A Change in Perspective
I sat on the grainy wood floor of the art studio, dog-earing pages of Van Gogh’s early charcoal sketches of poor, working men. With few lines and simple shape, he was able to convey an entire existence. With sweeping and curved strokes, he created cypress trees in motion, swaying back and forth. In my own work, I wanted to replicate the masters. I relished the slow and concentrated process of drawing and painting, the mixing and layering of color, the shading underneath a cheekbone or on the crease of an eyelid, all to represent exactly what I saw.
This past summer I was confronted with a new way of thinking about art. Make a monument to anything. Create an image of a memory you have. At Cowhouse Studios, an intensive summer art program, I was asked to respond to prompts like these. This was exactly what I hadn’t wanted. It didn’t help my shading or brush strokes, it didn’t require intensive focus or precision. These were flimsy, unfinished, temporary exercises…and yet, I ended up with a few memorable images: a tall, thin French kid named Paul standing unassumingly on the base of a stone monument; a man with a mug of coffee for a head, the coffee running into his intestines; an image of a pair of scissors crafted out of tape, water, and holes in the paper. Seeing these works laid out on the floor alongside those of twenty other kids made me question my perspective.
Through critiques, artist talks, and trips to conceptual art galleries I started to formulate more and more questions about this world of art that seemed to be blossoming before my eyes. Must art have some aesthetically pleasing quality, or can it just be a visual representation of an idea? How much information should be included when artwork is presented, and is that information itself an aspect of the work of art? Is an artwork’s visceral or intellectual effect more important?
My final project combined aspects of my old thinking about literal representation and my new considerations about art. My subjects were rappers who seem to lose their own identity in the brands they wear, transformed into walking billboards. I used watercolor to paint portraits of them, but replaced their heads with an upside down boot in one case, and a toaster in the other. A man with a boot on his head, given no other context, meant nothing to me intellectually but it had visceral appeal. I had been thinking about issues of consumer identity in 1950’s America since I had watched Mad Men, read Death of a Salesman, and studied the period in AP U.S. History the year before. I found myself integrating my new thoughts about art and my interest in history and pop culture into my artwork. Yet I still spent hours on the technical details, working around the negative space of the dots on the rapper’s dark blue shirt, shading the tones of his yellow jacket.
This past summer, my narrow view regarding the scope of art was busted open and a vast and beautiful world was revealed to me. I had never really had an interest in theater, but a friend took me to Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, prompting me to discuss Chekov’s plays with my dad when I got home. Before I came to Bronx Science, I was solely a “humanities person,” but an inspiring teacher my freshman year sparked a fascination with biology. Clearly, much still remains for me to explore, and to explore more deeply. My education has just begun.
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Picture by Magnus Manske
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