Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monday, April 29, 2013

Form, Not Function celebrates number 10

I have been closely associated with the juried show Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie since it started -- and next week it will open its tenth annual exhibit.  The show is held at the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany IN, just across the river from Louisville.

To mark its tenth show, the Carnegie will be issuing a catalog, and in order to get the award winners into the book, they asked entrants to deliver their quilts a couple of weeks early for judging.  I had the pleasure of looking at all the entries on that day, since my small quilt support group gives an award every year and we choose the winner.

Here's the show -- spread out on tables and floor, since there's another show still up in the gallery.

It's always exciting to see the quilts come in for a show, perhaps even more so before they're hung.  At this stage you see them as individuals but it's still a mystery how they will play together on the wall.  I'm no longer on the hanging committee, so I'll be as surprised as anybody to see what it looks like on opening night.

Which is Friday, May 10, 6-8 pm.  If you're anywhere nearby, please come for the party!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Photo suite 70 -- Derby Week

In honor of the Kentucky Derby, this week:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thoughts from the past -- still relevant

Recently I acquired a pile of old magazines from a fiberart friend, The World of Embroidery, published in the UK, dating to the late 1990s.  I love to read old magazines, especially ones that I didn't read the first time around, and I particularly love to binge on the reading, going immediately from one issue to the next.  It bypasses the suspense of waiting a month for part 2 of a series, or for indignant reader response.

But there's a problem with inherited magazines -- sometimes the original owner has torn out pages.  You'll be reading along about something fascinating and all of a sudden, it's over, before its time.  So it was with disappointment that I got to read only the first page of an essay by Polly Leonard (now the founder/editor of Selvedge magazine) titled "Trends in textiles today."  It appeared in the July 1998 issue.

Leonard points out that trends emanate primarily from art schools, and that such teaching has increasingly been "issues-based" rather than focusing on functional and physical qualities of fiber work.  "Fine artists have adopted textiles and used them to communicate individual abstract ideas.  Thus the conventions surrounding technique and the use of materials have been demolished and reconstructed," she writes.

In the 1960s, which Leonard pegs as the beginning of  new interest in textiles, "there was a frenetic rush to explore the nature and potential of tactile material with very little critical appraisal.  Now.... artists are no longer preoccupied with breaking the rules.  Textile art must, like all art, be judged on its integrity rather than merely the current fashion of its subject matter or the novelty of its technique."

She wonders if "textile art" as a category should be obsolete, because much of it incorporates other mediums.  "In these works, the use of textile materials, if any, if subservient to the idea; the role of the category has become ambiguous."

Then comes the zinger:  "The policy of grouping work according to material does little to promote textile art outside the world of the enthusiast, and can serve to devalue it.  Good art is art, and perhaps bad art is more acceptable when it is called textile art.  Maybe then inadequacies can be camouflaged by technique."

That was at the bottom of the page, and I don't know what happened in the rest of the essay.  But there's plenty of food for thought already.

First, we are reminded that the UK has had a far more robust system of textile art education than we have in the US.  Whenever I read about the rigorous courses in the City & Guilds curriculum, or the (now-defunct) Julia Caprara School of Textile Art, I am envious.  Although some artists outside the UK are able to take advantage of this training through distance learning, we in the US generally see fibers as a barely tolerated poor cousin in art schools.

Second, the move toward conceptual elements in textile art hasn't been as dramatic in the US as apparently it was in the UK.  At least within the organized part of the textile art establishment, we're still largely still in the stage of exploring materials and techniques with little critical appraisal.  Even the quilt and fiber shows at the art end of the spectrum, such as Quilt National and Fiberart International, seem to be in this stage (although I'm interested to see what these two blockbuster shows will have on display this summer).

We used to have some critical appraisal in Fiberarts magazine, but that bit the dust almost two years ago.  Sometimes it appears in Surface Design Journal, the magazine of the Surface Design Association.  But mostly there's no place to look for comment on the big exhibits, or retrospective shows for major artists.  By contrast, these old Embroidery magazines have two or three reviews in every issue, and the writers have no problem pointing out weaknesses as well as strengths, an openness that would be difficult to match in US forums, where being nice is more important than exercising critical judgment.

Third, the reference to  "the world of the enthusiast" perfectly sums up the ghetto, or perhaps I should say niche, that most textile art finds itself relegated to in the US.  I am most familiar with the quilt niche so I will talk about that, but I suspect tapestry weavers or art knitters or other specialties could say the same about their own niches.

