Art can communicate so many different things, that’s why often it is so hard to actually read what the artist themselves are thinking about with their artwork.
It can also be super hard to figure out what the artist is thinking about, because what they are talking about could be easily read, or it could be obscure, or it could be completely in the head of the artist, or in the actions of the artist rather than in the resulting work. That’s why I would encourage anyone confused by art to either read more about the artist, and their work, or to talk to someone, preferably the artist, about what is going on. I would also suggest that this communication with the artist, is a two way street. Not only can you learn from the artist, but the artist often learns, and gets further inspiration for future works from the conversations they have, from viewers of the works. And as I always say, Art is about communication. Something we sometimes forget how, or are too scared or embarrassed to do. Believe me when I say that I believe that for far too long Art has tried to be more than it really needs to be. That artists, critics and other Arty people have tried to make Art more intellectual than it really needs to be, and have almost made Art into a cult. Either you are intelligent and enlightened enough to understand, or you are not. There is no learning, or interpretation. But this is so totally not what Art is for, and not what it is meant to be, and not what you have to accept or buy into as a reader of art, as an artist, or as a person in society at all.
But anyway, we get to a question then:
So what do artists create work about??
Here are some things, and some examples of work:
- The work might purely be a representation of what the artist is seeing. A record.
Artist: Michelle Bellamy
Michelle paints pictures that are pretty true to life. Her artworks, and the way she talks about and describes her artworks are in the sense of remembering and documenting a place. Sometimes artworks are purely designed simply to make a note of something that was, or is, there.
Usually works like this have an element of memory, story, and atmosphere, but often you will fine images like this are just as a record, more than anything else.
These are what I term as “bathroom art”. The kind of art that is easy, it is pretty, and unconfrontational. Personally, despite how beautiful, or technically perfect the pictures are, I just really don’t like art like this. I really prefer art that challenges me, that I keep finding new ideas, and thoughts in, and that I can learn a new idea from, or a new way of looking at things.
- A memory.
Artist: Terry Redlin
Terry Redlin’s artworks are almost all based around the idea of memory, or nostalgia. They have a sense of a time past which was good and quiet and had plenty.
I really like nostalgia type works, and I believe they tend to be quite popular because they are easy, they are warm, they’re detailed, and they just quietly sit to be taken in.
Often the lighting and colouring in these sorts of artworks is important, and tends to be pretty dramatic. They tend to be sweeping vistas, and include some life, often in some kind of sudden flourish (notice how a lot of Terry’s artworks have the ducks flying away? It’s a little humourous actually.) And often they have children, men, or dogs in them, and usually include a warm and inviting home (I guess the home represents the woman…)
- A story.
Artist: Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Fragonard tells a story with this work, a pretty humourous story actually about a shepherd girl being pushed on a swing, perhaps by her betrothed, or someone else (a bishop). But as she is pushed she flies above her lover who is laying in the bushes, out of sight from the pusher, but well in sight to the girl on the swing, who looks at him, smiles and throws her foot high in the air, not only showing of her underwear (or lack of underwear as it would have been back in the day) but also throwing off her dainty shoe. You can’t help but complete this story, fill in the gaps of the love triangle, get to the conclusion of the story. There is so much action, the painting fells alive and moving through time and space despite being stationary as most paintings are, or were. You can’t help but imagine her lover sneaking to her side and delivering her shoe back to her with a stolen kiss and some sweet nothings whispered to her. You can’t help but imagine her sneaking to her lover and crying that she has to marry an older, uglier man who she does not love.
This is what Art can do. Who says you can only tell a story with words or multiple images?! Sure those things help, but with truely great art, stories will surely unfold in a single image.
Then again, you have art works that tell a story because they are cartoons or comics, or because they include words, or easy reference to stories you already know well. Story art is a huge category, but I find that real story art like this is hard to come by. Usually nowadays you will find art that tells a story only to make a point about something else. That said, most stories are told because there is a point to be made, so really, my point is moot.
- An artists feeling about the location or person.
Artwork: Make America Great again
Artist: Ashley “Illma” Gore
Most of us have, by now, seen this artwork. It’s pretty clear what is being said with it. And I probably don’t need to say anymore about it.
This is an example of someone portraying their feelings about a particular person. Usually they will relate the work to someone famous or in the spotlight somehow, but might also be someone portraying someone they love or are close to. Maybe trying to portray someone important to them in a light that will have people viewing the art in a way that remembers them fondly. It can also be a way of bullying towards someone else. And is opinion that is portrayed and not necessarily truth.
