Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Milk and Hammers

Chris Milk Hulburt

So you want to be a carpenter, do you?
Well it takes more than a hammer, boy, you're gonna need blueprints and a will to build, and...
Straighten your cap! you look like you've been through a war.
Wipe that grin off your mug, you got a sturdy frame?
Sluggish posture just won't cut it.
You're gonna need schooling, and, and, and take notes!
And god if I catch you yawning again you're gonna regret ever asking for my help.

From How to Be a Carpenter by Aesop Rock

Last year I had pleasure of helping with the installation of Nooks: If You Lived Here You'd Be Home by Now. The project was the work of the Canadian art collective Instant Coffee and was sponsored by the Henry Art Gallery. I had a great time working with the folks from Instant Coffee and found them to be fun, interesting people.

Nooks installed at Bumbershoot 2007

During the installation, I glimpsed a piece of paper bearing the slogan "It doesn't have to be good to be meaningful." The phrase caught my eye and stuck in my mind. Throughout the day I turned the phase over in my head as I drove nails with a pneumatic gun. I found the words to be tantalizing, but, try as I might, I couldn't quite swallow the message.

At first glance, the slogan rings entirely true. Meaning is independent of quality. The deepest realizations can be catalyzed by flawed creations or acts of chance-- a scrap of paper, a snippet of conversation, a half-obscured billboard turned suddenly poignant.

Why then should the artist devote great effort to sharpening his skills or polishing his technique? Why not race wholeheartedly after pure meaning? Why not forsake guile and pretense and simply speak from the heart?

Chris Milk Hulburt

This notion is a driving force behind the Outsider Art movement. A fusion of overlapping and ill-defined movements (Naive Art, Art Brut, Folk Art, Visionary Art, etc), this broad movement aims to sidestep the pitfalls of pretense and head straight down the path of earnest expression. Much of this art is deeply moving, stemming solely from the artists' need to create and communicate. Compared to the haughty intellectualism of Academic Art and the ironic sophistication of Gallery Art, Outsider Art seems honest and heartfelt. In fact, Outsider Art is big business these days, and many mainstream galleries exhibit the work of artists that could be considered Outsiders.

As an example, consider the paintings of Chris Milk Hulburt. Self-taught and entrepreneurial, Hulburt occupies the gray zone between Outsider and Fine Art. His pictures are at once hip, witty, and heartfelt. They are the product of his own idiosyncratic striving, but strike a resounding chord with many discerning viewers.

The overall impression of Hulburt's work is one of playful, sincere simplicity. Yet closer examination reveals a layer of skilled complexity that is not immediately apparent. This is especially true in person, where layers of paint and color interact in surprising and dynamic ways. The artist has taken great care to craft each work to suit his purpose. Beneath the simple exterior lies a sound structure built with painstaking skill-- skill in service to honest vision.

It is in this underlying structure that I find the flaw within the Instant Coffee slogan. No, art does not need to be good to be meaningful. Yet if the artist has a meaning that he wishes to convey, he must be good. He must be good so that he may deliver the chosen meaning intact and undistorted. This requires struggle, practice, and forethought.

I found a perfect example of this point in the Instant Coffee exhibit itself. As the nooks were being constructed, volunteers stapled handmade posters to the surrounding wall. Midway into the process, a tiny crisis erupted. The makers of the posters had not considered the typography of the words, so the words were not behaving as expected.


The glitch was pretty minor, and the show went on, but without proper execution the intended meaning was lost.*

In fact, Nooks succeeded precisely because it was good. Apart from the aforementioned glitch, it was well made and well thought out. On that hot afternoon in '07, Instant Coffee created a cool, cozy refuge for sun-stricken festival-goers. I was one of them, and and I was deeply thankful for the respite.

Between the process of construction and the experience of the final product, I enjoyed myself and learned quite a bit. I suppose that I could say that my experience with Instant Coffee was a meaningful one. Interestingly, this is where projects like Nooks do their conceptual jujitsu. The meaning of the piece is to create an environment wherein the viewer can create his own meaning. It is an artistic goal that I find simultaneously kind in its nurturing neutrality, and sheisty in its evasion of the central struggle of art.

As for the slogan? I can take it or leave it, but if it goads one person over their fears and helps them make art then I'm all for it-- even if that art is terrible.

After all, it doesn't have to be good to be meaningful.


* I witnessed some of the poster-hangers trying to palm the unintended result off as simply a new element of the installation with its own novel meaning. To this, I say Bah. The resulting statement "You wish here were" has its own garbled meaning, which can be made to be profound with some thought. This is unsurprising. The Dada-esque construction of random phrases creates meaning entirely through chance, and our logic-hungry brains struggle mightily to pull meaning out of anything and everything. When done on purpose, chance-based methodologies are a valid part of contemporary art. When done by mistake because of an oversight... well, where I come from we call that a f***-up.

Images are ripped from the Instant Coffee site and Chris Milk Hulburt's site (apologies for the previuos confusion). Check out his upcoming show at Ghostprint Gallery. I snapped the image of the posters with my little cell phone camera during construction.


Hungry Hyaena said...

I share your skepticism of the Instant Coffee slogan, Michael, and I find the "Nooks" spinning of an apparent mistake into a "new element of the installation" completely bah-worthy.

When considering the merits of a project that empowers the viewer to "create [their] own meaning," I flip-flop. The best of these projects are undeniably "good" when considered within the critical confines of the Art World, but without requisite indoctrination - even if only a smattering of New Age hocus-pocus and postmodern relativism - a viewer of such a project may simply shrug. In that event, we must ask if the shrug exposes a failure of the viewer's imagination or of the artist.

Michael said...

In defense of the Nooks folks, the spin about the mistake was coming from the people putting up the posters. I think it might also have been a manifestation of the basic desire to do work that has value. What good is stapling an entire wall of posters if they are all meaningless?

As for art whose meaning is to enable others to make meaning... I agree that much of this work stands up better in the confines of art theory, but I also see an opposing scenario. I've seen or heard of several projects of this nature that were conceptually puerile but were a hit with the Proles.

Why did they work?

Because they were fun.

I'm not saying that good entertainment equals good art, but it is another conundrum to consider.

Along with such 'user generated art' comes the problem of credit. Artists like Miranda July have had great success giving other people cues and then taking credit for their output. Ideally, this would be a sort of artistic symbiosis, but it usually just feels like exploitation--much like artists that pay commercial painters to execute the actual work and then fail to name them in the final showing. It's lame and sheisty, and I think it can be easily avoided. Obviously, there's a practical limit to giving credit (do we need to cite the people that made our paints or helped us stretch the canvas?), but I believe that the honest artist errs on the side of giving too much credit to his collaborators.

chris said...

A recent freshet of internet misspellings have caused some confusion.

Hulburt is spelled thusly, with a "urt", not "ert".


Thanks for the kind words.

-Chris Milk Hulburt

Michael said...

Thanks for stopping by.
My apologies for the confusion. I've gone back and corrected the post.
I am continually amazed by the internet's ability to replicate and amplify. One man's mistake quickly becomes widespread.
I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.