WRITING ABOUT ART
AND WRITING AN ARTIST STATEMENT D. Chard
When we talk about painting we communicate using references to artists and styles. When we talk about design elements within particular works – color, shape, pattern, gradients – the talk can focus on perception and building visual fields, or “designs” that produce certain appearances, appearances that sometimes are challenging and intriguing without references to art history. Some art ideas keep the idea with the perception without any stylistic or ideological agenda, i.e., some larger aesthetic purpose beyond the visual appearance. However, every form of art some point is considered in the context of culture, contemporary and historic. So even if a piece of art is pure design, it is seen in a larger context, associated with like imagery, and then ascribed — by historians or individuals — it’s own connection to culture and history. Art does not exist as art, or even function, without the larger context. Further, we are cultural and historic creatures, no matter our limited background and education, and we bring our history — personal and cultural — to the imagery, this demonstrated most obviously by our likes and dislikes.
“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Although overused, such a comment remains a handle for art talk, but it’s a non- starter. But this statement reveals much about how we approach art criticism. It is something of a confession that the likes and dislikes defining criticism, however strongly felt, get in the way of new experiences and the development of aesthetic sensibilities. Aesthetic experience can be aided by knowing there is no relationship between our likes and quality in art. We can dislike a painting, for example, and decide that it is a good painting. Further, all of the following propositions are plausible (Ecker and Kaelin):
It is a good painting and I like it.
It is a bad painting and I like it.
It is a good painting and I don’t like it.
It is a bad painting and I don’t like it.
Thoughtful criticism can lead us to determine aesthetic merit independent of our likes and dislikes. Further, thoughtful criticism can increase the quality of our experience with art while developing skills in criticial thinking.
Rather than dwell on our established likes and dislikes, we should experience the art; encounter it, look for new things, see things fresh, and experience its connections to other art forms and ideas. A painting of the human figure can have us experiencing other paintings of the human figure, consciously or unconsciously, seeing the figure in front of us as it appears and modified by a known context of figure painting — figure painting in art history.
However the trigger for the broader art experience is the stimulus image in front of us, the image we are actively experiencing. Experience with most art is largely the result of perceptual dynamics in the visual field (Although some new forms rest art premises on concepts, essentially expanding the spectrum for the visual arts beyond the visual). These dynamics produce psychological energy (to the prepared spectator) through relationships of color, shape, line, and tone in space. Gestalt psychology explains much about these dynamics. Perceptual dynamics produce the phenomena that are avenues to the larger aesthetic meanings. Perceptual dynamics can tug, pull and twist our sensibilities and bring art to life–much as it was experienced in another time.
Using artists’ names and styles helps the critical thought process and the conversation, insuring that our thoughts and words have shared meanings. Mentioning Monet or Matisse alone triggers a whole aesthetic framework for talking about color, light, subject matter; there are also things implied in referencing Monet or Matisse that they don’t do, what they don’t do being just as important as what they do. For example, their work is not specifically about religious subjects; their work departs from a history of work with a cultural agenda, some larger purpose beyond the visual properties of the work. One could state, on the other hand, that their work is more “purposeful” because it leads us to experience art as phenomena , what’s there to be experienced, not just telling a story with purpose and meaning.
We need not lock into a single artist as an influence. We can talk about the brushwork of Sargent, the composition of Degas, the sense of color as light in Matisse and the subject matter of Warhol. We can even talk about a feel that the work has independent of the subject matter, like Anselm Keifer, who has a very strong and dark undercurrent in the work, this undercurrent existing separate from representation. Criticism is a wide-open creative process, providing the opportunity to think large, discovering the potential meanings in the work and building importance into critical thinking and critical writing process, this leading to a richer experience with the work’s phenomena.
The Artist Statement
You will be writing an artist statement for the experience of putting your thinking together about your own body of work, a series of paintings showing both continuity in style and attitude while each piece has its own distinct uniqueness. The purpose is to develop your thinking, as well as write a statement that would be available for the gallery exhibition.
