Monday, April 6, 2009

The Art of Self-Disclosure

It wasn’t really that long ago that the proper subject matter for great works of art was somewhat narrowly defined. Tales from religions, mythology, and history were the only subjects deemed worthy of our highest regard. Disruptions in this belief became evident with Realist artists like Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet during the nineteenth century. Within one hundred years it seemed that the entire hierarchical structure had crumbled and that the politics of personal identity had displaced the previous themes.

This is a somewhat dramatic oversimplification, but there have been significant shifts. While there may only be a fraction of contemporary artists producing work that fits the traditionally held formats of history and religious painting, many artists continue to reference these same stories of humanity’s past. The purpose may be to scrutinize long-held beliefs the artist finds to be false, or to align the work with some sub-theme from the past. Likewise, not every contemporary artist utilizes his or her artwork to investigate questions concerning gender, race, or sexuality, or to exorcise some specific personal demon.

One thing that is certain, the realm of the personal and intimate has a prominent position among the various and valid themes in the contemporary discourse. From Tracey Emin’s rumpled bed sheets and womb-like tent installation listing every person she has ever slept with, to the sado-masochistic performances of the now deceased Bob Flanagan, who mixed elements of his cystic fibrosis with his art and sexual practices, the highly personal has become highly public. My question as an artist is where do we draw the line?

I am not saying that these particular artists, and others like them, have crossed some moral boundary that marks their work as something other than, or less than, art. All these categories and many others are certainly fair game for the creation of art. If the work takes us no further than the bathroom humor of a fifth grader then I question its artistic merit. If it has a more transcendent presence, even if the medium used to get us to that place is a difficult one, then it is valid as art. My question is more about my boundaries.

The creation of artwork is, by its very nature, personal. Andy Warhol may have worked to destroy some of that notion, but there were still aesthetic choices made in his "machine-like" works. The Duchampian emphasis on the choice of the artist finds contemporary artists inhabiting a different system than our forebears did. If multiple artists were given the same basic task and tools, the results would still differ in regard to style. Even when we try to hide the evidence of individual style it is bound to show through in some way.

Since text is a major component in much of my work I vacillate between the extremes of how much of it I should reveal. The books I read certainly tell viewers something about me. Is it better to spell out why some specific work has impacted me by making certain passages fully readable? Is it better to obscure the passages under paint so that they are still integral to the work but not a road sign pointing out a particular path?

It isn’t just the text—the physical objects and scenes depicted have personal meaning, too. These are often more highly symbolic for me, but that poses another problem. If I, like Joseph Cornell, am employing everyday objects to form a new personal, symbolic vocabulary, do I not risk being misinterpreted?
All of these possibilities are part of the fabric of contemporary art and its interpretation. It can often be a misinterpretation. While the role of the personal in art production has introduced the personal more fully into interpretation of the same works, the artist has to be somewhat comfortable with the misinterpretations that may result. The savvy artist uses the interpretations of others to assess how well his or her goals are being met and to recognize if there are apparent aspects of the work that he or she didn’t even consciously intend during its creation.

I have always employed a somewhat personalized and symbolic form of figurative imagery. Often, it retained a distinct connection to the historical and religious stories or themes mentioned earlier. As my imagery began to veer into directions that were increasingly personal I had a fear that the work would cease to find a connection with a broad audience. I soon learned that even highly personal themes retain enough of our common human truth to be approached as fully human, and therefore something to which any viewer can relate.

The probability of misunderstanding symbols and texts is great. I connect my pantheon of images and resources in my own specific ways. I associate them with things most viewers commonly would, but also with things almost nobody else would. In the end, my work is not meant as full and perfect communication. It is partial communication and partial self-discovery. I don’t mean this as some form of art therapy. It is more like a pathway, subconsciously directed, from one piece to the next.

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