Most of the time, unless the image is to remember someone fondly, or to show how much someone means to someone else, the image will include some form of humour or irony. These artworks are often controversial, so humour is often needed to try lessen the blow.
This Donald Trump artwork, thought, is extremely blatant. (I secretly/ not so secretly anymore, love this artwork!!!)
- The emotional response to a location, place or thing.
Artwork: Café terrace at night
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
This painting by Van Gogh, and many others of his paintings show the emotional reaction of the artist to the location.
In this painting there are high contrasting tones of the warmth inside the buildings, and the terrace with the world in which Van Gogh stands to paint in the cold night completely alone and outside everyone else that is partaking in the scene. The painting is at once inviting and exciting and kind of like that scene in Santa Clause the movie, where the homeless kid is staring inside Macdonalds at happy people eating their burgers and slurping their drinks. Sort of like a yearning for what he can’t have. Completely alone and forgotten in his world.
One interesting side note about this, there undoubtedly would have been people passing close by him, and probably stopping to talk to him about what he was doing and painting. So this world that Van Gogh paints is actually a world of a own creation, and reflective of the state of mind, and position in society that he felt he occupied.
- An expression of movement.
Artwork: Nude descending a Staircase
Artist: Marcel Duchamp
This artwork is literally all about the physical act and beauty in the movement of how someone descends a staircase. At the time this was created and when Duchamp submitted the work for exhibition it was declined (or not declined, but declined if it was to stay the way it was). This painting with it’s depiction of motion, particularly because that was the only intention of the painting or at least the main reason for the painting, was considered to be too far outside the cubist method (which was the group that he submitted to at the time).
A lot of artworks will contain some type of motion in them, for example the swing, which we have already read about, or even statues such as David by Bernini (google it) or Apollo and Daphne by Bernini (google that while you are at it) both of these statues depict a motion, however the difference between Bernini’s statues (ironic as statue implies stillness, however Bernini creates statues that move, or seem to move) and Duchamp’s painting is that the interest for Bernini is the story. The movement only serves to reinforce the story, and the drama of the story unfolding. Whereas Duchamp’s work takes pleasure in the movement as opposed to anything else. the same could be said about Boccioni and the mobiles of Alexander Calder.
- An expression of and interaction with space.
Artist: Richard Serra
Serra’ artworks, among other interests, are interested in the relationship the artwork has with the space it is in, as well as the relationship the viewer has with the space, and to create an interaction, and greater awareness of the space the viewer views the work.
In this artwork the viewer themselves are crucial to the understanding of the work, in that if they do not actively participate in walking around, through, over, on, and maybe even sometimes under an artwork then there is no meaning to be gained from the work. But also the artwork itself relates to the space in which it is in. So if Serra were to decide he were to exhibit this work in a big open field the space would have a different impact to what it has in a white, expansive, but relatively small setting compared to the fairly large size of the work. So the question here is that of if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, did it make any noise… but here we are asking, if no one interacts or considers the artwork and the relationship it has with the space, does the artwork still have a relationship with the space it is in?
- Life and or death.
Artwork: Monument (Odessa)
Artist: Christian Boltanski
Boltanski’s installations, films and artworks talk about life and death, about memory, and about lives living on. There is a real sense in his works that what he is referring to is the Holocaust so his works do relate to collective memory, and collective loss.
His works seem to be very shrine-like, and the photos he uses are fuzzy, showing the sense that memories fade, and change Over time, but also suggesting that while memories fade, and change this is just a continuation of the story of person who has left us. Almost like they are living through the new life that we, when we remember them, impart onto them. So that one can never really know exactly what was true and what wasn’t.
I would also be inclined to suggest that his works force us to reflect on life. When we are faced with mortality, is natural for us to recognise our own mortality and to reflect on it, and on how short life is and suggest to us that we should live our lives while we have it.
Artist: Tehching Hsieh
Hsieh’s work talks about a lot of things actually. But all of the pieces are completed as performance works over one year or longer periods and discuss subjects such as time, suffering, struggle, and marriage.
In this work Hsieh spent one year punching a time sheet every hour on the hour for an entire year, and taking his picture after ever hole that was punched. He had shaved his head prior to the start of the project, so the slow growth of his hair showed the passing of time. The video of the performance has been broken down into a 6 minute piece that you can view on YouTube.
- The artist’s state of mind.
