It's very long, but I thought I'd share it here. If you read it, I'd love to hear your two cents. (If you don't, I won't hold it against you.)
Never Bored: An Anti-thesis Thesis
I have found it difficult to write a cohesive thesis about my work. There is no singular style, theme, or medium that I have stuck with for any length of time. Everything I have learned in art school has pushed me towards making definitive decisions about the type of work I will choose to make, and what that work will have to say to the world. It seems that the art world needs labels, art critics, and expansive artist statements to legitimize an artist’s work and make them easier to swallow. “…(M)any art critics and art historians(…) like their pigeonholes lined up with a linear discipline. They prefer artists to have visual signatures that are clearly identifiable and consistent from womb to tomb.” (Clark, p2)
I personally resent this push to find a niche, a singular type of work or style that I plan to stick with for the rest of my life. I find passion and drive in experimentation and learning, and am easily bored. My interests jump from place to place, finding their way into my pieces. The singular thread that ties together all of my work could simply be me, and whatever is going on inside my head. I seem to have an obsession with self-analysis, and an assumption that people are actually interested in the inner workings of my brain, because I am. However, I have resisted being labeled as any particular type of artist, unwilling to be tied down or make a commitment to anything that may no longer hold my interest 5 minutes from now. Call me a product of the TV and Internet generation, but my attention span is appallingly short.
That being said, there are certain themes that do seem to reoccur in my work. Most recently, I have come to the realization that I am interested in the creation of intimate objects, and the relationship of objects to memory and emotion. While I have been leaning towards the creation of functional objects, such as cups, vases, jars, and tableware; these forms have been a means to an end. To make a functional object is to make something that is meant to be used daily, handled often and made familiar. I wanted to make objects that the viewer would want to touch and examine, thereby drawing them in to notice the narratives I’ve chosen to display on their surface.
As an example, my Hypergraphia concept, about the connection between mental illness and the drive to write or create, was carried out on a series of small porcelain tumbler forms. The hand carved decoration mirrored obsessive repetition in my thoughts and writing, and the painted images referenced trepanation, the outdated practice of drilling holes in the head to relieve pressure. I wanted these cups to be held and used, to be as lovely as they are disturbing. I used porcelain because it relates to precious knick knacks and expensive china, but it also gives me a pristine white background for my brightly colored paintings to stand out against, and is pleasantly smooth and creamy to the touch. It was a way for me to show the viewer a part of my life that may seem abnormal to some, but is an everyday thing for me, and is at times an aspect of my life that I find beautiful and stimulating. It seemed that by holding and using these cups, a person would be intimately attached to my personal oddities and neurosis, and could possibly find themselves able to relate through their contemplation.
However, two things have become clear to me in the creation of these functional forms. One is that if a form, however functional, is considered too decorative or “precious”, particularly if it is considered fragile and valuable, the owner of this object is less likely to use it, and more likely to put it on display as an “art object,” a conversation piece, or a knick knack for the mantle or display case. The other is that a truly functional object is ideally so natural to use, that while the use of the object may bring the user pleasure, it is often taken for granted, as so many everyday objects are. The ceramic work I make does tend towards the “precious,” colorful and labor intensive, and makes reference to both functionality and the common everyday aspects of life, and “ceramic art,” made to be seen and appreciated but never used. I realized that these cups weren’t quite meeting the goals I set out to accomplish, which is to create a form meant to be touched and used daily, to present mental illness and the disturbing as both common and beautiful things.
