influence tracking #3: the blurry lines between inspiration, zeitgeist and thievery

{image: Wikimedia Commons}

A side note post as I continue to write about influences and inspiration.  It happens now and then that you see work that echoes another artist’s work so strongly that you have to wrinkle your nose and shake your head, especially when you know who’s rhyme came first.  A small number of times, I’ve seen work that looks a lot like mine, and then, depending on how close it is, the stunned connection is tinged with a feeling of betrayal and a string of questions… Has this artist seen my work?  Was this conscious?  Accidental?  Is it possible to come to such similar forms without having seen anything from me at all?  A magical product of the zeitgeist?  In any of these cases, even though there’s a bit of a startle involved, I tend to take this sort of thing lightly, mostly because of two things I hold to be true.

1) Art is, at its base, a product of copying.  Nothing, as it has been said of old, is new under the sun.  But each human being is unique, and so as the world of raw material meets each new set of eyes and hands, it has unforeseen possibilities for combinations of all the old tricks.  I think people can either reformulate what comes to them lazily, which looks like thievery, or brilliantly, which looks like all the best art on the planet.  And then there’s everything in between.  It all comes out in the wash because…

2)  I believe that the most original re-mixers will stick around, while those who are “derivative and lack conviction” (a favorite phrase from an old professor of mine) will fade out.  If you look at any art movement in history, there are people who push the edges and innovate and people who hold the center, making a style or approach indelible.  It could even be argued that the center-holders might be an important component in historical structuring.  Like the medics camped out away from the front lines in order to treat those who are wounded at the Avant Garde.

There’s a whole world of law surrounding this of course– intellectual property (what an amazing concept!) and copyright, etc.  And it becomes a different story when someone makes money off of someone else’s ideas.  But mostly we all have kind of a sensor for detecting whether someone’s heart is in what they do, and whether they are struggling to be originators.  What I always tell my students is to diversify their influences.  It’s possible to love one artist so much that you start to mimic him or her accidentally.  I’ve had plenty of times that I start to use a symbol or approach that I’m not consciously borrowing, only to later make the dotted line to something I’ve recently admired.  And that’s okay… I’m a sponge, we’re sponges.  The trick is to sponge up a lot of different things so that your soup is fresh.  (And you know when I tell students these things, I’m telling myself as well…)


dear plastic, don’t imitate anything…

{Robert Fontenot}

I came across Robert Fontenot’s Recycle LACMA project through the superb weatherspoon and am, again, contemplating the art-version of reduce/reuse/recycle.  In projects like the one pictured below, and in the one we just finished for the Madison Park Window Project, Zack and I have used handmade quilts that we found at the Goodwill “bins”– the last stop for clothing and other donated objects before the landfill, as far as I understand it.  Even though we know we are using them one last (?) time, it’s still difficult to take the scissors to these wonders of antique fabric in resplendently awkward color combinations, knowing that there was a set of hands at the other end, and a set of eyes, that would likely balk at the severity of its reuse.  So it is with the LACMA project.  Artist Robert Fontenot bought up a slew of Los Angeles Museum County of Art’s castoffs from their textile and costume department, and is carefully working to reuse these gems that hail from every corner of the earth only to end up in a cultural recycling bin.  Some of the ways that Fontenot is reusing them bring delight and satisfaction (some of my favorites: boxing gloves, wastebasket, bathroom awning), while some are more painful, depending on the beauty of the original object or the silliness of the new one.  But the project is a great idea, and allows viewers to think about the way that we feel certain objects are more sacred than others because of their hand-crafted originality, their beauty, their rarity, their exotic appeal.  It keeps us thinking about trash, about limits, about time folding in on itself, the ubiquity of fabric, the often artless art that we wear compared to the garb of other times and places…

{Zack and Gala Bent: Overprotective Home}

the waves have it

Hail, much-needed too-short vacation.  It didn’t take long to be washed brainclean by the sound of real ocean waves.  As much as I adore Puget Sound, she’s just not the same as the Oregon coast’s vigorous roll of wave-on-wave.  I can try to describe it, but the main thing is its own wordlessness.  I can muse about the generations of human beings who have spent time staring into these same shore’s waves– always the same, always changing, but the presence of the sea itself (or being present by its side) is an immersive picture of ageless timeless.  And boy is that awesome for remembering your size in the scheme of things.  That’s what vacations are for, oh ye who think you are indispensable to whatever work has you by its throat (guilty, here).

Art Club

Scooting down the coast here pretty soon, on a mini-vacation and to deliver work to Portland, Oregon for Half/Dozen‘s first show in a bona fide space!  This will be a group show of the gallery’s current artists, all of whom I admire.  And then I’ll have a solo show there in October.

I’m always tempted to make installation work when I have a whole space to myself.  The prospect becomes more complicated at a distance, and with several dependent little men, but we’ll see…