Artist: Frida Kahlo
Obviously Frida had to be the place holder for this type of artwork. And most of us know her history, and about her art. But if not, Frida when she just a young girl experienced a horrifying bus accident in which she was impaled on the barrier of the bus.
Following the accident a lot of the images focused on her reality. A lot of people cite her as a surrealist artist, but she would deny this claim. Although her artwork does seem quite dream-like, the images she paints are more representative of her feelings, emotions, and pains, rather than some kind of a dream.
When trying to express the state of your own mind there are certain challenges in making people understand, that the artist faces. How do you truly make someone understand something that is so personal to you?And knowing that everyone experiences feelings, and situations differently it is virtually impossible to truly get across what you really mean. Frida’s artworks succeed because she is blatant, and fearless about what she chooses to include and leave out of the works. She uses story and metaphors like the pro she is. And her artwork is raw. Her style is clear, and overt, and yet there seems to be a roughness about it. The perspectives, and shapes, and colours are a little off. But this really does just add to the understanding of her mental state.
When an artist is portraying extremely personal stories, nothing can be unconsidered, and nothing can be left to chance. artists need to consider everything, from the colours, to what is included and left out of the work, how the work is displayed, and the painterly techniques that have been used.
- The state of society.
Artist: Andrew Moon
Moon’s artwork does tend to be pretty overt, and it is taken from an old master, Caravaggio, who, himself, talked about some pretty heavy things, and painted in a highly dramatic style.
This work, and most of Moon’s work discusses, domestic life, and the world we now find ourselves in. The genius of Moon’s work is in the fact that it is easily relateable to our society as it is now, but also humourous, and makes you think for a moment “nah bro, that isn’t how it is”, that is, until you look again, and realise that you are so recognisable in these images, that at one time or another you have acted like this, behaved like that, that you actually are like this. So in their comic nature, they bear a truth that we can only agree to when it is put to us in a humourous way. The same way that comedians make their jokes work for us. We laugh at ourselves, because it is put in a way that we can recognise ourselves, but can deny, for at least a moment, that we do have some recognition in what is said, or portrayed. And it is the obsurdity of what we are made out to be coupled with the fact we have denied for a moment that is how we are, that makes these works so true and eye opening.
- Comments on Art itself.
Artwork: The treachery of images
Artist: René Magritte
Ceci n’est pas une pipe means “this is not a pipe”. You would be tempted to say yes it is a pipe. But no, this is merely a picture of a pipe.
This is the conundrum that Magritte puts to us in a lot of his works. He questions that which art can portray to us, and that which it never can show us, and then he paints the thing that is hidden from view, by the very nature of the art itself. He aims to make clear to us the limitations of Art or of sometng that represents sometng else, and sometimes he goes so far to talk about that which a person can never know.
The humourous and almost absurd comment, this is not a pipe, forces the viewer to look again, and question ok, what is it then that I am seeing? When you recognise that this is not a pipe because it is an image only, you are forced to appreciate that images are always going to be limiting. They are always going to be deceptive in some way, and they will always conceal something.
- Comments on the medium that has been used.
Artist: Severija Inčirauskaité-kriaunevičiené
Most textile artists love the process of making art out of their chosen material, but not only do they love the process, but they love to challenge the ideas about that particular material and process.
Often textile art that is looking to comment on, and explore. Particular material or media will combine often surprising media to really challenge previously held notions of that material or medium.
Fabric art usually has the objective of challenging previously held notions because of the fact that embroidery, and fabrics have historically, and commonly been seen as being feminine, and a craft rather than Art. Textile and fabric artists are nowadays trying to challenge this notion and you will find them early playing with the medium of Fabrics and stitch. Combining them with surprising complimentary materials, such as Severija has done here with the dainty cross stitch of something not pleasant, with an old Tin Can.
But artists often explore the media they are using and what it can do, what it feels like, what can be combined with it to make it more interesting. so ts exploration of medium is not limited purely to textile art. All types of artist do, or should be considering the media they are choosing. And most, will be exploring the media, while they explore their chosen subject or idea.
- Comments on a particular cause, or social issue.
Artwork: Do women still have to be naked to get into the Met. museum
Artist/s: The Guerrilla Girls
The Guerrilla Girls are a group of female artists that produce art on the subject of gender inequality.
Their art seems to be more along the lines of Marketing or Advertising techniques, and consists of billboards, stickers and things like that which raise awareness for their cause. They are considered activists more than anything else, but they are also artists in the way that their art challenges and confronts.
