Dorothy Cross’s recent show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art contained no work by the artist, no wall texts and no labels. It was refreshingly free of the wordy paraphernalia galleries now deem necessary for showing art. Cross was its curator and her curator’s statement was a single sentence. A small pamphlet offered details and dates, but the aim was to let visitors look without guidelines. Cross didn’t want to tell anyone what to think.
She placed artworks of various eras alongside archaeological finds and historical objects and asked viewers to encounter them head on without searching, eyes sideways, for instructions on how best to do it. The approach worked not least because viewers understood they couldn’t be wrong in their reaction if no particular reaction was prescribed by curator or institution. For some, it was a revelation.
Some viewers ignore or dislike wall texts, others believe they wouldn’t know where to start without them. The Interpretation Matters Handbook, due out in the UK this month, focuses on gallery use of ‘artspeak’. Author Dany Louise began it as an online project in 2013, with the initial aim of gathering good and bad examples. In Ireland, national institutions like IMMA, the National Gallery and the Crawford Gallery in Cork do a generally good job of producing clear, understandable wall texts. But there are enough occasional offenders to make an Irish version of the Interpretation Matters project viable.
The Douglas Hyde Gallery’s current wall text on British artist Rose Wylie’s paintings describes her work as “spontaneous but carefully considered”, contemporary and traditional. It ends with what could surely have been a better sentence: “She is a special artist.” What does this really tell us about the 80 year old’s deliberately messy, frequently ugly, curiously unsatisfyingly confrontational compositions?
Juxtaposition of two opposing terms is endemic in bad gallery texts. The curator’s text for Irish artist Garrett Phelan’s Project Arts Centre show, which ended last week used this trick too: “hand drawn and computer animated”, “real and imagined”. These are valid elements of his work, but it’s easy to poke fun at phraseology like “as serious as it is wry”. Which is it? Art can be both, but too often language intended to clarify art ends up further mystifying it.
Hyperbole is problem. The Project text describes Phelan’s work as “a naked conflation of the enormity of the unknown and the proximity of the innately known.” Phelan was inspired by ancient monuments. The curator writes how he “tunes us in to their frequency, contradicting the aura of their ancientness”. It’s a bit too much. More importantly, it’s unlikely to make you want to see the show. Once there, it may also leave you baffled. Who is this text for?
The Interpretation Matters website initially promised a ‘Tortured Language Alert!’ section, but stated “the aim is not to ‘name and shame’ any institutions”. Submissions were edited so as not to identify offenders. I think this was a mistake. Naming and shaming might offer a much faster fix.
A version of this column was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 12 April 2015.