Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Happy Medium

by Drew Martin

Every medium has a set of attributes that either attract or repel an artist. Most artists dabble in various media but feel at home in one, which is what we typically know them by: Richard Serra/heavy metal; Andy Warhol/silkscreen paintings. There are also artists who are perpetually footloose and freely jump between media.

Fortunately, what is now defined, practiced and admired as "art" comprises a wide spectrum, which can range from steel work to sewing and might even be left to words or ephemeral gestures.

I did a photo shoot/photo show nearly a fortnight ago. To everyone involved, I was the photographer, while I told myself I was simply the artist using photography. The photo "happening" was successful on many fronts but I still had a very uneasy feeling about the medium and my association with it.

Photography puts a lot of equipment between the artist and the art, which the photographer typically tries to hide. The act of taking pictures can feel intrusive, which I tried to remedy by responding to the notion of "taking pictures" with a show about "giving pictures," in which all the subjects took their portraits home.

I feel alienated by the camera's techno-magical workings and the photograph's hyper-realistic immediacy and photography is not as creative and contemplative a medium (for me) as, for example, drawing is, so it can never intellectually or imaginatively satisfy me the same way. It does not mean I will abandon it. I will simply return to it when it seems fitting for another project.

Media are the variables to the constant urge/need to create or express something. At the same time a medium is the constant to the variables of emotion and experience.

Therefore an artist can continually seek new media, which are most aligned with his or her nature (or fleeting moods), or he or she can excel with what he or she has at hand and is most comfortable with.

When I studied sculpture in the early 1990's with Ann Hamilton I was trying everything. After two years with Anne, she pulled me aside and told me, in a slightly scolding voice, that I really needed to "sink my teeth into something." It was sound, guiding advice she was giving me before she left teaching for a while to pursue her own career as an artist. She knew me well and seemed unsettled that I was more about experimenting than developing my own voice and finding a niche to settle into. The thing is, not much has changed. I am still a very elusive artist and I am quick to turn my back on anything that starts to feel redundant and obvious.

You often hear artists speak about how a specific medium "saved" them from the unknown. For Kara Walker, it was the black paper cutouts. For Julian Schnabel, it was the broken plate paintings. The main reason why I am writing this posting is because I think the medium often gets in the way of what most artists could/should be doing. Especially with someone who sets out wanting to make art and heads straight for a traditional medium, which ultimately causes frustration. The artist needs to look beyond the medium and the studio and all the other trappings and reach back to the creative joy in his or her childhood, when he or she was making cakes or piƱatas or simply drawing with a stick in sand between waves.

Finding the right medium is really an intuitive search, but the artist should consider many factors such as: availability, cost, health, safety, scalability, skill required, labor intensity, audience, storage, accumulation, weight, mobility, permanence and the bliss factor.

Although it hard for an artist to recognize the limits of a medium up close, they are easy to see from a distance. Some paintings simply want to and need to be bigger, while others want to be a something completely different. Just as some sculptures really want to be glossy fiberglass blobs, while others want to be precious metal statues, or even videos of themselves.

Sometimes the relationship of the artist to his or her medium becomes stagnant or the medium does not grow with the artist. Drawing, for example, is a great asocial activity but as an artist matures and develops more social skills, that which was once comforting in solitude, may feel as constricting as Norman Bates' "mother".

I am still not sure what medium I am best suited for, perhaps it is drawing. I know it is not marble or oil paints or photographs. In a certain way, I feel this blog is my medium on which I can cobble together all my interests and make this electronic collage of all my projects and thoughts.