Sunday, August 29, 2010

Résidence secondaire

Julien Berthier

Let this be a cautionary tale of using limbs in art. When I was in art school, a classmate made a plaster cast of his open palms with a bird's nest delicately placed in the center. I was dying to say something; I liked the piece because I thought he was being cheeky, using hands that looked severed. He explained that the piece was about nurturing and protection... so the class, including myself, remained silent. I am all for both those things in life, but less in sculpture.

A couple of years later, Arrested Development made me feel better.

The natural association between viewer and art is a good quality, but limbs, severed ones especially, make it too didactic or hackneyed. Bones, while relatable, are less familiar. People go their whole lives without seeing their bones; it's safer to use them in art for this reason. They are mysterious.

The standalone skull is a common face (ha) in art. They come with their own cautionary history: Halloween, poison, and pirates are a few. Even Hamlet. These beg for reconciliation, which could explain their place in art. Maybe it's anthropological, bad-assy, easy to contrast, about the figure, the form, or a well-traveled bridge to science. At first I thought skulls in art was overdone, but my appreciation has grown because of the next few posts, beginning with Berthier's topiary.

Here, the skull isn't a mere object. Instead of a shrub in the shape of a squirrel or flower, the skull turns the homely art of tree sculpting against itself. The greenery is reminiscent of a welcome mat, but screams keep away. Seeing it so large, though, beckons because it is so funny.