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The medium is a message
When viewing reproductions of art, the visual representation must be augmented by data that are not apparent when you lack physical proximity to the work. The most obvious of these is the size. The medium is almost as important. Being aware not only of the dimensions, but of the material used, greatly enhances our understanding of an art reproduction. This is why I always associate a text file with each scanned image:
MURRAY, Elizabeth
Can You Hear Me?
Oil on 4 canvases
106 x 159 x 12 in.
Dallas Museum of Art
Sometimes, the medium can seem so pervasive that it is left out of the description. For example, the catalog of the recent "Monet and the Mediterranean" exhibition presumes "oil on canvas" for each reproduction and does not list it explicitly. While this is adequate within the context of that book, I insert the medium into the text files that accompany the scans anyway, because I find it disturbing to be unsure of the material used.
     This disorientation can extend to the real artwork in some cases. At the "Rings" exhibition held in conjunction with the Atlanta Olympics, the medium was omitted from the labels of the works. Especially since many of the pieces were sculpted, I found myself surprisingly disoriented in the gallery. I had no idea that I relied so strongly on the medium description in my perception of a work of art.
     On the other end of the medium description spectrum are those that won't even fit on a single line of the text file. Ed Kienholz is the champion here. Sometimes it almost seems he is poking fun at art historians:
Back Seat Dodge '38
Tableau: polyester resin, paint, fiberglass, and flock, truncated 1938 Dodge,
clothing, chicken wire, beer bottles,
artificial grass, and plaster cast

66 x 240 x 144 in. (167.6 x 609.6 x 365.8 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Of course, when you are creating three-dimensional tableaux like Kienholz, you really do use a wide variety of materials. The two-dimensional champion in this regard has got to be Paul Klee:
KLEE, Paul
Oil and watercolor on plaster-coated gauze,
on paper-faced board

56.8 x 38.1 cm (22 3/8 x 15 in.)
It is very rare to see a simple "oil on canvas" in Klee's ouevre:
KLEE, Paul
Remembrance of a Garden
Watercolor on linen paper mounted on cardboard
25.2 x 21.5 cm
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf
I think we are seeing here another example of conscious use of alternative media. Unlike Kienholz, however, Klee incorporates it more sincerely, as an expression of his poetic, mystical approach to the creative act. Rather than restrict his representational means to a single medium, Klee showed that art can generate organically from an incredible variety of sources. Being aware of the wide range of media used in Klee's work is essential to understanding the meaning of his art. To misquote McLuhan, "the media is a message".
Mark Harden
©2000 by Mark Harden's Artchive

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