This summer I reviewed the artwork I’d made during the past three years, sorting it into types: vector drawings, photographs, and paintings. At first I could not see what the works all had in common, but as I spent more time surveying the entire collection, and recalling my initial reasons for making each work, a central idea became clear.
The works were all more “open” than my previous ones, especially relative to the work I made during my first ten years of painting. By “open,” I mean that all three types began with a few restrictions or limitations, but then evolved freely as they progressed. I had no idea how each would end, especially relative to its beginning.
By comparison, many of my older paintings seemed more “closed,” or frozen: I knew exactly what I wanted when I started the work, and how it should look when it was done. Well, I thought I knew…in practice my practice had a major shortcoming, because it left almost no room for happy accidents. “Happy accident” means different things to different artists, but in my case, it means letting the medium itself generate visual effects I didn’t think of. Instead of starting with a preconceived idea of the work’s final form, the act of making generates the idea, the final form, and ultimately the work’s meaning.
For example, the vector drawing Just Glass started as a photograph of a crushed recycling bin. In Cortona, I put empty bottles in a green plastic bin at the end of our block labeled “SOLO VETRO”, or “glass only.” A car backed into the bin, tipping it over and deforming the red-and-white markings on its side:
The initial photo of a squished recycling bin.
As a photograph, this picture had an interesting composition, but when I started drawing shapes based on the ones I saw in the photo, a happy accident occurred. The shapes destroyed the square edges of the composition, spilling out of the frame and suggesting a dynamic new object:
Shapes derived from the photograph.
I reassembled the shapes, making a composition that suggested an irregular object, rather than a confined square. To me, its new order suggested a shield, a flat object improvised from the flattened remains of three-dimensional objects.
The final version of Just Glass.
This final state suggested more possibilities: recoloring the shapes to change their visual meaning, resizing the whole design to increase its visual impact as a print, and even the idea of flattening space into “shields,” which became an organizing idea for future works in the Stranger Shields series.
Many artists are familiar with this type of creative rhythm, succinctly described by Jasper Johns in 1964: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Working this way is not exactly a free-for-all, because defining the problem takes a bit of know-how, and improvising draws on deep reserves of visual experience; accumulating both those things takes time. In the case of Just Glass, I used pictorial composition techniques to make the photograph which generated the shapes, and established problems to solve. When it came time to balance the abstracted “shield,” I selected a limited but related range of colors based on my painting experience. But both those methods are tools for making pictures, not restrictions or rules. The real action takes place after a tool is applied, when the result of the first thing I did suggests the next thing to do. That understanding seems obvious, but it eluded me during nearly twenty years of creating pictures. I finally feel like I am setting visual experiments in motion, responding as they run their course, and learning to present the consequences.
In this way, my recent works are all consequential. I begin each with a few parameters and even fewer (if any) meanings, and remain open to chance improvisations, suggestions, and missteps along the way. Whether the work is a drawing, a photograph, or a painting is secondary to me. They are all pictures, all two-dimensional artworks unfolding from this process.
But actually, “Consequential Pictures” is a term (or maybe an idea) I found over a decade ago, in a completely unrelated context. I now think it not only summarizes the process of making these works, but also suggests their collective meaning.