If I had followed the suggested reading schedule for Art & Fear, this month I would be deep into chapter 8. If I had followed my own tentative writing schedule, this post would be about the academic world concerns covered in chapter 7. But I haven’t made it to either of those chapters yet because my own work and experience collided with the book’s observations, and I’ve been thinking about – hung up on, actually – one particular topic for the past several months: Finding Your Work.
One of the core principles of Finding Your Work, the title of chapter 5, is that it must relate to your own time and place. In the authors’ words:
The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life… As viewers we can readily experience the power of ground on which we cannot stand – yet that very experience can be so compelling that we may feel almost honor-bound to make art that recaptures that power. Or more dangerously, feel tempted to use the same techniques, the same subjects, the same symbols as appear in the work that aroused our passion – to borrow, in effect, a charge from another time and place.
One of the authors (David Bayles, I think) tells of the moment he first saw an Edward Weston print: “In that instant an unbidden distinction formed in my gut – there were now two kinds of photographs in the world: the one before me on the wall, and all the rest.” But he also writes that it took a decade for him to realize that he could not and should not try to make Weston’s photographs; they were from Weston’s time and place, not his.
This discussion reminded me of something I had read earlier, and miraculously (especially considering the state of my house and studio!) I was able to find the article in my hard-copy of the Fall 2009 issue of the SAQA Journal. [Full disclosure: As a SAQA member I could have read the article on-line here, if I weren’t quite so old-fashioned. Unfortunately, the digital versions are only available to members.) In “Acquiring your own voice”, June O. Underwood wrote:
Other hard questions to consider: Is what you’re doing worth it? Are you creating something that is different, goes beyond, sits well beside, and/or perks up that which you are working from? If you’re making a Georgia O’Keeffe iris, will it be a pale version (regardless of how vivid the colors) of the O’Keeffe, and of the iris plant in your garden, or will it change the way we see and love O’Keeffe and irises in general?”
I am fascinated by O’Keeffe’s work, although I doubt that I would ever try to imitate one of her flowers. But, as it happened, it wasn’t the reference to O’Keeffe’s work that caused the collision. No, the collision came when I realized that the work hanging on my design wall at that moment was about to be caught in that very trap. Here’s what happened:
To increase my woefully small knowledge of modern art, I had been reading Abstract Art by Anna Moszynska. On page 119 was a black and white reproduction of Hans Hartung’s 1957 painting called “Painting”. The book told a little about Hartung’s life and work, but it didn’t really matter. I was hooked by the painting itself: the graceful lines hinting at sea grasses, calligraphy, and Japanese scrolls; the negative space around and between the lines leaving them free to the imagination. I felt that I could look at that painting every day and never tire of it.
I couldn’t find a photo of “Painting” but the image above of “L10”, a 1957 lithograph owned by The Tate, will give you the idea.
Well, I wanted to make that painting, or some approximation of it. So I prepared a fabric “ground”, a blank canvas to receive fabric “brush strokes”. The background hung on my design wall while I worked out the details of size and color and construction techniques….
And then I read chapter 5 of Art & Fear and realized what I was doing. Or rather what I was NOT doing. I was not “creating something that is different, [or] goes beyond” the original painting. No, I was trying “to borrow [power] from another time and place.”
That background is still waiting.