September 16, 2013

Richard Artschwager: Shut Up and Look

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I used to think that documentaries of artists were simply animated showcases of artists’ works. I am glad to have been proven wrong by Richard Artschwager: Shut up and Look, a documentary directed by Maryte Kavaliauskas and produced by Morning Slayter, a private art dealer and appraiser from New York City. The duo started the documentary around eight years ago and spent six years looking into Artschwager’s life, oeuvre and, most importantly, his intriguing mindset.

Richard Artschwager ‘48 passed away in February this year at the age of 89. Born to an artist couple in 1923, he spent much of his childhood and adolescence in New Mexico. He studied Mathematics and Chemistry at Cornell before he served in World War II. After graduation, he worked as a baby photographer and furniture maker before turning into a full time artist. Even though Artschwager led a reclusive life and did not win mainstream attention like his contemporaries, blue-chip artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, he is praised by critics as an idiosyncratic and irreverent artist. I was quite confounded by Artschwager’s works at his retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum last year. His oeuvre dabbles in multiple schools of artistic practices and challenges conventional categorization. Looking at his eclectic styles, one recalls Van Gogh’s signature circular brushstrokes, minimalistic installation, surrealist perspectives — all these stylistic experiments come together harmoniously in Artschwager’s work.

I was expecting to revisit all these beautiful objects through the film. Yet, to my pleasant surprise, the movie presents not only a sheer visual feast, but also some clues into the artist’s quirky thinking and his insights on seemingly ordinary or mundane objects. The camera follows Artschwager everywhere from strolling in the countryside to working in the studio, galleries and museums. The film first flashed back to his early project in 1967, “blps,” a series of installation of black or white lozenge-shaped marks intervening public space, including galleries, building facades, subways, etc. Artschwager intended to draw people’s attention to architecture, space, and environment that otherwise we would have unnoticed, which echoes with the title of the film “shut up and look”, one of the artist’s favourite mantras.

In the next scene, while he is walking on a rough rocky path in the wild, he points down and says, “This is a canyon. Imagine you are one-inch tall.” Such witty observation continues as he goes on to guess if the leaves on the sides are left-handed or right-handed. His art engages our sight with wry humour. Entering an exhibition of him featuring only boxes resembling shipping crates, one might be bewildered about the unpacked artworks. But the answer is just the packaging itself. The artist plays with the unique ambiance of the gallery and embeds a light-hearted joke. Friends of his would say “It’s Richard Artschwager.” The snippets of his life are enriched by the reminisces of curators, artists and friends, offering a more three-dimensional portrayal of the artist. The artist, though in his ‘80s, is still able to refresh viewers with his constantly active mind. The audience will probably step out the cinema pondering how old wisdom sometimes just springs from his childlike, discerning eyes. Unlike many other didactic documentaries which largely focus on artworks, the 56-minute footage manages to avoid generic narration of artworks’ labels or curatorial statements in exhibition, leaving us in smiles about the artist’s personality and mentality.

It does not matter if you are not a fan of Artschwager or an art lover. If you refuse to “shut up and look” at the world this artist perceives, then try to “shut up and feel” his approach to the everyday life. While wandering in the garden, Artschwager casually comments, “More time to look at it, it got more interesting.” The marrow of his work lies in his constant search for interesting discoveries in life. Art is significant not only for its beauty or sublimity, but for the inspiration, values and emotions it strikes in its viewers’ minds. Artschwager’s comment is an ironic remark on our fast-rolling lifestyle today. Our eyes rest on throbbing images of smartphones. The practice of looking is made within a blink, a click or a swipe. We are moving so fast that we get bored before the discovery of interesting things. The documentary brings us to follow the artist’s non-linear thoughts and provides us with an alternative way to see the world. The essence of this artist is well-conveyed. His eccentric vision creates enigmatic and playful works calling for a pause of contemplation. One may disagree with his aesthetic, yet we all need an active and observant mind like his to decorate our daily routine with delightful findings.