By Michelle Zis
How come every song is about love? Really, it’s true and, even if they aren’t, we hear them that way. Are musicians the most passionate people in the world? Do rock stars fall in and out of love, and get their hearts broken, and then fall back in love again at a faster rate than the rest of us? If music is the ideal medium to express love, and with that I also mean heartbreak, then where does that leave visual artists? I was having trouble thinking of examples of contemporary artists who deal primarily with love and heartbreak in their work. Maybe so few artists blatantly depict their romantic relationships because there is a level of seriousness today’s artist tries to achieve and there is a sense of cliché attached to any discussion of love. With that in mind, I went re-searching for love. …
I had a memory of love from a year-and-a-half ago: sixty mounted blood wood, cut-out arrows covered with pink Swarkovski crystals, pointing in the same direction, scattered across all four walls of the Bodybuilder and Sportsman Gallery in D’nell Larson’s 2003 solo-show You Kill Me. A bejeweled version of Cupid’s primary tool accompanied his other instruments–a snare and a net–in a dizzying rotation. Both titled “Trap,” and both adorned with sequins, the snare hung down the center of the gallery, the net affixeded to the ceiling, remaining out of reach.
Most people lucky enough to be struck by the arrow of love know the pain that lies beneath the seductive surface of Cupid’s promise. Larson’s girly embellishment of mythology and dramatic statement in You Kill Me suggests she sees the silly adolescent schoolgirl nature that persists even in adult relationships. As part of Larson’s ongoing investigation of love and relationships, she pokes fun at herself by creating seductive devices that are more childish and pretty than sexy and dangerous. In the end, the title says it all and ties the whole show together. We understand the artwork because we understand the sentiment.
Back on the streets searching for love, I found that ThreeWalls’ upcoming exhibition Take My Hand (February 4-March 12) features six artists whose work deals with romance. While previewing the work in this show, I gravitated, once again, to the artist who approaches the subject with a sense of humor. William O’Brien, an MFA candidate in Fiber and Material Studies at SAIC, works in both the art world and in commercial design. He makes everything from photo-collages to tote bags. O’Brien’s ongoing series, “The Drawings Project,” are digital drawings of comical and often campy pictures resembling doodles, but really good ones, that one might create in his notebook while daydreaming about a crush in class. Many of his drawings contain text. “If It Hurts So Bad, Why Does It Feel So Good?” is a picture of two young boys in headgear sticking their tongues out to kiss each other as a red heart shines above their heads. Or “I love you pt.1,” a repetition of handwritten phrases about unrelated things that one might love, such as “I love Jews, I love Ohio State, I love John, I love my Lexis.” An installation cleverly titled, “You Can’t Get Prada From Kissing.” shows why O’Brien so easily crosses over into the commercial arts. The phrase could be a line right out of a rap song.
Both Larson and O’Brien’s humorous approach to analyzing love as well as using text, or in Larson’s case a powerful title, seems to be the most effective way to deal with romance. At once, O’Brien makes fun of the clichés while also embracing them–just like the rest of us. Overall, he says his work is about searching, whether or not an individual is in a relationship, there is an element of search, as well as hope.
I didn’t have to look very hard to find artist Cindy Loehr’s “Love Letter Collection.” The “Love Letter Collection” is a bi-annually produced website where people can submit their love letters and Loehr decides which ones to post. The site has received about 500,000 hits just last month. Loehr recently started a reading series, the Public Love Letter Readings. The first reading was held this past December at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. The next issue, which will be posted this Valentine’s Day, will be guest curated by Michelle Grabner, an artist who teaches in the Painting and Drawing Department at SAIC. Grabner will read through about 90 letters and pick 10-20 for the issue. Loehr relates the “Love Letter Collection” to the rest of her artwork, asking herself, “What happens when we realize our emotions are not unique to our separate selves and separate lives?”
In the end, when it comes to discussing love and heartbreak, we make things personal. When we read, “You broke my heart after telling me over and over how much you loved me” in a love letter on Loehr’s website, we consistently compare it to our own torturous love stories. When Robert Plant sings, “I can’t quit you baby, I think I’m gonna put you down for awhile,” we think of that person in our life to whom we were addicted. No matter what form it takes, any discussion of love allows us to think of ourselves. Whether blatantly exposed in contemporary art or just a hidden force behind the creations, one thing is true … love is in the air. Always.