The Art of Illusion

transits 122, photograph

“I no longer worry whether a painting is about something or not. I am only concerned with the expectation, from a flat surface, of an illusion.”

William Scott

All art is illusion since it is a (mis)representation of reality in some way – unless you consider it as a physical object in it’s own right (a bit of paper or canvas, some pigment or emulsion). But the art always stands for something else and it can never be that thing entirely.

I like to bring that quality to the surface of my work so that when you look at it, it’s apparent that I’m not simply trying to replicate reality. I’m inviting you into the illusion, allowing you to add your own interpretation, to construct your own reality out of the sketchy elements I offer up.

It can be a little unsettling and it requires a bit more effort to create the story, and all good art comes with a story, either entirely personal or more communal. Sometimes the material I provide doesn’t inspire your imagination to engage, other times it sparks an unexpected journey.

Either outcome is fine, I just ask that you keep looking.

Representin’

hands 3, photograph

“I wished to copy nature. I could not. But I was satisfied when I discovered the sun, for instance, could not be reproduced, but only represented by something else.”

Paul Cezanne

Another worthy distinction to bear in mind as an artist – the difference between reproduction and representation.

As a creator and as a viewer of art, I find representation much more interesting – and, of course, as Cezanne says, you really can’t reproduce another thing anyway!

There are many choices that go into deciding how to represent something. You have to make decisions about how your approach will be like and how it will be different from the thing represented. This provides ample room for interpretation and expression. There are an infinite number of ways to represent something, a very finite (perhaps singular) number of ways to reproduce it. As a viewer of art, trying to understand how and why the work represents it’s subject offers a visual and intellectual challenge that engages me.

When I think about representing, I am forced to consider what are the essential qualities of the thing so I can attempt to make those more evident in the piece. This deepens my understanding and experience of my subject in a way that simply reproducing it does not.

Just another way that artmaking is so much about the process, not just the end result.

What Do They Know?

westside road 36, photograph

“I cannot convince myself that a painting is good unless it is popular. If the public dislikes one of my Post covers, I can’t help disliking it myself.”

Norman Rockwell

How immune are you from the opinions of your audience? Do you find yourself being influenced by their favorites? Can you feel completely comfortable with something no one else likes?

I must admit that I experience a certain deflation about a piece that I think is a winner that meets with no interest at all from others. At best it makes me questions my judgement, at worst it makes me relegate it to the reject pile. A rare few I keep in my favorites folder, but I’ve stopped sharing them – they’re just for me.

I don’t think one should blithely say that the opinions of others should be ignored – it’s the rare artist who makes their art only for themselves. On the other hand, too much importance attached to these opinions can result in rudderless artmaking.

For me the secret is to pay attention to the opinion of those whose opinion I respect or whose criticism comes with more to ponder than just a thumbs up or down. Something that starts out as a personal favorite, when examined from this perspective, can turn out to be a stepping stone to something better. Some pieces are keepers, some are there to point the way…

Abstraction vs. Representation

transits 65, photograph

“Why not acknowledge that all representation is an act of abstraction and that all abstraction must be conveyed through the act of representation and be done with it?”

– Peter London, No More Secondhand Art

And with that London puts to rest one of the ongoing debates in the art world! And he’s right, of course.

The process of taking an actual object and depicting it as an art piece involves a complex act of abstraction. All sorts of decisions go into what to include or exclude and ultimately the art is not as “complete” as the real object. Which is what can make it more interesting to us because we are invited to react to the unique way the artist has decided to abstract the reality into his/her work.

Then there are many qualities which do not manifest in the world as any specific object: intimacy, longing, consummation, delicacy, rarity, etc. The artist has to invent images to portray these immaterial qualities. What is abstract, without reference to a specific object in time and place, must be given form through an act of representation.

So every work of art has elements of abstraction and representation in it. With this understanding, perhaps the artist will not feel compelled to identify with one camp or the other and needlessly limit their mode of expression.

In fact, your willingness to explore both sides of this coin will expand your ability to create your world and your place within it, and that’s what it’s all about!

Learning and Remembering

calla’s curl, photograph

“At some deep level artmaking integrates the things we learn to be true with the things we have always known to be true. Finding that correlation between instinct and experience is the key to drawing out universal truths from particular experiences. It’s all a matter of learning and remembering.”

– Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door

We all infuse the totality of our personal experience into each piece of art we make, but one of our aims is to create something that appeals to others. They might have had similar experiences but no one is exactly like us.

At least part of the dialogue between artist and viewer takes place through the medium of universal truths. We tap into those truths through instinct. The more successful of us know how to take something very personal and render it in a way that communicates easily to others.

When I start a new work, I’m usually focused on the specific object and my own experience of it. It’s what inspired me to take the photograph and what caused me to select it for reproduction. But as I consider how to make the image beautiful, how to use it to express something more than it’s origins, I find myself drawing from a deeper level of understanding than that felt at the moment of inception. At a most subtle level, there is remembering going on. If we had to rely solely on the learning our individual experience gives us when creating art, it would be hard to explain the universal appeal and power of communication that art achieves.

There is an interesting talk on TED.com by Denis Dutton in which he presents a Darwinian explanation of art’s universal allure. While we need not agree with his specific explanations, he supports the view expressed by Orland that there is a stratum underlying our specific cultural norms of art that we, as artists, draw on to create and that others, as viewers, rely on to appreciate.

It’s an interesting perspective to take on the process of creation that we all undertake, seeing it as drawing out universal truths from particular experiences. Maybe it can helps us feel a little less isolated as we pursue the sometimes lonely act of making art.

Beholding Beauty


“Incubus 1”

“Beauty needs a consensus, or at least the possibility.”

– Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Mind

The concept of beauty in art is one that continues to draw my attention, I guess because much of my work explores subjects and treatments that don’t fit that term’s usual definition.

Freeman, in his (excellent!) new book, The Photographer’s Mind, begins with a lengthy discussion of beauty and it’s evolving role in contemporary art and photography. One of the points he makes is that members of a culture share a common understanding of what is beautiful. Of course, there is disagreement about whether any particular image is beautiful, hence the catchphrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But when we attempt  to create something of beauty, we are aiming in a general direction that we believe others will agree with. Beauty cannot exist only in the eye of the beholder.

I think this is why I sometimes get a little bored with beautiful images. They speak to culture’s conventions, they are considered beautiful for the very reason that they share common qualities with other beautiful things. Beauty is a confined space that artificially limits our free expression. Ultimately there becomes a sameness about beauty. Images that do not aim at these conventions cause us to consider them on their own merits, without benefit of ready-made criteria. There’s greater opportunity in both creating and viewing such images to experience something new.

 

 

Calla’s Curves

Calla 2

 

“A curved line is the loveliest distance between two points.”

– Anonymous

The calla lilly is one of the most well represented flowers in all of art, whether painting or photography. I suspect it runs neck and neck with the rose.  The calla flower itself is a veritable cone of curls. Here you also get to appreciate the sensuous lines of the leaves as well.

This image is composed almost entirely of curved lines. Curved lines invite the viewer to wander a bit, take a little extra time. Straight lines direct the viewer to a certain spot while curved lines offer alternatives. Paul Klee said that a line is just a dot that went for a walk and in this case the journey is a pleasantly meandering one.

It’s important to let the visual design of an image to allow the subject matter to express it’s natural qualities. Here the sinuous curves tell the calla’s story.