I want to talk about the way things slip away from us. Or at least I want to talk about the way things seem to slip away from us. This can happen in all aspects of life, but in the visual arts it can happen simply by not paying attention to the medium you are working in. If you ignore the material at hand and fail to recognize its dictates, you are liable to be unaware of not experiencing a direct perception of the thing itself. Instead, you may wind up responding only to preconceived notions of what is in front of you, a situation which can lead to not being true to the material at hand, which in turn can lead to falseness in what you have to offer-- an irrelevance, a type of nonsense repellant to meaning.
We are experiencing something here together right now. The medium is words, writing and talking. This statement was begun in the hopes of being a talk about my visual art, paintings which are hanging on the wall of a gallery. It was hoped that maybe words (an almost magical medium of symbols) could throw some light on the meaning of objects we encounter with our eyeballs. It is clear I am talking, using words. And this talk, needless to say, is not my visual art. However, it is intended to be about my visual art-- which means, because it is a talk, it is necessarily composed of words, not colour and form.
Nonetheless, regardless of the medium I happen to be working in at any one time, if I had my druthers, I would have it be "artistic" and as well done as possible-- because I am an artist. That is, I would have this presentation be what we call both meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. I would like it to have the same reverberations my paintings have-- even though, in this situation I am speaking as a visual artist. Writing is not the art I am supposed to be talking about. But, so far, alas (as you have no doubt observed), it is indeed the talk itself I am talking about. And, needless to say, it is indeed the talk itself I am thinking about as I come up with these words to frame these thoughts. The visual art is necessarily and definitely a secondary consideration as long as I am talking and trying to find the right words to express myself. It's hard to say, but this may have something to do with being true to the medium I am working in. Maybe I just have a knack for it. (Note the medium I am working in right now.) You will have to extrapolate what I am saying now and apply it to my paintings.
This is not complicated. It is simple-- in fact, it is simple beyond belief. No leap of faith is required of you. Look. Just direct perception. Simplicity, clarity and non-mystification are things that I not so much strongly believe in as they are things the opposite of which tend to repel me. In spite of what it may sound like, what I am saying is not convoluted. That is, I do not intend to adhere to current standards and fashions in art writing which is convolution convoluted. I both don't understand it and don't have the patience to understand it.
This is not paint, these are words. It seems I can talk about talk (make statements about statements) easier than I can about my visual art, which I like to think is beyond language, beyond chattering. To experience it, it must be seen and perceived directly, without words. It is often forgotten that this is a characteristic inherent to visual art. It is about seeing, not language.
To get back to the matter at hand, to what I am doing right now, to this talk-- I have the feeling that already my aspiration for a very simple statement about my work is wandering far from the mark, although, if (for some reason) you want to know about the artist rather than the art, this may help you have an inkling of the way one artist's brain works.
I wanted to talk about the way things slip away from us, the way we become twice removed from our experiences, the way we are denied direct and immediate perception and participation in the universe, the way we put on blinders or rose-coloured glasses and what we look at is thereby altered and our experience of life is not true. We see through thoughts and opinions and preconceptions rather than seeing simply and directly what is in front of us -- seeing it for what it is, which is reality.
This statement so far is a pretty good example of the barriers we construct between us and the art we are to experience directly. What can I say about my paintings? I may be doing more harm than good.
When you are in a prison it may be best to look beyond the bars to the world beyond rather than look at the bars and study them in detail. Unless, of course, you are planning an escape. Maybe you don't want to be behind bars, maybe you want to put yourself in a position where you will have nothing to do with captivity and restriction ever again. Whatever is between us and what is, can it be removed? Can these words act as hack-saws? Beyond the work of a hack? Something is still in the way. Let's start over.
I am not to be trusted as a guardian of our collective art awareness. In this I am not much different than the rest of you (including curators and art experts). We all have a hierarchy of taste. We like one thing better than another. Now if I were given the choice to save from oblivion my own work or that of Picasso, I would unhesitatingly save my own. Lucky for us, such fantasy-based choices never really come to us. I know I would be alone in the world in my belief that I made the right choice. I love the work of Picasso, I think it is great, but to me my own work is far more engaging and meaningful. Which is to say, it is my life. It is what I do from day to day, following my calling which has been a presence in my life ever since I was a little kid. I am alive, Picasso is dead. To prefer my own work over what is often considered the greatest body of work in art history is not arrogance on my part. Probably every living artist feels the same way so this likely wasn't even worth mentioning.
Boy, I'm really rambling on. I hope all this yapping puts you in the right mood and state of mind to better see my work.
Art is a funny occupation. Anyone who wants to can call himself an artist. There are no diplomas or qualifications. You either think of yourself as an artist or you don't. In public fantasies there are notions that hover over the name "artist" like an aura. There is "the priesthood of painting", the artist as shaman or an antennae for the human race. Art can be seen as the leaven for the re-enchantment of society. It may be idiotic to make claims for yourself, your art or art and artists in general by saying that is what my art does because that is what art does. Art is only doing its job when it acts on people. All we can hope is that it will do that. It doesn't matter what you say, it must act. To do that, it must be made.
