Sunday, May 15, 2011

Meaning in Art

Detail of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?,
Paul Gaugin, 1897,oil on canvas, approx. 55 x 147 inches (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

Gaugin wanted all the big questions answered, but that kind of heavy pondering is best left to philosophy, or theology if you're so inclined. What I mean by "meaning" in art is the conceptual underpinning for works of art. This would not have been a problem or much of a source for discussion when artists were painting or sculpting religious or history subjects, naturalistic landscapes, seascapes, portraits and other observed objects. In the 20th century, as the subjects of artworks deviated from observed depictions of people, places and events, "meaning" became a topic for examination and discussion. Abstract art brought about heated discussion of meaning and artistic intention.

Philip Guston, Zone, 1954 (Museum of Modern Art)

After World War II, in the heyday of what came to be called Abstract Expressionism, artists and critics for the most part disavowed meaning altogether as art became more the record of the artist's improvisational process or actions exploring and expressing emotions. This gestural period was complemented by color field (organic/chance) and hard-edge (geometric/control) painting. Afterwards, Pop Art, Op Art and Minimalism further removed meaning from art, and Conceptual art left the meaning but took away the art.

21st Century Art

Isa Genzken, Elefant, 2006, from Unmonumental at the New Museum, 2007-08

Kim Deakins, Me-Eat, 2009, Ink on paper, 55 x 36 inches,
from "New American Paintings", July 2010

Jumping over several other movements to arrive at the 21st century, we reach the home of Anything Goes, where many of the trendy galleries and museums are featuring improvisational, random and purposefully amateurish works. At the same time we also have skilled, beautiful and concept-driven work in many, many genres.

The Purpose of My Art History 101
I ran through all the above to reference the fact that contemporary art is full of artists who have historically been trained to decry meaning and defend intuitive process in art making as their unquestionable right. While I am a strong supporter of civil rights and would not send the art police to anyone's studio, I suggest that consciously thinking about and developing the conceptual basis for your work will benefit you by improving your work as well as making it easier and more satisfying to make art. I know this from personal experience and from other artists who have moved their work forward by approaching it from this perspective. (And big thanks to Miles Conrad for his "Moving the Work Forward" class for pointing this out to me.)

Working From the Medium
I think that a medium as seductive and full of technical aspects as encaustic is particularly apt to lead artists into working from process rather than from ideas. The result is lackluster work that doesn't lead anywhere or have anything to say. It's what I call (in my non-diplomatic way) "So-What Art." I look at it and go, "So What."  Why should I be interested in it? Why should I spend my time looking at it? What does it give me back in return for my viewing?

Straight Talk from a Non-Diplomat
Unfortunately, all too many people working in the medium of encaustic consider themselves "encaustic artists" whose work is about "playing with" or "listening to" the wax. Although mastering encaustic techniques requires experimentation and learning by trial and error, unless the work is motivated by some other purpose than "playing with wax," it usually is of interest only to the person who made it (and maybe their mother or best friend).  I have observed that many artists who add found objects to their encaustic works, just place them on a panel embedded in encaustic or use the encaustic as glue and call it a day. The purpose of this blog is to shake up these bad habits and get artists thinking about the work they are making, to develop a reason for making the work and organize it using formal principles.

Working From a Conceptual Framework
The "meaning" I'm talking about can be as simple as an elevator pitch (Per Wikipedia: An elevator pitch is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition. The name "elevator pitch" reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes.). Or it can be as extensive as a formal statement about your work that analyzes several aspects of your intentions and may be based on research you have conducted on a particular topic.

Examples of Work With Meaning

Gregory Wright, Into the Grotto, 2009, encaustic, oil,  pigment
and shellac on birch, 36 x 24 inches

Greg Wright creates fantasy worlds with glowing colors, sinuous shapes and deep spaces that entice the viewer to enter. His statement says that he "works intuitively," but he does that within the framework of making his fantasy creations using "motifs of celestial, aquatic, and microscopic influences with the intent to capture a visual account of the human condition."

