A Change is Gonna Come

How long can a studio obsession last before you yearn for a new way? Many artists devote themselves to a narrow path of exploration that sustains them for an entire career. I admire their depth of study, mastery of technique and coherence of vision, but I admit to being inherently suspicious of pursuing such a limited range of expression for so long. Are the limitations self-imposed, medium-imposed or market-imposed? It’s not always clear to me. But I wonder if I can be that kind of artist. If I need to be. If I should be.

Having quit a job in a highly regulated profession (I was a New York lawyer for several years), I find myself wary of what looks like professional trappings – norms and expectations that can imprison us within the confines of our past achievements. (As I was writing this, Art 21 posted an interview with Eddie Martinez talking about just this thing.)

Lately I have had several conversations with fellow artists who remain passionate about the work they’re doing, but hint at a certain malaise or boredom creeping in as the years go by and a fear to move in a radically new direction. I was heartened to see artist Cathy Daley address this head on in her interview with ArtSync in which she defended her last show that was surprisingly devoid of her famous and wonderful drawings of dresses. Increasing demand cannot be sufficient reason to continue with a certain body of work. If it were all about creating/meeting/increasing demand, it would be wiser to make a more practical product than art. Trust me. Being a lawyer is so much easier than this.

I am at grad school right now, determined to not do what I was doing before. I’ve been doing prints for the first time, experimenting with photography and video, and expanding my compositions beyond the face to capture whole bodies encased in couture. I’ve even played with the idea of moving toward full abstraction. Anything is possible. It’s liberating, surprising, fascinating – and scary.

In my life so far, I have been lucky enough to follow my heart wherever it pulls me. I have had two careers, lived in six cities and earned four degrees. It makes me think I’m probably not that artist who is going to focus on one approach my whole life. I don’t mean to disparage artists that do. I just don’t want to be afraid of being that artist who doesn’t. In the words of Steve Jobs:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I am not crazy.

 Amanda Clyne, oil sketch on board, 8" x 10", 2013

Amanda Clyne, oil sketch on board, 8" x 10", 2013

“The only difference between an artist and a lunatic is, perhaps, that the artist has the restraint or courtesy to conceal the intensity of his obsession from all except those similarly afflicted.

— Osbert Sitwell

I am not crazy.  It is a mantra I repeat regularly to reassure myself.

I am not crazy. It is easier to believe some days more than others.

When I am not immersed in my own studio obsessions, I am obsessing about breaking free of my own singular voice. I imagine running away from all professional desires, responsibilities and expectations to adopt new eyes and hands, to paint every possible subject in every imaginable way.

One day I would run away to the French countryside and paint en plein air like Van Gogh or Monet.

Vincent Van Gogh

Claude Monet

The next day I'd lock myself in the studio to attempt painterly constructions like Sasha Pierce or Mark Grotjahn.

Sasha Pierce (detail)

Mark Grotjahn (detail)

Maybe I'd travel back to China to study the elegant simplicity of brush and ink, channeling my most ardent Brice Marden and Julie Mehretu.

Brice Marden

Julie Mehretu

Perhaps I'd catapult myself to Berlin to lose my mind in the chaotic ways of Jonathan Meese and Daniel Richter.

Jonathan Meese

Daniel Richter

After that, I might try to rehabilitate reason by immersing myself in the geometric journeys of Tomma Abts or Paul Klee.

Tomma Abts

Paul Klee

And that would just be the beginning. I want to paint it all. I want to try it ALL.

I don't want to copy these artists and their work, don't get me wrong. What I want is to adopt a thousand different mindsets, a million different sensibilities and see what it's like to experience the world in each manner of re-making. I want to see more and more of the world through an endless stream of wondrous and alien eyes. But I don't want to just look. I want to touch and make and think and process all these perspectives through the endless creation of endless kinds of art. I know it might sound crazy.

It is not that I have no vision of my own or no desire to hone it on my own terms. Of course I do. But I must confess to this other deep and insatiable curiosity. Expressing just one singular perspective seems woefully inadequate as a means of grappling with and reveling in the world around me. I am reminded of this quote by Marcel Proust:

"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is..."

Indeed. How many lifetimes would I need to paint each one? Faced with the remains of this one short life, I have begun to feed this obsession quietly on my own. My regular studio practice continues, but patiently, privately, with work I will never show, I have begun to play -- play with new materials, new subjects, play for the pure joyous escape of temporarily abandoning my daily studio obsessions and finding the million other universes that lie within me. I'm sure these playful wanderings will feed my "work", but that is not their purpose. Their power lies in allowing me to roam, untethered to anything I have done before or anything I might do in the future. It reminds me to not get bogged down in the professional trappings of being an Artist, and to savor the solitary revelry of being an artist.