I follow the art quilt world closely, by visiting shows, reading books and catalogs, following blogs and belonging to organizations such as SAQA.  I can recognize the work of dozens of artists without reading the captions, and notice what's new and what's good.  There are many other artists who also follow this world, and there's nothing so satisfying as getting together with like minds, preferably at a show, for a good critique and gossip fest.   But we do constitute a world of enthusiasts, and I agree with Leonard that the very smallness of our world serves to devalue our art.

One answer is that if we want to be taken seriously as artists we need to escape the niche and look for all-media shows.  But I do love many aspects of that niche; it's been good to me, yielding a trip to Japan among other prizes and awards.  I wish the niche could become less comfortable and more rigorous, more like the mainstream art world.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sharing -- why not?

For some reason the theme of the week seems to be sharing -- authorized or not.  "Ask Harriete," a blog that I follow, focusing on art and craft, has been discussing the ethical issues regarding people getting information from a workshop, book, magazine or blog and passing it along to others.  I've gotten into a protracted back-and-forth via blog comments with Harriete Berman over whether it's a sin to do so.

Meanwhile, on the SAQA email list, people are discussing the etiquette of teaching a class or workshop based on somebody else's pattern or book.  To my pleasant surprise, the consensus is that the original artist should be gracious about giving permission to do so.  (Many past discussions on this and similar lists have taken the opposite tack, with people all up in arms about protecting their copyright.)  

I do agree with Harriete and others that it's a sin to commit plagiarism; that is, you should not copy a tutorial or workshop handout and distribute it to other people as if you had written it, nor should you teach a workshop on somebody else's pattern or technique as if you were the originator.  But I don't think there's anything terrible about passing along information that somebody else has written, or a technique that somebody else has developed, if you give credit to that person.

In fact, as I mentioned in one of my comments on her blog, I regard tutorials as free advertising.  Just because I've posted a tutorial on how to piece very fine lines, for instance, doesn't mean that people might not want to take a workshop on the same subject.

When you think about it, how much information can fit into a magazine or blog tutorial?  Perhaps enough to occupy a half-hour of in-person teaching time.  If the tutorial is interesting, won't a lot of people want to learn more?   (If a magazine tutorial constitutes the sum total of your knowledge on a subject, you're probably pretty lame to begin with.)

And people rarely sign up for a workshop simply to learn a certain technique, except at the really low end of the food chain.  Especially for multi-day sessions, they do it because they want to hang out with the teacher.  In such situations students learn a lot that's not in the curriculum, little techniques or tricks that come up in passing, or impromptu discussions of inspiration or work habits or organizing the studio or entering shows.

I've always believed that it's better to share information than to hoard it.  I love to do tutorials and to teach, and when people ask if they can use my techniques I always say yes.  After all, what's truly new in the world of art?

On the subject of free advertising, let me announce that I'll be teaching at the Crow Barn next year, a one-week workshop on fine-line piecing.  The 2014 workshops aren't up yet on the Barn website, but I'll let you know when they are.  And if anybody wants to come hang out with me in the finest quilt teaching/learning facility on the planet, I would be most honored and pleased.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Photo suite 69 -- behind the curtain

Screening off a big construction site (renovation of a historic building), a classy vinyl mesh curtain with cheerful pictures of hot air balloons.  But the brilliant sun backlighting the curtain revealed far more striking images: the shadow of the chain link fence just behind it.

a hint of what's behind

a peek through

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sign of the week

the poor side of town

Friday, April 19, 2013

The series returns - 3

I wrote earlier this week about how series progress, and how my fine-line piecing has gone through some phases of trying out new things.  One trend was to go from monochrome backgrounds to more complex color placement that starts to have figure-ground characteristics.  Another is to use stripes instead of solid colors.

Fueled by a new stash of striped fabrics, I decided what I had to do next.  It has been relatively simple to use stripes in the format of small "bricks" joined by fine-line "mortar."  I've made three quilts like this so far, and they're built up small-to-large, with tiny bits of fabric joined into modules.  I've kept the gridwork pretty much rectangular, so construction is straightforward, if time-consuming.

Crazed 8: Incarceration, 2010, detail

But now I decided it would be a challenge to use stripes in my large-to-small format, with diagonal lines instead of rectangular gridwork.

I wanted to work huge, as usual, but not huge-all-in-one-piece, since I find such pieces difficult to quilt.  So I decided to make four panels.

