Sunday, July 13, 2008

mixing it up

Lately, I've found myself edging away from using a single process/media e.g.; oil; encaustic; and experimenting with mixed media. As I work, I often think about the nomenclature for paintings that incorporate numerous materials and how to label these paintings. Mixed media sounds so mysterious, and brings up my concern about conveying to a viewer, gallerist, juror, curator, potential collector, or other interested parties that there is a material integrity to the piece. For those of us who work with encaustic, we are often faced with the prospect of reassuring folks that, no, this won't melt during the summer, and no, it isn't toxic, and no, it's not especially fragile with the proper handling that any piece of fine art or craft requires.

I've seen many paintings labeled mixed media that contain what appear to be lots of different media/materials--sometimes more than my fairly informed eye can discern. I am then left to wonder what's there, how might the different materials interact, and what are the implications for conservation. (I do buy art when I can afford to. And I do want to know what's in there.)

Conversely, I sometimes see work that has numerous media listed on a painting's label, and it reminds me of the descriptors used on menus in some restaurants: oil, encaustic, graphite, paper collage, monotype, and xerox transfer on watercolor paper on cradled maple panel. Grilled and jasmine tea smoked muscovy duck breast on cedar plank with organic dried michigan bing cherries and braised black walnuts in a reduced house-made anjou pear and port wine reduction over hand-ground grilled polenta cake. (I made it up in a caffeine-fueled fit, and to be a little over the top to make a point, but now I'm also hungry and thinking...hmmm sounds like it might be worth trying.)'s nice to know all that, maybe. And it sure would pique my interest and curiosity. Sounds appetizing--and on menus, which are marketing tools--that is the point. But might it not take away a little from the experience of discovery while eating? Or with art, from viewing? Not sure. And it leaves me with the question of how to find a balance...

While participating in J.T. Kirkland's project Artists Review Artists I reviewed a painting by Ken Weathersby that had a great descriptor: acrylic on canvas with removed and reversed area. (You'll have to refer to the review to understand.) When I wrote my review, it did not occur to me that the words used for the labeling of the media could be part of the piece, but that's what I'm thinking now, which opens all kinds of neuro-pathways in my brain.

So readers, I'm wondering what you do in your own studio practice to address the issue of labeling if you use mixed media/mixed techniques. Do you tell all? Or do you mention only the most prominent ingredient(s) when there may be many? Have you developed a specific term that fits for all your mixed-media works? And do you have a specific philosophy or reasoning for your decision? Or maybe it's not an issue for you at all. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Leni said...

When I was using oilstick and graphite on graph paper on gessoed panels using a razor blade, I wondered if the razor should be listed as part of the media. One doesn't list a paintbrush, do they? Yet, the razor was a really important part of the process, and more visible in ways than the oil, graphite, or paper was. In the end, I listed oilstick and graphite alone, giving the viewer the credit for knowing graph paper when they saw it, much as a painter wouldn't list canvas in their materials.
While alchemy is a beautiful thing, does one really need to be a scientist to appreciate the beauty of an effect?
To further your analogy, the taste of the meal shouldn't be overwhelmed by the design of the menu.

Joanne Mattera said...
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Joanne Mattera said...

I think I ate at that restaurant once. I wanted grilled fish but I got a mixed-media event. And I hate polenta.

In terms of descriptions for art, I think different situations call for different degrees of specificity.

You're submitting work for a show in which medium is an issue? Be specific.

You're submitting work for a show in which medium is no more of an issue than size? Then "mixed media" or "mixed mediums" and the dimensions are fine.

(When I was writing my book The Art of Encaustic Painting, and I solicited images for consideration, I requested that artists be specific about the materials because encaustic was the focus of the book. The ones who gave me "mixed media" went into the No pile because I needed to understand how the painting was made, and I had no assistant to make the clarifying phone call.)

You're doing a piece in which removed and reversed areas are integral to the work? I'm not sure the descriptor is part of the art, but it certainly helps a viewer understand what the artist is up to.

By all means be specific with your dealer, who will want to know how all those mediums will interact and hold up over time. And if you don't know how those mediums interact, maybe you shouldn't be glomming so much stuff together. (Not you personally, Pam, "you" in general, and that holds for the rest of my little rant below.)

I've see descriptions rivaling your menu listing: oil, tar, enamel, fiber and wax over watercolor and acrylic with collage on gessoed paper adhered with PVA glue to canvas-covered panel. It's worth bearing in mind that every single one of those elements is responding to humidity and temperature in a different way, each one expanding and contracting at its own rate, and then in relation to the same thing that's going on with it's neighbors. If you've ever seen people respond in panic to an extreme situation, that's what's going on in miniature, day after day, in your artwork.

So, pick a substrate. Pick a ground. Pick a medium or two and get on with it. If you can't say what you want to say in a couple of mediums, maybe you should rethink what it is you're trying to say.

(Could you imagine writing a dissertation in English, Spanish and German with large sections rendered in Esperanto, Japanese, Romanian, Portuguese and Dutch, with the footnotes in Latin?)

For the record: I use encaustic on panel. Or gouache on paper. Or acrylic on (gessoed) canvas.

Hylla Evans said...

This is important and I'd like to get it to another audience. Thanks, Pam, for opening the conversation here.
Until these combinations of materials are tested over time, I consider them experimental and prefer to call them performance art. As a chef has an obligation not to feed an unpalatable or plain gross concoction to diners, so an artist has a responsibility to construct work at a professionally respectable level. Experimental and non-traditional combinations of materials are fine as long as they are marketed honestly, with regard (and price) commensurate with their limited lifespan.

pam farrell said...

Thanks for your comments, Leni, Joanne, and Hylla, thoughtful and informed, all.

Loustorey said...

When I worked at the Brooklyn Museum in the early 80s the conservators had the unenviable task of trying to repair and/or salvage many artworks from the 60s that were already disintegrating and doing strange things (like smelling, or even hatching). Although I applaud the exuberance of those artists (I guess words like unrestrained, unfettered, liberated all come to mind) the work itself was neglected in regard to its longevity. Actually I don’t have any answers here, and I struggle with my own work in regard to how much information “mixed media” is intended to incorporate. I agree with Joanne that it is somewhat dependent on the situation and perhaps also on how strongly you identify with your own process and the materials you select in regard to identifying the work itself. I do like some mystery to the work and generally when I view other people’s artwork I avoid the label anyway as I find I can fixate on the title and then loose contact with my own gut-response. But as I said, I am not so certain on this aspect myself, and like to retain the right to be somewhat loose with my materials on occasion to allow for sometimes terrible & sometimes wonderful mistakes.

pam farrell said...

Lou: As an artist who has museum experience, you offer a unique perspective. Thanks for posting.

Kate Beck said...

I'm late to this conversation, Pam, but my response is a little different. I get sick and tired (sometimes) of having (some) people ask 'how did you do that?' And then proceed to batter me for details of how I arrived at my painting -- not in terms of interest of my work, but in terms of re-creating it themselves -- or something like that. So in one fell swoop my work gets devalued and any chance of lingering intrigue shot down. Makes me want to keep my 'media notes' to myself.