This morning I stopped by a local frame shop which shows my work, just to check in with the owner, and see how things were going. While there, I was introduced to an artist from the area, whose work I had seen a lot in local venues. She does very precise and detailed ink drawings, mostly of wildlife and images from ranch life and rodeo, done from her own photos. It sells very well around here, mostly in the form of giclee prints. When we were introduced, she mentioned that she was aware of my work, and proceeded to tell me that I am a really good artist (translation: I can draw), but that she could not understand why I use the subject matter and methods that I use. “You could paint a cowboy better than anybody,” she said. I replied that I’m not, in fact, a cowboy, that it would be dishonest for me to use subject matter that did not connect to my own life and sensibility, that technique for its own sake does not interest me, and that I prefer to draw and paint ideas.
“I just don’t see why you limit yourself,” she said, which prompted me to exclaim, “Limit myself? I paint whatever I want.” She countered that she just didn’t see why I don’t just draw a normal picture of a person once in awhile.
Well, actually, I do produce the occasional “normal” picture of a person; in fact, I spend a lot of time drawing the human face and figure from life, attempting, for the sake of gaining an understanding of Form, to treat them as “realistically” as possible. I suggested to her that if the bulk of my work aspires to be poetry, then life drawings are analogous to diagramming sentences. They are exercises for honing drawing skills and for comprehending the language of the visual. I try to treat them as completed statements, but they don’t have the same level of meaning for me that the rest of my images have.
I don’t think I was very persuasive, but it spurred for me an inner conversation that lasted all day, musing about people’s expectations of art, especially the expectations people have about what the work of a Wyoming Artist should look like. It reminds me of a conversation I had some years ago with a lawyer of my acquaintance, who told me he had hated English classes as a student, because he was always being asked for the underlying meaning, when he just wanted to enjoy the story. I protested that the underlying meanings ARE the story. For me, the poetic meaning is integral to the work, in art as in literature. Realism for its own sake deals only with what things LOOK like. I am more interested in what things ARE.
I have, from time to time, been tempted by the notion of doing purely representational work on themes that would be more saleable in Wyoming, where I live, but something in me resists. It’s not a desire to be poor; I enjoy selling well as much as anyone. Indeed, the risk of corruption by wealth and fame is something I’d very much like to try. But I think that there needs to be work that strives to see beyond the surface, that demands thoughtful response, that confronts rather than reassures, that aspires to be intriguing rather than reassuringly familiar. I believe that serious work should demand work from the viewer, should stimulate dialogue about meaning and substance.
I have no quarrel with people who paint for the sake of representation; I simply am not interested in painting only that way. In fact, the idea of limiting one’s self to any “style” or method or medium is anathema to me. I prefer to choose methods and materials in service of the idea. And… I like to play with form and color and texture and line and visual rhythm. However far I stray from literal representation, though, my work is always firmly rooted in the discipline of drawing; in that observation, at least, the other artist was right: I do know how to draw.