Sunday, August 15, 2010

Art as Rorschach Test

I think we (meaning human beings) are all on a lifelong quest to understand ourselves, even the most unenlightened among us. Like gravity, the drive for self-comprehension is a force that does not really require our conscious and active participation. It influences us daily whether we seek it out or not, whether we are aware of what we are doing or not. Everything we do has contained within it an element of us trying to figure out who--and why--we are.

This is, I believe, especially true of artists. We have a unique opportunity to make our questions of self more concrete than other people; rather than the fleeting moment of "now why did I do that?" that might drift through other's brains, we often have a photo or a painting or a construction that we can study and ponder and interpret until it all suddenly makes sense. Non-artists often think that we (artists) actually know what we're doing when we do it; in my own experience both as a visual artist and as a writer, my process at least seems to be more a matter of "this is what's happening and I'm just along for the ride." I know a lot of other artists who feel this way as well. Art school teaches us to come up with plausible-sounding, arty, conceptual answers for questions about our work, when in reality the answer to why we photographed that dead leaf in the driveway 80 times or why we used barbed wire instead of copper or why we glazed this particular painting until it looked like a sheet of glass is "I really have no fucking idea, but it'll come to me later."

I took a photograph recently that I am very taken with. Like so many of my recent images that seem especially transportive to me, it was made with my iPhone, which means its ultimate public display can only be one of two sizes: very, very small (as in, on a screen or a 4x6 inch print) or very, very large (as in, via projection). I think this might be another reason I'm taken with making images on my iPhone, but that's another Rorschach Test for another time.

This image combines two re-emerging themes for me: pathways, and dead things. Given my current situation in life, the general meaning might seem obvious to some, but I think there are subtleties here that can only be read by understanding how I feel about the image.

My first response is to the textures. The pebbly surface of the drive, the crispy texture of the dead blossom (yes, it's a former flower, although it looks somewhat like some kind of bug as well--this embraces my other favorite re-emerging theme, ambiguity), the soft texture of the grass in the background. If I had shot this with my DSLR or one of my film cameras, I would have most likely cranked the depth-of-field so that the grass was not very distinct at all, just a swath of color, but that would have been a different image altogether, a different read altogether.

But first response is just about aesthetics, because that's the way I'm wired. Looking at this more deeply, I find a sense of movement in it. The image includes the dead thing, looks at it, but looks beyond it. It's in the frame but it's not the real point of the frame--the real point of the frame is actually beyond our line of sight. I, as both the viewer and the artist, am not stopping to ponder the dead thing. I'm taking note of it, giving it its due, but stepping over it and continuing moving forward. I feel a fondness for the dead thing, a nostalgia for it. In my own read of this self-made Rorschach Test, I see the dead thing as a part of me, part of my personality, a way of being that I was used to. That part of me no longer has a function, it no longer takes center stage. I see it, I honor it, but it no longer defines me.

Looking back at other images, I see I've been trying to make this photograph in a bunch of different, not-exactly-successful ways, for a couple of months now.

You may see something quite different in this image. And, frankly, my own opinion is that if the piece is any good, you WILL. You will see a part of your story, of your psyche, here. The best art--the only true art--takes something that is personal to the artist and makes it universal; it allows every viewer to see themselves in the work somehow, to find a hook that feels unique and individual, despite how vastly different one viewer may be from another. Art should not simply speak to people, it should offer them the opportunity to speak to themselves.

I find myself trying to read others through their work, but I know this is risky business. Is it meaningful that my friend, who is more "crafty" than "artistic," who has turned out dozens of cute and pretty and sweet little things over the years, has suddenly produced a work that is spidery and twisty, asymetrical, off-balance and all black? That is, for her, harsh and jarring and aesthetically strange, and so much more strangely conscious than she has ever done before?

She doesn't think so; she isn't an artist (she says), she just makes things. Her media are ceramics and polymer clay; frequently she uses molds designed by other people so "it's not the same as being an artist." Well. She has been known to remake things several times because they "didn't feel right," and I've never seen her make anything from a mold that she didn't tweak or alter or "improve" somehow. Now she's made this piece because, she tells me, "something inside" made her want to try "something different." She has given it a floofy title that seems designed to deflect any deep thought about the piece and to distance it further from her deeper self. To me, these are all clues, all parts of the Rorschach; I'm reading her and wondering what it is that she is on the edge of discovering. It would be interesting to get her to talk about the piece and how she feels about it, but for now she is resolute; it's just another thing she made. I wonder if she will look at it in a few weeks or months or possibly years, and see it as a beacon, a harbinger of something else, instead.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Adjunct Angst

I think all of us who went into art degree programs did so with the knowledge that this path would make us perhaps spiritually richer but would not do anything to enhance the state of our bank accounts. Those of us interested in teaching figured our MFAs would get us positions as adjuncts and that we would maybe struggle for awhile, eventually move into full-time positions, make enough money to get by but also have enough time to continue to make our artwork. Anticipating this, I even moved to a place where I figured I could actually survive on the money I made teaching art.

