Jeff and Carl are in Pennsylvania this week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, an exciting show filled with lots of amazing artists. They’ve been enjoying life Philly-style and are looking forward to a great rest of the week! Be sure to check Facebook for updates from the show.
While they’ve been away, I did some work that involved me sending off an artist statement to a firm interested in Jeff’s sculptures. While I was putting together the things they needed, I got to thinking about artist statements. I know what you are thinking; it is an exciting life I lead. Anyway, for those unfamiliar with an artist statement, it is a short piece of written work that the artist puts together to describe his/her art. As an example, here’s a short one that Jeff has on the homepage of his website:
One thing I’ve never really understood is why artist statements are so ubiquitous. First of all, I’ve never met an artist who enjoyed writing them. Second of all, a lot of art that has an accompanying artist statement is visual art. Why does something visual need words to accompany it? Can’t you just look at the art?
I guess there is much to be said for contextualizing a piece of art. One certainly does feel more connected to a piece when one knows something about the artist’s process, interests, influences, and motivations. I’ve grown more and more interested in Jeff’s recent work the more I’ve learn about how much his childhood is influencing his artistic style. It’s fascinating to learn about his motivation to create things using found materials because they connect him personally to an earlier time and place. I appreciate having these insights because it enhances my experience with his art while still allowing me to view his work on my own terms and through my own lens.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of artist statements that don’t simply contextualize the work they accompany. The artist has accidentally overwritten their statement, and suddenly a piece of art that should speak for itself is forced to take on meaning that is larger than life. When Jeff and I were in Grand Rapids at ArtPrize, we saw a sculpture that I immediately hated (I make my judgements fast, people). It was a naked baby doll propped upright in a glass display case. The baby had one of its arms and one of its legs sawed off and replaced with robotic-looking limbs that hovered an inch or so away from the body. The whole thing was macabre in a very juvenile sort of way, but for me the worst part was the artist’s statement. Here is a sculpture that leaves very little to the imagination already but that is supplemented by a statement claiming it is opening my eyes to children’s dependence on technology. It does not discuss the artist’s inspiration or choice of materials. It does not place the work in any sort of historical artistic context. It simply explains what it means. I as a viewer have had to do no work, and I am no better off having seen that sculpture than not having seen it.
Perhaps you are wondering what is so wrong about an artist wanting his viewers to see exactly what he sees in his work. I respond that there is nothing necessarily wrong with it; it is their art and they may do what they like, except that it is boring me. Part of the joy in looking at art is discovering one’s own feelings along the way.
One of my best friends from college is an artist named Anda Tanaka, and I like the way she thinks about artist statements. I remember watching her get ready for her art shows when we were still in school. For her, one of the most stressful parts of putting together a show (I mean, besides doing the actual artwork, getting the venue ready, and doing all the rest of her schoolwork) was writing the artist statement. She could sit for ages trying to come up with the words to adequately contextualize her work. I always liked her statements, as once they were finished they were very clearly written pieces that matched her determined personality (plus she always wrote them out by hand on beautiful paper, so they ended up being small works of art themselves). When she did pieces that were deliberately done in a certain style, her viewers were always treated to a succinct explanation of the historical context of her work. But when her work was less obviously rooted in history, she definitely struggled. “It’s like, you know how I play the trumpet? [Anda is also a very accomplished jazz trumpeter, no big deal] Well, after I’ve improvised, people will be like, Wow! How did you come up with that? Was it based on something?, and I have to say no, because, it’s not… I’m improvising. Art is like that. Sometimes you’re just improvising.” Indeed, as Iris Jaffe explains in The Anti-artist-statement Statement, “for a fine artist to be entirely aware of his or her creative process and the resulting artwork thereby created is a nearly impossible feat- and one that would require essentially super-human levels of self-awareness and analytical ability on the artist’s part.” Anda, like so many artists, doesn’t want to have to trivialize her work through the over-generalization of a complex and beautiful artistic process. She also doesn’t want to over-analyze her own work for the perceived benefit of other people, because in the end there is no real benefit to dumbing down art for a viewer. “My art is often about myself. It’s personal, like a self-portrait or a self-analysis. But I don’t want what I’m thinking to influence the people who see my work. I don’t want to put words or thoughts into people’s heads. I want them to think for themselves.”
I think her desire not to over-influence her viewers is (as it should be) a genuine concern for many artists, Jeff and Carl included. They hope to garner unique and genuine responses to their work and tend to be very successful in their endeavors, which I think speaks to their integrity as artists. At shows, they rarely have up much more than a short description of their work. The visitors to their booths have the distinct advantage of meeting the artists themselves and are able to form a much more organic and human connection to the art and the artist than are viewers who are simply confronted with disembodied work. Jeff and Carl take their viewer’s connection to their work so seriously, in fact, that they have chosen to use serial numbers rather than titles to keep track of their creations. “People ask me why my pieces are numbered and not named. It’s that I think of them as machines and the numbering reflects that. It’s a serial number, starting from my first metal sculpture. I find that when I put a label or name on a piece, a person looks at it differently. With a number, each viewer comes away with his or her own thoughts. An engineer, a child, or even a scrap metal dealer comes away with a different view, all equally valid, and all equally personal,” says Jeff.
While I’m still a little bemused by the idea of an artist statement for visual art, I am obviously not ready to dismiss their usefulness altogether. It’s exciting, however, when an artist thinks enough of their viewers to give them the freedom for personal reflection. I truly admire the artists who give me a job to do when looking at their art. That, to me, keeps things far from boring.