The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Being Ready to Show

HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!! I hope that 2010 brings you joy, peace, prosperity, and boundless creative expression!

In his book, Creative Authenticity, Roberts touches upon a topic that's the source of confusion and intimidation for many artists: Principle 13 Being Ready to Show. I was only 18 years old when I first exhibited my work in a regional juried competition, and was too naive to feel the intimidation of being exhibited and judged alongside veteran artists. When I took first prize in my division, I didn't realize just how lucky I was. Fortunately, this experience was followed by a series of failures that taught me a great deal about what it means to be "ready to show."

So, what does Roberts say about this? A mature sense of critical judgment of our own work is vitally important in developing work for galleries. The author emphasizes the importance of diligently working in our studios to create art rather than spending those precious hours trying to market our work to galleries, internet sites, etc. He writes: The outlet will come when the work is ready. Trust it. Personally, I haven't found this to be true. Over the decades of sellinig paintings, I can think of only a couple that I sold outside of my direct marketing efforts. Maybe you've had a different experience ??

Moving on ... Roberts asks When is it [our art] ready? Good question. Recently, I read someone's comment on a blog asking "How do you know when your painting is finished?" My answer has always been that you know it's finished when additions begin to detract from the intended effect and when the work itself satisfies all the principle elements of painting.

But, we aren't always our own best judge and Roberts suggests that we should seek qualified artists to critique our work, even if we have to pay them to do so. I regularly do this, although I seldom pay for the critique, and it's a good idea. However, you'll need to scrutinize the advice you're given.

Last June, I posted some comments about how I handle advice and criticism while trying to stay true to my own vision for my work. The key is to FILTER! I use three filters. The first filter allows comments given by those with expert knowledge who are motivated to help me grow as an artist to pass through and removes those with lesser motivations. The second filter removes comments by others that reflect personal preference rather than objectivity. The third filter is then applied to remove inhibitions from my own thinking. What's left after filtering may be used in conjunction with the fundamental principles of painting to evaluate my work. What's the flaw in this filtering process? I have holes in the mesh that sometimes allow things to get through that shouldn't. So, as I paint I try to recognize that and selectively eliminate those thoughts.

Roberts concludes that we artists need to become effective evaluators of our own work. We learn this through experience and exposure to other works of art and, I'll add, through studying with accomplished artists. He feels that we may turn to those same artists to learn if our paintings are ready to show. Additionally, viewing our work in a public setting alongside the works of others provides us with the opportunity for comparison, which assists us in evaluating "readiness." I advocate for entering juried exhibitions. If your work is good enough to be juried in, that's an indication that your work is "ready" to be shown. If it wins an award, that's a stronger indication. While it's true that subjectivity exists in the judging process, repeated acceptance of your work into regional, national, and international exhibitions indicates that you're "ready." This approach also builds your resume', gives you and your work greater exposure, and allows you to legitimately set higher prices for your paintings.

Finally, I'll add that it's important to believe in yourself. You WILL meet with rejection now and then, and maybe even a lot. Don't let it stop you. Either your work isn't ready or you haven't found the right venue for it. Either case may be changed by your efforts, and your efforts rely upon your attitude and creative solutions. But, you're not in this alone ... there are many artists who generously provide good advice, encouragement, and support. Turn to them.

Your thoughts??

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Limits Yield Intensity

Limits Yield Intensity is the title of the twelfth principle in Roberts' book Creative Authenticity. The central thesis statement for this principle is: History has shown that art can give expression to soaring heights of feeling. But those works of art are carefully crafted on a foundation of simplification, form and limitation. The limits yield the intensity.

I'd like to elaborate on that idea by relating to you three experiences that led to my development as an artist:

Before I entered kindergarten, my mother encouraged me to draw and learn color theory through what many would consider to be limiting conditions. She wouldn't allow me to use a published coloring book in which you crayon between the lines. Rather, she handed me blank pieces of paper with a set of crayons and encouraged me to create my own designs. Additionally, she placed clear bottles of colored water on the windowsill so that I could layer them to create secondary and tertiary colors. Furthermore, both my father and mother admired my work and instilled in me the self-identity of "artist." So, with limited tangible materials I was able to advance in art beyond most other children my age. I'm not implying that I was the best artist in the neighborhood, but rather that I had a more intense experience with art at that age.

We weren't wealthy, so by the time I entered college as an fine arts major, I had to conserve cash in order to purchase the required materials for classes. I didn't have enough money to buy much, so I made do with what I had. To this day, I believe that this was a great benefit to me. Arriving at creative solutions with so little intensified my ability to find new creative solutions.

As an adult with greater resources, I've learned that purchasing the "latest" art materials and gadgets can lead to confusion. And, that expressing a myriad of ideas in a single painting is also confusing and ridiculously ineffective. So, I've had to impose limits: stick to one concept per painting, reduce the number of hues to help unify the work, question every element in my painting to see if it's even necessary, and so on. The point is to avoid confusion and ineffective painting by setting limits that intensify the quality of my work. Less is more can be a very useful adage!

Your thoughts??

Working Method

Principle 11 of Ian Roberts' book Creative Authenticity is entitled "Working Method." Roberts rambles a bit in this chapter, but eventually arrives at a few useful pieces of advice that I'll simplify:

  • Impose a foundation for your work before you begin painting.

  • Put meaning into your work.

  • Give your work your full attention.

  • Don't be sloppy, lazy, or hurried - it will all show.

  • Love your process - that will show, too.

  • Evaluate your work as objectively as possible.

  • Practice, practice, practice.
The author concludes by writing: when we engage attentively and honestly, pay attention to the insights that come to us, see our denial and faulty thinking and engage in uncovering the obstacles and blocks to our expression, we understand that art is a wonderful medium for personal growth.

I guess what Roberts is telling us is that WHAT we do is important, but HOW we do it is equally important. Perhaps, as we set goals for 2010 it might be good to add to our lists not only WHAT we want to accomplish (the goals) but HOW we want to accomplish.

Your thoughts?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Pondering a resolution ...

A moment ago, while reading Carolyn Abram's inspiring post , I began to ponder about her New Year's resolution for her art, and realized that I haven't yet made one. So, I'll take this opportunity to work on it and return to Roberts' book tomorrow. Like Carolyn, I want to advance my work. But, which doorway should I enter? Which stairway should I climb? Which corridor will lead me to my goal? Typically, my approach is through experimentation, practice, and scholarship.

Perhaps I should tap into my inner-child like Hallie , and utilize my intuition more, like Margaret

I could experiment with texture like Don and sketch more frequently like Peggy, Pam and Dan

It would be interesting to try my hand at landscape painting once again like Celeste , or glean more from the genius of daVinci and Van Gogh like Casey

More experimentation with materials and techniques, like Myrna and Mike would be interesting, and so would be tackling enormous projects like Ken

I could spend more time appreciating the beauty of life and friendships while producing meaningful and personal art, like Egmont

And, there are so many more of you that I could emulate that the number of choices seem unlimited. Perhaps my resolution should be to enter every doorway, climb every set of stairs, and walk every corridor that time will allow in 2010 and see what happens. Maybe I shouldn't be specific at all, and maybe I should also concentrate on discovering the answers to Ben Shahn's questions: "What kind of person am I?" and "What kind of art coincides with who I am?"

Would you like to share your New Year's resolutions in art?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wagon Train and Scout

Exhausted by the holidays and also relieved to be back in the studio, it's time to return to Ian Roberts' book Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision. Principle 10, Wagon Train and Scout, is an interesting discussion about how to move forward toward more innovative solutions for our art. Historically, cumbersome wagon trains traveled westward over difficult terrain in America by working in tandom with swiftly moving scouts on horseback who would locate the best travel route. Roberts employs this example as a metaphor for how we artists incrementally transform our work as we seek new pathways that lead us away from the conventional toward the innovative.