I did land a job as an adjunct, thanks as much to who I know as to what I know. I've spent the last four weeks or so getting ready for these two classes, and have invested substantial hours in planning and pondering. And I know I'll put a lot more time into tweaking the syllabus, reviewing and grading, meeting with students, and all the other things that go into being a good teacher. I'm excited about teaching and looking forward to the experience.

Yesterday, I applied for a deferrment on my student loans, which I've paid faithfully every month for four years. I'm also considering dropping my health coverage, because the money I'll be making over the next four months will cover slightly less than half of my expenses. And this is without factoring in the increased gas costs I'll incur from commuting the 150 miles to my part-time job.

This is not because I live in a super-expensive area; in fact, I moved away from one specifically because I anticipated a big reduction in my earning power once I moved into teaching and art full-time. I also don't live a lavish lifestyle. I'm not supporting children or elderly parents. My expensive hobbies have all been put on hold. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of my blog, you know that I love shoes, but you may not realize that all my shoes come from either Desiger Shoe Warehouse, the sales on, or the "unloved shoe racks" at Macys. I don't belong to a gym. I get my hair done at the local beauty college by students. I don't eat out. I don't go to concerts or plays or travel abroad. I don't buy jewelry. And these are all things I used to do, but stopped doing because I wanted to be able to live within my means.

Yet, I cannot do so. And worse still, I have a creeping suspicion that the combination of commuting and teaching (and all the things that go with it) are going to eat away most of the time I have to make, consider, and promote my own artwork.

And I'm not the only person in this situation. I know other MFAs, very fine artists, who are in the same boat. We work, we work hard, and our debt load gets bigger rather than smaller.

Maybe there is a rhythm that I will find where I can pull all the pieces together, but at the moment, I'm not entirely sure. I feel that I'm drifting and hoping to bump into the right thing, when I don't even know what that thing might actually be.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Art Afoot?

Today I'm going to blog about an artform that might seem a little out in left field to some of you ... but maybe not. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you know that I'm a photographer and videographer, as well as maintaining a keen interest in new media (whatever that is. Or, are. Whatever.).

A few things you might not know about me is that I am a bonafide stamp nerd (own many many rubber stamps), that I make books that look like installations, and that I have a huge box of all different kinds of fabric that I have no idea what I will do with, as I have nothing even approaching the patience for (much less an interest in) quilting, sewing, or anything of that nature.

But this is all neither here nor there, except to prove the point that you might not know me artistically as well as you have been thinking, and to wit, today's topic.


Yes, I said shoes. As in, shoes one buys and wears on one's feet when passing through the out-of-doors or going to a club or traversing the mall. I love shoes. I have always loved shoes. My ex once said he'd never seen me walk through the San Francisco Nordstrom without buying a pair of shoes. When I lived in California, Designer Shoe Warehouse was across the bridge and required the committment of driving into the city and finding parking, which has derailed many a carefully-planned event, never mind something spontaneous. And did not yet exist.

But alas. Here in the Triangle area, Designer Shoe Warehouse has the temerity to be next door to the PetSmart, where I buy kitty litter and cat food. Next door to it! And parking ... well, as always seems to be the case around here, parking is ample and easy to find.

I had slacked off shoe-buying in California. Didn't need fancy shoes to wear to work, never went out, didn't find myself attending any "special shoe-appropriate" events, just wore my sneakers to the office and my paddock boots to the barn, and that was pretty much it. Kind of in the same way I had slacked off photographing things. Just didn't see the point for a moment, I guess. But when I moved to North Carolina, my perspective seems to have gotten a big adjustment. I started photographing again almost nonstop, even without benefit of a theory-laden concept (which my 2.3 regular readers will know is my absolute favorite) or a carefully-defined artistic project (my other absolute favorite).

And even though I had no specially-defined place to wear them, I started buying shoes again.

Lots and lots of shoes.

I'm buying shoes with very high heels and platforms and many strappy straps in interesting patterns and colors. I think I equate these shoes with art. The ones I like best all have an interesting sculptural quality to them and tend to not look like everybody else's shoes, even though they're right there for sale to the general public. They also tend to look substantially less utilitarian than most shoes, although they all fit my feet well and I can walk in them easily (this I attribute to Pilates; my ankles used to be dreadfully weak and I would roll them on an almost weekly basis, a situation my trainer and I undertook to correct using the reformer ... hi Karinne!).

The other thing my shoes have in common with art is they are almost impossibly sexy and sensual. They nearly purr by themselves. My response to really amazing art is a visceral one and very sensual; that describes my response to these shoes as well.

So. Are Carlos Santana, Madden Girl, Rampage, Impo, Nine West and Alfani really the next great artists of our time? Or is all this an elaborate justification for a footwear fetish?

Oh please. Like it matters. Duh.