Looking at paintings started with my grandmother’s artwork, her studio, the sketchbook she always carried, and the museums she took me to, where we stood in front of paintings. As a child, I learned to stare at paintings and at the world around me. I encountered a pictorial excitement which came from the way things meet up, the sometimes tangled and interwoven fibers of things. If you shifted your looking in a certain way, in a particular moment, it might click in – this voice-full order.
I also started making my own pictures. I experienced that this picturing process could establish communications of counterpoints, weaves, interrelationships, links, connections, associations. I learned that in these picturing experiences, a sense beyond sense grew. And through my own picturing, I began to notice such senses more and more. In positions of objects. In crumpled paper. In orange peels desiccating. In clouds from your back on the grass. In the ocean absorbing field of vision, enthrall to lull washing waves over and over. In people. In words. In sounds. In what we hadn’t found ways to speak about.
Picturing is visual art – drawing, painting, cutting, gluing, calling, configuring – however built, it’s an armature that carries meaning, although not in any fixed way. Visual art starts in historical time and circumstance; we learn this in art history class, slide by slide. It exists beyond time too: the artifact carrying over, conveying in present tense, where historically timed ice melts and becomes the now demineralized bone crumble of now – or its marrow sucked out. Music is sort of like painting, but music doesn’t stand still, has airier bones. Music doesn’t stick around. And sometimes painting sticks around too much. And collects dust.
What is this Art thing?
I am occasionally asked to weigh in on what an art piece means. I think we ask this question with curiosity, shyness, and a crisp part of respect: caution against saying wrongly, against imagining or project wrongly, to hurt the art by stepping on its toes, no knowing what part has toes even. I feel the same way when learning a new language. So the meaning question originates out of respect and uncertainty about norms, uncertainty about whether the artwork has an identity – what bones – or to whom it belongs – whose minerals. What is art? Let’s say it is a mirror, its identity is reflexive and belongs to everyone. Like air. Like water. Except unlike those so-called natural resources, art is the natural resource intrinsic to human minds.
How about we forget the meaning question and go for source then – Where does the art come from?
The artist’s practice is, I am very certain, a multi-dimensional matrix in which varied, changing influences meld and stew and something comes into being out of it. The practice of this may be housed in a studio for practical reasons, dependent on the characteristics of the practitioner, but it isn’t only there. Like revolution, art’s materials foment all around, non-computational uncoordinated in space/time – shape-shifters, art materials, lingering and holding the air. Art, You, Me – we all come from somewhere – of lived society, and lived-in ways. In talking to artists about their practices, I hope to listen in for thoughts, ancestors, indices, roof or open air. And if roof – climate control? And if air – climate? How the water tastes? Or the color-tagged planner features that inform these arts, that lead in stepped columns to corporeality.
Although you, Viewer, don’t have to be sensitive to the artist’s perspective at all. As soon as you look, it’s yours in your mind. Please. Feel free. I picked this up from my grandmother who would stand transfixed, sucking in a bit and chew – as if on marrow of chicken, rock a little, step forward, back, tilt her head, hold up knobby fingers to visually obscure a section and imagine a different possibility. It’s okay to stare. It’s okay to hold, edit, savor and follow your thoughts. They are yours, I learned from a friend who knows old culture better than I. Just eat them. That’s called really meaning it.
I hope the column, Practice, can contribute to a dialogue about how art is meaning-full, in ways that can be shared, enjoyed and inhabited. In Practice I will be exploring the forces that influence individuals who choose to make art. Maybe their art practice is a sort of yogurt container or brew cauldron. Maybe it’s more like a womb. It may be long and narrow, a sphere with a dent, or it may be a saddle.
Of Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Turner Hutton writes: “When asked about what ignited and informed his imagination, Lawrence consistently spoke about three things: the magic of the picture plane, the architecture of experience, and the beauty of the struggle.”
What informs art makers?
I hope to bring you words and thoughts from the ground, direct and in the moment. And in the same breath, an acknowledgement that the artist’s practice is but a starter seed to the story. The actual meaning of art is the reflection that grows forth and comes back, the inhabited consciousness that can come to reside there, yes, through the work of the artist who wears a stethoscope and listens for a heartbeat – whose? – in such a city as this one where the art is escalated, elevated, parachuted, where it is loved, hated, discussed, ignored, stared, played, tossed, copied, graphed, caught, analyzed, projected, dismissed, kissed, lost, fantasized, talked, listened, valued, devalued, glanced, bought, stolen, forged, hidden, destroyed, discovered, rediscovered –