Writing about art is not like making art. Jack Whitten said that a painter’s sensibility is the ability to feel, entwined with plasticity, two sides of the same coin.1 Writing about art is like talking about feelings. It validates interior experiences by externalizing them, helping us understand what is acting upon us and what this means.
My most powerful experiences in the studio come from dancing with control over my tools and ambitions; this allows otherwise unwatched inclinations, emotions, to run the show, to surprise me. A lot of the time, this is enough. Submitting to one’s own power usually is, whatever the circumstance. But there are other, vulnerable times, which are also true, when making art feels futile and lonely, disconnected.
I will never know how my work makes anyone feel, really; as Adrian Piper or Elizabeth Murray will never know how seeing their work makes me feel so filled that my only recourse is to cry.
This is art’s most generous gesture, to be with us, alone. So when I am feeling the acuity of my work’s solitude, its dependence on others who I don’t know, I think about how art endures in personal connections which can’t be controlled. This is good, it prevents artists from too much megalomania or grandiosity; and it prevents anyone else from being able to claim absolute meaning over an art object.
Ideological attempts to assimilate art into provable theories arouse a deep suspicion because they feel like exercises in control, where art objects are deployed as examples, or data. On the other hand, interpretations of art wholly justified by subjective reactions ring gratuitous. As a critical attitude, “People can think whatever they want about the work” deprives us the risk of ever being wrong. What, my studiomate might comment, are the stakes?
Writing about art is a way of treating art as common ground. Because I am an artist, I would like to believe that I can, in fact, communicate in specific terms. When writing, I want to be able to point to what I’m talking about so you don’t just have to take me at my word. Meaning lives and dies and is transferred through what is there, in front of us. Art is language, and language is a skin.
Writing, then, is a way to model touch, but the senses are all tied up in one another. Once in a studio visit, because I had been making paintings of disembodied tongues, the artist David Humphrey gave me a copy of the Journal of Victorian Literature which included an essay titled “Pater’s Mouth.” The text, by Matthew Kaiser, takes Walter Pater’s taste seriously as a fully developed faculty Pater used to engage lovers, food, cigarettes, art, the Renaissance, a historical sensibility. Unlike the stomach’s drive to consume and the mind’s dematerialized assessments, the mouth can apply sensorial aptitude as accumulated on and verbalized by the tongue. A tongue can be an ambassador for a whole body. Not the ideal body: tongues have the capacity to gauge particular material conditions, they are desirous for specific things. No: foregrounding taste means rejecting a neutral baseline.
Never has it been clearer than we are what we like. Taste is not a mood board; it is a sense and a skill. It has consequences. When we don’t like something, it’s personal.
For a while, everything seemed like a tongue to me: retinal screens capturing impressions as on taste buds; my mind turning images over like morsels, at risk of being burned or frozen; my fingertips little tongues seeking out flavors. I even ate a tongue in one video work, and tripped over my speech in another. On the tip of the tongue: both reaching for words just outside articulation and the analysis of flavor.
Usually, I write about art when there is something on the tip of my tongue, a cloud of almost-articulation in relation to someone else’s work. Because I’m not vocationally tied to writing, I take my time (years, usually) to figure out if my feelings about something have teeth, which is the only way I will actually do it. Nothing about writing is fluid or fun, and I hate deadlines and often fail to meet them. But the writing helps to make art less alone, it hopes for a community dedicated to charting the drift between feeling and form, form and sensation, sensation and feelings.
I believe that art writing is didactic. Not that it should teach people the eternal meaning of art. The best art writing teaches us how to look and feel and respond, by example. It is not neutral, because it comes from a body which has felt first hand what art can offer. Not a blank slate or an abstraction; the transmission is from one particular sensibility to another. For me, this is the most important thing, giving my faculties over to the sensibility of another, and trying to document what that’s like, with all of my history of making and thinking, art historical references, and sense of being alive, now.
- Walker Art Center, “Jack Whitten on Mapping the Soul,” Youtube video, September 3, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1mI71d2Plc.