Reflection on my art practice

Reflecting on your own art practice is an incredibly useful exercise. It forces you to stop and consider how you have crafted your past creative pathway and gives you renewed confidence to keep going – with or without minor tweaks to your forward direction. The essay below is my own exploration of my creative approach, my obsession with simplicity and the mark of the maker and the associated artists who continue to inspire me.

Personal art practice – consideration of my work in relation to other artists & wider critical thinking

A creative strategy

Moving from a career delivering digital learning to the looseness of fine art demanded a rethink of my creative process. I had a passion for promoting creativity in business and it is an increasingly valued skill (Gompertz, 2015) but it was so often frustratingly quashed by corporate brand and became a shadow of its full potential.

A study of the creative habits of artists proved an invaluable starting point in my search for a looser creative spark. Appendix 1 shows a summary from ‘Daily Rituals: How Artists Work’ (Currey, 2013) and we see that famous artists have four common characteristics. The most resonant has been a focus on isolation and reducing the necessities of life to mindless activity so they don’t hog the creative flow, as novelist William Styron states:

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
— William Styron

The challenge we have is that creativity cannot be turned on and off at will and as artists we must learn to adapt to the realities of 21st century living. I have learnt to embrace the mundane activities in life as they are a source of inspiration, however freeing the mind of domestic routine is an absolute necessity for focused periods of creative work.

Seeking the avant-garde

To measure my artistic practice against that of the contemporary art world, the formula of art historian Griselda Pollock proved inspirational. Pollock suggested that to be avant-garde art must show reference, deference and difference (Pollock, 2015) so can we assume that to change the course of art history art must exhibit these characteristics, as explained in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Summarised from Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art by Griselda Pollock (2015)

ValueMeaning
ReferenceArt must show awareness of current happenings in the art world.
DeferenceArt must give reverence to the latest radical developments in the art world.
DifferenceArt must move forward and differentiate itself well from the aesthetics of current art.

The ‘difference’ in Pollock’s formula is often cited as the most important. However, in contemporary art it is often stated that there is “…no such thing as a wholly original idea” (Gompertz, 2015) — a head scratching situation that many artists have fought with:

“There is nothing new in art except talent.”
— Anton Chekhov

I believe that we still have countless unique combinations to explore, which start with several unconnected mental images that are exciting when aligned and take us down endless corridors of creativity. The search is not for the single idea but for a unique tension that springs out when unrelated concepts come together. This is the ‘difference’ that I search for in my art — that novel juxtaposition that reveals something new about our place in the world.

Simplicity as an endpoint

I have become passionate about the power of simplicity. Many artists echo simplicity as a strategy in their work, for example the painter Nicholas Wilton talks of “…enhancing communication by eliminating redundancy without removing important information” (Wilton, 2019) and technologist John Maeda states that: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful” (Maeda, 2006).

Picasso was a prominent ‘simplifier’ and he reduced his famous bull (Figure 2) to a few simple lines in a search for a deeper symbolism (Stanska, 2017). In creating a more abstract form, Picasso created his ‘real’ idea of a bull – the pure essence of a creature that stood for the Spanish people, virility or maybe his own image.

Figure 2: The Bull (Le Taureau) by Pablo Picasso, MoMA, 1945

My epiphany has been to reverse a hard wired model of moving from simplicity to complexity. Author Todd Henry reminds us: “Don’t confuse complexity with value” (Floyd, 2017) and I believe that my art will have more value  as a simple expression of a complex thought. My new mantra is “What can I take away to say something new about the world?”.

My work ‘The Present Intense’ in Figure 3 took a mundane commute and reduced it to line, colour and light and this typifies my search for pure outcomes. In a paradoxical way the constraints I now set expose unlimited freedom of expression and have greatly improved my creative confidence.

Figure 3: The Present Intense by Richard Hyde, 2019

The mark of the maker

I persistently seek out the mark of the maker. Such work makes me gasp and my heart churn as I glimpse the soul of the artist and their search for truth. The impact is most powerful with drawing and painting as the purity of these human scratchings feel like the most naked form of artistic expression.

An exhibition of Käthe Kollwitz etchings (“Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz,” 2018) in Hull was one of my most powerful gallery experiences (Figures 3-5) and had an incredible sense of death and mourning (“Käthe Kollwitz,” 2014).

Figure 3: Death and Woman by Käthe Kollwitz, New Walk Art Gallery Leicester, 1910

Kollwitz simplified her visual language (“Käthe Kollwitz | MoMA,” 2016) to expose a deeper meaning about politics and relationships (“Ikon Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz,” 2017) and she certainly recognised her power:

“I am in the world to change the world.”
— Käthe Kollwitz

Kollwitz’s work epitomises my passion for visible mark making. Her work screams about social injustice and maternal love with simple lines and tones. Pared back marks are an artist’s signature — we imagine her hands moving and we hear the scratchings on paper. There is also a void for interpretation as the marks are intentionally loose. Upon every repeat viewing we see a new image and we feel a different emotion.

