One of the things I love about visual art is how it constantly reminds me just how fickle the human heart is—how it can be put off or turned on just by the mere tweaking of a detail. For example, the first time I encountered one of Fiona Kinsella’s gothic cake sculptures (which you can see@ http://fionakinsella.com), I was impressed by her execution, but felt a bit alienated by it. The next time I encountered the work, I looked long enough at it to notice that the label near the piece seemed unusually long-winded. This is what it read:
Cakes) Patron Saint of Housekeeping (St. Anne, St. Monica, St. Martha, St. Zita) (2006)
Royal Icing, napkin set, hair of a woman, tablecloth, sewing scissors, shark teeth, red ribbon, agate, gold, citrine & seed pearls, stork, cameo, keys, dragon,needles, fossil, hat pin, stick pins, fondant. Hamilton, Burlington, Dundas, Nashville, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?
I can’t explain it, but the label ignited my appreciation of the work in a way I don’t think I would ever have felt otherwise. It was one of those details, one of those tiny moments of building context for an artwork that should be inconsequential, yet makes all the difference.
Labels are important.
In 2000, when I worked at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and was coordinating exhibitions for its Community Gallery, I had the chance to serve as a juror for an annual show by the Women’s Art Association of Hamilton (WAAH). WAAH is possibly the oldest artist group the city has ever known (its annual exhibition has run uninterrupted since 1896).
As you might expect from such an established group, the work submitted by its members tended to be for the most part very traditional and unsurprising. A clear majority of it was painting in either oil or acrylic or watercolour, of which broke down further into genres of urban and natural landscape, still life, and portraiture. There were occasional moments of abstraction and expressionism, but not many.
I decided that my mission as juror that year would be to seek out and reward any examples of risk taking.
Imagine my surprise when I came upon an oil painting of a lush backyard garden, which upon first glance seemed unremarkable until I read the label: ‘Demise amid the Flowers’. The title was so staggering that when I looked back at the painting I was struck by the way its heavy colours evoked a subtly looming feeling of dread and claustrophobia. It caused me to study the work deeply enough to discover the trace of a human figure, a girl, tucked into the foliage, barely perceptible.
Who or what was facing demise? The girl? Her innocence? Had the artist decided to confront a memory of an assault (or murder), I wondered? Was this a quiet, yet deeply personal exploration? Or had the artist submitted this work as a fictional provocation against the otherwise conservative nature of this juried exhibition? With not much more than the title and some slight clues within the picture, this artist had completely challenged the tone of an otherwise polite exhibition.
I advocated deeply that this painting be considered one of the prize winners for the year.
At the opening reception, I had a chance to congratulate the artist on her work (my deep apologies for not being able to remember her name). She was a tiny, older woman who seemed delighted at the attention. She took my arm and lead me to the painting, and said ‘do you see her? Do you see the little girl hidden in bushes there?
“That’s my great granddaughter. Denise”
‘Denise amid the Flowers.’
The next morning I went and corrected the mistake on the label. I attached it beside the painting, a painting for which my heart no longer held any feeling. I had a learned a valuable lesson.
Labels are important.