January 15, 2009
Adminstrator's Note: I am sharing my first contribution for The Microwave Project, a blog-community experiment organized by Washington, D.C. artist, Rachel Fick. This post was in response to an earlier one on “Loss Creation” by photographer, Victoria F. Gaitán, in which she wrote about how “Not knowing can be a creative blessing.” My “Microwave” posts will be monthly on the 13th - - - so bookmark “Microwave Project” and visit for daily postings from painters, photographers, filmmakers, writers and critical thinkers.
“Some inventors have a goal in mind and work persistently toward it. Others stumble across solutions to problems they weren’t trying to solve.”
- - sign in children’s area of National Museum of American History.
In past work, I have used a “kitchen sink” approach and “found objects” to make art. Possibly it’s a creative phase that every visual artist goes through, although the improvisational aspect of this methodology suggests allegiances to music, particularly to jazz. After many years of entering my studio and beginning what were abstract paintings, with no plan or idea of what the paintings would look like, I discovered that this way of working was essentially a gamble. There were successes, to be sure, but just as many failures, failures of consequence, wasteful dispensation of gallons of paint, reams of paper, resulting in hopeless images and wanton destruction. Leaving the studio after a day without success was disheartening if not depressing. There were often sequential days of failure that lead to personal soul-searching: what was I doing and is it worth the pain?
This method of art making is Jackson Pollock’s legacy. In the relatively sparse handful of comments about painting, Pollock said:
“When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing … I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own … It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess.”
The number of times Pollock lost “contact” with his painting is unclear but what is known is his self-destructive behavior that eventually resulted in his tragic loss. I know from personal experience that improvisation can lead to psychic “self abuse.” I also know that the painful loss that comes with those failures becomes a required step in order to win the “successes,” yet waste and destruction take their toll. The greatest improvisational jazz players were known to abuse themselves destructively with narcotics and alcohol. It has been suggested that their self-destructive behavior was caused by perceived “failures” during the improvising and that they perhaps sought intoxication to block that pain, that loss.
I found my way back to the concept. My return to this attitude was manifested through reading art theory, reacquainting myself with advantages gained by conceiving before taking action. Sol Lewitt pointed the way when he wrote: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” A conceptual process could generate the image. You know beforehand what you are doing and the work still “has a life of its own.”
Digging deeper, we can discover that conceptual art trumps “taste” by following the process required and eliminates subjective judgments by the artist during the making. “To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity.” [Ironically, this avoidance perhaps predicted postmodern doubts of “subjectivity” and foreshadowed theories of the “constructed subject.”]
Intentionality is defined by the conception of the piece. Random detours predicated through an individual impulse are avoided by the insistence of the process. As I have written elsewhere, “We understand the artist’s intention to be the documentation of a pre-conceived idea for an artwork through a series of actions and ‘thought processes’ which result in the production of the work.”
This is my method – but it needn’t be yours. There will always be artists who are willing to create “problems they weren’t trying to solve.” However, I prefer to work with a “goal in mind” conceived beforehand. Making art by gambling on a “success” is working in a cycle of chance and loss. The advantage of the process is in gaining clarity of intention.
Image: Lai si (1997), private collection, © Copyright by Mark Cameron Boyd.