You may feel a twinge of guilt upon leaving the Erin Shirreff exhibit currently at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Some nagging questions in the back of your mind, about your encounter with the work. Did I give it enough time? To really get what the artist is trying to say? But how much time is enough? In a conversation/interview at the gallery with curator Cathleen Chaffee, the artist talked about how when we go to a movie—sit through a movie—however long it lasts—we figure—usually—we’ve given it enough time. The time it takes. What about a work of art in a gallery? A work of sculpture, say. That we might spend a minute to several minutes—maybe more, but maybe less—looking at. Is that long enough? (How long did the artist spend conceiving the work and producing it? Days? Months? Half a lifetime?)
Shirreff’s art is about the encounter with art. Plus a great many other things. Including art history. Including history of the encounter. How that has changed over time. And particularly how photography has changed the encounter, from the time photography was invented two-hundred years ago, and recently, when with the invention of the cell phone camera, photography has become ubiquitous, and a regular feature of the encounter with art. (People don’t go to an art gallery unarmed anymore. They go with their cell phones, and what they see, they photograph and send to their friends, maybe immediately.) And the uses of photography in presenting and encountering art. And particularly sculpture. The uses of two dimensions to present three. And finally, photography as a record. As adjunct to the faculty of memory.
Drop (no. 14) by Erin Shirreff
The work on show is a copious mixed bag. The artist’s sculpture—some in stone and some in steel, the stone in a formalist modernist mode reminiscent of work of Barbara Hepworth, the steel somewhere between Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra—and photography of some of her sculptural work that no longer exists, and videos of other artists’ works, and collage-juxtaposed portions of art from old art books—these look like abstract sculptures, that is, photos of abstract sculptures—and photograms. And even photos from the Albright-Knox archives, documenting some former art exhibits at the gallery, back to when it was just the Albright gallery. Women dressed up and men wore suits and ties to see art, and of course no cell phone cameras.
The videos consist of a 37-minute loop showing maquettes of sculptures of Tony Smith in grainy resolution and from sufficient distance that you can’t tell they’re only maquettes, under a snowfall of finely shredded Styrofoam snow (but a real Tony Smith sculpture is on the Albright-Knox lawn, the Elmwood side, the piece called Cigarette); a 14-minute loop showing the Roden Crater, an elegant volcanic remnant in Arizona, in varying light and weather conditions; and a 24-minute loop on a sculpture by Medardo Rosso, actually a video continuous blend of numerous re-photographs in various photographic techniques and lighting conditions of a photo of a Rosso sculpture from an old art book. None of these videos is what one would call strong on plot, and you may decide in one or more cases not to sit (or stand) through the whole movie. More fodder for guilt feelings upon exit.
Knife by Erin Shirreff
In the conversation with the curator, Shirreff talked about photography as a means of “extending the moment of the encounter.” In this regard—and in regard to numerous other issues raised by this exhibit—I thought the most cogent segment of the exhibit was a series of photos of some of the artist’s own sculptural works now no longer in existence, we are told in a note. These look a lot like prehistoric era stone tools. Knives. Photographically preserved images—so in two dimensions—of dawn of humanity period first ever sculpture. A period before two-dimensional images existed. Before two-dimensional existed. (The first known images—cave paintings—date from roughly a half million years ago. A little less. The first stone tools from several million years before that.)
We like to call our present age an age of information. But the entire historical period—versus prehistoric period—is an age of information. Information that is encoded—almost always—in two dimensions. Initially in painted or drawn images—the cave paintings—then writing, then very recently photography. All these methods enabling indirect encounter—in two dimensions—of three dimensional art. We know these methods and the uses and advantages of the indirect encounter. (Early humans had sculptural art, but without two-dimensional imagery, had no way to encounter it other than direct encounter.)
The photos from the Albright-Knox archives may be inadvertently a little undiplomatic. Showing exhibits and exhibit items from before the gallery limited its purview to the art of just the last two-hundred years or so. A superb Greek Archaic Period statue or statuette of a draped warrior, a Ming Period Chinese bronze of a figure riding a water buffalo. So what about encountering Greek and Roman art, and Medieval and Renaissance, and Asian art, or the art of a hundred other times and places? In Buffalo, forget about it. You basically can’t do it. For Albright-Knox board members—and probably many regular subscriber members as well—if they want to see Greek or Roman or Medieval or Asian art, no problem. Go to New York City for a weekend. But for the ninety-nine percent of Buffalonians, they don’t have that option. The elementary and high school kids from the ninety-nine percent—the most important art audience—potential audience—don’t have that option. How are they supposed to learn about art—and the history of art—if they can’t encounter it?
Based on this exhibit, the response might be, indirect encounter, through photos. Two dimensions for three. But I don’t think the artist is suggesting indirect encounter exclusively. Or why would artists—including Shirreff—continue to make—and display—sculpture?
This excellent exhibit continues through May 8.