Friday, February 27, 2009

"Compose yourself, please"

“The creation and destruction of harmonic and 'statistical' tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consonant and 'regular' throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only 'good guys' in it, or eating cottage cheese.” – Frank Zappa

There are mornings like today where after only four hours of sleep it feels like slowly padding out on a flaccid (placid) sea on a surfboard, hoping a wave will come along. That’s when the quadruple-shot mocha at LuLu’s saves the day, plus I really enjoy chatting with other early-risers at the cafĂ©, much different vibe than the rest of the day, which I think is closely related to the “clean slate” phenomenon I rely on with art. There is even a current student that was experiencing some speed bumps in this class with frustration, and it looks as if the simple act of getting up and to work at an extra early hour of the morning is really helping with focus and clarity.

Thursday we did a compositional exercise based on an antique assignment swiped from one of the classic “Famous Artist” assignments from the fifties. I give each student a photocopy of four elements to arrange within a picture pane. I stress the experimentation with the panel border as well, to try extreme rectangular format for example, horizontal and vertical, instead of staying with the square.
The items are hilariously (out)dated, but have the advantage of actually giving the students all the pieces that are required for the completed drawing, nothing has to be made up and they can just simply copy the provided art. This'll have the result of reinforcing the idea that one doesn’t necessarily have to be an excellent drawer if you can compensate for your weaker skills with novel and new solutions through composition and/or content (like a unique idea).
So they have 10/15 minutes to knock out four different roughs all on a sheet of 18x24” newsprint using pencil. I walk around pushing them into making some suggested modifications, and select one of the four compositional sketches for them to next work up an another full sheet of newsprint, this time using charcoal (and a blending wad + eraser), which they then have another 10/15 minutes to complete. After that we all gather around the main table and we go through each of them, comparing & contrasting the range of different solutions to this visual problem.Now there really isn’t any “wrong” way to do this, just varying degrees of creativity, which may or may not make for a better resolution to the problem. For the first set, using a body of water, a rock, a mountain and a boat, the overwhelming majority stuck with safe, traditional arrangements. When I demo a few completely radical compositions by, for example, pushing to the extreme elements in the foreground, or changing the camera angle to say a bird’s or worm’s eye view, and utilizing dramatic foreshortening, overlapping and perspective to push the elements around into different and more interesting compositions, some light bulbs start to go off. By adopting the role of an art director, where the class is something like employees working at a studio hired to accomplish this task, and they can integrate ideas from each other and edit/rearrange/combine concepts to make for a much better finished product.Then it’s back to the drawing boards for the second set of roughs, this time with the woman, table, lamp and door. Same drill as before, but this time I really emphasize pushing the compositional ideas even further, get wild, get weird etc. And so with the added benefit of hindsight from the first round, this time the students started to catch on to the concept, and really reached out for some creative approaches. Pieces that begin to suggest a narrative begin to emerge, like domestic violence, crime-noir, mystery or just plain crazy shit that made for some laughs, plus a couple safe, simple arrangements that were nevertheless attractive because they were just well or beautifully done. I again demo out a few more past favorites, such as one with the entire tableau being reflected through a zoomed-in shot of the woman’s eyeball.

After the review of this batch, we can then double back and apply these newfound observations to Tuesday’s “studio studies” which were tacked up on the wall at the beginning of today’s class. Virtually all the pieces could be greatly improved with the same exact process that we just went through in these two exercises. The final nail I hammer home is how all of these principles can and should be directly applied to their next, upcoming critique piece, racheting up the expectations just a wee bit.

Then just for the hell of it I do a condensed version of the same lecture I gave the night before on Images of the North; infusing their work with a sense of place and reflecting a connection with where they’re at, plus exposure to and discussion about a few key artists and their work.

It was also disconcerting to note the absences of a couple promising talents, as their own work will now be at a distinct disadvantage compared to the rest of the class that had the benefit of some very important lessons. Handicapping themselves in this way doesn’t do anybody any favors - that’s why attendance is mandatory! But regretfully also many of the ones present will elect to ignore what was gone over and pointed out, and also suffer poor results in their pieces as a result. But aside from the constant harping and sounding like a broken record there isn’t much else I can do at that point as a teacher, except shift more time + energy to the encouraging successes of the students who demonstrate their learning by producing some impressive work.

“Simplicity is complexity resolved” - Brancusi

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