The underlying assumption in this chapter is that throughout our careers, we artists should seek to improve our work, to find authenticity, through innovation. I agree with this, although I realize that some do not. Roberts also suggests that as we encounter obstacles along our journey and successfully find ways to overcome them, confidence builds. Confidence is important because it emboldens us to take the necessary risks that lead to innovation.

Our path toward innovation is sometimes clear, but mostly obscured as we venture forth. Roberts likens this idea to a wagon train moving out of a forest and into a clearing where the view of a vast plain ahead makes the path obvious. And, after the plain is traversed, the wagon train enters another forest where the path is unclear. This is my experience as well. There are "moments" of clarity", but most of the time I'm bouncing off closely spaced trees trying to find my way out of the forest. This is why a fleet-footed scout becomes necessary. The scout finds the path from small clues that for us, amount to intuition (see earlier blog about intuition). I'll add that if our intuition is grounded in a solid foundation of knowledge and experience, we will probably select the correct path.

Roberts concludes this chapter with his thoughts about discovering individuality, or authenticity, by trusting our intuition (our scout). Conventional wisdom can block the path of our "scout." The author urges us to spend quiet time examining works of art in order to discover 1) what engages you and 2) technical solutions that you can apply to your own work. Knowing what you're passionate about and how to express it with technical mastery is a very important part of making your work authentic, according to Roberts.

Roberts concludes that the scout's job is two-fold: to lead us away from lumbering conventions down a new path toward innovation, and to lead us to research that helps us gain technical mastery in our work. This makes sense to me.

Your opinions??

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Follow Something Along

Before I return to the next principle in Ian Roberts' book Creative Authenticity, I'd like to acknowledge all of you who've turned this blog into a substantive continuous discussion about art and what it means to be an artist. When I began this blog, I had no idea that there would develop a committed group who would bond over this intellectual exercise. I had no idea that a genuine comradery would develop and that you would become a source of encouragement and strength. Thank you!

And, I'd also like to wish you all HAPPY HOLIDAYS and BEST WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR! May 2010 be a year filled with peace, joy, good health, and prosperity.

This will be my last post until after the holidays. At that time, I'll continue Roberts' book, and have a special treat for you after that!

The ninth principle in Roberts' book is Follow Something Along. So far, this is my favorite chapter because it reflects how I work. He writes: If we are to say something authentic, we need to stick with an idea for awhile. We need to gnaw at it, mine it, obsess over it. This is sage advice. As he points out, we don't need a LOT of ideas, we just need a few that we can really sink our teeth into and develop. This, of course, means working in a series. Over the past five years, I've created over fifty eggshell paintings in watercolor, oil, and acrylic. I haven't run out of ideas and am constantly surprised at how much more there is to say. I also work on other series, often two or more at a time. Each series takes years to complete, and some may never end. Take a look at:

Don Michael Jr's mask series

Peggy Stermer-Cox's MsKitty and ToyPony series

Casey Klahn's River series

Margaret Ryall's garden series

And, consider Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series, or Bonnard, Cezanne, Monet, Vermeer, Wyeth. They all created series works.

The other side of this coin is to continually jump from one concept or style to another. This can prevent you from developing a distinguishable style, achieving technical mastery, and creating unique and meaningful art. No one will be able to figure out who you are from your paintings. By contrast, I can spot a Wyeth painting from a mile away.

As Roberts puts it, this is a path of discovery. And, it's a path that should keep you marching forward rather than retracing your steps. I really like the example he provides of Alexander the Great arriving by boat with his troops to conquer the Persians. After his troops disembarked, he ordered his generals to burn all the boats. This was a wise decision because if his troops felt that they could retreat to the relative safety of their boats and go home, they might not fight as hard. We artists need to adopt the same attitude. Once we're on a path we must commit to staying on it. Fight hard to advance your work and believe that you'll win! Sure, there will be days when you won't feel like it, but just hang on and keep going. Roberts concludes: consistently take steps in the direction that holds us, and trusting those steps, will build momentum. That momentum will build a career.

This could be a great New Year's resolution!

And now, your thoughts??

Monday, December 21, 2009

Full-time or Part-time

This may not be the year (decade?) to consider Roberts' eighth principle entitled Full-time or Part-time. Yikes! Could there be a worse time to leave a paying job to become a full-time artist? Maybe this is a chapter that we should think about later when the economy recovers. Even so, I'll relate Roberts points about what to consider when making this decision. (The pie chart serves as my illustration for the reapportionment of time wedges.)

Below, I've paraphrased Roberts' main ideas about what an artist should consider before making the leap to full-time status:

  • Are you prepared to handle the business of being an artist in addition to the demands of creating works of art?

  • Will you be able to produce enough paintings that are sellable to generate sufficient income for your needs?

  • Will you be able to find joy in your work without succumbing to the stresses associated with running the business side of art, creating a sufficient amount of work under a deadline, and producing an adequate income?

  • Can you maintain and even improve your creativity and the quality of your work as you strive to meet all these goals?

  • Would you be willing to teach art in order to supplement your income if necessary?

These are all good questions, and ones that I had to consider before making the leap. I'd like to elaborate on the first question about the business of art. You should be brutally honest with yourself when answering this question. Being a full-time artist IS a business, and this means that you should be comfortable marketing your work and yourself. In order to do this, you must develop a very tough skin to deflect the rejection and indifference that you'll frequently encounter as you persevere to find opportunities in every possible nook and cranny. And, don't get caught up in the romantic notion that you'll be "discovered" by some gallery dealer who'll do everything for you so you can simply stay home and paint. It almost never happens. And, if it does, you still need to know enough about business to understand how to manage a contractual relationship. I spend a lot of time promoting my work through galleries, the internet, personal connections, national and international juried exhibitions, brochures, and so on. It takes a lot of time and can be expensive, but it's worth it.

And, because this is a business, you must keep a complete and accurate financial account for both tax and personal reasons. You need to know if you're meeting your financial goals so you can make adjustments if necessary.

The second, third, and fourth points are also critically important. Are you the sort of person who can handle the stress created by deadlines and financial concerns and still find joy in your work? Will you be able to continually improve the quality of your work in this type of environment? Personally, I like deadlines and the challenges of running the business. It motivates me to stay in the studio, get the job done, and to do it well. These deadlines enhance my level of creativity as I try new techniques on newly formulated concepts. The rewards make it all worthwhile.

One last thing ... whether or not you're a full-time artist isn't important to the creation of unique and meaningful work that's technically masterful. You can become a successful artist without assuming full-time status. How many museums display works of art by "Masters" who worked at jobs outside of art while they were creating? Plenty! Just because you've chosen to be a part-time artist doesn't mean that you aren't serious or that your work doesn't deserve serious consideration.

There's so much more that I could say, but I've learned that this blog has many astute readers who can add gems to this golden nugget. Please add your thoughts ...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Dance of Avoidance

Principle 7 of Roberts' book is entitled The Dance of Avoidance which is exactly what I did one day last summer when this rare and beautiful Luna moth landed on my screen door in Maine and distracted me from my work for a whole afternoon. OK - so it was my fault and not the moth's.
In this chapter, Roberts addresses those who do show up for work (last chapter) but avoid creating art once they get there. Avoidance can take many forms like excessive pencil sharpening, preoccupation with rearranging things, making a few phone calls, and so on. He suggests that the cure is to first recognize that the problem exists and then learn to walk through it. Solutions include creating a permanent workspace , shifting thinking to the "right brain" when you enter your studio, keeping a clean and orderly workspace, and creating a block of time in which to work. If you can't figure out what to paint during that time, at least think about it without distractions. He also suggests taking a ten day painting retreat alone to help regain focus. A retreat can help you gain insight into why you're avoiding something and also help you find direction. And, if you can't go on retreat then just take time at home to think for awhile.