Figure 4: Woman with Dead Child by Käthe Kollwitz, British Museum, 1903

My aspiration is to find the ultimate expression of myself and leave part of that in my work. It is these honest embodiments of humanity that show great passion and ask the most complex questions.

Figure 5: Battlefield by Käthe Kollwitz, Honolulu Museum of Art, 1908

Jenny Saville is a hugely successful painter and best known for her depictions of the naked female form (see Figures 6-8) that challenge conventional representations of the female body (Cohen, 2018). Her unique style is drawn from medical textbooks and celebrated paintings of the past (Jenny Saville | Life Through a Microscope, 2018).

Figure 6: Rosetta by Jenny Saville, Unknown, 2006

Saville has skillfully transcended the boundaries of classic figuration (“Jenny Saville,” 2018) so fits into Pollock’s category of an avant-garde artist. She has taken the work of Renaissance painters such as Titian but through her mark making has propelled her paintings into an uncompromised future.

Figure 7: Knead by Jenny Saville, Galerie Daniel Templon Paris, 2006

I have a fascination in finding a unique figurative style to represent the human condition and reconnect us with our animal past and Saville’s work is part of that jigsaw. Everything about her painting is compelling from the angry brush work and bloodied flesh to the vacant expressions of the subjects. She reduces the human form to meat, as if the body has been turned inside out and we are viewing the internal experience or the human form trapped within.

I increasingly despair of much human behaviour and through my art I find a voice to share my values and remind society that we are flesh and blood and not the ultimate goal of evolution. By pushing, smearing and scraping paint around her canvases Saville shows us that by collapsing a breathing body we put a mirror in front of ourselves and remember that we are part of nature not removed from it. A confident mark making style can lead the way to the most powerful outcomes:

“I care more about a work being powerful than beautiful.”
— Jenny Saville

Figure 8: Stare by Jenny Saville, The Broad Los Angeles, 2005

I also enjoy Saville’s work because it avoids realism. She has swerved her line work away from her subjects so that it acts like an extension of the already distorted bodies. This twisted reality leaves huge gaps for interpretation — a technique that I am tuned in to for my own mark making style.

Connection with nature

I have a deep passion for nature and it is where I seek much artistic inspiration. However, I have thought carefully about how to represent my environmental values through my art. A ‘doom and gloom’ approach to environmental awareness has been shown to be ineffective in our contemporary world (Razavi, 2019) and modern thinking is that a more ‘doom and bloom’ strategy has a better chance of effecting behavioural change.

Andy Goldsworthy is a land artist, sculptor and environmentalist who produces site-specific sculptures in natural and urban settings (Figures 9-11). He reconnects with the fabric of the earth to better appreciate and rehabilitate natural and human ecologies (Pheby, 2012).

Goldsworthy doesn’t go out to improve the land but to understand his place in it (Barkham, 2018). I find this connection with nature sublime as it encourages an almost meditative state (see Figure 9). He creates a reconfigured lens to show new layers of beauty — a tactic I employ consistently in my natural work.

Figure 9: Sycamore by Andy Goldwworthy, Berrydown Foundation Hampshire, 2013

Goldsworthy’s work resonates because (unusually for an environmentalist) he doesn’t lament the fragility of human life but tries to appreciate it within natural processes and he never set out to be a soapbox activist:

“The day I start preaching through my work is the day it stops having any meaning.”
— Andy Goldsworthy

I have followed a similar exploration of environmental art based on personal wonder and mindfulness, hoping that others will follow rather than having it forced down their throats.

Much of Goldsworthy’s work is ephemeral, for example climbing through a hedge (Figure 10) and he invades urban spaces, as in his thirteen huge melting snowballs (Figure 11). Even here he denies donning a climate change hat and says these works are a forum for change, memory, replenishment and season (“DeCordova exhibition ‘Andy Goldsworthy: Snow,’” 2011).

Figure 10: Hedge walk by Andy Goldwworthy, Sinderby, England, 2018

Goldworthy’s transient street art doesn’t carry the normal label of being in opposition to laws, property and ownership (“Street and Graffiti Art Movement Overview,” 2019). He has broken free of the gallery to put his work in nature where it belongs. The melting back of his work into the landscape is surely the ultimate reminder that art is nature and nature is art. What more spiritual a message about the natural world could an artist possibly make?

Figure 11: Midsummer Snowballs by Andy Goldsworthy, London, 2000

I find transient art enticing as a concept as it exposes work to the unpredictable elements of time and weather. Nature becomes the hidden hand that ultimately decides what the art becomes. It is a one off and unrepeatable outcome which reminds us that life is a game of chance over which nature has the ultimate say.

