Disturbing News

Into the Continuum, photograph

A painting without something disturbing in it – what’s that?

– George Braque

Another bold statement that might just contain a grain of truth in it.

Does all (or most) good, interesting art have at least some element in it that could be considered “disturbing”? If there is nothing that throws us off just a bit, is the art reduced to something that is just decorative? What role “decorative” art plays is a topic for another post…

I use the word disturbing in a fairly general sense – to unsettle, to interrupt, to interfere with the order of something. When I experience this in a work of art it causes me to stop and reconsider, to reflect on something in a new way. My status quo has been disturbed. What results from that experience can be good or bad, but without something in the work that triggers it, chances are we won’t get much from seeing the work.

I always get a small thrill when I create an image that I know will disturb my viewers (bearing in mind the above definition). I don’t want to make you feel bad, I want to make you feel…

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Float Like a Butterfly…

spring garden, photograph

“Art is like a butterfly fluttering in a meadow. Analysis of art is like a butterfly on a pin. Each has its value, but we must always be aware of the difference, and what is gained or lost.”

– Darby Bannard

I like this analogy a lot – we can learn so much about a butterfly from observing it in the meadow and equally as much in the laboratory, as a specimen. It’s just that we learn completely different things. Both have their place.

But, as Bannard points out, we need to bear in mind the differences and understand the limitations of each. Neither offers the complete picture and confining oneself to one side of this equation or the other denies us a deeper understanding of each.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed classical music – often I will hear a piece and love it without knowing anything about it, who wrote it, when it was written, the musical structure underlying it, etc. I can appreciate it as is. At times I’ve studied music and music history and the understanding I’ve gained in doing so can deepen my appreciation of a piece and make me like it even more.  On the other hand, if I really don’t like it, knowing more about it will not cause me to suddenly change how I feel. What I gain is understanding, not necessarily enjoyment.

For me the approach that works best is one of balance. In my last post, I referred to a review of my work in which a theorist seemed only able to look at the work from a theoretical and historical perspective. I do appreciate that viewpoint but it must be balanced by a perspective which enjoys the work on its own merits.

So I do like to learn about art theory and history, but don’t rely on them for my enjoyment of the arts – rather I look to them to further the enjoyment my direct experience offers me.
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Where Do You Fit In?

water marbles, photograph

“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.”

Edgar Payne

During a portfolio review recently a reviewer told me that all photography is inevitably a collaboration with the work of past photographers and that I should understand my role in that collaboration. In other words, I needed to know the work of others and be able to explain my work in relation to theirs.

I know many artists struggle with the issue of the influence other artists have on their work. We all want to find our own voice and yet we all want to learn from others. A strong argument can be made that all art is to some degree derivative and that it is only in modern times that originality became so important to artists.

But this reviewer was making a slightly different point – they weren’t commenting on whether the work was original, but whether there was any reason to be doing it at all. Their point was that art must be understood and can only be evaluated in its historical context. The question posed by the reviewer was “Why, given what others have done with this type of work in the past, are you doing it now? What are you  trying to say that is relevant today with this subject?”. The implicit assumption was that if I couldn’t explain this, the work had no meaning.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t necessarily care what others have done with similar work or why they have done it. I may be interested in the work as a source of inspiration, ideas, techniques, etc. But I don’t really feel that I need to be engaged in a conversation with other artists, living or past, about my work. The conversations I’m more interested in art is with myself and with others who view my work. I suppose some of them are familiar with specific artistic traditions and may want to know how I fit in.

I’m afraid I may need to let them figure that out for themselves.

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Whether You Like it or Not

euphorbia 4, photograph

“If you only photograph when you feel like it… you’ll never be totally successful as a photographer.”

– Freeman Patterson

Many of us view artmaking as something we do purely for fun, so it’s hard to understand why we would practice our art when we don’t want to. That seems like a contradiction. And we’ve all felt at one time or another like making art is the last thing we want to do.

But I agree with Patterson, to improve as an artist you must  be committed enough to your work to practice it  even when you aren’t in the mood. It will cause you to take your art more seriously. You’ll be forced to find your creative muse under a wider range of circumstances and mental and emotional states, which will allow you to access a deeper well of inspiration.

