ProWax Journal 4: Featured Article

Studio Practice: The Nexus of Content and Medium

By Maritza Ruiz-Kim

The studio draws me in.  For years I’ve had subjects that have sparked my curiosity and I’ve asked HowWhatWhy about the impact of the use of modern technology on our human connections. I’ve read related non-fiction books on the subject; I’ve studied the Fiction of Relationship (thank you Coursera.org and Brown University); I’ve watched not so brief lectures on the Brief History of Humankind (again thanks to Coursera.org and this time the Hebrew University of Jerusalem–it was fascinating!); I’ve read art curator essays on portraiture, voyeurism, and self-representation; I’ve read random articles that seemed tangentially related to my idea obsessions and I wish I’d kept track of them; I’ve used various technologies and social-media platforms and considered their impact on my own connections. I say all this to communicate that these are ways I’ve fed my mind with the concepts that I want to see materialize in my work.  I didn’t always think I was working; I was just following my distracting curiosities, unable to stop myself. I do not work in a linear way, deciding what my work will say, then making it. I have stuffed myself with these ideas and now the studio draws me in. I’ll see what happens with the lines, the contrasts of color, and the layers of translucency of wax. I love what I do.

There are so many ways to approach our studio work and what I’ve described above is one way I do it. Below are excerpts of quotes by various artists in the ProWax group page on Facebook as we discussed concept, content, and color in our work. –Maritza Ruiz-Kim, Editor-in-Chief, ProWax Journal

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Elise Wagner: When I set out to make a body of work, it is initially very much about color and content. I spend a lot of time focusing on combinations and I completely immerse myself in their variances and subtleties.  I’d be interested to hear how some of you negotiate or set parameters when setting out on a body of work in terms of color, content or scale.

Howard Hersh: When building a body of work for a show, I try to keep everything up and visible in my studio. Then I can spot problems like “too much of this, or too little of that.” Clearly, we all have favorite colors, shapes, and sizes, but assembling a dozen or two of our works together in a room requires that we pay attention to broadening our scope as much as possible.

Susanne Kilgore Arnold: I am not a colorist, and focus on narrative and light and dark tonal forms and areas, so my work often ends up in the brown or earth color range. Last year, I determined to try color, primarily red, to see if it would change my themes and images. (It did.) I have found I am very sensitive to color and can’t wear or paint with more than one strong color, so this was helpful in pushing me beyond my comfort zone. But I still have a tendency to focus on light and dark tones rather than color mixes.

Lynda Ray: I actually don’t set out to do a body of work with set parameters. I work in the studio every day and then something makes my heart race. I then pursue that, be it color, texture, form, scale, space or line, exploring a visual idea fully. My visual vocabulary is fine tuned continuously. It becomes a body of work. Later, when installing an exhibition, I will edit for a cohesive group.

Elise Wagner: I work in terms of exploring a visual idea fully, sometimes editing in the end. My panel maker lives two doors down, so I always start with a pile of panels that are stored, then gradually, as Howard mentioned, they all become part of the walls and a dialogue emerges.

Ruth Hiller: What inspires you and how is your inspiration reflected in your work? What message are you trying to convey to the viewer? What is your vision/philosophy? How do your techniques and style relate to your philosophy? 

Krista Svalbonas: Architecture, space, and environment inspire my work. I aim to make individuals aware of their surroundings. My wall drawings are a way to directly engage the gallery wall in the conversation of phenomenology. When working with wax I consider the consistent building up and tearing down of material vs. the ever changing urban landscape. When working with felt I liken the material to the philosophy of Modernist Architecture, of using basic and cheap materials for a certain aesthetic response.

Ruth Hiller: The combinations of nature, manmade things, and technology fascinate me. They obsess and inspire me. I want to convey speed, timelessness, and space through bold minimal mark making. I examine and explore my relation to friends, the community, and society as a whole. Integrity, simplicity, truth, and beauty are the threads throughout my life and work. Using beeswax with exposed plywood allows me to infuse meaning through the simplest forms. I push the boundaries of the materials to create works that explore nature and manmade objects in unexpected ways.

Paula Fava: Nature, light, movement, the divine, color, absence of color, textures, rusted things: these inspire me. Creating layers allows the story to be hidden/revealed. I often use ‘healing materials’ embedded in my work for the specific goal of healing heartbreak. Staying in a place of risk allows me to keep my heart open.

