“An artist is not merely the slavish announcer of a series of facts, which in this case the camera has had to accept and mechanically record.” Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are confronted with this work by John Badessari. Pulled from an art book, this quote discusses painting’s superiority over photography.
By violating traditional rules of photography and using a photographic process to develop this painting, Baldessari mocks and challenges this notion – and forces us to as well. In this way, he challenges conventional ideas of art.
This humorous critique of conventional understandings of art sets the stage for the rest of the exhibition. Light Years, curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, is a massive show (more than 140 works by 57 artists are included) that asks a lot of its viewers; but it is certainly worth your time. Conceptual art, while often amusing, is also dense, complicated, and can produce more questions than answers. Indeed, the show is not meant to be easily consumed. Light Years will not make every visitor happy—this is not a show filled with eye-pleasing watercolors, after all. But the exhibition respects its audiences – viewers are not overwhelmed with didactics explaining the works and theories behind; instead, we are allowed to interact with the works and participate in their meaning. While some of the works do require a more physical interaction, every work requires viewers to puzzle over their significance without receiving a wealth of didactic cues. Instead of being given tidy answers, viewers are asked to contemplate these works and their meaning(s).
The opening text for Light Years states that perhaps “the lasting legacy of Conceptual Art [is] the establishment of contemporary art as a field without a medium.” This field without a medium is well represented. Indeed, viewers are asked to reflect on their understandings of both photography and art and are, maybe, left asking themselves that age-old question: what is art?
The Art Institute of Chicago is located at 111 South Michigan Avenue. For more information, call 312.443.3600 or visit AIC.