Do the names we give to people, places, and things actually bestow meaning upon them? Or does a name ultimately assume its meaning from that which it identifies? I believe it to be, in most contexts, a complex mixture of both. These are just a few of the questions I was asking as I reflected on my newest series of abstract works (in progress).
My photographic work has always made the most sense to me in the context of series. I am primarily interested in art as a vehicle for asking questions. Each finished work is part of the conversations that ensue as a result of such questions — even if the question is just “where is there beauty to be found today?”. It is through reflection on individual images and groups of images sharing common characteristics that I am able to learn the most from the artistic process. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts this is also a method I use to fight against creative block. In the absence of inspiration, I just get out and shoot, trusting my eye and gut instincts as I engage in the act of creation. Later I’ll go through and look for emerging patterns. If I find one I may pull that thread for a while to see where it leads.
Some of my portfolios, STUCCOLAND for example, are the result of beginning with a question or concept and chasing it until I’m satisfied with my exploration. Other portfolios I may only understand at some point during or even after their completion (Monuments, for example). I don’t think there’s a wrong way to make art.
When it comes to naming a series of photographs (including the individual images themselves) I’ve experienced both fun and frustration. You might have noticed that I did not name the individual images in my recent STUCCOLAND or Monuments series’. After many years of naming images based on their literal or metaphorical content, I just felt like freeing myself from that practice for a season. I don’t know that it changed anything about the work itself but it certainly changed the way people talk about the work. I found that without a name people had to work a little harder to describe what image they were referring to when contacting me about a print or expressing their affection towards a specific image. Perhaps it is a good thing that they had to engage with an image on a deeper level to adequately describe it?
Though my newest work bears resemblance to certain elements of STUCCOLAND, it does not belong with that portfolio. They are colorful abstracts, but they are not composed in square and do not exclusively feature stucco surfaces. Though certainly informed by what came before it, this new work is the result of a different exploration. For a while, I referred to the project only as “post-STUCCOLAND” because the concept was not yet fully formed. One day while I was in the shower a new question came to me (that actually happens a lot). Right away I knew I had something I wanted to pursue. I chewed on the concept for a couple of weeks and as I tested it in conversation with myself and trusted friends I grew more confident that this was the direction I wanted to go.
As an abstract artist, I’m aware of the fact that abstract art is a struggle for many people. Without context, we aren’t always comfortable or confident in our interpretation of what we’re seeing. But life is full of abstract things. Love is an abstract noun, and yet, we are who we are because of who we love and those who love us. In this way, love becomes concrete. Names are also abstract; though they evoke images of the named, they do not contain or fully describe the person.
I have been thinking about the longstanding tradition of naming places, streets, buildings, etc. after people as a way of honoring them. Unfortunately, this is typically done these days in memoriam, as a way of paying tribute to the deceased. Though not always the case, it is also often reserved for celebrating the achievements of distinguished or famous individuals. I began thinking, what if we made more of an effort to celebrate people while they were alive? What if our criteria for what makes a person worthy of celebration was not limited to their local or global celebrity? What if making abstract art could be commandeered as a practice of gratitude? Who am I thankful for in my life?
Right around the time I was processing these ideas, a good friend randomly texted me this quote from a book he was reading:
“each of us is an entire history of attachments and affinities, and none of those is merely accidental to some more essential self.”
If that isn’t confirmation, I don’t know what is!
So, that became my motivation for driving this series forward. Each image will be given a name in honor of a person who has positively impacted my life. I’m not trying to make representative connections between the person and the abstract image. I’m merely going to take a moment around the completion of an image, possibly even have a shortlist of people on my mind as I continue making images throughout the series, and honor that person by naming my work after them. It’s my way of saying to each person, “I found something that I thought was beautiful, something that made life a little more exciting, and it made me think of you.” After that, it’s out of my hands. I’m not going to worry about whether that person likes the image or not, they are free to take or leave it. I’m not going to worry about people feeling left out if I don’t name an image after them, as it would be impossible to name every single person who has positively impacted my life. The goal is not for this to be a chore, but an intentional practice of gratitude and honor.
If there’s any truth in the above quote, I would not be who I am today, creating this art, if not for all of the people and relationships experienced along the way. Moving forward, I will not take that for granted.