On Originality, Part 2

Contemporary painting by Lee Puffer

Neon Yellow, by Lee Puffer. 2016. Watercolor on paper.

Recently I wrote about the urge to be original, observing that young artists are especially  concerned with making something absolutely “new”. I believe that research and study is an integral part of art-making. When artists have done thourough research,  they almost always find artists who have made work similar to what they are making.

Indeed the point of research is to find the other artists, either historical or contemporary, whose work shares qualities with our own work. There are several reasons why this matters:

Most importantly, other artists will inspire us. We call this inspiration “influence”. We will see how other artists approached issues, materials, and expression and learn from their progress.

We are required to know who our influences are. Our first influences are usually our teachers, parents, or peers. As we develop the practice of research, our influences will grow and change. This is a valuable, even critical, part of artistic identity. We are all members of a continuum, it is important to remember that.
Also, from other artists with whom we share certain qualities, we will find out where our markets might be, who our audience is, and which galleries may like our work.

Ideally, when we connect with these artists we will find friendship and camaraderie. Trade secrets will be shared. We will know what to call our style or movement. Importantly, we will be able to put our practice into context.

Just as a singer needs to have musical knowledge, an artist must study art.  Knowledge should be both broad and specific. A broad art historical education includes at least a basic knowledge of all major art movements in human history. Ideally this would include art from all continents and cultures on earth. Along the way, specific movements and genres intrugue us more than others and we naturally develop a deeper knowledge and affinity for those.

Contemporary painting by Lee Puffer

Neon Red, by Lee Puffer 2016. Watercolor on paper.

Regardless of our personal preference, it is also important to be aware of art hierarchies even if we choose to disregard them, which many contemporary practitioners do. We must familiarize ourselves with the arguments surrounding Art versus Craft, for instance. It is valuable to be able to differentiate between High Art and Popular Art, for example. These distinctions are becoming less and less relevant to artists, but the philosophies that form the basis of those arguments still effect us.

Fortunately there are many channels through which we can acquire this knowledge if we are motivated. While Art History courses at a college or university may be useful and enjoyable, they can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. With a little effort we can educate ourself with books and essays easily obtainable through libraries and reputable internet sources.

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The Human Eye

I took the theme of Eyes literally for the exhibition, Through the Eyes of an Artist, on view at The Studio Door Gallery until June 29th, 2016. As it happens, my most recent sculpture and painting feature an abundance of oddly placed human eyes. The human eye, in absence of the face and body, appears throughout art history in a variety movements and traditions. Here are a few.

False-mirror

False Mirror by Rene Magritte

The eye is ubiquitous in Surrealism, an art movement of the 20th century that concerns itself with depicting dream states, desire, nightmares, and the bizarre world of the human imagination and subconscious. False Mirror (1928),above, one of the most famous paintings by Rene Magritte, seems to imply that human vision is limited, a mirror of our subconscious and a symbol of selective and subjective personal view. The eye in this painting has multiple functions, looking, looked at, looked through.

markryden14

The Apology by Mark Ryden

Contemporary Lowbrow or Pop-Surrealist painter Mark Ryden’s The Apology (2006) features a human eye in the center of a cut tree trunk. With themes borrowed from surrealism and painted in old masters style, Ryden’s paintings both defy and define the categorization of lowbrow art.

obscura_big

Obscura by Tony Oursler

Eye imagery proliferates in the work of contemporary international art star Tony Oursler. Here in Obscura, a multimedia installation 2014, video of human eyes are projected onto sculptural orbs suspended in the darkened gallery. Eerily subverting the art experience of looking at art in a gallery, Oursler’s installation is looking at you.

Tears-of-Joy-alex-grey

Tears of Joy,  by Alex Grey

The human eye is a common feature of folk art, mysticism, and psychedelic art as a symbol of higher power and consciousness. In Alex Grey’s Tears of Joy, the eye image is repeated until it becomes a pattern.

current exhibition of new sculpture by Lee Puffer

Through the Eyes of An Artist, and exhibition featuring Lee Puffer at The Studio Door, North Park, San Diego

What is Contemporary Art?

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.

Contemporary Art, Watercolor and collage on paper, by Lee Puffer, 2016

“Thinking” by Lee Puffer, 2016. Watercolor and collage on paper.

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.

Contemporary Art, painting, watercolor and collage on paper by Lee Puffer 2016

“Sculpture” by Lee Puffer, watercolor and collage on paper, 2016/

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.

Residue

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.

Residue, by Lee Puffer. Collage on watercolor.

Residue, by Lee Puffer. Collage on watercolor.

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.

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.

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.

Intervention

Exhibition poster for Intervention featuring Lee Puffer. Image by John Chwekin

Exhibition poster for Intervention featuring Lee Puffer. Image by John Chwekun

You Are A Conduit

"Push" 2014. by Lee Puffer. Ceramic. Courtesy  of the Boehm Gallery, Palomar College.

“Push” 2014. by Lee Puffer. Ceramic. Courtesy of the Boehm Gallery, Palomar College.

Your work is not you. You are a conduit. The art that you make flows through you from the convergence of the Three Factors. Using the diagram as a tool, you may be able to analyze your own work objectively, be receptive to constructive criticism, and be capable of offering useful critique to other artists.

For many artists it is challenging to accept criticism or suggestions from others, whether they are strangers or experts. Criticism from anyone may feel very personal. It takes bravery to make art. In doing so we are making our ideas, thoughts and opinions physically manifest, and offering them for the world to see. This is a bold endeavor. There are many people who dream of doing, writing, making, speaking their truth that never work up the nerve to do so because they fear criticism and judgment from others.

If we are fortunate enough to have access to individuals who support and challenge our work by offering insightful criticism, then we must hear their thoughts. We can learn to differentiate the thoughtful learned criticism of someone who is interested in helping us grow as artists from the careless criticism of people who do not have our best interest in mind.

Because art asks us to bravely state who we are and leave a record of our experiences as a cultural legacy for all humankind, it feels very important. Because we put so much of ourselves into the work, set aside time for artmaking, put in effort, and overcome obstacles, our art can feel very personal. If we can objectively analyze our own artwork using the Three Factors as a tool, we may be able to benefit from the input of others without fear of hurt feelings. The tool gives us a common language. The tool helps us to remove ourselves from the conversation.

 

Ale Cans

Gallery

This gallery contains 5 photos.

“Somebody told me that Bill de Kooning said that you could give that son-of-a-bitch (Leo Castelli) two beer cans and he could sell them. I thought, what a wonderful idea for a sculpture.” Jasper Johns
As quoted in “Jasper Johns” by … Continue reading