But let me offer some thoughts about writing that statement for an exhibition:
Writing an artist statement should begin with consideration for the purpose of the statement, the audience that will read it. Writing the statement for an exhibition, for gallery goers to know more about the work, will require consideration for the sophistication of the audience. A New York gallery with a history of credible exhibitions may require a particular approach, an approach with some sophistication. Additionally, the artist (writing the statement) may feel that there are aspects to the work that will be easily overlooked, with the audience missing the uniqueness of the work. In this case, the statement may provide an emphasis beyond describing the work, providing access to the work. Many art dealers think artist statements are not important; the work needs to stand on its own, and the context of the gallery – with its history of exhibitions – will support the work sufficiently. For an art student the artist statement is an exercise in critical thinking, enhancing the thinking and the creative behavior behind the creative process. Additionally, the artist statement can help clarify the difference between thinking about art and experiencing art. More on this later.
Your can read my artist statement about my work on my website (danielchard.com) under About.
The artist statement can begin quite simply, writing a single sentence that acknowledges influences and what you are going to do, or have done. The template sentence, offered below in italics, can state the whole of the artist statement, and then the template sentence can be elaborated from there.
Talking and writing about art – one’s personal art – requires some strategy, a way to think about the work, objectifying what is experienced. This begins with taking inventory of the work and looking for connections between the work and the work of other artists. This inventory can begin with the spatial attributes of the work. For example, one can consider the space as deep or shallow, clear or ambiguous, linear or painterly, simple or complex, organized or random (see Heinrich Wofflin’s polarities -Principles of Art History). These polarities can provide clues to the nature of the work and how the work may relate to the work of other artists with similar spatial properties. When stuck with what to say about a painting begin with its spatial characteristics. For many paintings the character of the space may be the source of the phenomena of the work – the magic. The character of the space is the place to begin in understanding new work.
The inventory may begin with a simple listing of features in the work, without trying to write paragraphs. Once most of the features are identified then the features may be grouped and prioritized from the most important to the least important. It is often helpful to try to write a single sentence that represents the work, like the sentence below. Notice the sentence begins with referencing art history, then describing the work in the context of the art history.
From the tradition of still-life painting that emphasizes flat/modern space, as in the work of Picasso and Braque, my painting presents _______with an emphasis on_________, while maintaining realist references to the subject matter, this producing a tension between the realist references and the flat space.
From the template sentence, the phenomena of the work – the energy and action – can be identified with art elements and their action: the shapes move, the colors extend, the space recedes, etc. This works best by describing and not explaining. A comment that says, ” the shapes move because there is a progression” becomes an explanation after the word “because.” Explanations are fine but they need to be presented separate from a description of the experience. The thorough description of the phenomena, followed by an explanation is the proper preparation for a judgment, rather than having the judgment based on likes or dislikes. The template sentence sets a context for the work with reference to art history and specific artists, this prior to describing the work. From there the sentence elaborates by describing main features, using phrases to further sharpen the statement, describing what could be then the “tour de force” of the work, like the statement, the image presents tension between the realist references and the flat space, the shapes and patterns sitting just in front of the picture plane or the receding space pulls on the eye as it propels to viewer toward the horizon, away from – and denying – the picture plane. Both statement describe the phenomena of the work without explaining the work, potentially addressing the dominant feature of the work, what the work is about.
The artist statement describes the work and the thinking behind the work; the statement must be about the work, not likes and dislikes, not about one’s childhood and other personal information. It is a hard task to build an artist statement. It’s not that the world needs another artist statement; it’s that writing clarifies thinking, and that’s the point. In the end the painting will improve when the thinking improves. (For more information on writing about art, go to the Art Criticism page under About on my website, <http://www.danielchard.com>; scroll to the bottom of the page and you will see a download on art criticism.)