Living is easy with eyes closed 2 – exhibition preparations

I’m two-thirds of the way through my 3-month summer ‘sabbatical’ project, though the sabbatical is getting a bit fuzzy as I’m still doing a bit of proofreading to keep my hand in/cover materials costs, and will still be doing exhibition preparation in September I expect. And of course there’s the exhibition week itself, when I’ll be there every day to steward things and maybe do a bit of drawing in situ.

So far things are going more or less to plan.

I’ve only got one more of the twelve big drawings to do and a sitter is scheduled for that. I put together the plinths for the mirror boxes a while ago and now I need to decide whether to paint them and, if so, whether to go with the usual white or something else.

mdf plinths
mdf plinths

The frame structures for the drawings are about half done. Procrastinating about these was useful as it gave me time to come up with a very simple method of suspending the drawings, using just a 6mm steel rod and two holes drilled inside the frame. I just have to ‘hem’ the drawings to create a channel for the rod to slide through.

frames for large drawings
here are two hinged pairs of frames (in a very messy workspace)
frame detail
and a detail of the construction with one drawing in place

I’ve started to apply myself to the boring bit: publicising the exhibition. I have designed a flyer which is now at the printers, emailed the local paper and created a facebook event – as I said, boring! Here’s a link to the facebook event:

https://www.facebook.com/events/2231186130332533/?ti=as

If nothing else this summer I’ve practised some basic woodwork and other DIY skills – a great thing about ‘art’ is that it can take you from fairly abstract, metaphorical ideas about isolation and climate change to practicalities like how to fix a drawing to a freestanding frame and simple tasks like cutting dowels for lap joints. And those simple practicalities can sometimes take you back to the ideas, when materials or functional requirements yield unexpected metaphors and linkages of their own.

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Plans and maquettes

A couple of weeks ago I posted this on Facebook:

In the light of impending Br%&!t and climate apocalypse and a large birthday later this year, I have decided to give myself permission to focus on art this summer. So I will be taking a short sabbatical from editing and proofreading starting in June. Various plans are coming together, which mean I will be looking for people willing to sit for some drawings. Watch this space! And let me know if you fancy sitting still for an hour or three at some point.

The silver lining/antidote to apocalyptic thinking … stop worrying about how you’ll cope in retirement (or when the washing up will happen) and just make stuff. 

It seems that as soon as you give yourself this kind of permission it’s hard not to start thinking and planning and then playing, regardless of self-imposed schedules.

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Beginning to get an idea out of my head and into the world – and immediately seeing that my planned scale doesn’t look as I imagined it would. That will save some time and expense later – three cheers for maquettes.

Thinking about false assumptions (or: wittering on…)

I have a natural inclination to look for clarity in writing and ‘accurate’ observation in art – are these mistakes? Or lack of imagination?

I am only just beginning to realise that/how/why obscurity, abstraction (and invention?) are important too. The ‘clearer’ a statement, the more ‘true to reality’ an image seems to be, the easier it is to pass over them without engagement, to leap to a conclusion. You get it (label it) and move on. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.

But if you want to provoke a reader to think, not just to accept what you say uncritically, if you want the viewer to pay attention, to look hard, maybe obscurity, unclarity, is a good thing. Something that makes you ask ‘what’s going on here?’ Something that breaks the flow, stops the eye, makes you go back and look again, think again. (Is this why ‘decorative’ was a bit of a dirty word at art school and  ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’ are damning with very faint praise, because a ‘nice’ thing won’t make us stop and think?)

It’s not just about tricks of the trade, speaking softly so people have to listen, manipulating an audience. If art is about the doing more than the product, this means that you have been provoked to thought yourself. The eye, the mind, that must be engaged and surprised is yours, the writer, the maker. And sometimes playing, not planning, is the best thing to do. Exploring, not arriving. Suspending judgement.

To assume that you can express a thought ‘clearly’, or a perception ‘accurately’ may be the basic error, to fall for Descartes’ myth of ‘clear and distinct ideas’.

The flowing line needs interruption, the glib, ‘self-evident’ thought needs examination. Facility à facile?

The unexpected, the unpredictable is what engages, what interests us.

Even when what you are trying to do is render how something really appears to you, you have to look beyond your assumptions, formulas, clichés, etc., because ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Drawing what you see, not what you expect to see.

Originality

I’ve often been uncomfortable with the emphasis on ‘originality’ in art. It seems like a terrible burden to place on an artist or student – to do something no one’s ever done before. And doing something new for the sake of newness always seemed a mistake to me.

But if the unexpected, the surprising, is what engages us, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe being original is the point? Certainly, seeing something you’ve never seen before or meeting an idea that never occurred to you is part of what we value in art or writing.

But (another ‘but’) it’s that ‘for sake of’ that is the problem, I think. Making originality the goal is useless because it implies nothing positive. ‘Just don’t repeat.’ So do we have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history before we begin, to make sure it hasn’t been done before?

We don’t want to be derivative, ideally; in that sense we want to be original, which means to think for ourselves, to address the world as we see it, and ask our own questions. Whether that results in something that other people would see as ‘new’ is a different matter (that’s probably part of what distinguishes the ‘great’ from the rest of us). In any case, what other people see as new depends on what they have seen before (just as whether an artist’s work is derivative depends partly on what they are familiar with – similarity to someone else’s work you’ve never seen can’t be derivative of that work).

Originality in the sense of ‘unlike what has gone before’ or ‘new to the world’ may matter to the well-informed receiver, but for the maker originality must about how they personally arrive at the work. They find something out by doing it. Copying is (usually) unoriginal, not because the result looks like the thing copied, but because the copier is letting the source do their thinking or looking. (A bad copy isn’t more original because it looks less like the source than a good one, though it may be more interesting to look at.)

Well, dear imaginary reader, you may be thinking ‘this is all so obvious – we’ve heard it all before!’ – but I feel as though I haven’t thought about these things before in quite this way, so that’ll have to do. Now here are a couple of drawings – enjoying pencil on paper.

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fantasy geology
fantasy archaeology – hole in a wall

A dialectic for would-be artists

So you want to be an artist – i.e. to spend as much time as possible making stuff, learning how to do it better, making more stuff, … But how to live in the meantime?

Catch 22 #1: you can’t make a living as an artist until you are skilled at it, but it’s hard to get skilled at it while making a living any other way.

Catch22 #2: much of what makes the work worth doing is doing it for its own sake, but if you can make a living at it you’re now doing it for the money instead … and if you deliberately aim at saleable work it will probably lose what intrinsic value it had, if any, because you will have subordinated your own vision to that of an imagined, and necessarily generic, ‘market’.

Catch 22 #3: marketing is not the skill you have or want to develop but it seems to be at least as necessary for the ‘making a living’ thing, and even if you have it, doing it steals time/energy from making stuff.

(That’s what galleries and agents are for, isn’t it? – But you can’t get them to sell your stuff without selling yourself to them…)

Catch 22 #4: artists and would-be artists often lean to the left and identify with the unempowered, but to earn a living from your art you need buyers, and art buyers must have money to spare for unnecessary things like art.

Catch 22 #5: you secretly believe that the best thing about art is doing it, not having it, so how can you justify selling things? Clearly you should be helping other people be artists, making a living teaching or working in the community… But then you are back to Catch 22 #1.

[And yes I am in the middle of open studio weeks 😀 ]

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