Many people I knew in California offered little or no critical insight when discussing my art. I received praise, condemnation, and shrugs with uninterest. For all intent and purpose, I never had an honest critique until June of this year. My residency experience was revelatory of several characteristics or messages in the work I showed. Views were shared with me that I had never heard or could not possibly have imagined. There were still the shrugs, though I expected them and did not mind. The bulk of responses were not praise or condemnation, but steady perspectives and mostly unfiltered opinions. From these new points of view I began to develop an altered awareness allowing me to recognize a weak understanding, on my part, of what my paintings represented to viewers. This insight did not proclaim itself all at once, but was an accumulation of conversations, lectures, and presentations leading to a general conclusion. My work must be deconstructed and a critical evaluation made of its distinct features.

One of several events leading to the thought process stated above was a question from my first critique. Sunanda Sanyal asked me, “Why do you do this? To say what?” I was unable to give him a direct answer. I think now, if I had answered it would have been shallow or fraudulent. I instead began telling the story, or meaning, of each painting, but Tony Apesos almost cut straight through the crap. He explained that, “the thing you think your work is about is like the fuel that propels the engine that makes the art… [but] the destination of the art and the intention of the art may never converge.” In much of the work I brought I tried sharing some conclusive idea of a social or psychological topic. These never reached viewers with the same meaning I made them with. Without my expectation it would not matter that the seriousness of the messages were undermined by their presentation. The objectives in many of my paintings made them failures. It seemed a sea of doubtful questions would soon drown me.

My second critique was different but equally forward when discussing my work. Why are all the faces done in an evenly painted black line? Why are they outlined with white? Why do they seem to be only men? I began explaining my observation of men as more readily adapting to rigid, linear characteristics rather than women. Laurel Sparks mentioned how I did not seem like someone who wanted to perpetuate gender roles, and said by limiting myself to just men I was actually supporting unrealistic gender identities. She suggested I break with assumptions in my work, and that changing line widths or colors might have a positive impact on the imagery. Janet Flagen’s contrary opinion was that my characters seemed they should be simplified further to become more anonymous. I had left the eyes blank for such a reason, not intending them to express emptiness but a sort of “anyness.”  Tony asked, “What if you had more than one way of painting a head?” He also suggested Saul Steinberg was a good example to look at. Within their separate conversations, comments such as Laurel’s, Janet’s and Tony’s seem both in agreement and at odds. However, all the comments regarding my characters seemed to dance around an unsettling question at the back of my mind. Why did I paint geometric faces? What was the purpose? I then thought back to how I began drawing them.

At first I could see endlessly random things on plain white paper. I became overwhelmed with it and would scribble senselessly over the page. Not immediately did I use strictly geometric features but I began drawing characters out of the intersections and gaps of an organic mess of lines. Working this way reminded me of when I saw Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings as a kid. I would look at a Pollock and make up any image or story I wanted from it. When I got older art history courses told the story of how modern art had grown out of a rejection of classical painting techniques that originated in the Renaissance. After that I became disinterested in learning more about art history and only took what I needed to until the present. In Stuart Steck’s critical theory it was revealed how many writers of art history had woven a mythical narrative masking several facts pertinent to understanding art of the past. Topics discussed in Stuart’s class presented a great number of artists as uneven composites from past art, their contemporaries, personal experiences, their culture, and a myriad of individual traits. To compartmentalize any of these attributes was to disenfranchise elements that informed the making of art.

I became aware of more than just relationships between the qualities in my work. I was introduced to the relationship between the art and the space it was presented in. The Design of Exhibitions seminar with John Kramer illustrated how messages in art are changed by their surroundings. More specifically that works of art do not always benefit from an intransigent system of presentation. I soon after realized the same view could be applied to making art. Looking at my own work with this understanding showed my work to be confined to a disadvantageous formula. Continuing this thought, two comments became more important. Sunanda had said I should, “let go of the seriousness of the message.” Similarly, Brenda Vanderbeek suggested I list the things comfortable with my work and avoid them, never letting myself be too at ease with my art.

