Confessions of an art student: Part 4
Triumph and disaster
Recently I was contemplating the distinction between origin and originality. I was reading Re-writing the Self by Mark Freeman at the time I was reviewing contemporary artist research for Major Project and how they influenced my own work.
I was horrified.
What I took to be my own work, the product of commitment to a process with no predetermined fixed point or predicted outcome, resulted in pieces that were strikingly similar to those out there in the world. In Confessions 3, my stretched self-portrait was indebted to Dr Who!
My acrylic transfer investigations parallel Charlotte Salomon acetate work;
My blackboard paint pieces the fixed lectures of Joseph Beuys,
Burning and blistering acrylic skins, for goodness sake, almost identical to the “Scheme for a Slaves Lament” by Graham Fagen.
The list goes on.
I had enjoyed the feeling of success, the boldness of inventiveness, the pioneering spirit of the avant-garde in the making phase. I felt I was exploring new territory and finding my own voice. But, upon review, I became quite, quite bleak about my lack of originality from investigations that originated from what I thought was deep inside and uniquely me. Only to discover it is not my own voice but apparently mimicking others.
Freeman’s Re-writing the Self had shown me that I was born into a world of words. A system of languages, signs and symbols, rules and regulations that defines and promotes the culture that shapes me. So immersed are we all that it is difficult to “see the circle because we are in the circle.”
That last phrase is not mine. Neither are the words I am typing and you are reading right now. Now. And now. The language I use to frame my so-called original thoughts are derived from a system agreed and shared before and beyond my existence. So how can I possibly hope to be original?
As creative beings we swim in a cultural ocean and such that immerses us on all sides beyond our ability to view. The whole canon of art historical antecedents have seeped by osmosis into the artist you are and the visual thinker I call myself. Van Eyck, Velasquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Salomon, Beuys and Fagen; all imbued with the emotional significance and influence of close friends to me. Heroes, role models and inspirations.
The phrase “triumph and disaster” is knowingly borrowed and re-appropriated from the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. It continues;
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”
In that lies resolution to my and possibly your conflict if you have felt like me – merely derivative, or crushed by criticism or overly-inflated by praise.
No need to be horrified at my apparent lack of originality. It is an imposter. I did not make a copy and even if I did the virtue of my uniqueness distinguishes it. No need to be smug at my staggering individuality. It is an imposter. Others have thought similar thoughts and come to similar conclusions. The fact is that we are all influenced beyond our ability to recognise it; but, what separates us is how we assimilate what we experience, how we internalise it and make it our own. Our rationale and purpose separates us. Our intentionality.
Salomon’s transparencies allow for flexible arrangements and layering of biographical text. Mine symbolise the need to be open and honest in personal disclosure through self-portraiture. Beuys lectures were deemed worth preserving by others. My blackboard piece speaks of a career terminated and the blackness of the fear of the new or the terrifying potential in a cosmos of unexplored creativity. Fagen’s “Schemes” document his dental arrangement in an attempt to encourage narrative speculation through ambiguity. My blistered images symbolising for me existential dread. Residue of a Catholic upbringing.
The similarities were only superficial.
If you scrape beneath the surface and attend to the rationale that informed the process leading to the conclusion. Two people may meet in the park at the same feature arriving there from very different routes.
May I encourage you to be true to your own process? Find your own rationale, impetus, drive, motivation or whatsoever-you-wish-to-call-it and if it leads to a similar outcomes don’t panic like I did. Have faith in the honesty and integrity of your own truth.
Treat any self-doubt, like the fear of failure or the complacency that comes with achievement with the suspicion rightly reserved for imposters.
In my latest work, Aidymandias, I have turned away from sight-based, observational drawing in an attempt to explore psychological self-portraiture. Uncovering the unconscious version self through automatism in an attempt to find something unique and uniquely me. I coat a surface I’ve textured with acrylic gesso with stains of diluted paint and let them pool and gather in the troughs. I am deliberately using an earth-biased palette; ochre, umber and sienna because of symbolism. When dry, I scry into the chaos and identify the images that I see; slowly uncovering them with thin glazes of acrylic until their forms assert themselves. Then I confirm them with more opaque paint and definitive mark-making. I’m enjoying the tension between chaos and order making hollow, fragmented narratives in a universe of possibility.
I am not sure if the resulting self-portrait is the unvarnished truth or a varnished fiction?