These two realizations have moved me past the need to make strictly functional work. They made me realize that my priorities are more about an emotional attachment to an object. I want to elicit a response from the viewer, trigger old memories and emotions, and make an intimate connection. I’m reminded of charms, talismans, and religious relics, and the human need for rituals, whether sacred or mundane. I think about scrapbooks, mementos, and souvenirs; journals and old love letters. These are all objects that human beings attach meaning to, that tell us our past, who we are and where we’ve come from. Mementos are an important aspect of being human, and I believe that even the most minimalist urbanite has those few items that they are so attached to they couldn’t live without; whether it’s their cell phone or the lava lamp they bought for their dorm room in college. I am creating objects that I imbue with my own emotional attachments, in the hopes that wherever they end up, someone else will find themselves similarly attached. My Hypergraphia pieces were about my obsessive journaling and art making, both of which are actions I do in the hopes of leaving something of myself behind, like dropping pebbles along a path in case you need to find your way home.
The objects I create are often inspired by personal memory and emotion. They are sometimes about my childhood, sometimes about my mental illness, sometimes reminders of accumulated wisdom that I want to be mindful of. I made a print about leaving it all behind, a reasonably simplistic triptych image of a nude female figure walking away from piles of cluttered material objects, paper and money and electronics and junk yard scrap. Making that image was like repeating a mantra, a call to mindfulness of what is important in life and what is best forgotten. I made it not so much to preach to the viewer, but as a personal reminder, since I tend to get caught up in anxiety over things that don’t matter in the long run. In essence, the piece was a memento. Most of the things I make are first, personal reminders, and second, attempts to make a personal connection with the viewer. I make art to explore who I am, why I’ve turned out the way I have, and to find out whether there are people out there who can relate. It is not necessarily a lofty or unique concept, but one that drives me just the same.
At the beginning of my college career I was a painter, mainly because I believed that was what you did when you went to art school. Pencil drawings were for sketches, and illustration was for children’s books. Painting was Fine Art, and that was what you were supposed to do if you were a Serious Artist. So I was a painting major for 5 years, jumping from style to style, never quite finding my voice or what I Wanted To Say. I tried Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and Realism. I painted loosely with thick, voluptuous globs of paint and gestural marks; and tightly with watery thin layers painstakingly modeled and blended to be smooth and flat and flawless. As excited as I was with the study of color, expressing personal narrative, and the sensuous qualities of a messy palette, I found myself continually drawn towards low brow art and crafts. I enjoyed building the canvases more than painting on them. I loved working with my hands and getting dirty. I found that I wanted to express a personal narrative, but a two-dimensional object on the wall just wasn’t doing it for me. Paintings may look inviting and make you want to touch them, but it's all illusion on a picture plane, and the sign on the gallery wall explicitly tells you DO NOT TOUCH (with a few exceptions of course). I wanted to paint with my fingers and smear all that lovely looking paint, which I was told was hazardous and would probably give me skin cancer one day. I was being teased with the promise of something tactile which did not really exist.
I was also fed up with the seriousness and pretentiousness that seemed to go hand and hand with Fine Art paintings. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make Serious Art, and I hated the idea of a useless object that I couldn’t use or even afford if I wasn’t the one who made it to begin with.
In short, I wasn’t having fun, so I ran screaming from the painting department and into the arms of printmaking and ceramics. Here were two mediums that seemed at first glance to have a sense of humor and a touch of humility. Printmaking has ties to the commercial world and design, to t-shirt printing and rock concert fliers, as well as having the history of bringing affordable Fine Art to the common man. Ceramics has a long history of both the mundane and the sacred, being used for everything from sculptures of deities to household items and architectural elements.
Here I found a joy in making objects and images for the sake of making them, for fun or for Serious Ideas. There was a flexibility that really excited me. There was a lack of pretentiousness. And there were exciting new innovations being discovered to combine the two mediums. Also, I found that I could still draw and paint on either one, or do all three in a single piece. There were a million possibilities to keep me interested.
I was really excited by the idea of making objects and images that could be taken out of the fine art gallery and find a home in the hands of people like myself; work that was well crafted, sometimes beautiful or deeply conceptual, but accessible and affordable. I went to a lecture of a group of traveling printmakers called Drive By Press who printed woodblock t-shirts out of the back of a van and encouraged students to participate in street art and graffiti and bypass the gallery scene, bringing art into the public eye and taking back public space from large corporations and the People In Charge. They encouraged us not to wait for recognition in order to get our work seen, but to put it out there ourselves, without anyone’s permission or approval.
