Friday, December 2, 2011

The Dreaded Artist Statement

The bi-annual Ohio Wesleyan art faculty show is up at the Ross Art Museum on campus. Why am I always blind-sided when the folks from public relations ask for an artist's statement? Here we go, another verbal disfigurement of whatever it is that I do as an artist. Whenever I finish writing an artist's statement I feel as if I have just given birth - not to a child, but to a miscreant. One starts so earnestly to render up in words the mysterious impulses and obsessions of creation, but it always ends up sounding like pretentious bullshit.

The best artist's statement ever written, by Manet:

"There's only one way of going about it. Take a look and then put down what you see straight away. If you've got it, good. If you haven't, start again. All the rest is nonsense."

A close second, by Jasper Johns:
"Do something. Do something to that. Then do something to that..."

(or something to that effect.)

I decided to update my old statement that has given good service for a decade or more. Several things have changed since I wrote my first fledgling artist statements.

First, I no longer feel I have to justify representational painting. It's an old habit left over from my student years at a time in our culture when painting from observation was stupidly regarded by that smallest circle of the Art World Hell (museums, academics, and critics) as atavistic and, more stupidly, as historically finished, done, chapter over.

Second, I no longer feel I have to argue that what I do is serious WORK! (It's more serious than that, it's PLAY!) My father and grandfather and father-in-law, in fact all the father figures in my life, have passed on. No more need to justify the legitimacy of my calling. Michelangelo was right when he said, "Painting is for women."

Third, I no longer feel I must write a manifesto.  Art ultimately defies logic and reason. I'm suspicious of anything that seems too organized and logical. 

Fourth, I no longer need to cite my influences. Artists I respect will see the debt I owe and respect me for that. Artists I don't respect will think I'm original and envy me for that.

Fifth, I avoid writing about Art, and confine myself to writing about art.



So, here it is, the latest:

ARTIST'S STATEMENT

"All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions."   - Leonardo da Vinci

"To understand ourselves we need to look searchingly at our landscapes for they are a clue to culture, and our ordinary everyday landscapes at that, not just the national icons."
                                                                                                - Ken Taylor, Landscape and Memory

My work begins with what lies immediately at hand, having learned over many years of painting that no fantasy can match the strangeness and complexity of the familiar. My curiosities often lead me into spaces and environments that most people would not regard as proper subjects for landscapes. Marcel Proust said, "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." The commonest environment is full of doorways into magnificence. Seeing is, for me, the first and most engaging problem of painting.

Seeing does not automatically follow from the act of looking. The muse must be courted, beguiled, sometimes, it seems, even bludgeoned. The painter wrestles against millions of years of evolution that have shaped the practical function of the sight sense. We isolate and identify, sort and categorize the useful from the not useful, the desirable from the not so. To the painter, however, the colors on the backside of a bus or a patch of pavement are as likely to induce rapture as an orchid or a mountain sunset. To be born blind and have one's sight restored was Monet's wish, for then he could see without prejudice. Only when the tag is removed from the experience can we see "what has really existed." To paint is to revisit and renew ancient, pre-verbal forms of experience - the experience of the infant for whom color and light are immediate, sensuous fascinations; pure sensations that foreshadow meaning. Rational thought is no guide in that realm. We grope with brushes and colored mud toward something dimly seen, but strongly felt. To paint is to revisit this landscape of the interior, and to return with riches.

Proust again: "Our vanity, our possessions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits, have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to that place where what has really existed lies known within us."

My paintings of the past two years confront the changing urban landscapes of the central Ohio region. Man's uneasy presence in the American landscape is a continuing fascination. I work mostly on site, keeping alive a tradition of several centuries. The immediacy of the actual environment and the sense of urgency that is imparted to the process of painting by the transience of light, season, and weather is an engaging problem. Balancing these studies are large canvases that are longer meditations worked out in the studio from drawings, photographs, and experimental play at the palette. (Play is the most serious work. Ask any child.)  The small paintings are, for me, like haiku - abbreviations that unfold and expand in the eye. The larger works are crafted fiction that somehow tells a deeper truth than mere reporting of the facts.

The small figure paintings in the show were painted in Italy in the summer of 2010. They were all executed in acrylics, exploiting the fast drying nature of the medium to explore interactions of under-painting/over-painting, mark-making and optical mixing, as well as transparency and opacity. They are part of a larger series of 21 paintings that take as their subject the comings and goings of figures in the two main piazze of Cortona, where I lived. The piazza, as an urban invention, is a kind of stage, with entrances and exits and displays of small human dramas enacted by those who pass through, hence the title of the series, Cortona Palcoscenico, which comes from the Italian word for stage. The human stories - a mother attending to a child, old men gathering to share stories, tourists consulting their maps - are essentially unchanged from ancient times, despite the touchingly contemporary give-aways such as the plastic water bottle or the cell-phone. This is compelling to me as an artist.

Frank Hobbs
2011