Here is how my work comes about: First, I have an impulse to make an art object based on a feeling or a very vague vision. I then set out to make it. I stretch and bend the canvas, improvising on form and colour. What I do is "right" or "wrong" depending on how well it corresponds to my original feeling. Sometimes good painting must be abandoned because it is not true to the original intent. If it is not, the whole work suffers. I have a personal fondness for a strong central image that has a "presence" the viewer can enter and be in. That's about all I can say about it, and maybe even that is too much.
Behind my work is the belief that the aesthetic experience is the height of all human experiences. I could say I hope my work has something to do with that, knowing that it is as personal an experience possible. Although anything specific I have to say about my art seems to sound like a strangely relative (or a relatively universal) statement about art in general.
Art has something to do with an expansive approach to life. It is not confining but an opening up — the freedom of grand vistas, and wide and far horizons. Unfortunately talk about art tends to be about defining, enclosing, putting limits on, encircling, capturing, putting in a cage, fixing, freezing, stopping— the hammering out of mere theories and mere opinions. In fact, if we are clever enough, we might even come to think that these words are an accurate reflection of our true situation.
We are not everywhere, we are here. And here, we are not experiencing the past or the future, but now. All times are reduced to this moment. Everywhere is reduced to here. In fact this (yes, this) is the famous "here and now" we have heard so much about. This is it. Its reputation is well deserved. It is our only touch point with the eternal, and the infinite must be counted out from right here and now, this moment and where we are. So, far from being constrictive and a prison cell, this is the expansiveness and openness we all long for. It is here we can take in everything, everything that is take-in-able.
There is a view of art which is strangely appropriate for the shoddy times we live in. In it, the art object is less important than the idea. This is art of conception as opposed to perception. The physical object (what might be called the "residue" of the idea) is something of secondary importance. This is the situation, at least initially or theoretically. But for artists (being the vain creatures they are), there has to be something they can take credit for. So we have a new obsession with documentation. It often seems that nowadays what has come to be called "documentation" has become the most important aspect of art. Some people have actually come to believe that if it is not documented it might as well have not been done. This attitude is foreign to me, even though I know this pamphlet is documentation.
The irony here is that documentation is an entirely legitimate way of thinking about art. Not the recent approach, where documentation substitutes for the art object itself (and the catalogue of a show is often considered more important and impressive than the show itself). But we can become delightfully awake and alert to the fact that the paintings of the old masters can be seen themselves as documentation. They document a feeling or a perception, a still life, a landscape or a portrait. Not just the old masters but your Aunt Lucy's Sunday efforts as well. I figure my paintings themselves are documentation. If art is seen as documentation in the first degree, it is made to last and is executed with care and artistry.
With conceptual art, art which once was documentation par excellence is now made (or imagined) merely to be documented. What once was the ultimate documentation is now just the subject of documentation. The "art" becomes talk about art. It is not the thing itself that is the focus of attention but the documentation of the thing. The prison of the individual skull has acquired a fancy hat. The expansive participation in the tangible joys of being here, alive on earth and gripped with the play and joy of the five senses, becomes fodder for a memory and retrieval system rather than something to be lived.
We must come to our senses and see the way of art as a way for the governing of ourselves and society in general. As a society we must provide for the individual aesthetic experience which is a huge step in self-realization and fulfillment for each member of society and therefore for society itself. It has to do with the meaning of life. It is possessed by one person but not to the exclusion of another-- unlike the acquisition of material wealth. This is a call for an authentic revolution, which is a profound change in the way we view the world and our place in it, our relationship with both each other and the things of the world, both natural and man-made. This is too big a topic to be dealt with in this small space. But I mention it just to illustrate my belief that art is important. It is one of the most important things humans can be involved in, whether they know it or not.
Related to the above is the fact that artists with a "calling" have no choice but to make art. Unfortunately our society is currently set up to treat everything as a commodity. So, being an artist in Hamilton means living with the realization that what you do is not valued. Which means making art will not pay the rent or put food on the table, which is what work that is valued by society will do. It is simple. Being valued is translated into being able to make a living wage. This has not been the case for me. I have long ago come to terms with this. Why should I expect the society I live in to value what I do when what I do is in contradiction to everything that society stands for? I am opposed to the collective project we as a society are embarked on. It is unhealthy, unsafe and brutal. It is not the way of art. A revolution in our thinking and seeing is needed to change this.
What I am talking about is a shared world-view-- what we as a people think we should be doing with our short little lives while we are living together here on this ball called Earth, spinning aimlessly through outer-space, heading towards who-knows-what.
If our day-to-day aims are guided by the humanities, art will be important, the settings and environments in which we live will be safe, healthy and beautiful, and the collective human project will be guided by justice, beauty and love.
GREEN : SHAPED
at the YOU ME GALLERY
Nov 1 - Dec 14, 2003
Robert Clark Yates Shaped Paintings at You Me Gallery Hamilton, Nov. 2003