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.

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