[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
30 May 2015
I’m heading into the final semester of an MFA in Creative Writing. I joked recently that nothing got me back to my visual arts studio quicker than seriously shifting my practice toward writing. My powers of avoidance are fierce! And over the past few weeks I’ve felt a definite tension between these elements of my creative life. It’s prompted me to consider what I mean when I talk about ‘my practice.’
At Catharine Slusar’s suggestion I’ve just read Richard Maxwell’s book, Theater for Beginners. While it’s a book designed for theater makers—across the spectrum, but especially for actors—it’s also a book that I think would benefit any artist. I’ve certainly found it helpful in thinking about the nature of my practice. For example, in his introduction to the book, Maxwell writes:
“Around each audition, rehearsal or performance there is an expectation. There is a pressure for a display of talent, or ‘rightness.’ What will you show? How shall you behave, given that that behavior will likely be repeated?
“I offer my two cents from the vantage of a person watching, empathically.
“I should think years of experience would have led me to rely on bankable, consistent truths, but as I swing my way though life and career, cutting off Hydra’s heads, the reasons to doubt what I have learned seem to multiply.
“That’s to be expected, I suppose, when you work between the two vying realms in theater, that of the stage and that of the room.
“But in the face of uncertainty, what I’ve found is you can always return to the brass tacks:” (pp. 4-5)
This got me thinking about ‘brass tacks’ and specifically the fundamentals of my practice. As Maxwell writes, I don’t think my practice lies with bankable, consistent truths—and certainly not in the naming of things I make. My practice lies beneath those things. Writing and visual arts are languages that I use to make my practice evident, but don’t wholly constitute it. So what is it?
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of hearing David Hilliard talk about his photographic work. In the second half of the talk, Hunter O’Hanian, the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, engaged him in a conversation. An interesting tension arose as the audience started to ask questions. Hilliard and O’Hanian both focused on the intentions and meaning in the work, but audience questions were nearly all technical—about his camera, release forms and legal issues, how many shots he’d take to make a piece, the ‘found scene’ v. the ‘constructed scene,’ et cetera. Referring to the range of images Hilliard showed, including both erotic images and durational portrait work with his parents, O’Hanian asked an intriguing question, ‘Are these gay works?’ The conversation then turned to the content of the work, and the question turned to the influence of identity on work, even when the explicit content isn’t about that identity. This line of thinking returned me to my own studio, where I’m working on a series of landscape paintings. The paintings are engaged in a dialogue with mid-twentieth century figurative painting, they show no human figures, but somehow are engaged with my identity as a queer man—especially in relation to the modes of looking, seeing, encoding and decoding that informed my early identity formation.
Thinking about this more, I’ve started to develop a list of qualities, preoccupations, or modes of inquiry that shape the core of my practice. It’s an incomplete list, to be sure. But it gets beyond the surface of my work, and definitely moves past form. I don’t mean to suggest that I’m not a painter, photographer, or writer. Rather, I mean to suggest that those forms allow me to engage my world and my questions, but they don’t define my world and questions.
Walking | Encounter | Discovery: I’m influenced by the French concept of the flâneur, one who strolls without intention. There’s something passive about this concept, though. I don’t merely stroll to experience place. I want to encounter the world in a meaningful way, and to discover things that are unknown. In this way I’m influenced by Guy Debord’s idea of the dérive, literally to drift. Debord inspired the practices that underpin Psychogeography, a way of navigating the world that’s intent upon being present to encounter and discovery. I don’t want to experience the world on a macro-level—that is fly everywhere and see the sights. Instead, I’m interested in being present to the unfolding details of the localities I inhabit.
Observation | Seeing: Clearly these concerns emerge from the concepts that I’ve described in the previous paragraph. Another way to frame my interest in observation is in relation to the ideas of witness and presence. I don’t want to turn away from what’s before me; I want to see it. And I want to experience the sublime rewards that come from looking and then looking again.
Space: All of my artworks are concerned with perceptions and experiences of space—psychological, physical, and metaphoric. I am interested in the intersections of different forms of space. For example, in landscape, I’m especially interested in the intersections of sky, land and water; as well as in the ways that human ecology defines space with its material culture. For example, the lines drawn by fences and utility lines allow us to understand the space in which we live far differently than the open place of the sea.
Human Identity Written into Landscape: Human beings inscribe their identities onto every landscape. We put our names on streets and buildings, parks and museums. Those without the power to inscribe their names on such monuments write their identity into the landscape in subtler, inventive ways. It might manifest in the manicuring of a suburban lawn, the ornamentation of an apartment door, or an act of graffiti. We vilify graffiti because it’s transgressive. But I don’t think that’s bad. Transgression is usually tied to resistance. In this light, I’ve come to think of cemeteries as our graffiti of mortality.
Queerness | Transgression: I grew up in a world that said, by virtue of my sexual orientation, I wasn’t normal. It took a while, but I finally recognized that normal doesn’t exist, and conceptually is simply a means of social control. Normal brings no value to my life. Whenever I encounter normal, I want to transgress it and reveal it’s emptiness and inherent abuse of power. I also have the impulse to seek what’s queer in all things, and in doing so to look for the possibility of radical, new pleasure.
Duration | Documentation | Archive: My work unfolds over time. In this I feel a real tension. As an art student I learned the virtue of working quickly and expansively. It wasn’t unusual for me to be assigned to make 10 paintings in a day, for example; or fifty drawings in an afternoon. I know that transformation emerges from such intentional bursts of making. And yet I also know that my best work unfolds over many years. I build my understanding through processes of visual research, the creation of archives, and the repetition of acts of looking over long periods of time. Some of my work is about condensing what I learn, and some lives in the volume of data collected.
I‘m tempted to summarize these thoughts by claiming that I have a ‘walking practice’ or an ‘observational practice,’ but I think that’s too essentialized and even wrong. I think it’s more useful for me to drop the adjectives and think about practice as a constellation of concerns and actions that I engage on a regular basis, and that inform both the shape of my thinking and the ideas I choose to disseminate. Yes, I can parse that constellation, and in the appropriate contexts I can claim having a ‘walking practice,’ a ‘painting practice’ or a ‘writing practice.’ But in the larger sense I’m concerned with more than either acts of process or acts of making. I’m interested in the dynamic relationship between both of these modes of knowledge creation. You might infer from that last sentence something of our degree criterion related to praxis. And that’s the goal. Like praxis, I don’t think my practice is something I’ll ever achieve—far less something I’ll master. It’s rather it’s something I pursue. And pursue again. As I pursue the preoccupations that inform my practice, I hope I’ll make some things of value to others: breadcrumbs scattered on my path.