Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Left-Brain Loop: Meaning

This happens to me occasionally; I get tangled up in what things mean. Specifically, I get tangled up in what the artwork I'm making means, and instead of listening to the materials, I start listening to that other side of my brain--the part of me that wants to plan and strategize and analyze and understand everything before I even start. This is a pretty useful thing in the business world, and even in hybrid business-creative endeavors like web site development. But in pure artmaking, it brings along a host of issues. Paralysis by analysis is a very real thing, and a lot of work goes unmade while the maker ponders whether it's "right" or "fits" or "supports the thesis."

I'm trying to work my way out of this by remembering that everything means something to someone. Additionally, I know full well that anything I make has meaning for me, whether I see that meaning immediately or not. I know that I just need to make my work, and then let it tell me what it's saying. But right now I'm in a headspace that wants certainty.

Perhaps this is a natural reaction; I'm introducing a lot of uncertainty into my artistic mix with my choice of materials these days. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll know that I'm working with encaustic, which is still quite new to me. I've recently introduced oil paint to that mix--another substance I've literally never worked with before. Why I've become enamored of hand-smearing oil paint onto wood panels and painting them over with wax I don't really know; I can't fathom why using my hands to work the colors is so much more satisfactory than using a brush, which I am resolutely refusing to do because it feels wrong. I also seem to have become enamored of working with multiples--things seem to want to come out of me in threes. This is puzzling to me as well, as I've also never felt compelled to work in multiples before.

It's probably no surprise to people who know me that my immediate response to all this confusion is to try to analyze my way out of it. What am I saying to myself? What am I trying to achieve? What in these things is appealing to me, and what might that suggest? Where is this going? Where should it go?

I know that part of the reason I get trapped into this left-brain loop has a lot to do with the kind of artist I am. I don't want to be a person who makes something and puts it out into the world with "I'm pretty" as its only function. I think more highly of art than that, and my concern is if I don't know what it means... does it mean anything other than "I'm pretty"?

Although I understand that sometimes even that has a deeper meaning. There was a fair amount of pictoral or neoclassical  "I'm pretty" artwork made in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Europe emerged from that conflict "exhausted, horrified, and forcibly modernised," and thoroughly soured on images that were cold, unflinchingly technical, and heavily deconstructed. The Futurist movement, so intense and explosive prior to the war, lost its momentum (and nearly all of its founding artists) as a result of the fighting. Surely the prevalence of "I'm pretty" artwork created the breathing space artists and the art-viewing public needed to be open to what followed, and in that sense it had a meaning that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

But I cringe when someone calls themselves an artist, yet doesn't attempt to venture beyond the surface of what they make. To me, the quest for meaning and the sheer fact of work that goes beyond personal aesthetics to a broader universal connection is what differentiates art from hobby. I don't want my work to be just pretty, I want it to be right.

My left-brain wants me to go into a discussion now about what the word "right" means, and how that can be diluted, diffused, determined, evaluated. My right brain wants me to go up to my studio and start playing with some hot wax and not worry about how it comes out. Neither brain is going to win completely, that's just who I am. But for the time being, I think I will go make a little something that follows no rules of anything, purely and only for the experience of doing it.

And I'll think about it later. :)

**Just to update my last post ... Ellen Fader is the artist I referred to, and although she doesn't have anything on public display at the moment, she does have a web site. Check her out at**

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Encaustic and Me: Ambiguity in 3D

I haven't been doing much encaustic over the last couple of weeks; I was pretty deep into my Holiday slugfest and the last project I started was not working out as conceived and that always throws me off track a bit. (Yes, yes, I have pictures, but I'll post them later after I fiddle more with the piece.)

I have been looking at a lot of encaustic, though, and thinking about where it seems to want to take me, and I'm pretty clear on one thing: the sort of crafty-collagey graphic designy approach to it is really not what I'm interested in. In one of those fortuitous moments, a friend of mine from my MFA days posted a picture on Facebook of her newest work, a gorgeous evocative interesting piece even from just from the photo. Others commented extensively on what a great painting it was, but I knew right away it wasn't just a painting. There were elements of painting, yes, but what it was, was encaustic.

This artist and I were in crit together back in 2003 when she showed some of her first encaustic efforts. Most people in the class either didn't quite know what to make of them or commented on them as if they were paintings, which was not entirely inappropriate, but also not the most helpful. I remember being really struck by how free they were, how the wax lumped and piled and swirled, how the colors blended and layered. I remember telling Ellen they were wonderful, "bllissfully free from the strictures of knowledge of technique" (because so many artists are perfectionistic in some way or another, once we know "how" to do something a lot of us get hung up on doing it "right." It's a hard, but very rewarding, thing to break out of.)

She's come a long way since then, and her current work blends encaustic with oil painting in a way that really adds an air of mystery and strangeness to the work. If you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, you'll know that mystery and strangeness are two elements I respond to fairly consistently.

In addition to just appreciating her work, thinking about her piece really made me consider what I like about encaustic--both the pieces I've done and the work that she does, and other work I've seen in galleries. I like the fact that it can have a kind of "Magic 8 Ball" quality to it, layered and complicated and revealing only bits and pieces of itself to the casual observer, in ways that are ambiguous enough to be interpreted differently by each person who sees them. If you're a long-time reader of this blog (I think there are 1.4 of you), you'll know this is one of my primary conceptual underpinnings. The idea of making a statement that appears concrete but really isn't, a kind of brain-tag with the viewer ("Look! I'm showing you everything! Except I'm not!"), is in almost everything I do.

The other thing I remembered finding striking in my friend's first encaustic pieces was their dimensionality--executed on a flat panel like a painting, but with all the texture and 3D impact of a mixed media construction or a sculptural piece. I've recently seem some encaustic artwork that takes this notion to an extreme that I was already thinking of as something to try, and for once I'm inspired by this rather than being discouraged that someone already thought of it.

So, I'm approaching my next two encaustic pieces with these elements in mind. The piece that derailed itself may have derailed itself for a reason, and I can already envision its transformation now that I'm more conscious of my concepts. And I'm working hard to hang on to "beginner's mind," not focusing on "how" but instead on doing, and letting the materials speak beyond the notion of what is correct technique.