A few weeks ago, or a few months ago — who knows, I have no sense of time since the pandemic, it could have been an hour ago or last year — my friend Sonny from the studio invited me to put a painting in a show at the gallery where he is a member artist. “Are you sure?” I asked. “You know my paintings are huge.”
They aren’t Clyfford Still enormous, but they are big. Most around five or six feet by four or five feet. Large by most standards, and by show space, contest rules, and most available wall space in a typical home. Really effing huge for the ten-by-ten foot studio I rented before getting a larger space. For the past three years since I quit my job to paint, I’ve trolled various sites with calls for artist entries, and most size limitations top out at four feet for for the longest side. Nope. Paint smaller you say? Eh. I tried, but I’m not good at it. Not as bad as I am at ceramics (“It’s going to blow up in the kiln!” was my most common critique in that class), but not great.
Sonny said there was room, and he knows how large my paintings are. He paints big, too. So I dropped a piece of mine off for the show. On the night of the opening, he and I talked for a long time about a lot of things, and at one point, he leaned over and asked conspiratorially, “So…do you have…an artist statement?”
I do, but I don’t like it. Sonny said he tried to write one and came up empty. I came up with one, and it is empty. Every contest, show, submission, and gallery require an artist statement, so every artist has something they’ve written about their work. I’ve read, or pretended to read, at least hundreds of artist statements over the years. Without a doubt, save a few, they are the most useless, boring, academic word salad paragraphs anyone might hope to read. When I go to shows, read art magazines, gallery books and wherever else artist statements appear, I’ll stop to read them and usually wish I hadn’t.
Artists seem to almost always use the dense, academic, and clunky language termed Art Speak by others who have complained about it before me. It’s the language in Art in America, New American Paintings, and the remainder of (most) art criticism. Words that are boiled green vegetables on the stove in every midwestern house — you know they’re there; you’re going have to eat them eventually, and you’re not going to enjoy it. But mandatory. It’s so typical at this point, there are AI Artist Statement generators – using one myself, considering what inspires me, would be completely on brand.
But I don’t want my artist statement to sound like Art Speak gibberish. And yet when I sit down to write, art school me from 1998 shows up at the keyboard. Not the person who has been IMing almost exclusively since the late 1900s. (Ha! But really.) Since email, ICQ, then blogging before it was called blogging, instant messenger (pick one of many, I’ve used all of them) at work with software developers who never left their offices and then a remote job years before Covid and Zoom, I’ve been communicating almost exclusively with the people I work with, family I love, and internet strangers who have become my closest confidants in writing for more than twenty years. I write rather than speak all the time to communicate my ideas, and usually do a fair job of it – with real language. If I started an IM conversation about [insert any academic art word] with any of these people, they might get in a real life car to in-very-much-in-real-life kick my ass. And I wouldn’t blame them.
Expansive, academic sounding words make the work sound important. Or do they? Is it the work or is it language used describe your work so it sounds like it belongs in art history? THIS IS REAL ART, the statements are supposed to scream.
I’m reading Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. In it, the author argues that “the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language.” This idea in mind, the artist statement then functions, with its particular Art Speak language, to provide an “us” – Real Artists. Not them, Not Real Artists. Not Real Artists, by the way, aren’t those who don’t make art, they’re people who create but don’t know the code words. Maybe they’re making some pretty things to post on Instagram (the great leveler of visual content), but not Real Art (whatever that is).
Artists need art-speak to identify themselves to each other as much as Cross-fitters need WODs and paleo diet chatter, and type-A yogis need to wear Lululemon. These near unintelligible statements stake our claim as a Real Artist. Using the language of the publications and criticism we want to be part of proves that we deserve to be in there, too.
Wait a minute. Shouldn’t that just be the quality of the visual art? The statements, if they are with the art at all by the time anyone sees it, ignores the viewer if the viewer isn’t an artist themselves – and at that, who is well versed in Art Speak. And that’s nearly everyone in the real world.
My current artist statement isn’t quite in Art Speak, but it also doesn’t clearly state what my work is about. I fall a bit into another camp and talk about The Process. “How I made this” rather than “why I made this”. It’s comfortable there, especially as a former instructor, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose unless my viewers are going to go out and try to make copies of my work. (They’re not.)
