Creatures of Comfort

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Snake by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

We are creatures of comfort. Many of us avoid uncomfortable situations whether physical or mental. This can limit our health if we avert physical discomfort by avoiding dentists or gyms. This could limit our relationships and career if we avoid difficult conversations or people. To risk rejection and/or failure is uncomfortable. Artists have to take these risks.

It occurs to me that good art is about discomfort, at least a little bit. And artists need to be able to tolerate a little (or a lot) of discomfort in conceptualizing and actualizing the work. Let me explain.

Discomfort is a sign we are challenging ourselves. Therefore, discomfort is a symptom and a sign of progress. If we are challenging ourselves, this is a good indication that we may challenge the viewer. And by challenging the viewer I don’t mean we try to confuse or confound or repel, although that may be a result. Our goal, many of us, is to challenge the viewer to engage on some level, with the work. At best this engagement can be transformative, at least it will be thought provoking. Without engagement, we have clutter, stuff, knickknacks, dust-collectors. We encourage the audience to engage with the artwork in a meaningful way by challenging ourselves to invite discomfort. Evidence of that challenge is apparent in the artwork, and this elicits a response in the viewer.

What causes discomfort feels challenging is different for each individual artist. This is also true for the viewer. That is why different people love different art.

In order to make good art, the artist must choose one aspect of herself to explore. The artist must challenge herself to make authentic work about that topic, specifically, intentionally, and truthfully. The choosing of an aspect of the self to investigate is or can be the uncomfortable part, I’ve said before that art takes bravery. I am not talking about navel-gazing here. When I say that an artist must choose an aspect of herself to investigate, I don’t mean the work is literally about her, although on some level it always is. I am talking about the artist’s distinct point of view. What the artist chooses can be anything at all, from an in-depth investigation of the color yellow or a childhood memory, to her feeling on race relations or the state of the economy. When viewed through the lens of the artist, every topic becomes somewhat personal. Art is not the news. Art is the editorials. Unlike the newspaper, the audience is not required to know the topic of the piece. It is enough that the artist know and challenge herself to truthful representation of this specific idea, regardless of the form the final artwork may take.

It is this specificity and truthfulness that becomes apparent in the artwork and engages the viewer, even if the topic itself remains the artist’s secret. If an artwork is successful we don’t need to know what it is about or even to understand it, we need only to feel it.

 

 

 

Making it Matter

In late July I traveled to Vermont to spend a week at Art New England. Dean Nimmer, professor emeritus at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, my alma mater, holds a workshop there every summer. The workshop is called The 100 Drawing Challenge. I remember hearing about Dean Nimmer when I was an undergraduate at MassArt but I was firmly ensconced with the freaks in SIM and I never managed to take his class. Later Dean wrote a book called Art From Intuition, which I stumbled upon when looking for some proven warm-up exercises to use with my students in the drawing classes I was teaching at the time. I love Art From Intuition because the approach to artmaking Dean describes is so different from the methods I employ. In making my work I am rather logical and calculated. To begin a body of work I conceptualize the idea and message first. Then I decide which materials and techniques to use, recognize the influences on the work and identify the references I will (probably) make. I usually have a fairly clear idea of what the resulting artwork might look like, although I do allow for the work do morph somewhat during the making process. Any deviation during the making of the work is invariably an improvement on the original idea. For me the inspiration and excitement of artmaking occurs in the brainstorming and planning the work. As much as I enjoy making art, I love conceptualizing even more.

Lobster, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

Lobster, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

In my research for both my own art and my teaching, I have found it valuable to define, clarify, and analyze my artistic process and philosophy in order to understand it myself and explain it to others. I discovered that in my work intuition and insight are at play in the conceptualizing process. Intuition is also useful to me in analysis of my own completed work and aids in my ability to assist other artists in the development and analysis of their work.

In the actual making of my artwork, I never rely on intuitive processes. Am I missing something? I went to Vermont to find out.

