Do not avoid conversations about your artwork. When you are asked to explain your work to others it helps you to clarify and distill your ideas. you benefit from these interactions, especially when the people asking are truly interested in the work. When you are asked to defend your ideas, you define them, hone them, and invest in them. You may state your thoughts and opinions, but you wont truly know where you stand until you are asked to defend your position. This is why presidential debates, and debates in general are important. It’s great exercise to defend oneself. It makes you stronger. In art you will be asked to explain your choices, be it material, subject matter, or style. Embrace the opportunity to have conversations where you are asked to defend your position, or to justify your choices. See this not as criticism or evidence that your choices are wrong or invalid, but as an opportunity to be pushed further into your certainty.
In its most basic definition, Contemporary Art means art that is made today, by living artists. It may suffice to stop there because although there are many more detailed and specific definitions, there are often contradictory definitions as well. If contemporary art is distinguished by any one factor, it would be that it defies definition. Contemporary art can be made in any material or media. Contemporary art encompasses all current practices, cultures, methods, and technologies.
There are some common threads that run through most contemporary art practice. Contemporary art usually references culture. This can happen in a variety of ways. It can engage with its culture of origin, or offer commentary on world events. Sometimes the artwork will reference history. Sometimes popular culture is a latent or overt theme.
Contemporary artists are keenly versed in art history and the artwork reflects this through subtle references or direct quotations either in method or image.
Contemporary art practice is not necessarily materials based. Artists are free to use any media and technique and often use multiple media. The use of new technologies, or at least and awareness of new technologies is essential. There are as many ways of working as there are artists. Art materials vary widely from the traditional (paint, clay) to things not usually identified as art materials such as found objects and the human body. It’s the artists utilization of the media that makes it art.
The unifying factor, if there is one, in contemporary art, is the artist’s concern for meaning. To take it one step further, I would say that art, for the artist, is a way of interacting with the world that makes life more meaningful for the artist and uncovers meaningful truths about the human experience for both the artist and the viewer. While meaningful experience has always been the result of interaction with a successful artwork, the notion of meaning being primary to the artwork is a contemporary idea.
This a very exciting time to be an artist as there are no limitations to what or how art can be. While some artists find this liberating, the lack of parameters can seem overwhelming to others. Artists must decide what methods and materials to use to say what they need to say with their art.
Art is an open country. Everyone can stay. In a creative environment where everyone is welcome, there are bound to be differences of opinion, differences in modes of expression, and delivery systems.
Sometimes there is chaos in my classroom. I see it as controlled chaos, but some may see it as out of control. I am aware of that. It is ok. Some may think that I am lazy and that is why I do not take control of my class. Or perhaps I am inexperienced and lack the ability to deal with the disorder. It may be that I don’t notice it.
I assure you, none of those things is true. I see who gets annoyed, who sighs and judges and shakes their heads. I see you. I value your comfort, I do. But I value the chaos more. No one is getting hurt. No one feels threatened either physically or emotionally. It’s all ok.
Art is an open country. Everyone can stay.
Even the noisy ones. Even the ones who mutter to themselves. Even the ones who ask the same question over and over again. Even the ones who need a ton of extra help just to get through the day.
All opinions are valid. You get to have yours, I get to have mine. That guy who is going to vote for Donald Trump gets to have his. We all get to express ourselves in art class. That is why we are here. We may not love the chaos. We may prefer a more serene environment in which to practice our art. Sometimes I prefer that too.
If you want silence, go to a library. If you want an open forum for self-expression, come to my art class.
Music, theatre, literature, and visual art can all represent the highest form of human expression. In fact, entire ancient cultures are evaluated based solely on their artistic output. Perhaps art is not valued so much these days, but that’s a topic for another time. Art matters and always will, despite current fashion.
Human expression needs an open forum to grow. An open forum can, at times, be chaotic. Controlling that chaos could limit the potential for human expression to grow. I’m not willing to risk that.
