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"Painting?" - An Explanation
"Painting?" is a body of work based on a list of questions about painting. This list started out as an exercise, an attempt to narrow down the range of themes and tools I would use in my fall 2014 show at Thomas Masters Gallery. The initial impetus was the hope that the answers to these questions would give me the skeleton onto which I would build the exhibition.
The first 15-20 questions were written down in the span of a few hours. These were the questions that have continually come up over my years as a working artist, so they were already reasonably well formulated. They were mostly regarding paintings as objects and the limitations (and opportunities) of painting as a form of communication. Some were about the larger questions that came from being (happily enough) a student of art history for as long as I've been an artist. Their answers helped me make formal choices in my work over the years, and they are responsible for my art looking the way it does today. More importantly, because most of these questions could only have subjective answers (mostly based on taste and personal experience), they kept my art centered around my own personal vision.
I decided that the questions themselves should be part of the art and would be written on the the gallery walls. The purpose of these questions is not to pin down the “right” answers (which would imply some ideal plane of what painting is, does, means), but to expose the axes along which a painter may choose to deal with the issues involved. The exhibition based on this list would seek to show the ways in which I deal with some of the problems in the medium and practice of painting, and its larger context.
Formulating more questions became challenging once I decided to expose as little personal bias as possible in the wording of the question itself.* First, I had to take a quiz-like approach and try to eliminate any “why” aspect. I did this because I think “yes”, “no”, “more so”, “less so”, and “equally so” say more about what you do as an artist than any justification you could give from your experience as one. Second, some of the questions became simple to the point of trivial because they clearly concerned only a small niche in the world of the working artist. Third, the questions could not be about art in general because the answers would spill over into problems of definition (language issues, cultural relativity issues, identity issues, etc). They had to focus on painting, because historically it has had a fairly constant place in how we define art, if mostly in the Western world; any discussion on art today cannot ignore painting. And lastly, to be as specific as possible, some questions had to be broken down into multiple questions with some overlap in wording, which can easily give the impression of identical questions and create some confusion.
In all stages of creating this list I've been fortunate to get valuable feedback and sincere interest from other artists, spanning different disciplines and cultures. It became an exciting, engaging piece of art unto itself, one I'll likely continue to work on for the duration of my career.
*This decision likely came from re-reading Wassily Kandinsky's “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1912), which is a difficult thing to do for any contemporary artist that values intellectual precision or rejects dogmatic approaches to making art.
Questions for Painters
An Attempt at Discovering a Painter's Axiology
The purpose of these questions is not to pin down the “right” answers (which would imply some ideal plane of what painting is, does, means), but to expose the axes along which a painter may choose to deal with the issues involved. (from updated explanation)
1. Is magical thinking still relevant to painting?
2. Is a finished painting a resolved problem, an unresolved problem, both, or neither?
3. Can a painter's intent be irrelevant to the finished painting?
4. Does an artist have the ability to change the meaning of any kind of symbol?
5. Can a painting have social or political impact, outside of it being used as propaganda, marketing, or of its exchange value?
6. Is narrative (linear or non-linear) always present, or is it optional in paintings?
7. Is a painting more of an object, more of an image, or both in equal measures?
8. Can a ready-made be a painting?
9. Is painting (two-way) communication?
10. Can the avant-garde be banal, or are the two mutually exclusive?
11. Can a painting be the total sum of a painter's experience?
12. Is a painter's philosophy always embedded in that painter's work?
13. What does being a successful artist mean?
14. Does painting always have an art-historical context?
15. Are manifesto-based movement viable today?
16. Are art movements created by artists, historians/critics, neither, or both?
17. Are the qualities of abstract painting completely interchangeable with those of representational painting?
18. Is it preferable to show your artwork without selling it?
19. Is it possible for a painting to avoid being or becoming a commodity?
20. Is the decision to be / become a painter a political one?
21. Can a painting be independent of sociopolitical constraints (censorship, taboos, etc,.) ?
22. Can the subject matter of a painting be independent of the painting's physical setting (gallery, museum, home, street)?
23. In the current art market, is being a painter an advantage or a disadvantage?
24. Are the physical constraints of painting (i.e. materials, size, shape) an advantage, a disadvantage, or irrelevant to the position of painting in the larger art practice?
