Monday, August 31, 2009

The Blessings of Self-Imposed Restrictions

In an era when freedom of expression is valued above many otherwise essential things, the notion of limits and parameters in art can be considered taboo subjects. This seems illogical since the very existence of limits is what leads to creative solutions. If there are no boundaries to bend then there is little need for innovation. I have often found that working within certain parameters--whether self-imposed or external restrictions--allows me to seek solutions I would not have otherwise imagined.

This type of limitation is what led to my first experiments with watercolor on antique book pages. I had already been painting with oils on book pages (covered with clear acrylic medium) as part of my altarpiece constructions. To paint directly on the pages was intimidating. There wasn't much margin for error on these fragile pieces of paper.

Here was the circumstance. While I was teaching in Idaho I spent three years as the director of the campus galleries. The region is quite conservative overall and the climate of that campus was even more so. After a bit of on-campus political jostling, I was fittingly fatigued as to seek no further battle over the appropriateness of displays of nude artwork within the galleries. The problem was, when my solo faculty exhibition came around, I simply had no new work that could suitably be exhibited in the galleries.

My solution was to create an entirely new body of work--in the span of three months. The exhibit referenced a bifurcation that I was feeling. I decided that I wanted to continue the work on book pages, and that I would attempt it through a more spontaneous method with watercolor. With such a small annual budget there was certainly no way I could justify using gallery funds to frame the show. I wasn't about to foot the bill myself, either.

That is when I decided that this provided an excellent opportunity to push the boundaries of the region's conservative gallery-going public in another direction. These galleries had never hosted anything remotely like an installation. I devised an installation that would still be comprised of fairly traditional painting. Representational painting.

No work was hung on the walls themselves. In fact, a good two thirds or more of the gallery space was not utilized at all. Instead, muslin fabric was hung from ceiling to floor in the central interior of the gallery. The individual book pages incorporating watercolor self portraits were floated on the fabric, adhered with linen tape. The fabric walls billowed in the breeze created when viewers walked through. One side of the narrow corridor consisted of images on pages with Hebrew text, the other with images on Greek text.

I tend not to divulge the full meaning of this show. It represented a deeper analysis than a mere critique of censorship of the most mild forms of nudity in art. The simple fact that the full impact of the installation was lost on large segments of the viewing public was part of the point. Attitudes and understandings of contemporary art were at the core of this show.

The most unusual piece in the exhibit was also a self portrait, but it observed a different set of limitations. Like the portraits on texts from two languages, this double self portrait referenced the same bifurcation. The piece is completely composed of my old, cast-off clothing. The backing panel of this quilt-like object is white undershirts. The two portrait busts are formed, on one side, from cloth in solid colors, and on the other side, in plaids. The intimacy of clothing--something alluding to both our physical bodies and personalities--is most fitting for a self portrait. The hand-sewn panel was like a physical proxy of the artist within the exhibit.

It is highly unlikely that I would have ever chosen to turn my old clothing into a work of art had an obstacle not been placed in my path. Once the medium presented itself I had to develop my own set of limitations so that the work made sense within the context of the larger show. This is what art continues to be: innovative reimaginings of the elements and materials of design to express some of the same age-old questions that still need asking.

No comments: