Originally published in the Grand Rapids Press, September 18, 2010
Many years ago my friend Mert had an installation at an art gallery in Detroit. An installation is a room or area that is set up with several works of art and usually has some sort of central theme. That’s the basic idea, anyway. There are variations and I’m sure an installation could be created outside of that definition (a minimalist might, for example, paint an empty room white and name it “untitled”), but for the purpose of this story, that’s what an installation is.
The gallery had three rooms for installations in the basement. You’d walk down one flight of stairs, go from one room to another, and go back up another flight of stairs. (That’s the right term, isn’t it? Flight of stairs? Looks weird when you see it written twice.) Mert had the first room. I can’t remember the name of his exhibit (perhaps he will chime in here and let us know), but it was a series of painted cutouts — some six foot tall on the floor, some hanging from the ceiling — and it was about the experience of driving through the Detroit Metro area. I actually wrote a review of it and submitted it to a local art magazine (never printed, I wasn’t part of the local art club). But that was like 427 computers ago. I probably have a backup of it on a SyQuest cartridge or a floppy disk the size of notebook paper. I’m not going to look for it.
Anyway, Mert’s artwork was bright and colorful and edgy and in your face. There was nothing esoteric about it. You really didn’t have to guess at the point he was trying to make. If, say, a penis was required — BAM! — there was a big ol’ cartoony penis. No veiled allusions. The next two exhibits, however, were just dripping with pretentious symbolism. The one after Mert’s was titled, “Le Petit Mort.” It was a dense awful arrangement of various shades of black drapes and God-only-knows what because you could barely see anything. I’m embarrassed to say that I actually knew what the title meant — in French it’s literally “the little death,” but it’s a metaphor for orgasm. (You live in a house with a guy from France for a year in college, you pick up important stuff like that.) The installation after that was at least technically a little bit impressive — there were ponds with fish, lots of shiny things like ruby slippers, but beyond the Wizard of Oz references, incomprehensible.
So, yeah, as you can guess, I didn’t particularly care for the other two installations. That’s was fine. It was art, and others apparently found it worthwhile, so good for them, and I was glad they had the opportunity to express themselves. The thing that bothered me is how badly the other artists (that is, real artistes) treated Mert. Shunned him, basically. Treated him as a lesser person who, to paraphrase my cartoon, could not possibly understand the greatness of their art. So last week when my editor sent me a link to a Wall Street Journal article on ArtPrize and a few real artistes opined, in effect, “Ewww, Grand Rapids.” And when several real artistes complained last year about ArtPrize winners being largely a function of location and popularity. And when real artistes begrudge others earned money. I draw a cartoon.
Hey, if you want to see some of Mert’s current illustration & cartoon art, click here. And if you don’t know anything about ArtPrize, click here (and make a point of visiting downtown GR in the next couple of weeks).