An Art Historian’s response to “Tiller”

13 09 2011

We’ve posted photos, updates and some general info about the new addition to campus, Tiller, but we see a lot of confused faces, hear a lot of “what is it?” or “why is it here?” what’s all the color for?” and so forth and so on. First and foremost, these are all perfectly valid and legitimate questions that provide a great starting point for interacting with the piece, exploring it and understanding it. There are many more qualified than myself here in our department to act as docents if you will on this and I hope to bring you more that might help guide the inquiries. For starters though, we begin with a statement from our own, Dr. John Walford (his photos of the piece are also available for viewing in the previous post). Having viewed Dr. Walford’s post of wonderful flickr photos and having sat in many a class myself as a former student of his, I wondered, what would Dr. Walford say about this piece to accompany the images? The following is his response which he has allowed us to share with you.

You ask for words to accompany my photographs of Roger Feldman’s Installation piece, Tiller, on Wheaton’s campus? I am tempted to do a Dave Wittig, and say that the images speak for themselves!!!! Then I am tempted to say that while the art historian in me has retired, the photographer has not. Then I will assert that I can best articulate that in a two-way conversation!

However, if I am to get beyond all those avoidance strategies, my response might go something like this:

Firstly, the angular, planar, and spatial dynamics, and the contrasting materials of wood and sail-cloth, engage, and excite my eye, from many points of view, especially from those seen in the photographs. They recall for me Mondrianesque-Bauhaus aesthetics, but with a significant twist, in that all the lines and planes are dynamic, not static, and not at rest, as so often in Bauhaus designs. I find the leaning, diagonal intersection of forms have a dynamic energy, as well as cohesiveness; the forces converge and rise slightly up towards the sky, while the “tiller” makes for a strong, dynamic axis around which all other elements turn. The combination of tiller, sail, and precarious house/hut-like structure evoke for me, in the context of their original conception, and what I know of the artist’s context, notions of precarious existence, (the Indonesians) dependence on the sea, ideally guided by a strong, provident hand at the tiller, perhaps “His” hand – the hand of our Creator and Sustainer.

Now, I have passed over the element of color, and surface pattern/texture in the above comments, and the relationship of the piece to its setting. In context of our rather conservative, staid campus, and banal set of buildings thereon, I find this piece injects some force and energy, somewhat as Chris Low’s piece, ViViD, in the cafe sitting area does in the lower Beamer Center. But whereas Chris Low’s piece offers a remix of the staid decoration of the Beamer center, and jazzes it up, in taking its cue from break dancing, and hot, Pop colors, Roger Feldman’s Tiller does not seek to relate to other elements in its environment, but rather stands as a lively beacon to suggest other, alternate possibilities. Indeed, I have in the past imaged an art department and gallery, on that site, or in place of the razed Adams Hall, designed in a contemporary idiom, serving as just such a beacon as, to my mind, Feldman’s piece now serves.

Feldman told us that in the past his Installation pieces were uncolored, using but the raw color of the materials used, but that this piece, made in the context of the group of artists visiting Indonesia, and interacting with the local culture, prompted him to introduce color to this series of maquettes, from which this piece was derived. However, I suspect the chosen color has more to do with what one might call a vibrant, under-the-hot-sun, Californian aesthetic, high in energy, perhaps more than anything found in either Indonesia, or, for that matter, the campus of Wheaton – though no one can miss that his piece includes Wheaton’s signature colors, the orange and the blue!




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