What Do You Want To Give Your Viewer?
This is a question that artist Sarah Kabot posed to me last year at SPACES’ 8x8x8, a neat speed-dating style artist critique event that is coming up again in June (so if you’re an artist in the area, keep an eye out for details.)
It took me a while to pull that apart and piece it back together in a way that will move my work forward.
Here’s what I love about it: The idea of art as a gift to those who see it subtly shifts the artist’s focus, transforming aspiration into intention and sacrifice into generosity. It’s a way of getting away from what you already have and know, without completely disregarding the limits of your capacity.
When you give someone a gift you know they’ll love, there’s no better feeling. Even, sometimes especially, if you had to stretch a little to get it, financially, or with your time, hunting around to assemble multiple components, or acquiring new knowledge, researching a thing your loved one loves to even know what specific thing to get them. It’s a similar feeling with a successful artwork, and even more so a successful show. A good body of work focuses you, it stretches you, but it doesn’t break you. You want to be able to be in the room with the finished thing, and smiling.
So, what do I want my art to inspire in those that encounter it?
The first word that comes to mind is levity. Joy with thought, with depth, not a mindless or naive joy. A joy that contains pain, that acknowledges it, that works with or around it. Joy that is joyful in spite of. I want to give you something heavy, but I want to make it float for you.
The next word is wonder.
Wonder has been a pretty central component of my art making identity for as long as I’ve been making. Wonder is the beginning, middle, and end of a good idea. Wonder will both inspire new ideas, and stick with you, and I can think of no higher aspiration in making than creating an experience that cuts through the chatter and sticks with your viewer in a way that makes them want to go out and do something.
This is why I’m so drawn to installation, it’s a format that makes it easy for everyone who encounters your work work to get lost in it, and to want to tell people about it, and to want to come back. It’s a lot of planning, a lot of time, typically temporary, but super impactful.
However, works in every medium can inspire wonder, and that’s my goal for every piece, from the tiniest drawing to a full, enterable room, and everything piece in between.
Tube Cologne by design collective Numen/For Use
I want my work to be stylish.
A successful piece looks intentional, unique but comfortable or almost familiar, and there’s nothing unnecessary. I tend to prefer clean, bold forms, and a composition that looks simple, but subtly isn’t. That slight variation gets you to look again, and again. A good design feels like an old friend, someone you know inside out but still surprises you every time you interact with them. It has an inherent style that makes it feel somehow like an entity.
I want my work to be contemplative, and to inspire contemplation.
This is about getting people to slow down long enough to notice, really see your work, and give each piece the time it takes to show you where it’s going. I put so much thought into my work (perhaps too much… there comes a point where you have to just do.) and I long for a more balanced relationship with the viewer in regards to time. Only viewers who buy your work have a shot at spending as much time with it as you did. But you want people to want to be around the work.
A good rule of thumb is making work you yourself would want to be around. Some artists find it pretty vain to hang their own work. I find it highly suspicious if they don’t. Chances are, they’re making work that they don’t actually like. Maybe they love the ideas, but if they don’t love the final product, those ideas aren’t coming across.
Your art is your child, you should love it. At the very least, you shouldn’t mind looking at it.
Finally, I want my work to have a self evident reason for existing.
When you see art that resonates with you, you don’t challenge its right to exist. I think the contemporary art world has really suffered from work that isn’t landing with most people. The intended audience is far too narrow, and its tastes too peculiar. I want to make art that resonates with real people, that has the depth to sustain a critical discussion, but would draw the eye and register in the heart of a child. Some might call this self evident reason beauty, and I think that’s denotatively correct; but in common usage, the word beauty is too narrow.
There is a wide spectrum of forms in which we could find beauty if we are keen to find it. But I want to create work in which beauty is absolutely findable.
So much of adult life is determining your own criteria for success. I think a lot of people are unhappy because they don’t bother to define success for themselves, and then when they’re what they might have considered successful, they don’t even realize it!
I’m hoping to be accountable to you all as I plan new works that stretch my capacity, that you will know my work is successful when it brings you wonder, style, reason, beauty, something to meditate on, and levity. It would be a tremendous gift to me if, when you see these things in my work and you think of it, let me know. ♡