Saturday, October 24, 2015

Writing About Art (Part I)
Opinion Piece on Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

For your convenience I have listed other posts on this blogspot that focuses on writing about your own or others artworks:
Information Overload
Writing About Art (Part II)

When I was guest editor of Jane Dunnewold’s ezine - “HeART Cloth Quarterly” - and more recently as co-editor of “Textile Fibre Forum” (TFF) - an art magazine - I was surprised to find that when I commissioned articles from some of the most verbally articulate textile and wearable artists, they became paralysed the moment their pen touched paper.

As co-editor I was also responsible for the front cover, inside front cover, inside back cover and back cover as well as writing a column (Musings of a Textile Artist) and 50% of the commissioned articles. Janet de Boer (the founding editor) was responsible for the rest. Above is the front cover of my last issue as co-editor of TFF (June, 2015 - Issue 118). The textile on the front cover was created by Lucas Grogan.

Suddenly the “cause” behind their artistic “effect” became unfathomable. Sure they understood the processes/techniques that generated their artwork. Yes, they also knew their artwork was not serendipitous nor accidental but rather planned in a fashion due to the constant interaction as their artwork progressed between feedback and revision of purpose. Also, most of these artists found it hard to title their work; after all - they reasoned - why limit the scope of the engagement of their artwork with a title. Let the observer bring to the act of engagement their life experiences in order to explore and understand the work before them. Such reasoning is more common now than in the past, when story telling was a major motivation behind the creation of religious artworks (e.g. the Old Masters - ca. 1200 to 1830).

Giorgione: Sleeping Venus.

Perhaps the most famous artist who did not want to write or speak about his artwork was Jackson Pollock (ca. 1912 - 1956). In 1967 his wife - painter Lee Krasner - gave an interview nine years after Pollock had died in a car accident near his home on Long Island. She noted that:
“It’s a myth he wasn’t verbal. He could be hideously verbal when he wanted to be…He was lucid, intelligent; it was simply he didn’t want to talk about art. If he was quiet, it was because he didn’t believe in talking, he believed in doing”.

His refusal to title or discuss his paintings informs us that the act of “doing” was for Pollock “causa satis” - Latin for “reason enough”. In “doing” Pollock made choices: he decided not to paint in a representational style; he chose non-traditional subject matter; he chose large canvases; he created scribbles, curves and arabesque patterns as distinct from a grid of straight lines and geometric shapes. All of these choices were “willed” and so not accidental.

Jackson Pollock, No. 5 (1948).

With some of the articles I commissioned to appear in Jane’s ezine, HeART Cloth Quarterly, and in issues of the TFF art magazine, I came across the “doing” artist. I needed to spend time coaxing them to write about their artwork. Saying - “I just did it!” - makes for a really uninteresting article. I would encourage these artists either to find another writer that knew their work well and so could articulate the “cause” behind the “effect” or make the artist address and identify the choices they made and so write about why they made those choices. For example, it is clear that some homosexual artists make art that is informed by their homosexuality (e.g. Paul Yore in “Interweavings: the art of Paul Yore” by Devon Ackermann, TFF issue 118, June 2015) in the same manner as some aboriginal artists create art that is informed by their culture (e.g. Kieren Karritpul in “Kieren Karritpul: the new power” by Maurice O’Riordan, TFF, Issue 118, June 2015).

Kieren Karritpul, Yerggi 1 - Pandanus.
Technique: Acrylic on linen.
Size: 126 h x 75 w cm, 2014.
Photograph courtesy of Nomad Art Productions.

I find it difficult to understand why some people - even in this enlightened age - will accept the latter but not the former. Homosexually informed art appears to be difficult for some to grasp, accept and digest, whereas culturally derived art has no such hurdles.

Technique: Applique, embroidery and beading, found objects/material, beads, buttons, sequins, felt, wool, cotton thread.
Dimensions variable: approx. 2.9 metres x 2.5 metres.
Photograph courtesy of Alex Davies.
Image courtesy of the artist and Neon Parc.

If you are an artist (and that includes being a wearable artist) struggling to write about your own work or someone else’s then perhaps the tips below may help you to focus on how to map out such an article.

