Over the Top

Gaudy exhibit has too much stuff, not enough substance.

"Aethyr"; by Tara Giannini; oil, acrylic, wax, and glitter on canvas.
"Aethyr"; by Tara Giannini; oil, acrylic, wax, and glitter on canvas.
Tara Giannini is one of the many contemporary artists who have not yet successfully mastered the art of eclecticism. It's a much prized skill in these postmodern times, but it's not nearly as easy as it sounds. The goal is to draw from the immense range of styles being practiced today (as well as those practiced yesterday) and to form a new blend that eludes classification but that, at the same time, expresses an individual point of view. Unfortunately, while there is energy aplenty in Tara Giannini: Gaudy Paintings at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, the predominant impression is of stylistic chaos and a distressing sameness from one canvas to another.

What, someone might ask, is wrong with Giannini wanting to make art that reflects her affection for thrift-store finds, animal prints, her favorite movie (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), the art of European masters like Gustav Klimt, Islamic folk tapestries, and costume jewelry? Nothing. The tough part is the next step -- the task of organizing the material and shaping it. In other words, it's not enough to just mix up disparate influences and put them onto the canvas. Living at the turn of the 21st century, we are used to being bombarded with sensory stimuli. If all art did was to reflect that back to us, we would rightly suspect that viewing it would be a waste of time. Why visit a gallery if you can get the same experience watching the Home Shopping Network?

Thankfully, artists, by and large, want to provide their audience with insight, not just a feeling of recognition. A postmodern artist like Nic Nicosia, whose work is also now on view at the center, is concerned not with contemporary American suburban life undigested, but rather with accentuating, polishing, and above all selecting those aspects of it that he believes are important for an understanding of its dynamics.

Giannini, by contrast, seems to value inclusiveness over selection. Gustav Klimt's mosaic-like surfaces rub shoulders with the minute checkered design elements found in Islamic textiles. There is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel to these paintings. Curator Kristin Chambers describes the artist's approach this way: "Giannini is a fan of castoffs. She collects the items previous owners may have considered too gaudy to wear any longer, too tacky to hang in the family room, too unattractive to salvage." Giannini has suggested that, by rendering these castoffs in her paintings, she is questioning conventional notions about beauty and repulsion. As an artist, she is discovering value where others saw trash.

There is certainly something to this line of inquiry. In fact it's a strong idea, and many artists have worked with it. Marcel Duchamp, for example, placed objects like bicycle wheels in an art gallery setting with little or no alteration. He rescued those objects. He did so by asking us to see them in a new way -- as objects of artistic value as opposed to junkyard items or pieces of equipment whose sole purpose was to help us in our daily routines. Just by placing these objects in a gallery context, he was able to transform them. Giannini, however, stumbles in her treatment of this idea. Her castoffs on canvas do not gain from this new context: She just presents her material, she doesn't transform it.

Thankfully, her inclusiveness does have some boundaries. She doesn't, for instance, adhere to the abstract expressionist notion of art as a religious experience. Nor does she favor the Duchampian notion of art as a philosophical conundrum. Rather, she simply wants to celebrate too-muchness. But here lies the problem with her art: If tacky stuff is more or less equal to tasteful stuff, how can anything assume importance and become a significant experience in one's life? If everything is beautiful, nothing is.

Most of the paintings are little more than heavily worked surfaces. There is complexity without intensity. For instance, there is a work called "Aethyr." Executed with acrylic paint that has been mixed with pumice stone and also with oil, acrylic, puff paint, spray paint, glitter, and ink, this large-scale work certainly doesn't lack textural variety. What it unfortunately does lack is a point of view that would give the textural variety a point. Some yellow roses here have the consistency of frosting. The pumice gives other sections a powdery, sandpaper-like consistency. Other than the flowers, there are shapes that resemble rugged mountainous formations. Also there are sections that look like pieces of a rug or a garish outfit. The parts never really coalesce. There is texture, but no form.

A work like "Hot Lava" is better, if only because the title helps to create some associational framework. The redundancy of "Hot Lava" (most lava is hot) suggests that the overstatement in this painting is not there by accident. This one was created this year with oil, acrylic, latex, glitter, and spray paint. There are vivid swaths of more or less solid red on the right side of the canvas, and this is contrasted with intricate mosaic touches elsewhere. Here at least, Giannini sets up some contrasts: intricacy versus simplicity, hot reds versus cool blues. Still, this is not enough to mitigate the overriding impression that the work is all surface. In an age of surface political candidates and surface television news, is it any wonder that we are also glutted with surface art?

Giannini is young (she just graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art), so it's not as though she is the instigator of this trend. Unfortunately, it seems as if she has allowed herself to be swept into it. One wonders why Giannini doesn't include human beings in her paintings. It's remarkable what the inclusion of a human face can do to a predominantly decorative painting. Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who specialized in self-portraits, also had a knack for the decorative, but her focus on her own (and others') personalities gave all that decorativeness a solid grounding. It even served an important thematic function by making viewers aware of the artist's pride in her Mexican heritage. Thus, the ornamental stuff wasn't the reason for the painting's existence; it was simply a part of the overall picture. Kahlo's biographer also tells us how Kahlo liked costume jewelry and would visit thrift shops to find it. The costume jewelry did not become the subject of her art. If it had, Kahlo's work would not have its expressive power.

Giannini's work demonstrates that she is conversant in many styles of art and that she is able to translate the riot of colors found in a thrift store onto canvas. Technical skill, however, means little when there is no overriding sense of pictorial organization.

The Gaudy Paintings exhibit is gaudy. Shows like this are a strong refutation to those who insist on saying, "That (movie, play, whatever) was so bad it was good." Statements like that are damaging to the enterprise of making (and thinking about) art, because they implicitly say that there is no real difference between bad art and good art. Bad art does not magically become good by being especially bad. As Ross Perot would say: "Think about it."