what am i looking for
Some of the questions I listed in my last blog post (meant to stimulate thinking for an upcoming panel discussion at the IEA Retreat this September in San Fransisco) have been on my mind this week--especially one about what I look for my paintings. I think this rather daunting question asks not only what my aesthetic preferences are, but also what meaning I find in my work, and how do I create that.
At the same time that I've been contemplating this, I've also been finishing an article about my techniques (requested by the company that makes the cold wax I favor, Dorland's wax medium.) This writing focuses on specific ways that I use cold wax medium that I have developed over the years.
As I painted today, I thought about these two paths of inquiry and how they are related. I recalled the art-school concept of Form and Content--that ideally the Form, or physical aspects of the work (technique included) and the Content (the meaning of the work) are inter-related. One supports and leads to the other. When this relationship is out of balance, there is work that is heavily dependent upon technique for its impact, or overly conceptual without concern for visual elements. A somewhat out of date theory maybe--but it has always been useful to me in assessing my own work.
The way that I think of technique--and teach it in my workshops--is as a variety of uses for certain materials and tools. As such, technique forms the vocabulary of my visual language. Just as a particular word or phrase may be crafted to fine-tune the meaning in speaking or writing, so a particular technique comes into play. By themselves, separate from their use in a painting, my techniques have little meaning beyond visual enjoyment (not to dismiss that--it does keep me endlessly entertained while I work!)
The photo above shows a technique I use quite often--drawing something with a brush dipped in solvent, and then going over it with a squeegee (in this case, my trusty dough scraper) which leaves behind a very clear and distinctive mark. These marks can be stunning when the solvent cuts through several layers of color. While some of my paintings feature strong marks of this type, more often they lie buried beneath layers of transparent color, visible only subtly.
Which brings me to the meaning of my work, and back to Form and Content. My work is about layers built up over time and then worn away, showing bits of what is below the surface. When I work, I think about complex surfaces in nature and the human environment like old walls, rust and eroded stone. The quiet but relentless natural processes of weathering, aging, burying and revealing feel calm and steady to me, and have poetic and symbolic depth. This is what I want my work to evoke.
So, to answer what I am looking for--it is an integration of Form and Content. A blending of technique--layering, scraping, creating specific marks and then covering them over--and meaning as described above. Ideally, the ideas I am after lead to the techniques, and the techniques lead back to richer and more complex surfaces.