I can identify with that advice. When I was working on a graduate degree at Syracuse University years ago, my advisor suggested that I take time from my stressful schedule to sit in a peaceful place for a few hours each week and just allow my mind to wander. This was excellent advice. Not only did it provide clarity, but it enhanced my ability to arrive at creative solutions. At home in my studio I spend just as much time remaining still and thinking as I do actively painting. It's difficult to produce unique and meaningful art if I don't first have a clear picture in mind.

Roberts makes another great point: Action overcomes fear. This is so true! Doing something empowers us and neutralizes the fears and doubts that lead to avoidance. I have a few tricks that help me to immediately focus on my work when I enter the studio. First, I have only two sets of "work" clothes that I wear in the studio - one for that day and the other is in the laundry. The moment I put on my "work suit" my mind switches into work mode. The second trick is using music for focus. Each painting I create usually takes days to weeks to complete. So, when I leave the studio each day the work is still in progress. The way I get my mind to return to the same place each day is to listen to only one CD for the duration of that painting. This means that if a painting takes me 100 hours, I listen to only one CD for those hundred hours. This is Pavlovian training and might drive other people crazy. But, I really don't hear the CD consciously after awhile. It just keeps me focused on the same task so that a 100-hour painting is unified even though it took several weeks to complete. Now, when I look at one of my completed paintings, I can tell you which CD I was listening to when I painted it. BTW - when I was listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers I noticed that my energy level significantly increased!

Although Roberts doesn't mention it, I have found that the more I paint the less I feel the urge to avoid it. It's about attitude and conditioning - just like athletic training. And now ... back to the studio!

Your thoughts??

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Showing Up

Last year I took this b/w photo of a corner of my studio,where I was preparing fourteen canvases simultaneously for a show. Each canvas is 28" x 22". Right now, I'm working on thirty-four canvases in oil for a solo show in June. I posted this to illustrate that I actually do show up for "work" in my studio on a daily basis :-)

Chapter 6 of Ian Roberts' book Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision is about showing up. He begins this chapter by writing: Nothing determines the success of your creative life more than doing it. Amen to that! And, he adds, there's something within us that "calls" us to create, that acts as an inner voice that we shouldn't ignore. The point is that if we don't show up to do our work it doesn't get done and then there's no chance for advancement. And, if we do show up for work one small step will lead to another and another, and so on until, before you know it, you've made great strides in your work.

Roberts also addresses the doubts and fears that often keep us from showing up; the ones that make us procrastinate and find some other activity that diverts us from the studio (blogging, perhaps??). Often, we'll hide behind our fear of failure, ridicule, and incompetence. I got past that when I learned to accept and even embrace the fact that THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOMEONE ELSE who paints better than I do, has better ideas than mine, is smarter, prettier, faster, thinner, you get the picture. Should that stop me? No! I just keep plodding along. Over time, this adds up to a lot of little successes that amount to something really wonderful. over an entire lifetime.

But, how do I manage to keep plodding along? Admittedly, sometimes I don't feel like exerting the effort necessary to get those creative juices flowing. Especially, now that it's colder outside and inside, too. I'd rather snuggle up under an afghan with a book and cup of tea. So, I made the conscious decision that my art IS my job, but in a good way. I can't wait to get to work, and the moment I put on my "work clothes" and head into the studio I'm elated by the prospect of what might happen today. I play my favorite music, put a large cup of tea near the easel (where I sometimes mistake it for the brush cleaning bowl) and paint with abandon. Honestly, is there a BETTER job on this planet? I don't know of one. But, I don't "just" show up for work, I always try to show up on time so that I don't fall into the habit of procrastination. I set specific hours and stick to it. Luckily, my boss lets me take a lunch break so I can read your comments on my blog :-)

Like any job, there's a real world aspect to being a professional artist that can interfere with our desire to show up. As in industry, the art world has members who seek to undermine those who are advancing. There's jealousy, bitterness, and even sabotage. I may not be on a high rung of the "corporate ladder" in the art world, but I've experienced this many times from other artists. It's important ignore it and move on, and it's equally important to help other artists around you who are struggling. We're all in this together. So, my friends, consider today's blog a friendly reminder to show up to work today! As Roberts puts it: are you going to follow your dream or not?

Your thoughts??

Your Craft and Your Voice

The painting I'm posting to illustrate Roberts' principle in this chapter is a perfect example of non-authentic work because it not only lacks my "voice" but also excellence in technique. I completed this painting over a decade ago under the influence of many other artists who had painted this same lighthouse keeper's house on Monhegan Island, Maine where I used to summer. Obviously, it lacks all the elements of a "good" painting and is totally uninspired.

So, what principle does Roberts offer us in Chapter 5 of his book Creative Authenticity? Your craft and your voice. It's a relief to me to find a chapter in this book that I can agree with from beginning to end. In it, the author makes three points: 1) we find only within ourselves that which we need to express in our paintings (a.k.a. our "voice"), 2) mastering painting technique allows us to effectively and successfully express our voice, but technique alone is never a substitute for self-expression, and 3) learning technique and learning to express our ideas should simultaneously develop.

He cites many great examples for his points and the one I can identify with utilizes the budding musician. I may have touched on this notion in an earlier blog, but I'll state it better here and use a personal example that parallels Roberts'. I am fortunate enough to have parents who provided me with a formal education in both the visual and musical arts. I started piano lessons at the age six and stuck with it. When I reached my early thirties, I hired a concertizing coach who recognized my advanced technical ability but thought that my performances lacked musicality. After only a few months of coaching, she showed me how to express myself in music - how to make the piano "sing" and how to "color" the music. It was a like a light-bulb had turned on in my head and I finally saw what music is supposed to be. I had found my own voice. I began to interpret what another had composed to make it something new, something personal. And, as I learned to add my own voice to my performance, I also gained greater technical mastery. These two aspects advanced together and I rapidly improved.

But, the second point that Roberts makes and that I understood as a musician, is that I couldn't achieve that level of mastery as a pianist without a solid foundation. As a visual artist, this also rings true. If I don't have enough technical mastery when I paint, my ability to effectively express the intended meaning will be inhibited. I used to hate practicing scales on the piano, but my diligence paid off and enhanced my ability to play Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, etc.

Technical mastery and self expression need to develop together. One cannot be substituted for the other and result in a successful painting. As Roberts points out, sometimes too many flaws in technique can obscure the message. But, he writes, if the message is powerful enough, a few flaws won't diminish the work.

So, what's wrong with the painting I posted? I had absolutely no inner motivation for painting it other than the fact that every other artist on the island was painting the lighthouse. I had no personal connection and it shows. The painting lacks passion. It's stiff, poorly composed, and ... well... I guess you could throw the entire book of criticism at it! I keep this painting as a reminder of what not to do.

Your thoughts??

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Van Gogh Syndrome

Chapter 4 of Roberts' book, Creative Authenticity, is about what he calls The Van Gogh Syndrome. By this, the author refers to the representation of Vincent Van Gogh as a tortured genius who did some crazy things and wasn't appropriately recognized for his work. Roberts declares: I don't think any one person has done more damage to our perception of the creative process than Vincent Van Gogh. The point he's making in this short chapter is that the creation of a strong body of work occurs only when an artist applies level-headed discipline and long-term consistency rather than being governed by episodic eccentric and lunatic acts. He supports that opinion by noting that most great art is created through a disciplined process and that, Vincent, who only painted during the last eight years of his life, produced his best works from a fifteen month period of focused effort. Roberts adds that it is those later focused paintings that gained Vincent recognition during his lifetime. However, the glimmer of success was unnerving to him; Vincent wrote Success is the worst thing that can happen not long before delivering the fatal bullet to his body.

