On Conversation Pieces

Every piece of art is a conversation piece or it’s not art. By definition, it is an artist’s job to engage viewers in a dialogue that leads us to examine life, grapple with our discomfort, and pose questions that
frighten and amaze us.2015-10-12-Photo1

How does a particular piece of art relate to previous work in the same genre? In different genres? Does the artwork exemplify its own time period? Artists use historical context to engage each other in the dialogue. In this regard, every painting, sculpture, and performance is in a tête-à-tête with every other piece of art, whether the other pieces were made a thousand years ago, a century ago, this week, or hundred years in the future. If a piece isn’t participating in the conversation, then it’s decoration or documentation or some other thing, but not art.

As artists, we each have a voice in this art conversation. How interesting and relevant our voice is depends, in part, on how well we know and understand the other participants. If I don’t know that Mondrian deliberately maintained a limited palette, then my paintings are excluded from a potentially enlightening debate.

And I’m sure you’ve been in discussions where someone says something that has already been articulated. It’s a little tiring because it doesn’t add to the conversation and makes everyone have to stop, repeat, rebuke. Conversations need to move. Whether the participants are fleshing out a particular thread (depth) or exploring new topics (breadth), the exchange must be lively in order to be note-worthy. Contemplate, question, discuss, argue, debate, thrash out: these are all action words.

So, when artists think about their own work and how it fits into the art conversation, they have to ask themselves a few questions: Am I just repeating something somebody already said? Am I trying to develop an idea begun by one or more other artists because I think there’s still conversation there? Am I trying to start an entirely different exchange?

For me, artists seem to either seek expertise (they want to do it better) or exploration (they want to do it different). Because our culture puts a premium on innovation, artists are pressured to find increasingly original ways to express their ideas even though we need depth as much as we need breadth. Gifted and accomplished artist John Millei explained during an orientation week artist’s talk at Claremont Graduate University that he thought of himself as “a sustainer not a rebel.” To his point, most artists probably are sustainers. I mean, if everyone were a rebel, no one would be a rebel. Mozart, a certain genius, was a sustainer. He did it better to the extreme, but he didn’t change the music of his time. On the other hand, Beethoven revolutionized the composition of classical music; he was an explorer. 2015-10-12-Photo2Both are good; both are necessary—and both offer interesting and relevant input to the discourse.

Regarding my own work, I believe I am deepening an existing conversation in ways not available to the originators. Hard edge, reductivist painters of the late-1950s, early-1960s fleshed out pretty well the form. I’ve extended that part a little, but not much. What I have done, which was begun by Sol LeWitt, is some serious work on the content. LeWitt began to create a bridge between minimalism (which sought to remove content) and conceptualism (which is all content) with his wall drawings and artist’s diagrams. I believe I have found some2015-10-12-Photo3 interesting and relevant ways to talk about perception and meaning that result in a minimalism-conceptualism hybrid. Whatever it is, it’s a fascinating conversation, don’t you think?

Photo Credits





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