Debra Claffey: I’m inspired by life forms, life mechanics, life interdependencies and interactions. The forms I use are biomorphic, fractal, and in concert with natural processes.

Tracey Adams: Science, organization within the natural world, music and philosophy of yoga inspire me. I seek to communicate universality, to simplify form to its basic essence, to be fully present in life. My work involves patterns inspired by nature and science and organized by musical structuring e.g. rhythm. I constantly explore and experiment with combinations of media and color, usually involving wax. I employ permutations of visual elements in each series, revisiting previous series as a springboard to the next.

Cheryl D. McClure: Opposites such as unstructured/structured, active/passive, casual/formal, and bold/subtle inspire me. I prefer to start without consciously thinking too much, then refine by looking and thinking about what is happening with the work. Luscious paint is the vehicle for my style of work. It can be gestural and casual as well as considered and refined.

Kate Miller: Why do you make art (in encaustic or other media) at all, what are your issues? Looking at the bigger picture, what do you see as the major issues (themes if you will) being seen in contemporary work today? Does that influence you in your work or have nothing to do with what you do?

Peggy Epner: Kate, I think about this all the time. I think my most basic answer is to achieve connection. By that I mean that I feel my work is a form of communication, perhaps to someone I will never meet. I feel artwork that stays in my studio and never finds an audience is incomplete because of that. I don’t know if I am seeing the need for connection reflected in the art world specifically, other than a lot of work that recognizes the connection between everything, humans and nature, for example. I see the desire for real connection everywhere, in spite of how “connected” we all are superficially, via technology. I suspect that I am reflecting the need I sense in the population at large, and also my own need, since I am a part of that population.

Toby Sisson: I consider my work an investigation and the very act of making art is a way to “think” about the world. I actually formulate my thoughts by making and interpreting images. My “issues” as you say, are varied but I’m often focused on transformations and relationships between one state of being and another (especially social and psychological). The concept of the “other” has been a consistent concern over the years. Whether I like it or not, my tastes are influenced by contemporary trends. Because I engage with the larger world, my work naturally responds to the era in which I live. That response, of course, can also be a rejection of what I perceive to be the prevailing winds. I find, however, that I’m becoming more and more attracted to the emerging “casual” aesthetic and even surprise myself with how much I enjoy work that not too long ago I dismissed.

Peggy Epner: Toby, I have to say that really resonates with me. I am also really attracted to work that very recently I would have disregarded. You put into words why that is, I think.

Toby Sisson: Thanks for your comment, Peggy. Isn’t it interesting how quickly we are enriched by new ideas when they are contained in an art form. That alone is reason enough to consume a steady diet of contemporary art throughout our lives.

Kate Miller: It’s very interesting here to note that not only are our reasons for making art and our methods of sharing it changing, but that the nature of those changes is also affecting our critical judgment of that work.

Nancy Natale: Toby, I am attracted to certain aspects of the casualist art making, but part of me sees it as just not being disciplined enough to go all the way into making a work of art. I don’t want to be old about it, but neither am I ready to embrace it.

Toby Sisson: I don’t think Nancy’s reservations about the casualist aesthetic are old. I’m not enthralled by all of the work either. But it’s also worth noting that the current trend toward less “disciplined” work has happened before, usually in response to and rejection of established structures. I think of Dadaism or Arte Provera as previous examples. A good description of the latter can be found on MOMA’s website. Just as the supporters of Arte Provera were opposing the conventions of modernism by embracing social issues and juxtaposing found objects to make “poor art”, I think casualists (at least some) may be rejecting the homogenizing aspects of globalism and technology.

Nancy Natale: Toby, Joanne [has] used a term “faux naive” [ed: Mattera’s blog post, Armory Week 2009: Salvage Operation] that I think sums up my objection to the casualist esthetic. A lot of the casualist work looks as if it has no intention behind it or compelling it into a finished work. I can understand the point of not overworking something or of finishing it to the nth degree in what is sometimes regarded as a craft esthetic, but sometimes the work looks like it belongs on the trash side of Mattera’s “Art or Trash” posts from Miami. Too much irony, too little ability, too little conviction, too little transformation? These are questions I ask myself about this work.

