Ways of Seeing and of being Seen – Essay by Curator Dr. Michael Petry
When an artist makes a work, in most cases, they want others to see that work. It seems like a simple statement but it is rather more complex than that. If you view a work of art in a contemporary museum, like Tate Modern, you will see it in a different light than if you view it in an historic museum like the National Gallery. The context alters your perception of how important that work is, and if a painting is shown on the railings of a park, you will see it in a very different light. The American artist David Hammons sold snow balls of various sizes on the streets of New York in 1983 as a performative work called Bliz-aard for a few dollars each. Very few people thought to purchase work from the world famous artist of colour who looked rather like all the other street vendors (regardless of race) wrapped up in a scarf, overcoat and hat against the cold. His works sells for millions of dollars in the galleries and at auction houses, yet seeing work on the street distances most viewers from the possibility of seeing art.
Context is so often tantamount in our reaction to a work of art. If we see a painting in a white cube space we will immediately know that it is contemporary art. So what is a work of art in a Masonic building? That is the core question facing viewers as for many it will be the first time they have ever entered such a space. Historically, membership of Freemasonry has remained private, and masonic rituals remain closed to the public. In recent years Freemasons have become more open about their membership, discussing the meaning of the ritual and what it represents. This year they have opened their doors to an artist in residence who, for the past few months, has had unique access to many spaces. The result of Jacques Viljoen’s efforts, along with works by other artists most of whom have made specific work for this show, will be seen alongside work by two artists who themselves are Freemasons. They have access to certain rituals that no one who is not a Freemason has, and one of them has made work about it.
How we see is also a context of what we are allowed to see. It is not only Freemasons who have chosen what level of public engagement they seek, but most institutions do so, and many artists also choose what is put out in galleries for an audience to see. The British Museum is well known for housing parts of erotic Egyptian and Classical sculptures that once so offended Victorian tastes. Ever the conservators, the British Museum has kept them, and if you are a scholar, you can write in to have access to them, but they are not on public display even to this day. The Vatican has one of the largest collections of what is termed pornography and that too is only for the Pope’s viewing and those with the right credentials. Art is a powerful force in the world, and has the possibility to disrupt. Even today, in the more liberal West, art can still shock, and it is often those who are never seen, who decide what the viewer is allowed to see.
Then there are many ways that an artist might see and then make their work. There is no real hierarchy of how to make, or which method is best, as each has its own plusses and minuses. There is Conceptual art, Expressionism, Arte Povera, and also the Academic tradition, amongst the many ways a contemporary artist might chose to see the world and then translate it into their own work. My book The Art of Not Making (Thames & Hudson) looks at the long history of artists handing over their work to fabricators and assistants to physically ‘make’ the work but points out that the finished objects are the work of the original artist. This is a way of making art with a long distinguished history. Many paintings by Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), bought from him in his studio are now considered ‘School of’ as they were either completely or partially painted by his assistants. But do not be in any doubt, Rembrandt signed those works as he saw them as his own. He oversaw and designed them and usually painted at least part of them. They are now virtually discarded by the art world and their value decreased by millions, yet were he alive today Rembrandt would soundly defend them as his – as he sold them as his. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) the man many consider the father of the Baroque, famously only made small models that he gave to his assistant Giuliano Finelli to carve full size in marble. Eventually they fell out and Finelli, who was said to be the best stone carver in Italy, set up his own studio, but it was not a success because he had no ideas of his own. He could carve anything he was given perfectly but he had only a small artistic vision. He could see how to carve what others wanted, but could not see what he should make as his own.
There is an endless list of artists working in this way both in the past and present. The major minus of this method of production is that it is harder for the artists to push the material further if they have little understanding of the physical making process. That said it does not take away from their accomplishments and the same is true for the exact opposite way of making, Sight Size painting. This is a method taught in many classical art academies and requires the artist to set up their canvas so that they can copy exactly what they see. It produces realistic artworks that should also be accurate to the original, be it a portrait, landscape or still life. The system requires the artist to set up their canvas so that when they look at the subject it is the exact same size as they sketch or paint it on the canvas, making it easy to measure the accuracy of the mark making. The artist can make the size of their work bigger or smaller by moving their canvas closer or further away from their subject. Many of the artists in the exhibition use this method of art making and it gives the exhibition its unity. One obvious drawback with this method is it only allows for certain types of views as canvases are not particularly portable and artists are only rarely allowed to view places like the inside of the Freemasons’ Hall.
Equally Freemasons are in the process of seeing themselves anew and this openness is to be commended and it is hoped other closed institutions will learn by their example. Being seen is as important as seeing, ask any minority group who now demand to see their own faces on film and television. The veil has a long history in many cultures, but in the end, it is always the desire to lift it that wins the day.
Dr. Michael Petry