Beyond the Cult of the Individual: New Perspectives on the Boundaries of a Work of Art

Selection of 16 of 50 pond series paintings

For most of us, an important part of creative process is thinking. I have observed in myself how what I think has a major impact on what I paint. This may sound obvious, but it becomes interesting when I see my work change in response to the way I think. I’m watching this happen now as I recently find myself re-framing what it is that I have been doing all these months painting up at the pond.

My new perspective came after a studio conversation with a friend. We were looking at my 49 paintings (of the same view) and she identified some core themes that are emerging in this series: slowing down, staying local and paying attention to something near and small and natural, over a long period of time. She talked about how seeing these paintings together speaks of these things and also of our capacity to become highly sensitized to, and appreciative of, our surroundings. And it’s true that even though my subject is small and unspectacular, the dynamism, richness and diversity that my ever-deepening relationship to this place and practice makes available to me blows my mind.

As I host visitors, I’m noticing that for a viewer to grasp these themes they need to see the paintings together. This new realization has shifted my perception, from seeing each painting as a whole onto itself (an individual), to seeing them as parts of a greater whole (a community).

This is to say I am now considering the idea that I am making, not a series of individual paintings, but one big piece which is dependent on all its parts to fully function and which is greater than the sum of those parts.

So how has this new way of thinking changed my work?

First, I have a heightened sense of valuing the unusual and the unique. This makes me more likely to accentuate differences and try new things because I know that even bold experiments can be balanced within the greater whole. Every painting that pushes an edge expands the scope of the whole effort. This is exciting and gives me a greater sense of freedom and adventure as I paint.

Next, when I think of all of these paintings as parts of one whole work, each painting becomes significant not only in relationship to the subject and to myself, but to the other paintings as well. I am no longer thinking about completing one painting, I am thinking about being in the process of completing the group as a whole.

So this shift from part to whole, from individual to community, is a shift toward valuing diversity and focusing more on process and relationship. There is suddenly a lot less beginning and ending and a lot more in between. Before I was thinking in terms of linear progression, movement in one direction, each piece was singular and sufficient and finished before the next was started. Now they are all in process together and that process seems more liquid, reflective and circular without hard boundaries.

Could it be that this shift from individual to collective orientation is really just a kind of waking up to the truth? Perhaps every work of art is always nested in a greater inquiry just as every individual is nested in a community (which I think can be claimed even for those who are “outsiders”). This change of mind will have a big impact on my choices in the remaining months of my project. If we all reframed ourselves as just small parts of something larger, who knows how much might change.


One thought on “Beyond the Cult of the Individual: New Perspectives on the Boundaries of a Work of Art

  1. Very apt metaphor, a painting is an individual, whole in itself, and yet somehow more clearly understood in context of it’s community or even it’s cultural context. Having viewed some of these paintings, I know them to be entirely self contained and complete as individual paintings and yet when viewing several, there is so much more gained in the experience.

    I think of another more somber work of art that actually became so big, it can no longer be displayed in its entirety. The AIDs Quilt. While I make no association of content between these plein air paintings of the pond and the AIDs Quilt, I can see a few significant parallels.

    First I would travel some distance to be able to stand in front of the entire body of pond paintings. I know that I would be greatly rewarded by being able to contemplate the whole piece.

    Second, just as with the quilt, smaller gatherings of the paintings carry some of the power of the whole. I know from seeing smaller groupings that the whole is sensed in the viewing of some of the parts. Yet what an experience awaits to view them all together. I believe the target number may be 60. I think this will give us (the viewer a visceral experience of time, changing light, seasons, and much much more. But this is only speculation. Our experience awaits.

    At the turn of the 20th century, Europeans would travel hundreds of kilometers to view a painting. This without the combustion engine. I am feeling equally excited about the prospect of seeing this great work upon its completion.


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