This was a strange piece to make, very dissimilar in inspiration, process, and form from anything I’ve made before.
The assignment was collage, and that’s basically it. As with many assignments in art school that aim to encourage the process of art-making, the prompt is a jumping off point to encourage personal inquiry, creative problem solving, and refinement and presentation of personal vision. In fact, although some teachers give formal rubrics and expectations for their assignments, I’m halfway convinced that these guidelines exist, in some cases, only to be broken. As if the second that a student has an idea that strays outside the guidelines of a project, when they decide to go with that idea even if it disregards the assignment, that’s the moment art teachers strive to get students to feel.
Art school assignments also usually start with a compendious presentation of artists historical and contemporary working within the similar line of thought as the topic- a quick barrage of topics and forms to get people started and reacting.
The presentation that my teacher had prepared for us was almost an overview of artists and mentalities that I cannot stand. Artists that do perfectly fine work, that are esteemed in their field, that deserve all the success that they have earned by virtue of their clear and relevant artistic vision, but all the same artists that I would rather not spend time looking at or talking about because I find their work detestable.
Collage artists, throughout history, have dealt primarily in appropriation. They make work out of the material of other things, directly pulling from the conduits of contemporary thought. Their work is highly reactionary and emblematic in certain ways of the thoughts pertinent to their time- after World War I their work was about the failure of all classic structures and the absurdity of the world, after World War II and into the 60s it was about popular culture, increasing commerciality of the world, and more recently they have dealt with war, the internet, image culture, and even more commodification of daily life. The process of the collage artist is generally a negative reaction by way of amplification and elevation- by discussing these ideas in an “art space” and going out of their way to highlight the things they do not like, this opens up dialog on contemporary value.
This is almost directly in opposition to two values I strive for in my artwork- the artist’s hand and process, and glorification of the ideas the artists aspires to- the negative is dealt with by specifically not dwelling in it. So I make work glorifying that which I think is worth it, what I want to live up to, not spending more time than I already do on the things that bother me. And I do this in a process which deals directly with raw material, trying to find transcendence of material, create high levels of creative refinement, and so on. So, it is understandable that a medium which deals with things that bother the artist by using those things as the material might bother me.
The most opposite reaction to this I could think of, the clearest thing I could summon that said “I do not agree with this approach” was to draw photographs.
I could spend an extremely long time talking about every single iteration of the process, because I worked a hell of a lot on this project and basically invented a process as I went along. However, I think the more interesting discussion through all of this and what I’ll spend my time on is the process in which I made these pieces.
This project was an absolute mess of themes. It has a lot of reference to pre-chemical photography light assisted drafting wherein people used lenses, ground class, camera obscuras, and a whole mess of other forced-perspective techniques in order to basically draw a scene in perfect perspective. It has references to the dialog of the artist’s hand in photography. It touches on reproduction and uniqueness of images. It goes all over the abstraction-representation spectrum, it even has slight references to plein-air “pavilions”, in which artists would sit and either paint by observation or use perspective assisting devices to basically make their own versions of the painting envisioned from that spot. It very very very directly is a material study of the capabilities and intrinsic qualities of charcoal, tracing paper, ink, photo paper, and large format view cameras.
I knew I was taking on a lot, but I basically had a clear idea of what I wanted the final product to look like.
It basically fell completely apart with that image at the top there.
I laughed when I had the idea for that print, which will happen sometimes when I have an idea that’s so good and so simple that I just find it funny I hadn’t thought of it before. I had been tracing the images on the back of the ground class of the 8×10 camera and then inking the outlines and adding value in charcoal underneath the the tracing paper, and I was going to display that in addition to the actual print photo from the camera. I would print by laying the ink drawing and charcoal backing directly down on the photo paper, covering it in glass to flatten the pile, and exposing it to light. The idea was hilariously simple to me. I did it as soon as I could and then had a bit of a break down.
