Why Art is So Hard to Talk About
I asked Jo Wood-Brown, a great contemporary artist, to distill her approach to creativity, what viewers should glean from her work, among similar lines of inquiry. Her response--let's schedule a call.
This made me wonder. What could possibly be so elusive for the written word that I have to transcribe her thoughts instead of her writing them directly? One video call later, I think I understand.
Art is hard to talk about because language and the processes to create and experience visual art are fundamentally different.
To explain why, I'll introduce you to Jo Wood-Brown.
Her body of work will act as a case study for us, illustrating the tension between visual and verbal modes of thinking. Then, I'll build to the broader implications for how we collectively metabolize art.
Hopping on the call, I was met with Jo’s warm smile. For an artist whose accolades include working with Metropolitan Museum of Art (among many others), she could not have been more kind and welcoming to a humble admirer.
Peering into the studio behind her, shape and color consumed the walls and a cascading sculpture with a small diver as its jewel framed the scene.
After exchanging hellos and a brief introduction, Jo elaborated on those pesky questions-- the 'define your work' questions.
As she phrased it, her work is a pyramid. Each medium represents a face: drawing/painting, photography/video, sculpture/installation and collaboration.
The metaphor of a pyramid is appropriate here. It's an object which spans time and introduces the stoic dessert imagery of the Middle East, a common theme woven through Jo's work. Furthermore, each face holds a distinct vantage point; yet they all support one another and emerge into the overall shape: a beacon, cut from the desert landscape.
Jo works in many distinct mediums, yet the themes and subjects interpenetrate. While each artistic medium offers a unique vantage point, they coalesce to support a larger meaning--like a pyramid.
The pyramid face which I find particular fascination with as a print publisher, is her painting.
Fire water, oil on linen, 20 x 24”, 2021
Jo's artistic process for painting is improvisational, capturing a moment in time--responding to it. Like in dance improvisation (also on the resume of this Renaissance woman), a painter becomes the conduit to the moment. The surroundings, sounds, sights, & feelings of the surveyor become the question to which the painting is an answer.
The painting acts as the means of processing a moment, then becomes the mode of eternally offering that moment to viewers outside of it.
This process of pulling perceptions into a canvas requires folding layers together--often in a very nonlinear way.
From a cognitive standpoint, vision is completely contextual. Elements make sense only in relation to one another. Therefore, as more layers become folded into a piece, others must be amended or modified. Since vision is contextual, meanings are discovered at least as much as they are meticulously planned. Consequently, meanings which nonlinearly materialize from painting defy the linearity of language. They emerge like flocking birds arranging into an arrow, or fish schooling into a spiral.
Creating a painting is a process of folding layers together. In contrast, perceiving a painting is a process of unfolding. As a viewer, first the eye takes in the whole, then gradually drifts over its constituent layers.
For Jo's paintings, one first sees the overall relationship between elements, then gradually observes the layering, individual colors, textures, and shapes which compose those parts.
Video still from “Little Videos for Lost Voyage”, 2021
Forcing that unfolding into the written word is to impose a linearity onto it--a linearity which doesn't directly emerge from the piece itself. In fact, the process for taking in a visual scene versus describing a scene are completely inverse processes. Where viewing paintings begin with the whole scene, sentences begin with parts--they rely on the inverse process of offering words which gradually build to the whole of an image.
The difficulty of art enthusiasts, art historians, and artists is how to express the ineffable through the effable. How to articulate the often nonlinear experience of creating or understanding visual works through the linear medium of language.
The contrasting logics of language and vision remind me a lot of a balsamic vinaigrette. The oil and vinegar each contain distinct properties and together boast repulsive tendencies.
How would you explain vinegar in terms of oil? I think the answer is you don't. At least not really.
Many attempts are inevitably made, but ultimately there is no substitute for the experience of the thing itself in its own medium. Oil doesn't define vinegar in a balsamic vinaigrette, but it lends rich context to it. The written word cannot define an artistic piece, but also lends rich context to it.
Like the eternally phobic oil and vinegar, words and visual work complement one another.
Yet, it is a single tool of adding context to visual works of art--and not without other limitations. One such limitation of traditional written descriptions is that they can monopolize or bias the interpretation of a piece through a single voice.
The writer, often a gallerist, art historian, or artist, provides a singular authoritative account on the significance of the work. There is no surrounding conversation or evolution of those ideas. Just a slice of information, frozen in time.
This monopolization of meaning is something that Jo Wood-Brown has subverted in her communal approach to co-inventing meanings and artistic interpretations. A profound example is her recent exhibition, "Lost Voyage", in which dancers interpreted the work of Jo and other collaborators in real time.
Night Vision installation and performance, “Lost Voyage”, Five Myles Gallery, photo by Alystyre Julian, 2020
The scene surrounded a pool of water--representing an oasis, traditionally a place for community. The center orients viewers towards, not only the art there, but also to the other viewers to whom they meet the gaze (rather than facing outward towards bare walls, like in most traditional exhibitions). The other exhibition-goers, are not mere background noise, but are an intentional part of the art experience.
There were multiple dancers interpreting the art through movement in real time. This non-traditional context to the visual works creates a more humanistic way of communicating interpretations--through the most human medium of all--bodies. It's also a method which is not frozen in time, but is as responsive to the setting, audience, and individual dancer, as to the works themselves. It represents the polar opposite from the petrified written descriptions, which accompany most works.
With Jo Wood-Brown's paintings' improvisational approach to a moment, it fits that the meanings behind those works should also bloom from a moment. In this case, a conversation.
While conversations still reveal meanings in linear sequence, like written words, they also introduce an element of chaos, unexpected turns & tangents, associations of both speaker AND audience--becoming a collaborative unfolding of interpretations. Roles of audience & speaker dissolve, and the evolution of an idea is co-invented by all parties. This process upends the linearity of the written word and introduces a more non-linear, communal way of constructing meanings. The result is an organic, responsive approach to communication--one could even say improvisational approach.
So, what is the point of pointing to the limitations of the written word? Well, there are some practical applications of reconsidering this steadfast element of art.
The super power of great artistic thinkers is that they are able to pull together elements which do not, cannot fit within the container of words. Yet, the presentation of those works is often alongside exclusively writing to guide or enrich the viewer's interpretation.
It makes me wonder, in the age of technology, why so much art presented still relies so heavily, so exclusively on the written word.
I'm not at all saying writing is not valuable. Clearly, I think it is or I wouldn't have written this!
But perhaps, just perhaps, the galleries of the future, will employ more collaborative, multimedia co-inventions of shared meanings to present with certain works. Perhaps there will be a greater recognition of the tools at our disposal. And for this, I believe that Jo Wood-Brown provides ample inspiration and blue-prints for the future.
As the founder of Asocha, I find myself daydreaming about all the innovative story-telling surrounding art that may be possible. In collaboration with our artists, I hope we can create truly unique and valuable experiences centering art.
For this reason, it's an incredible blessing and honor to work with Jo Wood-Brown as one of our very first founding Asocha Artists. In many ways, she is visionary; her communal, democratic approach to meaning is just one example.