The next workshop I’ll teach this fall is Monotype Portfolio. It’s intended to go beyond the basic techniques of one of a kind prints and explore harnessing of acquired skills in service to an artist’s creative vision. Less about how to make a competent print, and more about making one that tells your story. So here’s some speculation about stories in art: all art tells a story, whether the artist intends an overt narrative or not.
I reviewed Women of Abstract Expression at DAM in 2016 in terms of its inherent drama- Ab Ex is always about drama, with its reliance on gesture and scale- and in the context of its backstory, of women against a repressive art scene in a sexist society.
Lee Krasner made obvious use of pinks and browns in this show to declare artistic independence and feminine creative power. “No one was surprised more than I when the breasts appeared,” she says of a pink-dominated piece in the catalog. Pink and brown ( as seen in a couple of pieces in that show), not pink and blue, are the colors of feminine sex. In asserting the dominant colors of the flesh of the vulva and the earth with power, gesture and scale, Krasner must have known she was using color in a transgressive way, to break assumptions and conventions. Pink had already been associated strongly at this time with a demeaning view of femininity, whether in the pink triangles for gays in the Nazi camps, or its prevalence in stereotyped domesticity. She returned later to this combination in “Gaea”. Her generative colors wind up being the story of her will to create art .
Krasner finds a rich, assertive pink and her browns are straightforward and do not recede. There is tension here, and much to ponder no matter what your superficial reactions to the terms ‘brown’ and ‘pink’. Here, they cannot be separated from her suppressed rage, her earthborn desire to create, her need to assert animal power. Her story, in other words, though through its raw aggressive assertion it becomes ours, too, as recognized by the curator of the show. Colors thus can tell a story in the tension between complements, hues, transparent/opaque, light/dark, warm/cool. Colors are a component of light, of course.
And light has its own story to tell.
As it travels across a pictorial plane, light creates an inherent story. It reveals, hides, blasts and suggests. It’s movement, which creates interest, and even in an abstract picture, one is well served to be aware of the source of the light, as viewers will almost certainly do that, and follow its path, whether unconsciously or not. In pictorial arts, eye movement can certainly be analogous to emotional involvement or interest. It’s an obvious source of drama, Let there be light. The light at the end of the tunnel. Every picture is a lighted stage-something is about to happen. It is the white space that makes the advertisement more powerful on a page, separating out noise to let the signal through. Chances are, if you are surrounded by black, you are dead, or asleep and dreaming. Surrounded by white, you are in heaven ( blessed , transcendent), or in a blizzard (lost and near death). Black and white are never neutral.
Composition also tells a story even when not attached to a specific literary narrative. Diagonals are important because they imply movement. Molly Bangs in her innovative Picture This speaks of a diagonal as a tree about to fall, and that’s a form of movement, even an implied danger. But even ‘static’ or stable diagonals in perspective imply movement into space. A repeating series of simple vertical shapes, especially strokes, imply rhythm or music, and in this, as in physics, distance= rate x time. Every one of these concepts is somewhat synesthetic; they blend sensory information, which does for the interest level in a picture, what eye movement does.
Along implied diagonal axes in a picture, other dichotomies come into play as dramatic elements. For example, hard edges versus soft edges: soft =mystery, distance. Hard = surety, obstacle. The eye gives us definition up close, and indistinction far away, so it is a natural thing to see hard edged shapes as closer or more important. In realism, these cues get used pretty straightforwardly. In abstract or expressionistic art, they get jumbled, and become part of a picture’s mystery. This too can be manipulated. Too close, and objects become mysteriously indistinct or vaguely threatening.
The final story a picture tells is not at all under an artist’s control. Not so much in a gallery setting, but in a street fair show, where artists are spending long hours absorbing the diverse reactions from a large sample of viewers, one is struck by how much a viewer’s interpretation can differ from the one intended by the artist. I actually encourage that with schematic, open ended imagery, but you don’t ultimately control what another tells themselves about a scene. I maintain that this is part of the natural narrative process in art.
When several people interpreted my large monotype, “Man With Torch”, as an environmental statement, I couldn’t really disagree. An indistinct figure wielding elemental power strides across a denuded plain (top).
However, I intended it clearly in my mind when composing it, as a metaphor for memory. One razes the past in memory, even as one marches confidently toward new experience, oblivious of past failure.
Both interpretations seem valid now. I don’t argue that some interpretations of an image may seem more valid than others; this sort of visual relativism can go too far. But narrative IS organic, and the oldest story is transformation.
Thus, no matter how specific the imagery, ambiguity results, and working to make the image more specific often leads to overworking it, which tells its own story, of obsession or neurosis. Visually, this can be a form of stasis, not necessarily a bad thing if balanced against movement or transformation.
Movement of light across a plane and suggested movement of diagonals comes under the general heading of transformation: all art is transformation of a sort, and anything that shows an artist’s hand, such as transitions from black into white, or blended colors, bring that idea to the fore. Transformation is already in your process, but preconception can sometimes render it awkward or graceless. Transformation IS the story, and it should be built into your process, your composition, and your colors. A recognition of the transformation that inevitably informs a successful piece as it’s being made makes it easier to deal with the fact that the story of a given work of art often doesn’t end when it goes into a frame and onto a gallery wall.