Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Use it or lose it, Part II

I love it when comments or questions spark ideas for new posts.
This comment from Kenney was in response to the post below:

In grad school there was a beautiful young woman who was looking through slides in the slide library. She was a teaching assistant for studio, I was one for art history. I started my rap, "That's pretty cool that you're using art historical examples for your drawing class."


She replied, "Yeah, but I don't like to show them too much stuff too often. If they know to much about the past, I feel like that other painters imagery will influence them too much and they'll repeat it."

I decided not to ask her out.
Well I agree with both of them, and think there was a missed opportunity for fruitful conversation over coffee, if not more.

My point in the last post was that it’s important that museums, and the artists who show in them, have a deep understanding of their place in the art history continuum.  When teaching studio art, however, the issue becomes much more complex, because students are so easily influenced. They want to make art that “looks like” art, and are often encouraged in this by their instructors, who have their own expectations about what art should look like.

Most of the art I see falls flat because it lacks inspired idiosyncrasy—something artists develop not by looking at other art, but by learning to trust their singular intuition.

In his lecture at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) last week, Rob Storr talked about a piece by Robert Ryman, shown at MoMA, which incorporated four small strips of masking tape. The museum installers were fastidious in measuring and matching the strips with those in the photographs, but it was flat, had no energy. Then Ryman came into the gallery and Storr watched fascinated as the artist placed the strips himself, seemingly in the same places, and the piece came alive—became a Ryman.

I had a big lesson in the value, or lack of it, of exposure to outside influences during a period when I was simultaneously teaching undergraduates at Bennington College in isolated Vermont, and graduate students at the School of Visual Arts, with its proximity to the galleries. My younger, unexposed Bennington students produced more original work because they were working primarily from their own resources—unlike the SVA students who were into cloning Chelsea, they hadn’t (yet) acquired superficial assumptions about what art should look like (and here I must give credit here to those few SVA students who were able to overcome their environment).  

Like Ryman, I didn’t study painting, and am glad for it. Music was my first love, my most evident natural talent, and in a perfect world I’d be Radiohead or Sigur Rós.  However after 20 years of rigorous classical piano training, I no longer had a clue who I was musically, and eventually gave up trying. While it’s easy to point out musicians who have evolved their classical training into something more contemporary (like, perhaps, Sigur Rós), history doesn’t count those like me who tried and failed.

As a teacher, I’m cautious about how and when I introduce the work of others, because I’m aware that to be faced with work of accomplishment when you do not yet have skills can be extremely intimidating.

At Bennington I had the luxury of creating my own beginning painting class the way I’d always wanted to teach it, and enjoying the results. [I was also abetted by the most excellent TA, Catherine Hamilton who, with her thorough RISD training in techniques, proved to be the perfect resource.]

I started with abstraction because an understanding of abstraction is important to every successful painting, regardless of content, and often with figurative work it’s easy to get so wrapped up in representing the image that other necessary painting decisions go by the wayside.

So the first assignment was to paint, with acrylics, 3 to 5 squares or rectangles using only primary colors on a 2’ x 2’ canvas stretched on a professional support (none of those crappy pre-stretched canvases for my students—you have to be a really great painter to make those things look good, and then, why bother?). My secret agenda here was that I wanted the students to have a positive first painting experience, build confidence for what would come later, and that formula is hard to screw up.


First painting by unidentified Bennington student, acrylic on canvas, 2' x 2', circa 1998.

The second assignment was to do the same, now adding curves and mixing primary colors to make secondaries, as desired.

The following assignments were to paint a landscape, then a portrait, then a still life without any preparation—somewhat like the way my grandfather was taught to swim by being thrown off the end of a dock—always on the same 2’ x 2’ format, as it’s important to accustom oneself to a particular scale, and I had laid in a supply of inexpensive strainers from Twin Brooks Stretchers.

Each assignment was followed by a group critique that emphasized the differences in approach, and only then did I introduce examples of how other artists had treated similar subject matter.  My aim as a teacher has always been to tread as lightly as possible, to be a resource and facilitator in realizing the students' intentions, and to use examples from art history only where it would support this objective.

On the other hand, I have a friend, painter Richard Britell, who tells the story of a class he was teaching where he set up a still life with the instruction to “paint it like Vermeer.”  That nudge was all one student needed. After that class, Richard said, “She no longer needed me”—and indeed, Janet Rickus has been successfully painting in the manner of an updated Vermeer ever since.

Diff’rent strokes, as they say.

Janet Rickus, Turnips on Table, oil on panel, 14" x 27", 1996

5 comments:

giovannigf said...

When I was an undegrad one of my professors said that there are two ways for young artists to start: you make art that looks good but it looks like your influences, or you make art that is original but looks immature. Either way you'll have to work your way out of it.

Carol Diehl said...

Excellent observation! Which were you?

Lise said...

I came to your Bennington intro painting class perfectly primed: I'd seen many good paintings -- including in progress -- throughout my young life, as the daughter of a cultured illustrator and the sister of a painting grad (alongside Kathy) of RISD. The freedom you gave me to play, with the pressure off, was invaluable. And the paintings that flew onto my canvases back then still give me (and some others who see them) a thrill.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks, Lise! Those were some astonishing paintings! I wish you were still doing them.

lucy mink said...

Hi Carol, I am teaching in NH a painting class at CS for one semester starting in Jan, i thank you for this post it was just what i needed to read. I have taught k-8 mostly but college is new for me, excited to start!