PELL LUCY: SIGNS OF WORK
BY DEBORAH BARLOW
Most art is gestated in studio spaces that are messy, chaotic and disordered. William Butler Yeats described the wild haphazardness of creativity with his memorable phrase, the “rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Yes, the process that brings a work of art into form is precarious and unpredictable. It begins with finding the right materials for the task. Decisions are then made about color palette, quality of light, form, composition, intention, emotional energy. Hours are spent just looking, evaluating every component. Mistakes are inevitable, as are redirects and do overs. Is that one small spot of color working the way it should? Does this line bring the parts together into a cohesive whole? Is the essence of the image coming to the surface?
Every mark that is made matters. Tom Nozkowski, a remarkable artist we lost in 2019, phrased it well: “There is a demonstrable difference between a mark that means something and a mark that doesn’t mean anything. It’s in our DNA, left over from the millennia before words, when we ‘read’ the world. We recognize marks that have meaning, shapes speak; we recognize a friend when he’s a tiny black mark on the horizon.”
Eventually, after meticulous and tireless attention to each phase and detail, the moment comes when that creative object claims a place for itself. It can hold its own.
But getting there is hard work.
By the time a finished work is seen—in a gallery, museum or personal collection—it is being viewed in an environment that often aspires to pristine perfection: spotless, opulent, bathed in silent reverence. It is as if the hard labor that brought the artwork into existence is being quietly erased in service to the illusion of effortless beauty and power.
But signs of work —lots of it—are still apparent. It may require slow and careful viewing, but that history of work is an essential component of the physicality of a work of art. A smudged fingerprint. Dim evidence of pentimento. Complex color created through layering. The unexpected cropping of an image. A painting’s edge with its history of the colors used. To overlook an artwork’s handmade history is to disconnect it from its heritage and back story. This is an essential element contributing to the visual richness and complexity of a work of art.
We live in a world inundated with images. Now more than ever we need to fine-tune our visual perception so that we can look, see and view with more acuity. As art is being increasingly viewed digitally—as is the work in this exhibit—it is useful to revisit the difference between the menu and meal, the artifact as a set of digital signals and the actual thing itself. While digital access greatly increases access to new and compelling art, it is also valuable as a nudging system: Observe the work that is drawing you in, then find a way to see it in person. Every piece in this exhibit speaks with more vitality and depth when it is seen firsthand, in the flesh. Don’t miss out on that.