Art Making

You are currently browsing articles tagged Art Making.

2015-04-27-sallymann-635-jpg-optimal
Sally Mann (Photo: Liz Liguori)

Finding fully immersive distractions to defend against the relentlessly ugly political news has become a daily ritual. Like so many others, I go out each day in search of sustenance in a landscape that has been ravaged by the locusts of lies, hatred and distrust. Protecting the inner landscape and keeping it moist has become an epic task during this season of my greatest struggle with EAD (see below.)

Books, good ones, work better than just about anything.

Thank you to Sally Mann for her completely captivating memoir, Hold Still. My copy is margin marked as I encounter her artistic insights and understandings. She is a masterful photographer, writer and observer.

For example here’s some of her wisdom about that inevitable process every maker knows about: You have one lucky break—a great painting or photograph or poem emerges out of nowhere. That success brings on a “cocky confidence,” but the next attempts all fail. On cue, the voices of doubt and despair appear and suggest you just give up. They tell you that you have made all the good works you can and that you have nothing more to say.

Mann shares her experience:

That voice is easy to believe…it leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

So you soldier on, with just enough good outcomes to keep you going. Soon new work appears, and with it comes the disempowering of the older work. So the struggle continues.

Others looking in from the outside don’t understand how this works and how this feels.

How can they understand the paralyzing, dry-well fear I live with from one good picture to the impossible next? Who can know the agony of tamped-down hope between the shutter’s release and the image in the developer? Or the reckless joy when I realize that, at last, I have a good one; eagerly, my ebbing confidence throws off the winding-sheet and resumes business at the old headquarters, a wondrous resurrection.

But of course, it is also a fleeting one. It lasts about as long as the exquisite apex of a wave and, just as the wave takes the sand castle, it sucks my confidence out with it as it recedes. In its wake, it leaves the freshly exposed reminder that, however good that last image was, the next picture must be better. Each good new picture always holds despair within it, for it raises the ante for the ones that follow…

I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

So here’s to those who slog through to get to those good new pictures, paintings, plays, poems, music. And here’s to the slogging we also have ahead of us in repairing a political landscape drained of compassion, empathy and collaboration. Taking some wisdom from Mann, it isn’t heroic but a plodding, obdurate effort that hopefully brings about a benediction.

_____
*EAD: Election Addiction Disorder. Thank you to my friend, psychiatrist Harvey Roy Greenberg, for sharing his wickedly funny, DSM-ready description of the epidemic that overtook so many of us these last few months.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

pfaffprimo
Judy Pfaff at Wheaton College

Judy Pfaff is an artist’s artist. Perhaps I should be more specific and say she is my kind of artist’s artist. And “my kind of artist” is a much bigger category than me and my friends. Legions of us have followed her for years, and we keep being compelled, enthralled, delighted and at times left speechless by the stamina of this woman who is part whirling dervish and part postmodern alchemist. There’s no flagging or slowing down with this one. Great work just keeps coming from this timeless, energetic and passionate artist.

If you are in the Boston area, you have a chance to see a spectacular selection of her work at Wheaton College in Norton: Judy Pfaff: Drawing Thick and Thin.

This show is full of those Pfaffian marvels—exploding images and colors in every shape and size, natural elements such as leaves and branches alongside industrial materials including foam and flexible ducting, plastic that has been made to look like molten glass, wall colors individualized for specific pieces, cut outs and mark making that force the two dimensional into three, backdrops constructed from photographs and images, creating a veritable cornucopia of images in lively juxtaposition. The joy of making, looking, discovery—this whole show is an unabashed celebration of just being alive.

I’ve written about Pfaff many times on Slow Muse. In an interview with Constance Lewallen published by Crown Point Press a few years ago, Pfaff had words that are still feel relevant and meaningful to this current show as well as the larger arena of art making that is coming from a like-minded place:

Lewallen: [Your] work is not ironic as so much of the work being shown today, in which the artist is the art critic as well…You once said to me that a positive way of looking at this phenomenon is that now artists have created another arena for themselves–they can be critics, they can be businessmen.

Pfaff: When I am in a generous mood I think that. But often I think it is very depressing that the whole art world seems to demonstrate that attitude now—cool, detached, competent. I think one of the things about being an artist is that you should be allowed to test murky, unclear, unsure territory or all you have left are substitutes that signify these positions. Having it all together is the least interesting thing in art, in being alive.