As long as the work was going to be in four parts, I thought it would be interesting to have the composition progress from part 1 to part 4, starting out simple and calm and becoming more complicated and chaotic.

So here's part 1 on the left, calm.  All the stripes are horizontal, all the fine lines cut from the same fabric, the different color areas gently abutting, the values restrained and similar.  And the beginning of part 2 on the right, getting more roiled up.

I realize that in my past works I've only had to make one kind of transition at a time.  In the detail shot of Crazed 8 above, for instance, I'm transitioning from a dark blue palette to black-white-neutral.  That's a piece of cake (well, it took some practice, but I've gotten it down pat by now).

But in the new piece I am going to make at least five transitions (at least that's what I think is going to happen; I reserve the right to change my mind as the work progresses).  First, I'm going to change from relatively large pieces between the fine lines to smaller pieces.  Second, I'm going to introduce a whole range of values.  Third, I'm going to use the whole color wheel.  Fourth, I'm going to mix up the fabrics within a given area, maybe even more than I've done in Crazed 8 above.  Fifth, I think I'm going to let the stripes be vertical and diagonal as well as horizontal.  And all the while, I'll be using a format of diagonal lines, much more complicated than rectangular grids.

Panel 1 was easy, but already in panel 2 it's hard work.  It's difficult to do two things at once, even though right now all I'm doing is trying to introduce a couple of new fabrics in a lighter value and break up the expanses of a single background fabric.  Haven't even gotten off the blue/green palette or let the stripes go in different directions.  And of course when you work in fabric you're constrained by the fabric you own.  No medium green?  Tough.

I have no idea what's going to happen next.  My "sketchbook" consists of words only -- the paragraph above with the five transitions.  So I'll have to keep cutting and sewing, one section at a time, and see where the fabric leads me.  I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The series returns - 2

I wrote yesterday how the backgrounds in my "Fault Lines" series matured from plain monochromes to expanses of two or more monochromes to, finally, several different values that started to become figures instead of just backgrounds.

Meanwhile, another change was occurring in my other series, "Crazed."  I had begun with solids, exploring various permutations of line and background.  In number 7 I started experimenting with print fabric as the fine pieced-in lines, and in number 8 and 16 I used commercial printed stripes as both line and background.

Crazed 7: Flood Stage, 2008 (detail)

Crazed 8: Incarceration, 2010 (detail)

Crazed 16: Suburban Dream, 2012 (detail)

My local fiber and textile art group has a monthly grab bag in which we bring in the unused stuff from our studios and it gets taken home to become unused stuff in other people's studios.  To encourage people to use their finds, we have an annual grab bag challenge, in which you bring in something you have made with what you grabbed.  In January I showed Crazed 16 because the lavender and aqua stripe in the top right corner of the photo was a grab bag find.

I commented on how difficult it is to find commercial striped fabrics in the quilt stores these days -- polka dots are all the rage, but stripes seem passe.  The next day, a friend emailed me and said that she has used Fabric.com for many years and they had a lot of stripes.  So I went to the site and sure enough, was able to buy $150 worth of stripes that met my strict criteria (hard edge, not wobbly; solids, not watercolor; straight, not zigzag or wedge-shaped).  Now I had a big bag of new fabrics, alongside the ones I had already managed to collect, all crying out to be used.

But what to do with them?  Tell you tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The series returns - 1

So after you've made more than 30 pieces in a series, isn't it time to move on?  That's what I have been asking myself for the last couple of months, after spending six and a half years with my pieced fine lines.  I'm up to 20 in the "Crazed" series, 4 in "Crossroads" and 8 in the "Fault Lines" series and some related works that are named something else.  The difference between the three series is one that may be appreciated only by their adoring mother, and the three approaches have occasionally blurred together.

I think I've pretty well mastered the technical aspects of this body of work -- my fine lines are almost always of uniform width, even when they pass a lumpy intersection of multiple seams -- and construction is fun.  But I've consciously resisted the temptation to do the same thing twice.  Each time I start a new piece I've tried to articulate exactly what was going to be different, and what I hoped to learn.  (I wrote about that a couple of years ago.)

Last year I was tempted by a SAQA themed call for entries to make a quilt in this style that was indeed a little different from its predecessors.  Check the photos to see how my "Fault Lines" quilts, starting with monochrome backgrounds, tiptoed into complexity with more than one monochrome background, got larger, but still retained their character as important line work on top of unimportant background.

