At the gallery, a clue or two might help

Sometimes we need a little information before we can connect to art, and curators can help


In this month’s group show at PDX Contemporary, I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees, a tangled piece of black cord hangs on a wall opposite two white ceramic elephants, encrusted with gold roses, that sit atop a pedestal. 3D pieces in various media fill the gallery with no discernible relationship to one another. My experience was similarly decontextualized when I went to see A Marginal Tic at Fourteen30 Contemporary, where a curiously naïve vessel was shown alongside dripping abstract sculptures and paintings on linen. No information was provided, in either gallery, about the work itself or why the pieces were grouped together. I left both exhibitions scratching my head, without any connection to the work at all.

I am an arts writer, so I can easily write eight hundred words about the rhythm and texture and use of negative space of a tangled piece of cord or an abstract ceramic form. But a formal understanding of a piece of art won’t make me care about it. And I really want to care.

The problem is not unique to these two galleries. It’s a holdover from the white box philosophy of modernism. But in the 21st century, when a gallery presents work without providing information about it, it feels like a hostile act, because the purpose of art has always been to communicate. When a gallery goes out of its way to be opaque, we should ask ourselves why.

There have been, and likely always will be, people who use art to rarefy the air around themselves. After all, if a work of art is inaccessible both financially and conceptually to all but a tiny group of people, the members of that group are made special by virtue of their ability to access it. Sometimes, galleries are interested in creating and catering to these types of groups.

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Heather Watkins, Medium, 2015, ink and cotton welting cord, variable (approximately 48″ x 36″)/Courtesy PDX Contemporary

This is not always the case. Sometimes the lack of information has to do with an antiquated notion that all good art should speak for itself. It is a long-held belief that if you have to explain a piece of art, if it doesn’t stand completely on its own, it mustn’t be successful. I reject this position on the grounds that it isn’t always possible to decipher an artist’s intention, and I offer up my favorite piece of conceptual art as an example: Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix González-Torres consists of two institutional-looking clocks hung side-by-side. That’s it. When I first saw it, I gave it a loud eye roll. Two clocks, really? Thanks, MOMA. But when I read about it later, I learned that the artist was a gay activist who came to prominence during the height of the AIDS crisis. He made Perfect Lovers when his partner was diagnosed with HIV. González-Torres took two clocks, put batteries in them simultaneously, and set them to the exact same time. He knew that as they hung in the gallery, one of them would inevitably slow down, lose time, and stop before the other. For me, that tiny bit of context was enough to change a work of art from something I easily dismissed to one of the most affecting and elegant expressions of love and mortality I had ever seen. But I needed the story in order to understand it.

As humans, we are wired for narrative. We crave storytelling as a way to keep us connected—to our place in the world, to each other, to the people who came before us—so it shouldn’t be something we feel we need to stifle in order to make visual art seem more important. On the contrary, we should allow artists’ stories about their work to enhance our experience of it.

Julia Haft-Candell, Blue Knot, 2015, glazed ceramic 44 1/2 x 31 x 10 inches; Kristan Kennedy B.F.I.S., 2016 walnut ink and gesso on linen 12 x 9 inches/Courtesy of Fourteen30 Contemporary

Julia Haft-Candell, Blue Knot, 2015, glazed ceramic, 44 1/2 x 31 x 10 inches; Kristan Kennedy, B.F.I.S., 2016, walnut ink and gesso on linen, 12 x 9 inches/Courtesy of Fourteen30 Contemporary

Another reason galleries give for the decision not to share context or background information about the art they show is simply that they want viewers to make up their own minds about it, without mediation. I admire the intention of this approach, but the logic is specious because the average person spends approximately two seconds in front of a piece of art before deciding whether or not to move on. Most people don’t take the time and effort that is required to decode the conceptual underpinnings of what they’re looking at. The work either speaks to them instantly, or it doesn’t. By offering us one possible way of understanding a piece of art, a gallery increases the likelihood that we will be able to connect to it—enough, at least, to keep looking. It doesn’t preclude us from coming up with other ways of engaging with it once we have a better sense of the work. It just gives us a way in, something to grab onto. It’s no different than your host introducing you to someone at a party: surely you will go on to draw your own conclusions about the person once you’ve had a chance to converse.

It is important to understand that I am not diminishing the quality of the work mentioned above. There is a good chance that if given more information about those pieces, I would feel invested in them and in what they are trying to convey. I am simply saying that the practice of showing radically decontextualized objects in a gallery setting does a disservice to both the artist and the community because it keeps us estranged from each other.

I think it’s time to put this practice to rest. Let’s bury the notion that if something is impenetrable, it must be important, or that if it’s expensive, it must be valuable. If a piece of art doesn’t make you feel included in the conversation, then the artist and the gallery have failed to do their job. You don’t have to like the work—in fact, some of the most successful art will make you feel uncomfortable and infuriated—but at the very least you should feel as though it is courting your opinion.

Jennifer Rabin is a writer and a conceptual artist. She can be found at

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