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Should We Explain our Paintings?

First published Wednesday, 11 October 2017

"Please don’t let me be Misunderstood"

Another music reference: I sometimes think that the song, first recorded by Nina Simone (co-incidentally in the year I was born) should be my theme tune!

A recurring conversation that I have with my art co-mentor, Julie Cross, is whether we should explain the meanings and motivations behind our art. Some of my paintings are pure studies – a cast of light, exploration of form or simply a scene that appeals to me. Whilst I was gaining confidence in my mediums and techniques this was exclusively the case, but now my work often has a deeper narrative.

I like films and books that work on different levels of message, imagery and understanding, commentary or philosophy, so it seemed natural to start to apply that to my own artwork. The interest has always been there. In school I loved my English classes, especially literature and remember revelling in studying ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and discovering the political and social commentaries behind the seemingly childish story. I also took to the study of poetry; not just the use of words, but the rhyming patterns and meter of the poem and how they all contributed to the poet’s communication of ideas. In 1983, my first year at University, I went to see the film Bladerunner as a double bill supporting feature to Firefox. I remember really enjoying Bladerunner on face value, but sitting through Firefox my mind kept returning to the earlier film and I stayed in the cinema to watch it again. I kept thinking that there was more to it, in the visual imagery but also in the narrative and themes. I have since seen it over and over, and have read the novel it was loosely based on and I always spot something new each time. A timely story in light of the recent release of Bladerunner 2049 (which Julie and I are looking forward to seeing next week *). It was that vague feeling that there was something deeper going on than the surface story that I hope the viewer will see in my work. It is fine if they don’t want to explore that any further, but I hope that they get the hint of underlying themes that make them want to return to view it again, even if they continue to accept the work at face value.

* I will post a follow up blog next week that explains my Bladerunner references in more detail, and what I thought of the sequel for any film buffs out there!

In my third year of university my History of Art dissertation held a whole chapter on symbolism and narrative composition within the work of my chosen subject. This was an underlying narrative that again I recognised and explored by myself, as there was very little written on my subject at the time. That interest in symbolism and composition has stayed with me ever since and I am now applying the lessons to my own work. The Fine Art students that I lived and socialised with while at University (I studied graphic design and illustration) were encouraged, no required, to speak and write publicly about their work and privately my journals are full of my musings and planning about individual pieces or series and their motivations. But SHOULD I have to explain my work? If so, why not be a writer rather than a painter? To make everything explicit in the actual work itself leads me more toward illustration (been there, done that) than I am comfortable with and can make the overall design clumsy.

Maybe the question is am I painting to communicate or as catharsis or even exorcism? Should I hint? (my titles go some way towards that). Do I produce companion writings or talks to elucidate? I privately worry that my work will be dismissed as sentimental animal art . . . which it is, on ONE level.

“An amateur is led by his medium, an artisan uses his medium while an artist has an interaction, a conversation with his art and his medium.”

I do believe this. The creative process should be a conversation or dance between artist and artwork. This may be achieved through composition, colour, symbolism, brushwork and ideally a combination of those and others. Sometimes these are planned, sometimes the investment in the process produces its own unplanned statements, and that is when I know that the paintings is truly interacting with me.

“A painting should be a song sung with emotion and feeling, not a chant.”

For the artwork to leave my studio and have its own life it needs to form relationships with its viewers, and those might be different from its relationship with me. For someone to fully engage with an artwork they have to invest part of themselves in it – and have their own conversation. Being given all the information, in execution or in explanation ie an imposition of the artist’s conversation, excludes this interaction. So my own art appreciation leans towards good, thoughtful abstracts (rare in my opinion) or realism that draws me in, or talks to me about its private little realm. Of course I can appreciate the skill in technique, but to me rendering an atmosphere, mood or opening gambit is more likely to engage me than a painting that is so clinically rendered that it gives all the detail and all the information. I call these ‘talking-over-me-paintings”.

“skilled vocalists know how to express emotion through their technique, not the other way around.” Teri Danz.

So the question stands. Galleries, agents, the art establishment and sometimes clients ask for explanations, motivations, inspirations so it seems accepted and expected. Then there is the other artist I met who told me that they only saw my work in a new light (and started to like and appreciate it) after hearing me talk about my work and process, and realising that there was “more than just a pretty chocolate box picture there.” (their words). See what I mean? The initial dismissal, and that seems the view of the art establishment, in the UK at least, of any artwork that predominantly features a non human portrait.

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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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