The learning process of residency one began for me the minute I opened my portfolio and contemplated hanging my work on the wall. Although I have presented my work before, I had not really thought about how the order and grouping of my work affected the viewer. I also had not seen all of my work laid out before my eyes. Therefore, I would say that the first critique I faced was my own. My work looked smaller on the wall then it did in my mind.
Before I began the residency I was nervous what kind of work my fellow students would be presenting. Because I come from a traditional painting background, I feared that I would not connect to the other students in the program. I was happy that my fear was quickly eradicated. Walking through the student galleries was an exciting and intriguing. I was most struck by the wide range of work. I enjoyed that the content of each room was greatly varied. This mixing of ideas and styles was one of the best aspects of the program that I experienced.
The first official critique for me was with Jan Avgikos. Her very first questions of my work were based on my palette. She remarked that there was an overwhelming amount of brown in my work. My knee jerk reaction to that was “What’s wrong with brown?” Of course there is nothing, in theory, wrong with brown. However, I had not seen how strong the thread of brown ties together my work. Jan challenged me to think beyond the comfort of the colors with which I am used to working. Admittedly, I have worked with a limited palette for the past five years. I think getting away from the “brown” may be a matter of getting out of the studio, throwing open the curtains, and looking at some new things. Most of my work has been done in the same room with natural light and similar backdrops. Even in this first critique I realized that I need to question why; why am I setting things up this way, why am I choosing my subjects, and why am I painting in the style I paint?
Truthfully, these questions came at me in an overwhelming way. My next critique with Andreas Fogarsi added to the whirlwind. His first statement about my work was
“ This reminds me of what we still have on our walls. We have them but we don’t like them.
They are old and dusty.”
This statement stands out as one of the most memorable things I was told. I cannot say that I agree with Mr. Fogarsi; but I know there is a kernel of truth there. My paintings have an “old” feeling to them. Thinking about this comment has lead me to one of the biggest questions I will face as an artist; how do I make representational and figurative painting relative in the 21st century?
The first answer to that question was made clear early on; look at modern painters. Every critique was filled with suggestions of painters for me to explore. It was almost as if I had been living in a bubble prior to the residency. I looked at many books, but most of them were from the 19th century. Contemporary painting, to me, represented the deskilling of art. However I have come to realize that I cannot be ignorant of what is going on today. Therefore, I will look in to contemporary paintings. I also will make it a point in the future to go to galleries and see paintings, because photographs often do not do them justice. I am grateful for teachers (and students) who give me plenty of names to look up, because that gives me a starting point.
Another idea that I found to be helpful was to take a lot of pictures. I have a complicated relationship with photographs. I have only recently begun to use them a reference for paintings, and even then I only used them after observing and painting from life. I have never wanted my paintings to look like photographs. In fact, my favorite paintings are usually more sketchy and lively, not labored over to look photographic. So when using photographs was suggested to me I immediately balked. Then I realized that I could use the photographs not as reference, but as a kind of ‘visual bookmark’. They could give me ideas compositionally or they could capture things that I could never observe to paint. I have decided to just go crazy with the camera and see what happens.
One of the biggest impressions that I came away with from Residency One is that people really want to see me “come out of my comfort zone”. The idea of stepping out of the rules I have set for myself as a painter is slightly terrifying. The freedom to play is not something I have allowed myself in my painting, although I have always enjoyed drawing and doodling in a more relaxed, fun way. Painting has always been a very serious endeavor. One very enlightening thing for me to see was the graduate talk by Ms. Swearington. This talk resonated with me because she showed her “journey” in the graduate program. It was fascinating to see how she really took a leap and worked in a way that was almost totally opposite from where she started out. I enjoyed seeing how other artists tackled the idea of stepping out of their comfort zone.
Overall, the residency was exhilarating, overwhelming, and incredibly informational. I feel like I have the freedom to pretty much do anything. I have these “traditional” painting skills, which is what my work coming into the program represents. Now I have to take these skills and find out why I am painting and what I want to say. I also have to give myself the freedom to let the journey happen, even if that means lightening up a bit.
Comments by Stuart
1) Remember, the "de-skilling" of art doesn't necessarily involve a rejection of skills per se. It simply involves the development and employment of a new/different skill-set. In fact, the process of making conceptual art requires a highly refined set of intellectual skills! In the end, however, one set of skills is not inherently "better" than another. Nor does one set of skills necessarily preclude another. Each problem that an artist faces will not only demand a specific solution, but it will also require a specific set of skills.
2) Brown is not simply a color. It is also a "signifier" that conveys certain associations and meanings. When Jan commented that you make "brown paintings," she was referring to the fact that your palette is dominated by earth tones. But she was also suggesting that your paintings evoke a very particular set of meanings that we associate with the past (hence, Andreas's comment that your work seems "dusty"). Remember, style communicates meaning independently of content or subject matter.
3) I am thrilled that you have made peace with photography. I love the idea of using photographs as a means of both developing your visual sensibilities and exploring compositional possibilities. This is great!
4) Finally, I want to encourage you to try new things ... and to work outside of your comfort zone. Now is the time to explore and experiment. Don't be afraid to fail ... or to make some truly awful work. We only expect one thing: That you produce, produce, produce. You have total freedom to follow your whims -- no matter how wacky they are.