The current exhibit of John Watson’s artwork at Webster University’s Cecille R Hunt Gallery is titled Materials. That title will be a trigger for interpreting the artwork for some. It is likely to mean nothing to others.
The intentions implied by Materials, reinforced by Watson’s artwork and then confirmed within his exhibit text are such prevalent characteristics of current art trends that this body of work will feel familiar to those who encounter contemporary art regularly.
And yet, the philosophical discourse Watson engages in with his work cannot be universally relatable because this frequently employed art language requires explanation to be understood under its own terms and to, then, be appreciated for the cerebral participation demanded of the viewer.
Watson’s sculptural installations are unrecognizable structures made from recognizable building supplies – reclaimed wood, chunks of plaster, metal scraps… Exhibit text describes Watson’s work as an exploration of the “materiality” of our “built environment.” Any art student will have encountered these terms and likely used them. The terms “materiality” and “built environment” are not, however, part of the language of most art enthusiasts, let alone most humans. Some of us feel queasy just seeing these words written due to their complex theoretical origins.
Art making that explores the “materiality” of an artwork falls within the tradition of Martin Heidegger’s concept of the “hermeneutic circle” or the process of understanding our everyday experiences by examining objects in our lives. Heidegger called for artists to provide an aesthetic experience by exploring the “thingly character” of those everyday objects.
This aspect of materiality in art practices can explore any aspects of the object’s physical existence, from its historical uses to its sensory aspects. An aesthetic experience of the object occurs first as the viewer notices these aspects of the object - the way it looks, feels, its bulk and presence. The artist then comments upon the typical uses of the object by making it useless.
The act of removing the common object from its common usage is referred to, in this specialized art language, as a “dematerializing strategy.” By placing an everyday object into a gallery space, cut off from its intended purpose, the artist transforms the object into a concept. The viewer then becomes intellectually engaged with the art object as a concept. In this way, the artwork is thought to become a bridge between the viewer’s everyday experience of everyday objects and a conceptual consideration of the fundamental physical attributes of our lives.
Watson’s use of materials from what artists call our “built environment” - the wood, metal and plaster remnants of demolished architecture – is a commonly understood central and elemental part of this conceptual enterprise to consider the invisible principles (“thingness”) of the things we make and live with.
It seems in keeping with Watson’s semiotic deconstruction of the built environment that I take this reflection away from the art and turn instead to the name of the artist for a brief indulgent moment: It just so happens that John Watson’s manifestation of the complex ideas of materiality in Webster Groves comes at the exact moment when Madeleine George’s play The (Curious Case Of The) Watson Intelligence (playing in New York) has begun receiving rave reviews for its jaunty use of A) the Watson who was sidekick to Sherlock Holmes, B) the Watson who was assistant to Alexander Graham Bell and C) the super-computer Watson that beat Jeopardy. Coincidence or kismet? Either way, D) John Watson’s Materials will give you fodder to ponder.
Where: Cecille R. Hunt Gallery, 8342 Big Bend Blvd, 63119
When: Closing Jan. 18, 2014
Gallery Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily