On the Purpose of Art: Part III (It’s a Titular Matter)

Yayoi Kusama.jpg
Infinity Mirror Room, Yayoi Kusama, Installation with balloons, mirrors, paint and dots, 1965 (photo taken from artsy.net)

I think it’s good for works to be untitled.  In the past, I have titled work just to give an inkling of my intention but I realise the viewer may see something entirely different.  The viewer has the freedom to perceive what they wish.  This, in turn, makes it so valuable for the artist to know the viewer’s thoughts, so they can see all the perspectives their work has allowed for despite their own intentions.

Infinity Mirror Room – Brilliance of the Souls, Yayoi Kusama, 2017 (photo taken from thejakartapost.com)

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980, (photo taken from MoMA Foundation online)

It’s a misconception some folk make that untitled work means pretension or laziness on the part of the artist, that they’ve made any old rubbish and are trying to pass it off as art.  It is possible, but if a gallery or selection committee have chosen it for exhibition, there’s obviously more to it than meets the eye so why not give it a moment of reflection first?  Of course, it may be deemed rubbish even after that. Still, there’s no harm in trying to figure out the artist’s thought process to help you along with interpretation.

Untitled, Joan Mitchell, Oil on Canvas, 1961 (photo taken from Joan Mitchell Foundation online)

A piece of art can hold multiple, parallel meanings that change continually depending on what is happening in the world at that moment, the identity of the viewer, their mood, their personal experiences, the location of the work, geographically or within the gallery or public space, and so on – there are so many factors at play that inform the work.  

Because an artwork can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, the work should have complete and utter freedom to fulfil its potential.  Therefore, to title the work is to some extent telling the viewer what to think, which is condescending.  Be prepared for them to totally disagree with your prescribed concept.  Hard and fast titles can often ruin a piece, and there isn’t always a need for them.  I love having to discover the meaning of a work, seeing into it, feeling it, experiencing it, the artist revealing much they didn’t realise.  Because art-making is unconscious as well as conscious.

Self-portrait with Fried Eggs, Sara Lucas, Digital Print on Paper, 1996

This is the difference between fine art and art that is just representative. Which is why artists like (dare I mention him) Rolf Harris, along with many other representational artists, can never truly be revered by great fine art societies because their work can only be what it is, it is saying nothing more than that.  It just represents that which he has painted, a lovely rendering, no doubt, but there’s not much else going on.  Never mind the fact that he’s emblazoned his name all over it.  Why do artists do that?  Put a great big fat artists’ signature in the corner?  It’s basically saying: hellooooo!  I’m here, look at me!  I did this! Look at the thing I did!

It only mars the landscape, disfigures the art.  What a way to ruin a work.  (Artists, if you wish to be taken more seriously, I would refrain from doing this. Your work should be able to speak for itself).

Sunrise Taj Mahal.jpg
Sunrise, Taj Mahal,
Rolf Harris, Watercolour, 2007

Having said that, street or mural artists, have no choice but to tag, initial or sign their work somewhere somehow otherwise it would be totally anonymous (sometimes it is). There is no back to sign, it’s all in the front.

Os Gemeos Dewey Square
Os Gemeos, Gustavo & Otavio Pandolfo, Boston, 2010

Many people don’t see the point of conceptual art, art that exists as an idea only.  Still, just because you don’t understand a piece of work or genre doesn’t mean it has no value.  If you have a moment, why not appreciate the opportunity to learn about it rather than dismiss it?  Perhaps you don’t possess the sight to read it?  Perhaps you believe art should only be about creating beauty and therefore your understanding will always fall short?  But then there will always be those who regard themselves as the authority on what constitutes “quality”, what makes an artwork possess that thing you can’t put into words.  And everyones opinion is valid as art can and should provoke mixed reactions, isn’t that the point?

