Musings on Photography

Artist’s Statements That Don’t Suck

Posted in process, the art world by Paul Butzi on February 20, 2007


I confess that I find most artist’s statements to be more a source of sour humor than anything positive.

But, that said, last week in NYC I came across two artist’s statements that I thought were really helpful in connecting with the work, and which sketched the outline of interesting artistic issues.

The first was written by Henk Wolvers, a ceramics artist.  I saw some of his work in the in the Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting exhibit; it consisted of thin drips of porcelain that had been allowed to harden and then were fired.  The drips were beautiful in the way dripping viscous stuff can make pleasing shapes (think, perhaps, of a very sparse Jackson Pollack drip painting, or if you’ve ever made snow candy, something along those lines).  When I saw it, I thought “This is fantastic – this guy has figured out how to bend wire so that it looks like it was dripped!” but it turns out it actually IS drips.  Very cool, and then the works are mounted off the wall so that they throw a shadow.  This was all much nicer than my meager description can convey.  His statement said (in part):

Porcelain is very difficult to work with.  It is not possible to make all the forms you want because there are certain restrictions imposed by the medium.  It is nice to go beyond the edges of those limitations.

It seems as if lately I’ve noticed more and more artists describing their enjoyment of the process, from photographers describing gelatin silver printing in sensual terms to painters describing their enjoyment of paint.  But this is the first one I’ve read in a long time that’s intimated that some of the enjoyment comes from pushing up against the limitations of the medium and occasionally winning the battle.   

I suspect this is relevant to the the paper chase, but I’m not quite sure how.  Perhaps it’s a hint that, rather than constantly trying to switch from one set of limitations to a different set, we might make more progress artistically by really coming to grips directly with a set of limitations.  I also suspect that there’s something in there about how an art form that’s devoid of limitations (either material limitations or limitations of a defined form, like sonnets, for instance) is not likely to be very good.  Or maybe it’s harder to be good without limitations.

The second excerpt is from the statement accompanying the work of David Cole.  One of his works was a video of him knitting a huge US flag using two trackhoes to manipulate knitting needles made from utility poles; another was a teddy bear knitted with lead (and thus both toxic and too heavy for a child to lift).  His statement read

I want to make art that will stand up to critical dissection but at the same time is accessible to anyone who takes the time to look at it.  I’m tired of art that makes people feel bad because they don’t understand it.

Imagine that – art that is accessible and understandable to anyone who takes the time to look at it.  That’s a concept I can agree with. 

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  1. Gordon said, on February 20, 2007 at 11:24 am

    I always seem to do better with constraints, either in my work or in my photography. Deadlines make me do things. Setting boundaries makes me work up against them. The more binding and constricting they are, often the better and more creative the eventual results are. Some of my most personally enjoyable and educational photographs happened when I forced myself to stay in one spot and shoot from a 2ft x 2ft mental square. I had to make 30 good exposures before I could move on and I treated it seriously. I could only use one lens. And each composition had to be completely out of focus.

    It drove me mad. I sulked. I thought it was dumb. I spent a couple of hours fighting it in my head.
    But I took pictures that I still value now. It forced me to see things in a new way, to try and think about the composition differently. See the fundamental shapes, colours and light. It fed in to all the shots I’ve taken since.

    I’m not suggesting anyone needs to go and drive themselves mad with this set of constraints – but sometimes pushing yourself down into a little box like that can force you to come out in a new direction.

    It is difficult to do something good if everything is easy.

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