Lewallen: Someone once wrote that your work deals with art at the fringes of confusion of life itself.

Pfaff: I like that.

I spent two hours in the gallery today, and I hope I can return again. I’ve posted a slew of images below, many of them detailed views, that speak to the extraordinary richness of Pfaff’s multidimensional explorations into the “murky, unclear and unsure territory” that is her art making.

The show runs through November 11. Kudos to Gallery Director Michele L’Heureux for making this exhibit happen. For more information about the exhibit, click here.

pfaff1

pfaffinstall1

pfaff2

pfaff3

pfaff4

pfaff5

pfaff6

pfaff9

pfaff10

pfaff11

pfaff12

pfaff13

pfaff14

pfaff15

pfaff16

pfaff18

pfaff19

pfaffinstall5

pfaff20

pfaff21

pfaff22

pfaffinstall2

pfaffinstall3

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

dewaal
Edmund de Waal installation currently on view at the Princeton Museum

With the publication and international success of his family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal became a literary sensation before many knew he was, first and foremost, an artist whose specialty is ceramics. Notoriety tends to spills over, and soon his artistic efforts were being heralded as well. In 2013 an installation of his work was featured at Gagosian Gallery in New York.

Not everyone was a fan of that show. New York Times’ Roberta Smith was dismissive (“Time spent with Mr. de Waal’s work can teach a lot about the nuances of ceramics, but his work is ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve”.) I was moved by the energy of his intentions, but I did have mixed feelings about such quiet, contemplative work being displayed in an environment like Gagosian where the high pitched din of art commodification drowns out the subtle registers.

While the context did seem wrong to me, so many other things about de Waal’s approach seemed right. In an interview with Iain Millar, de Waal speaks in a way that feel very aligned with my views:

One of the really interesting things in contemporary art is about the loss of time. The process is neutral, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but long looking and long making do something different from short looking and short making.

He also addresses his discomfort when the making and the selling are too closely aligned, and more boldly, of his dislike of art fairs:

Millar: I was wondering what would bring you out in hives again.

de Waal: When I discovered that I don’t agree with art fairs, that an artist going to art fairs make me ill…

Millar: You’re a refusnik?

de Waal: The brutality and the commodification of what you’ve just done is just too total for me. I’m English enough to enjoy that separation. I like making stuff, talking about how it’s going to be curated and then finding out later about whether someone’s bought it or not. That interim process of seeing it being sold is a bit of a shock.

It may be that de Waal’s work exists outside the familiar categories, and naive is the easiest way to describe that mismatch. Martin Roth, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum said of him, “He doesn’t fit into a niche, and that’s his strength. He’s not copying 18th-century or ancient Asian porcelain. His work is completely modern, but it is steeped in a great knowledge of history.”

Apropos to that blend of the modern and the historial, de Waal published a second book, The White Road: Journey Into An Obsession, in 2015. In this volume de Waal shares his lifelong passion for his preferred medium, porcelain. The book is, inter alia, a fascinating chronicle of his journeys to the “white hills” where porcelain is found. His first stop is to the belly button of porcelain production, Jingdezhen, China. He subsequently travels to other “white hill” locations in Germany, England and America, moving easily from historical narratives to accounts of his very personal experiences of looking, making and connecting with objects.

It is his devotion to the power of things that most connects me with de Waal. “Thingness” and how we can sense their power have been running themes on Slow Muse*, and de Waal’s The White Road is in line with so many of my experiences:

I hear objects. With objects it is possible not only to sound them, name them and make sense of them through language, but hear their kinship with words themselves. Some things feel like nouns, words with physicality, shape and weight. They have a self-contained quality, a sense that you could put them down and they would displace the same amount of the world around them. Other objects are verbs and are in flux. But when I see them I hear them. A stack of bowls is a chord.

de Waal has described his work by saying, “It’s patently sculpture of a kind, it talks to architecture I hope, it’s very much rooted in poetry and music, it’s pottery at a very real level.” This book, like his work, has many tracks that all come together to make it a memorable and provocative read.

dew2
_______
* For more posts that explore the concept of thingness, click here.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , ,

vangoghbarcode
Advertisement seen in China last year

A few ideas have been perennially circulating in my thinking lately. One is that consensus reality is overrated. I am increasingly interested in connecting with what might be termed the invisible elements of life.

