Craig Oates

What do I Mean When I Say "Starting Point"?


Art Practice

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I have found artist's practice statement are usually framed in an over-arching theme. And, this tends to be a common strategy. I believe its popularity is due to the benefits gained when adopting this approach. For instance, it highlights the underpinnings and directions of an artist’s body of work. This makes your work more accessible to the public. With that said, there is a rigidity to it that I don't like. I'm convinced it hinders the growth of an artwork, especially after it's completed. And, because of reasons like this, I have decided to frame my practice within a starting point, instead. I have done this by declaring it in my practice statement1.

From here on out, I intend to explain the rationale behind my decision to frame my practice as a starting point. And, by doing that, I intend to answer the main question in the process. (What do I mean when I say "starting point"?) My plan is to do this by answering four questions. The first one is why deviate from the norm? The second one is what did this change bring? The third one is why is the idea of growth important? And, the forth one is am I trying to mask any shortcomings?

To answer the first question, I will begin by expanding on the earlier point about rigidity. I alluded to the idea of there being a rigidity that manifests when casting your work in a theme. What I mean by this is you set yourself a precedent that all your work will link to this theme somehow. This expectation can lead to artists shoehorning theory into their work. And, I believe the most common reason why is to please anticipating viewers. With that said, it would be unfair for me to say this behaviour happens all the time. It just doesn't. I do find this insight useful, though. The reason why is because I can now see a potential pitfall and act upon it. I must point out, though, I don't see this as a right or wrong scenario. There are benefits to having an audience with a particular expectation. For me, the reason why I chose to deviate from the norm is to minimise my chances of ending up in a situation I don't desire. That situation being the one where I feel pressured into shoehorning stuff into my work. I write this knowing I have no "anticipating viewers" and it's most likely going to remain that way as well. Feel free to insert a violin here.

The second question asked “what does this change bring?” The simple answer is it brings a change in priorities. I have made the ideas of growth and change more prominent and receded the bridge that binds my work together.

The third question asked “why is the idea of growth important?” The answer is because I believe it is an integral part of an artworks life and we should acknowledge it as such. And, gesturing toward the ideas of transition and growth, in my statement, is just one way of doing that. The reason why I view it as an integral part is because of the transformations I see most of my artworks go through. I have found that it's quite common for an artwork to start off as one thing and end up another. I have, also, come to realise it's ok for the original idea of a piece to lose its relevance. Even if I haven't finished it, I still think it's ok. It's just a case of pushing ahead in the new direction, instead. The reason why is because I think it creates an interesting context for experiencing art. I have come to associate timelines with each artwork. And, by being aware that you are seeing it at a certain time in its life opens up interesting possibilities. Sometimes they are technical questions like how will this pigment age? Other times, I just wonder how relevant a painting by Da Vinci will be to people way out in the future (200+ years). For me, I see this as an enhancement to the viewing experience. It, also, relieves some of the pressure from the making process. Just because something is on display it doesn't mean the artist can't take it back and work on it again.

As an aside, I would like to add the following. When an artwork is born out of a thematic based practice, it might come with an unexpected side effect. The viewer will view the piece within a limited scope. And, They will do this regardless of how relaxed you are about such concerns. For example, when you tell someone a piece is about "x" they tend to dismiss the things that don't align with "x". This filtering usually happens regardless of how fun, informative and useful that offcut is. A painting can be a commentary on social injustice and an example of colour theory at the same time. Having said the above, I must stress the use of the word "unexpected". I have used that word on purpose. This kind of behaviour might be the desired one. Neither approach is right nor wrong here.

The last question asked “am I trying to mask any shortcomings?” My answer here is maybe but it's not my intention. You could argue my thoughts presented so far are just deflections. I have shied away from making an absolute declaration about what my work is about. And, I have done this as an automatic defence to counter possible flaws in my thinking and skills. Another argument is good artists demonstrates their mastery over their materials and subject matter. They create artworks that communicate ideas where no misinterpretations occur. On top of that, artists dictate the subject matter and bend it to their will. It's not the other way around. This is what validates the use of the word "mastery". As a counter to these arguments, I will say I am concerned with different things. Whilst the above maybe true, I am more interested in the broader scope of an artworks lifespan. And, demonstrating my mastery of a subject and various materials just isn't as important. If I keep making, it will come as a by-product anyway. To focus my energies on it is a missed opportunity to explore something else in my opinion.

The adoption of the starting point is just a personal preference. I see value in both (thematic and starting point) but each one is valuable in their own way. The moment I realised I enjoyed the journey aspect of an artworks life was an important one. And, it's something I want to embrace as a viewer and a maker. It, also, eases my maker’s anxiety due to the perceived extra flexibility. I don't want to feel like I can only work in one way and in one area. I am a greedy child in a sweetshop in that regard. On top of that, I believe pushing forward the idea of a starting point encourages growth. When an artwork is on show in a public setting it should morph into its next form with ease. The initial reception it receives has an important hold on its identity. And, to be frank, an artist is just a much a viewer as the person next to him/her when it's in the gallery. Shying away from that is doesn't make it go away.


1 Craig's Practice Statement