I do love visiting a good art show – preferably a solo show – and reading the catalogue if there is an intelligent, thoughtful and learned essay. I recently attended a retrospective show of the various ceramic series of Ann Mortimer at the Burlington Art Center in Ontario. In the show were 5 or 6 different series that Mortimer had explored in depth: one of ceramic umbrellas, another of bird shapes, and a third of trompe l’oeil wall pieces. Ann Mortimer writes:
“I have long investigated a single shape and have discovered that it can be suggestive of a bird, a fish or an organic form. When penetrated and altered, it has become a planter, a vase or a teapot. Sections may be joined to present new interpretations. The form may be altered when soft or sandblasted at different stages. It has been exhibited singly, in pairs or in larger groupings. Surfaces have been unglazed, smoothly glazed, highly textured or covered with hand made papers or lustres. Wood, salt, electric gas and garbage firings have all added to the variations.”
Working in a series, the artist aims to communicate an idea but also to explore it in full for themselves. Jonathan Smith at the University of Chicago feels that there is a subtle difference between “working a theme” and “working in series”, the serial work being a much more tightly constructed idea. Degas’ theme was the ballet, Monet painted a series about the light on the haystacks working on different canvases every 30 minutes or so as the light changed. Monet wanted to discover in full the shifting nuances of light on the haystacks; he also explored the same phenomenon on Rouen cathedral, rows of poplars and waterlilies.
In a series the artist examines how small changes can affect the subject matter of the art work. It’s perfectly good to work a theme, or to focus in more narrowly on a specific aspect of that theme, however Smith suggests that it is the deeper more intense exploration that will get beneath the surface and help the artist (and the viewer one hopes!) develop more understanding of the nature of the subject. How many quilt artists would say today that they are trying to develop a deep understanding of the nature of their particular subject? I must confess I have never heard one say or write that, but I’d love to know if any have. It’s possibly an inchoate activity, a subconscious need to stick with the same thing until you’ve mined it of everything. I think also you would have to be a special kind of person to be able to concentrate on one thing in this way; a particular persistence would be necessary, and a definite maturity plus an ability to keep the details ever fascinating both for oneself and for one’s viewer.
You don’t have to just work on haystacks at any given time, however. It would definitely be possible to explore a number of ideas at once which would be more engaging and more refreshing to the eye…eschew habituation! But might it instead reduce the intensity? The tone of Smith’s essay would suggest that it might. That it might lead to one missing the nuances….? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone has studied that. what do you feel?
The artist’s life, regardless of medium, is one of alternation between play and intensely focused work. I think both are necessary but, alas (!), a lot more focus than play!
So, what d’you think? Is working a theme sufficient, or do we need to narrow in and really hammer away at making the familiar unfamiliar, bringing a fresh new view to the leaves or the sunset or the geometrical pattern ? Where to go next….. to alter, to divide and rejoin, to group differently….don’t think we can sandblast…but it’s an idea!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading! Love those comments……