So, Roberts concludes that the Van Gogh Syndrome, or myth as he refers to it, isn't useful to artists because it instills the idea that our creative genius must spring from lunacy when, in fact, it must be logical, deliberate and purposeful in a consistent manner. I'll add to this that a little lunacy doesn't hurt. I mean, take a look at Starry Night above. What a fascinating authentic painting! I could look at it for hours. But, I won't go so far as to stir my coffee with a loaded paint brush like Vincent did. My form of lunacy will have to emerge from a non lead-based source!

But, there's another point I'd like to make that Roberts seems to have missed. One of the reasons we like Van Gogh's story is because it's about overcoming adversity to create amazing works of art! Poverty and lunacy didn't stop him. It's an inspiring story and gives us all the hope that whatever assails us in life can be used to our advantage. And, his story gives us hope that our art can be significant, authentic and meaningful even if it doesn't sell. And, Vincent's openness about himself, his passions and his fears, gives us courage to be honest with ourselves so that we may face our own particular set of challenges. His suicide is also a reminder of what he could have accomplished had he chosen to live beyond the age of 38, and what we might create during our advancing years. So, Ian Roberts, although I see your point, I also like to look at the other side of this coin. There's inspiration on it.

One last thing Mr. Roberts: when you wrote I don't think any one person has done more damage to our perception of the creative process than Vincent Van Gogh you should have taken into account that Vincent only lived his life - it was others who later created the myth.

Your thoughts??

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Your Home Turf

The third principle of Ian Roberts' sixteen involves Your Home Turf. This is about mining content and visual resources from where you, the artist, feel at home. Here, home means those people, places, things, and memories that resonate with you, that evoke a special feeling in you; your personal connections. Over the years, I've repeatedly heard this advice given to artists in all disciplines: write what you know, paint what you know, express what you know in music, dance, film. I've always thought it sage advice because the only way I can feel passion when I paint is through a heartfelt connection with the subject. And, I suppose this principle really is the key to authenticity.

You might well ask how anyone could possibly feel at home with broken eggshells. How can anyone be passionate about that? I'll divert a little from Roberts' book to explain: When I first formulated the idea of using eggshells as a basis for my work, I was looking for a bridge between objective and non-objective art. That is, the eggs are recognizable as eggs, but they also allow me to impose on them abstract color and value designs. There was rational thought behind this. However, I also needed an emotional connection, and it took only seconds to find one. Without going into any detail, I saw my "self" in the assemblages of these cracked eggs. These paintings are psychological portraits of the remade Kathy: the resulting assemblage of cracks and fragments of a fractured psyche that has endured difficult and sometimes traumatic events. Once the psyche, like an eggshell, is altered by external or internal forces, it cannot be restored to its former pristine shape. But, the resulting fragments, the new self, is an entire entity that I feel at home in. It is complete and the luminosity that I impart to the assemblage in these paintings is the spark that gives it life.

Back to Roberts' book: He states, your home turf is your state of mind. It may not be a place. I totally agree, and think of many failed attempts at paintings that just didn't work - mostly because I wasn't feeling the connection. We've all "been there." One of my biggest criticisms of some of my peers who are painting workshop instructors is that they teach through imitation. That is, they ask the students to paint like them, and often the same subjects. Of course, the students struggle to obey but the work fails! The students have no personal connection to whatever inspired the instructor, so how could imitation help them to produce inspired work? I cannot teach that way and never will.

Roberts ends this chapter with comments about making your studio your home turf as well. Again, I totally agree. When I walk into my messy, chaotic studio I feel immense satisfaction and l-o-v-e! Considering that I'm a total "neatnik" this may seem strange. But, the connection I feel to the place where I create art goes straight to my core. It's where I belong. I was worried about this connection when I constructed another studio this year at my home in Maine. Would I feel the same connection? Would my work suffer? I'm certain you're way ahead of me on this one ... I felt the same connection and my work became stronger because, as Roberts points out, your home turf is your state of mind. I carry it with me.

I really liked this chapter :-) Your thoughts??

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Communication is the second principle in Ian Roberts' book, Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision. Fundamental to the principle in this chapter is the notion that, today, the artist expresses an idea or feeling when creating a work of art. This notion has been discussed many times on this blog. But, what interests me most in this chapter is Roberts' ideas about the differing schools of thought that govern an artist's form of communication.

The first school of thought is since the artist is communicating a response to something, he or she should make that response intelligible. It should be adjusted if necessary to the audience. This approach is exemplified by Renaissance artists who worked within the patronage system, and other commissioned artwork since that time.

The second school of thought holds that the artist should not alter anything for the market. This idea renders sacred the ideas and feelings of the artist and, in my opinion, has merit even though it often forces artists to get a second job to support themselves or succumb to the "starving artist syndrome." But, Roberts wonders, does this school of thought also produce artists who air too much dirty laundry? Who reveal too much that is personal and has no social relevance? He states that deeply felt, authentic work does connect to something universal and hence touches a lot of people. He urges artists to keep deeply personal stuff private and not air it in public. So, where's the dividing line for Roberts between what should and should not be expressed publicly in a work of art? The unacceptable is ego driven, agitated and afraid. The acceptable is like a revelation.

I have many conflicting thoughts about this viewpoint. First, I believe in our individuality - that which makes us unique, not just in body chemistry, but also in the particular set of life experiences that make us different from one another. On the other hand, because we're all human beings living on the same planet with roughly the same needs (nourishment, shelter, companionship) and roughly the same general experiences (birth, growth, work, eat, sleep, interact, illness, death) we have everything in common! I can't imagine what idea or feeling I could paint that wouldn't connect with many, many people. (I'm referring to the message in my painting rather than the way I paint, which might not have universal appeal). Therefore, it seems that Roberts' restriction for all artists is based upon personal taste, which doesn't jive with how I think. I value freedom of expression and I don't like arbitrary censorship!

Returning to the two schools of thought for a moment, I've been thinking about how I've communicated through my work in 2009. It's been a tough year for all of us economically, and I'm no exception. In addition to my normal expenses, I had to put a new roof on a house and pay for some major repairs on a car. My personal income is solely through art. I just barely managed to make ends meet but I had to engage in both schools of thought. Two poets separately commissioned me to illustrate a number of poems for their books. That would fit into the first school of thought that Roberts outlines. The rest of my activities would fit into the second school of thought: I had a record year in painting sales and also earned money from winning awards in national and international juried competitions. Additionally, I've had a great time teaching painting and giving painting demos (I don't think that falls into one of Roberts' categories). So, the bottom line for this artist is to engage in both schools of thought in order to survive financially.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Creative Authenticity"

Friends, you've probably noticed by now that I have a passion for both creating art and reading about it. So, I've started reading a new book that I suspect many of you have already read: Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision by Ian Roberts (2004). If you're interested, let's examine it, beginning with his first chapter entitled "Searching for Beauty."

We've discussed "beauty" in art before on this blog without reaching a consensus. Roberts, in his search for a definition of beauty also was unable to find a consensus. And, he suggests that in the contemporary art world ... beauty is suspect as an aim in art. It's almost a dirty word.
Roberts asks us to consider beauty, not as pretty or sweet, but as an emotionally moving experience. That is, the subject matter may be as horrible as depicting Christ, bloody and dead nailed to a cross or a woman weeping over her drowned child, but the passion and emotion that it evokes in the viewer makes the work beautiful. To me, this implies that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and not in the hands of the artist at all. As I read on, I don't think that Roberts meant to imply that, since what he later writes is contradictory.

