Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it is also the quickest way for the examiner of art on the other side of the glass to critique a piece of art or literature. But is it the best method? Is it really the wisest course of action to inquire of our artists, “Who are you like?”
Sooner or later, every creative person revealing their art to the world has to deal with that question. Are you in a band? Chances are, people will ask you who you sound like. If you’re lucky, they’ll side-step the question, by asking which performers have influenced you. Visual artists are no different. Your expressive vision can’t exist in a vacuum, so you find yourself being asked, “Who do you paint like?” Some artists may view this as a boon. After all, marketing yourself can be easier if you lean on the default crutch, “My work looks like ___.” I place myself in another camp – the one that sees this as an obstacle.
It is a function of the human brain to want to categorize in order to make sense of the world, but it is the province of the artist to challenge our views of the world, or to reveal something new. That doesn’t happen by repeating everything you hear or say. It can be emboldening for an artist to be mentioned in the same sentence as a great from the past. Such ‘praise’ can help the traditionally low confidence of the ‘troubled artist.’ Whether that self-doubting stereotype is the result of some antecedent internal struggle, or the inherent price to pay for challenging traditional perspectives, it stands in the way of productivity and invention – just like stereotyping. Artists must overcome their personal limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, if they are to share anything ‘new’ with the world. Everything else is comfort food.
While I accept, to a point, the adage, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I’ve worked very hard to build an expressive style that I feel is uniquely my own. I began with realistic portrait work in pencil, where I first discovered my artistic leanings. I then veered towards abstraction. Realism, photo-realism, ultra-realism. Meticulous rendering of line. Where do you go from there? How do you grow? How do you avoid the ‘mere imitation’ Poe cautioned against in the quote of this post? My work with oils deviated from brush to palette knife, as I saw how the blade seemed to sever my attention to perfectionism, to rendering ‘what you see.’ What I truly saw in the world, in nature, in beings, was energy in motion. Movement and texture were king, with texture a tool to accentuate paint’s travels across the canvas. Light was still important, but its purpose had changed.
Whereas my attention to value shifts in drawings demonstrated an attempt to portray the spiritual state of the subject, my paintings attempted to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. I would address this age of information overload, of pattern-finding, by getting at the essential. Reflection over information, emotional resonance over inter-connectivity, playfulness over utility, intuition over technique. The flow of the canvas purveyed emotional progression, life stages, and passage of time – not solely the inner turmoil of the artist. Later I would add the ‘goal’ of returning to a primitive state of mind, celebrating the mystery of not knowing in the face of the sublime.
In seeking that end, my personal demon in the comparison game has been Van Gogh. I’d have a voodoo doll made up of the bastard if it were an option, but he’s already dead. I hate to support the preconceived notion of the ‘troubled artist.’ But honestly, telling me my work looks like Van Gogh is a good way to get stabbed with a palette knife. I have my reasons for this, which I shall bring to light by examining two ways I am (gasp) similar to Van Gogh.
Part of his legacy is Van Gogh’s audacious application of stroke and movement. Whereas his measured strokes appear more conscientious attempts at unifying color with motion, my activity across the canvas is typically achieved through long, primal strokes that can sometimes travel the length or width of the painting. Van Gogh was influenced by the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods, and availed himself of pointillism to achieve color blends. My focus on color is ancillary to the development of movement, texture, and light to achieve an emotionally evocative image. I’m not interested in any art movement per se; I’m trying to send a message, to elicit a response, and using any means necessary to gain that effect.
The second hallmark of Van Gogh’s work is emotional content. In debating the importance of spiritually resonant imagery, I’ve already acquiesced. There is no debate. Rather, my contention is a point of solidarity. I’m not sure I can think of an artist I admire, or that is universally respected, whose work does not reverberate with strong affect. I don’t see that as something the artist has toiled to bring to the surface. I believe if artists are true to themselves, and have broken through whatever perceived barriers they faced, that resounding emotional voice that makes people fall in love will be there. Reducing their efforts to find that voice to imitation is not only lazy, it insults both the current artist, and the past ‘master.’ It looks at both artists’ work without examining. Without seeing anything.
Comparing works can certainly be a valid form of learning. It is an old ‘literature teacher trick’ to have students read one classic, then another, and then ask them to compare and contrast characters or themes within the novels. Likewise, artists and creative types of all kinds can find merit in weighing their efforts against their peers, past or present. But the value in that lesson ceases when the comparison moves from juxtaposition, to parallelism, and finally to assimilation. There is no benefit in stifling our independent voices, for the sake of a quicker solution to appreciating our creative works. Then, truly, there would be nothing new under the sun to do, say, create, or paint. And that would be truly depressing.
So, all due respect to Van Gogh’s ear, but I can think of better things to do with my [palette] knife.