levy, and R. Justin Stewart. The show is part of Winkleman's Curatorial Research Lab, a generous program that offers art historians and independent curators an opportunity to test out new ideas in an annex of the Winkleman Gallery main space. Used Books presents a single piece by each artist accompanied by a selection of books that influenced them in the creation of the respective work. The books, as suggestions of influence, presented with such aesthetic consideration, become works of art themselves, or rather, again. They are already art objects as bound works of prose, but presented in conjunction with the art they helped make possible, they function a sculptural appendix to their 2-D accompaniments.
In preparation for this article, I asked each artist in the exhibition the same five questions about the issues of influence and inspiration. I did, of course, ask them to tell me how each of the books they selected influenced their work. Brent Birnbaum, an artist working in collage with found materials, offered the most charming answer in describing the relationship between his collage of price tags and the book Popism: The Warhol Sixties: "Seeing the world as a shopping mall for art material is what that book freed me to do." You would sense this from looking at Birnbaum's collages, and there's something provocative about considering where art materials originate in conjunction with the impetus for the work of art they help to create.
I also wanted to know how they felt about putting the books that influenced them on view with the works they had made. This seemed like an intensely personal thing to share. "Knowing about my personal life should not be a requirement for connecting to something I make," Danielle Durchslag asserts. "Viewing a work solely through the artist's personal history and historical context can be dangerous, it favors a relationship to art that's about the brain."
I think Durchslag's caution against approaching art with too cerebral a focus is well-worth abiding - analysis and intellectual provocation and stimulation are vital parts of how we engage with artwork, but I believe it is our initial emotional reaction that initially draws us to a piece, maintains our focus, and keeps it with us long after we have left the gallery or museum. "As a culture, we over-emphasize the importance of what the artist thinks, setting up a false dichotomy that the artist has 'the answer,'" R. Justin Stewart wrote to me. When visiting the exhibition, I found myself critiquing the books, considering their aesthetic value, as much as the work hanging above them. The beauty of this show is not that it gives us any hard and fast answers to the whys of a given artist's process, but rather, raises new, provocative questions that engage us with the work on a newer, deeper level.
Engaging in a visual dialog between the books and the artwork that they influenced, I wondered about the cross-media exchange the artist went through between reading and creating their work. Morgan Levy said that when editing her photographs, the influence of the written word is "immediate and totally intuitive." Michael Galvin explained the relationship with regard to his own process as follows: "Reading can seem so innocent until you realize how it has shifted your bearings on the world. ... I'm not recording what I see directly, so in my imagining of the world, what I have read is as tangible to me as what I have touched." There is something inherently vulgar about the concept of influence... a penetration of our consciousness by some experience, person, word, cultural product, etc, implying that our privacy has been disrupted and our perception inextricably altered. This can be intensely pleasurable and also intensely painful and almost always this is because of the new degree of self-awareness that is gained through our interaction with the influential. A success of Used Books is the way that it makes the viewer aware of the act of interpretation as they perform it.