Why did the earliest of early artists -- we're talking the Upper Paleolithic era here -- make art? Were they attempting to communicate through symbols or tell stories? Were they creating religious odes, self portraits, proto-pornography? Were they tripping out on hallucinogenic drugs?
We might never know for certain. But the question why make art? -- still a pressing issue for young artists today -- seems especially urgent when conjuring an image of a time when the alternatives to painting were hunting, building tools and fending for survival. It seems potentially romantic, or just plain odd, for an early artist to take the time to depict an accurately rendered deer or an emotive human figure.
The contemporary fascination with Stone Age artists is at the root of "Early Man," an unruly new show at The Hole. Curated by Kathy Grayson, the show features contemporary renderings of the human form that in some way nod to their Paleolithic predecessors -- whether through crude style, urgent execution, jagged finish or a similarly intense necessity to find and communicate meaning.
Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard delivers a goopy, pastel pile of facial features complete with chunky purple tears, the dense pigment resembling toxic frosting that's been piled up and left to rot. Street artist Barry McGee shows a wooden bust reminiscent of early figurative sculptures -- if this particular early man had a trendy haircut and a spray can. And then there's Aurel Schmidt, who drafts a sweet young girl with little blonde pigtails, as well as a match for a mouth, pills for eyes and cigarettes for feet.
What connects the works on view is not a shared aesthetic of raw simplicity -- as The Hole put it: "primitivism is patronizing." Rather it's the idea of creating art before (or, in present day, outside of) the dominant, art-speak, contemporary conversation. The Hole takes us back before any discussions of "isms" and "capital A Art," back when functional craft weaved into the fabric of everyday life, when intention was murky, if not irrelevant.
"Early Man" steps outside the current -- and, let's be real, frequently boring -- dialogue surrounding art, the one discussed tipsily at packed gallery openings over free glasses of white wine, and brings it all back to the beginning. Why did we paint things on caves some 40,000 years ago and, maybe even more perplexingly, why do we continue to paint things on canvases today?
Who knows, maybe 40,000 years later a new breed of silvery, sophisticated humans will look back on a David Shrigley piece with similar befuddlement. In the meantime, enjoy the wild series of art's contemporary "early men" below.
"Early Man" runs until December 28th, 2014 at The Hole in New York.