form and content
"Art, Sternfeld believes, is at its best when there is a unity of form and content--'When you have unity, I think, it squares the reach and power of the work'..."
(From a Smithsonian Magazine article
about the photographer Joel Sternfield's photos of consumers in Dubai shopping malls, taken with the iconic consumer good, an iPhone.)
The need for form and content to be equally strong and to work together is a concept I took note of as an undergrad, though I had only a superficial knowledge of it at the time. Simple on the surface, the idea becomes complex and subtle with deeper understanding. It encompasses everything about what an artist has to say and how it is said...an ever-changing consideration, a guide, a challenge, a way to evaluate your own work and other's.
Form--the materials and techniques used, and how the elements of art and design principles are employed--is pretty straightforward. When students are asked to address Form and Content in evaluating a work of art, they seem relieved that Form can be neatly described. Content, which is idea-based, is harder to pin down--the artist's intentions for the work, the choice of subject matter, if any...the ideas and motivation and influences behind the work, how the work comes across, the viewer's response. These answers lead to more challenging questions: does the Form the artist has used support the Content, or is it moving more clearly in another direction? Does the Content lead logically to the Form, or would the artist's intentions be better expressed in a different way? Are Form and Content each strong, and working together?
Lest anyone's eyes glaze over with this academic approach, let me say that working with F and C (my abbreviation for the rest of this post!) is often a highly intuitive process...an idea or direction arising from materials used, or exploration of a new technique. In other words, C does not necessarily lead the way. In a lot of process-driven work, done in a loose and experimental mood, C develops in tandem with F. If an artist begins with F (materials and techniques) the challenge is to develop intention and a unique vision along with mastery of the medium.
An initial F-C convergence tends to be energizing, exciting and promising. But where to take it, how to sustain it, how to develop it and give it the depth of personal meaning? Again, progress may be more intuitive than thought out, but I do credit some conscious attention to F and C with deeper understanding and development in my own work.
These are useful concepts when looking at other people's work too. So often, a strong work stands as a good example of unity of F and C, while weakness comes down to a poor pairing of the two. For example, if you wanted to express the power and energy of a rushing river, would you meticulously render the image from a photo? The result would probably come across as still and frozen in time, rather than energetic. On the other hand, that approach would make perfect sense if you were more interested in the abstract pattern of reflections on the water, captured in a split second. Or if your intention was to play with the viewer's expectations in regards to alignment of F and C (a huge post-modern trend.) In each case, how does the F make the C understood to the viewer? And what has been revealed to the artist during the painting process if F has led the way? These questions open up a rich source of critical thinking in regards to any work of art.
In my work, the medium and techniques I use lend themselves to rich, textured and nuanced surfaces, and these are in fact where I find inspiration in nature, and in the worn and weathered human environment. I like the way that the paintings are built up in layers and then eroded mimics the same processes in nature. So, overall I am pleased with the interaction of F and C in my work, while attempting to be alert for shifts in either that are less than successful.
The painting above, Markings
, is one of several large panels I've been working on lately. (It is 54"x36'.)