Semester 1 Summary


 

The Shipwreck, but My Experience (2015)

 

This semester has been a maelstrom. I mean that in the best possible way. I began the semester in a complete tailspin from our first residency. The monsoon of information, the swirling of new ideas and approaches and the impact with so many other artists and viewing their work was empowering, but there were so many opportunities that I found myself at sea with no solid ground in sight from which to anchor or find a starting point.

Through some strong words and patient coaching from my mentor, Brian Ulrich, I feel that I have begun the process of narrowing the type of work that interests me. In one of our earliest meetings, Brian urged me to “thumbnail” out my ideas – to try everything and see what worked. I did the best I could, and took my first few awkward steps on dry land.

Coming into the residency, I was working with digital manipulation and using pop culture as a source material. I felt, like several individuals mentioned to me in crits, the work had arrived and didn’t have anywhere further to go. I’m glad the general consensus to the work was positive, but as Deb Todd Wheeler mentioned to me, I seemed to be ‘past it’. She asked what it was about my work that I liked, and I realized it was the surprise that people showed when they realized what they were looking at and how they reevaluated the formal qualities of the work. I was tied more to the ‘aha’ than I was the ‘ahhhhh’ of the work, or as Ed Ruscha put it, “Good art should elicit a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! Huh?’”.

So I stood at a standstill. I looked at the academic and studio summaries that I had created when I got home realizing they were in no way what I was interested in or passionate about. I realized I was just saying I would create work that everyone thought that I should be creating – and that I thought I should be creating because everyone thought I should be creating it. While I appreciate Turner and Liz Dechennes, I wasn’t interested in their work like I was Alec Soth and Thomas Struth. I wish I would have realized and articulated this sooner. After several weeks and several mentor meetings, I put down my digital camera, my PixelStick (I was using the digital images inside photographs to create pictorial space), and my beloved computer and I went back to the basics. I played with several film stocks and cameras, finally settling on a combo that I loved: a medium format rangefinder and a slow color negative film stock. Sending my film out to a lab gave me much more time to create images and dive into studying other artist’s work at length. I noticed that all of the photographers that I admired pulled some sleight of hand (or sleight of eye) when it came to their images – Gursky was using three perspectives simultaneously, Crewdson was lighting like cinema, Sugimoto was photographing dioramas and using the compression of his view camera to force perspective, etc. and they all played on art history somehow, compositionally or in concept.

This realization brought me to a crisis. Every time the FedEx man would drop off a new batch of monographs, I tore into them and had new realizations and I felt I would build on previous foundations.

My issue was that I never had the incentive or the means to dive into photography and pull apart my preconceived notions and challenge the markers I had placed upon my own work. I started reading artist interviews, essays, anything I could get my hands on. But every time I would get a batch of film in, I would also get a stack of books to go through and I’d grow a bit more in the work.

At the halfway point, I was still shooting cautiously and underthinking the important things while overthinking everything else. I’ve got years of experience seeing and continue to educate the formal and aesthetic decisions I make, but I have begun to work much harder at the ‘Why?’ that Deb Todd Wheeler pinged me with in my final crit of my January residency. I wanted to answer her then, but realized I couldn’t. I’ve gotten as far as pathos. I love the emotional/mental/metaphysical response that art in it’s many forms elicits, but it’s way more than that.

I want to create that moment of connection between a viewer and their own experience. I don’t want to create manifestos or burn down the establishment. And I don’t want to subscribe to current trends. I feel like the life expectancy of contemporary art is about the same as a gallon of milk. It’s almost out of date by the time it hits the shelf. When the show closes, I’d really like to know I’ve made something worth making that I can look back at in twenty-five years and feel great about.

Working with Brian, I started to build up rules for what I shot. Because I’m working full time and have young children and commute, the only time that was available to me was generally a single-digit followed by a.m. I began to go out and shoot at night, similar to work I’ve recently seen by Robert Adams, Summer Nights, Walking. Much of my work revolved around empty spaces – parking lots, strip malls and piles of rock or snow left behind in those spaces. I’m not overly thrilled with the early work, but I really like some of the more recent work once I made the jump to color film. Once the days got longer, I got to leverage the couple of hours before sundown and before sunrise. I really like that work much more.

I’ve also continued to use the archive as source material, creating very large aerial views of places I find on Google Earth. From there, I shoot the places that interest me, so the aerial views begin to be a sort of reverie that causes me to go and look for photographs in a given place — like a treasure map. It’s by far my favorite work to this point because it’s so open-ended and I feel that I have made so many decisions with the work. This next semester will be about the grind of creating a large body of work. I’m planning on shooting large format for as many of the locations as is feasible and I plan to try incorporating people into my work, to interact with them and use them as a vehicle to drive the pathos that I look to invoke in the viewer.

So here’s to June. I’m excited for feedback and I’ve got high hopes for the next several semesters.

 

Jer Nelsen – Semester Summary SP2015


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