Tuesday, February 24, 2009

“Now Your Work Has Depth”

Calvin: “People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist's statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.”
Hobbes: “You misspelled Weltanschauung.” - Bill Watterson

Post-script to yesterday’s post: I had attended my first ever BFA exhibition review by faculty as a member of the thesis committee (occasionally I hang out to observe). All the full-time teachers assemble in the department’s gallery (or as many as are actually around at the time) along with the candidate in question (who is usually pretty fried and nervous as hell by this point) to meet and review the body of work and question the student. Then the candidate leaves the room to wait outside while we discuss amongst ourselves the work it’s merits and shortcomings, culminating with a majority vote on whether the candidate receives a passing grade. Usually it’s a moot point by this stage; either they did it or not, pass/fail, but sometimes (rarely) the level of quality on display or the overall appearance of the exhibition will mean a lower grade than an “A”.

Jump-started the 5am morning with some fresh hand-ground coffee and a kick-ass live bootleg of a 2008 show by the Derek Trucks Band, with just enough time to peck out a brief outline of today’s roster of events (including this blog post) and compile The List of Things that Must Get Done. Also transferred random jottings of ideas that littered the floor next to the couch I passed out on last night into my sketchbook, where they’ll incubate until I get a chance to cull, edit & refine them into possible panels. Another mug of brew and peruse a dozen websites, check email, feed the critters and away I go.

I needed to get to class extra early today as I fell behind on grading the last critiques, and this batch required a wee bit more care with the personalized notes. And a bit of quiet time with the pieces helps to reorient myself to each individual student’s particular needs; trying to preserve that tricky balance between wanting to push them along or maybe put extra effort into their pieces versus not crushing their self-confidence, juggling false hopes & harsh reality. The grade spread from this batch went from 6 A’s (4-/1+), 4 B’s (2+/2-), 2 C’-s , and 4 D’s (3+’s). Once again, the low ends reflected simply poor presentation and execution – sloppy, careless work basically, with no indication of any time spent on the piece. A few folks I kept after class to go over individually what the specific points of improvement would be, should they care to rework and resubmit them. The high end went to a student that set the high bar for effort by doing two pieces/2x’s the effort (unrealistic for most, but still worth pointing to), along with a few other examples that I used to hammer home what I’m looking for while handing back the assignments(“see – THIS is what I’m talkin’ about, ok?”).

First up today was a comparatively quick review of the “Article of Clothing” assignment that was due after the weekend. Since we were working outside of the room for the in-class exercise later, no need to setup tables or easels, just pin up the pieces and do a pared-down mini-crit; what works, what doesn’t and why, suggestions for possible improvement, and then comment from the creator of said piece telling us some back-story on the chosen item if they have one. This brought up the topic of content, and how a work can be suggestive and evocative, containing a story or message that is above & beyond the basic criteria of craftsmanship, or can maybe be enhanced or sometimes restricted by the student’s choice of composition or even influenced by use of medium.
Like if it’s a sock, just that; a simple image of a sock without any concept or content, purely a formal, academic exercise in technique, is that then enough? What then if the “wow” factor is especially high, as in, boy that is a damn fine sock that obviously took hours of painstaking rendering to achieve a phenomenal level of craftsmanship. Additionally, utilizing interesting composition and careful rendering might elevate the perceived value of the work. Also we discuss the relative strengths & weaknesses on the usage of either charcoal or graphite, and what effect that has on the piece (the “Sock of Death”). To what degree does the execution of said piece hinder or accentuate an observer’s appreciation or facilitate deeper understanding (the “Sock of Humanity”)? What role, if any, does intent play a part? These are important questions to mull, and lets a little artistic blood in the water for chumming up a lively debate.

