Monday, October 23, 2017

Towering and Flowering (oil on canvas, 2017)

If you’re making any kind of art, it is essential, no matter what stage you are at in your development, that you seek out feedback about your work. Not just the typical, “Wow, that’s wonderful! You’re really talented” that you get from your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/kids/parents/siblings, but honest, objective critical feedback from people that are not worried about hurting your feelings. (And as an aside, you should never take critical comments about your work personally. Even if a comment is meant as a personal attack, passive aggression disguised as constructive criticism always says more about the flaws in the character of the person making the comment than about any flaws in the work being discussed.) Feedback is indispensable as a means of helping you gauge the efficacy of your methods and it should always be considered carefully.

About nine years ago, I had a more experienced artist and teacher critique some of my work. She said that I was “trying to do too much” and that I should figure out what’s important to me and just do that. At the time (as is so often the case) I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant. I thought of Rembrandt, C├ęzanne and DeKooning, three artists whom I always felt tried to do too much and succeeded at it, so maybe trying to do too much wasn’t such a bad thing. Still, I took her comments to heart, filed them in my subconscious and continued to work.

Looking back, I realize that as my work evolved over the ensuing years, my periodic dissatisfaction with it resulted in what was essentially a distillation process - the systematic removal of certain aspects of my work (e.g. the influence of other artists, description of specific subject matter, objective color, etc.) – and this process continues today, as I find myself trying to really hyper-focus on the things that are important to me and jettison those things that aren’t essential. I once took a photo of a tiny section of one of my paintings and when I saw the image I realized that everything I was trying to say was contained in that microcosm, and that a lot of what was in the painting was extraneous.I had, indeed, been trying to do too much.

Years ago I was out running on some old railroad tracks near my home in Massachusetts. My shoe had come untied and when I stopped and crouched down to tie it I happened to notice a section of the steel track that had rusted so much I could easily break pieces of it off. Right next to it was a small plant that was beginning to bud. I was captivated by the contrast between the resilience of this little plant and the ultimate fragility of the steel. Decades from now, the plant might be a majestic tree, rising high above the dust that the tracks would have become and yet to look at the plant, one would see no visible signs of growth or activity.

I’m always fascinated when I look back at work that I did years ago and see not only how my methods have metamorphosed, but how the changes have, for the most part, occurred in microscopic increments and in a way that now seems inevitable. I find great comfort in the realization that although I often feel like I’m forging blindly into a vast and murky darkness, there’s a force greater than me at work guiding me inexorably toward some destination. Not that I don’t have to work hard, because I do, but it’s important to remind myself that as long as I’m moving forward, it isn’t imperative that I know where I’m going to end up. The essence of any journey lies in the step that you’re taking right now.


Cheri Walton said...

I've never read your blog before (didn't know you had one), but this first post hit upon a subject that has confounded me my whole life. Your thoughts on the role of others in making art interests me in that you seem to find the inclusion of others in your process a positive and necessary thing. This is an issue I find totally mind-blowing. The first time I remember thinking about it was when my father told me that my drawing was so good I could "do something with it." I was about 9 or 10, and the statement was bewildering to me. I didn't understand what "doing something with it" meant, and I still don't. The closest I can come to it is that I could create something other people would like, preferably enough to give me the highest praise of me money for it. Presumably this is why we ought to listen to what others say about our work, to the end that we will know how we need to change it.

I have been teaching my whole life, and when students begin to acquire skills, they invariably want to know how long it will be before they are good enough to sell their work. My answer has always been "whenever you want to stop enjoying doing it." I guess I don't know why I am telling you this, except that your post seemed to be giving a lot of weight to other people's reaction to your work. What gives them the qualifications to have an opinion at all? I thought you might be able to give me some insight into this since I like you and like your work......Maybe you can say something that will mke sense to me....

Frank said...

Hi, Cheri.

Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to visit my blog!

I don’t find the inclusion of others in my process to be necessary at all. My actual process is entirely self-directed. However, making art is a form of communication, i.e. an attempt at sharing something with others. Even if we’re doing it on a subconscious level, we make images with the intent that someone will see them and have a response. So, I think it’s important to consider feedback, once the work is complete, as a way of measuring the efficacy of our methods. If people aren’t responding to the work in the way that we intended, it may have to do with their own expectations, or it might mean that we need to modify our methods. Any feedback has to be looked at objectively. A friend or family member may praise your work, just because they like you, without understanding it at all. Someone may criticize your work based on expectations that have nothing to do with your intentions. (A woman once told me that my paintings would be better if I put animals in them!)

You mention someone buying your work as the highest praise of all. That’s a subjective idea. Although selling my work is always a positive thing in that it provides me with the funds to keep making more art and it’s nice to know that my work is being seen by people, I don’t see it as a measure of the work’s success. People buy paintings for myriad reasons, many of which have nothing to do with formal merits of the work and some of the best painters who ever lived hardly sold anything during their lifetimes. If selling your work is a priority, though, understanding the demands of the market and your audience is essential. It’s important to understand your own personal motivations for making art. I talk about this in my video here:

Personally, I make work to please myself first.

Thanks again for your comments!