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Gesture as a Human Indicator

"Donc je suis" (Acrylic on Canvas) by Jean Miote

December, 2002

When the announcement came for "The Gesture. Movement in Painting and Sculpture" I knew I had to see the exhibit at the Neuhoff Gallery and that I would be looking for the movement rather than the technique. This provocative and creative undertaking was curated by Robert C. Morgan, who also wrote the essay in the catalogue. There were works by well-known artists such as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell and Cy Twombley, plus many by other less familiar figures.But they all brought out the feeling of an ongoing pull that identified the process of living, as defined by moving.

The dictionary identifies gesture as the movement of face, body or limbs to express ideas and emotions, or anything done to communicate a purpose or feeling. In terms of Labanotation (a means of writing dance and movement) a gesture is the movement of any part of the body that is not weight bearing. In actuality a dancer can and does gesture with any part of the body, weight bearing or not. In art, Morgan sees it as a celebration of the inner self.

Morgan says that the action painting of the late 40’s and 50’s led to gesture, which never again regained the prominence of the early period. His purpose in curating the exhibit was "to explore the role of gesture in today’s radically transformed cultural environment." He quotes the 1952 essay of art critic Harold Rosenberg on "The American Action Painters." Rosenberg observed that at a certain moment a canvas began to appear to painters as an arena in which to act, rather than as a space in which to reproduce or redesign an object. It was not a picture but an event that went on the canvas. To him, the then new painting had broken down every distinction between life and art, an idea the dancers of the 60’s agreed with. They were anti-illusion, anti-technique and believed in time as witnessed in real life.

After World War II came the Korean War, Vietnam, astronauts, flower children, beatniks, marches and massacres. In general the artists and the dancers rejected many of the values of the moderns who preceded them. In dance the emphasis was on movement, not personality. The idea was not to express anything but to elevate movement qualities to the role of primary experience. In painting the emphasis was on spontaneous and informal gestures. Often artists and dancers created works together, as in many of the "happenings."

"Indeterminate Line" (rolled Steel) by Bernar Venet

In the 50’s Merce Cunningham was affected by the composer John Cage, aseminal influence on all creative artists of the time. He said that in music one must pay attention to how the sound is produced as well as the sound itself. Cunningham was interested in the human body moving through time and space. Using chance methods, he wished to explore the relationship between the two and to eliminate the obvious role of the creator as intermediary. It is interesting to note that Robert Rauschenberg was the stage manager and lighting director for the Cunningham company. When they were on their European tour in 1964 his painting won the Venice Biennial.

The image I carried into the exhibit was of a Giacometti statue leading the viewer into boundless space. None of the sixteen artists represented copied him and every work deserved to be included. There are a few that had a special role in making me want to dance.The Frenchman Jean Miotte’s black and red acrylic on canvas, "Donc je suis," is simple and vibrant. He is masterful in using the white space and slightly different textures to create a flowing movement. Gabriela Machado, from Brazil, in "Untitled III," a large oil on paper, evolves her broad red gestures in such a way that they go from the bottom to the top and then make one go down again. Frank Stella’s sculpture "The Gilder (Scrap #8, 2X)" is a three dimensional piece of mixed media on aluminum that uses stripes, swirls, solid colors and curved and linear shapes that tease and make one go around and back to the starting point several times over. Another sculpture, "Indeterminate Line," by Bernar Venet, also from France, is constructed of rolled steel. With its vertical circles, it would be the perfect starting point or set for a dance. The Englishman James Nares call his large, royal blue oil on canvas "Tighten Up," implying perhaps that it shows too much disparate movement. It evoked a group of hip hop dancers and I was delighted to share the multi focused gestures.

For the young Chinese artists in the exhibit, Wenda Gu and Fung Ming-Chip, the gesture is a means of extending calligraphy and allowing the brush to take them to another realm of pure exploration. In "The Mythos of Lost Dynasties #G8" the former, using ink on paper, seems to take us on a moving cloud.

Morgan sees the gesture as a liberating force with a capacity to surprise — the artist going beyond certain limits. He could be talking about dance and the idea of leading the eye to an expanding concept of time, space and the inevitable intermingling of the two. This is what all dance and art is ultimately about. He feels that the gesture in art is important today because it represents a plurality and is about the present. Choreographers are attempting to explore new body gestures to direct the eye and artists are doing the same. They all have to move on to a new mind/body experience that can express this new century and still allow art to change and alter consciousness. I thank Mr. Morgan for his efforts

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