Published in The Aspen Daily News on July 7, 2014

What makes for good art?

To be fair, that’s a loaded question, and one that artists and critics have debated for ages. In general, however, “good art” transcends cultures and ages, ringing true to a wide range of audiences.

The music of 25-year-old Jon Batiste — a singer, pianist and musical savant — did just that when he played a late-night, hour-long set at The Little Nell on Monday, June 30, as a part of the Aspen Ideas Fest.

That night, Batiste’s most moving pieces began in the classical realm — starting with the sort of songs you imagine classical pianists play to perfect their finger-placing technique and music-reading skills. As those songs progressed, Batiste began to improvise — throwing in ditties from classic song standards like “The Entertainer” and “Moon River.” At other moments, he would slow down the rhythm to create a blues jazz beat.

When Batiste finished his short set, the audience shouted for more. Batiste smiled and agreed to play one more song in honor of Aspen. It was an improvised classical piece weaving “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in and out of chaotic discord. The harsh juxtaposition was poetic and seemingly appropriate for an audience full of second homeowners visiting a resort town for a conference on “big ideas” related to the world’s problems.

Batiste blends musical genres, creating a complex pastiche, where music melodies from childhood songs swell up and disappear in the midst of a classical opus like fleeting memories. That’s why his music appealed to both the young and the old, the diners and the servers in the room. And that, I would argue, is good art.

Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on December 10, 2010

When Walter Benjamin wrote about an object existing beyond its material essence and taking on a new identity in the minds of its owner in his 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” sculpture had not yet evolved into an art form that could reflect Benjamin’s abstract theory. However, that idea is at the center of British sculptor Roger Hiorns’ show at the Aspen Art Museum, which opened Thursday, Dec. 9.

Hiorns displays six transparent alien-like shapes that hang on the wall of the upstairs exhibit. The pieces are made out of ballistics-grade plastic and have small chunks of brain matter from veal calves placed where the anus of the abstract beings would be.

Hiorns acquired the brain matter from a farm in central England where he visited the calves when they were still alive.

“All of the brain matter — the calves — viewed me when they were still conscious beings. I was keen to be present in the hypocampus of the calves,” says Hiorns.

By displaying brain matter in plastic, manufactured sculptures, Hiorns attempts to juxtapose the significance of an object that has had real-life experiences with its material existence.

“The world is small,” Hiorns adds. “And through that notion I became interested in the idea of fundamental materials — what the world is made up of, some biological and others manufactured by us.”

Hiorns has displayed his works at the Tate Modern art museum in London, and was shortlisted for the 2009 Turner prize. He is known in the art community for combining obscure industrial materials with more familiar objects to create conceptual juxtapositions that can at times be uncomfortable, as even Hiorns admits.

“The forms are drawn in a very specific way,” he says. “They are alienish and kind of awkward. I’m not trying to produce a product that has a home. Some are [intentionally] clumsy, and I don’t want to be completely polite about it.”

While Hiorns’ alien forms and morbid materials can be a challenge for some, Mamma Andersson, whose exhibition is showing concurrently with Hiorns in the downstairs exhibit space, displays familiar, dreamlike images. Andersson’s sense of scene is very particular, with fuzzy backgrounds but detailed objects.

As a former landscape artist, Andersson’s earlier pieces are vivid landscapes. As she developed as an artist and physically moved further away from nature, domestic scenes took over her work. Some of her most interesting pieces have nature encroaching into domestic scenes. One painting titled “Ebb and Flow” depicts a familar scene of a bed and desk on the right side of the painting while a large cliff and trees creep into the background of the painting’s left side.

People are never the focus of Andersson’s works, often they have their backs to the viewer, suggesting the scene is more interesting than the individuals themselves, and rarely are they as detailed as the objects that sit next to them.

“The people in the paintings are not communicating to the viewer and not talking with one another,” says Andersson. “And it can be about [the feeling of] isolation when you are with other people who you share a lot with.”

Andersson is a Swedish artist and this will be her first solo exhibition in the United States.

“This show is very special because it has a lot of different pieces from different shows and you can see a range of [ideas],” she says.

Both exhibitions will run until Feb. 6, 2011, and will be followed by Mark Manders’ exhibition that will run Feb. 18 to May 1, 2011.