Catherine Nash, From the Outside In, encaustic painting in found weathered
wood -worked board with patinaed redwood shingles, 16 x 13 inches

Catherine works poetically and sensitively with found objects and encaustic. She describes her Secret Skies series, which this piece is from, as "paintings of the sky [are] created within a closable wooden box, game board or the like. I am playing with a physical way of bottling up, translating, of trying to comprehend the unfathomable with a bit of humor. Have portable sky, will travel."

Cory Peeke from the Conrad Wilde website.
(No info was given about title or size of this work.)

Cory Peeke's work is about social and cultural conceptions of identify, particularly concerning gender and racial stereotypes. In addition, the subliminal communication of meaning in color is an important aspect of his work and has led to his work with paint swatches that "subtly acknowledges and contends with ideas of sexual, gender, racial and class stereotyping associated with particular colors as well as certain design professions." His statement is a model of how to describe levels of meaning and their influence on an artist's work. (Also note the difference between the statement he uses on the Conrad Wilde website and the statement on the home page of his own site. Both describe his work and its meaning but with a slightly different emphasis.)

Jackie Tileston, Everything in Your Favor, 2006,
oil and mixed media on linen, 60 x 72 inches
Although Jackie Tileston's work looks very different from Greg Wright's, she has in common with him the intention to create new worlds in her paintings. Her statement says: "A medley of sources is orchestrated to create or reconstruct a world within the painting in which a new kind of sense is made - one in which the beautiful, absurd, sacred, and mundane can coexist. I do not find a conflict between meaning and visual opulence, between commercial culture and content, and I often purposefully cultivate an operatic sense of surface and reference." For me, her work epitomizes the sense of "anything goes" in painting today with her mastery of diverse painting styles and genres. Her work is not a hodgepodge but a synthesis built by an accomplished and knowledgeable artist.

Lynda Ray, Cinnabar, encaustic on panel, 40 x 48 inches

Lynda Ray's work has a strong material presence and a real sense of purposeful geometric construction. Her statement says that her work is about time: "Instead of experiencing time in a linear way, as a narrative to be read left to right, bottom to top or top down, I look at time condensed and compressed like a double exposure photograph where one picture is taken on top of another. The end result allows multiple moments to appear at once. It’s as if one is looking through peeled back layers to reveal other stages or development."

Reviewing Artists' Websites
I have shown only five examples of art to be considered in the context of its maker's meaning and intention. I hope that you will visit the websites of these five artists (and others) and notice that when you look at the full bodies of their work, you will see how their work has a consistent look that ties in with their intention. Various series may emphasize certain aspects, but over all you see that their work is recognizable as being made by one person and expressive of unique interests and ways of art making. These artists use a medium (or media) as a means of expression rather than an end in itself.

Next Post: Transcending the Medium and Transformation of Elements


  1. Nancy, in your blog descrption, you call Bricolage "collage with muscle." As you describeit here, is's also "Collage with brains." Well done.

  2. Great post to express these concerns of 'just playing' and 'technique' over intention of the individual artist.
    As an artist who does work intuitively, I also employ the formal aspects of art making and I hope I stay true to who I am as a person and an artist.

  3. Wonderful new blog. I look forward to following along.

  4. Nancy, This is such a loaded topic for me, and I have been trying to articulate my position on the teetering edge of that cliff we call art and meaning for some time. I hope to have a more full bodied expression of that crafted at some point soon but want to thank you for putting together such a well expressed statement. It's a biggie.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate your input and thank you for letting me know you're out there.

  6. Nancy--great topic. It came along at a moment when i was working on a related blog post of my own, so I linked to yours.

  7. Nancy,
    Great article. There are a lot of points I agree with and also many other ways of looking at the differences of art with "meaning" vs process art or what I call over the couch art.

    You wrote:
    "The purpose of this blog is to shake up these bad habits and get artists thinking about the work they are making, to develop a reason for making the work and organize it using formal principles."

    I think there is a mix of intentions with most artists. It's more than out of habit that art is made without meaning. The mix might be an unconscious need to do or be seen as an artist, or the therapeutic process prevails over meaning.

    It would be great if we all knew our intentions were pure aspects of our being present and held meaning or intention. I don't experience ego vs. essence that clearly and completely but see them as intertwined.

    LOVE this topic! Thanks!