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November 25 2009
BETTER THAN SEX! (Artist's Statements 101)
Once upon a time I worked for a large fast food corporation that was so enamoured with the latest and greatest business management fads and fashions ("paradigm shift", "continuous improvement", "team management", "empowerment") that one day they put all the senior management into a hotel meeting room with an expensive consultant/moderator and we spent FIVE consecutive days developing a corporate Mission Statement. Remember those? After tanker truckloads of coffee and reams of newsprint taped to all the walls and windows listing multiple suggestions and options extracted from us over five painful days, we finally, through democratic processes, came up with something totally inane like "Our mission is to exceed our customers' expectations by continuously striving for excellence". I have to wonder how many of them can still recite that mission, whatever it actually was.

I can only speculate the concept of the "artist's statement" must have had its roots in the corporate "mission statement" movement, and based on the difficulty most artists have coming up with their own statement, it is an exercise that often produces equally inane results. I suspect that art school students these days are taught Artist Statement Writing as a high art form in itself, and from what I've seen, high grades in obfuscation are now more important than good grades in art skills for graduation. In his essay "How Art Can Be Good", Paul Graham says: "What happens in practice is that everyone gets really good at talking about art. As the art itself gets more random, the effort that should have gone into the work goes instead into the intellectual sounding theory behind it."

Here's an artist's statement I'd like to share with you that clearly demonstrates what Mr Graham was talking about. I lifted it recently from a gallery invitation to a showing of this young man's paintings.

"Residing within the traditional genre of landscape, my paintings straddle the liminal space between image and object, pictorial illusion and material plasticity. Lavishly exceeding the confines of the support, the paint reaffirms the objecthood of the painting as a whole; conflated with the illusion of the sublime landscape, this painterly declaration of objecthood creates a deliberate contradiction in which the whole simultaneously oscillates between a simulacrum and the original."

I swear that is a real, complete, unedited statement, actually published by a prominent gallery operator to explain the artist's work. Can't you just hear John Cleese prattling off those words in a Monty Python spoof about art? I had to consult several dictionaries before I found one that contained "liminal", and none of them had any record of "objecthood". Go ahead, read it several more times. I defy you to tell me what you know about this guy's painting from this statement. What it tells me is the guy can't write worth shit, and if this gibberish is needed to explain his work, then he probably can't paint either. As it turns out, he paints landscapes as they would appear to someone seriously myopic and astigmatic that has misplaced his prescription lenses - very blurry, out of focus things that might be hills.

Painting is a visual art, and as such, surely it should not require the artist's verbal explanation of what, how, and why he creates his art. Once that painting leaves the gallery or studio, it has to stand on its own merits. If the painting moves you, the artist has succeeded, and if it does not speak to you, the artist's explanation is irrelevant anyway. But for some reason, many galleries and organizations require artist's statements, and a whole industry of consultants and courses has sprung up to help the struggling artist write his own, unique statement. The reality is, most artists simply create their work because it is what they love doing - nothing deeper or more complicated than that. If a statement is necessary, it should be enough to say: "I paint landscapes because it gets my rocks off!" That covers the how (paint), the what (landscapes), and the why.

Making art is like making love, and it should be obvious from your work if you reached a climax. Who needs to read your Artist's Statement about how and why you got there any more than they need to read a Mission Statement to appreciate the burger they're eating?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go work on my artist's statement that some gallery insists on reading before my submission for a solo show will be considered. I wonder if I can get away with calling it my Artist's Story rather than "statement". "Story" I think I can handle.
Posted by Peter Kiidumae at 09:58 7 Comments
November 06 2009
Anyone looking through my art work on this website will see seascapes, boats, landscapes and some wildlife. And then you come across a very large painting of the Taj Mahal with a crowd of people in front and you have to wonder - what's with that??? Every painting has a story behind it, and I hope to tell a few of those stories on this blog now and again. Because my painting "The Line Starts Here" is such a departure from my usual work, I thought it would be a good place to start.

The Line Starts Here I usually paint exclusively from photographic references that I have taken myself. However, in this particular case I chose to take advantage of some of the over 1400 photos my wife took on her recent 3-week visit to India. Her picture of the Taj Mahal in the late afternoon sun, seen through a crowd of silhouetted tourists, grabbed my attention immediately, not just for its accidentally dramatic composition, but for what it said about the experience of being a tourist. That photograph gave me the concept and the compositional outline, but I also used four other photos Lorraine had taken, as well as doing some research on the internet to get the detail I needed for the effect I had in mind.

Because I wanted the viewer to feel as part of the crowd in the foreground, I decided this painting needed to be big enough for those figures to be life-size. I ordered a custom stretched canvas measuring 40 x 60 inches, the largest I have ever worked on. The painting took two months to complete, working every weekend and ten days straight at the end of May, putting in 6 - 12 hours each day at the easel. Despite its large size, I spent a lot of time working with a 00 brush, one of the smallest available, because of the intricate detail. I can just see you "painterly" types cringing at the thought. It took a full week to recover from my exhaustion after completing the piece.

Initially it was my intent simply to paint a somewhat tongue-in-cheek view of one of the world's great architectural wonders. Instead of the Taj Mahal we see in tourist brochures, I wanted to show it the way it is actually seen by visitors - through a crowd of other tourists, each jostling for a clear view and enduring long queues to get closer, hence the title. But as I worked, a more serious, underlying theme began to develop in my mind. My architectural training made me wonder how such a huge, complex structure could have been built over 350 years ago, all out of great, heavy blocks of marble. I knew from my research that the building was a monument to Emperor Shah Jahan's love for his favourite wife Mumatz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. But there were no high-rise construction cranes, or steel-toed boots, or hard hats, or fork lifts back in those days, and I conjectured what this guy really did was exercise his excessive wealth and power to indulge his personal grief on the backs of much less privileged people, undoubtedly at the cost of much maiming, painful injuries, and probably many deaths from accidents. These are the thoughts that went through my head as I effortlessly placed into position with my paintbrush massive blocks of stone that actually got there through the brutal physical labour of countless labourers over a period of several years. Most of the population of India is still overwhelmingly poor, and I couldn't help but wonder what this monument signified to them. Were they even able to visit it themselves? I decided to put one of those people into the painting, in amongst the affluent middle class tourists but facing away from the building to symbolize his exclusion. I deliberately broke compositional convention by placing him near the edge of the painting, looking out of the picture, as an annoying distraction that the viewer's eye could not avoid being drawn towards. I counted on peripheral vision drawing the eye back to the gleaming great dome, but curiosity forcing it back to the intrusive peasant who lacked the luxury of time or money for the pleasures of tourism. Back and forth, back and forth.

So, if you are disturbed by that poor man's presence in front of that spectacular symbol of excessive, ostentatious opulence, that was deliberate on my part. I was making a statement - a painting with a message, while at the same time maintaining my original, much lighter theme regarding the annoyances of being a tourist. And that's the story. Aren't you glad you asked?
Posted by Peter Kiidumae at 01:04 3 Comments