As I draw closer to my master’s thesis, this past residency has helped me create parameters in which to zero in on what matters most right now in my work. Specifically, I have come to recognize that the strength of my thesis will depend on how well I can synthesize formalism and conceptualism. To swing to either extreme will not properly communicate the sensitive, heavily laden, and potentially didactic themes that I am exploring.
Aside from a critique from Deb Todd Wheeler, who encouraged me to portray a fantastical world of solutions to global problems, all of my other critiques encouraged me to remain where I am, which is a state of observation. I am observing society’s buried grief and guilt. I am currently exploring the pathologies of melancholia and mania in society, which I feel are the result of an individual’s inability to properly mourn a current state of environmental collapse. It is my belief that once this overwhelming, inconsolable grief has become unbearable, the individual reaches for a distraction. Many kinds of distractions are available and encouraged by the capitalistic system (which is dependent on exploitation and unsustainable practices). The distractions numb an individual, and sometimes allow for an avoidance of accountability. However, once the numbness wears off, the individual will once again grieve not only the collapsing environment, but also might acknowledge his or her participation therein. Consequently, he or she may re-enter the state of melancholia, and the cycle begins anew.
This cycle interests me. In my critiques, I was advised to keep researching applicable psychological theories, to read environmentally informative articles, and to seek out other artists and writers who also grapple with similar themes. Conceptually, I keep experiencing the same road-block that a lot of fine artists who align themselves with politically charged influences come across. The road-block is the danger of turning off the audience with a “message.” If the message is heavy handed or righteous, it can seem didactic. The entrance into and exit from the work is brief, and afterwards is met with the dreaded “so what?” More specifically, it is “So, what can be done? Nothing.”
B. Wurtz and Ben Sloat both suggested I leave my concern for the environment out of it entirely, but I feel the work would flatten if I was to avoid my strong, fueling interests. My interests are broad, and my research wide. I have gone so far as to research the process of recycling plants, which both B. Wurtz and Sunanda Sanyal found fascinating. He said that my job as an artist is to find an artistic language in which I can process these challenging themes, but avoid becoming didactic or righteous. The environmental themes do not need to be obvious, nor do I want them to be. I want to respond to these themes, and to have the work reflect the emotions in both my materials and my artistic sensibility. I desire for my work to be engaging, not affronting. A successful thesis will embody all of these ideas.
To achieve this conceptually, I received a few suggestions. Deborah Davidson advised me to continue researching the important influences of plastic pollution and climate change related articles because they fuel my work. Stuart Steck advised me to look at the work of Damien Hirst because Hirst’s work explores notions of death and belief systems. Furthermore, I am interested in Hirst’s specific choices in materials and what those materials mean. Formally, his choices explore death, opulence, and hierarchical social structures.
A suggested artist by Davidson shares similar characteristics: Petah Coyne. I am drawn to how Coyne combines icons of mourning (taxidermied birds and flowers dipped in wax) with a grotesquely lavish, opulent, Victorian sensibility. Presumably, I will write a comparative analysis of these two artists in order to gain some insight into what drives them.
Sunanda Sanyal’s critique was challenging, pushing me to think beyond school. For my thesis, he felt that formally and conceptually, I am on the correct trajectory. However, after school, he feared I might run into problems. Sanyal feared that unless I was to fully explore and understand the politics behind my work, I would easily fall into pure aestheticism and symbolism (and thus didacticism). In other words, if I am to make work with a background in a political matter, I need to mine the reserves of information and fully understand them so that my work can continue to grow and change, rather than simply reduce itself by the limits of drawing and painting.
Although other professors advised me to continue with just drawing and painting, I do feel Sanyal has a point, and I see my work becoming more installation-based anyway. Accordingly, I intend to look at works by Hans Haacke, Eve Laramie, and Ai Weiwei.
Another insight from my critique with Sanyal was what I feel others have been warning me about when working with political matters. He said when you are an artist, it is very important where you situate yourself along the activist spectrum because the institutions and politics will tolerate your work only as long as it is benign.
I did disagree with Sanyal when he advised me not to get to fascinated with nature. My fascination with nature is the balancing component to my fascination with collapsing environments.
Formally, my critiques were all positive, though there were the warnings across the board for me to move away from the literal, decorative, and didactic formal imagery. I feel that Davidson nailed it when she suggested to make larger pieces that take over a bigger space, and to try different techniques with the Mylar. She and I agreed that the next interesting step is to combine the most favorable aspects of the different works brought to the residency. Fern Migdal and Nicole Uzell also echoed this formal desire. I agree, and am excited to finally break the limitations I have imposed on my work by keeping it on the wall. I keep seeing a cascading, decaying, fraying, growing, climbing piece made from plastic, paint, and Mylar. The obsessiveness and attention to detail, as well as the desecration of a perfectly painted image by cutting it, are all areas I intend to explore. I am going to produce four or five large pieces.
Cesare Pietroiusti offered the insightful suggestion that because my work incorporates both recycling and a transition from melancholia to mania, that I should consider the making/remaking process. He said that when we lose something, we create a symbol for what is lost. This idea also intrigues me. It might manifest formally in my piece as something changing from one thing into another.
As mentioned in the beginning of this summary, the blending of conceptualism and formalism, without falling too far to either side, is my goal this semester leading into my thesis. Informing my work are the issues of environmental collapse and plastic pollution, as well as the ramifications of unresolved, buried grief in society. A statement by Joanna Macy sums up my philosophy nicely. In an interview with Truthout, she says “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world”(Jamail). I would like my work to generate that response, if even subtly.
My thesis work will embody all of these complex ideas in a manic, melancholic, chaotically beautiful mess.