31 March 2008

SGC - Kerry James Marshall



On Friday afternoon, Kerry James Marshall spoke before he was awarded a "Lifetime Achievement In Printmaking" award from the SGC. Marshall's work, which I had never seen before, is characterised by politically-charged references to the Black American experience. A lot of the work he showed was painting rather than printmaking, but the large stamps in the photo above are actually usable print matrices with slogans such as "Black Power" and "We Shall Overcome." I liked Marshall's paintings a lot:


Marshall said some strong words and talked a lot about what art is and what art does. Here are some points I wrote down:

* Marshall pointed out that these days, especially with digital media, it's become very easy to make images both inside and outside the art world, and many people make successful images. But he believes that artists with ambition need to fit their work into the historical narrative of art history, need to understand the implications of their art for its moment.

I found these comments somewhat counter to something that Daniel Heyman said the day before. Heyman said that he thinks it's fairly impossible for an artist to deliberately set out to create "The iconic image" for a time, an image that will change history. Heyman feels that the best an artist can do is to work from what obsesses him/her and hope that it makes an impact. That feels more true to me. I think it's easy for a successful artist like Marshall to look back and ascribe reasons for his success, but setting out to fit one's work into the flow of art history is a longshot at best. Understanding the history of art (and human history, for that matter) is vital, but understanding history doesn't mean that you can force your own work to fit an important historical niche. I think that if you're going to try to situate yourself in the flow of history as an artist, the best place to situate yourself is right smack in the middle of your own life, right in this moment in time, and respond to what's in front of you.

* Marshall also said that because a teacher has to give everything to the students, being an artist and being an art teacher are not really compatible. I have no way to evaluate if that's true or not, but for the many academics at the conference those words must have been hard to hear. I'd be curious to hear some of the educators respond to that.

* Marshall also had a strong message for young artists not to depend on other people to decide the value of your work; to take control of defining yourself. He said that an artist needs to distinguish him/herself by creating work that's undeniably profound and provocative, so people have to deal with it whether they like the work or not. One way he mentioned for taking more control is to write, and to write critically. I think he means academic writing, but I would stretch his words to mean just writing. As I've been writing this blog for the past almost 3 years, I've learned so much about my own art and my own process by articulating it. I think that far too few artists have the ability to articulate what they're doing in their own work.

* Marshall is an advocate of the artist as scientist. He says that the idea that the artist is some kind of medium who channels art as if in a trance is a myth that many artists buy into. For Marshall, an artist takes things that he/she understands and fuses them with new things to make new compounds, new elements. In his own work, he says he makes clear choices and doesn't leave a lot to chance. No "happy accidents" for Kerry Marshall!

I enjoyed his talk very much and am still pondering a lot of this material.


mizu designs said...

Absolutely fascinating Annie! The educator/artist issue is a real one for many I think. I work at a university with a strong art/design area and I think many of the teachers there would agree that they do give a lot of themselves (time, energy, emotional support etc) and that having anything left for themselves for creative work at the end of it is often a struggle.
I also really hear what you say about the artist needing to work with what concerns them/moves them now rather than worrying too much about the bigger picture and where they fit into the historical narrative.
Thanks for sharing this with us.

Peter K o c รก k said...

very well you wrote Annie, thnx, i think so too as you mind on artist and art medium"...

Ellen Shipley said...

I think I agree with the educator/artist dilemma. Altho my printmaking teacher continued to do his own work, he couldn't do it to his satisfaction. I think I detected a frustrastion in having to be "distracted" by teaching at times. Luckily for me I learn best on my own, with occasional input from the teacher, but there were many frustrated students in his classes and many who gave up and went away.

A man can't serve two masters. Every creative mother knows this one. You choose, and then you live with the choice.

The Maude Blog said...

A fascinating blog entry (thanks Annie!) which inspired me to immediately write about it in my own blog; these issues are on my mind alot these days; Heyman's comments ring more true to my life also. I just wish I knew how to make a living and maintain the fight to be true to my work and my soul.

Wabbit said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Annie. I've been pondering some of the same ideas and have written one essay about it on my own blog.

I do have one thought to share in regard to your statement about the articulation of artists. There are many who simply are not gifted with words as well as with artistic ability and or drive, since making art is not an activity that is strictly limited to those with ability or talent, as we know. We who can successfully do both are blessed. Being able to do one or the other makes one lucky since at least there is an outlet. The ones for whom I feel sorry are those who can not express themselves verbally, visually, or in writing.

Annie B said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone. Wabbit, you're right that not everyone has both artistic and verbal talent. Nonetheless, I get so much more insight into an artist's work when I can hear a little of the back story, so I wish more artists would explain some of how they arrived at the work they're presenting.