Pink Mouth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

Pink Mouth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

As a sculptor primarily, paper and dry media are not a big part of my process or product. It was a challenge to work in media I was not accustomed to, with only the supplies that could fit in my suitcase. I brought watercolor paint and paper, dry media, and some collage elements I had accumulated. The instruction was to make first, in the spirit of play, and to analyze later, if at all. This process was foreign to me. I made some pretty abstractions. It was fun to play with paint, people liked the work, but I kept thinking “So what? What does it mean? Why?”

Why make art if it doesn’t have meaning, a message, a purpose?

Dean just laughed at me. I was missing the point. His philosophy is that creative expression is a basic human need, and that humans cannot live healthily, happily and fulfilled without creative, exuberant expression. Dean’s goal is to preach and teach this message for the benefit of all mankind. That is a noble mission and he does it well. I discovered, however, that the process of self-expression, as fun as it may be, is not enough for me. I need to make it matter.

Eye, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

Eye, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

Unlike many humans, I have always allowed myself the freedom to create. Finding permission to express myself has never been an issue. My issue is making something meaningful with the time, energy, and resources that creating requires.

In the end, I was able to see how the work I made during The 100 Drawing Challenge fits into my ongoing practice, and I added a few new materials to my toolbox. It was a week of great artists and good fun in a beautiful location.

What I did take away, however, was the notion of a 100 Drawing Challenge. Since returning I have consistently made drawings, posting one a day on my Instagram account with the hashtag #arteveryday. It has been 35 days, I’m hoping to get to 100.

This project is satisfying for several reasons. First, I love the lack of self-censorship this challenge demands. I will post a drawing even if I don’t think it’s great. I do not disallow any ideas. Second, it is very gratifying to quickly express ideas in art . This is a big change for me. While I do work consistently on my sculpture, it often takes months or even years to see a finished sculpture in its entirety. Seeing a finished work daily is keeping me excited and disciplined with my large, long-term projects. Thirdly and unexpectedly, while engaging daily with the Instagram community, I have discovered many interesting artists from all over the world in the last 35 days.

Will I make it to 100? Follow @leepuffer on Instagram to find out.

Earth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

Earth, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything Goes

 

Anything Goes, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 10" x 12"

Anything Goes, by Lee Puffer. Watercolor and collage on paper. 10″ x 12″

Style, if there is such a thing, develops over time. Each artist is an individual and in the course of a lifelong practice natural propensities begin to emerge regardless of the material, subject matter or techniques deployed. No matter what they do, if artists are earnest, thoughtful, and true to themselves, the art that results will always look and feel like their work. The look and feel of an artists work can be called their Style. Developing a style takes a while, and is very personal.

Young artists often think that they should develop a style and, once established, they should not deviate from that style. This is a somewhat antiquated notion. In the post-postmodernism era, anything goes. Artists are free to use any material, subject matter, and technique they want. Artists are free to change all of that at any time.

Style is not a preconceived thing. The artist doesn’t sit down one day, perhaps at the beginning of freshman year of college and decide “this is going to be my style!” and commit to it for life. On the contrary, as artists continue to make and research their art, and to learn skills and experience life, the look and feel of their art becomes more discernably their own. Eventually, art made from any material, technique or subject matter will yield results unique to that artist.

The Artist Gets to Decide

How We Measure Things:Difference, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and found object.

How We Measure Things:Difference, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and found object.

Ostensibly, Art is concerned with meaning and Craft is concerned with function or use. It is my opinion that the designations Art and Craft should be retired entirely for the sake of dissolving the hierarchy they imply. For the sake of simplicity, I propose that all objects and images made meaningfully be called Art. All idea generators and cultural meaning makers and value adders can be called Artist. The bulky and awkward word Craftsperson should be replaced by more specific terms such as Furniture-maker, Potter, Glassblower, etc., if desired. These people are Artists foremost. The additional, media-specific designations allude to the years and decades of study and practice necessary for excellence in each of these fields.  Ultimately, however, it is up to the Artist to designate herself or himself as such. One calls herself Artist, regardless of a mastery of a specific material or not, if she believes her work to function an intellectual and/or spiritual level in addition to its physical attributes and abilities. In other words, it is Art if it is meaningful, and the Artist gets to decide.

