Artist Statements. You are supposed to be able to explain yourself as an artist. Give an explanation for why you “make art” and what’s the point of what you are doing.
“Trying to make pretty pictures” doesn’t appear to be a sufficient answer, so I’ve really had to struggle with figuring out what I’m up to. The whole enterprise of verbal explanation by painters seems kind of odd to me, since so far as I know writers or musicians typically aren’t asked to take pigment, medium and a flat surface and provide a painted explanation of their theory of writing or musicality. But it seems to be accepted without examination that unless a painter can provide an appropriately palatable word-salad there is no reason to suppose there is anything really going one with their work. Grrr.
Well, now that I’ve gotten that partly off my chest, or at least front and center of me, it seems that it leads to the related observation that painting is not intrinsically or inherently a semantic or linguistic enterprise. It’s first and foremost a visual enterprise. All the narrative, metaphorical, psychological and philosophical appendages that get attached to a painting strike me as not fundamental to the enterprise. At most those things seem to be potentially useful or shiny accessories.
If you look at the history of art, and by this I mean the actual historical relationship between human beings and attractive artifacts such as sculptures and drawings the interesting thing is that long before someone figured out that by rubbing charcoal on a flat rock one could “see in” it an antelope or bison or that by manipulating some clay that you could make something in which one could “see” the idealized female form, people were attracted to and collected pebbles and sticks or other objects unmanipulated by an artist’s hand, for which they could “see in” them something else. So, long before the making of the oldest know artistic artifacts, such as the Lascaux cave drawings or the “Venus of Willendorf” (circa 28,000 b.c.), people or proto-humans were collecting pebbles or other natural objects in which they could see another thing. Curiously, while collecting these natural objects, but long before people were making “art”, people were already making tools and other utilitarian objects: spear points, baskets, pots. Eventually, some anonymous caveman Einstein got the big idea that not only could you make useful things, you could also make things in which you could “see” something else beside the material object itself. But before that, way, way, way back people were picking up interesting things like:
The Makaganasgat Pebble, which is a waterworn pebble found in Makaganasgat, South Africa. 3,000,000 years ago someone recognized a face in it and took it to a rock shelter for safekeeping. It’s not an artifact or art object shaped by the human or proto-human hand. It’s just a natual, found object in which someone could see a face. Some distant ancestor liked it enough to pick it up and keep it so it ended up with other remaining evidence of their occupation of the rock shelter. A couple of million years more passed before people figured out that instead of just hoping to find a rock or stick in which they could see something else, they could actually take materials and make things in which they and others could see something else. (“Dude, I’ve got this great idea. Instead of looking for a rock with a face in it, lets just make one!”)
So eventually you get stuff like:
Venus of WIllendorf, (circa 28,000 bc). Hubba hubba.
Eureka! We’re making art.
Its just a wild guess, but I’m thinking that the collectors of stuff like the Makaganasgat Pebble or the makers of stuff like the Venus of Willendorf weren’t talking about how the objects made complex, metaphorical points about the relationship between self and other or the psychology of the self or the alienating nature of an increasingly technological society. I bet they said or thought something like, “its a rock, a frigging rock, I know its a rock, but this is so weird, I can see a person in it. That is so cool.”
And what that suggests to me is that what is fundamental and fundamentally interesting about visual art is not all the chit-chat and didactic propositions that get attached to it, but the two-fold, or maybe multifold nature of the thing produced. Its a material object, constrained and defined by its material properties (a shaped rock, a piece of canvas with blobs of pigment and medium on its, polyester resin dyed and formed a particular way by the human hand), but at the same time you can also see something else in it ( Chuck Close’s nose hairs, Giorgio Morandi’s various knick knacks, the artist’s hand, or Eva Hesse’s ambivalence). You know the object not really the second thing, the thing you see in it, but there it is, you see that second fundamentally different sort of thing intruding upon the material object’s quiet self-contained separate existence. The phenomenon is so familiar too us that it’s too easy to forget how strange and wonderful it is. Which seems to me to be what a lot of art theory does.
So what I guess, provisionally, is that painting for me is about not the flavor-of-the-month, latest fashion in emperor’s-new-clothes-theory that gets attached to it, but the more fundamental tension between the materiality and self-contained otherness of the artifact (the painted surface) and the various things we see in it. And it seems to me that the most fundamental type of thing we see in the visual art piece is something that has actually registered on the eyes or mind’s eye of the painter, and not some sort of synesthetic simulacrum or mere visual analog of some sort of non-visual perception or thought. I know the painter’s subjectivity inevitably attaches all sort of other things to his paintings, but for me it has to start with my actual visual experience. But I’m still working this out, so I’m open to suggestions or alternatives.