book of humanity: empty book, 2005
paper, glass, screws, & traditional binding
390″ x 156″ x 117″
big self portrait, 1967-68
acrylic on canvas, 9′ x 7′
(This post was brought about with a conversation Brian Dickson & I had on process art. The conversation took place over a few e-mails & due to the slow nature of such correspondence, the issues ended up more confused than I intended. While I was thinking about the idea of process art, I read an article in a recent Art Review by the art critic Jonathan T. D. Neil, titled The Legibility of Effort.* I thought to e-mail Jonathan with some questions I had on his article & how it related to issues of process art. He was nice enough to send me some replies to my questions. The following is this exchange. His answers are in quotations within my letter/e-mail.)
Dear Jonathan T. D. Neil,
Thank you for the quick response. I’m preparing a blog entry on process art, process in art & how process relates to the American artist Chuck Close & the Chinese artist Lu Shengzhong. As I’ve been thinking & researching the idea of process as it relates to art, I’ve come upon an article of yours in Art Review (January 2008) titled Legibility of Effort,* which was 1 of 3 articles on new trends in art. I’d like to 1st ask for your permission to post your answers/comments on my blog & if granted your permission I’d like to ask you a few questions about your understanding of process art & process in art.
In the article you present the idea that “…effort has become the stuff of semi-mindless platitudes…” & that an artist “faced with the loss of one or other ideological commitments…must find a reason to keep working.” When an ideological framework is not clear “…the least one can do is simply keep working, keep making & hope that somehow one’s artistic means will become ends in & of themselves.” You continue by giving examples of how some contemporary artists, Chris Gilmour & David Ersser prove this idea by making work that appears to have work (in & of itself) as the main focus of their art. You state that this can appear to be “formulaic” & simply “some ‘thing’ made from something else.” Here you move onto other contemporary artists who seem to be creating work from a minimum of effort. However, I don’t want to focus on this particular working method now.
You continue with, “Of course the legibility of effort is nothing if not dialectical—indeed, this is what moves it from a mere theme into a particular problem for contemporary art.” What do you mean by this statement? That an artist’s/audience’s “reading or valuing” of effort (in an artwork) changes from time to time & is important in some instances & unimportant in others?
“Not exactly…What I’m referring to here is that at the same time one witnesses a valorization of effort for effort’s sake, one also begins to see artists attempting to make work in which the effort is barely legible at all. And it is only within a system that values effort that such low effort offerings — e.g. from Sibony and Pedigo — become legible as works of art to begin with.”
You continue with a brief outline of process art as a reaction to minimalism, (back in the 60’s) with artists who turned making art, into the art itself. You also argue that, “The problem with ‘process,’ however, was that it simply flipped the means/ends dichotomy on its head & so left the delicate underbelly of artistic ‘means’ itself, which was now understood according to its component parts: labor, time, & materials. And too singular a focus upon any one of these aspects of artistic means would render nearly unrecognizable—or rather, ‘illegible’—results.” What do you mean by the last sentence? Are you saying that if an artist were to focus on process, isolating a given part of that process, the artwork would be “unreadable,” or do you mean that the efforts themselves would be indiscernible in the final artwork?
“More the former, that the work, as a work of art, would become illegible. Think of John Cage’s work, much of which borders on the wholly illegible. Carl Andre ran into the same problem, where materials presented as such took the readymade to a new level. Of course the problem here becomes what exactly is readymade in a firebrick or a plate of zinc? And pretty soon you are diving down into chemical composition as well as springing up to industry and manufacturing.”
I should also kindly acknowledge your closing paragraph on the artist Martin Creed & his processes of making art, as I have yet to delve into his artistic practice to further understand the point you were making by citing his example.
I’ll guess that you’re aware of the Photorealist Chuck Close, whose been working as a portraitist since the late 60’s, around the time some of these very issues of process & the making of art were being revised & reevaluated. Although Close, as far as I know, never aligned himself with so-called process art, he did have a process. Unlike most artists, even today, Close showed us his working methods, & as you say he exposed the “delicate underbelly of artistic ‘means’ itself.” He’s still doing this now. When one knows of his work, one also can know his working methods as well. It’s known for example that he used grids, photos, color separation, & magnification with oil paintings, watercolors, ink, graphite, Daguerreotypes, woodcuts, mezzotints, reduction linoleum cuts, silk screening, paper pulp, &c. Within all of these methods, we can see a vivid focus on process. Anytime Close talks about his work, the topic is usually about his process or how he had others help him with the process, he also mentions the “magical” effects one can achieve with a process & paint (or whatever other material). What I’d like to know from you is how you position your points on process with an artist like Close? He obviously has devoted his career on his methods of production to the extreme, since some of his work is technical & highly systematic, if not “formulaic.”
“Yes, but Close’s work is highly reliant upon mimesis, particularly as it pertains to portraiture, which is why his work would align with artists such as Ersser and Gilmour. And I would hold that yes, his work is highly formulaic.”
Another lesser known artist of fantastic skill is Lu Shengzhong. Shengzhong uses a very traditional Chinese paper cutting practice (means) to an original, contemporary end. His art, sometimes consisting of 1000’s of small human figures made out of red tissue paper. A quote of his that I find relevant to the discussion of process states “As I cut paper with my scissors & separate the shapes that result from my activity, I am making a statement against the separation of the body & soul in contemporary thought. Summoning the detached forms of the souls so that they can be reunited with their bodies, the process echoes the juxtaposition of positive & negative forms or the perfect coexistence of the curves of Yin & Yang.” Here, the artist Shengzhong tells a spiritual version of transcendence through the repetitive act of repeating an action—a kind of transcendence through repetition. We can see that process & “means” are centrally located in Shegzhong’s work. I suppose the artist is also interested in the “ends” (or resulting artwork) since the work is always displayed with great care & precision. I’ll ask you to compare this artist to some of your own understanding of process art & the process of making art?
“I’m not all that familiar with Shegzhong’s work, but from only a cursory look, I would throw it in with pieces by Carlos Amorales. How you frame the action of repetition has little to do with its legibility for a viewer. If the artist gains transcendence through the act, as a form of meditation, that’s fine. But this has little to do with the audience’s experience of the work, or the fact of the work itself. Such statements are ancillary.”
Please consider my questions.
(The following is a letter/email I received from Brian Dickson)
As artists we are formulaic to a certain extent, and
we continue to locate that effort to go on despite the
dominant society against art.
I don’t think the “legilbility of effort” need
visibility. Depending on the season and the muse, an
artist can craft something spectacular in a short
period of time.
Most likely, though, we do go through the process.
And this is where I love your last quote from Lu
Shengzhong. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we go
through the rigors. Those rigors are sacred processes,
the paradox of creation and destruction, where the
imagination becomes a supreme being in a struggle to
embody our physical effort (body) and our guts (soul).
And in this hyperconsumer age, I value that idea more