Empathy as Art Practice

Oil sketch on canvas, 8" x 10", 2013, Amanda Clyne

I must confess. I constantly feel the desire to slip inside another's skin. I am fascinated by the prospect of entering the internal worlds of others, and I have pursued art for its special capacity to create this experience. Although I have not always been an artist, I have always been an avid viewer of the arts, experiencing genuine and intense personal connections to artworks that seem to magically mirror my own private sensibilities. At its best, the experience feels as if I have met a kindred spirit, sharing such a deep reciprocal bond that loneliness becomes impossible. Now as an artist, I have begun to think of the act of making art itself as an empathic exercise, and wonder how the notion of empathy may serve as a paradigm for my art practice.

The concept of empathy has been engaging the interests of those in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, and while there is no standard definition used by researchers, there are three critical elements that seem to be agreed upon:

The Other: The experience of empathy begins with the desire to understand the mental or emotional state of another. The focus is not on the self but on the other.

Imagination: Empathy involves the act of imagining as the means to overcome the challenge of perceiving what another person is experiencing in a particular circumstance. This notion of imaginative simulation has its roots in the 18th century with the moral philosophizing of Adam Smith:
"By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something, which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them." (1)
Shared Response: The purpose of this imaginative undertaking is not merely to understand another person's experience, but to share in that person's response. Graham McFee declares empathy to be "an achievement", the result of an active form of engagement:
"...empathy is, in this way, relational in a stronger sense than, say, even sympathy. My sympathy with you (or for you) does not require that you feel anything: but at the centre of the idea of empathy is precisely a sharing of some psychological state or condition. So both your contribution and mine are required." (2)
Each of these elements seems to lie at the heart of not only viewing art but making it. It's easiest to see this in the work of artists such as Gillian Wearing or Bill Viola, where the work is made through interacting with real people -- recruited subjects in Wearing's work and hired actors in Viola's work -- and where empathy is in some way the stated subject matter of the work itself.

But for those of us dealing with images or abstract forms, can empathy still be considered a defining aspect of our approach? I like to think that it can. I feel it at each stage of my painting process. From the very beginning, there is always something "other" that needs to be imaginatively embodied, whether a person, an image, a form or an idea. And once paint hits the canvas, the materials themselves demand an empathic treatment. Any attempt to control or dominate them are inevitably rejected as futile. They seem to respond best when they are collaborators in the process, nurturing, expanding and supplementing my own decisions and sensibilities. As an image comes to form on the canvas, it too takes on a life of its own. In the midst of composing a work, I always have the sensation that the image looking back at me has an inherent form that must be discovered in dialogue with the painting itself. It is not all about me. Empathy for "others" must guide me throughout.

I find purpose in imagining empathy as the paradigm of my art practice. As a viewer, I have no doubt that empathy is an intrinsic part of art's transformational power. Now as an artist, I am finding it to be no less of a critical force in art's creation, helping to generate an empathic network that ultimately joins together the source/subject, artist, artwork, and viewer.

Alone Together

I have been thinking a lot lately about whether social networking is worth an artist’s time. Do curators ever read that Tweet about your day in the studio? Does the “art world” notice when you post a pithy comment on Facebook? Does anyone really care about all those images you love on Tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram etc etc etc? Does any of it really matter? Isn’t it more important to spend every precious moment on actually making work?

In a Toronto Star article last year, the issue was mildly debated between super-savvy tech artists like Alex McLeod and purely analogue artists like Vanessa Maltese. But the theme of the article was marketing, as if that were the only reason to have an online presence as an artist.

I write this as I continue to debate with myself about whether my online presence is distracting me from my studio practice, if I should just shut down my Twitter account and my Facebook page and even end my blog (which I haven’t been too attentive to anyway, a common story among many well-intentioned bloggers). Would anyone really care? Would anyone even notice?

Author Jorge Luis Borges once remarked how the people who loved his work formed a community of “invisible friends”. 

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by the artist Agnes Martin: “I paint to make friends and hope to have as many as Mozart.” Although I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean Facebook friends, I wonder what she would have thought of these online forums that enable viewers and artist to connect not just through but also beyond the work of art itself. Would she have posted her beautiful writings on a blog? Would she have tweeted pictures of the sublime landscape that surrounded her secluded studio? I think she might have.

In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”, Cain remarks on how the seemingly extroverted and exhibitionist nature of the web was originally designed largely by introverts. Is the urge to make art similar to the urge to share our internal musings online?

There will always be the crude and uninteresting purpose for an online presence – to satisfy the cynical demands of building a brand or persona. It's boring, and when framed this way, I recoil, procrastinate and often remain silent. But when embraced as an opportunity to think aloud, to synthesize random or complex ideas, to reflect on the bombardment of images and information to which I subject myself, to delve deeper into why any of it really matters, I am rewarded with a clarity of thought and purpose that I never really have when I don’t make the effort to share it with others.