The other is that the perpetual 24/7 news cycle that permeates our lives is more destructive on our consciousness than we might suppose.

So when my friend Megan Hustad shared a link to this excerpt, by artist Carol Bove, from the book, Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, I was heartened to find similar sentiments beautifully expressed.

Carol Bove on art making and the concept of “time and information management:”

I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter…

And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.

Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.

One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.

Like “chop wood, carry water,” Bove’s advice is about daily practice and an approach to living. And although this is stated simply, that doesn’t make it easy. Some codes are never completely cracked. We all just start from wherever we are.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , ,

Making Space

studioat6am
Early morning light, South Boston

The ease of viewing contemporary work today is staggering. The steady flow of images on Facebook, Instagram and online art sites brings thousands of images from all over the globe into easy view every day. When I first started as an artist, new work came to me through two or three art publications, gallery visits or the occasional invitation to a friend’s studio. This change in exposure is exponential.

In all this art viewing, some work speaks to me and some does not. Often however I see new work that I admire, and at times my admiration can spill over into the personal, taking the form of comparing or self questioning: How does my work stack up? Is this better at doing what I am trying to do than my own?

For years I have been advocating the importance for an artist to possess a strong sense of self direction and clarity. It now seems that being connected to one’s essence is more important than ever. It is in that effort that I preserve my studio space as a barrage-free safe zone. Of course new ideas and approaches are constantly being explored, but bringing them into the process of my work is a delicate, alchemical thing. I have learned from experience that it must be done with care.

I thought about that as I read a short piece by Sarah Manguso, Green-Eyed Verbs, which recently appeared in the New York Times. (Her book, Ongoingness, knocked me out when I read it last year, written about here.). Her topic is the envy that writers (and by association, other creatives) harbor towards the work of others. As she did in Ongoingness, Manguso fearlessly turns us over for a ventral examination of those darker underbelly issues of life. In her hands that exposure isn’t harsh, hurtful or demeaning. It is more like a good scrub, a much needed grooming of that hidden side of us.

In her article she talks cuts through the admiration and envy to what really matters:

I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

It’s a simple test, and it brings me back around to my own grounded place.

Surrounded as we are by great works—languaged, visual, aural, all of it—we do need a tool or aid that can help us hold the balance between admiration of others and devotion to our own work. “The way to honor great work is to love it, then turn away from it as you write,” Manguso advises. “No imitation, no pastiche.”

She goes on:

All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.

“Allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.” A beautiful description of humility.

And humility is, as my regular readers know, a favorite theme. A search on that term produced a list of nearly 20 previously written posts. So here’s one more.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , , ,

Sleep On It


Installation by Jan Baker, RISD

Kyna Leski is a teacher, architect and artist. Her book, The Storm of Creativity, is a thoughtful journey through the process of bringing something into form that does not yet exist.

Leski does not take an authoritative approach, gratefully, and she leaves lots of room for her “map” to speak to the highly personal nature of creativity. But her categories—which are each a chapter—make for a good list of guide posts:

Creativity as Storm
Unlearning
Problem Making
Gathering and Tracking
Propelling
Perceiving and Conceiving
Seeing Ahead
Connecting
Pausing
Continuing

Here is a sampling from Leski on the subject of pausing:

You can treat your pause as the opposite of other stages of the creative process…Instead of connecting, take a break. Not tracking, but being tracked by the exact idea, answer, insight that you were seeking and tracking. Rather than gathering, let go. Instead of paying attention, be distracted. No propelling, but stopping the current motion of the process. “Sleep on it.”

I see pausing as an opportunity to see external to the frame you have already established, to allow new stimuli to enter the creative process, to prompt another idea. It is a chance to step off the reiterative track of logical decisions. It frees you from the concrete and reintroduces abstraction. It can be the chance to transform what you are working on through connections not previously made. By stopping, for whatever length of time, you weaken your willful grip, and can become more open and more open minded.

That’s good material for my week away from the studio.

Thank you to my friend Jan Baker for sending me this book.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

Swyers2
“Guardians of the Secret”, collage by Barry Swyers, an artist and friend who passed away earlier this year.