Cheryl McClure: I think I was drawn originally to the materiality of painting/art-making and I still am. Since I paint intuitively and abstractly, I have to let the materials speak to me until something clicks. I just love the look, smell, feel of paint. Some years ago, I would not have appreciated [casualist] work as I do now. This is all a growth process. Sometimes we lose a little of that freshness, casualness, improvisation as we grow. It is inevitable, whether we like it or not.

Toby Sisson: I think the Casualists, like all movements, will have more chaff than wheat. That said, I’m still very curious about how each of you views your own work within the larger context of contemporary art. Any more thoughts on Kate Miller’s questions?

Laura Moriarty: I make art as a way of engaging with culture. It’s the way I think about, process and contribute to what I see going on in the world. For me this practice has always been a material and conceptual investigation; they bleed into each other. Based on what I see in major surveys there seem to be many different ways that one could interpret current themes in contemporary art, but if I had to try to put a label on it, I would say we are in a moment of heavy questioning.

Kate Miller: Laura, I love your idea of heavy questioning. I agree with that, although I don’t think the idea of identity searching is totally gone; we see both in movies, books, art. I also think that the themes of isolation and fragmentation within the heavily technological transformation currently going on are still relevant. I find that making art helps me feel a part of this rat race world.

Laura Tyler: As someone who’s embraced the casual since college I’m all of a sudden finding myself pulled toward difficult, time intensive representational work. This is a weird experience for me and I’m not sure where it’s going. I toggle back and forth between painting and documentary filmmaking. Painting seems both more and less necessary than ever to me right now. It is paradoxical.
Joanne Mattera: I’m a painter. Abstraction is the umbrella. Reductive geometry would be the niche within abstraction, with (usually) an emphasis on color. My interests and my expression are bound up together. As to why I make art, I have been making all my life. It’s what I do. I stopped briefly when I arrived in NYC–needed to learn a new job, find an apartment, insert myself into the stream of the city–and although I viewed a lot of art, for three years I was without a studio and made almost none. I felt like a large percentage of myself was missing. So I guess I make art to feel and be whole.

Joanne Mattera: I’m a painter. Abstraction is the umbrella. Reductive geometry would be the niche within abstraction, with (usually) an emphasis on color. My interests and my expression are bound up together. As to why I make art, I have been making art all my life. It’s what I do. I stopped briefly when I arrived in NYC –needed to learn a new job, find an apartment, insert myself into the stream of the city–and although I viewed a lot of art, for three years I was without a studio and made almost none. I felt like a large percentage of myself was missing. So I guess I make art to feel and be whole.

Nancy Natale: I make art as a means of esthetic expression and because I am drawn to the materiality of working with my hands, making things. Art is my second career in life and I went to art school when I was just about 40 after an awakening experience. (No, I wasn’t Sleeping Beauty despite all the rumors.) I had always made things but never really made art, even in high school, so I had a lot of catching up and learning to do about how and why to make art. Contemporary art seems to be pretty wide ranging. I think I am most drawn to geometric abstraction but usually not the clean cut kind. I do love the messy, physical, dark, weatherbeaten kind of work that I find in my faves such as Leonardo Drew, Philip Guston, Lee Bontecou, Brian Dickerson and so on. They influence me in terms of what they have made and inspire me to keep making and striving to please myself with what I do. That may not always be the case, but I keep trying and am always learning and discovering.

Laura Moriarty: This discussion and these questions continue echoing through my mind, and there is something important I want to add to why I make art; because it’s fun. I enjoy every aspect of it, and when the going gets rough this point is the one that drives me back to it.

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For further reading:

1.  Raphael Rubenstein, Art in America, on provisional painting

2.  Sharon Butler, Two Coats of Paint, on casualist painting

  • “The New Casualists”
  • Reader response to ‘Abstract Painting: The New Casualists'”
  • The Casualist tendency”
  • Good news: ‘Some of this work is quite good'”

3.  Brian Dupont, epononymous blog, on provisionalism & casualism

  • Provisional Criticism and the New Mannerism”

4.  Steven Zevitas, Huffington Post, on the art world

  • The Things We Think and Do Not Say, or Why the Art World is in Trouble”

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