July 11, 2008

Post #2- in situ. warning: long post.

I just listed a boatload of books at my GR site, and one of my current reads is James Elkins, What Painting Is. This is a book that is difficult to read, at least for me, without wanting to put it down and go to the studio. It makes me want to pick up a magnifying glass and look at every painting as an archaeological dig. It makes me appreciate stance, position, gesture in ways I have not appreciated them before. This would be almost, the perfect book on tape. The other being my 11 hour cd of the LOTR trilogy which we listened to while driving across country 8 years ago. I do disagree with his notion that all painters mime the gestures of the brushstroke along the canvas while all critics scrutinize. My personality type is one of not drawing attention to myself— so appearing as though I was conducting an orchestra in front of a Jackson Pollock, for instance, would not behoove me.

I will probably PO a lot of forks folks by saying this, but because it's my blog, I'll go on and say it. (Mwah-ha-ha.)

This: (in response to an earlier post over at the multi-talented Steven LaRose's blog.)

I truck issues with the words, "gift," talent," or skill" and I question these values in my art. Constantly.

One- Those words are usually used in reference to representational work.
Two- I believe that many people are able to see things as they appear, and render them correctly- with and without soul.
Three- 1826. Photography. Harsh, I know, but what can I say.
Four- What the hell is skill, gift or talent anyway?
Five- a) drill, b) something given or received, c) a contest

I teach drawing. My students learn how to see and how to draw what they see. Whether they apply this is up to them. I can prod, coach, coax and challenge, but in the end, it's them and a pencil and some other indeterminate elements such as time, tenacity, motor skills, attention span, goals etc. Lots of variables, including physical conditions. And while I'm at it, whoever invented the standard drawing bench was obviously not an proponent of ergonomics.

Every semester we have an open house and each professor posts an entire wall of their students' work. Each year, my students, as well as myself, look at the other walls and marvel how perfect those drawings look. There's a moment of awkward silence as we look at 25 identical skulls rendered in pen and ink or 20 cow skulls rendered pitch-perfect in pencil. Then we look at our wall.

Our wall, at first glance, looks like a ragamuffin army of misfits. Upon closer glance, not even, for it's very obvious- our wall shows character and struggles. Our wall shows difference and degrees of ________. It happens every year. Our wall look like 20 students made 20 drawings. The other wall look as though the Stepford Wives took a drawing class.

I ask my students what they think, without fishing, but I ask them honestly what they think. I do not mention my astute observation that we are secretly comparing the 20-50 perfectly rendered drawings that are barely, indistinguishable from one another to their drawings which are quite good, but more importantly, actually interesting to view. They tell me they prefer their wall of ragamuffin drawings. They talk about the variety of techniques and skill and problem solving solutions they've come up with. They share ideas and ask each other questions. This happens every year. I come home and report it dutifully to Matt like clockwork.

Okay, that's my little rant against the idea of gift or talent. Having said that, my BFF Rhea could pick up a brush and draw circles around me with a blindfold on and I'm pretty sure she feels the same way Steven does, that there's certain ambivalence about being good or gifted at representational drawing, but wanting to explore abstraction.

{addendum} I am also guilty for telling my girlfriend that she's really talented and that she "do something with that." It has more to do with admiration for her abilities that my respect for the practice of representational art. I can be such a turncoat.

So in the end here, I'm not sure I'm qualified to talk about gift or talent, because I am not naturally gifted or talented with respect to representational work. It's not sour grapes, It's just that it's never been an interest of mine and I've never felt the need to prove anything contrary to this. I've also never felt the responsibility to cash in on this, and perhaps this is where it becomes a bit of a thorn for me, because, I think at some base level, we're been taught to believe it's more of a skill, if you will, to make something that looks like something, really, really looks like something, than to slap a bunch a paint on the canvas and call it a day. I'm being a tad sarcastic here but I think I'm making my point, although I've possibly slapped paint on a canvas, just to hear the sound of paint slapping on a canvas. Flat 3" house brush. Try it.

Anyway, I've never felt less of an artist, or less gifted because I don't draw or paint things that look like things- but if I'm around people who place a hierarchical structure on representation vs. abstraction I do either feel guilty for thinking in terms of abstraction as though that's a highfalutin thing to do or I feel my eyes rolling around. And this is where I would be continue my debate on language vs. non-language if I were so inclined to do, but I'm not.

It was a long post, and it possibly sounds like a those who can't teach kind of post, but it's not. I just have difficulty thinking in terms of representational painting, so I'm outing myself.


mj said...

i'm with you. perfect, photo-realistic rendering is a skill, that through many drills, can be taught and learned. it's just an acquired ability that anybody can pick up with enough practice. getting students to see beyond that as a goal is the hard part, so good on you for your ragamuffin wall.

and no matter what you paint, wherever you are on the sliding scale of realism and abstraction, isn't long-term commitment to IT where the soul part comes in? i feel like i can look at either an edouard manet or a joan mitchell and know when either was really going for it, and cheer each of them on for rocking out.

Carla said...

Recently I was doing some wall finishes for my aunt. She kept asking me technique questions for applying texture. Her daughter, my cousin, had some project. I was finally face to face with her, and she tells me about all the abstract paintings in her office, and that she realised she could do that. I agreed and said, "Yes, it's very easy to make bad abstract art."