Fault Lines 1, 2009, 34 x 35

Fault Lines 2, 2008, 35 x 38

Fault Lines 3, 2010. 75 x 78

Fault Lines 4, 2010, 76 x 76

Fault Lines 5, 2011, 36 x 41

Then with "Big Ice," the series suddenly took on a new character with a background in several different values of blue.  For the first time, I was working with figure-ground relationships instead of just drawing networks of lines.

Big Ice, 2012

This was new territory, and begged for exploration.  Stay tuned, and I'll tell you tomorrow what happened next.

Monday, April 15, 2013

People and Portraits

Martha Sielman, the executive director of Studio Art Quilt Associates, has embarked on a series of books about art quilts for Lark Crafts, each on a different theme.  Last year her topic was "The Natural World," and this year's book, just out, is "People and Portraits."

In both cases I expected to be disappointed, because representational images are so common in quiltmaking and, in my opinion, generally not very distinguished from an art standpoint.  But in both cases I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of work that Martha put in the book.  It includes long profiles of 21 artists, each with a half-dozen or so pieces of their work, plus work from many other artists in gallery sections of the book.

Each of the long profiles includes a detailed description of how one of the pictured quilts was made, which will be of particular interest to process wonks like me.  The featured artists talk about their inspiration, their background, their feelings about working in fabric.  Martha has wisely allowed each person to talk about whatever is important, rather than trying to pin them all down to the same set of questions.

Pictures of people generally are interpreted by artists in two different ways: as faithful likenesses or as stylized/abstracted versions.  I find myself drawn much more to the stylized side of the spectrum, believing that once you choose to interpret your vision in fabric rather than as a painting or photo you have already committed to a certain level of abstraction, and it's conceptually jarring to pull back in the opposite direction.

One effective approach is to use prints as value:

Margene May, John

Another is to use the sewing machine as a drawing line:

Jean Herman, The Episcopalians

In addition to the usual pictorial approaches of phototransfer and  painting or drawing onto fabric, the book shows many other techniques, including hand-stitching, machine thread-painting, silk-screening and different kinds of embellishment.  Perhaps the most unusual: Mary Pal soaks cheesecloth in glue, then manipulates it into areas of dense and sparse threads to form pictures.

There are a lot of books out there about art quilting, and people who want to keep up with the field have a lot to choose from.  I wouldn't be without the biannual Quilt National catalogs, and I think this series of books is becoming another must-have.  In subsequent books Martha is going to venture into abstract art, and I can hardly wait.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cultural identity -- an afterthought

Yesterday I wrote about cultural identity and speculated that a large portion of the United States -- the conservative, unsophisticated, flyover-state folks -- is suspicious and disapproving of mainstream High Art.  If you still need convincing, here's Exhibit A, from this week's Apartment 3-G comic.

Notice how the guy not embarrassed but proud of being a troglodyte.  That's what I was talking about yesterday.

But here's the best part -- in the next day's comic, it turns out that the art ignoramus is the governor.  I wonder if he will be persuaded that Pollock is art by the end of the adventure.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Back in school -- cultural identity in art

This week in art history class we read about cultural identity and how artists in the third world may have a hard time deciding which elements to incorporate into art.  Should they use their traditional religious or tribal symbols or the more recent historical artifacts and political ideas that stem from colonial or post-colonial days?  In a world of global connections and universal communication, it's hard to separate out what the artist wants to say about his own culture from the influence of other cultures.

Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist and scholar, wrote, "In such a state of things, the very notion of cultural purity can seem like something of a nostalgic fantasy...  No longer bound to a sense of having to restrict one's focus, materials, or genre, many contemporary artists of color move back and forth between past and present, between history and fiction, between art and ritual, between high art and popular culture, and between Western and non-Western influence.  In doing so, they participate in multiple communities."

I am not a person of color, but it occurs to me that the same observations apply as I think about my own cultural heritage -- white flyover-state Protestant -- and how it affects my art.  And one of the things I wonder about is how rarely I see that cultural heritage expressed by contemporary artists in non-ironic terms.

Hundreds of artists have sneered or laughed at the white-bread American culture; almost the entire genre of Pop Art in the United States is based on simultaneous fascination with and disdain for the familiar stuff of our childhoods.

