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Minimal State of Mind 

Different artists make art for different reasons. For the early minimalists and proto-conceptualists such as Sol Lewitt and Donald Judd, it was all about reducing art objects to their essence in what amounted to a philosophical questioning of what art -- and by extension, reality -- actually is. Inspired by the writings of the German philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, they set the stage for much of the minimalism and conceptual art of the late 20th century. But, for some other artists, the motivation to make art is more personal.

"The more hectic my life gets, the more minimal my photographs become," says Lisa Conrad of her increasingly spare imagery. A former model who became fascinated with photography while on the other end of the lens, Conrad now works in a pressurized position in the Saks Fifth Avenue hierarchy, a hectic lifestyle that she balances with her extensive travels, camera in hand. Prosaic as it sounds, her point may be well taken. It's worth noting that minimalism took off in New York City in the 1960s, as the complexity and pace of life was getting more and more hectic at an alarming rate. Conrad lives in New Orleans, but her job engenders a New York state of mind, so the evolution of her work from local color, N'Awlins style, to minimal, if elegant, imagery makes for a fairly plausible transition.

Even when people are present, they appear in minimal circumstances. Blue Lagoon is a view of some bathers in a steam-shrouded thermal oasis somewhere in Iceland. The human subjects show just enough of themselves -- mostly their heads -- to be identifiably human. The sun is nowhere in evidence, and the whole scene is reduced to an amorphous field of minimal gray mists punctuated by polka dot human visages. Miami is similarly stark, a slate-blue sky above a sandy shore where two striped beach tents appear, looking as solitary and mysterious as abandoned yurts on the Gobi desert.

Bouze, a place somewhere in France, is a field of yellow flowers on a gently rolling slope topped off with cottony cumulus clouds billowing up from the horizon, and it's starkly reminiscent of an abstract canvas. A diptych of two prints, Neverland I and Neverland II, is similarly minimal. In fact, they seem almost identical until you notice the clouds are slightly different, a near-conceptual twist that takes us back to those questions about the nature of art and reality. As for the rest, there are some loose ends, and some are better than others, but it's an unusual exercise in intuitive minimalism by an emerging artist whose work gets more polished with each new show.

Of late there seems to be a bit of a brushfire rebellion flaring up in the art world, directed mainly against postmodern conceptual art. Recent remarks by some of the so-called "lowbrow" artists, among others, appear to pit the streets against the postmodern conceptual elite, which is ironic because 20 years ago it was the postmodernists who were the rebels fighting the vaunted neo-expressionism of the 1980s. What happened?

The problem may not be so much with the genre as with the attitude of some of its practitioners, who at times seem to think that only they can claim to be "contemporary." In fact, postmodern conceptual art is historically identified with the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, so there is no one uniquely "contemporary" idiom today.

Consequently, what is now experienced as contemporary lies entirely with the art and not with the genre. Another factor may be conceptual art's emphasis on process, a valuable approach that can also end up serving as a smokescreen for mediocrities trying to pass off unresolved dreck. While advocates of conceptualism have not tried to define it as innately "contemporary" the way exponents of abstract expressionism once tried to define it as "modern," they often seem to insinuate as much. And the more mediocre they are, the more insinuating and smug they seem to be. But none of this should reflect on the value of the genre itself. Poseurs will always be with us, but the current lack of any genuinely new genre should make this a period of profound freedom in the art world -- and freedom is always grand!

click to enlarge The steam-shrouded Icelandic bathers in Lisa Conrad's - Blue Lagoon  help create a scene reduced to an - amorphous field of minimal gray mists punctuated by - polka dot human visages.
  • The steam-shrouded Icelandic bathers in Lisa Conrad's Blue Lagoon help create a scene reduced to an amorphous field of minimal gray mists punctuated by polka dot human visages.
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