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The canvas as commentary

AN artist achieves significance not only by virtue of talent and skill but by the manner in which his or her art engages and illuminates a crucial aspect of human or cultural reality. Thus, Edvard Munch probably would be remembered merely as a minor portrait and figure painter had he not been the first to gauge and depict modern-day anxiety and doubt. And Piet Mondrian probably would be forgotten had his paintings not satisfied a culture's hunger for images of formal perfection.

This very close relationship between an artist's creative intuitions and society's primary concerns is particularly apparent in recent conceptual and environmental art. Nowhere else is a work's significance, even its right to be called art, so dependent upon the context -- both conceptual and geographic -- within which it was conceived and made. And nowhere else is artistic judgment more subjective and difficult. To place a long row of boxes in a field, after all, or to shroud a building in sheets, is one thing. To justify such activity as art is another thing entirely.

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And yet it is in front of just such works that an art critic is most likely to be asked his or her least favorite question: ``But why is this art?'' Surely, if there is a special heavenly reward for art critics, it is deserved most by those who attempt to give clear and concise answers to such inquiries -- especially if it is obvious that the questioner's own preferences in art are limited to the pretty, the sentimental, and to anything that precisely resembles what it depicts.

It is difficult enough to ``explain'' the art of C'ezanne or Mir'o to an unsympathetic or hostile viewer, let alone something as rarefied and theoretical as Conceptual or Earth art. Words alone will never suffice, no matter how clearly they address both the specific work and the overall context within which it achieves its status as art. For that, something else is required, most particularly an open mind and the willingness to stretch one's sensibilities beyond their accustomed limits.

A critic's attempt to ``explain'' art that bewilders is complicated by the fear many individuals have of being taken for fools should the work they accept as significant later prove fraudulent or of minor importance. Most objections to startling new work are at least partially based on the concern that the person who fashioned it is trying to ``pull a fast one.'' And this is true even if the artist has a good reputation. Altogether too many people still harbor the suspicion that modern art is a joke -- even though it is now over a century old, and its premises have long proven viable.

Modernism, in fact, is so widely accepted that it has created problems for many of the younger artists who reject its ideas and ideals. Large numbers of their paintings aren't getting the attention they deserve, not because they are too abstract, distorted, or obscure, but because they are exactly the opposite: thoroughly realistic, straightforward, and highly accessible.

Even more disturbing, quite a few are beautifully, even exquisitely painted, and are among the finest works produced during the past decade.

It is startling and dismaying, therefore, to be standing before one of these excellent landscapes, figure studies, or still lifes and to have someone ask, ``But why is this art?''

The difficulty in producing a convincing answer is almost always compounded by the fact that the questioner's doubts derive from the modernist dogma that faithful transcriptions of physical reality onto canvas no longer qualify as art. Any meaningful response, as a result, must first challenge that dogma -- something no sensible critic will attempt unless he or she has at least three or four hours in which to present a case.

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Unfortunately, the resistance to representational work is no easier to overcome than that to the extreme forms of Minimal or Conceptual art. In some ways it is more difficult, since the arguments against it were long taught in art schools and so have, for many, the force of edict or law.

One can, of course, draw attention to the larger significance of a picture's theme or subject. Thus, Mark Tansey's explicitly realistic images have become acceptable and even admired because of their witty references to modernist ideas, personalities, and events. And Eric Fischl's and Leon Golub's figurative paintings are respected because of their comments on important social and moral issues.

Robert Birmelin's recent narrative canvases also fit into this category, for they rise above the usual depictions of crowded city streets to focus upon the numerous dramatic and subtle ways humans interact with one another. ``City Crowd -- Kinds of Touching,'' for instance, depicts several types of hand-contact between people and between people and objects. And ``City Crowd -- The Embrace Resisted,'' is about a woman's abrupt rejection of a man on a busy sidewalk. Both paintings, and the others in the series, are very large and boldly painted, and deal as much with the psychological aspects and implications of urban living as with the restless movements of crowds. As such, they place Birmelin's figures and their actions within the larger context of social interaction and human survival, and add an extra dimension of significance needed to turn straight pictorial accounts of events into art.

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