As much as the quality of paint, or the illusion of depth, the relationship between art and viewer is a fundamental element of what we call art. So what happens when an artist denies their viewer this essential relationship, cutting off the dialogue that is the product of meaningful art? What happens when either the artist’s sensibility is lacking, using art for novelty and showmanship, or the artist simply does not consider their audience? If the artist possesses vision, their subject may or may not open channels of receptivity. But if the art is lacking the necessary significance, their work will assuredly not enable a full, artistic impact on the audience.
Recently, I eagerly anticipated visiting the Salt Lake Art Center to see the work of celebrity artist Jamie Wyeth, the heir apparent in a famous family of painters of Americana. The work is a series of paintings depicting seagulls titled “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and before the show I pondered how the manifestation of the seven deadly sins, personified in the birds, had contemporary relevance; I knew there was deeper human significance and I eagerly anticipated asking Mr. Wyeth what that was.
In the open discussion at the exhibit’s opening reception, I asked Wyeth what importance and underlying theme he was trying to express in his work that I or any viewer could gain by looking at this art. His answer was that he “was not concerned with how the viewer will react to the work. That is up to them.” In disappointed disbelief I realized the paintings were merely well-articulated depictions of birds, using the novelty of a storied title to give the works some content beyond mere ornithology. In our pluralistic society, artists are free to paint at will: scenes of beauty are appreciated and needed and are recognized for their beauty. But for an artist’s work to be of high merit, as many consider Wyeth’s to be, the artist must be aware of his or her audience, broadcasting an experience that can be received and related to. They can’t, like Wyeth, rely on flashy paint and gimmickry. That type of work becomes a closed circuit.
Some theorists will tell you that the artist, along with the author, is dead, but many artists act as if the viewer is the deceased one. The freedom offered by the limitless possibility made available through plurality of form and content seems to be tempting artists to ignore the crucial partner in a work of art: the viewer. Art is not to be found in layers of paint or in the bristles of a brush but in using these with voice and vision, where content and form reach a state that allows for the phenomena of an exchange where the viewer is as important to this dynamic as the art.
This is a dialectic centuries old, a relationship between art and viewer and the synthesis is something like the art of Tawni Shuler, whose show ecotone, is now on exhibit at the Woodbury Art Museum in Orem. Shuler depends on the full participation of her audience to act in the art of viewing; for her work to reach its potential requires the viewers to take time to fully contemplate what she is trying to express and put themselves within this synthesis and discover their own personal relationship with the art. Shuler cites Joanne Smith, who defines ecotone as “the place where forest meets meadow, desert touches river. It’s the frontier where communities of humankind and wild animals touch each other. It’s that shaky space between who we are and who we appear to be, the gap between reality and mystery, the certain and the imagined.”
The show is a series of pure abstractions, void of representation or iconography; but all the works have their ideological origins based on the idea of ecotone. Some are dark and others are light. Some are weighty, and some are airy. Some are intense and some are ethereal, some are in vibrant hues, others in monochrome black and white. Some are organic and some seem artificial. Yet all are sublime. The viewer is encouraged to discover their own ecotones: light and dark, presence and absence, past and future, truth and artifice, reality and illusion, life and death, mortality and immortality. The very subject of art and viewer has its own ecotone. This occurs within the viewer as they connect with the art and find themselves in this space, and discover their own polarity, like an apparition within the work that is an open-circuit.
In the ideal paradigm, the open-circuit exists in the work of the artist who is mindful of their viewer, whose artistic voice resonates in their work, whose subject is not a mere form, and is received by the viewer in an artistic vocabulary that initiates an artistic language that opens a free flow of meaning as the viewer contemplates the relevance of the work. The dynamic that exists where the viewer’s contemplation perpetuates a plurality of meaning gives art a weightier, profound function in contemporary ideologies, addressing philosophies, beliefs, histories, ideas.
What denies art its full potential is the closed-circuit, where the artist has no voice and does not consider their audience, has forgotten that many will look for meaning and find no significance. Art loses its value when it is used without purpose, without thought, ultimately leading to insignificance and oblivion. The engagement between art and viewer cannot be accomplished when no connection has been established and is used merely as a display of an artist’s rendering skills.
An open-circuit dynamic is essential for good, relevant and important art today. Not only is there a plurality of form and content, but the audience itself is also truly diverse, of all ages and ethnicities. An open-circuit takes that into consideration. Art has always served a higher purpose, operating on a different level, as a venue of ideas, a human exchange of cultural expression. For those with nothing to say, with no insight into what being human really means, an ability to render the visible world counts for little. The integrity of art relies on the artist to express through their visual manifestations the product of their artistic sensibility and perspective, always mindful to connect with the viewer and leave the circuit open.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.