“I make my sketches digitally! I make oil paintings on canvas the Vermeer way, but I used Photoshop and AI to paint from! See the joke? No? Also, nature. And fires. I like sims, glitches in the matrix.” That’s about where I’m at, and I’d like not to be here. When people ask me about my work in real life, having worked in a marketing-type role for years, I know I need some sort of elevator version of my artist statement, too. What’s my hook? Why should anyone look at my work, other than that they don’t have a choice because it’s big and bright enough they can’t avoid seeing it?
Maybe I can create an artist statement with real language I like reading, and that functions in a social media post world. I’ll try to break my artist statement down in a different way.
My work is about nature. But it really isn’t.
I run through nature (kinda, I’m just outside in an urban area), I ski through nature (kinda, I’m always in a resort), I’ll hike through nature (maybe), I’ll camp when I have to (even less of a maybe), but mostly I’m allergic to everything natural and stay inside my house in Denver. I’m not NOT inspired by nature, but I also am not that person. You know the one.
The nature I’m inspired by is the absence of nature. What you might imagine nature to be if you’ve never seen it, or a natural world that doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe what you would imagine as someone is tells you about how it was before it all burned down (which is happening), or an AI-generated replacement nature.
Computer colors, video game perspective, with hidden eyeballs and body parts and maybe an accidental troll, but enough like nature that it’s recognizable. Organic, but not. Pixelated.
My work also isn’t about climate change, exactly, but it is. It’s about after climate change, when we’re all hiding inside our homes in the middle of the country, trying to remember what nature looked like but we’re all wrong. Sound familiar? I think this might resonate with more people after being trapped in inside for a year or more while watching the world burn down and flood.
I think we might be living in a simulation, and that’s also in my work.
I’m obsessed with this idea. Not in a diehard Matrix fan way. As David J. Chalmers writes in Reality+, Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy – no one can prove we’re NOT in a simulation. Plenty of people live a virtual world (conspiracy theory) of their own creation within or alongside what the rest of us perceive as reality.
I’m not a figurative painter, so none of that direct imagery is in my work. Instead, I cut out and copy things from painting to painting, like the duplicated background of a video game, or a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Didn’t we pass that tree before? I think we passed that tree before. They’re the same. It’s a glitch in the matrix, our reality isn’t real. Or is it?
Also, the Internet.
Way back when I was still in college and the internet was starting (I’m a thousand years old), I was really excited about the idea of a new digital utopia where identity could be fluid, where what defined a person was their true inner selves rather than their physical self.
It would seem that it’s turned out differently than I hoped.
Far from utopian, the internet and social media has divided us more by more divisions than I even thought people had in the first place. My naïve dream has been replaced by the hyper-masculine control of the world’s information through Wikipedia (80% male contributors and admins, mostly in their mid-twenties), conspiracy theory groups, and “alternative facts”. Not what I had in mind, but it all still inspires me.
The carefully curated and controlled sample of visual content that was allowed out of very few gates in the early nineties doesn’t exist anymore. Inherently, I think this is good and I feel like I have taken part in it rather than making commentary as an artist, having been a web developer for the better part of the last twenty years. Those last twenty years influence my art.
My work is feminine, but huge and heroic. Which I think is funny.
During my senior year at MSU, I decided to do giant paintings specifically sized for the gallery rather than showing all my work from undergraduate years, as most seniors did. It was mainly two paintings: an eight by twelve foot and an eight by sixteen foot oil on panels. I used cold wax (newish in 1998) pushed onto a layer of color through a roll of window screen, which was then pulled off to leave the paint in a pixel texture. I had just learned HTML and what existed of web development (not much) and was STOKED, and came up with this process to paint it. I named my show Screen Test, see what I did there?
My senior seminar professor told me she disliked my paintings for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they were big. Male. Aggressive. I disagreed then that any of those things are, or should be, considered reserved for males, but I didn’t have the language to fight back at the time.
I have the right words now, and those are WOMEN DESERVE TO TAKE UP SPACE.
