Ephemerama #15

A couple weeks ago I attended a faculty recruitment weekend at Rochester Institute of Technology. The weekend was designed to be a minority recruitment forum and intended to attract people of color to the university. It was a very nicely prepared and I had good and fruitful interactions during the week. For the recruitment weekend I had to prepare a paper with an abstract. The paper I wrote – ostensibly a long form artist talk –  summed up my intentions as an artists in away that I never did on paper before. I though that it would be nice for those who follow this blog to see excerpts from the talk and so I’ve divided the talk into three sections. What follows here in the first part are my thoughts on inspiration.

Questioning, Trusting in Feelings and Urges, Listening to Inspiration, Being Available, and Letting in the Current

When thinking about this topic I had a lot of questions about expectations. Those thoughts lead me to think about the value of questioning in the art process. When I think about making art inquire is just about the most immediate way to address immobilizing fear. Fear concerning reputation, achieving goals, satisfying potential, or correctly describing a richly decorated corner of imagination. Artwork produced from questioning and fear is like a child of two very different parents, a child made stronger from the conflict. Before I can question or begin to get scared about a new work I of course need to get inspired. Because I make work that appears to contain such a vivacious world I often get questions regarding where I come up with my ideas. I immediately think “do I tell them the short version or the long version”. Without getting to into the wonky particulars regarding the architecture of my hermetic universe I will say my urge to create is like an itch that must be scratched; and the inspiration is really just the hazy outlines of a need to be understood at some deep core level. By this I mean the inspiration acts as a means by which greater connection with other people can take place.

When a hazy inspiring idea takes root, my instincts often tells me to fight the urge. It’s a losing battle for me to satisfy every painting or drawing idea. And so I have to often stack and schedule my ideas, grouping and spacing them into large complicated or time consuming works and quick flinty drawings and small works. I often alternating between these two ideas. This is where questioning come into play because not every creative idea is equally useful and good. My time is valuable, and so many project ideas need to run a mental gantlet of almost utilitarian proportions before I make my move. Though I rarely expect to get to all my painting ideas I do trust after years of struggle that if I get the notion to do a work of art that notion represents a plausible and achievable artistic goal?

As a resource challenged artist I often have to think strategically about how to get inspired which is where obsessions take root. This usually takes place after completing a long body of work. When images coalesce around a particular topic or idea – usually initially triggered by music – I only decide to act when I can think of little else. I know that I need to move on an idea usually when I find myself casually daydreaming about that idea. Pause. Daydreaming keeps my desire to make new work alive, I highly endorse an active daydreaming life if you haven’t developed one yet.

Trends and Agenda, and relationship to unconscious inspiration

I make difficult, layered narrative but not always linear and rarely uniformly pretty but always beautifully complex artwork. Pause The process I use today emerged from graduate school when I felt like the fanciful landscapes I made at the time had nothing to do with me and were just objects of a sad escapism, riddled with longing and that did not reflect a fulfilling nurturing internal dialogue. So, starting as a very late devotee to abstraction I began by exploring tendrils dangles and threads, and positioning these strings in very formal almost naive compositions. My inspiration for this new artistic approach were my colleagues in graduate school especially my female friends working in fabrics printmaking and new media. Also I discovered contemporary abstract painters, particularly Terry Winters Brice Marden, Layla Ali, Cy Twombly, Gregory Amenoff and Johnathan Lasker. These contemporary artists and colleagues inspired me to develop a painting and drawing system which coalesced overtime into an elaborate narrative-rich hermetic universe from which most of the objects, shape and “characters” I create derives from. I call this narrative and image bank the “Red Wrath World”. The features of this dystopian world involve foreboding dark shapes, kingdoms which rise and fall, and hellish realms where creatures lurk and peacock. The most fascinating aspect for me about this world in my head is that its didactic, offering simple moral lessons even if in a dense visual format.

I offer this description because I think it relates to understanding the way my unconscious mind pores itself into the real world through my art. I tell people when they ask about my work, the density in it, that my work is dense because that is the way I see the world. The world for me is dark and complex, full of objects, opinions, shapes, experiences all of which my mind is trying to process in order to find harmony and meaning in all the confusion. I aim to paint like I see the world letting the viewer find his or her own harmony in these dense images I create.  I conger these complex scenes – full of emotional parsing – then I subject these concepts and images to a narrative moral framework which is then reinforced in the drawing or painting process by a rigid material application method. These process steps often lead me to unexpected places. I like to think of making sense of how inspiration turns into a finished work of art as similar to making sense of a vivid dream. People often feel there are messages in dreams and they try to respond them during the next day. However one’s response to that dream often takes them in a completely different place than is expected.

Deciding how issues in the culture at large enter my art making is similarly hazy. For instance I began my artistic career with an intention as I said before to create works which described a rich abstract and dense world that forced viewers and myself to do the parsing. (I still think this is a noble exercise creatively because I believe people learn something unexpected when they are forced to find the quiet spot in what seems to be a space full of noise). However lately I’ve felt the need for my cast of characters in my works to respond to the news of the day. The issues in the culture that I see slipping into my work, like a haze, have been race, and the politics of class and prestige.

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book “Between the World and Me”. Besides being a piecing critique of the realities of living as a black man in America, told through some very painful recollections of fallen friends and discrimination against the author, the book also speaks about dreamers. For the author these dreamers are Americans who feel the need to think of themselves as white in order to maintain a racial/social hierarchical system in the nation. However I take the term dreamer in his book to mean something more. I believe all of us who live by a concrete organizing philosophy rather than by evidence, are dreamers. As an artists whose bread and butter is retreating to his own hermetic space in order to create simpler moral narratives then what the world offers, reading about the consequences of dreaming from Coates’s book made me realize why I escape into my creative safe space. Channeling challenging choices or situations in life through the filter of the “Red Wrath World”; like the nature of romantic pairings in our times, or why it’s OK to use the “(n) word” for blacks but not whites, or why is there so much sex shaming for women and not for men, are all ways that I as a dreamer avoids directly addressing uncomfortable topics, situations and ideas.

Okay that’s the first part. In the next part look for excerpts from my R.I.T. artist talk detailing the current works I’ve been pursuing. Until next time here is an image of my latest drawing “Behold, The Loathsome Temple of Doom No. 2”.

Anthony Smith Jr, Behold the Loathsome Temple of Doom 2, 40 x 43 inches, sharpie marker, 2015

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