Thinking big. Adding zeroes.

"blame" from Lorem Ipsum... © 2012 J. Thomson All rights reserved On the (f)utility of labels in my studio practice

My studio practice differs from that of most artists I know in that I don’t simply go into my studio every day (or even every week) and just paint. And when people I’ve just met ask me what I do, the exchange typically goes like this: “I’m an artist.” “Oh really? What kind of pictures do you paint?” “Well, I do paint sometimes, but not exclusively, and when I do, it’s not usually pictures of anything, because I approach a painting as a three-dimensional object, not an illusion of space…” By this point, the person’s eyes are usually glazing over and darting around the room looking for an excuse to get away. Sometimes to save us both the embarrassment, I’ll simply say that I make abstract paintings (which isn’t really true). The typical response is “oh, that’s nice.” Or maybe, “My aunt was an abstract painter. She killed herself though.”

But really I don’t even think of myself as a Painter. In fact, I’m quite bored with painting right now. Painting was just the excuse to keep myself in the field of art, and in the studio, back when I had a 9-5 desk job (this was right after graduate school, when the spectre of thousands of dollars of student loans going into repayment frightened me into the workforce.) Other than “artist” I really don’t like boxing myself in with labels like “abstract painter” or “glass artist” or “sculptor”. My main medium is ideas. I think of a thought or idea, and I think of the best way for me to convey it. This is what determines what media I use in my artwork, and why I don’t simply just  paint, or just make collage, etc.

My goal is to produce thought-provoking work that is multi-layered. On the surface, it should be compelling or beautiful. But there are layers of meaning that can be revealed or hidden, pushed or pulled in different directions. I’m not a big fan of contemporary artwork that is too cryptic. I hate it when I see an installation where the artist has left the viewer no clues to figure out what is going on. I try not to be so narcissistic in my work (I may not always succeed). I love seeing work that is so utterly simple, you can’t believe nobody’s done it before. (Colossal is full of this kind of stuff.) But whenever I try to reduce my work down to something so simple, it usually fails because I get bored before I’ve taken the piece to the level that achieves success.

In graduate school (and in so much contemporary art these days) one of the methods I see employed over and over is to take something very simple and repeat ad nauseum (sometimes this technique works, and sometimes it doesn’t). One of my friends in graduate school (she was a fibers major) was obsessed with hands… the images of hands appeared over and over in her work. When she didn’t know what to do next, she compulsively made plaster casts of her index finger. Frequently, she just spent all day making these little plaster casts. They were chipped and broken, or incomplete. She had buckets of them, but she didn’t consider this her “work”. It was just something to keep her hands busy.

By the end of the third semester (it was a two-year program), all of her “work” had been panned in critiques and she was panicking over what to do for her final MFA thesis exhibit. She ended up making a single monumental installation of thousands of her finger casts. It was beautiful. The fingers were attached to the wall (sticking out from it) in uneven rows and columns, which referenced the warp and weft of weaving. It took up one whole wall of the gallery, which must’ve been 20′ long and 8′ or 9′ high. She had one of the best critiques in two years, and it was one of the best pieces I saw come out of my class at graduate school.

By contrast, I start out with a big idea, and try to reduce it to just the essential parts. Knowing how much to get rid of and how much to leave in makes all the difference in the piece. If I take too much away, the viewer is left adrift in a sea of non-sequiturs… and the disparate elements of my work float by like so much flotsam. But if I don’t reduce enough, then the work fails because it is too didactic, or there is little left for the viewers to discover on their own.

"blame" from Lorem Ipsum... © 2012 J. Thomson All rights reserved

Last week, I started working on a new piece that will take shape over a long period of time. [The process will be documented here under the category label “Lorem Ipsum“, which is the working title of the piece. One of the mockups for it is shown above.] The genesis of the project came about when I was thinking about the use of text in contemporary artwork, something I’ve always liked to do. As the idea formed, I thought of ways I could convey the idea(s) and how I could actually build the work. The end result is something I never would’ve found any other way. [I’ll describe the project more fully in an upcoming post.]

Since it’s turned out to be a rather large project that will cost thousands to make and take a long time to make, I’ll be looking for sources of funding in the form of grants from individuals and foundations, and places to exhibit the work. For this reason, the whole project needs to be thoroughly documented. In fact, I’ve already written a proposal and created some scale drawings and mockups. I could have started small (and in fact, I will begin the project by making some samples) but I learned one really good lesson at a grant writing seminar for artists at last year’s College Art Association conference in New York: the lady giving the seminar said “Think big. Add zeroes.” By which she meant that foundations and sources of corporate support like big ideas. Why ask for $100 so you can buy some paint, when you could ask for $10,000 to make a whole series of paintings? Or even more?

So that’s what I’m doing. Thinking big(ger). Adding zeroes. Stay tuned.


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