My piece Escape from this Madness in Figure 12 explored the invisibility of the homeless in an urban environment by leaving melting ice sculptures in public locations. The fascinating aspect of this work is that I had to reconsider where the art lies — is it in the piece itself, is it the live viewing by the public or is it in the record of the event? For transient art like this I believe the full narrative is a combination of all these outcomes.

Figure 12: Escape from this Madness by Richard Hyde, Nottingham, 2017

Much of Goldsworthy’s work has no audience and the work fades back into the landscape unseen other than by himself which is another timely reminder that nature has its own agenda and will prevail regardless.

Conclusion

An inclusive form of creativity underpins my artistic practice — one that constantly seeks the ‘avantgarde difference’ by paring back novel juxtapositions of concepts to reveal enlightening simplicity once redundant complexity is removed.  

My artistic influences all share a deep emotive quality, be that from the mark of the artist or through a mindful connection with nature. But I do not intend to provide answers as I firmly believe that art that explains itself fully is not worth creating.

I passionately believe that art has a significant role to play in solving many ills in society, from inequality to environmental destruction. The human condition has suffered and we need art to remind ourselves of where we came from, of the beauty of what we have and what we stand to lose. The modernist painter Marc Chagall sums up the responsibility that I feel as an artist — not to show nature but to connect humanity back with it:

“Great art picks up where nature ends.”
— Marc Chagall

References

Barkham, P., 2018. Branching out: why artist Andy Goldsworthy is leaving his comfort zone. The Guardian.

Cohen, A., 2018. Jenny Saville Changed the Way We View the Female Form [WWW Document]. Artsy. URL https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-jenny-saville-changed-way-view-female-form-painting (accessed 10.20.19).

Currey, M., 2013. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

DeCordova exhibition “Andy Goldsworthy: Snow” [WWW Document], 2011. . ArtfixDaily. URL http://www.artfixdaily.com/artwire/release/848-decordova-exhibition-andy-goldsworthy-snow-on-view-this-summer (accessed 1.29.20).

Floyd, K., 2017. The Art of Simplicity [WWW Document]. Stone Ward. URL https://www.stoneward.com/blog/2017/08/the-art-of-simplicity/ (accessed 1.31.20).

Gompertz, W., 2015. Think Like an Artist: and Lead a More Creative, Productive Life. Penguin Books Limited.

Jenny Saville | Life Through a Microscope, 2018.

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Maeda, J., 2006. The Laws of Simplicity, Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. MIT Press.

Pheby, H., 2012. Layered Land: Andy Goldsworthy at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: Art & Environment – Tate Papers | Tate [WWW Document]. URL https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/17/layered-land-andy-goldsworthy-yorkshire-sculpture-park (accessed 1.21.20).

Pollock, G., 2015. Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art, Routledge Classics. Taylor & Francis.

Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz [WWW Document], 2018. . Visit Hull. URL https://www.visithull.org/whatson/portrait-artist-kathe-kollwitz-british-museum-ikon-gallery-partnership-exhibition/ (accessed 1.29.20).

Razavi, K., 2019. Drop the doom and gloom: Climate journalism is about empowerment [WWW Document]. The Conversation. URL http://theconversation.com/drop-the-doom-and-gloom-climate-journalism-is-about-empowerment-124922 (accessed 1.29.20).

Stanska, Z., 2017. Pablo Picasso’s Bulls: On The Road To Simplicity [WWW Document]. DailyArtMagazine.com. URL https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/pablo-picassos-bulls-road-simplicity/ (accessed 1.21.20).

Street and Graffiti Art Movement Overview [WWW Document], 2019. . Art Story. URL https://www.theartstory.org/movement/street-art/ (accessed 1.30.20).

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Appendix 1

Summarised from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey (2013).

Have a ritual Maintain creativity Be creative in the morning Isolate yourself & drop the dross
Thomas Wolfe –
wrote standing up
Andy Warhol – refresher morning call & time capsulesW H Auden –
mind sharpest7:00 till 11.30
Sigmund Freud –
wife managed everything
Morten Feldman –
had the right chair and pen
Henry Miller, Hemingway & Kingsley Amis – finished while still had something to sayN C Wyeth – never wrote under artificial lightMahler –
stripped all the dross from life
Tchaikovsky & Beethoven – walked every few hours for creativityNicholson Baker – a different routine that feels new for each bookCarl Yung – wrote 2 hours in the morning onlyWilliam James & David Lynch – hand over as many habits as possible
Benjamin Franklin – aimed for moral perfection in a 13 week planRené Descartes – idleness was essential for good creative workGunter Grass – night writing too easyWilliam Styron – regular and orderly in life so that you may be violent and original in your work
John Adams – very routine non-glamorous habitsSamuel Beckett – depression is a source of creative inspirationToni Morrison – watching the light come is criticalCharles Dickens – absolute quiet

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