My Bed, Tracey Emin
My Bed, Tracey Emin, 1998 (photo taken from Wikipedia)

Sure, at times, there is bollocks in the art world, but there should be a place for that.  One man’s nonsense is another man’s pearl of wisdom.  It’s worth taking the time to make an informed opinion than be small-minded and self-important and deem work worthless simply because it is baffling to comprehend.  There should always be room for work that is baffling.  Art is ever-changing and everyone has something to say so if you don’t get it just accept that.  Or better yet have a good old debate about it, that at least gives room for education.  It’s fun to argue about art, it can leave you better enlightened than before.  Let’s punch ignorance in the gut and have a good hearty debate, shall we?

Cafe Terrace at Night, Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on Canvas, 1888

The true challenge a work faces is that it must be compelling enough for you to want to discover it.  It must be visually, texturally, formally, performatively or sonically compelling regardless of its title.  If it doesn’t achieve this then maybe its failed in its purpose, is just a waste of space.  People walk by it and ignore it because it doesn’t tantalise them, it’s just forgettable.  That’s where a title may actually help pique some interest.  

Of course, everyone’s sensory perceptions will differ and someone may gauge meaning from a work where another would not register its existence. But if the work is constantly ignored then it simply doesn’t possess enough presence to achieve any worthy purpose.  Best to bin it and start again.

© N Nazir 2020

On the Necessity of Art: Part II

Symphony 1
Symphony I (Crescendo Rising), Acrylic on Wood, © N Nazir 2013

I love painting.  I know I said I’m a closet painter but I am out of the closet.  I just like to keep it hush in some circles.

It’s the visceral texture and nature of paint I love, the smell, the way it moves, bleeds, changes and morphs.  My later paintings employ this method of wet on wet, or free painting, as I like to think of it, painting without brushes, letting it do what it will, sometimes with a little coercion, slant the surface here, coax it there, let it seep, blow on it with straws.  You can sculpt with it up to a point.  You can blanket materials in colour and make an assemblage of your painting (think Julian Schnabel’s crockery paintings), you can wear it and roll around in it (think Yves Klein enormous performance art pieces and the models he used as his brushes), you can throw it all around the place and the marks will always be different (Pollock, obviously).  It’s a tantalising playground.  I would love to swim in a vat of it.  Give me a vat of blue and I’ll throw myself in.  (Residency, anyone?  I’ll do it if you let me).

I am also deeply sensitive to colour.  In fact, I am obsessed with colour.  Some I just want to eat and consume whole.  At times I will live in a particular colour for a while because my soul exudes it or is in need of it, and paint gives me immediate access to that colour with a need to assimilate it.  I don’t always know why I need it but it makes sense later on.  For instance, I need yellow when I am feeling hypersensitive to people or atmosphere; it provides me with a welcome barrier to all those energies flying around.  I wear black when I want to be voluntarily introverted, when I don’t feel any desire to communicate with anyone.  I’m just entirely comfortable immersed in whatever I’m doing without sharing.  I often live in a constant spectrum of blue and this has many meanings for me so I won’t go into that now.

Sometimes, all that needs expression is a single gesture, a single movement, a single mark with a single hue on a blank surface.  And that’s it.  Nothing else needs to be said. Any more would ruin the work.  If you don’t get it, the artist won’t care.  Somebody somewhere will understand.

However, I do need to be quicker at painting.  Sometimes they just take so long and I’ve already moved onto the next thing.  It feels good to finish a work.  Equally, it also feels good to leave a work unfinished, it’s better unresolved.  It has something more fluid and powerful about it.

Anyway, that’s enough about painting.

Birth Series I
Birth series, oil and thinner on canvas, © N Nazir 2009

© N Nazir 2016

On the Necessity of Art: Part I

Elemental Blue & Living Sculpture Installation Final Piece. Earth, grass seed, dodecahedron, cello soundscape © N Nazir 2011

I have a passion for art. I need art to justify my existence.  I realise that whatever other loves compete for my attention, art-making is part of my make up.  What are my materials?  Anything at hand.  Pen, paper, food, fabric, my body, ephemeral elements, rain on cobbled streets or frost on my window captured in a freeze frame, a journey recorded in words. I love the total freedom one experiences through artistic expression.

