… after Shahzia Sikander — Nemesis

In her interview at the beginning of her companion book to the show, Nemesis, Shahzia Sikander explains that one of her goals was to challenge what is beautiful. I’m not so ambitious. I think, where I am as an artist, is learning what is beautiful, and if I were to challenge this, it would have to be later when I had a better grasp of what I’m challenging.

With some irony, what draws me to Shahzia Sikander’s work is that I find it beautiful. I think only when you look more closely, after maybe first noticing formal elements, like borders, visual rhythm and bright color schemes, you notice that the story told by the smaller details can work against the mood the formal elements convey.

In Pleasure Pillars (2001), the pillars of beauty are being matched with the word pleasure. Being only 17” x 12,” the work is almost overwhelmed by all its details. You can easily miss the circle of fighter jets that resemble a group of birds dancing somehow in synchronized formation, wings overlapping and noses pointed toward a shared center. You might miss the lion tearing at a deer’s throat in the opposite corner. Images of the West challenge the images of the east. Venus de Milo with her head and arm missing is slightly left of center, separated from a eastern formal dress by two connected hearts displaced from a body. There is, at the heart of the work, a woman’s head with large and impressive ram horns.

The colors are beautiful. The polka dots, elements seen in many of Sikander’s works, create layers and dimension. There are multiple frames, which help a viewer focus on specific figures. I am drawn first to these formal elements and am made to look at figures, objects and acts of violence side by side and to interpret something that is beyond the formal elements.

For my own work…

I want to offer a view into a world that has a sort of mood, manifested out of the symbols and interactions of those symbols found in that world.

Symbols in a visual work of art can be more literal than words in a work of literature. Words representing an object can carry a variety meanings given a person’s unique set of experiences and the context in which they employ those words. For example, what bees might mean in a poem by Sylvia Plath. When you use pictures of objects with symbolic meaning, you begin with the meaning given to the object by a people and their culture and history, and it might not be how you feel about the objects, intuitively or personally.

So for an audience who might not be aware of what certain objects can symbolize, I want to offer at least something that is pretty; while for those who respond to those symbols, not just as a bystander looking in but somebody who responds emotionally to them, I want to make the story I’m telling cohesive and meaningful in some way.

Elephants (2021) 9″ x 12″ watercolor and gouache

For the above image, I’m borrowing the idea of elephants as symbols of wisdom. I don’t see this personally, but I like how they can be animated. I can use the image of an animal to convey an act or interaction, which can then be a metaphor for how wisdom can look while in action, despite it being abstract and difficult to define in words.

There’s an oak tree (also a symbol of wisdom) that a string of elephants are walking toward. They are coming from the horizon and the sun is setting. These are all within a red frame, while a baby elephant has its trunk outside the frame, the trunk being slightly transparent.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, but I might be fearing ignorance or not knowing enough.

My mother used to tease me as a child and say that I have no common sense. I’m older now… and I’m hoping a little more wisdom can make up for this.

On the Subject of Style

“The trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap…. Words exist because of the meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”1 Chuang-tzu, Chinese philosopher

This used to be how I felt about writing. Even when I took up creative writing, I thought it was all about the content… and it’s not.

Getting to the meaning of one’s words is not the only reason why we listen.

We create to bring form to ideas, and this, I believe, is all about style.

I understand there’s a major difference between linguistic expression and visual expression. The first uses symbols (letters of the alphabet and the words they make) to guide you to conjuring up the ideas in mind, while the latter provides a physical structure to show you an idea at play.

But both can show how one sees the world.

I’m going to focus now on visual expression… and use a recent drawing to illustrate what I mean.

Initially, I got lost in the details and tried to copy this more precisely, but I stepped away for a day and when I looked at it again, I realized I had smoothed over all the nuances. It was static like a rock.

I often tell myself to “always know what you’re looking at,” but in this case, I decided to refer to a thumbnail of the original, so I could see again what initially made me decide to choose the image. I decided the goal is not to draw a poppy, per se, but to get ideas about what is a “good line.” Or, overall, when looking at a model, I am not drawing the model, I am making note of what makes the model pretty.

This approach is especially useful when thinking about auto-drawing, because with auto-drawing, the challenge is to maintain variation, to avoid making it look like patterns on wall paper. Looking all around me, I see “pretty lines” and beautiful color compositions everywhere and realize I can use almost everything as a resource. I just have to like what I see.

When I picked up drawing in 2008, I was mesmerized by a “pretty line.” It was a gateway into the visual arts, and a year later I wanted to utilize more color, but I couldn’t see where other artists were getting there ideas (color schemes) from.

Intuitively, I knew that you have to enjoy something to bring it into your work… or I should say you have to know what you like to gauge the progress of your work… to know that you’re achieving what you want to achieve.

