The first time I encountered the phrase was when I saw a bumper sticker in the late '70s that read: "If you like conceptual art, think about honking."
And there began a lifetime infatuation with a controversial genre that continues to confound or compel the viewing public, depending on the viewer and what's viewed.
The term "concept art" was coined by Henry Flynt in a 1961 Fluxus publication and was further expanded by England's Art and Language Group, which challenged the art world to consider the psychological, philosophical and sociological role of the artist.
Though art world rock stars like Sol LeWitt believe, in the rarefied domain of conceptual art, the idea is king and "execution is a perfunctory affair," I have always begged to differ.
Starting when I was with San Francisco's top conceptual art gallery in the early '90s, I learned that those limited parameters are regularly challenged by artists who create objects and environments that are profoundly riveting in both concept and craftsmanship.
For just a couple of weeks, through March 4, some of the most meticulously designed, expertly constructed conceptual work I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing is at the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center, in the form of two exquisite shows that tackle conceptual art from opposing but equally effective angles.
"Corporeal Relics," a breathtakingly antiseptic series of discomfiting yet beguilingly pious odes to medical intervention, transforms a small gallery into a veritable chapel of poignant powerlessness. Every pristine piece by New Hampshire sculptor Sasanqua Link extracts her subject matter from the raw canvas of disquieting psychological associations, articulating difficult, emotional responses through inventive, albeit disturbing clinical iconography.
While the exhibit is anchored by tall, white-tiled, shower-stallish altars adorned by unidentifiable but altogether alarming assemblages with slabs of realistic-looking flesh splayed out by metal rods, skewers and brackets, it is a series of small, unassuming oval and arched portholes that portend the most daunting implications.
"Relic Objects," set into the wall at eye level, and "Relic Containers," displayed on white shelves, house sushi-size portions of body parts â a navel, a knuckle, a palm or a throat â evoking the same morbid curiosity those jars of formaldehyded organs did in seventh-grade biology. Portals into our own humanness, they impel us to lean in and, through wincing eyes, look closely, if not breaching the confounding "Do Not Touch" signs nearby.
With a striking command of her medium, Link's expertise as a professional jeweler resoundingly refutes LeWitt's dismissive comment about execution. Her remarkable skills are stunningly manifest in every piece, with perfectly fabricated, glossy nickel mounts and clamps that present intricately carved, pink beeswax skin, joints and curvature for our inexorable examination.
Unlike its usually innocent, pleasant connotations, here the color pink injects a decidedly sinister element into the equation. These fragments of sterile faux flesh are not sallow, autopsied specimens â they have the hue of a hale and most definitely alive Caucasian, eliciting a perception that physical agony silently saturates the room.
Case cruelly in point, "Spinal Stele" â a platter-like section of spine restrained by metal clips and looking like an oversized dental retainer â suggests an almost institutionally approved form of scientific experimentation on living, breathing subjects.
"Entries on a Vulnerable Body" invokes even more unsettling notions, with a stainless steel doctor's table featuring a block of belly (replete with button) molded into the form of an open book, ready to be poked and prodded by a few invasive instruments and tubing. Below all these accoutrements of torture, however, is a padded kneeler, transforming this medical station into a perverse, positively chilling pew.
Whether it's because I haven't encountered this caliber of conceptual art in a long while or that the work has an academic connection with ancient reliquarien sculpture I've always found fascinating or the fact that I recently lost a dear relative who bravely chose to forego medical intervention, Link's work got me in places I hadn't expected.
"Corporeal Relics" is an overwhelmingly potent, cogent example of what strong, successful conceptual art is all about and, though it confronts tough issues, there is a beauty in the courage and painstaking attention to detail that translates to a decidedly expansive estimation of what truly defines us as human beings.
Just as rigorous and soulful in both hand-hewn form and aesthetic function are John Hughes' marvelously lyrical feats of refined engineering, sculptures that inhabit their own medieval modernism and that straddle several creative disciplines at once.
Part of BMAC's "Rhythms of the Earth" exhibit, these hefty industriorganic structures â fashioned with steel, copper, leather, wax, mulberry paper and various local woods â are clearly infused with Hughes' multifaceted, consummate expertise as a blacksmith, carpenter, illustrator, musician and dancer.
Like a handsome antique device whose use we can only speculate upon, some ancient implement of dastardly destruction or a rare, musical instrument of yore, each of these masterfully crafted objects is enigmatic and fanciful, defying definition and imploring us to figure out how one would use or wield or play them.
An untitled centerpiece to the show is a mechanically poetic, pod-like cocoon, made of mulberry paper formed over an ovoid steel armature and suspended at human torso level like a 3-D-paisley chrysalis metamorphosing into a corpulent clef-note. Like much of Hughes' work, it's a mesmerizing amalgam of man, music and nature.
Another untitled piece rests heavily on the floor, a massive Bauhausian scepter formed by black bands of steel, commanding attention with a simple, metallurgical majesty.
Hughes' musical background comes through most volubly with two huge untitled works made of patiently shaped warm woods and curvaceous steel, each having been devised with such dexterity and deliberate references to instruments we all know, such as mandolins and djembes, it seems impossible that they don't emit some sound.
The tension of that audible void, as in Link's work, is a captivating, astute device that serves to render our other senses more acute and satiated.
Just as a delectable, hypnotic song seeps through your pores and resonates in your solar plexus, well-conceived, expertly crafted conceptual art permeates your core and changes how you feel as well.
While Link's subject matter seems to originate with a cognizance of human frailty, reaching fruition through her consummate skills as an artisan, Hughes' launching pad is his palpable mastery and celebration of his media, from which he makes the journey to meaning.
Regardless of approach, these remarkably eloquent artists both reach their intended conclusions, creating experiences that move and challenge us.
Having recently spent some time in NYC, during which my friend and I wandered through numerous unconventional galleries as well as the cavernous new MOMA, I can attest that nothing being shown there these days is any more inventive, invigorating or provocative than the work regularly offered at BMAC, and the shows up right now are brilliant proof thereof.
With all due respect to Freud and LeWitt, it's work like this that keeps the "id" in the idea of conceptual art.
Contact Anne Lawrence Guyon at firstname.lastname@example.org.