Here were new ideas about personal expression that inspired me and appealed to my lower middle class background. My parents felt it was important to expose me to a wide variety of culture, to theater and music and film and literature. Strangely enough, however, we rarely participated in anything that might be considered part of the art scene, with the exception of an occasional visit to the art museum. Rich people and hipsters go to gallery shows, and we were neither. Or so goes the logic, I assume. As I got older and became interested in Art because of my love of drawing and making crafts as a kid with Mom, I began frequenting the local gallery scene on First Fridays. I remember feeling distinctly out of my element. I was not dressed fashionably; most of the conceptual work was over my head or out of my price range. I couldn’t connect with this world. It was like some invisible class line between the Uptown art kids and me (from the absolutely unfashionable West Bank.)
This feeling of being an outsider has stuck with me, and I loathe the big ego and snootiness that I associate with so much Fine Art. I told myself I wanted nothing to do with that, even as I found myself enrolled in a “real art school” rather than a community college, surrounded by artfully dressed rich kids with really cool pads and hip parties on the weekends. I found myself particularly attracted to ceramics because it seemed so humble and unfashionable, and gave me an extra excuse to wear ratty clothes to school that were just going to get muddy anyway.
I’m well aware of how reactionary this was, and how I was buying into certain stereotypes about different mediums and different types of artists. I was falling into the same trap as generations of artists have before me, rebelling against the previous generation’s ideas about what Art was. As I progressed through my ceramics and printmaking classes, I made friends with the older students that just wanted to throw well made pots, young rebellious students using school resources to make commercially viable prints and designs, and the serious art students who were concerned with pushing the limits of their respective mediums and exploring the more conceptual side of things. I found myself identifying with a multitude of attitudes on many different levels, and though I still found myself tending towards the desire to make work that was humble and a bit practical, my images and surfaces were idea driven and conceptual. I knew I would not be satisfied with making work that was merely pretty or well designed, but I liked having the freedom to make a pretty vase if I felt like it.
I found myself enamored with the work of Grayson Perry, who has been called the most well known living potter of our time. His ceramic objects are beautiful and well crafted, nearly flawless with hand painted scenes, kitschy gold lustres and commercial decals. His forms are always classically shaped vases, well balanced and elegant. The subject matter of his surfaces, however, is completely subversive and often sexually graphic. “These highly decorative objects, often covered with layers of lustre, gold leaf and sugary kitsch transfers are, by the artist´s own admission, ´perversion to match the curtains´.” (Saatchi Gallery)
His raw exhibitionistic narratives and shocking social commentary on the surface of common pottery stuck with me more than any other artist I’d come across. By covering his pots with controversial and personal images, Perry believes that he elevates what he considers a “second class thing,” pottery, into a gallery-worthy object. Perry is also fond of cross dressing in hand-made dresses of his own design, both functioning as a personal fetish and as part of his shtick or artistic persona. He has stated that he believes that women are treated as second class, much like pottery, and it all goes well with his low self-esteem. I can certainly relate.
However, all of his theatrics seemed to be ego driven and tongue in cheek, forcing the world to take pottery seriously and let him into the exclusive club known as the art world. I was excited by his means of expression, but am not personally as interested in courting the gallery world and seeking scrutiny and admiration by a select few. I admit that when David Hoppe, the art editor of NUVO magazine, told my J 400 class that art criticism as we know it is a dying profession, I applauded on the inside. I firmly believe that “criticism” seeks to tell the viewer what to think, how to see, and how an art work could be “better,” all coming from someone who has never actually made art. I fail to see a need for this profession, other than to tell snotty art patrons what fashionable object is worth buying and a good investment. Perry also seems unconcerned with making anything functional, clearly stating that his pots are meant to be sat on a pedestal and looked at. It is exactly this kind of pretentiousness and pretended seriousness that I try to avoid, even though I do appreciate the joke he’s playing, putting penises and fetish scenes on fancy pots and getting them into world renowned galleries.
