Avoiding Mastery: Whitespace Contemporary Art 2014
Mastery, according to the Webster dictionary is knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand something very well and a state of having attained complete control of something.
My conundrum as an artist is that, whilst ‘understanding something very well’ might seem an appealing and mature virtue, its close association with having ‘complete control of something’ raises a warning flag that the cul de sac of orthodoxy lies in wait.
In art, to understand something so well as to control it runs the risk of remaking and refining something that you already know, and that your audience also knows and recognises; a closed circuit of mastery and applause. Less prone to success, but arguably more interesting is the strategy of avoiding the possibility of control, deliberately pursuing unknowing, cultivating areas of non-skill and embracing unpopular and little understood vernaculars as a vehicle for art making.
To put it more simply, maybe I think of art as a half wild pony, rather than the dressage mount. Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with dressage; I just prefer a little more excitement.
as part of Put Up Your Dukes! Part Two I wanted to make a text work, in response to Gabrielles text works, so i came up with a great quote from The Modern Art of Flower Arranging by Elisabeth de Lestrieux (1986) (see my post a the time: fa)
the full quote was
An old-fashioned arrangement, in shades of one, or at most two, colours, is living proof that gardens designed around a particular colour are indeed very natural in their effect.
and the idea was to hand cut it out of wood grain wall vinyl – see An old, to mimic Gabrielles immaculate text drawing in a lazy manner. unfortunately, while it looked suitably lazy it was really quite time consuming and tedious. i decided to settle for just “An Old fashioned arrangement” utilising the trials I had already done, not minding that they were in different wood grains. but then I looked at the roll of vinyl and went nah, I am not cutting even one more letter. An old-fashioned did not seem much on its own, but the letters available could be reconfigured into “idle hands” which seemed apt for the situation.
not to be completely dissuaded from my original task I also made a plan B text work using the full quote:
along the way I had found some super-cheap wood grain vinyl which prove so budget it would not even adhere to the wall, but it had a delightfully fake dark wood grain redolent of 70’s panelling. I made it into a wall panel with stencil, as you can see it is pinned and slumps slightly from the wall. It has no punctuation, as the stencil set provided none.
both text works fail gently, but in retrospect I think idle hands fails better through being more obscure, and by eventually falling off the wall itself.
I have a show at Whitespace Contemporary Art early next year and have been mulling over what to call it. The show will involve some paintings, a few books of drawings and a number of yet to be finalised objects. There is always the straightforward option of SomeNew Paintings and Objects, and I also considered Horse, Pony, Donkey but I have decided on Avoiding Mastery. It has a decisive ring to it which clashes pleasingly with its directive to avoid getting too good at art making.
Ironically this interest in non-mastery has its genesis in my Master of Fine Arts study at the University of Auckland in the early 2000’s. At the time I couched it in terms of cheating and lying as strategies for art making, however now I am thinking more in terms of failure and resisting the status quo. Failure to do the right thing, failure to master the art of being normal (or more correctly normative), Failure to be polite and well behaved, failure of art to strive toward being more skilled and refined and conceptually erudite.
In general a failure to progress and a reluctance to endorse progression as (a) normal/natural and (b) desirable.
At its inception hope fills the body in the way that air fills a balloon.
From this point hope leaves the body. Slowly, imperceptibly at first.
Hope leaves the body slowly.
Long after the mind has made the cognition of failure the body still holds hope. The body reminds the mind to hope, the mind informs the body of failure.
Long after the mind has acknowledged disappointment the body still contains hope.
Hope and disappointment form a contracting loop between mind and body. slowly the cognitive gap between hope and disappointment shrinks to nothing. At this point hope can be said to have left the body.
All that remains is disappointment
Disappointment is carried in the body like a scar, or perhaps more like a souvenir. The place where hope once lived.
In art, the problem of both success and failure rests on judgement. A judgement of either success or failure is by definition based on an expected outcome, either achieved or missed. In either case the assumption behind the judgment is not challenged. However, if judgement is postponed, the possibility of a third option arises, a position that that wavers between the two: the shaky territory of the provisional. The provisional allows for a mitigated success; something that holds together, just, but contains its own failure within it. It holds the door open to uncertainly, to multiple attempts, to self-doubt. It acknowledges the very human possibility that this is one of many tries at solving the problem on hand, and that this attempt is not necessarily the best but merely the most recent.
page 17 & 18
Modernism and the entire project of modernisation of the developed world has tried to write itself as a success story, a series of improvements and developments in the direction of Betterment. However nowhere is the dubiousness of this claim more evident than in the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the Western individual and the so-called Natural World. The black and white barometer of success-or-failure is useless here, as our mandate to subdue the world has evidently not been an unmitigated success, but nor can it be said to have failed completely. We occupy an ad-hoc middle ground cobbled together from our inherited roles of protector, exploiter, owner and consumer. A provisional space that can be neither tolerated, nor addressed, by the dominant cultural model and subsequently exists as an ongoing state of crisis. If art, as we claim, sits alongside life as a testing ground for ideas and things, there is some possibility that the things tested and trialled could educate life in the subtle mid-ground of the mitigated success and the partial failure.
As part of Put Up Your Dukes! Gabrielle and I made a series of three books extrapolating upon and extending the thinking behind the project. Resisting Societal Norms provides background to the work in this project but also maps much of the territory that I am deeply interested in researching further. As such it provides a research handbook; ideas posited and awaiting development (and contestation, complication and repudiation).
