Art is ambiguous, much like the standards that define it. It can require great effort, but is often accused of being superfluous. It can push boundaries and the limits of the imagination, but is often accused of being derivative or irrelevant. In our world, virtually no art is being produced which is not self-reflexive or at the very least self-conscious, and this is reflected at every turn in the Johnson Museum’s Cornell Art Faculty Show 2016. The varied collection deals heavily with the problems and difficulties which representation faces in the 21st century, and you will be hard pressed to find anything that truly challenges the norms and beliefs of modern art culture. Yet this is still art, and it still does what art does, striving for an authenticity that surpasses or even arises out of our inescapable postmodern obsession with irony.
There is a common thread in the show of questioning the presumption that chaos or non-conformity cannot also be subsumed into the realm of beauty. One of the first pieces you see upon entering is a painting of a large question mark, aptly titled ?, by Carl Ostendarp. The offset, unbalanced symbol seems to be mocking the pretensions of the viewer, daring you to make fun of or belittle it and the motivations behind its existence, goading you to like it despite its obviousness. In the back corner stands a sculpture — Where Am I to Live by Roberto Bertoia — which, in its twisted wooden labyrinthine design, evokes the maze of meaning which the individual must navigate in order to build any sort of foundation for living. But look just around the corner and there is another sculpture, this one by Michael Ashkin, which seems to challenge this simplistic narrative with a model house that is both twisted, modern, intertwined with its environment and yet solid. Aptly titled Artist’s House, it seems to be the answer to the question which Bertoia had posed. Perhaps for a moment, I mused, I can allow myself to judge these works without the influence of my biases and incomplete knowledge of aesthetics. Then I realized that this, in itself, was just another layer of judgement. But perhaps, the works of the Art Faculty suggest, this is not a bad thing, but crucial to achieving a proper understanding of the work of art.
Other artists double down on presenting layered yet foundationally simple viewpoints to the viewer, allowing the works to be judged for their merits despite the double awareness of artist and viewer that this judgement cannot occur in an unbiased vacuum. Elizabeth Meyer works with woodcuts to shape Toward a Better Babylon, which operates simultaneously as an exploration of the possibilities of woodcuts and a parody of the formalism and unity of concept contained in many classic and even modern woodcuts. And in Morgan Ashcom’s book, Leviathan, he takes things a step further by glorifying the dingy and the slightly deranged individuals who haunt the corners of our American life, those whose uncompromising rejection of the mainstream itself comprises a strict and unyielding aesthetic, one whose rules are no less rigorous. By upholding this as beautiful, he is both normalizing their lives and exploring the intimate relationship which outsiders have with whatever is “normal”. These people may live their lives in a radical fashion, but in normalizing them he is exposing the impossibility of the task which awaits anyone who would truly try to live a life apart. Beauty, it seems, is inescapable. But is that so terrible?
One final thing that is inescapable about the show is its severe Americanness. Almost all of the artists are American, and their sensibilities and concerns reflect a certain cultural awareness, especially in the works of Bill Gaskins and David Snyder. Snyder’s The Guano is a nearly thirteen minute exercise in pure satire, proposing a vast infrastructure project to revitalize the American economy which consists entirely of turning every former Blockbuster into a bat guano production facility. In his hybridization of the quintessentially American entrepreneurial spirit and the most pie-in-the-sky dreams of the environmentalists, the artist has created a work that is both completely irrelevant to reality but also seems somehow tantalizingly achievable, as if the constant media messaging about American greatness is so hardwired into our brains that any message which adopts its terminology must be believed. One could almost imagine Snyder on Shark Tank hawking his idea with complete seriousness. Gaskin’s two photo works, taken from his series The Cadillac Chronicles, showcase two men who in all the conventional senses should live in separate worlds. But in the obvious love they lavish on their vehicles, which are spectacularly and lovingly maintained, there is a common thread which inspires both great hope and great fear about the forces that both divide and unite us.
It is perhaps fitting that the only artist who is not American — besides the Canadian Bertoia — is Tuscarora Nation member Jolene Rickard, whose combination video and physical piece Yekhihsutkeha?nehk: Our Ancestors represents an acknowledgment of the many ways in which meaning and symbols intersect across timelines and eras, losing their specificity while increasing in depth and resonance. This piece, perhaps more than any other, accurately reflects the chaotic and layered standards which affect any modern artwork. While perhaps none of the pieces in this show was revolutionary, they were all relevant to our modern struggle for pure meaning in an age of clashing histories and cultures, where any truth you find can be contradicted in five minutes on the Internet.
James Frichner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org