Artist Ben La Rocco in conversation with Craig Olson, on Hyperallergic:

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. I’ve always had it. I’m left handed, mildly dyslexic as a kid, which I think are physical symptoms of doubt: do I really have to do things the way I’m being shown? I’m not sure I’ve jettisoned any principles in my work because I’ve always felt it was incumbent on me to go beyond whatever understanding I had of what I’ve been taught. So art is always transforming itself, which I guess doesn’t leave much room for formal considerations. And I’m not a formalist. I’ve always believed in the space where painting joins all the other arts—performance for example. To access this space we must always question all of our presuppositions, all of our training.

So the materials that I work with are always a means to this end. I want to know how to respect the nature of an object—to let it be itself—and at the same time allow imaginative transformation to act upon it. I want to see the intertwining of fantasy and reality as it takes place. My will is to remove my will from the situation! I’m glad you see a subversive quality in the work. From my perspective, seeing the work on display, it’s striking how much I’ve imposed myself on the material.

There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. This passage resonates with my rule bending/breaking, transgressively-inclined, “don’t tell me what to do” nature. Of course we all make choices about what to jettison and what to keep, in art making and in our lives. But La Rocco’s honesty is particularly refreshing and reassuring.

Barry Swyers* created work that hovers above that volatile border between the sacred and the profane. A monk who left the monastic life to live in San Francisco, his work explored that intersection with tenacity, intelligence and delight. His collages create images and symbols that invite viewers into an unexpectedly transcendent view. His pieces lift something in me.

My work has a transcendent intention as well, but I am using the language of nonrepresentationalism to explore the relationship between the material and the spiritual. I am interested in how matter transcends sheer physicality and crosses over into the transcendent, into the sacralized. While Barry and I work in very different styles and content, our work shares a kind of outsider sensibility, an interest in creating an alternative sense of this shared reality.

The refrain from a song on Servant of Love, the latest release from the genre-resistant Patty Griffin, keeps playing in my head:

There isn’t one way
There isn’t one way
There’s just your way for you
And that’s the right way.

Going back into the Slow Muse archive, I found a number of posts that touch into a similar theme: art that takes a counter position, works that stays true—stubbornly—to what feels “right” to the artist in the most personal sense. Here are a few additional Slow Muse links if this is a theme that speaks to you too:

Transgressive Women

In the End, You Can’t Tell Me What to Do

Keeping it Fresh

Bruce Conner: Authentic Tomfoolery

Aware, Aware, Aware

Tribeswoman

Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

*Barry Swyers had a supportive circle of friends and admirers in his life, including my friends Kevin Simmers and Ed Carrigan. But he was not a self promoter. There are very few of his works that can be seen online. In addition to the piece above, I have two others in my collection, viewable here.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

Indian
In praise of the hand (found on a trip to India several years ago)

Laurie Fendrich (painter/writer partnered with painter/writer Peter Plagens,) has written thoughtfully about the concept of a “mature” or “signature” style. “All serious painters, no matter the quality of their work, inevitably end up with a mature style,” she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

She continues:

More than one student has asked me why I don’t ever change my painting style—to which I respond, “It’s not so easy.” My artistic habits—the way I put on paint, construct compositions, and come up with colors—are deeply entrenched at this point, and are as big a part of my style as my temperament. To alter them is not impossible, but there’d have to be a reason beyond anything I can imagine.

What does signatory actually mean in an artistic sense? What is the power of the hand, our hand? Willem De Kooning famously suffered from Alzheimers but still produced over 300 paintings during that last period of his life. Those late works are, in spite of his compromised mental capacity, essentially De Kooningian. The way he put on paint, constructed his compositions, came up with colors—all those entrenched proclivities that Fendrich identifies as the fundamentals of a personal style—were operative regardless of his cognitive degeneration.

All painters, no matter their style, start off as whales going through plankton—soaking up as much as they can from their teachers and from the history of art and all the art going on around them, and playing around trying out this or that way of painting a picture. Gradually, however, they evolve into horses with blinders—painters trotting along at a rapid clip, mostly focused on their own art, but occasionally looking to the right or left and seeing something that affects their gait. In their mature years, painters turn pigheaded. It’s the time of their lives when they can’t help themselves from stubbornly pursuing their one painting idea, whatever it is.

