More cogitations upon the David Humphrey lecture I attended this last week.
We can learn so much from artists; it’s a major part of an art education. In my last blog I wrote about how David Humphrey had gone through a phase of “quoting” from other painters’ work and then commenting upon their work visually in the same way that a writer might quote a sentence, or even a paragraph from another work in his writing. Humphrey said it was amazing to him how much easier it was for him to comment like this in a visual fashion. He felt that copying like this was a kind of a relationship, a “ whatyoumight call un-cooperative collaberation”! It’s an interesting idea!! Though many people get upset if you show a picture of a quilt on your blog without permission, how would it be to make a quilt about their piece? Not just copying, but a piece that comments upon their quilt. Take an abstract piece and with a few little additions show how it’s not really abstract at all! Or vice versa…you could take a representational piece and whittle it down to its abstracted skeleton. “Stealing” a section like this happens in music too, and of course Shakespeare took many of his stories from well known legends. Film makers “remake” films. Could one take a piece by Famous Quilter X or Y and remake it?? Changing the mood, adding characters, developing certain areas and minimizing others. It’s a fascinating thought! Though art quilts are yet a young art and, I think, it takes several generations of work before it starts to feed on itself this way.
Humphrey told us that he has also done co-operative collaborative work. This of course is something that quiltmakers discovered many years ago..in fact from the outset quilts have been made collaboratively – sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. Certainly in terms of social discourse and personal relationships collaboration has been very positive, though the pieces themselves often look like cow-horses. Humphrey worked with Amy Sillman and Elliot Green under the name of TEAM SHAG. Each painter would begin several paintings, then pass them onto another, and then after that person worked on them to the third. Once it was felt that the piece was beginning to come together they would meet to discuss them.
Humphrey described these paintings as “curious hybrid things” and in fact when I first saw some example of his work I thought he painted like a cross between Sillman and a surrealist! I asked him why they had done the collaberation, he replied:
“to create disorientation and consolidation by navigating unfamiliar challenges. Our work is a mix of abstract and figurative. Everybody got to be first/second/third. We somehow got through it but it was fraught and the second time we did it it was more fraught!”
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of the studio at those meetings!!
Here is a quote from Sillman that reflects the aim of setting oneself such a challenge:
"I'm trying to get to something that feels outside the boundaries of explanation, so I have to work with some kind of estrangement. If you start to know what you are doing too well, you become a craftsperson. That's not interesting."
The artists consider that “studio practice is like a conversation”. If one is alone and working, it’s conversing with oneself and you have control over the direction of the self discussion, but if you’re conversing with others, anything could happen! Any topic could be introduced. So, in the same way that Humphrey wanted to “write” about other people’s working by painting about it, he and his friends also wished to paint about their “conversation” It’s a natural way for artists to have a visual conversation with one another, if you think about it. Improvising jazz musicians do this all the time, we’ve heard that! This isn’t the idea that you take a photograph and cut it into pieces and each member of the group makes a certain section and then you put the cow-horse-pig-duck together. Nor is it the kind of collaboration where you all agree ahead of time as to what the piece will look like. This is a group of friends conversing visually and getting into each other’s heads as they do it. No wonder it was fraught! It also demanded that they find common ground, an agreement that suited all (we know how politicians grapple with that (and largely fail, alas)). There are other benefits to the exercise: it gives one the chance to try out a new way of working, and also to make changes to work started by friends.
How I would love to pick three well known quilt artists who have made great work but are becoming almost copyists of themselves and force them into some collaborative work!! and film it of course!! What might welearn about creative process, analysis and adjustment of work! How curious and fascinating the completed piece would be! I doubt they’ll be queuing up for me to organize this of course!!
Humphrey has worked in a number of different styles and feels that one can, as it were, “help oneself” into collaborative work by trying to combine those styles. I’m sure this would be less fraught, but many of the benefits and challenges of working with others would be lost. In a residential setting a small group of us once worked on a collab piece. We certainly had a lot of fun, but I think the final outcome was a little too compromised and pallid with none of our individual strengths really being evident. Perhaps we were too nice!
And if you have been, thanks for reading!! the lecture gave me so much to think and write about…so there’ll be one more blog on this and then I’ll cogitate elsewhere! Elizabeth
PS do comment! And let me know if you’ve tried such a collaboration as the ones described here (you can find many examples of their paintings by Googling on TEAM SHAG) Of course the name is an acronym, but you do wonder about the other meanings!!! After all they did rather get into bed together, in a painterly fashion!