Contemporary Art: a journey of experience
Drooling heat, liquid sunshine dissolving skin — my trip to LACMA in 2013 on a steaming summer day was one of the first few modern art museum pilgrimages I have ever made. As a young artist who was training in pencil, pastel and charcoal, the Levitated Mass — a 340-ton boulder sculpture — captured all of my attention. Trudging back and forth under the “levitated” mass, I could not grasp the idea that an art museum paid 10 million dollars for a piece of rock that does not display any sort of floatation illusion as its name suggests. The rock encounter made me, for a little while, a blatant attacker of modern art. Partly due to the fact that the concepts are mostly foreign, and that I approached most pieces with a consequentialist perspective.
A few summers ago, I worked at Outsider’s Arts Nanjing as an art instructor. The nonprofit provides space and resources for people who have intellectual or developmental challenges to exercise their creative minds through visual arts. The students drew from pure imagination, utilizing lines, blocks of colors, or even just a single paint stroke. At first glance, the creations may seem to fall far from the common art pieces that we recognize, but the raw sentiments that emerged from those flat canvases allowed me to understand and learned about each student personally even though we often could not communicate verbally. Interactions with the students there led me to ruminate further what art is and could be. In a digital age, cameras capture the reality far better than any realistic paintings. I was inspired to diverge from my obsession with technical perfection and invest time pondering the colors and forms I see in this world. While I still do focus heavily how a painting turns out when I paint, I began to realize a deeper significance in the process of art making rather than the end product. The art pieces from Outsider’s Arts Nanjing are expressions. They document the thought process, emotions and imagination of artists who are not necessarily concerned with how a painting looks when finished.
Visual art in the modern age often combine and intertwine with performing arts. For example, the artist Sam Cox, widely known as Mr. Doodle, is invited to draw for big name clients such as MTV and Adidas, often in a live or recorded drawing session, in the form of endless doodles that often lack structure, big design, nor substantial meaning. Sam Cox has gained wide spread popularity over the past few years by stepping out of a conventional art studio and make the art making process an art in itself. What he calls a “growing drawing virus,” he lets his imagination run loose and spill his brain endlessly on a blank surface. In sped up videos that he records, white surfaces of almost anything you can imagine —that of a chair, car, shoes, even his own shirt — are covered completely by cartoonish doodles by the end of the recording, a marvelous spectacle that induce awe and joy in the viewers. Sam Cox draws, but by letting the viewers in on his art making process, he is a performing artist.
Of course, Sam Cox is not comparable to the students I met at Outsider’s Arts Nanjing. However, the parallel that I see from their artworks is striking. Both see art as a means rather than an end. Artworks to them are chronicles of their feelings, maps of their imaginations. The concept of contemporary art changes and evolves every single day as we as a human species gain experience and step forward in history. Modern art is only becoming ever more diverse. Six years after my first visit to LACMA, both my art style and perspective metamorphosed. I still, however, cannot cease to be confused by the Levitated Mass.