Friday, July 23, 2010

Towards The Development of a Terminal Site: Artist's Statements

"It's a Trap!"

I spent the morning working on a couple applications. One was for the Guggenheim's YouTube show. I decided to submit the short test I did with the help of my digital animation friend Teddy Gage Spiral Jedi. I misread the instructions on the submission. I thought they wanted a thousand words - turns out they only allowed a thousand characters (spaces included). Rather than throw away 4,447 carefully arranged characters I thought I would use them as a post, but I have a reservation. I am always interested to read artist writing, but I very seldom enjoy reading artist statements. They tend to sound bloated and pretentious - my own included - it's the nature of the beast.

There are a few I like. Jackson Pollock's Guggenheim Application is a great one: "I intend to paint large movable pictures that will function between the easel and mural."   I like that he uses such plain language, that he says pictures.  Mostly I like how short it is. The one Carl Andre wrote for Frank Stella's black paintings, Preface to Stripe Painting is even shorter than Pollock's:
Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting. Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting. Symbols are counters passed among people. Frank Stella's painting is not symbolic. His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting.
That's the whole thing. It reminds me of the writing lesson in A River Runs Through It: "The art of writing lay in thrift." I don't at all subscribe to that notion myself, but I do admire it in others.

My all time favorite artist statement belongs to the artist Tom Friedman, who, for a solo show he did in 2000, wrote a bullet point history of the future. It was a complete non sequitur - bonkers. I remember wishing I had done it myself. Friedman's inspired a long assemblage of quotes and images that I posted a while back on the subject of the Singularity. I also posted it in its original undiluted form because it was not available anywhere else on the web. (I typed it in using the original Xerox I got from the gallery -  all these years later it was easy to find, because I keep it pinned to the wall above my desk.) Amy Sillman's Some Problems in Philosophy is a great recent example of this same sort of left field triangulation.

Artist statements are easy to make fun of, but we are required by gallerists, institutions, grant giving bodies, residencies, etc. etc. to submit artist statements. And, for an artist who not lucky enough to have had anyone else write about their work, it is often their only opportunity to give their work context. In addition they sound the way they do because we are usually given a ration of shit if we try to submit something unconventional. But truly that is not the problem, the problem (especially for younger artists) is that most of us love to write them (artist who don't out grow that impulse start blogs).

Something I realized after reading Friedman's non-statement was that artist statements are traps - viral mindworms akin to earworms. My friends and I would spend days at a time writing and rewriting these things, passing them around, asking for input, editing sentences over and over in order to strike exactly the right tone, allude to the smartest theories, contextualize our work within the most compelling contemporary work - on and fucking on. All in an effort to make them sound like the ones we picked up in the galleries. The nightmare was that they all ended up sounding drearily the same.

I was already aware that I had caught the writing bug, but I was also aware that I was pouring that energy into writing and rewriting a single statement. I decided to write about and talk about my own art as little as possible. I did an artist lecture for the Brooklyn museum in the aftermath of Friedman's essay were I never mention my own work - I talked about the conventions of sculpture as conventionalized expressions of authority as I toured a group through the museum's Egyptian art collection (one of the best in the world).

I did my first text-based show Indicator Spaces less than a year later. That text never mentions me, in fact I made a fetish of avoiding personal pronouns. All of the artist lectures I have given since have been about art, not my art, or at least not all about my art - you are expected to introduce your self and your work - but as much as possible I talk about art in general. And now I do this blog.

I understand that artist statements are a required part of the gig, and I have a couple simple ones I keep on file. I usually ask that my artist statement be kept private. If that won't do, I do my best to make them fun to read (and write).  My best effort was an assemblage of quotes I made for a show a couple years ago. For those interested, you can see it here

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