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #35, 1963

But do any artists deal with this material in earnest?  In the 1930s Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and other Regionalist artists did, depicting small-town scenes and heartland values, but Regionalism went out of fashion after World War II.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

(When American Gothic was first exhibited, some big-city critics assumed it was meant as a satire of narrow-minded rustics, but Wood said it wasn't.)

Norman Rockwell, Teacher's Birthday, 1956

More recently, we can point to Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, but neither of them were totally embraced by the High Art establishment.  Rockwell was generally dismissed as an illustrator, and Wyeth because he seemed dangerously close to illustration.  And of course who can forget Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, who became fabulously rich and later went bankrupt producing sappy scenes of little cottages in the woods, sold through franchised galleries.  I'm not sure there's anybody more despised and reviled by the art establishment.

And yet, if High Art frowns on earnest depictions of heartland America, heartland America returns the favor.  Another of the scholars we read this week observed that the concept of art as a self-sufficient activity based on aesthetics is peculiar to Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.  In other cultures, the visual tradition is determined by religion, commemoration, representation and other factors.  I would argue that heartland America is more this way than it is like Europe in terms of art.

In heartland America there is some reverence for the pretty landscape painting, the picture of Jesus, the wedding photos and the family portraits, but a great deal of suspicion of Artists and Art.  Those artists aren't decent guys like us -- they smoke dope and have nude models!  Hey, my kid could paint that!  Heartland culture never did embrace abstraction, thus skipping the large part of 20th-century art, and is even less accepting of performance art, conceptual art and other recent genres.  Do you remember the hysteria 20 years ago over Karen Finley's nude performances or Robert Mapplethorpe's photos?

There are a gazillion artists who grew up in heartland America, couldn't wait to move to the big city and put that white-bread world behind them, and became famous and successful after their escape.  Many of them used their native culture as grounds for irony or condemnation.  But I wonder whether that culture will produce any artists who will become part of the global High Art world by using the heartland culture in earnest -- or even any who aspire to do so.

What do you think?  Opinions from those of heartland heritage especially welcome.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sign of the week

yes, and I hear it telling us "don't talk on your cellphone while you're driving, dummy"

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Such a deal

So shortly after being made crabby by the Sunday paper the other day, I found another article that didn't do much to improve my disposition.  It was a little squib about a textile designer and a fashion designer (two different people) who are making "limited-edition quilts with repurposed materials."  The quilt is 71 x 57 and sells for $3,400.

The Araks/Emily Kroll Limited-Edition Quilt

"The quilts are an ode to traditional American craftsmanship," according to the New York Times, "each handmade in Sugar Valley, Pa., by Amish artisans piecing together the panels of hunter green neoprene, lavender silk and cobalt blue wool to create a Bauhaus-like canvas that can be mounted on the wall as a piece of art or simply draped over the bed for a chic night's sleep."

You can order it with or without a hanging sleeve, no extra cost, depending on which way you want to use it.

A lot to wonder about here.  Such as how those Amish artisans, brimming with craftsmanship, like working with neoprene.  Such as how much leftover green neoprene this woman has come up with, and where, and what it was used for the first time around.  Such as what material the white is.

Such as how it's going to work to put silk, neoprene and wool into the same quilt,  tie it every five inches or so, and hang it vertically to sag and bulge.  Such as how it would feel to sleep under a neoprene quilt.  Such as if you wanted to spend $3,400 for a bed quilt wouldn't you want it quilted, not just tied, and wouldn't you want it to be at least big enough for a twin bed.

I do like the red in the bottom corner.  Wonder if that's neoprene too.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Stereotyped again

Maybe I'm just crabby, but it didn't help to read the Sunday newspaper and have my teeth set on edge. Consider this story in the "Money" section, headlined "Retirees can convert TIME into MONEY."  Being a retiree, I decided to read it, just to see what kind of stupid "self-help" ideas were going to show up.  I didn't have high hopes -- this signaled from the start that it was going to be a patronizing discourse on how supermarket coupons can turn your poverty-stricken existence into luxury.

Sure enough, supermarket coupons were one of the clever ideas suggested in this column, along with patronizing the thrift store at off-peak hours.  Yes, you read that right -- apparently this guy knows of thrift stores that give you discounts for shopping in the middle of the night or something.  Wow, I feel richer already.

But then came the one that got me mad.

Here's a list of money-saving do-it-yourself activities.  "It's easy to think of examples:" the guy pontificates, such as "growing your own vegetables, making gifts, repainting walls yourself, sewing clothes...."

