Presence II is a continuation of the exploration of the visceral energy of artworks, an energy that requires the viewer’s physical presence unfiltered by the ubiquitous smart phone: ‘a balance needs to be found between ‘the demands of (those) who want to take snapshots of art and those of people who want to actually look at it with their eyes instead of a lens.’ (washington post). It is a group show, a selection of works by different artists over different periods, of different genres, techniques and materials, and different subject matter.
In part of the gallery, we have abandoned the sparse minimalism often seen as the ultimate expression of the Japanese aesthetic, and taken up the idea of the European ‘wunderkammer,’ showing a bustling wall of diverse works – paintings, woodblock prints, textiles, lithographs and photography. They are however united by a shared aesthetic, an approach to art that sees the creation as more significant than the creator – an aesthetic approach that I have chosen to express as ‘no ego’, seeking the ‘art’ in ‘artist’ rather than highlighting the individual.
Sharing the pleasure of beauty, exchanging ideas and exploring the traditions and mores of a different culture are some of the things we enjoy the most in our activities at Lesley Kehoe Galleries. They embody principles that guide each exhibition in the gallery, both solo and group shows. Presence I was a direct response to the prevalence of the smart phone and the age ‘when an experience might as well not have happened unless it’s documented and broadcast as widely as possible’. (washington post). Viewing the smart phone and the ‘selfie’ as an expression of the audience’s ego, it was a reminder of the sensual physicality of the artwork that is most authentically experienced unfiltered, immediately, and without the need to self-promote. Focussing now on the ‘art’ in artist, Presence II reverses the application of ‘ego’ from spectator to artist, requesting a viewing of the artwork in its own right, independent of the reputation, popularity, market price, investment value, media presence of the particular artist – art for art’s sake perhaps.
It is in fact, a comment by a student of Toorak College during a recent gallery visit that stimulated the curatorial for this exhibition. In the interchange of ideas with Year 11 and 12 Studio Arts students from across the state regularly visiting the gallery, we are inspired by their perceptions and challenged by their questions. That these visits are reciprocally valued is reflected in the thanks received from staff and students alike, noting in particular their appreciation of the welcome and active engagement offered in the gallery. The particular student’s comment, highly perceptive, was that the works in the gallery exhibited ‘no ego’.
There are many ways to relate this comment to the art world in general and to the current exhibition. It resonates with my longstanding experience in traditional Japanese art. In a feudal society in which authority and status rested with the imperial court and the military hegemons, art works were, until the rise of the merchant class in the mid 18th century, almost always unsigned. The ‘artist’ class, identified as ‘shokunin’ (artisans), was at the lower end of the social ranking, creating artworks for those superior in status. ‘No ego’ in this context expressed this hierarchy. It also expressed the inherent pride of the artist in the work, a work that would not exist without the creativity and technical mastery of the individual artist, but a work that, in its beauty and perfection, stood above and beyond individual ego.
This brings us to the idea of connoisseurship, erudition and confidence in one’s own ‘eye’. In the context of traditional Japan, and in another neat reversal of the application of ‘ego’, the connoisseurship of the elite ensured immediate recognition of a master’s hand. No signature was required because the work of the master was unique and immediately recognizable by cognoscenti- like-minded peers who would share in appreciation of the work, perhaps in the context of formal tea and other similar elegant pursuits of the contemporary elite.
The priority of the artwork, of creativity expressed through respect for material and mastery of technique that is a hallmark of Japanese art, continues in contemporary work of all genres and is a striking characteristic of each work in Presence II. Its power and uniqueness in the concept-driven, post-creation-justification world of contemporary Western art reached out and impacted on Year 12 students, the future generation of artists and art connoisseurs. It will certainly reach out to each of you who visit the gallery.