I spent a good portion of a recent evening pulling images from the Library of Congress archives for use in my ongoing “scrawl” abstracts art series I’ve been working on.
Scrawl-abstracts. That’s what I’ve been calling them. It’s the best I’ve got, so far. I usually have naming ideas and descriptors that come to mind for work I am doing that develops into a series beyond a few pieces.
I have made at least 70 of these works in the past several months, for which I source photographs that mostly range from 100-150 years old, and build from there.
And I still haven’t had a better descriptor come to mind, no working title that makes sense of it, nothing even as basic description for communication with myself, or within my household as I share and talk about the work with my wife and sons.
Not that anyone in my house asks me for such details as a series or collection name, or my intentions or grand visions for the work. They kindly look at what I’ve made, and comment or not.
I’ve got a running list of source photographs. That few evenings ago, I pulled 40 more images and added them to the list of dozens where I track basic, descriptive names and/or categories (portraits, sports, prisoners, revolutionaries, religion) and internet links to the source information.
I came to the aesthetic in these scrawl-abstracts because I am a writer and wanted to make visual work that incorporates writing into it. My illegible “scrawling” is significant in the abstract nature of this work.
The style has evolved. I do not like some of the earliest pieces. I don’t know what to do with those. Do I throw them out, bury them in digital folders, forget about them because the techniques and aesthetics of this work have grown and shifted?
The work might, and probably will, always evolve as long as I continue to make it. What of that process then is worthy for keeping? Where ought the lines be drawn for styles that are still “acceptable” once the series has evolved further away from the original efforts?
Art making can’t be destination-oriented. It’s all a process, and the process is essential. It’s the purpose, actually, more so than the completion and exhibition of work, which also can be seen as more parts of the process.
I have considered making new works using some of the base images from those “lesser” early creations, to apply newer treatments with the since-evolved techniques. Maybe.
That also circles back to questions such as where to draw lines of acceptability. If I look backward and seek to remake too often, how long before I lose myself in a cycle of remaking that defeats the value of evolving as an artist, and defeats the purpose of the forward-moving creative process?
The artist Floyd Tunson told me that sometimes he looks back at past artworks with a different eye and mind than he had when he made the work. What he once thought was good upon completion, years later he sees differently. At that point, his tastes have evolved, his perception of his previous work altered. And he’s good with that. “Nothing is sacred,” he says.
His perspective and self-acceptance in that process was eye-opening and encouraging for me, and I have carried that kernel of wisdom with me for years. He’s a far more experienced artist than I am. His “nothing is sacred” approach gives me a sense of permission to likewise not shrink from my evolution as an artist, and to embrace it.
I recently ordered my first prints of scrawl-abstracts for hanging at home. It’s a bittersweet moment. When so much of what I create is in the digital realm, including photography and writing, there always is the opportunity to revise the work. Even if I won’t ever come back around to do more with any given piece, the possibility is there. It’s a form of psychological safety for me. Maybe that’s a drawback.
Maybe there shouldn’t be a door back into the building, each artwork being its own house in the neighborhood. The work never ends, if we never end it. Just keep moving forward, keep building the neighborhood.
I tend to look forward to having the prints I have liked so much in the digital format, when they’re on my iPad. I am proud of the artworks, pleased with them. I want to hang them to be seen daily in my house.
Yet when printed, and relatively large in size, there is a permanence of sorts. Psychologically. I’ve barred the door against reentry, sort of. Perceived flaws in the work come to the surface, if I look closely. And there is a threat of obsession and perfectionism on my part that arises.
If I were a traditional painter, I’d have to accept these moments all along the process. Maybe I’d get past them more readily then. There never would be an opportunity for perfection. Not that there is in the way I create, either. But .. psychologically.
There is more than I’d like to admit that stresses me out about art making and, especially, exhibiting in gallery shows. It’s vulnerable and imperfect, and exposed. I worry too much about too many tiny details.
But the vulnerability and exposure of my work (myself) to the light and oxygen of the outside world is worth it, because that too is essential to the process and the experience of art.
The hours I spend sourcing photographs that viscerally spark creative ideas, the hours spent creating the pieces, the building body of work, the unknowns about what will arise on each new blank canvas and where it all is leading me … process and purpose.
This body of scrawl-abstracts work, however long and large it grows to be, will also be a stepping stone to future ideas and techniques, more creating and more bodies of work. On and on, for years and decades.
Consistent process is building an archive of my own: the Library of Adam, which I will leave for my sons someday.
In that light, I am a link. With these scrawl-abstracts especially, I draw upon the past to create in the present, to hand off to the future (along with the rest of my collected bodies of creative work).
And then where might that lead?