Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shannon's Rules and Rants

This is my answer to "Lester's Laws," which I love. I had my students read them this semester, and I realized that by now I have my own set of issues that come up semester after semester in my teaching. I thought it might save some time to just write them down and give them out in advance, to each of my classes. These are nowhere near as cool and succinct as Lester's Laws, but they do have their own very specific purpose. I intend to add to this list as I remember things that frequently come up.

Purely Practical Issues For Students In My Classes

Michael's Arts and Crafts
Please don't look for materials for use in my classes at Michael's, unless the piece you're making is about kitsch and potpourri.
You can find everything you will need for my classes at Home Depot, Orchard Supply Hardware, McMaster-Carr Supply, Douglas and Sturgess, Aura Hardwoods, junkyards, recycle centres and thrift stores.
Don't go to Tap Plastics to buy plexiglas unless you want to spend four times what is necessary. Sabic Polymer Shapes is the best place to buy acrylic sheet locally.

Test it on a Scrap
Whatever you are planning to do, do a test first on a scrap. "Scrap" doesn't mean a one-inch square morsel of your material. It means a decent-sized piece that you have set aside for testing purposes. If you are planning to drill 20 holes that need to accommodate certain hardware or a certain size of dowel, drill a test hole in a scrap of the same material, and try the hardware or the dowel. This will tell you if you've chosen the right size and kind of drill bit. If your wood (for example) tears, then you probably need a brad-point bit, not a twist bit. If you are planning to put a finish on your piece, you need to use a decent-sized scrap of the very same material you are using, sand it thoroughly, and do a series of colour/ finish tests before you do anything to your actual piece. Test EVERYTHING first.

Never Drag Anything
"Dragging" is not an acceptable method of moving materials, art objects, furniture or pedestals from one place to another. Dragging scrapes off the surface of one material and leaves it embedded in the other. In my classes, you will pick things up and carry them. If this requires two people, then you need to ask a classmate to help you. Alternately, check out a handtruck from the wood shop.

Aesthetic Issues, and Some Historical Precedents

Illusionistic Paintwork
Unless your piece is ABOUT optical illusions or camouflage, illusionistic painting of sculpture is usually a bad idea. The illusionistic modeling will cancel out everything "real" you've done. By "illusionistic" I am referring to any use of paint that involves modeling or colour gradations (such as spray-paint "fades".) I suggest using flat areas of colour within any given plane.
More on this, from the art historian E.H. Gombrich's book, The Sense of Order:

"Pugin detected such an illogicality at least when illusionistic design was used for wallpapers. For if a naturalistic representation in light and shade is repeated all around the room the shadows in the design will inevitably be found to conflict somewhere with the real fall of light from the windows."

So, if you're going to bother to make sculpture, let the three-dimensional object do its work, in tandem with light and shadows. Don't muddy it with illusionistic paintwork.

Fishing Line
Hanging an object from fishing line does not fool the viewer into thinking the object is hovering unsuspended. Your viewer probably has as well-developed an understanding about how gravity works as you do. For this reason, suspension systems should look intentional and be fully integrated into the piece, and conceived during the earliest developmental stages of the piece. The material and system used for suspension should contribute meaning and references to the piece.
If you insist on using fishing line, at the very least, please don't buy it at Michael's! Buy it at a fishing-supply store. Mel Cotton's sporting goods store on Race and San Carlos St, is a good place to buy fishing line locally.
Stain, and Integrity of Materials
Stain is just thinned-down brown paint. There is nothing mysterious or alchemical about it. If you want a decent-looking dark wood, then use a dark wood (for example, mahogany, walnut or cherry.) Don't buy a blonde wood and stain it. The exception is, if you are making a piece predicated on the idea of trompe l'oeil, "fooling the eye." And then you had better fool us well. Otherwise, first try making some successful projects that rely on the sculptural qualities of your object, and the natural colour of the wood. Once you have demonstrated a thorough understanding of sanding and application of a clear coat ––I suggest Minwax Wipe-On Poly, Satin finish, three to four coats, sanded very delicately with 320 grit sandpaper between coats­–– then it would be reasonable to start doing tests with more complicated finishes.

