I once wrote the following about a series of drawings by the artist Guy Kinnear, which were being exhibited at Steynberg Gallery:
“Two skeletons embrace in Just Dropping It, the ethereal suggestion of skin, muscle, and hair barely perceptible. Kinnear riffs off of this image in Who Woulda Thought and That Woulda Been a Different Story, in which he cloaks the lovers in skin, muscle, and clothing, revealing both of them to be men.”
The way I saw it, the work contained a message of gay equality. An art piece in which two men passionately embrace can have a polarizing effect. Strip the lovers to their bones, and the work seems to say, aren’t we all the same, really—deep down under our culture, clothing, skin, and flesh? And at the same time: don’t we all die at last?
But this wasn’t quite what artist Kinnear had in mind. For starters, one of the figures was actually meant to be a lady, albeit a very muscled lady.
“I have to admit, I was surprised by the final interpretation of ‘That Would Have Been a Different Story,’ Kinnear wrote in an e-mail. “But after taking a second look at the way I depicted the strength of the female, I learned something more about depictions of gender when viewed through multiple eyes. I am going to gnaw on that for future works.”
What does a journalist do when his or her reading of an artwork is miles away from what the artist intended? It wasn’t factually wrong: my job is to interpret what I see, and that was what I saw. It would have been ludicrous to correct it. (“Correction: Last week’s arts story mistook the symbolism of a graphite drawing ... ”) And yet I think about it.
Recently, following my coverage of the California Sculpture SLAM (on view at SLOMA through Sept. 19), it happened again. Jonna Ramey’s piece Crude is an encaustic mixed/media sculpture of a bird. The title references not only the work’s intentionally rudimentary qualities, as I noted in my article, but also…
“One clarification about ‘Crude,’” Ramey wrote in an e-mail. “The idea is that it is a broken sea bird covered in oil from a spill. Trapped, dying, and fiercely angry. Nature angry at stupid humans.”
Somehow, despite obvious, powerful cues, I had seen the oil merely as dripping paint—which, to be fair, it was.