I could now see I had relaxed into a process of manufacturing artificial meaning with newspaper headlines, articles, and stenciled text. I was attempting to imply relevance or seriousness by using words as a medium. Tony was sensible about it, saying that, “because the words you’re using are embedded in a material work that changes them. How serious are we to take this statement?” I originally wanted the words to inform viewers about the meaning of my paintings. If people were not seeing what I had intended, what were they seeing? Some used the term illustrated or illustrative to describe my work. Others said they thought my works seemed like advertisements. In later discussions I found these were often interchangeable expressions of work with too much information. Sunanda was more specific when he said, “you move beyond playfulness… there are too many icons, too many written text.” Looking at my paintings now many words in them seem like empty slogans. George Peterson said, “The only problem I have is some of the text seems too obvious. I really like it where you really can’t make out the text.” Others who found the text more interesting when it was illegible supported this. Laurel explained how the use of words in my works gave them an “authoritative tone,” and I should instead try to layer a lot of written text to build up the dense texture I paint over.

The surface of my paintings has attracted much attention over the past few years. My aim was to create a concrete look-a-like covered with street art. People’s interest was more focused on the thick texture, coloring, and how heavy the work looked despite being on canvas or wood. Though, after seeing the works by Alison Williams and Robert Curfman, two things became impertinently clear. First is that my interest in concrete goes far beyond graffiti. My fascination also includes the weathering and accumulation of a surface’s history. Second, I had been inconsiderately faking both the surface and art style I admired. With knowledge of the way presentation changed the viewing of my work, I saw how my paintings were, intentionally or not, making a parody of street art. I had grown too content in my own illusions. To follow Brenda’s advice I should make myself a little uncomfortable.

In my first discussion with Cory Arcangel about my work, he said, “I kinda wanna see you just go crazy.” I was a little uncomfortable with that idea, not considering myself the best example of sanity. He elaborated by asking me, “What if you painted just faces? Or just words? Or just used the stencil of your name?” Until that point I could not think of how to evaluate the characteristics of my art. I started the residency with the expectation that experimentation would slowly diminish in my graduate work. I was relieved to find experimentation is practically a requirement in the program. In his visiting artist talk, Cory’s analogy of Tiger Woods, how Woods rebuilt his golf swing, as an ideal artist further clarified how I would “go crazy.” I would dismantle the imagery in my paintings to distinguish their features and understand their importance to my art.

As I took an inventory of my methods I began to consider three questions Jason Landry was once asked by Deb Todd Wheeler. “Why be an artist? Why use photography? What do you want to convey?” These are not unlike the questions Sunanda had asked in my first critique, but with important distinctions. The first, I think few could answer clearly and honestly without launching into a manifesto longer than the average attention span. My answer to the second is relatively simple. I desire a tactile relationship to the object I make. For no discernable reason, the construction of mostly two-dimensional images fulfills this inclination. To answer the third I examined my previous art’s failures and rare successes, but found nothing to answer the question regarding my future.

Where my past paintings failed I had been doomed from the start because I tried to convey conclusive thoughts despite the fact that thoughts never cease to move forward without finite conclusion. What will I make without definitive thoughts to convey? Should I make work conveying nothing? Most people would argue that everything human beings make communicates something whether intended or not. I am one of those people. I cannot abandon making things with reason, but I must afford myself the freedom to make art without expecting it to mean something to viewers exactly as I intend. What then will guide my decisions? Laurel said, “The things I make are things I want to exist in the world that don’t exist.” The making of a thing for the purpose of its existence relates directly to my want for physical connection to the objects of my creation. What is conveyed then seems irrelevant to the production of art. How will I divorce myself from all other meaning? I will need to start with a restraining order on the meanings conveyed in my past work. Dismantling the facets from my previous art and critically evaluating their significance will hopefully lead to art constructed with understanding of what is expressed to viewers.