The arts and crafts movement is closer to my personal beliefs about art making, romantic and idealistic as that may be. I have a desire to find personal fulfillment in my work, to keep my hands busy and take pride in the objects I create. I do believe that there is something particularly thrilling about a handcrafted object that was made with love and not mass produced. I’m not at all against industrial design or mass produced objects, but I believe that the whole green and DIY movement is making it desirable and even fashionable to use everyday objects that were handmade with care, and I plan to take advantage of this current movement towards the handmade to express my stories to the world. I have a particular fear of making a living doing uninspired repetitive labor or being a part of some soul-sucking retail establishment. I truly believe that everyday actions should be meaningful and fulfilling, whether it is the way you make your living, your mode of transportation, the food you prepare, or the social interactions you engage in. Making artwork is for me both a means to that end and an expression of the desire to memorialize those interactions.
My latest series, which is still in progress, is an attempt to move away from the purely functional while still referencing the everyday and the “precious object”. I have started a series of altar or grotto forms, made from wheel thrown enclosed forms that I’ve cut in half it make hollow niches. They are painstakingly carved with architectural motifs from cathedrals and the figures of two girls, one reaching down to stroke a dead cat, the other meeting the viewers eye with a mischievous and almost sultry expression, holding a crow as though it were a baby doll.
I have decided to experiment with the surfaces, varying their finishes using a simple paste wax polish on one, a high gloss clear glaze with metallic luster on another, and selectively hand painting a third with watercolor underglazes, to see what effects each finish will have on the carved porcelain surface. I am referencing Catholicism and religion, and in particular the front yard shrines to Mary and Jesus that can commonly be found around New Orleans. They are intended to act as mementos and shrines to the dead, a way for me to mourn the death of my city and my childhood as I remember it, which is somewhat idealistically and romantically, and not altogether accurate. I discovered that after Hurricane Katrina and the move to Indiana, I became homesick for things I had taken for granted that had been destroyed by the storm, as well as for my family, which had been destroyed by divorce. Both longings were for things that no longer existed the way I wanted them to. These shrines are meant to be mementos for dead memories and a way for me to grieve and move on, as I seem constantly obsessed with my past instead of focusing on the present. I am also referencing my belief that man made religion is as false an illusion as rosy childhood memories, and something too that I feel I had to let go of, to go in search of my own meaning, my own sense of the sacred, and my own personal myths and stories.
I have toyed with the idea of smashing them when I’m done with them, possibly as an installation; robbing viewers of the opportunity to view details they may have missed upon initial inspection. I’d enjoy playing with the idea of missed opportunity, of being reminded of the impermanence of all things, and the fragility and unpredictability of ceramics as a medium plays well with that idea. I have also been considering what objects to fill them with. I initially intended to paint inside of them, but realized it would leave the space empty and hollow, and it would be better served by being filled with a three dimensional object. I’d like to put a dead cicada in one, once again referencing impermanence as well as the cicada as my personal symbol of change and emergence. I have yet to decide how to resolve the other two, but plan to continue making these little altars until I feel satisfied with a result and a viewer response. It is my hope that these altars can straddle the line between sappy sentiment and something a little bit deeper, a little bit sacred, and a little bit sad.
I don’t intend to stick with any one thing for long, except maybe my love of bright colors and the preference for porcelain over other clay bodies as far as the ceramic world is concerned, and even this may change with time and experience. I’m certainly open to anything that strikes my fancy. I’d like my work to continually evolve and change to the point that what I make 10 years from now will seem to have been made by an entirely different person than the work I make today. It is my hope that my interests and experimentation will continually evolve as I do, and that my work is never tied down or pigeon-holed for any longer than I want it to be.