The author objects to artists who "knock beauty" by reducing it to meaningless superficiality and an outmoded idea. It is his experience that producing beauty in art is actually quite difficult and that those who dismiss it lack understanding. He goes further to predict that artwork that is destined to last is probably going to have to address beauty. Roberts believes that the role of beauty in art is to uplift society. This argument is supported by noting the beauty of contemporary architecture - something that's not only desired but also valued.

What conditions are necessary for the creation of beauty in art? According to Roberts, the artist needs to engage in quiet time and exert patience when creating it. In other words, stop and smell the roses. He feels that, to express beauty we must engage in silence because visual beauty produces silence in us. I had that reaction the first time I stood before The David in Florence, Italy. I could neither speak nor take my eyes off the statue. A friend of mine wanted to take a picture of me standing in front of the statue, and I said "No - no pictures. The beauty for me is in remembering how it felt. A picture can't capture that."

So, the title of this book is Creative Authenticity. What's the relationship between authenticity and "beauty"? Roberts finds authenticity in the depth of the artist's feelings, which are the sole means by which beauty can be infused into art. By contrast, he brings up my favorite "poster child" for kitsch - Thomas Kinkade. Although the "artist" has a large following and is laughing all the way to the bank, his art isn't authentic. It's a manipulation - a product for commercial consumption. But, you might ask, what about Andy Warhol? Didn't he aspire to do the same thing and yet his work hangs in world-class museums. The difference is in the meaning - the intent of the artist. Warhol's work is about society's relationship with commodities. Kinkade's work, although he says it's about "light," is really about cashing in. He could be producing cute widgets and the effect would be the same.
At the beginning of this chapter Roberts defines beauty in art as an evoked emotion of the viewer. Here, he says that beauty can only be infused into a work of art through the depth of the artist's feelings. I'm having trouble bridging the gap in his logic, because an artist's expressed feelings might not necessarily evoke feeling from the viewer. For instance, in my earliest endeavors to paint, my subject matter might have been a flower from the garden that struck me as glorious! So, I passionately rendered it on canvas only to find that the work was received with great indifference by viewers. We've all had this experience in one way or another. Or, is Roberts saying that there's no chance for the viewer to find beauty in a work of art if the artist didn't have deep feelings when creating it? If that were true, then his example of Thomas Kinkade fails because the multitudes of people that buy his work have passionate feelings about it, even if Kinkade didn't.

In this chapter, Roberts expands on many of the historical facts and ideas that we've hashed over when hiking through Williams' book, so I won't elaborate here. However, his central point is that the world is awful enough - just look at the evening news. And, technology is impersonal and empty of emotion. And, artists have spent the past 150 years dismanteling the old standards set for fine art by agreement. Therefore, he argues, the contemporary artist must return to the standard of transcendent beauty as a basis for expression. And, he states, beauty comes from giving personal expression to deep currents within us. That perhaps even wrench us in their telling.

So, I agree that the artist produces authenticity by embuing art with personal expression. But, I'm a little perplexed when Roberts lumps the use of modern technology as a medium together with ugliness and emptiness. I've seen some digital photography that evokes strong emotion, and light displays with digital music that induce real feelings. Therefore, I must ask - what's so sacred about the standards that were set 150 years ago? And, were these really universal standards for ALL art? I don't think so. The biggest catalyst for many historical art movements was a reaction against the standardizations in art imposed by the academies. As for beauty ... well, I suppose that's always in the eye of the beholder.

And now... your thoughts, please :)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sonabai, revisited

Friends, you could knock me over with a feather! A couple of days ago I posted about the role of intuition and used the example of Sonabai, an artist from remote, rural India. I learned about her story from a book written by Stephen Huyler, who has dedicated many decades of his life as an anthropologist and filmographer to the culture and people of this region. His documentary film of Sonabai and book are a MUST SEE/READ! To get to the point, Stephen Huyler read my blog and responded to it and our comments. I'm highlighting his remarks here, so you don't miss them:

Kathy and the rest of you, I am delighted to just find out about your blog and that you are focusing on Sonabai. You certainly have told her story well, Kathy, and you, Carolyn, are right about the way that Sonabai transformed her life, brought light, joy and fullness of being into it through her art. When I first visted her home in 2001, the friend that I was with commented that it was like walking into the Sistine Chapel. Not that it had anything in common with it stylistically, but that it was a complete and resonant sacred space. I was so completely changed by the experience that I have spent the past nine years of my life dedicated to portraying it to those outside of that remote region of India. I would find myself wide awake late at night just marveling at it.And yes, Sonabai's story is not unique. It is a human phenomenon spread throughout the world. People everywhere find within themselves the sparks creative inspiration with which to light up their dark experiences and change their existence. Sonabai's story and art are just particularly evocative, but this state of pulling grace from deep within ourselves,whether it is archetypal or original genius, is a fact of life and one that I fully believe needs to be heralded — particularly at a time when we are constantly being shown how we have all damaged our world and told that there may be no solutions for our future...
- Stephen Huyler, December 13, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The BEST advice ....

The best advice I ever received (other than "duck!") came from my parents who instilled in me the notion to never give up. In fact, my mother made a needlepoint for me, which is framed and on the wall of my studio. It says Perserverance Generates Success. The best advice I ever received from an art instructor was from Christopher Schink, who said Painting is not an outdoor sport! And, the best advice I give myself is Do it now! If not now, when? Today's post is wonderfully short. The "meat" will come from you: WHAT'S THE BEST ADVICE YOU'VE BEEN GIVEN?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Role of Intuition

As I've been elaborating on the evolution of art theory over the past few weeks, many of you have raised the idea that intuition is important, too. Admittedly, I haven't given that much consideration, until today! So, I need to understand what it is and here's what I found:

According to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, the word derives from the Latin intuitio, which is the act of contemplating. The definitions are: 1 : quick and ready insight, and 2 a : immediate apprehension or cognition b : knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c : the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

To better understand how this word is used, I turned to Nodding and Shore, Awakening the Inner Eye: Intuition in Education (1984). If we look at the history of how the meaning developed, we'd begin with Plato who thought that intiution is not rational, but is a reliable source of knowledge because it IS reality. Aristotle extended the definition of intuition by making it an intellectual process that is based on reasoning, but requires a leap of understanding in order to grasp a larger concept that can't be reached by logical reasoning alone.

Buddha found inner truth, wisdom, and liberation in intuitive thinking rather than reason. Ch'an (China) and Zen (Japan) place emphasis on this use of intuition.

In the Hindu religion, meditation and disciplined control of the mind produce intuition about universal cosmic issues. As they put it, one aim of Yoga is the systematic development of intuition, so it's considered a stable, reliable function of higher levels of consciousness from which they can access information.

Carol Jung felt that information is received in two ways: externally through the senses and internally through intuition. The latter is perceived through memory and association and is the source of hunches, ideas, and insight into the "bigger picture."

According to Frances E. Vaughan, human intuition falls into four distinct levels of awareness which often overlap: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. On the physical level, it acts as the "flight or fight" instinct. On the emotional level, our intuition manifests itself as feelings about something or someone. On the mental level, intuition is linked with problem-solving that begins with the application of logic and reasoning followed by an intuitive "flash." Discovery and invention often result. Educated guesses also fall into this category, as well "leaps" from the rational to a conclusion. Frequently, incubation of information in the mind for a time allows it to turn chaos into order for understanding. And, finally, at the spiritual level, intuition is mystical and independent from sensations, feelings, and thoughts.