On the subject of getting the greatest effect from an affordable material, please read this excerpt from John Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849):

It may be that we don't desire ornament of so high an order: choose, then, a less developed style, as also, if you will, rougher material; the law which we are enforcing requires only that that what we pretend to do and to give, shall both be the best of their kind; choose, therefore, the Norman hatchet work, instead of the Flaxman frieze and statue, but let it be the best hatchet work; and if you cannot afford marble, use Caen stone, but from the best bed; and if not stone, brick, but the best brick; preferring always what is good of a lower order of work or material, to what is bad of a higher; for this is not only the way to improve every kind of work, and to put every kind of material to better use; but it is more honest and unpretending, and is in harmony with other just, upright, and manly principles, whose range we shall have presently to take into consideration.

Of course, if your piece is about artifice, contrivance, cheap illusions or even hard-won illusions–– then Ruskin's treatise, or the famous architectural mantra of "truth to materials," probably won't apply to you.

Expressionism/ Expressive/ Self-Expression
Do not confuse the art movements called "Expressionism" and "Abstract Expressionism" with the word "expressive." Work that looks like it was made while the artist was having a temper tantrum is no more expressive than work that looks like it was done while the artist was meditating. To put it another way, a contemplative drawing made with technical pencils, rulers, and compasses
--> communicates just as much as an "angsty" painting made with bold, gestural strokes.

On a related subject: the frequently perpetuated myth that the artist's self-expression is the sole purpose of art, is a meme that was generated, at least in part, by a few influential individuals during the late 1800s. In his book, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, (1979,) E.H. Gombrich explains one of the origins of this myth:

"Before the [19th] century was out, the designer Godfrey Blount wrote in a book 'for teachers, handicraftsmen and others' characteristically entitled Arbor Vitae: 'A mathematical pattern is always a bad pattern... Let us rid our minds of the idea that there is any abstract value in Art apart from expression. Expression is the all-in-all of every kind of art, patterns included.' Things could never be the same again after precision and finish had been so violently denounced as inartistic and indeed wicked. Even though we no longer hate the machine and have learnt to enjoy the mathematical precision which it can give to functional products, we are still under the spell of the polarities introduced by Ruskin and like to see the handmade article display those signs of happy carelessness which he praised as a sign of life."

(Yes, oddly enough, this was the same Ruskin who made such good points above, on the subject of the integrity of materials!)
Personal expression is, of course, one of the things that art is good for. Equally interesting, though, is art's ability to look outward, to comment on the larger culture beyond the individual "self." In his book, Vision in Motion (1947,) the artist László Moholy-Nagy offers an inspiring interpretation of the "function of art," as follows:

"It tries to produce a balance of the social, intellectual and emotional existence; a synthesis of attitudes and opinions, fears and hopes. Art has two faces, the biological and the social, the one toward the individual and the other toward the group. By expressing fundamental validities and common problems, art can produce a feeling of coherence. This is its social function which leads to a cultural synthesis as well as to a continuation of human civilization."

There Are No Innocuous or Neutral Materials
No material, connective system, or finish choice is "neutral," or a "non-issue." Any material you can use comes with its own baggage: the meaning and associations connected to that material. Sculptor Tony Cragg, in his catalog A New Thing Breathing, writes:

" our language and our thoughts about natural things like wood, stone, fire, we have around these things a sort of balloon of information and associations, and natural things always have very substantial balloons of information around them; the thing has its physical qualities, but the balloon around it is metaphysical. It's the aspects we bring to that object. It's history, mythology, meaning, and beauty."

When designing a piece of sculpture, consider these associations as carefully as you consider the material's physical or structural qualities. The material that is perfect for one idea will be all wrong for another, even if you feel that you are technically more proficient in the use of one material than another.

Arranging Stuff versus Inventing Stuff
If you just love old found objects... then start an antique store or an architectural salvage store. 
Alternately, you could take a design history course and learn about the cultural and political climates that led to the production of those objects, and also study how they were made.  Teach yourself to design and build your own objects that are as compelling and mysterious and well-made as the ones you love, and let them tell the very story you want to tell. 

Installation Art Is Not the Same Thing As Installation Of Art
According to Wikipedia, "Installation art describes an artistic genre of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space."  I teach a class in which students are expected to create installation art. It is not a museum preparator class designed to teach the correct way to hang a painting or arrange pedestals for group exhibitions of discrete sculptures. 

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