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“Abstract to Still Life, Real Life Kinetic” PART 1 OF 2

I’ve been trying to figure out where art exists for me. During a canvas stretching demo in my painting class, one of my students asked me about what kind art I put on my own walls. This caught me off guard, as I realized I have no artwork at all hung in my home. I mean, I do have images on my wall. A tracing of the Silver Surfer, some record albums, a copy of the village voice with MJ on the cover, and some other stuff, but no “official” art. I have some works in Storage back at home in Houston, but only a few. Some stuff I traded for (and still owe people some drawings for), and only one piece that I actually bought. So I wonder if this means that, beyond my own work, art is unimportant in my life. Part of this, I know, is a cultural position. Visual art has a small relevance to a large section of black culture and I may have reproduced this sentiment, albeit unconsciously, in absentia. On the other hand, I am an artist, and though I am hesitant to admit it, I love looking at paintings. Why don’t I have any?So, again, where does artwork fit in my life? How does it exist in my mind? How does it inform me? Abstracting this question outward, in a broader sense, where does art fit in our collective mind? How do we collectively think about painting and drawing? I do not have the answer for this but I’m gonna run through some ideas of my own.

Let’s start with some of the language around visual art and artists. If you are an artist you may relate to the prideful feeling of having someone respond to something you have made. People marvel at this creative process, most likely because they don’t believe that they can do it. Of course, almost anybody can learn to draw and paint. Most just have that driven out of them in grade school. They say “ Oh I wish I could do that”, and we lie to them with a smile, keeping this ridiculous secret to ourselves. They believe us to be some otherworldly creatures, come down from on high to bless them with our creations. This idea of the naturally talented artist is often affirmed through language in media. I saw this happen in an episode of ‘Dollhouse the other night. If you are not familiar, it’s a quasi, Sci-Fi, Action serial, about a sort of hi tech brothel, but not really. Anyway, it’s weird and problematic, but that’s not the point. In this episode, one of the main characters plays an artist. She’s at some private showing in a collector’s home, when an art dealer approaches her.


Dealer:  I love the piece, its very organic, effortless. Do you mind if I ask you many boring questions about it?
Artist:   No, not at all.
Dealer:  Your work reminds me of Bernard …(I couldn’t catch that artist’s last name), is he an influence?
Artist:   I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know who that is. Is that Bad?
Dealer:  Well, No, it’s natural. People kill for that, to be unaffected, unlike everyone here.
So, why the bird motif?
Artist:   I don’t know, I just think they’re beautiful, that’s it.
Dealer:  Perhaps it’s a reflection of you, no?  Free, always moving, searching for something better?
Artist:    Awww, I don’t need better
Dealer:  You move because there is wind.I have NEVER had a conversation like that with any dealer, collector or curator. Talking about my work with art world types is usually a clumsily approached, qausi offensive event.  Mind you, this entire conversation was staged. Within the show, the dealer character is not a real dealer. He is another person acting out the idea of a dealer. This is a conversation built upon the idea of how artists and dealers communicate. The artist and work becomes a portal to a more “natural” existence. This of course affirms that stereotype of the flighty, disaffected artist.

Artist kills collector

Although this scene presented an art world professional, it did not use a professional language, only an imagined media version of it. This script reproduced what we imagine to be the poetic concerns of painting, but did not address the rigorous dissecting language that can often accompany a work of art in the forms of reviews, interviews and essays. Opting instead to work from a popular understanding of an art world language. This artist and dealer sincerely discuss beauty and intent.

Bill Traylor

Contrast this with the language of a review of a new book on the work of Self Taught artist, Bill Traylor written by historian Mechal Sobel. In the Sept/Oct issue of Art On Paper, reviewer Lyle Rexer writes,

“This book contains tendentious and circular arguments, dubious speculations, unconvincing analyses, and methodological flaws, and yet it is really the only book on Bill Traylor that demands our attention, because it is the only book that makes a serious claim for the ex-slave and self taught artist as a deliberate symbol maker, not merely a storyteller in pictures.”

Further he says,

“Sobel’s argument builds on an approach first put forward in a 2003 study of African sources for African American art by scholar Betty Kuyk: that it is possible to read traumatic personal events back into the work because he referred to them, Sobel takes it one step further, insisting that the artist’s primary motivation was to deliver a coded message of resistance in every line he drew, and his most urgent inspiration was the murder of his son, Will, by white policemen in Birmingham in 1929.”

And also,

“Sobel is an iconographer and a polemicist, and like most art historians, she seems to have little interest in how the drawings might actually have been made. My gut sense has always been that there us an extraordinary plasticity to his imagery, owing partly to the fact that it was not fully planned but more spontaneously organized, part of a process of reacting to certain forms he started with and then modified as he went. “

There are a couple of things going on here. This reviewer is critical of the approach of an art historian writing about a former slave and self taught artist. To quote FOX news, this is a battle for ideas. From the review there seems to be a conflict about where intent of the artist genuinely lies. From reading the article, the art historian seems to draw clues from the artist’s time period, the 1930’s and 40’s, and his environment, rural southern Alabama, to create a context for us to see the work. The book reviewer seems to apply a painstaking dissection of the artwork itself, which is the only concrete evidence we have of the work. I have not picked up this book yet, so I’ll only address the language of this reviewer. Unlike the dealer in the TV show Dollhouse, this reviewer spends little time on poetics of Mr. Traylor’s work. It is academic, and extensive in its use of big words, but buried in the midst of all that incontrovertible discourse was the writer saying, “My gut sense”.  The flourish of language surrounding that statement may have disguised what was at best a competing hunch. His discussion of the art historian would lead one to believe that she is not academic in her approach, but somehow in opposition, is really a Pan Africanist.

This is the crux I believe, about how we use language in discussing art. We use it to push works of art into a space that backs up ideologies we already hold. This makes it difficult for artists to “move with the wind” as they say. We are heavily cautious of whose turbines are creating that wind. We try to work without concern for how the work will be discussed, but it does creep in, in the form of edits, and clunky artist statements. How we escape the misuse of language is a mystery to me. Not sure if any of you have any answers on this. Would love to hear it.

I will try and post the 2nd part of this post soon. It’s about where and how artwork shows up.  Also, The artist whose painting was used in that episode of Dollhouse is Brooke Reidt .

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