Friday, June 6, 2008

So What?

I have done very little straight oil painting. I always want to draw with the paint. In my sophomore year at MECA, I took an oil painting/figure class. It was hard!!! I often felt at a loss without all the mixed media I like to use. Regardless, I plodded along and learned a bit about mixing fleshtones, and learned how to make a frame from scratch. And I mean scratch. We had to buy solid chunks of pine and plane them down, build the frames...
(HATED it. NEVER want to do that again. DEFINITELY not my forte.)
My painting professor spent most of class time outside smoking cigarettes or running errands, and when she was in the classroom, she played favorites. She liked the young men in my class. I made the mistake of asking her to look at my work online, and a few days later she made it a point to talk about self-portraiture in class. She said that self-portraits are "never interesting" and that she considered them "a form of masturbation." I felt a bit stung, but figured, OK, that's just her opinion.
For the final crit we had to complete a male figure study. The model posed for 2 classes, then we had to resolve it somehow, without the model. I brought my painting home to my studio and put it on the easel. I remember that I had just a Sunday afternoon to work on it. I looked around my studio and like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, I added what I saw before me: one of my performance photographs, the cover of a Tom Waits CD I was listening to, the dress that I was wearing in my performance photo which was on a clothes hanger in my studio, and a portrait of the male model I had done earlier in the semester - I used just the eyes because in the figure study, I'd cut them off. So I ended up turning this painting into a self-portrait. I decided to call it Escalating Self, because it looks like the man and I are going up on an escalator. I also think of it as a double portrait - and that the naked man is my animus, heading up and out of this space before me. I meant for it to all be rather dreamlike.
When I brought the painting into class the next day, another painting professor stopped to tell me that she loved the painting - that the fleshtones were strange but true - that she loved the composition. "Great painting!" she said. I'm really glad that I ran into her, otherwise I might have felt completely slayed later, because my painting professor slammed me during crit. This was our final crit of the semester. When I put my painting on the wall, she just said, "So what?"
I thought, "OK, maybe this is a crit technique I'm not familiar with..." I was taken aback and started to explain my process, why I had chosen the images that I added. She stopped me again and said, "Why should I care?"
She didn't say this in an "I'm curious!" sort of way, she said it in an "I don't give a shit" sort of way.
Again I thought, "OK! She is goading me for a reason, this is just a crit technique..."
I tried to to explain my thought process further, and she stopped me one more time, saying disdainfully, "Art's not therapy, Martha." The rest of the crit was taken up by people in the class either agreeing with her or trying to defend me. I just sat there silently watching the show. It was not helpful. I felt attacked. And that was the end of that class! It sure closed on a sour note. I e-mailed her and said that I was not happy with how things ended and asked if we could get together and talk. Three weeks later she finally e-mailed me back. She did not offer to get together. She sent me a long ranting e-mail about the importance of being connected to the current art scene and ended with the suggestion that I "read more art magazines."
Escalating Self, 2003
oil on canvas, 36" x 48". For Sale.


Rob S. said...

See, this touches upon my last post (the one called "Flowers in Hours") where I ranted about the current art scene. I'm not even going to guess who this painting "teacher" is, but I hope for the sake of MECA they're not tenured.

Attacking a student, be it aggressive or passive-aggressive, is just pointless and self-defeating. What did she want from this assignment? And making broad judgments on self-portraiture as a genre, as well as the therapeutic nature of art in general...? Well, that's an easy way to look like an idiot. Her stance could be undermined in a heartbeat reading verbatim from a 5th-grade level art history book. Frida Kahlo, anyone?

Well, you know how I feel about the uber-artspeak and attitudes. I'm sorry you had to confront such crap in person.

And the first professor was right. Even moreso, because their response was visceral; they saw the painting fresh, and in the context of nothing but itself. It succeeded as a painting, because they got it right away visually, and no doubt saw some familiar narrative in it. This was my reaction, as well, before reading your text. I liked the layered figures and the interplay between them. The foreground nude seemed to me to be iconic, representative of something else (sexual/sensual in nature), as opposed to the other figures, which are reacting to its presence. Of course, after reading your motivations for the piece, it made sense, and my interpretation was pretty close. It works either way, which is awesome. Great title, too.

Your convictions are far stronger than one person's opinions. The proof is right there.

Martha Miller said...

Hi Rob

She's long gone, thank God! Yes, I remember thinking, can we get off the topic of content here and just talk about the painting itself?? Being a novice oil painter, I only wanted to know if the damn thing just worked as a painting!

artslice said...

Unfortunately there's always someone similar to this person 'teaching' in schools/universities around the country. What kind of a teacher would tell you to go read art magazines??! Wow, how inane.

I think it's important to keep up with what's going on today in the art world... but I don't see how it's useful to try to make one's work similar to what you see in a magazine. Sure, you can be influenced by looking. However, I don't think that's where creativity and innovation come from... in my experience, it ulimately comes from inside a person.

This story gave me a wild hair... sorry to say I've had similar experiences.

Don Gray said...

Ah me, it takes all kinds. Ditto to what Rob and Artslice said. It makes me shudder to think about how many students she might have deeply wounded with her vitriolic "critiques". Especially the younger and more impressionable ones.

I love Tom Waits, and Mule Variations is one of my favorite CD's. Great video.

Martha Miller said...

Thanks, all. Yes, this felt like a personal attack, and that's never helpful! It does take all kinds...

Gotta love Tom Waits - especially because he wrote a song about a Martha (who was not a Saint Bernard, like in McCartney's tune...)

Martha Miller said...

Ha ha

Rob, I just love your line,

"Well, that's an easy way to look like an idiot."