I will post this book in sections over the next days/weeks in the lead up to the second part of Put Up Your Dukes!, a book launch and exhibition of plan B’s and also ran ideas generated by, but not used in, from the Blue Oyster show. It will be held at Pearce Gallery, 130 St Georges Bay Rd, Parnell, Auckland New Zealand, on Monday 7 October.
In the first pages of Born Losers Scott Sandage reminds us that our modern preoccupation with weighing up our lives, deeds and endeavours on the scales of success and failure is exactly that- a modern construct revealing the darker side of the American Dream.
I am currently reading (and hugely excited by) The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam, in the introduction to this text Halberstam touches on the same territory
 Halberstam, Judith The Queer Art of Failure, 2011, Duke University Press
Ah how quickly it came and went…. Or more how quickly the three weeks following it went, what with mid-year assessment casting its long shadow over art school and my husband breaking his collar bone only one week after officially recovering from breaking his other collar bone. And breaking off a wee bit of his leg-bone for good measure, to ensure full invalid status.
In the midst of this the One Day Wonder post-mortem has been repeatedly postponed. Or at least the public sharing of it has; In between the various man-and-child caring tasks I have been contemplating its outcomes and possible developments and this is what I have been thinking:
I found the overall dynamic of a research-based exhibition surprisingly generative and enjoyable. It was more than just the freedom from the need to present a cohesive, resolved exhibition, although that was in itself significant. I found the experience of exhibiting work as a mid point of process somehow much more exciting than the usual exhibition as culmination and end point of a given project. Despite a degree of apprehension I found it both enjoyable and useful to open up the making/ thinking process for discussion with a group of peers.
The project provided me with the opportunity to develop a whole lot of work that I had been thinking about for a while, without concerning myself too much about outcome or how it would all work together in the gallery. Maybe it made me reassess failure as an active driver in research, for while I am conscious that bad might be good, I find it difficult to hold the value of failure in the process of critical decision-making. I decided that in a research exhibition the inclusion of potential failure would be essential for useful discussion and critique and it seems that this embrace of a working level of uncertainty is not only generative and exciting for my working practice, but appears to generate a degree of energetic and polarised response from the audience.
The question is how can this be applied in the usual exhibition situation, where the exhibition probably is the culmination of a project, and stands of fall on its merits as finished work? It has me wondering if a practice, worked out as a series of exhibitions over time, could be an ongoing proposition; a never answerable question elucidated upon but not concluded, art as thinking rather than consolidated into thought.
I have finally finished a few of my sock ponies; it has been a long road. I have been meticulously painting the expanding foam, a tedious and awkward process that has allowed me ample time to reflect on the ironic inverse proportion of labour involved. The making is quick and haphazard, involving a sock, a stick, a can of expanding foam and a handy bit of lawn. The painting is slow and careful and involves masking and colour mixing and multiple layers of gesso and paint. All for what? So they look like they just happen to be coloured that way. So they look like a pop inversion of the cool grunge-lo-fi thing. So they look like plastic fresh off the shelf.
Now that I have finished a few of them and have had time to look up from my third coat of ultra gloss orange paint I have been thinking further about what they have turned out to be. I have been reflecting on my continued interest in hobbyhorses; I have been drawing them and making them for some years now (see my archive ponies and horses).
My interest in them is twofold – on the one hand the hobbyhorse is a conveniently abbreviated shorthand for the horse, the manifestation of desire for the ideal horse rather than the actual horse with its messy physicality. On the other hand they are discomfortingly close in appearance to the head on a pike, the archaic King’s public warning against transgression. A warning the horse and myriad other beasts could well have heeded before signing up for a domesticated world; there is no retirement village for obsolete warhorses and no guarantee of grassy pastures for those who trade their service, or the meat on their bones, for a place in the new kingdom.
I am quite interested in this relationship between humans and domestic animals. Some time ago at a party a vegan acquaintance was passionately extoling to me the injustices of honey harvesting as I discretely fanged into a mince savoury, thinking to myself what a disaster it would be for our farmyard friends if the story got out and everyone became vegan. What would become of them? Maybe we would be too gracious to kill them, but the economy of needing to plant a lot of beans would undoubtedly preclude us allowing them to breed. They would, in a single generation, become obsolete, a few lonely individuals relegated to zoo-parks as relics of the folly of our forebears.
The way I look at it animals can be roughly divided into three groups – the untameable, the edible and the friendly. The untameable have said no thanks mister, we will look after ourselves. The edible – pigs, cows, chickens sheep et al – have opted for evolution over lifespan. The third group, the companions, have opted for lifestyle over genetic dignity. At this point in history it does seem that the domestic animals have taken the winning punt, those we have no economic or sentimental use for are becoming scarce. As for the domestic beasts – as long as we are eating meat and drinking milk they are off the endangered list – but at what cost? Certainly at the cost of physiological independence, these animals have co-existed with humans for so long they have lost the ability to survive outside of our husbandry. Some have even lost the ability to support their mature body weight (meat chickens, so I hear). The trade-off for consumables is life span and, depending on how animals think about this, which is difficult to gauge, life quality versus plenitude of food and guaranteed species continuation.
For the companion, such as the dog, the contemporary horse and to some extent the cat (though the cat always seems to have a bet each way and is happy to step back into the wild as required) the stakes are somewhat different. Longevity and luxury are the goal and it seems autonomy and dignity are the sacrifices. There is the risk of being breed into increasingly obscene and unsustainable body shapes. But on the up-side is the more unsustainable your body shape the more pampering you are likely to be showered with, so it is not all bad. In fact it is probably great. Being one of those handbag-dogs would be heavenly, even if you could not breath through your nose and had to wear a silly little jacket.