25. Is economic inequality beneficial or detrimental to the art market?
26. Should the global art market influence your work?
27. Is the range of possible interpretations of a painting related to an audience's positive response to it?
28. Do you remember all your paintings?
29. Do you follow the work of other living artists?
30. Do you see yourself as competing with other living artists?
31. Do you see yourself as competing with non-living artists?
32. Do you consider yourself a part of a larger movement within contemporary art practice?
33. Do you think your best work is still to come?
34. Can a painting change the opinion of someone in the audience?
35. Can a painting you make change your own opinion about its subject matter?
36. Can another artist's work change your own opinion about something?
37. Are titles relevant or irrelevant to the painter?
38. Is the exhibition space an extension of the painting, the painting an extension of the exhibition space, both, or neither?
39. Is having a recognizable visual style beneficial, limiting, or irrelevant to your ability to experiment?
40. Are titles relevant or irrelevant to the audience?
41. Is a personal aesthetic style more, less, or of equal importance as concept?
42. If working in a series, is the style, or the concept the connection within the series, or both equally?
43. Is appropriating another artist's work relevant, or irrelevant to originality?
44. Is defacing or altering another artist's work a creative act?
45. Can audience be irrelevant to the meaning of a work of art?
46. How aware should a painter be of references (cultural, historical, visual, etc) made in their own painting??
47. Are references to the work of other artists relevant, or irrelevant to one's own painting?
48. Are references to the work of other artists inevitable in one's own painting?
49. Are references to the work of other artists desirable, or undesirable in one's own painting?
50. Do critics contribute to the understanding of a work of art, or are they irrelevant?
51. Should feedback from your peers influence your work?
52. Should feedback from your audience influence your work?
53. Should feedback from institutions (galleries, museums) influence your work?
54. Is feedback from other artists more, as much, or less valuable than feedback from non-artists?
55. Can a painter work outside of the influence of popular culture (film, music, etc)
56. Does associating with prominent artists give one a better chance of achieving prominence?
57. Is/Would having an audience in a discipline other than painting (i.e. film, music) be desirable, undesirable, or irrelevant to a painter?
58. Does collaborating with other artists on the same painting dilute/compromise the quality of the painting?
59. Does doing commissioned work dilute/compromise the quality of the painting?
60. Does painting need a theoretical context in order to be experienced properly?
61. Do paintings have any qualities that can only be appreciated by other (professional or amateur) painters?
62. Does a painting always have to deal with the meaning of materials that make it up (whether acquired from history, or implicit symbolism), or is it optional?
63. Does the artist's signature on the canvas affect a painting's meaning?
64. Does introspection play an important part in a painter's work, is it trivial, or irrelevant?
65. Does making paintings have a therapeutic role in a painter's life?
66 Which is more conducive to working: living in your studio, having studio at home, or having the two completely separate?
67. Is it preferable to discuss your work on a technical level, on a conceptual level, equally so, or none at all?
68. Is being a teaching artist mostly beneficial, mostly damaging, or irrelevant to a painter's artwork?
69. Is writing about one's own work useful, counter-constructive, or irrelevant to a painter?
70. Is writing about one's own work useful, counter-constructive, or irrelevant to a painter's audience?
71. Is the nationality, race, gender, or ethnicity of a painter always relevant to that painter's work?
72. Is the nationality, race, gender, or ethnicity of a painter always relevant to that painter's audience?
73. Is being an experienced painter relevant to making good paintings?
74. Is originality of concept essential to a good painting?
75. Is originality of aesthetic style essential to a good painting?
76. Does emotion play a part in a good painting?
77. Does chance play a part in a good painting?
78. Do global or local politics play a part in a good painting?
79. Does beauty play a part in a good painting?
80. Is the quality of a painting related to the amount of intellectual effort invested in it?
81. Does intuition play a part in a good painting?
82. Is the quality of a painting related to the amount of physical effort put into it?
83. Does philosophy play a role in a good painting?
84. Does inspiration play a part in a good painting?
85. Does humor play a part in a good painting?
86. Do words play a part in a good painting?
87. Does history play a part in a good painting?
88. Is the ability of the painter to draw and paint from life important for a good painting?
89. Does virtuosity (technical ability) always, more often than not, less often than not, or never play a part in a good painting?
90. Is the range of possible interpretations of a painting related to the overall quality of the painting?
91. What are the three best paintings ever made?
92. Does art have a static definition, one independent of cultural background?
93. Is all art autobiographical?
94. Will painting always be a relevant expression of art-making?