Wrestling with the Omnibus Artist Statement

This week and last I’ve been busy trying to write an artist statement. I started with some notes, and then some research, and now a deep sense of doom and futility. Why? Well, an artist statement is supposed to encapsulate the artist’s ideas about their practice in approximately one page. Mine is currently running to about 15 pages. Single spaced. At last count it was about 7500 words. It’s about evenly split into thirds: one-third of that is quotes from texts I’ve been reading, one-third is my responses to the quotes, and one-third is stuff that I’ve come up with independent of quotes. Add to that another couple of pages of miscellaneous notes, lists of terms to define, and subjects for further research, and you can get an idea of the unwieldiness of it all.

The sheer size of the work is intimidating, to the point that I’ve written two “Creative Difficulty Statements” in relation to it. One of them is a page on its own. A creative difficulty statement is pretty self-explanatory: its job is to list the problems and challenges that you’re facing in a creative work. Having summed up the problems and challenges you are facing, you are then supposed tackle the problems and challenges, thereby overcoming all of the “creative difficulties.” I learned about it from Lia—who assures me that the process works—but I don’t know where she got the idea from.

Anyway, compounding the problem of size, is some of the subject matter. As few of you know, I went to art school from 1988-1992, at a time when there was a great deal of flux in the art world—not that things are any less volatile now—at least there was with the art department at the University Saskatchewan. High modernist colour field painting was starting to wane in its influence, being gradually replaced with postmodernist practices that dealt with politics, race, gender, and the general anti-dead-white-man-ism of the generations it was attempting to supplant. I managed to steer clear of this and stayed willfully ignorant of the trends, isolating myself in the printmaking studio, where I felt that, if anything, I was at least practicing a craft that had applicability beyond immediate art-world trends. I had also found that none of the languages I was being trained in—pure abstraction, conceptualism, installation-based practices—was well-suited to the way I worked, or to the kind of work I felt compelled to make. I found that my work fell into unidentified territory between abstraction and what I’m going to call art vérité. Near the end of my program, I realized that printmaking was an art-world ghetto of its own, and that my work wasn’t primarily about printmaking—in my work I wasn’t really concerned with the formal issues of the various types of mark making that are possible in the various printmaking techniques. The marketing issues and advantages of printmaking weren’t immediately relevant to my practice either—and as such I haven’t done any printmaking since. Aside from digital stuff, but that’s a different animal.

Back to the postmodernist practices that I wasn’t interested in back in art school. As part of my preparatory research last week, I read Roger Lipsey’s book An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, published in 1988 by Shambala. My main goals in reading the book were to see what the critical writing on the subject of spirituality was like in an age when relativism was so popular, and to find out who, in the twentieth century, was considered to have made so-called “spiritual” art. These days the term has connotations of newageism, an absence of critical thought, and withfundamentalists declaring themselves as creators of faith-based communities, the term carries too much baggage for me to want to use it. The word is too vague to be useful. It would be like describing a restaurant menu as “Hot Asian.” How do you define it? Temperature? Spiciness? Popular with the trendy people? What part of Asia? And so on. In the same way, the term “spiritual” can be applied to my work, but I don’t see it as the core of my practice. Yes, I have a very contemplative practice, and I use otherworldly imagery. I also know that my work borders on “visionary” art but there’s another word that carries enough baggage to ground a 747. Using these words raises more questions than they answer, meanwhile reducing the credibility of anything that is said outside of discussions having to do with religion.

But I was talking about Lipsey’s book. While I found it interesting, I also found that it seemed to follow the standard modernist trope of tracing the course of spirituality in art from the perspective of pure abstraction. For reasons which were unclear to me, it ignored some artists whom I believe had a spiritual practice or aspects of spiritual exploration in their work. In any case, to balance this modernist perspective—and as a sort of “know thine enemy” strategy—I started reading a couple of source books in postmodernist thought. The main book I’ve been reading, is Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis, and published in 1984 by The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. I know it’s not comprehensive, but I knew I had to start somewhere. It’s heavy stuff. Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, among others. Hmmmmm… a bunch of French intellectuals. Are they white? Are they male? Are they dead? Maybe not at the time they were writing, but they sure write as if they have no connection to their bodies. I’m sure many of the others—Kathy Acker and Lucy R. Lippard among them—will be familiar names to those who care about this stuff. What I should have done first, was to consult Wikipedia, which gives an excellent overview of the topic. Oh well. Hindsight.

There’s nothing like reading a lot of critical writing from the 1970s and early 80s to give you a really strong sense of doom and futility. Nihilism does not make for a good anti-procrastination strategy. That, combined with my realization that a lot of the undercurrents in my work are strongly influenced by Asian ideas that I absorbed as a child, and that a lot of those ideas are attacked in contemporary critical theory as wooly thinking and/or cultural appropriation. Criticism that persists despite my strong—but often disputed—bias towards rationality and also despite my mixed ethnicity and upbringing in which the so-called appropriated ideas are from a heritage that is literally in my blood. And to add to that the fact that at this time of year I tend to dwell a bit more than usual on the fact one of the my valuable resources on the subject of Chinese mysticism is no longer available, has made it difficult for me to motivate myself. It may be time for another creative difficulty statement.

Or perhaps rather than strive for clarity, I’ll try to create more confusion. Male visual artist, born in Canada to Belgian and Chinese parents, also loves to cook. Expert in creating an alchemical mix of hot asian “dishes” in new spiritual combinations that are attractive to Eastern and Western sensibilities alike. Seeking patrons for tasteful show and tell. Your age, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are unimportant, but you must have a high net worth and available funds. If you’re ready to sample his digital manipulations, send your private jet Tasty. I wonder whether I should have bothered reading all of those French theorists after all.