By Kristine Meek, assistant director of the Harmon Meek Gallery and juror of the Naples Art Association exhibition, Words, Signs and Symbols.
Art at its very basic, unifying foundation is a visual conveyance of a story or message. Words, signs and symbols are the tools mankind has used to visually tell our story for millennia. But the meaning of words, signs, and symbols is determined by the viewer and as the viewer changes over time and varies over cultures, the meaning can change.
This Naples Art Association member exhibition contains a fine collection of works in a variety of media, all containing some combination of words, symbols and signs. I love how under a single theme there can be so much variety and so many stories told visually through the talents of the Naples Art Association members. I look forward to touring the exhibition with others to observe how other people interpret the story or message of each work. Everyone who looks at these works on the walls and in the corridors and lobby will view and interpret the piece based on what the signs, words and symbols mean to each person.
From cave drawings to Jim Dine – yes, I’m comparing the pop artist to Neanderthals – whether it’s a big red heart or a big hairy bison, symbols are used in art to convey a message to the viewer. Symbols help to visually tell a story. The work I selected for Best in Show (which I have to laugh at myself for picking a work that contained a dog to win such a title), “Roadkill” is an example of symbols conveying a story. To me, the dog was a symbol of loyalty; the piece of black tire, a symbol of death; and the green grass, a symbol of healing.
When thinking of symbols in art, religious art comes to mind. I think of the medieval cathedrals’ stained glass windows that could tell Bible stories to illiterate congregations. Many of the works in this exhibition contain religious symbols. The work, “Eat, Pray, Love” that received one of the juror’s awards was a photograph depiction of a cross found in a kitchen in a small restaurant in Mexico. The cross is a long standing religious symbol revered by over half the world’s population. In this crucifix common kitchen utensils have been nailed to the cross – the rust is a symbol of blood; the forks are symbols of hunger. The photograph received the award, not just for the subject of the cross but also for the interesting composition – slightly off center and cropped to include a bit of the kitchen’s cliché wallpaper, with two of the edges extending beyond the composition.
Portraits from earlier eras in this country and in Europe used symbols to tell the viewer about the sitter – a book symbolizing that the subject was educated; objects in the background, foreground and on the figure were hints to the sitter’s occupation, temperament, and achievements. While not a portrait, but to me reminiscent of one, “Bad Advice” made me stop and smile as I walked the room selecting works for this show. Even from across the room, “Bad Advice” made me chuckle. Thinking about the elements of the work: the purple knit beanie, the glazed eyes, the marijuana cigarette, the sign and ironic poultry; I image this man’s story.
When I think of words in art I think of Dada artists like Hannah Hoch and of Robert Indiana’s “Love.” Words and letters can be manipulated graphically to show an old message in a new way. The work “Hortus Meus” that I gave one of the juror’s awards to was, to me, an interesting manipulation of an old idea. In these two paintings of orchid species the artist has included the Latin name for the plant, just like in an illustration by J.J. Audubon or an 18th century print, but this work is done with contemporary sensibilities and a contemporary font for the Latin text.
The final part of the trifecta that is the theme of this exhibition is Signs. Signs in art are often subject matter in Pop Art, Neo-dadaism, and contemporary art made of found materials. “Chicken Feed” done in pastel has a more traditional, realism perspective and I appreciated that the theme of signs in art was represented not as Pop or modernism, but in pastel with a traditional sense of perspective and realist quality.
I wavered on including the purely abstract works but then thought about color as a symbol, so included those works in the exhibition. The works I excluded were ones I personally found less stimulating – their meaning and story were too obvious to me and they didn’t get me to want to explore more. I did include all the 3-dimensional works because I found them to be interesting for their variety of media and I enjoyed the clever use of materials some artists used for executing their concept.
This group exhibition contains everything from digital photography to pottery, from collage to colored pencil, from encaustic to natural materials, and oil, watercolor, acrylic, pastel, and pen. Styles of work vary from realism to abstract, conceptual to concrete, and from humorous to mournful. The messages and stories told through these works include encouragement, irony, religious beliefs, ancestral and cultural heritage, new experiences, new points of view, happiness in unlikely places, discord, and commentary on society, just to name a few. The works that resonated and had meaning to me, may not to you, or may not in the same way, and that’s what makes this show so challenging and so wonderful.
The Naples Art Association exhibition, “Words, Signs and Symbols” is on view through June 1, 2013 at The von Liebig Art Center in Naples.
Admission is free, but donations are accepted to support the nonprofit services and programming of the Naples Art Association.