“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” said the jazz artist Miles Davis. His thought is one of the keys to avoiding the boringly ordinary — “the borinary.” Many works of art are what I call “one-two.” That is, they engage the mind and sensibilities only so far. Putting a half-filled wine glass into a landscape foreground, for example, turns borinary — for better or for worse — into a bit of a conversation piece. It becomes a “one-two-three.”
Writing on the work of Salvador Dali, Sidra Stich noted, “Refusing to idealize, the Surrealists awakened a sensitivity to the arbitrary and the unusual.” In degree, it’s the calculated addition of visual surprise and incongruity that makes works of art speak both to the artist and her people.
There are degrees of incongruity. That wine glass is relatively benign. It mildly suggests romance, escape, maybe even the end to a lovely day in a nice location. Think also of incongruities that suggest threat, remorse, lost innocence — perhaps a child’s doll floating in a foreground puddle. Take it in another direction — inconsequential incongruity — a piece of foreground flotsam, a jet plane in the sky, a beach-ball in mid flight. Keep in mind that it’s easy to fall into conventions. For example, the ultimate illustrational cliche — birds. “Cut to seagull,” says the movie director when he can’t think of anything else.
The muscle of human imagination is strong with possibilities and not all of us give it enough exercise. The idea is to make a list based on your own personality and passions. These can be the precious elements that make your work unique. I invite you to look around your own workspace and the greater world for incongruous items that you may consider putting into the stew. Just as I’m tapping this letter into my laptop, Emily, the Airedale, is coming toward me. Hanging from her mouth is the ragged leather case of one of my vintage cameras. I’m paying attention. What does this mean? “Artists,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “must preside over their states of consciousness with obstinate rigor.”
PS: “Common objects become strangely uncommon when removed from their context and ordinary ways of being seen.” (Wayne Thiebaud)
Esoterica: Try “spoiling” your work by adding an incongruous element. You might consider isolating with a varnish so that you can change your mind. Apart from the fun of monitoring the reactions to your incongruities, there’s a bonus for your own creative exploration. Incongruity stimulates. “Regard everything as an experiment.” (Corita Kent)
This letter was originally published as “Avoiding the borinary” on April 26, 2003.
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“Art means something very rare, an extraordinary achievement.” (Wayne Thiebaud)
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