I went to the Aperture Foundation’s reGeneration2 group show, where I saw hundreds of photos from a diverse group of photographers. Yet a small photo by Milo Newman evoked the most profound experience and left an everlasting impression. Upon a distant glance, I hardly recognized what the photo was of or about, I just saw a greyish page with maybe a few faint lines. As I approached, puzzled, the lines transformed from looking like a contour drawing of a mountaintop to dots on an undefined greyish space, to flocks of birds in “V” and upside down “V” formation. The photographer subtly captured flocks of birds in flight that look like distant mountaintops in a foggy grey landscape. I can’t transcribe the experience of this realization—the events of my mind and perception when I was in the process of realizing this. This personal moment, this punch-line, was the poignant part of the image. I can’t transcribe this, because it’s beauty suffers when put into words; it’s meant, like all many masterpieces of art, to be experienced in person. I just shook my head and sighed, “wow.” How beautiful, and how simple, and how many times people have looked at flying birds, yet never took it just a few steps forward to create something out of that, and wow how did I not think of this?? It looks like something that’s so easy to think of. But I guess in practice, it’s tragically hard to think of it—nearly impossible, because the concept simply has to get to you; you can’t really directly work at getting to it.
This is a simple concept, but I think that simple concepts are often, and I’m almost willing to argue that nearly always are more profound than complex ones. I think that understating something will give it more authority and clarity that will not unnecessarily complicate a concept or artwork. The artwork must eliminate everything except the art part and that which directly contributes to the art. The more elements you have the more complex it gets and the less intriguing and meaningful the relationship of parts to each other becomes. (the more complex, the higher the risk for this to happen.) It often starts to feel contrived, and messy in a repulsive way.
Furthermore, (if nothing else), then a complex concept makes the viewer work harder than a simple and clear one, and this multi-step puzzle begins to build up suspense, hype and an increasing expectation of the reward of figuring the puzzle out (what the artwork is about). If the viewer continues to work hard and figures out what the artwork is about, they will by that time have an extremely high expectation for the reward of what this artwork will bring into their experience and life. So if the perceived reward is greater than what one finds, then that leaves the viewer disappointed that all this work was put in only to receive a mild reward. But with a simple concept, I believe the viewer instinctively has a lower expectation of the reward, because it looks simple and simple things look like you need less time to appreciate them, and like there is less to learn from them. But if the simple concept artwork is successful there will always be wonderment about it as to how unbelievably easy the concept is, vs. how complex and profound the revelation was. The success of good simple concepts has something to do with how something so simple can elicit something so grand and profound.
Note: what the artwork is about is not the end-all step to experiencing the artwork. After one figures out what the artwork is about, the contemplation about the metaphors, themes, ideas begins, or continues to a much deeper extent.
This piece is not just a perceptual whimsical admiration of wildlife. Conceptually it talks about the relationship between drawing and photography. The way this artist drew the forever stationary quiet mountaintops with (a) moment(s) of ordinary flocks of flying birds, among other metaphors and ideas challenges the assumption of what drawing or photography is. Drawing with animals, drawing with events. Space, scale, relationships, time, transience vs. immobility, etc. No answers in this photograph; just questions from the viewers and the image. The artist gives no guidance to a conclusion, he simply presents an image that is very genuine, very true, but doesn’t says what its true about… that’s for us to contemplate.
Some examples of simple concepts off the top of my head: Chris Burden: sitting on a chair on a pedestal until he falls off. Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and other conceptual works. Some of Tara Donovan’s work.
(This show closes March 17th.)