I don’t find artist statements useful. In fact, most of the numerous ones I’ve read strike me as obligatory but unintelligible fluff. But, as I begin to wallow into yet another reassessment of my visual art, I resurrect an older essay, “Visual Art 2007,” which I’m removing from www.sortmind.com and revising here. The essay still rings true but a few edits have updated it for 2011.
Manifestos come about because we’re battered by the hurricane of universal energy and we want to fix our methods, our shelters against that wind. But manifestos themselves get remixed into that hurricane. They wink in and out of existence.
The universe is looking for vessels into which it can pour its raw energies. We need to enhance ourselves to receive these gifts. To demand that the universe merely give us gifts (“I am an artist!”), to aggressively seek the transcendence which accompanies the gift, is self-defeating. That’s why artists burn out, go on ego trips, become dishonest, squander their energies.
We want methods because we want to be assured that the universe will still call on us. But our methods soon become empty rituals. We may have seasons of a certain way of doing things, but we need to be open to changing everything entirely. We need to recognize that any process has to be reevaluated when the universe decides that something new is to be poured.
The idea of making art as normal work is liberating. I’ve already done so with my writing. In the course of writing fourteen novels I’ve managed to remove the mystical high. There are no mystic rituals accompanying the act of writing, there is no “high” coming out of it, just fun work. When I’m writing I’m like a humble office worker doing a job he enjoys to the point of exclaiming “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!”
But visual art has rarely been like that. For instance, my former fixation on total spontaneity in painting was a mechanical grasping for a transcendent high. Despite calling it “improvisation,” my process was really a box of tattered kitchen recipes I’d pull out again and again, searching for a ritual that would always work. But I was cutting off meanings the universe might want to pour through me.
If there’s zero spontaneity, of course, then your work is a listless paint by numbers exercise. But enough spontaneity happens in even a planned painting to take care of that human need for unexpected results.
Pure improvisation can work, of course. Sometimes a wild exploration of new territory is called for. Sometimes your ego needs to get out in front and be aggressive. But even that’s just a way of signaling receptiveness to what the universe decides is to be poured next.
Transcendence is a byproduct of honest work–sometimes. But a desperate grasping for the transcendent just clogs your channels to the universe. If all I know to start with is restless improvisation energy, I just can’t stop. The first glorious mad brushstrokes soon lead to a dull confusion as I quickly jumble up the space, as my undirected hand/arm/color energy overwhelms the amount of canvas I have. I just keep burning off energy until I finally declare the painting to be “in trouble,” then agonizingly fight my way through to a final “acceptable aesthetic result.” Hopefully.
For art to have meaning, it has to have soul ideas. Experimenting is fine, but trial and error aesthetic problem solving, as the sole method, obviously wastes life energy and is out of tune with whatever deeply wants to come through.
When I’m in balance and in tune, I know when to stop. I’m beyond the restless urge to grab transcendence, I see the beautiful space I really do want, and I work to enhance it, instead of frenziedly attacking it.
Meaning needs planning, consideration, forethought, in other words, temporary methods for receiving and for exploring.
I’m ready to explore some newer meaning in my visual art, but I’m really not sure what the next methods will be. The recent large acrylic paintings in all their fun-but-blowsy improvisation definitely have marked a pivot point. Now I’m looking at colored pencil, drawing, realism, smaller works. I want to consider working in both abstraction and realism according to how the energies can best be channeled. Abstract artworks are like bizarre dreams you struggle to convey to a listener. Sometimes the result is necessary and resonating. Sometimes it’s confusing and boring! Sometimes a realistic image is needed to ground you in what’s real.
copyright 2011 by Michael D. Smith