Working at scale is about taking up space as woman, as are the colors – loud, aggressive, but typically feminine pinks and reds on large canvases. NEON pink that I make myself. Pastels. Purples. Screaming yellows no one wanted in their corporate marketing brochures or websites. (It didn’t stop me from trying.) Not colors that are neutral or easily agreed upon by everyone, but 100% joyful.
My work is about joy.
Joy is worth focusing on and discussing in-depth: It’s what makes this life worth living, and is severely lacking in modern life as we know it, especially right now. Politics, the earth, the environment, the pandemic, the standard of living for those in poverty in our rich country, people in general – all pretty awful right now, and that’s about the one thing everyone can agree on: Things are bad.
In 2019, I quit my job because I had to, as my life had been stripped of just about all joy. Sounds very dramatic, but it’s my truth. Corporate life and professional careers can do that to some of us. Afterwards, when I was trying to find my way as an artist – which I hadn’t thought of myself as since my early twenties, pre-career – I found a quote by David Hockney that exuded the joy I wanted to feel: “I paint what I like, when I like and where I like.” There’s an ego and expansiveness to this quote, and joy, that I had really never allowed myself, not even as a child.
My paintings are about unapologetic joy. There is no room for “I’m sorry I took up this entire wall” or “I feel bad about these paintings yelling like loud golf pants”, or any “I’m sorrys” at all.
I use traditional – ancient, even – materials to express digital ideas.
Is this process? Yes, but the medium carries a message that my digital sketches don’t: THIS IS REAL ART, LIKE THE KIND IN MUSEUMS! Not the modern section either, we’re talking way back to the Mona Lisa. Old Skool.
I do believe absolutely that digital art is Real Art. Same with anything made from non-traditional materials, especially from the traditionally feminine: Yarn, rugs, fabric. Also, glitter. Computer prints. Plastic. Anything, ANYTHING can make Real Art. Does that mean I can make Real Art out of anything? No.
I started oil painting with a teacher when I was thirteen. I learned how to stretch canvas that same year, and made them for her to pay for my lessons. She taught me how to paint traditionally like she had learned from a ninety-year-old Russian artist, and he from another artist, and back and back and back. This part of my history only informs what I know how to do, not why I do it now. Other things have controlled what medium I use: I can’t seem to get acrylic paint to look like anything but plastic squeezed from a tube. I’ve not invested the money in large scale digital prints. I watercolor occasionally, but watercolors are a world of their own. I’ve never made a traditional print, I didn’t like the professor that taught that class when I was in school. I only draw on tablet since I got my first Wacom Tablet (with a serial port!) in 2001.
Even though it’s a necessity because of my own constraints rather than a conscious choice about my work, I like that oil paint is the opposite of the imagery and inspiration in my paintings. Even though it’s an ancient medium loaded with weight of art history, it seems like the right one to express my ideas. My digitally constructed and altered images of nature become uncontrolled when recreated in oil paint. The paint thinks for itself whether you like it or not – it’s kind of like Artificial Intelligence in that way – and both hilarious and alarming. I also think oil paint for digitally inspired work is a great inside joke that maybe only I think is funny, and that’s okay.
And…I guess that’s it, then.
There are a lot of reasons why I paint, but those are unimportant to the work or the viewer. There are a lot of other ideas in my art that have been expressed before, and probably better by others. What I’ve written captures what I think makes my paintings worth looking at, and unique. Let’s see if I can make an artist statement out of what I’ve written.
First I edited it all down into these two paragraphs, which aren’t too bad, but may be stretching into trying to be poetic:
My work appears to be inspired by nature – and it is, but the absence of nature. What you might imagine nature to be if you’ve never experienced it, or a natural world that doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps an AI-generated replacement nature: Off. Weird. Digital. Neon. Pieces are copied and pasted again and again. Like we’re in a simulation (who can prove that we aren’t?) and nothing is real.
Nothing does seem real after the past couple years. Decades? No one knows what time or space is anymore, including me. I paint unreal virtual worlds at scale to take up real space, to prove my existence, and to create joy.
But that’s where I’m leaving it right now. A work in progress, still.