Art can be very challenging to people who view it, and so actually creating art to make a point for a cause is very effective. people will view art and they usually will expect to be thinking about the artwork and the message. So for the viewer to be in a frame of mind to consider something that they are seeing, when they see it, means that if you have a point to make, the viewer will already be trying to find it.
- Comments on the process of creating.
Artist: Niki De Saint Phalle
I would suggest with this one finding her video on YouTube because this particular artwork is actually about the process of creation. like Jackson Pollock De Saint Phalle explores the process of creating artworks. She has created a sculptural base which she has filled with areas of paint, she then invites people to join with her in shooting at the Artwork, both destroying the work, and completing it.
This act questions whether in the pursuit of capturing the idea into a viewable form, whether you actually destroy the idea itself, or whether you actually complete the idea by bringing it to the foreground. It also begs the question is it the artist that creates the artwork, or the person who comes to it, and adds their meaning to it. Or, in fact, does adding your own meaning to the artwork actually destroy the original idea, or add to it.
The main idea behind this work, though, is the creation of the piece of art itself. This is why it has been video-ed and why the physical artwork itself is less important than the recorded act of creation.
- Comments on what art should do.
Artwork: Trafalgar Square
Artist: Piet Mondrian
Mondrian worked to simplify objects down to their simplest forms using only lines, blocks of colour, non-colours and primary colours.
His idea was that people get caught up in the look and physicality of things, so he was trying to simplify the things down to their basic underlying spiritual selves. his intention with art, and then his encouragement for a whole new design style, was that on we start to see things in their most basic spiritual forms, we will no longer need art itself.
A lot of times I hear people talking about art such as this, saying things like “That’s not art.” “I could do that”. And they never really take a moment to think about what that piece of art is doing. It is totally ok to not know immediately, or even after a long time what the hell is going on (to be honest, I, for years, had no idea what this artists and loads of other art was about) but what is not as ok is stopping your curiosity. Stopping the will to find out. Once you get yourself past the “I don’t know, so I don’t care” thing. You can start to learn something. To open your mind to new thought processes. and new connections.
- Record of a person.
Artist: Jeff Stultiens
Most portraits are as records of people, as are most photographs. They are intended to give a sense of the sitter, but usually it is to preserve the sitter in all their glory.
This particular painting of the Queen, is designed to add life to her so that even when see dies (if she ever does, good job your highness) she will be remembered with life and in colour, notice how vibrant she looks in this painting. There is a glow about her, and she doesn’t look tired or weak at all. She appears like she could stand up and command her country back from democracy at any moment (not that she would, but just that she is strong and powerful, even though she is old, even when she is dead). The point being that her memory must live on, and it must be remembered in a certain way, that lives up to the way she lived.
This portrait, although it does all of that, it is also very carefully painted to be extremely accurate as to what she really looked like. Images like these, and of these sorts of important figures, particularly ones with lots of records of them, need to look basically the same. Important historical figures do not want there to be confusion around who they were or what they looked like, images must be consistent. Because do not think that they are important historical figures by chance. No way! They are historical figures by careful design, planning and execution. Even though they might be born into the role, like the Queen.
- The essence of a person.
Artist: Shannon Novak
Novak’ artworks are designed to capture, in an abstract way, the essence of a person, and their rhythm and what they are about.
Personally, I find these artworks very difficult, but I imagine that if I was someone like Polly Gillespie, who has synesthesia (when someone sees things as colour rather than shapes and their true form) then I imagine these artworks would make more sense to me.
Either way they are quite beautiful, and do seem to capture something, and do give a sense of rhythm or music, but for me they were quite difficult artworks to really understand. When I saw these displayed at the NZ Portrait Gallery on Wellington’s waterfront, I stood and stared at them for such a long time. I tilted my head, I stood on one foot (no, not really) but I just didn’t get it. That is until I read the blurb about the artworks, and then went back and had another look.
That’s when I got the theory, but not the person so much. I think I would need more time with the artworks to begin feeling the person portrayed. And perhaps listening to the music accompaniment would help.
- And the list goes on…
As you can see, Art really does open up the opportunity to discuss anything. And as you can also see, it isn’t particularly clear exactly what is being talked about in all works. That is half the reason why there really is no one interpretation as to what the work is about, and why you should always engage with the work, express your thoughts and ideas. And why the Jargon is irrelevant.