Writing About Your Artwork or Someone Else’s[1]
To write about art does not imply you need to be an artist (whether engaging in textiles or any other medium). Nor does it mean you need to learn a specialized vocabulary that only cognoscenti use. For example, most food critics have never trained as chefs! However, there are some descriptors that are useful tools in order to precisé the wordage of the article. For example, descriptors such as “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “modernism” and “postmodernism” – to name a few – places the artwork within a familiar category and context. These definitions (and examples) can be quickly tracked-down on the internet. Moreover, it is not necessary to feel comfortable with these descriptors in order to begin writing about art. The reader is more interested in the uniqueness of the work, the techniques used, its size and most importantly the “cause” underlying the “effect”; that is, what choices were made (“the cause”) by the artist that has generated this artwork (“the effect”).

Ferdinand Victor Eugéne Delacroix (French) – The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). Its Oriental subject matter was taken from a Lord Byron play.

We need an organizing principle to flesh out what choices the artist has made. Here it is important not to be too rigid but rather to use the organizing principle as a rough guide.
Note: The organizing principle espoused below is hardly unique or for that matter comprehensive. Feel free to add and subtract to it as the circumstances demand. After all, if one organizing principle could capture the entire essence of all art, art would stagnate rather than what it is - an ever evolving creative adventure fuelled by imagination and insight.

Subject Matter of the Artwork
The subject matter of any artwork is the sum of the identifiable objects, incidents and iconographic or narrative references that are recognizable in a work. Often it may help to characterize the work (e.g. postmodernism). For some work, iconographic references (e.g. symbolic references) are widely recognizable in a given culture and such references can be explored and written about in a given work. For example, the meaning of a cross or a crown of thorns is widely understood in the Christian West. On the other hand, in aboriginal artworks the Rainbow Serpent (snake) is associated with ceremonies about fertility and abundance, as well as the organization of the community and the keeping of peace.

Lorraine Williams, Rainbow Serpent Dreaming.

It is important to keep in mind there is a difference between the subject matter of the artwork and its meaning. Subject matter placed in a different context has a completely different meaning. For example, Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa has a vastly different meaning to DuChamp's Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q.) DuChamp allowed us to poke fun at and mock or deride the superficial sacredness that has attached to Leonard’s painting. Try getting close to it at the Louvre! After DuChamp’s work became well known, moustaches appeared on the faces of politicians and many other self-proclaimed famous identities.

DuChamp's Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q.)

It is also useful to compare and contrast subject matter in articles. For example, some of Jane Dunnewold’s ArtCloth pieces are influenced by Mondrian's De Stijl paintings.

Piet Mondrian - De Stijl art movement painting - "Pier and Ocean" (1914).

Jane Dunnewold’s ArtCloth work - "Untitled". Jane’s mark-making of this work has been influenced by Piet Mondrian.

Line is the primary means available for defining visual forms and so it is one of the most important elements to be considered in preparing to write about a work of art. Take for example, Dianne Firth’s Art Quilt - “Deluge”. Clearly the meandering of the black lines embeds the image of a river onto one’s mind’s eye. The thinner lines, which ape the contours of the fuller black lines and the grey expanses, highlight a breaching of the riverbanks - a flood of the surrounding district. It expresses - with a minimalist brush - a watery deluge.

Dianne Firth, Deluge.
Medium and Technique: Machine stitching/quilting, reverse appliqué, viscose felt and cotton.
Size: 139 cm (h) x 71 cm (w). Photograph Courtesy of Andrew Sikorski.

Shape and Space
It s obvious from the previous discussion that one of the primary functions of line is to describe shape and space. Hence you could ask - how do the lines describe shape and space? Is it in a consistent and orderly way (see Deluge) or in a disruptive or even in a random manner (see Pollock)? For example, Jackson Pollock never quite manages to define shape, let alone a consistent space, whereas Piet Mondrian had very definitive notions about the meaning of form (see above). Joan Schulze, whose Art Cloth and Art Quilts are influenced by the markings of Rauschenberg, clearly uses lines to create consistent shapes and spaces. In some of her works, color blocks are interspersed with iconic mark-makings.

Joan Schulze, The Angel Equation.
Technique: Silk and cotton fabrics, paper; appliqued, laminated, painted, pieced, and printed; machine quilted.
Size: 144.8 x 142.2 cm.

