“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)
Life altering piece
by Kimberly Peterson
I am an artist in Fort Worth and work in several mediums, just skimming the surface thus far, as I believe there is a lot more I am capable of. I am 43 and just built a studio and am planning a new series of paintings. Last year I wanted to do a self-portrait and a life review of sorts as I was going through some mid-life deal and wanted to visually step back and take a look at myself. So I started thinking out of the box a bit and came up with a multi-paneled piece with each piece being a separate collage of some aspect of my life. What was really cool about this piece is what happened before, during and after doing it. Let’s put it this way — it was life altering.
Think about what is not there
by Pamela M Simpson
I love that quote by Miles Davis. I think that is a great way to explain what we can do with colour. Take what is out there — then think about what is not there — and use that to lead the viewer’s eye, wake them up! Give them what you feel, what they need. Today it finally feels like spring, 60 degrees F and sunny. It’s a great day to be a painter.
Odd Nerdrum fulfills it all
by Alex Nodopaka
The idea of the incongruous in art is a superb idea for making it standout from the run of the mill. Of course, simply adding a floating banana on the horizon of a beautiful sunset for instance is not what I mean, though when it is dealt with savvy and is not repetitious in every artwork it will attract attention. Where art resides is in the idea of not making art fall into an attention grabber gimmick.
Effectively, I speak of originality in art. Originality should be an afterthought and is the least important. Since Shakespeare, Bach and Michelangelo were not in the least original, we can safely assume that originality is of mere quaint importance. Every time I think I reinvent the wheel the known past of humankind careens through my mind. I become transfixed by history as I merge the past into the present into some perceived future. My presumptions towards being unique are squashed by the dreadful acknowledgment that if I do not fulfill the significance, structure and style in my art then I feel I am not sincere to me or to my art no matter how original my art may be it will be inconsequential. But if it fulfills my prescribed criteria and in addition is also ‘original’ then I will have succeeded. A good example of my prescription for significance, structure, style and sincerity is the work of Odd Nerdrum who besides satisfying the above criteria also fulfills ‘originality.’
by Judith Jancowski
I went around and looked at my pictures and found that the unusual ones were the ones that people liked the most. I do a lot of cyanotype photography. Once when I applied the emulsion and left it drying on the floor my cat walked across it and as it dried it was not noticeable, until I printed it, then the cat paws showed up clearly and I thought it was ruined. Quite the contrary — many people asked how I got the cat to do that, like it was some unique skill. It was quite amusing.
Won’t be adding any melting clocks
by John Ferrie
My new series AQUA is all about seascapes. I have a canoe in the foreground and bouquets of flowers as well. My signature, in the lower LEFT hand corner is as much a part of the composition as the size of the canvas I have chosen. But these are the elements I have chosen to communicate with my paintings. This is part of the vocabulary that we as artists are trying to realize with our art. If the viewer sees what we are saying, then BINGO, it’s a complete circle. But what a viewer draws from our work is not always up to us. What people come away with when they look at art is as varied as each individual. “I love it,” “I hate it” are the words that can drive an artist mad. But to trick someone with a glass of wine or a doll in a puddle in the foreground of a painting is simply ludicrous.
If an artist wants to paint a landscape, then that is what the artist should be able to paint. I tell artists to paint like nobody is watching and paint like they don’t need any money. To add all these cheesy details to make a painting sexier is not often the intention of why we are artists. Something in our souls makes us squeeze pigments out of tubes, smear paint on canvas and hang it on the wall for all to see. We often sacrifice our lives by going to art schools instead of business schools, we waiter on tables to make ends meet and we stupidly sit and listen to endless pieces of “friendly advice” from people who claim to know better. The key to being a successful artist is to really know what it is we are trying to communicate with our paint. I like Salvador Dali and his work has inspired me. I went to his museum in Europe once and was blown away. I, however, won’t be adding any melting clocks to my work in the near future.
by Henry de Jager
I always wonder what sort of toys we artists have in our studios. Like I know one artist with a WWII Jeep in his studio. It brings back memories and it helps to display his works placed on the seats. Another artist uses a canvas canoe as a bookshelf — not a bad idea. I wouldn’t mind to have a good motorcycle, maybe a BMW to look at.
