This brief essay is the eighth in a series addressing the emergence of meaning, by James Leonard.
(Please note: the following material is Â© copyright James Leonard 2006 and may not be used in any way without permission from author)
Art making is a messy process. The lack of efficiency in my frenetic studio practices would make Henry Ford blush. But art making (even when it involves repeated forms) is a business of prototypes, not mass production. An artist works on multiple scales: zooming in to attend to details; pulling back to witness the whole of the work; abandoning one segment of production to tend to another. There is hardly anything linear about my assembly line. Instead, I unintentionally scatter my efforts. During the height of production, every refinement I make triggers a need to refine at least three other elements. Each work is a terrarium ecology bootstrapping its way into a self-sustaining existence.
And while my hands work, my mind is equally scattered. While in studio, I can’t help but tumble the presence of the emerging artwork in my brain. I imagine scenarios of others encountering the finished work. The subjects of my mental models vary widely: immediate family and friends; trusted colleagues and studiomates; hip members of the local art scene; non-art initiated viewers engaged in pop culture; and academics debating art history. I cobble together an intuition of what the work may come to mean once released into the world. This intuition directs decisions in studio. To an outsider, the logic of the studio may look backwards, self-destructive, and insane. But somehow, more often than not, I hit my mark and the finished work sings.
Jerome Witkin, a former mentor of mine, once remarked, “The path to a great work of art has more in common with a failed painting than with a good one.” In my youth, I took this as mystic wisdom. These days, I’m more inclined to think in terms of complex systems. In a complex system, such as an ecology or a society, predictions of direct linear causality (the simple logic of one event leading to another) can only be accurate for a limited distance into the future. Unintended consequences abound. The world is a noisy environment. You can try and pad your work and insulate it from this noise. Or you could try and use brute force and shout over it. That’s the path to a potentially good work. But a great work requires something different. Cast your sails and you just might harness the noise of the world. In the art business, we make prototypes: each one unique. The great ones aspire to be perpetual motion machines.