Light and Dark
In addition to the traditional systems of geometric perspective, one of the ways to evoke the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane is by imitating the effects of light as it falls onto three-dimensional surfaces. For example, my MultiSperse Dye Sublimation (MSDS) technique is particularly suited to contrast light and dark and so give the illusion of peering through layers of artwork in order to create the illusion of depth.

Marie-Therese Wisniowski, Gondwana Retraced II.
Technique: The artistʼs signature MultiSperse Dye Sublimation technique employing low relief items and native flora on synthetic fiber.
Size: 60 w x 146 h cm.
Photograph courtesy of Ellak von Nagy-Felsobuki.

Whilst it is easier to think about the question of light in terms of black and white, the same rules apply to color as well. For instance the difference between pink and maroon is that one is red saturated with white, whilst the other is red saturated with black. Yet color functions in ArtCloth work in terms more complicated than black and white. In the same way that black is opposite to white, each color has its opposite number. These opposites are called complementary colors. Complements are pairs of colors when mixed together in almost equal proportions create neutral greys, but when they stand side-by-side, as pure hues, they seem to intensify and even contradict one another.

Color theory is a vastly complicated field. Nevertheless, in writing about art it is important to understand the basic complementary and analogous groupings. Much of the power of Jenny Kee’s wearable art depends on her strong use of complementary color schemes.

Jenny Kee’s wearable art. Note the extensive use of complementary colors.

Other Elements
There are a number of other formal elements that might be important to consider. For instance, what is the texture of the artwork? Is it uniformly smooth and does that smoothness contribute to the sense of harmony of the work? Is the texture rough and how does that roughness contribute to our understanding of the work?

Norma Starszakowna’s - Razing/Raising Walls - is a remarkable ArtCloth work. Walls mean so much in the context of the holocaust. It separated, isolated and divided humanity from humanity as well as inhumanity from humanity. It secreted practices and moreover created a faceless and stateless space. Texture means everything to such divisions since it arouses a feeling of real separation. It was not surprising that I used a detail of her ArtCloth work as a front cover for the the catalogue of the exhibition I curated - ArtCloth: Engaging New Visions.

Norma Starszakowna - Razing/Raising Walls, Warsaw) - a detailed view.

The time dimension can also be an important feature in a work of art. In particular, Graffiti art images are found on moving vehicles (trains, trams and buses etc.) and are also found on walls. Often these images are viewed whilst the observer is in motion or in a moving vehicle. Hence there is a time component to this work that is not only temporal because of its ethereal existence, but also because of the manner in which it is viewed. This lends itself to artwork that has a distinctive form – graphic and voluminous typographies and images.

“Collaged, layered, torn, worn graffiti poster creating exciting compositions and juxtapositions of colors and fragments that have the power of carefully crafted collages”. David Robinson Soho Walls, Beyond Graffiti, Artist Unknown.

In another next post on this topic I will explore recognizing the principles of design: rhythm and repetition; balance; proportion; scale; unity and variety; questions on the use of medium and techniques.

Good articles on art never arise due to answering predetermined questions. Rather such questions only serve to help the writer organize their thoughts so that they can generate an interesting and thought provoking insight into their artwork or the artwork of others.

Thus you may ask:
1. Determine the subject matter of the work: does it have a title and if not why not? Does the title help you to interpret the work and if not why not? Can you imagine different treatments of the same subject matter that would change the way you understand the work? Can you compare and contrast the way this subject matter was handled with the work of others?

2. Consider the formal elements of the work and how it relates to its subject matter. How is line employed in this work? Does it seem to regulate and order the composition or does it disrupt and fragment the work? Is it consistent with the traditional laws of perspective or does it wilfully violate them? What is the relationship of shape and space in this work? How does light and dark function in this work? Is there a great deal of tonal contrast, or is it held to a minimum? What is the predominant color scheme? Are complementary or analogous colors employed? What other elements seem important? Is your attention drawn to the texture of the work and if so what is its relevance to understand the work? Does time seem an important factor in the engagement of the work?

Remember, some or most of these questions may be irrelevant for a particular artwork. These predetermined questions are not a prescription for successful art article on yours or someone else’s artwork. It is just a starting point to get a conversation on the move and moreover, to make that pen push across a paper in a meaningful direction!

[1] H.M. Sayre, Writing About Art, 2nd Edition, Prentice Hall, New Jersey (1995).

1 comment:

Svenja said...

Very interesting and helpful article, Marie-Therese, thank you.