LivingArts: Real vs. Representation

As an artist who uses found objects I find myself pondering the idea of using or creating a representation of something or of just working with the actual thing. I usually opt for using the actual thing, but having to contextualize that choice has led me to think a lot about more traditional art-making, and about materials.  

As I wrote in a previous entry, many of my touring conversations in the gallery lately focus on the choices that artists make, and what impact those choices had on their work, whether through the stylistic or technical results or the ideological impact. Students are often surprised to think about art in that way – that everything was done on purpose rather than divinely falling into place.  

Material means something – or more specifically the choice of material means something, and therefore an artist’s decision to ‘re-produce’ or ‘re-present’ something that already exists is important. (I read an article a little while ago that inserted the hyphens in these words, forcing me to really think about what the words mean.)

While in school, a fellow student made small multi-layered collages of ripped magazine images... and then he meticulously scaled them up into large paintings – reproducing the exact same image, just bigger and in a different material. The question is, why? What does a large painting offer that the small collage doesn’t? Is it scale? Is it the demonstration of technical skill – the composition and visual language was all set out in the collage? Or something about the transmutation of ordinary materials into the formal realm of paint and canvas?  

In another example, there is an artist who makes casts of leaves, birds nests and other natural objects in bronze. In this case, the choice of materials resonates for me more metaphorically but I’m not certain that there is as much difference as I perceive.

Finally we come to those artists at the other end of the spectrum – our Duchamps and Hirsts who throw the idea of the preciousness of art materials back at us by taking an ordinary object and leaving it just as it is, but with a whole lot of concept attached. This is a choice that carries a big message with it.

In my own work, I often think about the stories that objects carry with them – each object is haunted by a past life or purpose and these implied histories render ordinary objects that much more powerful. Call it a memento, a totem or just a keepsake - if I create a new copy this haunting would be lost and the reproduction would be silent. Materials mean something.