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April 7, 2016 Repository 191: Coloring Project | A Playful Exercise in the Serious Business of History and Context Posted In: art practice, community, contemporary art, education, perspective, philosophy, social critique

Paul Cézanne , "The Garden at Les Lauves (Le Jardin des Lauves)", 1906, courtesy the Phillips Collection

Paul Cézanne , “The Garden at Les Lauves (Le Jardin des Lauves)”, 1906, courtesy the Phillips Collection

The following essay will appear in the Spring Issue of “Picture Sentence”. It is currently being polished by a thoughtful editor, meanwhile I thought you might enjoy the raw thoughts. Thank you for reading! xo

“We need a Ministry of Disturbance, a regulated source of annoyance, a destroyer of routine, an underminer of complacency, or, in other words, a ministry of aesthetic activity.” – Asger Jorns, “The Natural Order”

Dear artist:
Who are you?
What do you do?
How do you do it?
Why do you do it?
Where do you come from?

Over the course of the story of art, an artist has been many things – at once revered, once an artisan, once a genius, and now seemingly an entrepreneur. The cycle of how an artist is perceived moves continually where history repeats, and the place of art and artist in society can be predictable. We currently live in an age in the United States where there are more artists graduating with their MFA’s than there are Bio and Agricultural scientists, Public Administrators and Earth Scientists. We live in an age that worships the self, believes in the “I” and has the hardest time looking outside to find ways in which we are actually all one. It’s no doubt that the MFA has become a bastion for navel gazing and creating work based on one’s idea of oneself, identity politics, or the dangerous ledge that is social art.

One does not need an MFA to make art which makes the answered questions above vital to anyone today practicing as an artist. Also, the climate in which artists must work in, where lines blur between social work, collaboration, market mayhem and ideas of a true calling, creates a perfect storm for feeling lost and unconnected.

Of all of the questions I’ve found most artists, both established and fledgling, waffle about is the question “where do you come from?”. It is rare for an artist to be comfortable connecting themselves with a school of thought or artists, or even one or two artists for that matter. We often see artists in a bubble they’ve created where they consciously float with no tether to history or context. My understanding of art, and any other discipline, is there are shoulders we stand on – people who have paved the way through innovation whether technically or philosophically. All artists should have their art family in tact and realize that while they will always have their mad mix of work, they must acknowledge and stay conscious of influences. It’s comforting to know that you do have art brothers and sisters in history that really are swimming in the same pool you may be. There are actually streams of art that start with Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin that can be pulled to the present day – the thread exists and it takes only mindfulness to see it throughout the history of art.

With these intentions years ago I wrote a draft book outlining the streams, sharing simple insights to decode works of art, and to generally give artists and non-artists the opportunity to comfortably make decisions on their own about art without feeling the need to foot note any proclivities with weighty tombs on theory. This was the seed of the Coloring Project.

Background

The Coloring Project began as a mistake, a fail, a missed opportunity. Almost 10 years ago I started outlining what I believed to be a simple introduction to contemporary art for anyone, artist or otherwise. By 2007 I had completed the bulk of writing.

When it came time to approach publishers and gather permissions for the use of imagery, the work took a sad shift south. The cost and privilege of having original works documented in a book or catalog are exorbitant.

I promptly put the project on hold and stewed. On a residency the stewing started as tracing the 151 images I had collected for reference. While tracing I considered where I could fit amongst all of this business. What was my position and contribution as an artist? How could I use my art to help understand life a little better and help others too? What is my relationship to the larger dialog of contemporary art? What artists resonate with me most? So the tracings became meditations and quiet questions.

Over a period of five years I soaked in the tracings and made peace with the doubts and questions I had surrounding these thinkers and makers. The results are a skeleton of the exercise, and one that I felt needed to be shared.  I thought about the play of coloring, the idea of inside and outside the lines, what is missing and what is chosen. I also thought a lot about cultural commons, and what that means in the face of learning and practice. Of course levity and humor are always gateways to opening our minds, and thus the coloring book was born.

