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Wit and mystery

GENERALLY speaking, gallery-hopping is more fun today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. For one thing, artists are less inhibited by rules and regulations and so feel freer to kick up their heels and delight in what they do best. And for another, galleries exhibit a much wider variety of art these days and are broadening rather than narrowing the range of what is acceptable or ``in.'' The art world, as a whole, is more relaxed and considerably less intimidating. Galleries seem less like temples of beauty than like places where interesting and even outlandish things can be viewed. And dealers act less like champions of artistic truth than like masters of ceremony or arbiters of taste or fashion.

For some, of course, this may not seem like an improvement. I myself have serious doubts, especially since the frivolous and the glitzy tend to garner a great deal more serious attention in some quarters than they deserve. There are days, in fact, when the gallery world -- especially that portion of it that exists in New York's East Village -- appears to have cornered the market in sequins, sensational subject matter, and strident colors.

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Yet, when all is said and done, I must admit that I prefer what is going on today to what took place a decade or two ago. I would rather see enthusiasm running a little wild than curtailed, would rather put my faith in feeling and imagination than in strict formalist theories or ideals of regimented ``perfection.''

The pity is that we go endlessly back and forth between the two extremes, riding the pendulum first to rigid formal control, and then to uncontrolled sentiment or emotion. We go from Mini-malism to Neo-Expressionism and then back again -- as we are at this moment -- to a ``new'' form of geometric abstraction. Give us another two or three years -- or until boredom sets in -- and we'll be off on yet another wild goose chase for whatever is even more extreme or wild and woolly than what we have at present.

Not everyone, of course, gets caught up in this mania for the new. A larger group of artists than one would imagine -- given their generally limited publicity -- has managed to produce a great deal of good, solid work of genuine quality.

I am thinking, in particular, of Jennifer Bartlett, Terence La Noue, Robert Kushner, Melissa Miller, Wayne Thiebaud, Nancy Graves, Jerome Witkin, James Turrell, and several others, all of whom are more concerned with creating art than with worming their way, in one fashion or another, into tomorrow's art history books.

I would also put London-born Peter Grieve in this group because of the wit of his mixed-media constructions made of a variety of woods, metal, and leather, and for the subtle undertones of mystery he manages to evoke through his often bizarre and always delightful carvings.

``I seek,'' he writes, ``a form of expression which describes the possibility of a narrative connection between the various elements within the sculpture. I try to . . . rely on clues which allow the spectator to make his own deduction. . . . The humor in my work masks the monster lurking around the corner, waiting to snap me up. Memories of spending the blitz under the dining room table, often sharing my fragile haven with strangers driven off the streets, are vivid.''

Grieve, in other words, wants to tantalize, to lead the viewer, step by step, toward the awareness, the recognition of his or her own ``monster'' lurking somewhere ``around the corner.'' He has no interest in producing or describing his, only in provoking ours. But he wants to do so in a manner that will neither disturb nor alienate us -- hence the indirect route of wit and subtle humor.

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I am tempted to say that only a genuine artist would think or act this way, but that isn't quite true. Indirection is used by teachers, magicians, and pickpockets as well. And we all know that there are artists of quality who've done little more than dump their emotional ``dirty laundry'' on the public. And yet, there is truth in that statement, for only a deeply committed painter or sculptor would be that patient or persistent about making a point.

It's that kind of commitment that usually distinguishes the real or significant artist from the sham. Talent and skill, ultimately, have relatively little to do with it -- although they are important in determining how effective or successful an artist can be. In the final analysis, it's more a matter of having something to ``say'' -- and then doing anything and everything to shape it and get it across. Van Gogh, Mondrian, and Pollock understood that. And on a more modest level, so does Peter Grieve.

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