Benefit Auction Tonight a Bread and Salt Gallery

Tension, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and rope.

Tension, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and rope.

Compression, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and rope.

Compression, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and rope.

Poster for the A Ship in The Woods Benefit Auction.

Poster for the A Ship in The Woods Benefit Auction.

A SHIP IN THE WOODS will be hosting a Silent Auction / Indiegogo Launch Party on Saturday June 27th @ Bread & Salt in San Diego. As you may know, the A SHIP IN THE WOODS gallery is currently seeking a new location to house its innovative contemporary programming. Come show your support for this groundbreaking cultural institution. Get yourself a sculpture or two while you’re there. I donated the above works, Compression and Tension, to the cause.

Shades of Grey

Gallery

This gallery contains 6 photos.

There was a time when a colonial hunter would keep fragments of the animals he killed mounted on wooden plaques and displayed in his trophy room. These mounted porcelain double-hand sculptures allude to that practice. There are six sets of … Continue reading

We Hold the Rope

net shot

“Cat’s Cradle” by Dave Veit and Lee Puffer, 2015. From an edition of black and white photographs in series.

This photograph is part of an ongoing series of images and sculpture that investigate the notion of desire. Consisting of framed original black and white photographs as well as a series of unglazed white porcelain hands bound by black rope, the work presents a monochrome meditation of desire, complicity, and accountability.

We are ultimately responsible for our thoughts, emotions and actions. Knowing this, it is still near impossible to change or control our deep longings and desires. It is so difficult to master the mind, to resolve the inner conflicts that keep us bound and captive. We are trapped by these inner conflicts. Resisting them only strengthens their hold.

As with all of my work, there are both a personal and political components. The implication of this topic, desire, is broad because so much of how we behave politically is motivated or controlled by how we feel on a deep personal level. Shame about our own fears and desires drives us to deny, suppress, repress. Conflict arises when we deny parts of ourselves, especially the part of us that is complicit with all human perpetuated atrocities. Could it be that our dark secrets denied make us an instrument in a world that is able to ignore slavery and exploitation?

We all hold the rope that keeps other humans in bondage.

This piece is about desire, base, human desire to own, dominate, and control. The human propensity for unspeakable acts of cruelty and depravation is a fascinating topic. How do we make these ideas thoughtful, beautiful, and compelling? How do we make it relevant? This is the job of the artist. Our role is to shine a light on challenging social issues with deft use of arresting imagery. We are drawn in by beauty and provocation. Only then can we ponder the deeper meaning of the work.

(On a technical note) As a figurative artist, I am a student of human anatomy. This rather awkward and painful hanging apparatus was created in Dave Veit’s studio using an aerial yoga swing as structure, as well as the net from my Duende installation. Dave gamely agreed to drill bolt-holes in the beams of his studio ceiling. I took a few aerial yoga classes at Aerial Revolution to prepare for the shoot. Professional photographer Dave Veit did the lighting, photography and postproduction. More work from this series is forthcoming.

Kids These Days

 

At the moment it’s very contemporary to be cross discipline, as an artist and an all around human. The changing economic situation for young people has caused them to focus on multiple income streams instead of just one job. As full-time, career path jobs with benefits such as health insurance and retirement, paid sick days, and vacation, dry up and a become memory of how previous generations lived, a paradigm shift has taken place. And young people do not seem to interpret this as a bad thing. Never having had job security, a salary, or employee benefits of any kind, they don’t miss them. Also, many young people witnessed older folks lose everything while focusing on just one job or career. Young people see no reward for loyalty.

The Joker, by Lee Puffer

The Joker, by Lee Puffer

We have a new generation of freelancers. The ones I know are very liberated by this. They follow their hearts. They do what they want to do and they do whatever they have to in order support that.

Choosing to do what you love is no longer a terrible career choice as “sure thing” careers no longer exist.

Artists have always been this way. Very few of us make our entire living from making and selling artwork. We have always had a bunch of other jobs, skills, and talents.