So for now, that’s my answer. Of course, it takes time to ruminate coherently -- time away from the studio, and time I will have to find and re-commit to. But maybe the studio does not offer all I have to learn. And maybe there are still some invisible friends out there who can relate to more than just my painting.

Kenny Dorham – “Alone Together”

Tattoo

"The soul, in patches, shapes the tattoo, the set of crossed lines drawing a force-field: the space occupied by the formidable pressure of the soul in its efforts to erase gently the shadows of the body, and the major entrenchments of the body to resist this effort. On the skin, soul and object are neighbors. [...]
The ecstatic transformation, the loss of the body into the soul, removes the tattoo."
- Michel Serres, The Five Senses (p. 25)
 Cropped detail of intaglio print, "Tracings", Amanda Clyne

Cropped detail of intaglio print, "Tracings", Amanda Clyne

Intaglio Breakthrough

As a process-based artist, somehow I new that learning new processes would be critical to breaking through to new work. For the last six weeks, I've been learning various printmaking techniques. Lithography remains my nemesis -- yet to be conquered -- but intaglio and screenprinting have been pushing me out of my comfort zone in the best way possible. Yesterday, I had a breakthrough in finding a way to capture the sensations that I've been striving to convey with an intensity that I don't think I have been able to achieve in my previous work. I can only show a small peak right now. The works are still in progress, and there's still so much to resolve. But I'm so excited by the latest turn of events, I thought it was worth sharing.

Amanda Clyne, detail of a work-in-progress, 2012

Amanda Clyne, detail of a work-in-progress, 2012

Strange Happenings

I couldn't sleep last night. I tried drawing (something I haven't done, well, almost ever). I'm a painter, you see. Somehow it feels very different. Drawing is so linear, so direct, it's a language I speak with only in an awkward and usually incomprehensible accent. So in frustration I picked up my iPhone and began playing with the Brushes app. I had got the app awhile ago after being inspired by David Hockney's show at the ROM last year. But except for a couple quick sketches, I never really took to it -- until tonight, when I didn't feel like doing anything else and nothing else was working. There's something strangely addictive about painting with light from the tip of your finger. Who knows where it will lead. Today I'm spending the day in the painting studio and I have a feeling (optimism?) that more strange things may be on their way.

 digital drawing, 2012

digital drawing, 2012

Open Source

I don't usually post the source material I use for my paintings. There is always the risk that it will ruin the magic of the illusion I'm trying to create. But this is a studio blog after all, and maybe just this once, I feel compelled to pull back the curtain for those who want to take a peek.

The finished painting is entitled "An Apparition of Two". It's 42" x 55", oil on canvas. This is an installation shot from a recent exhibition.

"An Apparition of Two", 42" x 55", oil on canvas, Amanda Clyne (copyright 2012)
The composition is a merging of two images, both of which I dissolved through my inkprint process that I've described before. The original images are from a fashion editorial from the March 2010 issue of Vogue (Russia) and Gustav Klimt's "Mäda Primavesi" (1912). It was a weird twist of fate that I even tried to layer the images together, but once I did, the relationship between the two images became immediately and eerily apparent.


I'm intrigued by the ambiguity that results in the final painting. There is a strange merging of faces, of eras and of media. The two faces become an unstable apparition of a girl that appears no longer young yet not quite grown. Mirroring Klimt's iconic image of the past, the painting catches a photographed pose of the present in its reflection. Photograph and painting come together in a vulnerable exchange of emotion and empathy.

It was the first time I painted with glazes of color, and the richness of the surface surprised me. I want to push that more in the works to come, and hopefully continue to find fated pairings of source imagery. I may not share the source material again in the future though. So for now, I hope this peek behind the curtain enhances and doesn't detract from your experience of the painting.

Mirroring Empathy

A few months ago, I started a new series of paintings that, instead of fragmenting multiple versions of one source image, I began building new portraits by combining sheer layers of multiple source images. The paintings aren't completed yet, so I have no great reveal for you right now, but since I began this work, I keep bumping into parallel universes that are signalling to me I may be on the right track.

Inspired by the connection of the mirror/image to the desire for empathy and intimacy, I felt the fates twist in my favor when I recently came across a reference to "mirror neurons". Seriously, MIRROR neurons? If things couldn't get any better, it turns out this is science's name for those neurons in the brain identified as the source of our empathic instincts. I just had to know more. To start, I found this pretty good video produced by PBS's NOVA series that explains the current research findings.

And if that wasn't awesome enough, I then came across a random Tweet about an amazing artist, Megan Daalder, (who I am now painfully jealous of!) who took this idea of the mirror neuron one step (or perhaps more accurately, a million steps) further by creating a "mirror-box" to enable two individuals to physically merge their mirror reflections into one another in real time. It is a living, breathing version of what I am exploring in my paintings, and it could not be more inspiring. I beg you to watch the video about her work -- it's an amazing story of the power of art, the promise of technology, and the mysterious science of empathy.