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June 5, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Art For Cool’s Sake

Toeing the line between style and substance

In one entry, he invites the possibility that, in dying, one is forced to witness their life again; only this time similar actions and activities are amalgamated. If you die at the ripe age of 75, among your many sins you would have to endure 33 solid years of sleeping, four solid years of eating and 189 solid days of, well, passing solids.

Investigating art and the cool requires an exquisite mix of ingredients. A distillation of the past week includes 6.5 hours walking around art galleries, 4.15 hours debating the topic in coffee shops and 6 minutes 35 seconds watching Alan Rickman make tea in ultra-slow motion (don’t ask).

I’ll begin with what I know to be true. Wolfgang Tillmans, whose work currently graces the Adam Art Gallery, is unquestionably cool. He displays photographic prints with disregard for the gallery’s imposition of a seamless minimalism. The bulldog clips which Tillmans employs to hang his work are clearly visible along the top and bottom edges of the prints.

Bulldog clips are cool. They casually bridge two important factors in the consideration of art and the cool: total artistic integrity and flagrant rule-breaking.

Years after his Turner Prize win validated his style; Tillmans is praised for his individuality of aesthetic. His name is ubiquitous with art students to describe this manner of display: The Tillmans Hang.

Then there’s Tillmans himself. He effortlessly skips between the languages of high art and pop. What other internationally renowned artist gushes at a new album release from Lady Gaga? How many have a passion for exhibiting art in Berlin nightclubs?

Not all artists are cool for the same reasons. There was never any doubt about Andy Warhol’s credentials, but his was a different brand of cool to, say, Pablo Picasso’s.

Dick Frizzell was cool in the 80s. He is still respected today, even though ‘cool’ has long since passed him by (unless you consider his recent paintings of Sam Hunt poetry to be a late-career revival).

Not all eras are fertile breeding ground for cool. Modernity presents new obstacles which contemporary artists have to navigate and learn to endorse. Questions suggest themselves on a daily basis. To post images of work on Facebook or preserve the importance of the physical? To document performances as Youtube videos, or risk carrying them forward as spoken legends?

Ironically, art schools—those timeless bastions of cool—are polluting the very brand they might hope to maintain. Many actively promote pragmatism above dizzy romanticism. Alongside lectures in art history, students are taught shrewd business sense: how to file receipts, keep work logs, complete tax returns.

The old masters aren’t necessarily rolling in their graves. Tempting as it is to suggest that we live in a vastly unromantic age—Snapper cards, takeaway coffee cups, cloud computing—let us not pretend that Da Vinci would have shunned the digital world if he was alive today. Imagine Leonardo in skinny jeans; iPad in one hand, a smoke in the other.

Artists like Wellington’s own Bronwyn Holloway-Smith are running with the baton offered by the future.

For her recent piece Whispers Down the Line, she has gathered together a project team of graphic designers. Between them they have digitally scanned and printed small physical models of other artworks featured in City Gallery’s Obstinate Object exhibition. “That big pink bear” might be the show’s easiest to evoke, but I like the way Holloway-Smith’s model subtly probes it.

“This project is using copying processes to consider the challenges and new opportunities that technology like 3D printing might present to sculpture in the future,” Holloway-Smith explains. It’s this type of progressive outlook that screams cool, if only until the rest of the art world catches up.

The appropriation of industrial process to make art is shared by Ben Buchanan, a fellow Wellington artist. Buchanan has recently installed sprawling coloured patterns about the walls of Dowse Art Museum. Forever is constructed from sign-writing vinyl that Buchanan cuts by hand and attaches to the walls in ever-expanding and pulsating geometric tile structures.

The piece does not lend itself easily to description. Its scale and intense colouration make it impossible to experience by means other than in the flesh. Buchanan is cool because of this timely commentary. In a society increasingly devoted to the easily obtainable, art is cool when it forces us to acknowledge the slow-burning physical world.

Art and cool can be uneasy stablemates. Conflict occurs when the inherent cool of artistic practice comes up against the swaggering cool of posturing. Nothing proves this more than at the opening night of an exhibition.

Private views and opening nights are regular events in art circles. They are most notable for their consistency of format: a table bedecked with wine glasses (“red or white?”) and the guarantee of a crowd with familiar faces and vested interests. Sometimes speeches are made and live music played.

The unquestionable cool of an exhibition opening is a different type to the cool of the art being viewed. Oddly enough, they are as incompatible as they are entwined.

If experiencing art is the domain for the eyes, there is no bigger obstacle to this than cramming the gallery space full of people and dulling one’s ocular ability with alcohol. It would be naïve to suggest that art appreciation is the sole point of these events, but does one cool overrule another? I guess it all depends on who turns up.

Artists can take steps to filter their patronage. This is something that Auckland-based artist Laura Robertson is acutely aware of. “Before I look to exhibit my work I have already decided who I want to hate it” she admits. Clearly Robertson has hit upon a magic formula: two years after graduating she is on the books of some cool galleries.

Robertson’ work is organic, fragile and diminutive. It is her confidence and bluster which inflates the scope of her art. It’s interesting to note how dissimilar this is to Buchanan’s approach, though neither artist displaces the cultural capital of the other.

Clearly art is more than subjectively cool; the label is multifaceted and endlessly shifting. One thing is certain: discussing what does or does not make the cut tastes distinctly uncool. Visit some exhibitions and make some personal assessments. Be your own arbiter. ▲

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