Am I too Literal? IAM

As I am getting further into my masters study I am finding that similar challenges/questions are thrown my way. Many times over the last few years (not just in my current masters study) the same comments are given to me about the work that I produce.

It often makes me question - ‘what am I doing’? It also at times, makes me question my artistic talents, on days I am having a struggle. Comments such as:

  • ‘Your art is too literal’
  • ‘You need to go deeper, look at only one plant, not many as you are currently doing’
  • ‘Creating this work means you will stay in the small community based galleries’
  • ‘Maybe you need to concentrate more on process and not plants’ 'Your work is too aesthetisized'
  • 'Your work has a strong craft based look to it'
  • ‘How much more art can you make that is plant based/inspired’  

These comments often get me slightly edgy, because I believe that an artist needs to make work that makes their soul sing, not satisfy somebody else’s. The artist needs to work with both process and content that inspires them. I believe, unless the artist has joy and pleasure in what they are creating, they will give up making work. This joy and pleasure (or hate and dislike) will shine through in their work. The viewer will ‘feel’ this emotion come through while observing the work. (There is a place for negative emotions, but it is not my space I operate in).   While thinking about these comments and getting a bit heated with thoughts, I thought it would be good to tease some of these comments apart and see how it can work for me.

According to the Oxford on line dictionary, literal means;adjective1taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or exaggeration:dreadful in its literal sense, full of dread.

  • free from exaggeration or distortion: you shouldn’t take this as a literal record of events
  • informal absolute (used to emphasize that a strong expression is deliberately chosen to convey one’s feelings): fifteen years of literal hell

2 (of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text: a literal translation from the Spanish (of a visual representation) exactly copied; realistic as opposed to abstract or impressionistic. 3 (also literal-minded) (of a person or performance) lacking imagination; prosaic:his interpretation was rather too literal 4 of, in, or expressed by a letter or the letters of the alphabet:literal mnemonics As the dictionary writes: Visually, literal is an exact copy as opposed to an abstract or impression. 

B&W clematis seedhead

   'Ballerina' 2012 Elle Anderson

Many of my plant prints & images are just that, exact copies and I like the real, the honesty of the plant world. The knowledge that it can re-create itself each season is astounding. Our reliance on plants is because they can do this. We know each year the broccoli will still be tasty, sweet and green (unless the scientist have played with them in the lab to create something different).

Ron Van Dongen summed it up for me (when I read his book titled Ron Van Dongen); “The beauty of plants and flowers are enough and he has no desire to exaggerate that beauty, but to make its as simple and plain as possible thereby discovering the most intricate details of these architectural masterpieces.”

Other artist who’s work I admire also are very literal, a few are Karl Blossfeldt close up shots of plant buds, Paul Klee’s Herbarium work, Anna Atkins Cyanotypes. These artist are not around any more, but we still admire their work many years after they were produced. Also the hay stacks or sunflower paintings by Van Gogh are still admired today. We hold them up as exemplars of great art. But how literal were these? No imagination required to know what you were looking at.  

What Van Gogh did do differently was his approach on how he depicted these familiar subjects or Karl Blossfeldt photography, these were close up details.  This is where I believe is the interesting and exiting part of ‘literal’ art, the ability to depict something literal, but with the artist twist, without losing the essence of the ‘thing’ depicted. The many books I have had come across my desk about Botanical art in which the approach, process and interpretation all helped to create works that were varied, while still having a strong literal elements to them.  

It makes me wonder if literal art a dirty word these days? Should all art produced now be conceptual to be worthy of viewing? The trouble with this, I believe, is that the brain has a tendency to look for familiar patterns anyway. When looking at something new/different, the memory goes through its many ‘stored images’ to find something familiar. Finding a link to something we know, creates a stable platform for us while looking at something new. From this we can safely leap off and then decide whether we ‘like’ this new way of looking at the familiar or not. We use this similar process when judging where a work of art sits, who does it remind you off? Which other artist in history has used same, similar approach, we then link these together. Literal art has been created ever since they started to draw on the caves.

These days I believe it sets up a familiarity for the viewer, creates a comfort space for them to view the art work from. I also believe that we that artist creates literal or non-literal art because off our own character, personal likes and dislikes and what type of art we the artist understands. I wonder how wrong is it for an artist to create this type of art? I believe it is not wrong at all, it is simply a form of art that speaks to the artist and its own audience. As an artist I sit very comfortably in my literal skin, it is art that I like looking at and creating. It is the processes I use and the presentation methods I employ, that I believe will ensure my work has that 'something' about it. Websites visited while writing this blog:

Posted by Elle Anderson

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