I had the frustrating problem of choosing three artists who appear to not have simple first-person narrative statements. In the case of Richard Wentworth, he is the frequent subject of print and broadcast interviews, but has never followed the simple form that has become the conventional artist's statement. I have located small extracts where he summarized his basic approach, and I hope these will work here. I have also included links to longer interviews where he attempts to summarize his practice.
Tacita Dean is another artist I admire, and another who seems to not have ever had to summarize her work in nutshell. I have included information supplied by her London gallery, Frith Street, with the assumption that this was written with Ms Dean's approval. Likewise in the case of John Stezaker, I have used the third-person information provided by the Whitechapel Gallery, again under the assumption that this was approved by the artist.
ARTIST: RICHARD WENTWORTH
from Art Photography Now, by Susan Bright, Aperture, 2005
". . . I have always been very puzzled about the raw and the cooked. Am I sitting on a tree or is this assemblage of wood a chair? What draws me in is how things are convertible and how humans give meaning. There is something about mutability that I have always been attracted to. I mean, what is a television that is sitting on the roadside miles away from the electricity supply? Is it still a television? It's something to do with being dead yet alive. It's the small human acts that reach out to my way of seeing. Without someone being able to raise a brick and deposit the right amount of mortar then there would be no walls. That's all a wall is really - a lot of brick raising. A little human act multiplied. A half brick raised, though, can be a murder weapon.
My work is also attached to the limits of purposefulness. If something is discarded you can read that and see that it's been rejected. To me, there is something terribly beautiful in that. Formal things are incredibly important to me. I always see the crack in the glass before I see the window. I have always had this "sickness". I am interested in the aberrant."
". . . I become more and more interested in organisational imagery, which is a kind of text. Everything can be read. Floorboards can be 'read'. The fact that you're sitting comfortably in this room suggests that you've 'read' from the surroundings that the ceiling is unlikely to cave in. A lot of these things you can test by reversing them, by finding those times when you read things wrong. You can become alert to misperception. You have to work hard at it though because the whole point of misperception is that you correct it. So, just as you start to trip or misjudge the height of a step, you correct yourself. What I've enjoyed doing is trying to collect up those moments, those milliseconds."
In this interview, Wentworth offers insight into his work by way of metaphors, which is an apt entry point. He is a generous, gregarious thinker, and the many interviews available online get me thinking not only about his work, but about the machinations of the universe. He has an addicting charm which makes me love his work and adore him as a person. The wit he spills while discussing art reflects the context in which his work is made, and I can see art and artist are of a piece.
"Richard Wentworth has played a leading role in New British Sculpture since the end of the 70s. His work, encircling the notion of objects and their use as part of our day-to-day experiences, has altered the traditional definition of sculpture as well as photography. By transforming and manipulating industrial and/or found objects into works of art, Wentworth subverts their original function and extends our understanding of them by breaking the conventional system of classification. The sculptural arrangements play with the notion of ready-made and juxtaposition of objects that bear no relation to each other. Whereas in photography, as in the ongoing series Making Do and Getting By, Wentworth documents the everyday, paying attention to objects, occasional and involuntary geometries as well as uncanny situations that often go unnoticed."
This aptly summarizes what Wentworth does and what motivates him, and I think this kind of narrative summary is tidy and succinct. It made me realize that an artist's statement perhaps works best when it is like a simple elevator speech. As novice writers are frequently told: show, don't tell. I took this approach to my (very brief) statement that I'm submitting here today. When I draft a statement about a specific body of work, I usually write something that is two or (many) more paragraphs long, depending on the situation. This brief summary of Wentworth's practice is simple yet descriptive.
ARTIST: TACITA DEAN
from the Frith Street Gallery, London
"The films, drawings and other works by Tacita Dean are extremely original. Her recent film portraits express something that neither painting nor photography can capture. They are purely film. And while Dean can appreciate the past, her art avoids any kind of academic approach. Dean's art is carried by a sense of history, time and place, light quality and the essence of the film itself. The focus of her subtle but ambitious work is the truth of the moment, the film as a medium and the sensibilities of the individual."
This short blurb put out by the Frith Street Gallery is dull and annoying. When I'm told by a stakeholder that something or someone is "extremely original," I feel like I'm being sold something. I would rather read a list of things Dean has done that leads me to draw my own conclusion about her originality. In her case, this should be easy. While I was able to find examples of Dean addressing her own work, and an especially good one is the long essay she wrote in Film, the catalog to her recent large installation at Tate Modern, I think this short piece that appears later in the catalog is an impassioned declaration of intent:
"This book and this film are not valedictory; they refuse to be. But they are, nonetheless, a call to arms. Culturally and socially, we are moving too fast and losing too much in our haste. We are also being deceived, silently and conspiratorially. Analogue, the word, means equivalent. Digital is not the analogue of analogue. At the moment we have both, so why deplete our world of this choice? But we must persuade a disheartened industry of film and photo manufacturers and those few remaining labs to persevere through this darkest of storms. Increasingly people are returning to non-digital film and photography, as they have been returning to vinyl, because they want the option of using both, despite what is being decided for them. We must fight to keep a foothold on Mount Analogue*, or risk a colossal depletion of irretrievable knowledge and skill, as well as the experience and history of over a hundred years of film and photographs made on film. If we do not, we are in danger of losing something of our humanity's heart."
* Dean refers to the book Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing by Rene Daumal (1952), which she discusses in her introductory essay
ARTIST: JOHN STEZAKER
from the Whitechapel Gallery, London
"The work of British artist John Stezaker (b. 1949) engages with the ceaseless flow of images that is the consequence of popular culture, the mass media and mechanical reproduction. Instead of creating new images from scratch, Stezaker uses existing material: classic movie stills, vintage postcards and book illustrations. By means of minimal intervention, such as cropping, excision, rotation or occlusion, the artist removes these images from their original context, and allows them to acquire new meaning. Stezaker's emphasis on the image itself reflects his fascination in the visual:
"I am dedicated to fascination - to image fascination, a fascination for the point at which the image becomes self-enclosed and autonomous. It does so through a series of processes of disjunction."
This exhibition presents a survey of Stezaker's work on paper from the 1970s to today. It focuses on 'processes of disjunction' in his use of collage, found images, and image fragments.
The artist's collages often add or take away visual elements. The unexpected encounter of diverse images create surprising new narratives; the precise cut-out opens up new interpretations. His found images and image fragments take such approach of re-contextualisation even further. Through simple rotation or mere cropping, the previously forgotten images acquire a renewed poetic resonance, and, in many cases, disquieting allure."
John Stezaker's work combines simple objects, in this case images, in simple ways that open new ways to understand the possibilities of the constituent components. These components are sourced and archived with the aim to pair them up later. By describing this process as providing "new narratives" and opening up "new interpretations," the artist is able to remain vague in his intent. "Renewed poetic resonance" and "disquieting allure" are also open-ended phrases used to describe open-ended photographs. I think this summary of the work perhaps needlessly spells out points we can easily glean on our own, but his collages are made with a simple process, and part of their magic is that everything is so obvious yet we still feel the quiet wonder that is borne of that simplicity.