This semester was a good semester. I had less free time and many more responsibilities outside of my studio practice. There wasn’t room for idealism. I experienced a conceptual shift into uncharted waters, away from the safety of the familiar and the expected, but I find myself in a much more engaged posture that allowed me to own my practice much more than at any other point in my career. There have been spells of hypercritical self-doubt that serve as reminders that I am in a place of discovery and synthesis. As I reflect on the events of the semester, I am able to highlight specific transitions that have diverted my course from a photography-heavy practice to a highly interdisciplinary and interactive process: a shift in the way I viewed art-making as a cognitive process, a return to art-making from a place of personal belief and wonder, and a cohesion of the foundational elements of my personal interest with critical theory and the wider discourse of the art world (and beyond).
Up to this point in the program, my most pronounced struggle has been to create work that feels like it fits within the expectations of the program while simultaneously engaging my intuition-led methods of work. Because I felt the program was so theory-heavy, every new book I would read cause me to revisit and overthink previous work as I would place a much higher weight on perfection than progress.
This is an erosive way of working, and after a short time, my focus shifted from making work that was an outcome of my personal position to making work that I felt would best appease a thesis committee. In a review of his career at the Guggenheim in May of 2010, Walead Beshty highlights a very valuable point: making art often functions as a type of proto-thinking. The act of intuitive artmaking can often illicit a mode of precognitive thought. As the apperceptive process worked, I realized that I had always utilized my work this way prior to the program, but had not recognized it as a viable method of working within the program due to the unpredictable and not-so-heady nature of the process. In returning to work I had created, it felt that it was impulsive – an unfinished idea that hadn’t had space to develop before critical analysis. On return to the work, I evaluated the patterns of thought and found I used gimmicks to ‘fill in the blanks’ in the process. My interests were there, but they were buried within visuals that did not hold up under crucial analysis. This wild infilling of work had always been a point of anxiety, I knew it was there, but I did not know how to avoid it. As I looked at my work and chewed on it a bit, I saw some astonishing patterns. In previous semesters, I had highlighted a love for detail as an aesthetic choice, but in looking closer, I realized detail was a result of an affinity for complexity and magnitude. I also had a strong pull toward systems – functional structures of connected substructures. I made a conscious decision to make work based on these affinities and not on what I felt would be more marketable as thesis work.
The second transition occurred unexpectedly and was much more banal. In March, I attended an artist talk by ceramicist Aaron Tennessee Benson. In his talk, he anecdotally highlighted a conversation that had been pivotal to his career. His father, also an artist, had come to see Aaron’s MFA work, only to be disappointed by it. The work, he said, had grown to be a product of all of the critical discourses in which Aaron had become so deeply entrenched, but had “lost its soul” in the process. In an effort to be relevant, it had ceased to become real. I spoke with Aaron about this experience after the talk, and he encouraged me to make the work that only I could make (which he admitted was a standing but important cliché) because work that did not stem from my beliefs and ideas wasn’t true to itself and therefore would not have nearly as much resonance over time. Looking at my work, I was able to clearly see that it was a paranoid set of prints, fearful of being boring or stale, but devoid of real purpose or conviction. In short, by removing myself from my work, I created a loose façade of aesthetics over bare bones that meant nothing to me. It was nice to look at and had certain elements of interest (roads, details, star charts), but it was hesitant, weak, and not worth making in any perpetuity.
If you’ve been following my process thus far, you will observe that my modus operandi involves making assumptions on feelings and then mitigating all the risk I can for fear of rejection or outright failure. As an illustration, in my personal life, faith plays into the core of my being and is an imperative part of who I am. I previously felt that this element of myself would need to be absent or veiled in my work for it to be accepted for academic consideration. Looking critically, I believe this is a false assumption. I have begun to strike out from a point of curiosity by following the signposts I am able to read from my previous work: complexity, interconnection and relation, paradox and superposition. If I had to distill all of these words down into a single idea, it would be mystery. To be in a state of mystery involves being completely open to possibility, in awe at how complex the universe is and accepting your lack of control. In my personal practice, I add to this a submission to a higher and omniscient power, though I realize many of my colleagues do not practice this tradition.
Wait!, you say, Weren’t you going to make three points to make this a well-rounded paper? Good observation. There is a third point, but it’s much more boring than the last two. Here it is, nonetheless: I sat down to look at my work and got tired of the pessimism and general paranoia in my current area of study. I was exhausted interacting with disparaging commentary about our surveillance state and the anthrobscene. I certainly am not working to be credulous, but filling my every waking hour with the “reality” of my situation was like looking at the bars of a cage I already knew existed within. I am not an artist to rattle my own cage, because my own cage is small and limited. I am moving to create work that is one step removed from sublime, that is, work that echoes mystery.
To my third point: If I work so hard to make work that is genuine, it must merge personal interest and conviction with broader art discourse. In order to do this, I needed to admit what I didn’t know and be okay with creating work from that place. I do not strive to be ignorant, but to utilize my artmaking as a method of interacting with an immense and compelling reality. What is, to me, the most mysterious, fascinating, and unknown thing out there? The universe — quantum mechanics, string theory, relativity, and astrophysical theory. Perfect, you say, those go along with art so well. Well, these things satisfied all of my earlier qualifiers of complexity, interconnection and relation, paradox and superposition. I made work that stemmed from my research; from a state of curiosity.
The resultant work of the semester carries a bit of whimsy with it. I have created objects of wonder, designed to be interacted with and illustrative of complex curiosities about the inhabitable dimensions of our universe. It may seem that I have begun to make work from a primeval and existential position, looking up at the stars and wondering. In reality, I have integrated astrophysical theory and problems that only exist as thought experiments. My research has taken me across many fields of science that cannot be visualized or measured, only theorized.
I began by saying that this semester was good. If I’m honest, it was arduous and taxing, but I feel the reward was worth the work. I have little to show for my efforts at this point. I turned in a paper much later than anticipated, I spent hours asking questions instead of working with my hands to create physical, tangible artwork to prove my diligence, and I spent more time looking at science theory than art theory. For all that, I am engaged. I’m creating work that I am excited about in spite of not having answers. I feel genuine in my approach and in my output. I have shown twice this semester, and very little of my work is photographic. I plan to spend quite a bit of time contemplating this shift, but I’ve come up with some strong questions to address with my thesis. And now, onward and upward!
 I am positive this is why a surveillance state can continue to exist. Even though every byte of our metadata can be stored for later use and analysis, we have come to accept it, just like many have with war, famine, and many other negative realities. We become desensitized, often by choice. I think this is an adaptive reflex. I would not argue this as a positive trait, but wanted to recognize it regardless.
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