Just to sustain a career in as a visual artist, and not even fully support ourselves financially, we need many abilities. Obviously we must be disciplined, knowledgeable about our own art as well as the contemporary and historical context of our art. We must be experts at our chosen material, as well as many other materials. We write blogs, articles, statements and thesis. We lecture about our work, using presentations we create. We teach, and we handle the administrative duties related to teaching. We do our own marketing. We are able to interface with and charm gallerists, curators, journalists, the general art public and one another. The list goes on.

These are the things we do; in addition to the studio work that is the core of our practice, in order to be able to continue making our art. Even the most successful among us still need additional income to survive.

So we do the jobs that earn us a living. These other jobs require a host other skills. In this way we are like the youth of today, freelancers, multidisciplinary. Artists always have been. Artists have always found creative and individual solutions to the challenge of making a living and sustaining an art practice. Who is to say one way is more valuable than another? Now that other more stable career choices have lost their promise of security, we artists are more equipped than anyone to adapt. Just like the young people for whom security has never existed in their lifetimes, the same has always been true for many of us artists.

The youth of today are artists but they do not define themselves as such. It used to be that if you were a painter, you couldn’t be taken seriously if you also enjoyed fashion and beauty. If you were an actor, you wouldn’t also be a fashion designer. If you were a potter, you wouldn’t also direct music videos, or be a food stylist, or have a handbag line. As artists it was even worse if you had a professional career. Then you were a sellout, abandoning your art. Painting on the weekends was not good enough. It used to be that having multiple interests or a conflicting career defined you as a dilettante or a hobbyist. Not anymore.

There’s a reason freelancers are bright-eyed and bushy tailed. We have to hustle. We have to take the best/first offer instead of waiting for that contract that may never come. We don’t expect our tenured colleagues to understand, but we kind of wish they did. Our experience is different than theirs; it is in fact a lot more like the challenges that face their students. Tenured Faculty, there’s a benefit in making an effort to comprehend your freelancing/adjuncting brethren, you’ll understand your students a little better, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critique vs Coaching

At its very best, an art critique is a very high-level and personal conversation with professional(s) who care about your work and development as an artist. As an artist and an educator I have been present at many critiques, both as participant and facilitator. In a traditional art critique the goal is to more deeply understand the artwork in question. This deeper understanding helps art instructors evaluate the artwork, often for a grade. Critiques in art departments are frequently scheduled in advance and serve as a deadline for the completion, or near completion, of an artwork or series. Participants include the artist and the instructor. There may also be other professors, invited guests, and other artists in the class or program. Usually, everyone present at the critique is invited to ask questions and contribute to the conversation.

Ideally the artist presenting work at the critique will come away satisfied that he/she was able to adequately explain the artwork and that it was evaluated fairly. Even if this is true, critique seldom gives an artist the kind of feedback useful in improving and moving forward with a body of work. It is not the goal of academic critique to help an artist to overcome obstacles, find meaning, or to hone ideas for future work. The formal critique process ends when formal schooling ends.

Hoarder, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media.

Hoarder, by Lee Puffer. Ceramic and mixed media.

Traditionally a coach helps an individual player and/or a team to succeed at a sport. Coaches work to improve the performance of athletes and push athletes to achieve at high levels. There is more of a focus on developing the athlete and preparing for and maintaining a productive career. Artists could benefit from the sports coaching paradigm. Here’s what I envision a coaching-based critique to do. Since coaching discovers useful and meaningful strategies for improving output, sustaining production, overcoming obstacles, and growing as a human being, and critiques evaluate the work,

I propose combining elements of critique with insightful coaching to better serve the artist. The word critique is useful, and lends an air of academic legitimacy to the conversation so I suggest we continue to use the word critique moving forward.

We could now define critique as a thoughtful analysis of an artwork or series with the goal of improving understanding of the artwork and encouraging artists towards their best, most authentic and mature work. As artistic practice is a continuum, regularly scheduled critique keeps artists going and growing, while providing benchmarks and deadlines along the way.

Alchemy

Gallery

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Every once in a while a friend will give me an object saying “I thought you could use this in your work.” Of course I am grateful for the gift. I am flattered by the thoughtfulness and validated that my … Continue reading