You may have heard the story of Bob Boyer's invention of the blanket painting. I heard him tell it in a radio interview long ago, so there is no guarantee that I will relate it with perfect accuracy. One day he was feeling a kind of disgust with the whole art world, and possibly with his own work at the time. In any case, in a sudden moment of radical action, he decided to make the worst painting possible. He nailed an old blanket to the wall of his studio and started brushing on old house paint. The result was the discovery of a crazy new way of working that continued for much of his very productive career.
I was so pleased to see one of my favourite blanket paintings prominently displayed on the main floor of the new Remai Modern, a large bright mandala that seems to echo across all traditions and cultures. The success of these paintings reminds us of the value of the surprise–the surprise to the artist as well as to the viewer. The only way an artist can make discoveries is by exploring unknown territory, by doing the unexpected, acting outside of habitual norms, even outside areas of expertise. And the only way an art audience can make new discoveries is to be exposed to work that they would not ordinarily seek out, or even accept.
Many of the works currently on exhibit at the new gallery I find thoroughly disagreeable or even worse. But that is precisely what a public gallery ought to deliver - a range of work that crosses many boundaries and forces us to consider the unfamiliar, alongside the old favourites. Surely that is the purpose of art, for both artist and viewer - to make the heroic journey into the underworld, encounter great obstacles, find guidance, and ultimately return to the mundane world with something hitherto unknown, perhaps valuable.