So what if we are uncomfortable? Art thrives in discomfort. If it doesn’t, it should. Sustaining an artistic practice demands we be resilient. There will be many things in life that to try to distract us form our practice. Partners, kids, and jobs come to mind.
If we can learn to create within the chaos, we will be better artists. If we can accept and appreciate a variety of opinions, diverse manners of expression and different temperaments, we will be better spokespersons for our culture.
This gallery contains 30 photos.
The San Diego Mesa College Museum Studies students stopped by the studio for a vist and seruptitiously recorded me talking about some recent work. Dia Bassett recorded and edited this video. I’m glad I didnt know it was being captured at the time, but I’m happy to have this clip now. Thanks to the San Diego Mesa College Museum Studies program for the visit and for all great work you do supporting artists and arts professionals.
These Punch and Fist salt cellars were made as a response to my awareness and unease about the culture of violence in which we live. Whether it is news or entertainment, violent images and stories are part of our everyday lives. There is also violence that doesn’t make the news; domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse. We may experience violence ourselves, witness it firsthand, or be involved in caring for someone who has. Violence is a part of our everyday life, sprinkled liberally throughout the day. We may have become desensitized to it, but I think these stories, images, and experiences affect us profoundly.
The Punch and Fist salt cellars call attention to the fact that we ‘consume’ violence regularly, much like we consume salt at virtually every meal. Made from translucent porcelain, the skin-thin vessel is punched, conforming to the contours of the fist. The handle of the scoop retains the shape of the inside of a tightly clenched fist. The result is a lightweight yet incredibly strong hand-held delivery system for salt. It can be used by the chef during cooking and then placed on the table for the meal.
This small object, the Punch and Fist salt cellar, serves as a reminder to be aware of the violence we consume, support those affected by violence, and to question the culture that perpetuates it.
As artists we are always making manifest our ideas, literally making stuff, physical objects. Some are good. Some are bad.
Some of us throw out the old or unsuccessful (we think) objects. The others we display or place in boxes in storage. After years theses objects accumulate, as residue of our lives. Looking back we can see the objects and remember what we were thinking, feeling and struggling with during the time the pieces were made.
If we are making life meaningful through making artwork it is because the process itself feels important, the results are mostly satisfying, and/or we benefit in some other way, by making sales or having exhibitions. What we also do is leave a legacy behind. Our personal histories are in those boxes and digital files. We leave this history behind, a record of us. Adding to the history of the era of our lifetime. Art becomes a record of our own existence as well as part of human history.
On the personal level, something more substantial than the trail of breadcrumbs that Hansel and Gretel left behind happens when we leave a path back to our former selves through our art. As artists with many years of practice and production under our belts, we are able to clearly see the arc of our development, to see how far we’ve come. Looking back through the old work is important not just for the historical aspect but for our current work as well. We change as we go through life but some fundamental aspect of who we are remains. It is fascinating to find the thread of imagery or issues that persist in the work throughout the years. It can also be helpful to be reminded of topics, materials and ways of working that once interested us. There was a reason we made these things. They are the seeds of our current practice.
I’m sure someone famous once said, “Work from your work”. This means that we start where we left off. If we’ve been out of the studio for a while, we start again by making what we were making before we left. It is ok to repeat ourselves; in fact, making things in series is a useful and legitimate way to make progress. Van Gogh painted the same bridge over and over; Monet painted the same pond again and again. There’s something about repetition that brings us ever closer to the essential truth about a subject.
Having access to our own historical body of work can be a valuable resource when we are stuck or stagnant, or having a hard time getting started after and absence from the studio. There are the dominant themes that we remember, but there will also be many other things in the old work that we will have inevitably forgotten about. These little surprises can awaken a dormant interest we once had. Don’t throw away old, seemingly unsuccessful work before completing a thorough documentation, it may turn out to be a future source of inspiration.
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.