Sewing clothes saves money?  Has this guy ever been in a fabric store?  Has this guy ever been in Wal-Mart?  Has this guy ever figured out how much it would cost to make a decent shirt or dress or jacket, compared to how much it costs to get one made in Bangladesh?  (Let alone compared to midnight at the thrift store?)  Heck, even the pattern will cost more than the low-end jacket on the sale rack.

I know where this guy is coming from.  Back in a former life I used to write consumer journalism, and I'm sorry to recall that some of it came from the same inadequate thought process: you sit in front of your computer (well, then it was a typewriter, but all the same...), you gaze out the window and you try to brainstorm any conceivable idea that might fit in with your theme, whether or not you have any experience with it in real life.

Hmmm.  Ways to save money -- let's see -- my grandma was very frugal, she used to do laundry by hand at the riverbank, no, that won't work in this story -- oh yes, she used to sew clothes!  Hey, that's frugal!  Homemade is always frugal!  The clothes sure looked homemade but it was sure frugal!  And making gifts, that would be a good idea too.....

Of course life has changed, and sewing your own clothes is no longer a way to save money.  Express yourself creatively, get higher quality craftsmanship, make those pants fit perfectly, indulge your love for fine materials, yes, but save money, no.

Yet the stereotype lives on -- pathetic-but-plucky, self-abnegating mom does humble homemade things on the sewing machine to save money.  (And you poor retirees should do the same!)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Back in school -- theory

Almost done with the semester, and I realize that throughout the course I have been wrestling with the question "what does this mean to me?"

First of all, who is me?  Although I am intrigued by the complexities and subtleties of theory, and enjoy reading art criticism, my primary self-identification is as a working artist, a maker.  And I have not yet seen much overlap between the theory and the practice of art.

In the history of high art, there have been plenty of theory-driven movements, many with their own manifestos, clubhouses and secret handshakes.  More recently, since the definition of art has broadened, there are identifiable groupings of certain practices and approaches -- conceptual art, performance art, earth art.  But I wonder how many of the artists whose work can be validly described by a certain theory actually woke up in the morning and said "I need to make something post-structural."   I suspect the inspiration came from some other thought process, and the theory was put on after the fact by outside obervers.

Even within the famously labeled movements such as Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism, many of the alleged participants have resisted the label.  And once you drop down the food chain, to the everyday artists whose work is not found in MOMA or written up in Artforum, I suspect that theory almost disappears.

I suppose there are everyday artists who choose their formats, mediums, subjects and viewpoints from a starting point of theory.  I could envision, for instance, that committed Marxists or feminists might choose to act out their political imperatives through art rather than through community organization, writing, academic scholarship or seeking elective office.  I know that in some repressive regimes, art (visual or literary) is one of the few vehicles available to express opposition and individuality.

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds -- 100 million hand-painted ceramic seeds, installation at Tate Modern, 2010

But I suspect these overtly political artists are vastly outnumbered by artists who determine their work from other starting points.  Some may be attracted to art because of an early-discovered facility in drawing, or the inspiration of a favorite teacher or mentor.  Some may come to it as a hobby and only later become more serious about it.  Some may come to it as a job, such as illustration, advertising or fashion design, and only later decide to practice it without benefit of clients.

As I think through the roster of working artists whom I know personally, which must number at least a hundred, I can't think of any who start with theory.  Many of them not only refuse to ground their work in theory but resist assigning any meaning to it.  If pressed, they might say "I make it because I want to," or "because I have to," or "because I can make whatever I want," or "because I like the way it looks."  Many artists who strive to sell their work will say "I want to make art that's beautiful" or "that people like" or "that people will buy."

And I won't say they're wrong.  In fact, I have a hard time thinking how a working knowledge of theory makes a better artist.  I have been asking myself as I read Barthes and Baudrillard and the other intellectuals whether anything I've learned has anything to do with people who make art, or whether theory is solely the province of people who talk about art.

So far I have come up with two possible trains of thought that might take me from the station of theory and let me off in my studio.

The first is that by learning about various theories I might come up with ideas that could influence my own art.

The second is that I need to carefully examine the messages that I am sending in my art.  Perhaps there aren't many people out there who want to receive them, or who are equipped to decode them, but on the off-chance there is somebody, I want to make sure that person will get the right idea.

I'm still skeptical about the role of theory in my life as a working artist, or the lives of my everyday artist friends.  But I'm thinking hard.

What do you think?  Does art theory enter into your work?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013