I used to draw a lot as a child and mastered a technique of drawing that was almost photorealism, so smooth as to be airbrushed. Now I like visible marks when I draw and I try and steer clear of totally smooth rendering, which I consider somewhat characterless.  It still creeps into my work, however.  I then spent years, on and off, trying to master painting.  I still haven’t.  I was a bit of a tear-away as a teenager.  I dropped out of college twice before I managed to complete my A levels.  And then I didn’t do my degree until I was 30 because I decided, after years of working in office jobs, that there was nothing else I would rather do than make art.

Ironically, I was offered a great, well-paid job in London working for a reputable corporation around the time I decided to go back to Art college.  It was just before I took a three week trip to India, and I was initially all set to take the job on my return.  But whilst in India, I realised that in my heart of hearts, I had to go back to Art college.  Every fibre of my being wanted that.  I realised that I’d rather be broke doing something I love than earning good money doing a stressful job yet never having the time to do what I love, always having to put it off.  And I didn’t want to put it off any more.

I successfully graduated with a degree in Fine Art a few years ago, traumatic though the experience was, having my work constantly stripped bare and undermined regardless of my mountainous efforts.  I came away thinking I still could have done better.  But then I always think this with everything I do.

I think some tutors’ adopt an overly critical approach to test their students’ mettle, push them to reach into their depths and pull out something meaningful.  Of course, they must see the same ideas regurgitated all the time so it surely gets tedious for them. Sometimes, I think they just enjoy torturing students.  A thorough cross-examining critique would leave some in tears. There’s nothing more valuable than good criticism, though.  A bit of torture does make you a better artist.  It lends your work a new depth of hue, another layer of soul.  Suffrage becomes a tool to flesh out new work.  I’m all for it.  

The problem I had with art school was that you were encouraged to narrow down your style and focus on a particular medium in order to pass. You had to decide, were you a painter? Photographer?  Installation artist?  Film-maker?  Which language did you speak through best?  What were your tools?  My trouble was, I loved all of them, and couldn’t decide. I still haven’t.  I still love them all though I didn’t have enough time to learn about film-making.  However, I always revert back to the comfort of painting, the soothing motion of brush strokes, the visceral application of colour, the illusion of 3D on a flat surface.  I paint but I’m not a painter. I still haven’t decided but I think I’m a 3D artist.  And a closet painter.

My final end of year exhibition piece (above) was critiqued as having too much going on.  I prefer to think of it as a series of happy accidents.  I built the hill from a wooden construction palette, 15 bags of compost and grass seed.  I had no idea whether it would work.  I tended it every day and it grew over a couple of weeks in the space itself.  I made the dodecahedron out of vivid ultramarine light filter gel and sellotape, a painstakingly accurate process, as the form had to be as near perfect as possible.

It was multi-sensory, it referenced the sublime, land art (bringing the outside in), Platonic solids, Kandinksy’s sound of colour theory (the shade of blue akin to the sound of the cello soundscape playing behind the wall).  I recorded a musician playing an experimental composition on his cello, which accompanied the piece.  And then visitors were free to experience it as they wished.  Some would lie on top of it as a kind of meditative retreat.  The light would change throughout the day as the sun travelled across the room.  In the late afternoon it would shine through the dodecahedron and reflect colourful orbs across the walls.  As an unintentional dadaist, I was delighted with this.  Visitor’s notions and ideas fascinated me, as their perceptions were often entirely different to my intentions.  Many experienced it.  Towards the end, the mound fell apart as a couple of toddlers bounced all over it.  Which was fine.  It was meant to be transient anyway.

Yes, it did have too much going on.  But I enjoyed it so much.

Making art turns pain or conflict into something else, something positive.  That’s one thing I do know. You let loose that energy into some form of expression and it goes into a hole in the ether, a place where etheric rubbish can go once purged from your soul, and afterwards you are left purified if you’ve managed it.  And if you’re lucky, you may have a half-decent piece of work to show for it.  Not always, but that’s the aim.  The process is worth it regardless.

I have too much to say on the subject of the Arts, artistic expression, Fine Art, art-making, etc. so I’ll leave it there for now.

Elemental Blue & Living Sculpture Installation. Earth, grass seed, dodecahedron, cello soundscape, participant © N Nazir 2011

© N Nazir 2016