Sunday, January 16, 2011

Writing Artist Statements

I've been working on updating my artist statement for an upcoming show.  Galleries almost always request artist statements, and many juried shows do as well.  I don't think anyone likes writing them, but they help put your work in context, they help galleries promote your work appropriately, and they help sell your work.  I think that people who don't take them seriously do themselves a disservice.

I have a common theme that's the truth (yes, that is important) about what motivates me and how I see my work, but I update it - "respin" it if you will - for each set of images I exhibit.  Some angles on my motivations and processes are more relevant to one set of images than another, and over time my motivation takes different turns that require updated explanations.  I have heard some people claim that they wrote one statement ten years ago and have never seen a need to update it, but I find it hard to imagine how that could be true for anyone who grows as an artist.

You can find a lot of advice about writing artist statements in books and on the web.  Some of it is very good.  Some of it strikes me as ridiculous.  I don't claim to know any more about the "right" way to go about it than anyone else, but here are some things that I have learned, or at least have come to believe, about writing artist statements:
  1. It's not a simple "sit down and get it done" exercise.  Writing an artist statement is a sort of self exploration and it is an inherently iterative process.  Look at it as a term paper, not a pop quiz.
  2. It's not a bio or resume.  Its purpose is to explain why you make the work you do, what's unique about how you do it, and what's personal about your creative process.  Where you were born, where you went to school, where you've shown your work, etc. belongs in another document (the one called bio or resume)
  3. It's a statement, not a defense.  You don't have to justify your work, just explain why and how you do it.
  4. Most advice on writing artist statements will tell you don't use big fancy words. I agree with that to a point - being pretentious for the sake of show is annoying and ... well, pretentious.  However one of the most ridiculous bits of advice I've ever read is to "use language that will hold the interest of someone who knows nothing about art."  I believe most artists have done some intelligent thinking about their art and have more than a simplistic understanding of what they do and why they do it.  If your vocabulary includes words that appropriately express that understanding then the fact that a high school dropout with no interest in art might have to look them up is not a good reason to avoid using them.  And don't be afraid to use a dictionary and thesaurus.  There's a good reason the English language (or any other language) includes more than 50 words.  Pretension is annoying, but sounding artificially unsophisticated is no less annoying. 
  5. Most advice on writing artist statements will tell you to avoid the words "I," "me," and "my."  While minimizing them can definitely help, I find that avoiding them completely can force you into using an overly passive voice that makes for some very awkward sentences and can contribute to a pretentious tone.  I suggest circling all your "I"s "me"s and "my"s and making an honest effort to figure out how to avoid them, but if all you can come up with is an awkward, pretentious statement that stumbles all over itself, it's better to stick with the original.
  6. I've seen more than one reference advise artists to "keep it short at all costs."  There is certainly virtue in brevity, and dedicating at least one writing session just to achieving that is worth while, but it doesn't make sense to set a "three paragraph, half page" limit if you need four paragraphs and a full page to explain your work.  Making brevity a higher priority than getting your point across guarantees your statement will be a waste of time.  My advice is keep it short, but no shorter than it needs to be.
Here is an (almost finished?) version of my current artist statement.  There are things I still don't like about it, so it needs more work, but I thought I'd share it just for illustration.  It's the result of starting with a few core sentences from an old one and spending about 14 hours in as many different sessions working on it.

        I understand photography as an expressive medium more than a documentary one. It is often said that a photograph should tell a story. That works for documentary photography, but an expressive image should inspire stories. It is the artist's job to suggest an idea, a mood, or a concept, but the viewer's job to fill in the details. If an image tells a single story from beginning to end and leaves no place for the viewer to insert their own creativity then it is a failure in the context of expressive photography.
        Light and humans are my materials of choice. There is no catalyst of sentience more potent than light, and there is no base for creation that is more aesthetically rich, more conceptually robust, more visually malleable, or more technically challenging to photograph than a live, nude human. Managing controlled light and collaborating with models, combining their qualities in subtle ways to build images that invite people to imagine, is what keeps me behind a camera.
       Many of these images are presented as series. Some are sequential series – all shot in the same session, with the same model, often minutes apart. Others are non-sequential series – shot hours, months, or even years apart. The sequential series are usually planned with a general concept in mind, but the story is unscripted so inspiration, revelation, and discovery play a significant role in making them. They provide more touchstones than a single image, but they are intended only to be a stronger dose of stimulant for the imagination, not to limit where the imagination goes.
        The non-sequential series develop through a more complex process. Certain themes, conceptions of light, or juxtapositions of design or emotion get stuck in my mind and follow me around. I play with them in different exploratory mediums (doodles, sketches, folded paper, sticks and rocks, snapshots, even rhymes or songs) before they develop into something I'm ready to take into the studio and explore with light and models. When I start shooting one I revisit it multiple times with different models, different light, different moods, different tools, and different states of mind, each time producing different realizations of the concept and different images. Eventually sets of connected images start to stand out in my memory and I get motivated to compile and edit groups that end up as a non-sequential series. Like a collection of short stories, they may be only loosely related in content, but connected by a subtlety that is apparent when they are considered together.

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