I first self-published the book and sold a handful of copies years before the current coloring book craze. Nowadays coloring books are synonymous with sudoku and crossword books at the check out. I will chalk up my book as prescient and forward thinking without any of the commercial success of recent coloring books. It’s never meant to be a commercial success – it’s meant as an homage and a tool for a larger dialog about lineage.

I attempted to bring the work to “art” book stores in the area and was given the cold shoulder. I’m guessing if I commissioned an essay by Claire Bishop, was represented by a fancy gallery, or had more vintage images of private parts in the book I might have been taken more seriously by the art guard. I am pleased to report that the ultimate independent bookstore Reading Frenzy in Portland does stock my book (thank you!!). This coloring book is truly only for the brave.

Artistic Lineage

Over the years of doing residencies, working as a gallery owner/director, curator and collector and having many studio visits I’ve been continually fascinated with the lack of art historical knowledge from both fellow dealers, artists and collectors. Lately I haven’t seen much obsessive knowledge, let alone a broad historical understanding of art history and theory. I’ve rolled my eyes at many a lecture when an artist shares their portfolio without mentioning the obvious leanings and quotations from other artists. The only obsessive knowledge usually comes from collectors, and it’s generally a narrow focus (e.g. Alice and Wonderland coupled with ancient Chinese art).

Why do artists feel the need to create an illusion of unprecedented genius? Why not explicitly point out the references and the inspiration? We stand on the shoulder of giants and everything has been done before. In compiling a coloring book that one may use as a springboard to color and ask questions, I’ve hopefully created a safe and useful space for people to draw specific connections with their practice.

There is great relief in finding your artistic family roots, of researching the background of said relatives, and learning joyfully that you too have the same hangups. The coloring project is also a form of homage to artists and thinkers that have done their work so eloquently, and in a way one can only aspire to.

Accidental Implications

While I never set out to formally critique the system that is the contemporary art world, my intention has always been to demystify it, to remove art from its high pedestal and bring it back home to anyone’s life where it belongs. The chosen artists from our times were put on a shelf and chosen by highly specific individuals, with highly specific degrees, belonging to highly specific institutions. I don’t believe that art is meant to be understood this way. I believe art only happens when we engage with it, so coloring on it seems more honest than the original art piece in the xyz museum.

Another happy bi-product of the Coloring Project is the idea of participation and engagement. By facilitating the coloring and sharing of the work in the name of arts programming, there is a sense of social obligation, participation and political action on behalf of the artists generously volunteering their time and talents. While I would not consider myself a social practice artist, I do see the benefits of many voices to share an urgent message about arts in schools.

The coloring book by itself stands as a symbolic tool, and it is also a remnant of my original thinking which was to share art with as many people as possible – to create a gateway for anyone to understand art. With three school-age children I’ve sadly learned that arts education is rare. Arts programming in general is almost absent in public elementary schools. Students are left at the whim of teachers who might have an understanding of the importance of art, and who independently bake the art into class time. These teachers are the minority – the rest of the students are left out to dry. Sadly, one of my children completed a year of kindergarten with barely one art project to share from his classroom time.

I am not worried about my own children’s lack of exposure to art, however I worry tremendously about the majority of kids who will grow into adults not having the ability to think through ambiguous subjects and feelings, or to have a nuanced dialog. Our students are not being taught to see or listen, and art helps with both. Each installment of the Coloring Project will benefit arts programming, and all proceeds from the sale of the coloring book will go towards arts in schools. And mind you – arts programs are not simply pixie dust sprinkled on a school – they must be done with consequence, with creative thinking and process in mind and not product. Many times art is misconstrued with product, and I ask that you be wary in your community and schools of “art” projects that are truly not.

So what does it mean to re-appropriate the independently produced work of other artists in another time and in another context?  It is simply a commentary on the status and meaning of art in life, the universe and everything else. In sum, I think that a contemporary art historian might call the Coloring Project a “re-evaluation”, or “progressive use of tradition”. Others might call it vandalism or devaluation of the original works. Technically I believe entirely in its importance in creating dialog, blurring the lines in the sand and not being so serious in the vital land of art.

Thank you for coloring.

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