Saturday, November 21, 2009

To Cliche or Not to Cliche.....

November 21, 2009

Summertime in New England means art fairs aplenty. Even smaller towns whose populations swell with summer visitors have their own ‘side-walk art fairs’, and they draw good crowds too. Here in Maine, Portland and Bangor have the biggest events, as would be expected. But, artists travel from places like Connecticut to participate in even the small town events. In a year when people are not feeling pinched by the state of the economy, an enterprising artist can earn anywhere from a few hundred to the highest figure I have heard, which is $8000 in a day. Over the years I have made an effort to attend art fairs, just to see what was out there. As a knifemaker whose knives cost as much as small cars, it didn’t seem reasonable to attend these fairs as a participant…unless I would just enjoy seeing peoples’ reactions to a $10,000 knife. I.e., “Oh, my God! …For a knife?” My venue was dedicated knife-shows where an audience of knife collectors would be present from around the country and the world.

But, I always enjoy strolling past the booths of sincere artists and seeing what they have come up with to sell. In recent years there have been many more photographers, but painters are still the most frequent artists on display. Because I am viewing the offerings of so many people, eventually some clear trends have emerged. Year after year, you can absolutely count on seeing re-iterations of particular themes and subjects. Here in Maine, lighthouses are a shoo-in for first place, in terms of numbers. Flowers, puppies, cats, horses, bucolic rural landscapes, old tractors, single rowboats or dories, care-worn lobster boats tied-up, or floating at anchor….are all popular subjects. It is common to see paintings of these that are done with skill and care. Sometimes, I run across efforts that really stand out from the crowd. Usually, this is the result of an artist who either has developed good plein-aire skills and has painted while actually looking at the scene, or it is a painter who has taken the time to learn how to make good photo references, and has also learned how to use them without their artwork looking too much like a photograph. Most often a painting or a body of work is exceptional because the artist has figured out how to imbue it with something of themselves. They have chosen a subject that they have an emotional connection with….and the result is work that has the ability to communicate that. And, it gives the viewer something extra. Making a cliché, or not, has less to do with choice of subject than it does with how the artist presents it.

Then there is the vast hoard of paintings and photographs that hang there, communicating little and conveying a tired old message that is as invisible as a highway billboard. You ‘see’ it but, you dismiss it because it is nothing you haven’t seen countless times throughout your life. This is my working definition of a ‘cliché’. Apparently, a lot more people want to pick up a camera, or a paintbrush and make art, than there are people who actually want to say something by doing so. These people must enjoy just participating in the process of making something. And, if that is the case, my hope is that they get exactly what they want from smooshing paint around, or hearing the shutter go ‘click’. This is one helluva lot better than a host of other activities they might have chosen.

But, then there are those people who are making the effort to develop their knowledge and skills and actually have a yearning to say something, perhaps even something profound or poignant. Their goal is to pique our senses, on an array of levels. Every artist, regardless of skill-level, goes through a process of decision-making that begins with an idea. Either it comes to them internally, or something in their surroundings sets off a spark, and the process of creation is under way. It is at this critical junction that people either opt for something uninspired and head down the road towards creating one more cliché….or develop a relationship with the ‘idea’, ‘spark’, ‘inspiration’, and begin to gestate it into something fully formed. If the artist has a fertile imagination, they may be among those souls who paint strictly from internally generated imagery. This can be very dangerous territory. Left to its own devices our imagination has a tendency to create holographic semblances of reality that are so lacking in richness of detail and organic variation…that they seem kind of mundane and generic.

Or, it can go the other direction and come up with wildly imaginary material that mostly is garish and enigmatic…but, again, lacking a level of authenticity that would be necessary to ‘sell’ the image to a viewer… just in terms of inviting them into your ‘vision’ and having them buy into it as an experience. Doing this is a whole lot easier with writing than it is with pictures. When a person reads your description of a scene, they provide the rich detail and authenticity from their own internal library of sights and sounds, even smells. When I read a novel, it is like watching a movie on the inside of my forehead. I assume that it is that way for lots of, if not most, people. The writer takes you to his/her world, invites you into their dream, and—if they are a good storyteller—doesn’t let you wake up until it is over. A painting (or any artwork) can be like that too.

If you are an artist and interested to see how this works, you might want to try an experiment: using the materials you favor, create a completely imaginary landscape, or portrait, or still-life. Add as much detail and give it all the energy you can to make it become ‘real’. If you succeed, you will have an image that other viewers will find believable…the first step in it having the power to communicate and evoke an emotional response. If you come up short, they will know instantly that it is an internal ‘make believe’…that doesn’t. It’s a LOT harder than you might think to generate imagery with your imagination that becomes so powerful that other people will find it both interesting and evocative.

Just recently, one of the intrepid painters who study with me every Friday morning decided to paint a lighthouse. Her photo reference was a nice photograph, but I said to her, “You know this is a post-card cliché. So, if you are going to paint it, then your job is to make it go beyond simply being an ordinary lighthouse image.” And, she did. She accomplished this by giving every area of the painting a feeling of richness, luminosity and detail that pushed it way past the cliché stage. It became a small, jewel-like slice of reality that will hang on somebody's wall, and send out every lighthouse should.

In the long history of painting, the basic genres mentioned above: landscape (to include marine and urban scenes as well), portraiture/figure, still-life, interiors, are all well established areas of endeavor. But, even with centuries of work forming the great collective history of painting, it is still possible to work in any of these areas and come up with work that is exciting, profound, poignant and enriches the life of any viewer who is willing to receive what it offers.

And, after all these years of looking at the world around me, going to see the greatest paintings ever created, studying and absorbing it all….I keep coming back to the simple fact that LIGHT is what makes the difference. It has substance; it has personality even. It is alchemical, and can even be spiritual and philosophical in the ways it illuminates a subject. I don’t even shy away from the idea that Light is our visible evidence of the Great Mystery in which we are all immersed.

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