The Puzzle of Personal Statements About Art

Undersea Night, copyright 2010 by Lynn Whitlrak

Undersea Night, copyright 2010 by Lynn Whitlrak

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time lately listening to contemporary artists.

It’s a dizzying task.  The world is a crowded place these days — and art as a means of expression and an attempt to make contact has reached epidemic proportions.

Modern art began with the Impressionists.  Or about there.  Prior to the impressionists, artists painted classical subjects — basically, they either painted portraits, or they illustrated the Bible and a few other classic works of sacred literature including the classical mythologies.  But there came a day when artists in the throws of political revolution all around them decided to hold a little revolution of their own and paint from real life.  Instead of posed attempts at perfection, they started painting real people — warts and deformities and all. Then they started painting fleeting light. Fleeting smiles.  Fleeting glances  Fleeting life.  It was about the beauty of the moment.  It was about time — rather than timelessness.

Since then, art has been in a fast flowing tumble from the Impressionists and the  Expressionists to the swift gallop into true Modernism and its quirks and personal glitches like Art Deco and Art Nouveau, Dadaism, Surrealism,  Abstract Expressionism, and on into Pop Art, Op Art and the Post Modern Deconstructionists.

But throughout all these Modern and Post Modern twists and turns, I hear statements by artists like “My art has to do with ____.”  Or, “I think my art is informed by _______.”  “I’m interested in _______.”  “People see a lot of ______ in my work.”

All this made me feel a little uncomfortable.

First, let me be clear.  It’s not that I have a problem telling people my opinion, or even telling people what to think.  I’m more than happy to do that.   But when I hear someone say “My work is about masks and facades,” or “I’m interested in machines that produce sound,” it makes me look at my work and try to figure out if there is that kind of flat statement that describes it.

So I start here with what it is that interests me about my painting.  I am interested in pigment more than color (and I’m VERY interested in color.)  I’m interested in water and its effects on paper and pigment and botanical gums, humectants, oils, spirits, and minerals.  I am interested in the elements of painting — the water, the evaporation, the materials, — and then heat and fire and how those things effect all the other elements.

Which starts to sound like I’m more chemist and experimentalist than painter.

That would be true except for one thing — my head is full of a life lived with a prevailing idea — The mind speaks fluent METAPHOR.  The conscious mind speaks in language.  But the unconscious mind speaks metaphor.  And where there’s a transmitter — there is always a receiver.

With that firmly in mind, I look back at the list of things that interest me about my own art.  Water is the realm of the unconscious.  Whether you’re talking Freud or Jung or Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, water is where the unconscious works its magic and its sorcery.  Water is what dreams are born of and where mystery and fantasy are worked, reworked and retooled.

Pigments, mediums, (yes, I know, it’s media — but media means something else outside the rigors of singular and plural language…) paper pulp, and chemistry are not only the things the paintings are made of — they are the things I am made of.  I’m basically dirt and water and minerals and fibrous connective tissue.   The elements of the painting are the elements of flesh and blood — a lot of carbon, a lot of iron oxide, a few odd chemicals and minerals, and a lot of liquid.

The not-so-passive-as-it-appears component of my art is air.  I live in a desert.  At least for the moment. (if climate change keeps up its “global weirding” and flooding our desert every year, we may shift to a tropical rain forest over the next couple of decades.) The result is, dry air, humid air, wind and breeze transform pigment and mediums on paper into color and light and shadow and meaning.  Metaphorically, air is what it has always been — breath.  Life.

And from the first days when I put pigment on paper (or wood, or cork, or glass, or leather…) I also put fire there.  This is not so unusual.  Many of the pigments which are traditional to artists are exposed to fire — so we get burnt umber and burnt sienna etc.  Even modern chemical pigments are burned, boiled, roasted, toasted, fired and otherwise cooked to produce variations in color.  I just do some of it on the paper or wood itself with my little (or not so little) torch.  Metaphorically, fire has to do with energy — and energy is what transforms.  We are put through trials of fire.  We burn with desire (or hatred.)  Smoke is the evidence of creativity and invention.

So as it happens, my work is about something.  It is informed by something.  I am interested in communication — and if communication between unconscious minds is going to happen, it is going to happen by way of metaphor.  My art is about unconscious communication.  It is a means of induction and production of an altered state.



Nearly 4 years after first writing this “statement about my art” — I find it is stilL (or more) true, except that this year, I moved from the desert to the Pacific Northwest.  The Oregon Coast, to be specific.  I’ve moved from the breath of the arid Texas Panhandle, to the water-filled breath of the ocean.  I am now within a few hundred yards of where the earth ceases, and the wide, deep, cold, and life-filled Pacific Ocean begins.

As metaphors go — that’s a big, wide and deep one.  If water represents the unconscious mind — I am now close enough to see it, feel it, smell it, hear it and taste it 24 hours a day.  The air is full of it.  You can’t take a breath without breathing it in.  The unconscious is not so much just below the surface as it is on the surface, around the surface, covering the like a transparent blanket….  Water — the ocean of it — effects every single thing that happens here.

And as if that weren’t enough, it rains ALL THE TIME here from October until April.  It rains from May to September, too — but not all the time.  And hardly at all (by comparison) in July or August.

And then there’s the fog and the mist and the spray and the nearly 100% humidity.

And even on days when the Coastal Mountain range  has temperatures in the high 70s and 80s — the temperature by the northern waters of the Pacific — where I am in that last 1/4 – 1/2 miles before the shore — is still hovering at about 60 degrees in the full heat of the day.  And when it’s warm and summery in the mountains, or in the Willamette Valley on the other side — that just draws a heavy coating of mist and fog in from the ocean that socks us in to a fog bank….

So to recap, I am next to water.  breathing water, drenched in water, misted by water, sprayed by water, seeing the world through pea-soup thick water that engulfs everything.

In metaphorical terms — all of that describes what I am doing in my art these days.  When complete strangers look at my paintings, they talk about how deep they appear.  Like looking into a pool of water.  They talk about depths and layers and intricacy and hidden things and secrets….  There are paintings just below the surface of my paintings.

Late Summer Storm

Late Summer Storm

Antique Kimono

Antique Kimono


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