How many, if not all, of these categories do we apply to making art? And, in what proportion? I suspect the answer is different for each artist. But, I also think it's true that as we learn to create art we learn a set of skills and theories or relationships that we begin to apply to our work, even if it doesn't seem like a conscious act. If I apply mental intuition to my art, I am relying on my education , what I've learned and what I know, in this way. So, is there ever a time when we don't use intuition in painting?

Here's a good example of someone that was probably 100% intuitive in her work: Sonabai. I first learned of this woman when I attended a lecture by Stephen P. Huyler and purchased his book (photo below). Sonabai was a poor wife and mother who was confined to her home in remote rural India by her husband without the ability to recieve guests for nearly 15 years. She was a teenager when she married him. No one knows why he imprisoned her, and she had a son who was in her care. Over time and in complete isolation, Sonabai developed an entirely new form of art, just from her imagination. She had no training and no way to become informed about art. She used straw, cow dung, and mud from their farm to consruct elaborate scenes on the walls of their home, which had no electricity. She ground the pigments from seeds and other things that her husband brought home from the market.

Here are some examples of her work:

Eventually, Sonabai's husband removed the restrictions and her work was "discovered." It was so unique and unlike any preexisting art, that she was awarded the highest honor paid to any citizen in India by its President, and her work has been acquired by museums. Sadly, she is now dead, but the influence of her work spread to her son and his wife and the surrounding region where it's elevated the economic situation of the poor rural population. This small, uneducated woman created a new art form. Was it pure intuition? What else could it have been.

I opened this door in order to begin a new discussion. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mile 10.

This is it! The final push, and you, my traveling companions have decided to leave the comforts of camp to hike the last mile with me. Your encouragement and support is beyond words, so let's go!

Future Present -

This sounds like something I learned in grammar school. However, it's the title of final chapter of Williams' book, and an appropriate one. He concludes that today, we are still working through postmodernist art. Its theoretical sources continue to be sifted critically. The jury is still out. What are the last few steps that bring us to the end of this journey? This part of the trail begins at the end of the Cold War in 1989:

We have a new world order of global issues: capitalism, environmentalism, human rights issues, and all the social, political, and philosophical thinking that goes along with it. This has caught the attention of the art world, and so has technology. As I stated under "comments" earlier, the visual arts tend to reflect the world as it's perceived by the individual artists. We aren't the engine that drives change ... we're the caboose that is carried along by it. We reflect and react. However, our reactions can be controversial. For instance, in this country, there were bitter public controversies over the work of Serra, Mapplethorpe, and Serrano ... not to mention the elephant dung thing more recently.

According to Williams, The most pervasive theme in art of the past 25 years has been identity politics, the investigation of the ways in which individual and collective identity are mediated by representation. In other words, we're very hung up on identity: gender, ethnicity, cultural, racial, etc. This is the art of the 1980's and 90's. But, there's also the adoption of available technology. For instance, computer art or new mediums that transform and enhance the effects of traditional ones. And then, some contemporary art is intended to critique our relationships to objects and how we use them to define ourselves by utilizing readymade objects. The attenuation of art through the expansion of ideas and methods also includes performance art, constructed environments, and so on. The sky is the limit!

Williams asks: What role will art play in the future. and What role can it play? Two great questions! Recent theory is exploring the possibility of collapsing "art" into the category "medium" or "mediation." This may have something to do with Friedrich Kittler's idea that, as a result of advancing technology, humans may become obsolete and that knowledge will no longer have to center around the limitations of the human brain. On the other hand, Mark Hansen thinks that technology will lead us back to our "humanness." My opinion is that human nature cannot be suppressed for very long, and our desire to create in any form according to our own ideas will prevail.

The final words about the future of art belong to Dr. Williams:

In the complex patterns of human action and interaction that make up history, meaning becomes attached to things but then, after a time, also falls away from them. Art participates in this process, but also tries to correct it: in the past it has been a means of making signs with obvious social functions, usually in the service of power; more recently, it has exercised its prerogative to revise or replace them, and thus insist on alternative values. With modernism, art has discovered the power of its own negativity... Even when, in ages past, art addressed itself to the ideal, it performed a critical function: to suggest the ideal - to negate the world as it is and to reconstitute it as it ought to be... Art has always reminded us that all signs are merely signs, that they are arbitrary and provisional... Art has always involved the work of deploying its own form of negativity against the negativity of history...Art continues to do the same kind of work it has done. The more complex our culture becomes - the more we need art and the more attenuated and complex art probably needs to be. And: The more complex art becomes, the more we need theory.

To recognize that art is thus essential to whatever it is we are or can be is not only to define its task in the most urgent and all-inclusive way, but also to have found the place from which we can begin to write its history.

Many thanks Professor Robert Williams for writing your book Art Theory: An Historical Introduction. You provided me with a wonderful guide!

Folks, we made it! We've reached the end of this trail. But, wait. What do I see? Clouds ahead, lots of them. Oh no, there's so much more that I haven't yet discovered, that's still obscured. Maybe, another day. Right now, it's time to summarize:


First , that I have wonderful blogging friends who are knowledgable, supportive, and kind enough to read through all this and make substantive comments! Thank you! I learned a lot from you.

Second, The importance of "knowing." Knowing the influences on my work and way of thinking; knowing how and why I create the type of art I do; knowing the possibilities that I've never even considered before; knowing the importance of ideas, and how our artist ancestors developed and utilized them. This type of knowledge is useful to me, but I also acknowledge that the creation of unique and meaningful art doesn't require it and that others might not benefit from this type of journey.

Third, the theories and artists that most influenced my work are the ones from my early formative years as an artist. They are the skeleton upon which everything else hangs and all other theories and "isms" have been wedged into it. I haven't put enough muscle over that skeleton and have limited myself to work within its confines. Perhaps I should bulk-up and expand!

Fourth, a realization of the lifespan of my work. It is highly likely that within a few decades, those who collect my work will be gone and their heirs will clean out their houses. It is also highly likely that somewhere along the road of successive heirs, all of my work will end up in a landfill or burned. There will be no legacy, and no museum will have assigned any importance to what I've done. I don't say this out of depression or self-pity. It's just a matter of fact. UNLESS - I contribute something that actually matters. Hmmmm... how did our artist ancestors do that? I know ... I'll initiate another "ism!"

But, what would it be? At one end of the spectrum I could start the school of Simplism. Its manifesto would read something like this: We recognize no theory. Simplism is rooted in disgust with thinking at any level. It is our aim to create mindless art in the simplest possible way without the burden of an idea or disciplined method.

At the other end of the spectrum, I could start the school of Obfuscationism. Its manifesto, after being translated into everyday language, would read something like this: We recognize the theories that no one can understand. Obfuscationsim is rooted in disgust with recognizable meaning. It is our aim to create art that is confusing, even to us, and to encourage art critics to write about it in prose that completely obfuscates any possibility of understanding it.

Or... perhaps I should aim for something between these two extremes. I know ... how about something that relates to the work of my generation: Boomerism! Our manifesto reads like this: We recognize the coolness of any theory, especially the far-out ones. Boomerism is rooted in our apparent willingness to try anything, think anything, and express everything the moment we think of it without inhibition or filters. We have no disgust for anything. It is our aim to create art that's egocentric and provides instant gratification.

Oops! I just learned something else on this journey: I really like sarcasm, or is that sarcism??

In reality, the journey is never over. But, for now, I'll just rest. Perhaps you can share with us your "trail" through art. Cheers to you, my loyal hiking companions! I look forward to many more journeys with you.

Mile 9 ...

This journey - quest - to discover my "roots" in art is nearly over. Tomorrow I'll walk the final mile, and also reflect upon what I learned from this experience. Thanks to all of you who've taken this journey with me. I can't find enough words to express the full extent of my gratitude! And, since I'm seldom at a loss for words, you can imagine how I must feel.