A side-note here in that last night while attending the opening I had poked my head in the classroom of another instructor who was teaching the Mon/Weds evening class, and they were in the middle of their own critique, so I got to peak at another parallel set of student efforts. And I scored a bonus swipe of her approach at critiquing which I integrated into this morning’s assignment review for my own group: breaking them up into three smaller groups of five each to critique five pieces from another group amongst themselves with minimal input from me. They were all charged with coming up with comments as outlined above, and then after about twenty minutes we went over each set of drawings as a class, and heard out each of the respective comments from different members of the original reviewing group, plus supplemental observations from myself and others. This approach was very successful and helped to encourage participation (thanks Laura!), and proved again that I as a teacher have to always be on the lookout for alternative techniques to adopt into my own routines. Back when I was in school, my main drawing instructor was fairly mundane and never really deviated from his set pattern, which had it's advantages on always knowing what to expect, but eventually became predictably, well, boring. I’ve had better luck constantly experimenting with variations on the theme over the years, and have learned much from my peers in the department.

A quick “break” during which we checked out the new exhibit in the department’s gallery (very positive response overall), and a cursory go-over of the controversial cartoon display I stapled up in the hallway a while back, which I suggested they review the excerpted comments afterwards at their leisure (speaking of ” chumming up a lively debate”).

Then we devoted the remaining class time (about an hour left at this point) to working up a rough study done in their sketchbooks taken from around the various art department studios. By default this helps to promote the range of other possibilities within the department, and before heading out I assign each student to the respective rooms based on their potential interests: painting, sculpture, metalsmithing, printmaking, pottery, native arts, and oh yeah, even drawing (though the point is to actually get them out of that familiar comfort zone into a new setting). There is sometimes a bonus situation if another student from a different class happens to actually be on-premise and working, or if on the offhand chance another class is in session they are expected to maintain a unobtrusive presence and maybe get an extra dose of learning while listening in the background. This actually doesn’t happen all that much since this class is the only one held at 8am, so the hallways and rooms tend to be pretty quiet, if not totally deserted (with the notable exception of the hardest working person in the department: the admin assistant).

What I’m looking for here is a sort of a sampler composition that takes aspects of each room and remixes elements into an illustration about that particular art medium. In other words, if painting is chosen, then tools of the trade like brushes, tubes of paint, easels etc. are depicted within a setting that uses linear perspective to establish a space (like on our familiar tabletop), plus a middle ground of objects (like our familiar interior spaces) plus a background window too (integrating the upcoming critique piece), and finally emphasis is placed now on adding value to their pieces (as per the article of clothing exercise). So in short, everything’s coming together (in theory, or in some cases, falling completely apart) in this exercise by applying what we’ve been rehearsing over the past few weeks, plus it’s a drawing made on the run - building off the experience with the landscape gestures from last week’s class.
Basing their roughs on reference taken from observation, we can begin to orchestrate a believable composition that literally illustrates the chosen field, After approval of their thumb (while also simultaneously reviewing the ones for their upcoming “Exterior” critique) they have the remainder of class time to complete on 18x24” drawing on good paper with charcoal a finished piece that we’ll review at the start of Thursday’s class. I make the rounds to monitor progress and encourage pushing depth in their pictorial planes, and offering encouragement, advice and comments on their process, and in a few cases, lambasting the slackers who didn’t have anything for me to look at. This is a part of the gradual tightening of the screws, where my expectations begin to rise along with the output and corresponding increase of their abilities.
I even went so far as to make an example of a particular piece during the assignment review which was done the half-hour prior to today’s class – that just doesn’t fly with me; above and beyond the simple fact that the piece looks like it was pulled out of their butt, I have absolutely no sympathy now when the work was assigned weeks in advance. So one more time I strongly encourage the students to immediately begin tackling assignments preferably the same night I hand it out, which would give them all that much more time to rework and correct mistakes, have me look it over, and the obvious investment of time and care it deserves.

“As for the degenerate artists, I forbid them to force their so-called experiences upon the public. If they do see fields blue, they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals, and should go to prison. I will purge the nation of them.” - Adolf Hitler

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