We’ve all heard artists say that it is important to show up each day in the studio for work. I don’t take this literally because I can’t  (I have a full time job, after all) but rather for me it means that I am committed to take as many opportunities as I can to make art regardless of whether I am in the mood. I have a limited amount of time left in my life to make art and I can’t afford to limit myself to only those times when I feel like doing so if I want to grow.

This doesn’t mean that making art becomes a chore or, worse, a punishment. There are times when I choose not to practice art, when I need a break or just want to indulge in some other activity. But I’m careful to not decide against practicing art solely based on whether or not I feel like it at the moment. Such a habit would gradually cause my artistic muscles to grow slack.

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Twice Seen

Man and Child, photograph

“In the words of a Native American holy man, to see profoundly means ‘to look at the world twice,’ minutely as well as dimly, in order ‘to see all that there is to see’.”

Eugenia Parry – in an essay introduction to “Bill Jacobson Photographs”

One of the things I love most about visual art is the way in which it allows us, and sometimes forces us, to see the world differently.

Imagine for a moment a world without any visual arts. The only things to see… would be the things themselves. While it’s hard to even imagine, I believe that there would be far less dimension to our world. Our surroundings would feel a little more like a Hollywood set. We would lack the ability to see “all that there is to see”.

Much of my photographic work involves images seen less minutely and more dimly. They might feel a bit like the dream state, or that interval when awakening emerges from our dreams. Just as we perform important work on many of our conscious thoughts while dreaming, we can expand the range of our vision of the world by viewing it in a manner less minute. Then we will look twice, and maybe more than twice, to see what is revealed when the particulars are absent.

Please do keep looking. You will continue to find more.

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The Dark Side

san francisco nights, photograph

“… it’s also important to recognize that what we’ve created may be private work, rather than something to offer for publication or exhibition.”

John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity

Do you ever create this kind of private work?

We’re not referring to work that is kept private because it isn’t up to our personal quality standards, but rather work that just isn’t suitable for consumption by others. It might be something that was inspired by an inner muse that you are not ready to share. The work may even be disturbing to others. Not all art is “feel good” art.

As artists I think it is good to challenge our audience, but not to intentionally upset them. Since we explore our inner state through our art, it makes sense that a wide range of feelings and emotions are represented.

I know many artists are tempted to produce only work that uplifts, themselves and others. We are all enriched by such work. But I recommend examining other modalities in your art as well.

I was recently told by someone that a body of my work “should be seen, but was not commercial”. In other words, it had something to say but nobody would probably want to buy it and hang it on their wall. There are all sorts of categories that art falls into beyond the familiar ones so many of us focus on.

So tell me, do you have a collection of private work hidden away somewhere? What can you tell us about it?

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More Than Meets the Eye


daffodil, photograph

“While the photographer cannot eliminate the object […], he still wants the photograph to be the main source of the spectator’s feeling. While he cannot erase from the viewer’s mind the implications of the subject, he prefers to depend for his effect on the visual relationships that are present in the print itself.”

– Minor White

This is certainly how I feel about doing photography but there are some that will disagree. And I’ve seen many photographs where I believe the subject was the focus, rather than the photograph itself. The cameras ability to easily render what appears in front of us can make it easy to fall into the trap of simply documenting what’s there.

As you may know, I like to compare photography to painting – having done a lot of both, it lets me bring to bear my own personal experiences. Plus I think many of us hold different views of these two artforms, both in terms of creating and viewing them, and these differences can be revealing. After all, both are about creating images, yet there are many distinctions we make between them, which I have often found puzzling.

Most paintings are more about the painting than the subject (portraits is an exception that comes to mind).  We don’t think about painting anymore as a method of simply documenting our world. Rather it is a way of interpreting our world, expressing how we feel about it.

Photography, both because of its historical roots, and because it is a better tool than painting when documentation is needed, is more often relegated, both by viewer and photographer, to being primarily a means of reporting on the world.

But a photograph, like a painting, wants it’s own identity – it wants to be more than it’s subject. That’s why, when I look at something and consider whether I will take the picture, I ask myself what I will do with the photograph to make it distinct from what I’m photographing.

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