“The art essay is at once not about the art and all about the art – the glance at the piece of art evolves into a meditation on something else entirely” writes editor Alexandra Kingston-Reese in her introduction to the collection Art Essays. This makes this volume a collection of essays very loosely themed around art. The essay may be written because of a specific piece, but the author’s meditation may then have absolutely nothing to do with art.
Zadie Smith’s essay, “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Imaginary Portraits,” is mostly what I was expecting to find in these essays when I opened the book. Smith explores Yiadom-Boakye’s art – the essay is specific to the artist and some of the art. Smith writes:
“Under-Song For a Cipher” is substantial. There is an owl-like virtuosity to it, silent, unassuming – but deadly. Not yet forty, Yiadom-Boakye is a long way down the path to “mastry,” and you do not doubt she will reach her destination.
This essay makes me want to explore the artist’s work.
And this thought may be my biggest disconnect with the book (which, over-all, I enjoyed once I accepted the basic premise that we might not be really reading essays about art) — I was hoping to find essays which would lead me to discover new art or artists, but in general, none of these essays (with the exception of the above mentioned piece), despite being written well, had me itching to look up the artists or art works because of the writings.
The essay that struck me the most, likely because I saw so much of myself in it, was “Should Artists Shop or Stop Shopping?” by Sheila Heti. “When I am writing well,” Heti writes, “I feel no need for shopping. The times in my life I have shopped a lot, it is because I have not been writing.” I know many writers (and artists of all sorts) who face these thoughts.
Shopping sucks the creative energy out of my body-energy which could be put into writing-which I have instead put into shopping. Shopping makes me lose money. Writing earns me money. Writing gives me a feeling of satisfaction after having done it. Shopping gives me a feeling of nervous tension, anxiety, excitement and dread. When I have written on my computer, I have my riches there in front of me. When I have shopped online, the riches take days of weeks to come, and when they arrive they no longer feel like riches. They are never all I hoped they would be. They are objects. They are not hopes. They are not wishes. They are not dreams. Writing-have been written- remains a hope, a dream, a wish. Why don’t I write when I feel like shopping?
Does compulsive behavior, such as shopping, often go hand-in-hand with an artist temperament?
I don’t read essays often, and generally I’ve mostly read essays in the nature and science fields despite having an art background, so I was quite keen to explore this book. I didn’t dislike anything, but very few of the pieces really appealed to me. Is this because of my expectations, or because of the essays themselves? That’s a difficult call to make. A bit of both, I suspect.
This book contains the following:
Introduction: The Art Essay – Alexandra Kingston-Reese
Thematic Guide to Approaching the Essays
“A Leonora Carrington A to Z” – Chloe Aridjis
“You Need to Look Away: Visions of Contemporary Malaysia” – Tash Ah
“How Paint and Perception Collide in the Work of Late Surrealist Dorothea Tanning” – Claire Louise Bennett
“There’s Less to Portraits Than Meets the Eye, and More” – Teju Cole
“Now We Can See” – Geoff Dyer
“Should Artists Shop or Stop Shopping?” – Sheila Heti
“The Hunger” – Katie Kitamura
“A Walk Around the Neighborhood” – Chris Kraus
“The Space Between the Pictures” – Jhumpa Lahiri
“Damage Control” – Ben Lerner
“When Orhan Pamuk Met Aselm Kiefer” – Orhan Pamuk
“We Must Not Be Isolated” – Ali Smith
“Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Imaginary Portraits” – Zadie Smith
“Hey, Necromancer!” – Heidi Sopinka
“The Burning House” – Hanya Yanagihara
Looking for a good book? Art Essays, edited by Alexandra Kingston-Reese, contains a wide variety of essays loosely themed around art, often art-inspired. Fans of the essay form, looking for new themes to read, should definitely check this out. Those looking for essays about art, might be disappointed.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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editor: Alexandra Kingston-Reese
publisher: University of Iowa Press
paperback, 198 pages