I had no idea what to do with this, because it was funny and unique and interesting but it wasn’t beautiful in the way that I was expecting, it didn’t feel graceful and transcendent and worst of all I had no idea what it meant. It was like I took just about everything I had been thinking about and crashed it all into one piece of 8×10 RC paper that just wasn’t as interesting as all the ideas I had had up to that point.
I realized what I basically was doing was drawing a negative, so I used the paper negative and tracing paper under a lightbox to actually try to produce, as accurately as possible, a negative in charcoal. I was doing this two nights before the critique.
When I printed it, I sort of frowned. I felt like I threw everything I had at this and it was still well out of my reach. Tackling so so so many ideas wasn’t impossible, but if I put up some iteration of that last bit of image and tried to talk about everything I had thought about in the lead-up to those, it wouldn’t make one bit of sense- those last images were interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the process.
I felt like I’d done two and a half weeks of experimentation had absolutely nothing in the way of a finished product, so I did some feeling sorry for myself and general moping, and then hunkered down and basically said “ok, I have to put something up.” Sifting through everything I had, I realized that I had definitely taken a huge bite out of these ideas and the problem I had was not that I hadn’t worked enough. So I decided to put very nearly everything up, from beginning to end.
I put it up somewhat intuitively. My first instinct was to put everything in a line in a chronological fashion, but I was limited on space, so I had to stack things, but I wanted to keep things orderly. Without too much of a system, I put things up as the process made sense to me- it reads left to right roughly as a chronology, but also as the evolution of the idea, the placement makes reference to forms, to the importance of ideas, to the nuance of the process. Without being over-thought, I worked to render the process and the ideas I’d had throughout the project on the wall.
I was incredibly worried about critique. I never would’ve thought my finished piece would’ve looked like this, I’d completely failed to put the things up I’d wanted to put up, and the idea I put up on the wall felt last ditch because I didn’t make something that I felt was finished, that I could put up and be entirely confident that I’d fully realized everything within that scope. I was worried that this would be picked up on, that it would be considered sketches and too broad and generally unrefined.
For the last hour of critique of others’ pieces and then right at 5, the end of our studio time, I was in an incredibly sour mood as I realized that my piece was not going to get talked about. That was a thousand times worse than anything that I imagined anyone saying in critique- all the worrying I’d done prior to critique, I just had a few more hours to do. It was terrible to me. Fortunately, my professor said he’d briefly critique me and another student’s work that also didn’t get to go.
The critique went extremely well, surprisingly so. He said, and I swore at first that he was being sarcastic, that the way in which the pieces were hung was extremely effective. He said that through a lot of the intuitive decisions I’d made were working to communicate, strangely, everything that I’d thought about while working on the project. Even coincidences of the form, things that I picked up on while mounting it, but never could’ve anticipated while working on them, worked to illustrate things incredibly well. I walked into critique with a hunch that I’d made the best out of my circumstances, and I walked out somehow incredibly reassured that the decision I made was the best possible realization of my ideas within the scope of time and project.
This project was a massive journey out on a limb and I feel it paid off, but in an uneasy way. The only thing it reaffirmed that I already knew is that the best way to make good work is to work and work and work and work and do difficult things and never lean back on a project. Even when there’s not a clear aim, keep working. But what scares me is that I was working into a dark tunnel- I had no idea what was going to come at the end of it, and other times I’ve done this things have gone very, very poorly for me. Both in life and in artwork.
I suppose that is just the nature of art as life distilled into an certain material element and broadcast for consumption by others. We can’t always control what happens, we can’t control how people will react to things, but the best way to get anything incredible done is to follow passion and curiosity and do it with ferocious and convicted work.
I swear, sometimes it feels like I’ve sweat and toiled and look back and reflect on what I’ve done and I end by writing a horribly trite and tired cliche, but I’ve arrived at it through the most backwards way possible instead of like, a Reader’s Digest.
But that’s a conversation for a different day.