idiosyncratic nature of practice

terrible craft

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I periodically 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. I sometimes share the letters here.]

13 March 2017

On the wall of the gallery where I show my artwork is a suite of forty-two small paintings of flowers by Lisa Daria Kennedy. They’re extracted from a larger body of work, started in 2009 when Kennedy was receiving treatment for cancer. Since then, she’s made one painting a day. On her website, she describes the process through which these paintings were made:

I mark each day with a painting. After 2500 days (including Christmas) I’ve no intention of stopping. Painting, for me, is a physical act of being able to leave proof that I was there. Having cancer as a young adult, I discovered living is not just surviving. I wanted a way to embrace each day, no matter how typical, so without excuse or hesitation, I begin each day by painting. The small, intimate paintings of ordinary, everyday subjects reflect an optimism that outlasts the fleeting light and fragile objects. I incorporate strong and exaggerated light sources, allowing the light to fill the empty spaces where something else could be. The paintings create a structural framework of self-preservation. Each of these daily exercises is a vital component of the project’s ongoing, infinite progression.

Talking with visitors to the gallery, I’ve heard many responses to Lisa’s work. People approach the paintings aesthetically, commenting on their craft and content. People marvel at Kennedy’s discipline. Some focus on the relationship between art and healing. And some are in awe of the speed with which she works.

I’m a fast painter, too. And I’ve recently been advising a fellow painter of the virtue of making a lot of paintings quickly. Being the way in which I learned to paint, and the way that I continue to make discoveries through painting, I assign considerable virtue to this way of working. Another fellow artist, who I greatly respect, also reflected this principle to me recently—which allowed me to feel affirmation for the advice I’d freely offered. He’d gone on to make that point that speed allowed one to make twelve paintings hoping that two or three will be of high enough quality to make it out the studio door. I couldn’t have said it better.

Yet, I wonder if I was right to offer my method as advice for my friend’s practice. I’ve found usefulness in a method I learned in art school, and I’ve integrated it into my practice, but am I right to assume that it might have usefulness for them? My experience as an educator suggests I take a broader view. I fully believe that art practice considers a number of factors, including the artist’s intentions, as well as the techniques, strategies and processes they use to create a ‘finished product.’ My emphasis on pluralities, and my belief in the subjectivity of an artist’s intention, lead me to believe that my advice needs to be understood in the context of my friend’s aspirations, goals and affinities. While I might find virtue in my way of working, and even suspect that my friend might learn something from trying my method, I can’t assume that my method will ultimately fit the shape of their practice. Indeed, my insistence upon my method might have dire consequence for their practice if it’s received singularly as some kind of truth.

As we begin our semester, these two experiences, encountering Kennedy’s inspiring project and considering the virtue of speed within a painting practice, have me thinking about the idiosyncratic nature of art practice. Consequently my antennae are up, and I’m finding references to these questions as I stumble through my days. Since articulating one’s art practice and one’s theory of art is a goal within our degree criteria, I thought it might be useful to share a few of the things I’ve been encountering.

To be honest, this first example isn’t so much of a stumble. Thinking about experience with my fellow painters, I was reminded of Graeme Sullivan’s work, specifically his book, Art Practice As Research: Inquiry in the Visual Arts. I experience painting as a research practice. In short, I paint to learn. Perhaps the most convincing way to quickly articulate my experience of art practice as research is to speak of what fuels the painting process and what allows me to know that a painting is ‘finished.’ I enter a studio project with a set of questions, sometimes related to the content of the work, other times related to aesthetic or formal concerns, and quite often with social or political implications. Very often it’s a mixture of these questions the fuel my making process. For example, my current work is concerned with both the social and environmental ecologies of my community and the perception of space on a two-dimensional surface. The works are grounded in a local context, and serve to add to the (already rich, historical) visual archive of this community, while also being concerned with advancing an art historical dialogue that began in European / American painting of the late 19th c. The questions and contexts of the work drive my making process, and I know each painting is done when I’m convinced I’ve taken the inquiry as far as it can go within a particular frame or when I’m convinced a particular image adds to a larger field of knowledge contained within the series. In addition to the processes I’ve outlined within the studio, other dimensions of personal practice inform my art practice. For example, walking and observing are integral elements to my process of making painting (and intrinsic to this dimension of my method lie the seeds of a performance practice that lives in orbit of or alignment with my painting practice). Looking at the work of other painters, studying their methods and understanding the shape of their lives, also informs how I approach the studio.