Too many decades ago
by Jim Pescott, Calgary, Alberta
The Semiahmoo Trail ! Too many decades ago, I grew up within range of the Semiahmoo Trail. At that time I hardly knew the significance of location, or the trail, but I did harbour adventure within myself. I knew the smell of rainforest and the taste of salmon berries. My path was not a trail, it was water.
I now know I was trekking the bed of the tributaries of the Serpentine River. Adventure was a stream shore, hazard was the depth of the pools I traversed where one step could fill rubber boots and take you to your hips in cold water. This was uncharted territory — no real representation on maps, the Serpentine River existed without recognized tributaries.
When sunlight pierced through shadows to the water surface, waterlife beneath the surface was on stage. A virtual circus of minnows and bullheads, tadpoles, salamanders, and frogs for the viewing. Small time life in small time streams but so much a part of the whole huge picture. Somehow it didn’t matter if it was a warm day or a cold day, the streams were magnetic. I remember so well and wonder if any part of them still exist. Unlike the Semiahmoo Trail, I suspect most of these adventure lands are now controlled by culverts that dump, unceremoniously, into the Serpentine. No heritage designation here. And yet for me they are a real part of my path, my life. And I wonder how these experiences from too many decades ago are expressed within me today. What part of my path is represented both historically and directionally through these streams and pools? I know I would love to walk down one of those streams again today if I could find one…with, or without rubber boots.
The art of writing
by Roger Davis
At this time of year, I am swamped with marking of student papers. Nuance and subtlety are often overlooked; indeed, this is built into their very definition as terms. I try to instill in my students a level of care in their writing; that is, if they care about their work, they will achieve greater success. I give them a piece of writing by Theodor Adorno (not a sunny fellow, but a smart fellow) which states, “No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.”
The idea is elegant in its simplicity. The difficulty lies in expressing things so directly and accurately that the subtlety comes across in the work but is not noticed. The difficulty in writing lies in the manipulation of language, having the ability to alter the text (or picture) in hundreds of ways. It is only at that point of complete mastery of the text (if such a thing is even possible) that we are able to understand the elegant simplicity of complexity. This, to me, is the art of writing.
This ability only comes through an apprenticeship to language and the ability to imagine a text as otherwise. Any understanding, comprehension, apprehension (prehension in general) is rooted in the word for “grasping.” It implies both seizing and struggling. These actions are exactly that: actions. They require active participation in the creation of something meaningful. Usually, ideas created with care are worthy of others’ care and attention. Those based on habit and drudgery, a compulsion for completion, evoke the same response in the reader.
Fake it at your peril
by David Louis, UK
The magic of applying incongruity to one’s paintings isn’t based on the pure effect of doing so. Painters who apply this facet to their paintings do this for other reasons beyond pure effect. It is this motivating reason that we experience the true magic of the work. Because the reasoning behind the oddness and the execution of that is coming from somewhere much deeper than the superficiality of pure effect. That half glass of wine you mentioned is not a glass of wine, it has a personality, it breathes and you can’t fake it.
by Sherry Preston
To see something that is simple is it really boring? To see something that is normal is it really normal? To look past with an artistic eye and wonder how that came to be and where it originated makes it into something more than boring. I would say in myself my works are not ‘boring’ or the ‘norm’ but they are something more. I think yes, there are many that do a style they are comfortable with. That is a key to painting I believe. To enjoy what you are doing, no matter what the subject. Sometimes it is fun to explore the ‘abstract’s side of our world. To change things into something that is not the norm. To see things in a different light, different color or line. To move things into a new level of awareness. I am a very versatile artist and I have developed my ability to stay that way intentionally. I wanted to do any commission that would come my way. To not limit myself in one area, that I may have missed a wonderful opportunity to create a wonder of something more. I find when I create something more unique it moves people more. They look at it and ponder it and wonder. I find that wonderful and I absorb it for the next piece. I remember the reaction or the length of time a person looked at the piece. To wonder what they thought of it. I work towards leaving an impression on a person, that they will never forget what my piece looked like. To give them something with colors and lines to enjoy and follow around the piece. I am having fun in my style and I think that is the key to keeping things alive in the artistic soul. Finding peace and enjoyment in our ‘work,’ to leave an impression with the viewer. I have viewed artists’ works that move past the normal, the more they use their ability to create the more interesting the pieces become.
ISABELLE EN CARACO
oil painting on canvas
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