I’d rather stay a whale than be a blinkered horse. But is it really a choice? It is a fine line we walk, that is for certain. To find our way between gestures that are elementally ours and embracing the new and foreign; between repeated deep dives into that secret self—a cenote of complexity we continue to plumb for hidden treasure—and those breathtaking opportunities to throw everything overboard and start fresh.

How quickly I find myself right back in the paradox, the territory of the both/and, a place that is multi-dimensional and uncharted. This is navigation without a map (which is code for “I don’t have a clue.”)

But mapless and pathless travel is not without its own rewards. From the poet Kazim Ali:

You can search alongside others, but I don’t think others can help you understand your own nature…I’ve always been on my own, a single person in the field of physical matter, on his back looking up into oblivion…I’d rather be wandering in a trance through the streets of a busy city, peeling an orange and whispering to the universe than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon or kneeling on a rug reciting chapters.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , , ,

Tezoom
“Tezoom”, from a new series that seems to have a mind of its own

In an interview with the artist Claerwen James, she was asked about what useful advice she received while she was a student:

One was from Bernard Cohen who was director of the Slade at the time. During a lecture he said, “Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out”…You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

(More about James here.)

James’ words came back to me this morning when I saw the post below by Linn Myers on Facebook. (Her recent show at Sandra Gering Gallery in Manhattan was so fresh and inspiring.) I resonate deeply with her embrace of the mystery and the surprise that is part of the making:

Just finished this one – 41.5 x 34″. I like the puddle/lake/pool/whatever thing, where it opens up in the lower right quadrant.
I don’t think I’ll ever really understand my own work…

11201812_10153734650346450_5723706678913363770_n

To continue in this theme of being willing to not know, these final lines from a favorite song by Iris Dement are right in line:

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , ,

LE10021F

LE10157F
Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2006 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)
Lori Ellison: Untitled, ink on paper, 8.5 x 11″, 2012 (Photo: McKenzie Fine Art)

Over the nine years of writing this blog, I have returned frequently to the theme of staying open, vulnerable and accessible in the art making process. The Zen tradition has an apt phrase, the “don’t-know mind.” There is also a quiet word for this particular kind of receptivity: modesty.

Artists and modesty, in the same sentence? Some would say that isn’t a likely pairing. And some would say it isn’t a desirable quality for an artist anyway.

But it is for me. And that is in spite of a long history of artists perceived as anything but modest. From an essay by Eric Gibson, Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest? on In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues:

Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with”…

A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist.

Gibson goes deeper into these stereotypical perceptions, and he gets to the heart of a dichotomy: “Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as ‘imagination’s chamber’—with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone—that ego falls away.”

That is an essential tension that most artists confront: Receptivity and vulnerability are needed in the studio. But outside that space, confidence and clarity are essential for navigating in the external world.

It is easy to spot those artists who are very good at one end of the spectrum but fall short at the other. We’ve all known “atelier” artists—the ones who only want to make their art and leave all the external demands to someone else. Then of course there are those high visibility strutters, the ones who are gifted at self promotion and treat art making as secondary (or as is often the case now, turn it over to others to do.)

Like most artists, I would like to be good at the making and the merchandising. It is a balancing act, and there are seasons when I have to focus on one at the expense of the other. Meanwhile modesty isn’t a quality that gets advocated all that much. It is often equated with size, as in small.

Mira Schor breaks that open with an essay she wrote 15 years ago, Modest Painting:

Enormous size certainly intends to call attention to itself, but modest paintings are not necessarily small, and small paintings are not necessarily modest…modesty is not synonymous with a lack of rigor or ambition for painting. In fact, modesty may emerge from an artist’s emphasis on rigor or ambition for painting itself rather than for his or her career.

Schor’s words bring to mind several artists I admire. One is Lori Ellison. A painter as well as a poet, Lori was well known for both her exceptionally compelling work as well as her consistent and thoughtful advocacy for the importance of staying humble. After her untimely death in September, I have been going back to reread her words.

She shares her wisdom in an interview with Ashley Garrett from 2014 on Figure/Ground: An open-source, para-academic, inter-disciplinary collaboration:

[Ashley Garrett:] A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?

[Lori Ellison:] To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind—we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone—I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

That, that is what I am looking for.

As am I, Lori. As am I.

  • Share on Tumblr

Tags: , , , , , ,

« Older entries