Graeme Sullivan’s theories allow me to understand the aims of my approach. In the abstract for his paper, “Artefacts as Evidence Within Changing Contexts,’ he writes:

“A central feature of art practice is that it embodies ideas that are given form in the process of making artworks. Irrespective of the informing sources, media preferences, or image-base, the artist exercises individual control over the creation and presentation of artefacts as forms of knowledge. Further, the images and ideas created have the capacity to not only change the artist’s conceptions of reality, but also influence the viewer’s interpretation of artworks. Consequently art practice can be seen as a form of intellectual and imaginative inquiry, and as a place where research can be carried out that is robust enough to yield reliable insights that are well grounded and culturally relevant…”[1]

Again, the subjective nature of the inquiry – evidenced by Sullivan’s use of words like interpretation and imaginative — seems to be key. And one can’t underappreciate the importance of the concept of inquiry in his thinking – especially when inquiry is understood as an act of seeking. While Sullivan is writing about the visual arts specifically, I believe this thinking can be applied to other realms. In fact I see resonance between his thinking and that of George Saunders, writing recently about the practices of writers in The Guardian:

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

Sullivan and Saunders both speak to inquiry and discovery within a process of making, but they don’t elaborate on the many facets of inquiry that might inform a practice. In the example from my practice, I allude to the fact that making painting involves more than applying brush to canvas, but I don’t think it’s in our best interest for me to elaborate my practice in this context. Instead I’d like to turn our attention to the performance artist, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and his essay, ‘In defense of performance art.’ The essay acts as a manifesto for his practice and is structured, as he says, through the idiom of cartography. In this spirit he offers this preface to his broader thinking:

I see myself as an experimental cartographer. In this sense I can approach a definition of performance art by mapping out the “negative” space (as in photography not ethics) of its conceptual territory: Though our work sometimes overlaps with experimental theater, and many of us utilize spoken word, stricto sensu, we are neither actors nor spoken word poets. (We may be temporary actors and poets but we abide by other rules, and stand on a different history). Most performance artists are also writers, but only a handful of us write for publication. We theorize about art, politics and culture, but our interdisciplinary methodologies are different from those of academic theorists. They have binoculars; we have radars. In fact, when performance studies scholars refer to “the performance field”, they often mean something different; a much broader field that encompasses all things performative including anthropology, religious practice, pop culture, sports and civic events. We chronicle our times, true, but unlike journalists or social commentators, our chronicles tend to be non-narrative and polyvocal. If we utilize humor, we are not seeking laughter like our comedian cousins. We are more interested in provoking the ambivalence of melancholic giggling or painful smiles, though an occasional outburst of laughter is always welcome.

This paragraph is quite powerful and it does a lot of work. In a sense, it could act as an artist statement, mapping some of the preoccupations and concerns within Gómez-Peña’s practice. It also operates as an introduction for the manifesto, outlining the areas he intends to explore. Finally, it provides a sense of the broad terrain and methods that inform and shape his performance practice, as well as communicating some of its ambitions. Taken as a whole, the essay would be a fantastic thesis.

The reflections in this letter are intentionally broad, but intended to communicate the way various artists work to articulate some of the concerns embedded in our degree criteria – especially in relation to the questions about practice and praxis. I hope these examples help you see that the degree criteria aren’t simply an academic exercise, but rather have been crafted to be useful companions over a lifetime. Furthermore, I hope my reflections can provide some common points of reference for our individual dialogue as the semester progresses.

 

[1] Although the link to the specific paper is broken, this quotation is cited on a web page that archives chapters of Sullivan’s book, Art Practice As Research: Inquiry in the Visual Arts: https://thinkingpractices.wordpress.com/theories-of-art-practices-as-research/

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