Monday, 18 July 2011

On Artistic Practice - an essay

Well, my first pass at an 'Artist Statement' having produced predictable pretentious waffle (see here), I have unavoidably been forced to think more about art and, basically, What It's All About.  The result is the following essay on artistic practice, goals and technique, and hopefully I will get enough from it to construct a more digestible and concise definition of what it is I do......

On Artistic Practice.

My goal as an artist is to make pictures which capture people's attention - something which when they see it from across the room or out of the corner of their eye will make them say "Hey, what was that?" and go back for a closer look.  Something which gives them a feeling that something has changed in their lives, although they may not be able to formulate exactly what. Something, in other words, which makes people think.

Why do this?  Because, as artists, we can.  In the same way in which a great writer can change people's lives, if we are serious about our art, we should also be able to catalyze change.  When we sit down in front of a blank canvas (or a wall, a lump of clay, a raw stone, or a computer screen) we are God.  We can create whatever we want, and if we are good enough; 'in the zone' or 'in flow', we can make people believe in our creation.  If we have the ability to do it, then perhaps we also have the obligation to do it.

In my own case, I try to create something which will make a change in people, to 'make my mark' (for that, of course, is what artists do), by searching for combinations of shape, colour, form and texture which evoke a subliminal emotional response in the viewer. My goal is for someone to look a picture and feel that it 'resonates', that it 'strikes a chord' (note how we use expressions for visual art which echo the impressions we get from music - both are visceral experiences).  They need not understand exactly why it gives them that feeling - my goal is to work on the archetypal level, so that the viewer cannot help but respond in a certain way to what they are seeing.

The content of my art sometimes incorporates symbols which are widely recognisable (and therefore likely to be reacted to) by the majority of people.  Clouds symbolise flights of the imagination and dreams.  Flowers are for springtime and rebirth. Baroque carving evokes a feeling of luxury, exclusivity - even spirituality, and archaic lettering for nostalgia and a sense of the presence of the past.  More than this, though, I try to allow my own intuition to select shapes, forms and colour combinations which resonate on a more subtle level - that which gives me a particular feeling, evokes a particular emotion, I hope will have the same effect on someone viewing the picture. Often the meaning of an image only becomes apparent to me well after I have created it - at the time of creation it is simply in the process of becoming, and the act of facilitating that process can be conscious, unconscious and subconscious, in any combination.

"Me da la Cabeza de Juan Bautista" : Oils & egg-tempera on canvas : 97 x 55 cm
Copyright © 2010 by Martin Herbert
Technique is an important part of my practice.  When trying to evoke an emotional response, the response is unavoidably affected by the medium and execution of the painting.  There are many traditional ways in which the viewer is affected indirectly by the technique and materials used.  As an art-viewing collective we may react differently to a painting in acrylics to one in oils (the medium is more modern and plastic, so the piece may not be as worthy).  We react differently to a drawing in pencil to one in a child's crayons.  We certainly react differently to a painting done on a computer than we do to one done entirely in traditional media.  In general, if the art is representational, we react 'better' to a piece which is painted with a high degree of technical skill than we do to one which is 'messy', regardless of the message.  If the art is more 'emotional' in content, then we may consider a loose ('messy'!) expressionist style a good thing as a painstaking meticulous technique might smack of emotional detachment.  If the piece is 'industrial' in character, then digital art is no bad thing.

"A Thing of Hair and Feathers" : Ink & sanguine pencil on tempera-washed paper :
11" x 14" : Copyright © 2010 by Martin Herbert
One thing I try to do in painting is to mix the techniques - to use media which are unexpected and unpredictable for the particular subject in question.  I use digital, computer-generated, mathematically based shapes to make metamorphosing organic objects reminiscent of plants, seeds and microscopic sea creatures.  I use traditional 'old-master' oil and tempera media to make paintings which also contain whimsical references in archaic typefaces.  Meticulous representational work is used to portray the fantastic in the manner of the Visionary and Symbolist schools, reminiscent of Ernst Fuch´s 'Fantastic Realism'.  Bringing an ironic, fantastical or mythical (or archetypal) element into a superficially realistic painting, or using a computer to generate something which looks like an 18th century engraving, but one so complex it could not have been traced by hand, provides that slightly unsettling element which (see above) makes the viewer say "Hey, what was that?", and go back for another look.

"The Last Rabbit" : Oil on canvas, 2000 : Mark Ryden
Please visit the artist's website for more
It is that process of unsettling the viewer, as well, which provides the element of emotional connection which may help to change the viewer's thought processes more profoundly in the moment off viewing.  If we link the act of 'unsettling' with a subject which is in itself emotionally engaging then the connection felt by the viewer becomes deeper.  It is for this reason that 'lowbrow' art, a recent growing art movement, is so successful.  It uses realistic depictions of 'cute' cartoon-like characters (fluffy bunnies, big-eyed innocent looking Bambi creatures, and equally big-eyed, small-breasted and innocent 'Lolita' figures) in worrying and unsettling situations and with worrying and unsettling facial expressions to provoke an instant response in the viewer of "Er..... something wrong here....!"  My hope is that my paintings effect similar responses, though on a less obvious and superficial level.  The cartoon figures are not for me, but the juxtaposition of the familiar and comforting with elements which seem out of place is one of which I wholeheartedly approve.

"My Dishonest Heart" :Mixed Media on Wood : 2008 :
: Audrey Kawasaki :
Please visit the artist's website for more. 
An underlying theme in my paintings is that of physicality versus abstraction and intuition.  We live in a society which increasingly values the mental process over the physical, the intuituve approach to the pragmatic, and the generalisation to the specific definition.  We, as humans with (allegedly) highly evolved mental processes unavoidably live in a state of tension between the sheer physicality of bodies which contact the world in a myriad of sensory impressions and concrete connections, and the lofty thought processes to which we would often rather devote ourselves.  It seems sometimes all too easy to view the necessity of maintaining our physical presence here on this planet as an irritating distraction from more important things.  I like to use the lines and forms of my compositions to highlight, and hopefully help to resolve, this tension - in my ideal drawing, the beauty of line and curve contrasts with the solidity of form, expressing both aesthetics and grounded physicality in a single artistic expression.  My goal is to remind the viewer that yes, we are humans capable of high thought, but we should also be grounded in physical reality, knowing ourselves to be an integral part of the natural world, the Earth, the forest, the rock and the mountain.  All contain some expression of spirit, and therefore all are inextricably tied to our spiritual and physical selves.  We are the brain cells; the cognitive thought processes, of the body that is Gaia - however detached and lofty those thoughts, when removed from the body we die as surely as any other sloughed-off cell.

This then, is the conclusion when considering how my own artistic process manifests itself: that it should remind the viewer of the necessity to reconcile our physical and mental states of being, by using all the techniques available to the artist - shape, colour, texture, perfection of technique, to arrest their attention.  To make them stop and look again, to think and say to themselves not "Er... something is wrong here...", but "Wow! Something is very right here".  It is that striving towards wholeness which distinguishes my art and, I hope, makes it unique.

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