My goal when I started writing this series of essays was to create a comprehensive artist statement. I wanted to write as much as I could about my art practice and my ideas about art so that I could situate myself within the contemporary art world and see where—or if—I fit in. This writing process comes after my first substantial period of studio work since I finished art school. Between completing my university studies in studio art in 1992 and moving to England to accompany my wife as she began graduate school, most of my time has been spent making a living rather than making art. The art practice I had in those years was intermittent, distracted, and rarely sustained for longer than a few weeks at a time. Six months of focussed studio time from the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2006 has led to the creation of what I believe is my strongest body of work to date, a series of over forty-eight digital pieces titled Encounters.
In the background of this recent creative intensity I also did a great deal of reflection about what it is to be an artist and what my work is about. After making the art came my desire to clarify and write about the ideas that had been circulating in my head in the studio, which is another reason why I started this writing process. This was followed by the desire to be done with the damned writing already, so that I could get back into the studio. Parts of these essays began as reflections on the process of writing, which I posted to my blog in the early stages of this writing project. Others came out of the documentation process and writing I did in the spring of 2006 for my Crossroads sculpture and video project from 2002. I apologize to those readers who have read either the Crossroads report or the blog posts, and hope that the repeated ideas from those documents are now more polished or comprehensive than in previous incarnations.
As with any artist statement, I hoped that I would be able to put my ideas into words that would make it easier to talk about what my work looks like and what it’s about. I wanted to do so in a way that would be reasonably clear to anyone, regardless of their background in the arts. I also wanted to write down a few polemics against some of the trends I dislike in contemporary art.1 When I began writing I started with some basic notes, then added to the notes with some research. The notes and research continued and grew until they were much larger than an artist statement. I hadn’t realized that I had so much to say. I was surprised after each edit to see the size to which this document had grown, considering an artist statement is supposed to encapsulate the artist’s ideas about the practice in at most a few pages rather than weighing in at almost forty thousand words as does this collection. The finished artist statement itself is not included in this collection. Instead I have chosen to put it at the beginning of the companion volume to these essays, 8 Bodies in 12 Years: Images and Sculptures 1994-2006. That volume started as an appendix to these essays but evolved into larger and more comprehensive look at the art works I have made over the past twelve years than would have fit into an appendix format. I highly recommend looking through 8 Bodies in 12 Years in tandem with—or prior to—reading the essays herein as I describe specific bodies of work and the motivations behind them in more detail than would be possible here. Parts of the core ideas of my artist statement are scattered throughout the essays in this book, and are summarized in the first paragraph of Essay 1 (Imagery).
Because my work has connotations of spirituality—and because I’ve wrestled with how to talk about such a topic without being tagged with any of the assortment of dismissive labels that the word spirituality can attract—I began my research by reading Roger Lipsey’s 1988 book An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. I added readings in a number of areas of postmodernist critical and cultural theory, post-colonialism, and other such academically-fashionable areas, as well as responses to these. I also got my feet wet with a bit of East Asian philosophy, specifically the classical aesthetics of China and Japan. Though some of my reading included material and research new to me, much of it was a refresher course covering ideas I’d studied many years ago. In some cases it may appear hypocritical that I criticize the academic practice of creating binary comparisons while elsewhere using such terms as Western and Eastern. However I don’t see my use of these terms as a general comparison of East versus West in binary opposition. I use such terms to indicate specific areas such as Western art, Western philosophy, and the East Asian philosophies specific to China and Japan that I mentioned above.
I’ve attempted to write and reference this document in a way that will hold up to academic scrutiny, but I’ve left in turns of phrase and colloquialisms that might be out of place in that sphere. I’ve done this in the belief that it is always better to choose clear and simple words that are easily understood when they say the same things as specialist language that is often difficult, especially when specialist language makes me sound like someone other than myself. Please make the appropriate mental substitutions if you think it will help. As well, some of my sources—especially certain websites (cough, Wikipedia)—may be perceived as lacking academic credibility. I’ve attempted to address this in Essay 13 1/2 (Sources and Critiques of Sources) which is more of a half-essay since it is less about art practice and more about the challenges of writing about the practice, hence the “1/2.”
Bear in mind also that it has been many years since I finished art school. Though I have not turned my back on learning and the pursuit of knowledge, my focus has gone to topics other than purely academic concerns. In this context, much of my academic worldview is stuck in the early 1990s, and though I realize that research has moved on, I have no great desire to become an expert on current academic discourse. I’d much rather spend my time and energy on studio issues—issues that create their own theoretical framework within and for my practice—than trying to understand the latest fashionable theories that may or may not be debunked and discredited in the future.
I’ve made what I feel is a decent attempt to describe my work, process, and the issues that inform it, using the information and tools at my disposal. If I go on at length about issues which were current fifteen years ago but are no longer the subject of violent academic debate, it’s because the seeds were planted during—but then ceased to be tended after—my time in academia. The fact that I didn’t pursue them to fruition is testament to their irrelevance to my practice. I suspect that this is common for artists such as myself who are primarily interested in practice and see much of the academic focus on theory as a kind of distractive wheel-spinning. Regardless, I welcome well-reasoned comments and critiques of what I have written here, as well as corrections.
It has not always been an easy task to make sense of the ideas that I’ve looked at in my research and then put them in context with my work. In most cases it was not a matter of trying to find theories to latch on to as much as it was overwhelmingly an attempt to find correspondences to my own thoughts and work in the writings and ideas of others. And of course, a lot of my energy went into trying to understand those who might disagree with my conclusions or get sidetracked from the content of my words by my context or methodologies.
- I’ve pulled most of the polemics out of this document because they are not directly related to my practice. They form a sort of background noise that usually gets drowned out when I’m working in the studio. Taken together, they total over six thousand words, which I plan to edit into a future paper or papers. ^