This evening, the Talbot Rice Gallery hosted a public discussion on the artist Bruce Naumen, as part of the Artist Rooms Cafe des Artistes. Ruth Burgon gave an initial summary of Naumen’s work, in particular his affinity for breaking the rules and challenging the institution. This was followed by an interpretation of his performative work and within this his need for control, by Dr. Catherine Spencer.
This image was put on screen and we were asked to talk amongst ourselves addressing questions such as;
Is Naumen being sincere/should we take this seriously?
and What is an artists duty?
I was very uncomfortable.
With Naumen, I feel his art does what it does. It’s literal. You look at it, you know it and you talk about it with a wry smile. I am uncomfortable analysing Bruce Naumen to the extent that the discussion indicated. Because I feel like I’m falling into his trap. He has orchestrated this, like one of his corridors where he contains the viewer and monitors their behaviour. His affinity for control of his audience is present in his object based work as much as his interventional structures.
Naumen makes literal art, often tongue-in-cheek and with a self-aware pointlessness. And watches as we find meaning and tear it apart for our own appetites.
There is meaning, yes. An artist Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square of course has connotations of the ivory studio, of artist labour and of seemingly pointless activity too. But there’s something about completely picking apart Naumen’s work, that totally undermines the forms themselves and overmines his intention.
Naumen’s 1967 work The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths (shown above) was shown particular interpretation. Burgon continually paraphrased as ‘the artist revealing mystic truths’ which completely neglects the essence of the work, in my opinion. By missing out the word ‘true’ at the start of the sentence and its relation to ‘revealing mystic truths’ at the end, Naumen’s whole concept is lost. And here I am wading into analysis when I explicitly didn’t want to. But I also feel I need to salvage the beauty of the riddle in this particular work.
Emphasised by the swirl of neon, the sentence is cyclic. It claims the artist is in the business of revealing ‘mystic truths’. By placing the word ‘true’ at the beginning of the sentence, he indicates that this statement itself is one of those truths. And so it is a sentence saying something about saying something. An artist releases self serving statements about what he himself does, which is release self-serving statements. By revealing a pointless ‘truth’ about revealing ‘truth’ Naumen again cracks his joke.
In the same way ‘this sentence is not true’, the sentiment is a circle. It will continually come back on itself but never branch out to mean something more. Unless we give it more, with our appetite for analysis. Which I think, is his trap. And so maybe we are fulfilling his intention after all.
I like Bruce Naumen. I think this goes without saying, much like a lot of the elements of his work.