Monday, March 1, 2010
Your Portrait or Mine?
Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 5: "Your Portrait or Mine?"
I prefer to get to the point of this section of Richmond's book rather than wander through all aspects of it because there's something profound here about how we artists produce our work. The question "Your Portrait or Mine?" refers to a project she assigned to students of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that involved creating expressive portraits. These students faced the problem of how to exert artistic control when confronted with the challenge of representing their subject's view while expressing their own as artists. And, due to the complexity of the project, they faced even greater challenges that are related in the book.
When I read Richmond's thoughts about this project and the difficulties that her students encountered, my mind began to race from the text to personal experience. Maintaining artistic control in portraiture can be difficult since representing the subject requires the ability to create a particular likeness while revealing the subject's personality. However, the artist always views the subject through her own lens, which automatically imposes other qualities upon the subject. This is what brings authenticity to the work. Since I'm not much of a portrait painter, I'll extend this notion to all subjects.
To me, artistic control means that the artist speaks in his/her own voice, and if that voice is repressed then the work isn't authentic. So, I began to think about what makes us relinquish artistic control; things like paying too much attention to the opinions of others, lack of confidence in one's own voice or ability, trying to satisfy the marketplace instead of self-expression, and so on. And, once we've been hijacked, how difficult is it to regain control?
This ties in a bit with some of our earlier discussions about the importance of using our intuition when we work. Relying on our intuition to a certain extent gives us full control of artistic expression because it springs from our subconscious. It's a delicate balance, and in this section Richmond includes a great quotation from artist Wayne Thiebaud: When an artist or viewer feels involved in a work, they relate to that work as a living thing, with a sense of exhilaration and freshness of spirit. It is primarily an intuitive process that can give the work a life force. In contrast, finishing off demands an intellectual process, a neat tying together of things in a way we 'think' is correct." Thiebauld strives to forestall the absolute resolution of a work which can be dangerously close to the art of taxidermy, writes Richmond.
So, when I ponder the thematic question "Your portrait or mine?" I consider who's in control of my work and the importance of the intuitive process.