The informed quality of your responses to my posts demonstrates that you all have a LOT to say about the various "isms" and influences on your work. Please, do accept my invitation to write something that I can post here. If the purpose of this blog is the critical analysis of art, it requires more than just my opinion. Email your short essay to me: and attach any images you want to use. BTW - if you feel like you're not "qualified" to do this - neither am I! It's not about qualifications, it's about an honest exploration. I know so little, and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Together, we can arrive at answers and even pose some great questions.

So, at the end of Mile 8 (or as Emenem would say "Eight Mile") I left you dangling in the world of Conceptual Art. If someone wants to write more about that, please do. As I face the last two miles, I see that the trail gradient has steepened considerably. This will be tough! But, let's tackle Postmodernism. According to Williams, the 1960's was an explosive period of artistic innovation, and also the beginning of a deeper reorientation of thought about art that continued into the 1970's and 80's. This deeper thought is Postmodernism, which is really just an extension and intensification of Modernism.

By the 1970's, there was a rejection of Greenberg's formalism and an effort, inspired by Duchamp, to structure art around the psychological, linguistic, institutional, economic, political and cultural conditions of the time. One of the real achievements of postmodernist theory, according to Williams, was to provide a more sophisticated conceptual vocabulary for the analysis of those conditions and their effects. A lot of that vocabulary came from Marxist philosophy, that placed the control of human existence in the hands of economic forces and identifies a struggle between classes for material resources.

How did this radical change in art theory impact artists? The Frankfort School is a major influence. It was founded by a group in Germany who had been part of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfort. They were later disbanded by the rise of Fascism and sought refuge in America. They wrote mainly in German, and weren't translated into English until the late 1960's, when their theories would influence the rest of the art world. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, of that School, wrote an essay entitled The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception that offers a definition for a "high art" that denies the commodity society. According to this essay, a serious artist addresses the fundamental tensions of the times even if it's an unconscious effort. Thus, art is always a political commentary and an instrument for the prevailing ideology. That means that art is implicity a "critique." According to Adorno: Art is a force of protest of the human against the pressure of domineering institutes, religious and otherwise, no less than a reflection of their objective substance. Horkheimer and Adorno made a claim to the traditional conception of high art while redefining its function as critical. Basically, one of the jobs of an artist was to remind its viewers that we've failed to achieve real social harmony.

Around the same time, in France there emerged a group inspired by Surrealism who called themselves Situationist International. Their leading theorist was Guy Debord, who believed that "illusions" produced for the masses play an increasingly necessary role in maintaining order. They were disinchanted with organized Marxism and engaged in anarchical acts of creative subversion and believed that their political activism was their art. Again, this is a breaking-down of the division between life and art.

Jean Baudrillard, the prominent French thinker of the 1960's, was also disinchanted with Marxism and extended beyond Debord's theories to declare that "reality" has been replaced by "hyperreality" in which signs have no relation at all to the things they represent. In essence, the real is becoming extinct. He felt that criticism is futile because the media act to neutralize dissent. This led to...

Pop Art. The road to this movment, according to Williams, was paved by first Rauchenberg, then Johns, Kaprow, Oldenberg, and finally, Warhol. As you all know, Warhol's works represent "commodities." When he began his work in Pop Art, Warhol was unaware of the German and French movements in art, although he became aware much later. Unlike the German and French, Warhol admired mass culture and had no problem with modern capitalism. He wrote: Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist ... making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. He went a step further to declare I want to be a machine. Everyone should be a machine. As an art student back in the 1960's and early '70's, I remember how important it was to our instructors that we see Warhol's work. They didn't exactly know what to tell us about it, but I remember being dragged off to New York City to take a look. Here's an iconic work by Warhol:

As we move along through the 1970's, 80's and '90's we find that some Conceptual artists who emerged in the years just after the rise of Pop Art dealt with social, political, and cultural themes in a more direct and pointedly critical way. To name a few:
Hanse Haacke - exposed the relation between art, museums, and money and eroded the conceptual barriers between art and politics.
Victor Burgin - insisted that abstract art had been co-opted by capitalism and was no longer useful as a critical tool.
Barbara Kruger - picked up where Warhol left off, using new theoretical tools. She made posters and billboards to address social control in general as well as the politics of gender.

Taking a little breather here to assess these influences on my art, I find that the adage "If you remember the 60's you weren't there" is true! It's a little muddled - after all, I was too busy burning my bra, marching in rallies, and dealing with the counter-culture. My art at that time reflected that, so I guess these folks had an enormous influence on me. It wasn't until I started raising my own kids and aged to the point of mellowing that my paintings became less radical. And, my professors were radicals. They pushed us to move in the direction of social criticism and abstract expressionism. But, there was this other side of me. I truly appreciated the aesthetic, and loved studying the work of the Impressionists and all that came before them. Geez ... how did I ever arrive at broken eggshells???

OK ... so I'm dragging my feet. In a moment, you'll know why. It's because I have to travel through the Valley of the Shadow of "The Phenomenology of Signs." Oh dear ... I think I've sprained my ankle. Help! Whimper ...

Undaunted, she picks herself up and stumbles onward ...

Onward ... This is about the nature of language and its influence on the arts. Previously, the visual arts were separate from verbal art. Futurism, Dada, and Surrealsim incorporated language in the form of symbols. Conceptualism made use of language in a number of ways. The great French thinkers of the 1970's began to relate the analysis of language to the analysis of culture as a whole, and since the visual arts acted as the critic to culture at the time, this influenced art.

French thinking about this developed on the shoulders of a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure, and the lectures he gave from 1906 - 1911. This is so complicated that I can't really do it justice. However, Saussure's idea was that in language, individual words don't have meaning apart from the system of language as a whole. And, since language is limited, it's not a perfect mirror of the world. An American philospher named Charles S. Peirce expanded Saussure's ideas to erect the science of "semiology" - the study of the life of signs within society. You may wonder what this has to do with postmodern art ... a lot! Pierce placed "signs" into three categories:
1) the icon - a sign which resembles its object (example: a recognizable object in a painting)
2) the index - a sign of some material or causal relation to its object (smoke is an index of fire)
3) the symbol - a sign of some conventional connection between it and its object (all linguistic signs)

This led to all sorts of complicated fiddling with language in the written arts. By 1967, the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) published three books that make a strong argument for the importance of art to the human existence. His theories moved beyond the borders of France and gained momentum among artists and critics in the western world. I'm at a loss to know how to understand and describe this and hope that you can help me. However, you can see this influence in the works of artists such as Victor Burgin, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine among many. The limitations in my ability to understand art theory at this stage are showing. Aarrgh! But, why should that stop me...

And, what would art be without the theories of psychoanalysts? (sorry ... I'm being sarcastic). Jacques Lacan (1901- 81) laid claim to the notion that the visual arts assist us in protecting ourselves from the powerful objectivizing force of being looked at from all sides. He identified three stages of childhood development, which I won't describe here, to come to that conclusion. He sees art as a mirror of ourselves - a screen on which we project our fears and desires. But, this also allows us to objectify and manipulate our fears and desires. He felt that this, in itself, produced a taming and civilizing effect. So, I guess it's our role as artists to tame society (???)

Actually, Lacan's ideas were useful to feminists because of its emphasis on the "symbolic" in the formation of gender identity, which led to some sort of understanding of women's subjugation. According to Williams: the symbolic order could be said to be structured in such a way as to deny women the very possibility of any adequate self-representation and thus any hope of fulfillment. Oh ... don't get me started! Take a look at the work of Mary Kelly to understand this.

And, now that my head hurts, I think I'll lie down. Oh dear .. the fire's gone out! Someone, please throw a log on.

