Wednesday, March 18, 2009

“Get A Grip”

“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” - Max Reger
First up this morning was a review of Assignment #3: “Personal Still-life” graphite + wash on Bristol. The ensuing discussion took well over an hour, and was extremely insightful and rewarding. There were some amusing and interesting narratives represented by the selection of elements in these still-lifes, and the little backstories offered up to explain the significance of particular objects, along with the requisite mix of bibles & booze. Plus the experimentation with both a new substrate (the Bristol) and a new medium (wash pencils) yielded some successful pieces, even if about half of the class was definitely unhappy and frustrated with this different tool. Personally I was really pleased with the overall level of quality that everyone put up; even the few that still didn’t technically follow the directions (despite numerous verbal reminders, samples of previous works by former classes and a clear, simple handout – there’s only so much one can do short of holding their hands) (and I have my doubts about even that) still displayed clear and satisfactory progress with their abilities. Tired as I was, I still felt elated, and have high hopes for Thursday’s critique pieces. They’ve had an inordinately long time to prepare for it, and we are at the half-way mark for the semester, and by now they should be well aware of what’s expected. The quality of their work should reflect all this, woe betide the slackers at this point.

Speaking of, the final hour we spent working up a rough pencil sketch based on their reference drawings done in the greenhouses of the Organic Composition. It was a last chance for me to personally oversee the stages of completion at least with arrangement of the primary compositional elements, and give some final advises in order to head off any potential disasters, or offer support and encouragement. There are some very clear divisions in the class as far as who needs more attention and who can be entrusted to their own devices.
This was also to instill the need for them to really start paying closer attention to these sketches, which they will begin to rely on more and more, especially with the upcoming series of field trips that will be directly using material from their sketchbooks to complete the next round of assignments. And since time will be of the essence, they won’t have the comparative luxury to indulge in long studies of the subjects; it will become essential to sharpen their skills at observation and visual note-taking. So with continual practice on training the eye and honing both their sketching technique and speed, we’ll soon be up to the task.

Prior to the assignment review, I passed out blank index cards and had everyone in the class write down the following phrase: “These marks on a piece of paper stand for something I‘m trying to communicate.” The cards were then stuck up on the wall along with the homework pieces, and used to emphasize the philosophical point on the development of individual and unique styles. Point being, at it’s simplest, the little graphic symbols that stand for letters, and in turn represent words with meaning, assembled into a linguistic context, are on the same continuum as their larger-scale drawings. That is to say, what aspects work or are not as effective at clearly expressing the intended meaning of these pieces? What particular method or skill can be or is being utilizes to communicate the content of the work? For example; if an undefined, blobular mass is supposed to be a shirt, how can using contour line and gradients of value help to better define the form and bring it to the level where an objective viewer understands what it’s supposed to be? This is the equivalent of sloppy handwriting, misspelled words, or in the case of this blog for example, poor grammar can influence or even hinder comprehension; at some point another person is going to have to read your words and get what you’re trying to say.

Comparing and contrasting the range of different approaches to this problem is interesting in an abstract way, but I think it also has direct bearing on the challenge of creating successful drawings as many of the same, underlying principles can be applied. I’ve mentioned in passing before how the undiluted, unedited and unscripted reaction to writing something down is an unconscious display of what is called “style.” Getting one’s artwork to reflect the same instinctive and unfiltered process is a challenge that is worth contemplating and studying.

The majority of the time spent teaching I’ve maintained that “I can teach anybody to draw” with the only possible caveats being willingness + basic cognitive function + dexterity to manipulate a drawing instrument. Another mulling that’s been gnawing at the edges of my awareness is the relationship between physical dexterity and execution of these marks we make. There’s something I’m curious about whenever I lecture about the finesse behind sketching and the corresponding and mundane observation of how different people actually hold their instruments. I’m unfamiliar with, but not ignorant of the field of “handwriting analysis” and remain skeptical of its claims. But still, I wonder if there is anything there worth investigating, at least as far as how it would overlap into art - to be sure, there is more than enough research interpreting art therapy, which I’ll also save for later. Honest, I try not to use the classroom as my own private lab to experiment on with crazy ideas.

Almost everyone can relate to the childhood trauma of some teacher mercilessly drilling how to “properly” write; this I believe is an extension of the very same issues some folks have when confronted with the exercises in drawing later on. How much is cause and effect I have no idea at this point, but there must be some connection. This isn’t to say it is necessarily a handicap in any way, as there are some fantastic contortions and as many radically unique methods of achieving the same result as there are different styles of drawings, even within this small sample group. And there are may examples of artists over history who have compensated, adapted or overcome their own personal physical situations and achieved incredible results, which is a humbling inspiration. As for why I’m focused on this peculiar detail now and what it will ultimately lead to, who knows; at the very least it’s one of those quirky little things that piqued my interest a few semesters ago, and ever since then I’ve been meaning to learn more about.

Over our break we went down to the UAF gallery and checked out the BFA exhibit of James Stugart’s work titled “Emotive Lessons.” There’s a definite sense of excitement and almost one-upmanship evolving in the department with the quality of successive shows opening up; each one seems to push higher and display more and better works than the last. Stugart was actually on hand in the gallery, putting up some finishing touches, and was able to entertain random questions from our class. As a side note it was worth pointing up the fact to my students how he’d somehow managed to pull off an impressive show while juggling other classes, working a job, and participating in his seventh year ice carving as well – quite the phenomenal output.

“We artists stick ourselves out. This in itself deserves respect.” - Robert Genn

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