Okay, it’s not simple. But creative work doesn’t need to be precise.

I made a sketchbook for the purpose of experimenting with color schemes, and discovered the joys of working with Marie’s watercolor tubes, particularly 511 (bright blue green) and 451 (looks like Prussian blue)

Here’s a picture of a poppy I painted.

___________________________

1 This is from the introduction of Jerome Silbergeld’s Chinese Painting Style, and Silbergeld is using a translation taken from Burton Watson’s The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, published in 1970 by Columbia University Press, p 302.

On the Subject of Style

I wanted to talk about style but quickly realized I couldn’t make any generalizations, because it’s so personal and subjective. Instead, I found myself looking at where I am as an artist.

I

I wrote the following description of my work a few months ago and it still holds true.

I like to look at what the most basic component of a drawing can do. EG, flow of a line or variations in line quality. There is often an interaction between two or more components: between the colors of each and/or how each occupies space. There may be a definable subject, like a vase or flowers. But I’m not exploring what an actual vase or flower looks like. I am exploring what the elements that compose the subject can do: the style of line, how it depicts the subject, how it may vary in what emotions it may elicit from the style itself.

When I consider color, I want the surface to get as much attention as the medium. So how smooth or textured a surface is can influence what medium I choose. It becomes one component that can interact with other components of the work.

Overall, my drawings are a meditative process as I mark the surface line by line. It is about interactions as much as it about rhythm.

It’s good to explore, but I think style goes beyond this; also, I might maintain some intent for a handful of works but then I’ll move on to something else. So my attempt at writing an artist statement above may have been premature.

Maybe a sense of style will reveal itself after a culmination of many works over time. It may require I get some distance from my work to see what path I’ve been on.

II

I’ve been thinking about how to create mood, and I find that watercolor helps me express a mood I currently enjoy as artist and audience. It’s often where I am or where I want to be, mentally.

I created color cards the other day, and the process of simply applying the medium to a surface was soothing and showed me the potential for larger works.

Color Cards for E-Sumi watercolor series Shadow Black by Boku Undo

I also created cards for washes of Lipton Black Tea and Sencha Green Tea. Lipton Tea is an old favorite while Sencha barely showed even after six washes.

I am looking for mediums that can produce a soft and subtle tone, although I say this while reading a book on Van Gogh as Master Draughtsman, whose use of oils were suitable for something more aggressive and exalting.

I mention him here only because I know I can admire his work while knowing I do not make the same choices for my own work as he had for his. I think it’s important to develop a sense of what your choices will be. I don’t want to reduce the creative process to a matter of taste, because one’s approach and intent also influence one’s choices, but at the same time I am guided by my sense of taste with almost every choice I make in the creation of a work.

Oasis (2020)

III

I want to go beyond relying on “intuition” and have a better sense of what I’m doing.

I think I may have been confusing intuition with taste.

Intuition, I believe, is the subconscious culling lessons learned and applying knowledge I might not be conscious of, while taste is a matter of what is pleasing to me. The latter is a product of my personal experience and my current frame of mind.

IV  

I’ve been breaking down the idea of being creatively blocked, at least for myself. I had to first see my overall work as going beyond any individual work. Being aware of my own frame of mind helps me change my approach from following how I feel intuitively to being conscious of the idea I’m responding to, asking questions and observing the idea at play.

Seeing my creative process as a way to explore, I had a silly notion that the more I know the less creative I would be. I say silly because I couldn’t possibly run out of things to explore. Moreover, being creative is equally driven by a desire to express oneself.

I think about how artists might go through multiple phases throughout one’s career, and I don’t think a change in one’s approach or intent for one’s work will necessarily change one’s style; although having seen more and learned more, one’s style might evolve.

When thinking about the style of a given artist, I ask myself, Do I see the same artist in one’s early work as I do in one’s later work?

V

It is important to know what I want to get out of being creative.

Overall, being creative is a way for me to think freely, and to do this, I have to see more and know more. I have to live my life. I have to engage with the world around me.

Of course, I don’t have to do everything all at once. I can manage my creative impulses on my own terms.

I believe there is a balance between engaging with others and being honest with what one shares.

Scream

Scream 30″ x 18″ Chinese Ink on Xuan paper

Happy Halloween everyone!

I drew this image in 2018 on four 11″ x 14″ sheets of drawing paper and I’ve wanted to redraw this for a while on a single surface. It recently dawned on me that I could use xuan paper which is the perfect size.

It was also a good chance for me to practice line work with a Chinese brush, which was a lot of fun, as the color and weight of the paper makes the drawing feel delicate and vintage while the quality of line from a brush is more varied and every now and then allows for the texture of the surface to show through.