Next, and last leg of this journey - the "Future Present" and what
this journey means to me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mile 8 ...

It's a beautiful moonlit night by the lake, and around the campfire the conversation is lively! Although I love the comfort of the fire and good company, I must continue my journey. The trail is becoming increasingly steep and difficult to traverse. But you've been helping me all the way, so I think I'll make it to the end - mile 10.

Yesterday, I left the trail in the Early 20th Century, a time when art theory became increasingly important and a number of "isms" rapidly increased. First, Futurism, and next Cubism. The geneology of influences that led to Cubism is interesting: Courbet to Cezanne to Picasso and Braque. Although the artists that were associated with Cubism at this time had differing opinions about what it meant, Picasso and Braque were recognized as the leaders. Most of us are very familiar with their work - right, Peggy? Pablo Picasso was the son of an academic painter, and so he learned traditional techniques. When he moved to Paris in 1903, he embraced Expressionism for awhile and then developed a cubist style by 1910. Georges Braque was the son and grandson of a house painter and decorator, and learned the trade. Later, he studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and also apprenticed with a decorator to become certified in 1902. Eventually, he fell under the influence of the Fauves and adopted their style. But, this didn't last long and his association with Cezanne, a major influence, led him to cubism around the same time as Picasso.

Braque explained that the aim of Cubism was not to reconstitute anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact... There is no certainty in what the mind conceives. Critic and poet Guillaume Appollinaire put it another way: Cubism differs from the old schools of painting in that it is not an art of imitation, but an art of conception which tends toward creation. Cubists altered lighting. They adjusted it for a more sublte and equal distribution. They also "correct" perspective. And, Picasso's further innovation was to pierce the closed form so that the painting no longer needed to represent the "skin" of objects. Those of you who are adherents to cubism can better explain this. Here are two examples of their work, Picasso (left) Braque (right):

Eventually, Picasso and Braque began to construct collages using every day objects (Carolyn ... your roots!) Collage opened up a new kind of exchange between art and life by suggesting that art isn't creation from nothing, but rather a form of improvization. This development complicated the previously established division between the "artist" and the "worker." The collage below top is attributed to Picasso, and on the bottom to Braque.

As an art student in the 1960's through 80's we were taught cubism to a certain extent, and also utilized the collage to practice design. The influence of these two men on my own work and training is enormous. While I didn't adopt the style of cubism, I learned a great deal from it.

Piet Mondrian, a Dutch Cubist, really pushed the envelope. He moved beyond an art form devoted to objects to one devolted to the relations between objects. Eventually, he explored only the relations between vertical and horizontal. This is a move away from the traditional use of "form." Here's a good example by Mondrian:

Again, in college we drew upon Mondrian's ideas to explore relationships in a non-objective way. Another influence on my development.
Before I leave Cubism, I'll acknowledge that there's a lot more to it and I'm certain some of you will fill in the gaps. Cubism had political affiliations and has changed form over time to include Analytical and Synthetic Cubism. This is not the road that I took as an aspiring artist.

World War I gave rise to new artistic movements as the war shook all of Europe. Dada and Surrealism emerged from the rubble of disrupted creative life in Paris, which had displaced writers and artists to places like Zurich, New York, and Barcelona. Dada and Surrealism were more than artistic movements, they were highly rationalized forms of counter-reason that became comprehensive strategies for living.

Dada began in a Zurich nightclub in 1916 that was set up to be an art gallery and experimental theater. The term "dada" means "wooden horse" in the sense of a child's toy. But, In French, it means a recurrent idea or obsession. The founders of this movement, Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara later claimed that they randomly chose the name from a dictionary. Hey, why not?? They avoided tacking on "-ism" because they thought it was pretentious. The art and performances at this nightclub were radical and emotive. Here's an example from the visual arts: Jean Arp made collages by just dropping pieces of paper onto another paper on the floor and gluing them where they fell. Dada eventually spread throughout parts of Europe. In Berlin, the group of artists rejected traditional art and the social system. They adopted collage as their style. In Paris at the end of the war, followers of Dada claimed we recognize no theory...Dada is rooted in disgust with the agressive and complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits.

Marcel Duchamp associated himself with Dada after rejecting Cubism. He wrote: I was interested in ideas - not merely visual products. He had been excused from military service due to a mild heart condition and spent the war in New York. At one point he began creating sculptures from found objects, which he dubbed "readymades." The most famous story is his sculpture "Fountain" which was a urinal that he signed "R. Mott" for a 1917 exhibition in New York. The urinal was completely unaltered, and when challenged, Duchamp claimed that as an artist he CHOSE the object and then created a new thought for it, thus making it art. This threatened the art world because it challenged the barrier between "art" and "life" completely. When you think about it ... what would happen if any one of us decided to do this today?

I honestly don't know what effect Dada has had on my development as an artist, except that it did expand my notion of the range of what may be called "art."

By 1924, Andre Breton and his associates broke with Dada and began a new movement in art: Surrealism. The theory behind this movement is the mobilization of the imagination and the use of the non-rational resources of the mind to create art. These artists attempted to reconcile dream with reality to create "surreality," which taps into Freud's notion of the unconscious. In fact, Surrealism is a refinement of Symbolism. Because most of us are very familiar with this movement, I'll just list some of the artists: Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Picasso (on occasion), Giorgio DeChirico, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, etc. Those of you who have better knowledge of this movement and its artists can inform us.

Here's one of my favorites by Dali:
Personally, I'm fascinated by Surrealism and have made several attempts to use it. I'm not as successful as Mark, but I'm working on it!

Time to move on to American Modernism. Around the time of World War II many European artists migrated to the United States, especially to New York. These artists engaged in discussions similar to our own - except in person. The first star to rise among the American Modernists was Jackson Pollock. By the 1940's he was in contact with the Surrealists who influenced his work to a point, until he developed non-objective "drip paintings." If you've never seen one of these in person, do so. The power and rhythm is overwhelming. His innovation was in distributing the viewer's attention over the surface as a whole and emphasizing its indivisibility. The work was spontaneous and deliberate. Art critic, Harold Rosenberg, described Pollock and his imitators as "action painters." They didn't create images as much as they created events. Again, we see a tearing down of the distinction between art and life (the artist's life).

The action painters were actually part of the newly emerged Abstract Expressionism. Barnett Newman, a notable Abstract Expressionist, provided us with this definition: Here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty. We are reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. OK ... this theory definitely contributed to my development as an artist. Newman's work has been described as "compositionless," where a single uniform color is broken by only a few slender vertical lines.

The dominant art critic from this period was Clement Greenberg (1909-94). He argued that visual art was finally liberated from the dominion of literature and music to become autonomous. This liberation lead to multiple inventions in art. He also pointed out that, over time, paintings were moving toward increasing flatness. The succession of flatness looks like this:

Manet - Cezanne - Matisse - Cubists - Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1950's, Abstract Expressionism was being overshadowed by new trends in art:
  • Neo-Dada- Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

  • Environments - Allan Kaprow's installations and "happenings"

  • Pop Art - Claes Oldenberg

  • Non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective - Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella

  • Post-Painterly Abstraction - Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler

  • Minimalism - (1960's) Donald Judd, Robert Morris

I'll end this sprint through the 20th Century with Conceptual Art, a child of the 60's. According to Sol Lewitt: the idea or concept is the most important part of the work. Such art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories, it is intuitive. In other words, conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes art.

Conceptual Art is less a movement and more of a fundamental redefinition of art. It had enormous range and moved from the borders of America to Europe and beyond. And, the enormity of this movement reaches beyond my time and words in this blog. At this point in my journey, it's enough to know what it is.

Next time ... Postmodernism. Two miles more to go. Boy, am I tired! Where's my sleeping bag?