Brush strokes. Where along the line did we get to the place where we despise brush strokes? I know of no art critic or curator who would devalue the Master’s brush-stroke-infused oil painting on the mere presence of the artist’s fingerprint upon his work, evidence that a lowly human being was at work upon the canvas rather than some mechanical automaton. In fact, thanks to the variety of aesthetic approaches to brush work we have movements of art, “isms”, a wide range of philosophies and styles and approaches to the mechanics of art making.
Brush strokes are indirect evidence that a human hand was at work upon a canvas, employing tools whose degree of finesse and control are simultaneously limited by the material’s crude imperfections, while displaying the artist’s ability to work within those limitations to achieve a surmounting mastery over the intrinsic materiality of substance.
The reading of the canvas entails a deep appreciation for the complex on-going dialog between the triumvirate of hand, brush and canvas that is The Way of the Artist. Peculiarly curious creatures are these artists, ever-exploring new dichotomies between the hard elements of the physical world and those fleeting, ephemeral qualities of the inner life. At the heart of this inquisitiveness is that timeless struggle between the artist’s inner vision and the stubborn resilience of physical materials to yield to the will of the artist’s intent. The nexus of this struggle is the place where art and craft are seamlessly interwoven so as to be inseparable.
So it is that we find the brush-stroke-infused canvas to be a monument of triumph over the hard, unsympathetic calculus of a deterministic universe, akin to the mud, blood and ooze of some far-distant battlefield, the texture of individual daubs of paint like the footprints of now-dead solders, evidence of some recently ceased struggle. We are reminded of Matthew Brady’s civil war photos; corpses carefully posed amidst the muck and aftermath of turmoil. We celebrate their crudity, the overly obvious presence of each orchestrated step in the long symphony of movements required for the completion of the work. The brush stroke reminds us that we must never forget this struggle as being essential to the process of art making.
Perhaps therein do we find reason for the critical disdain of artists such as Thomas Kinkade, whose style is commonly referred to as mere kitsch. While one could presume that the nature of the criticism leveled against Mr. Kinkade has more to do with professional jealousy over an obvious level of commercial success, there is some merit in the argument that Kinkade’s work is too pretty, too pristine, to be awarded notice as serious art, for its general oeuvre lacks the evidence we desire that some triumphant struggle has been won in the work’s creation. His work has the appearance of mechanical ease, as if some button was pushed and out from the guts of a mysterious art-making factory spews forth one pretty cottage within the woods after another. It looks contrived, polished. Photoshopped.
If Kinkade’s brand represents the shopping mall approach to art, omnipresent but deserving to be ignored, like just another ghetto of urban sprawl, then the world of photography is surely in the grips of some gigantic struggle, as well. The software-controlled approach to Photography as Graphic Arts is Kinkadism to the n-th degree, revealing an utter disrespect for the human presence in art. Its ability to erase all flaws, blemishes, ill-executed compositions – even natural physical laws – represents a fundamental philosophical shift in the relationship between the artist as real human being – replete with flaws, working within the hard physical limitations of a material world – and the resulting work as evidence of that process unfolding. It is rather the triumph of the image as uber-pornography, every reminder of the imperfections of the real world carefully removed, photography as Hollywood fantasy movie, intended to shock and awe.
There remains an unsettlingly persistent tendency within the photography world to mimic the artifacts of antiquated historical processes: the organic randomness bordering the edge of a peel-apart Polaroid image, the soft blur and vignetting within the periphery of an ancient plate-camera image. Even the simple monochromatic elegance of a black and white reveals an unintended yet unavoidable reference to a previous age when capturing color images chemically was only a theoretical possibility. Yet such stylistic elements persist, even proliferate, through the aegis of software simulation, because humans remain desperate for evidence that the process of art making has meaning at a personal level deeply profound and moving; a persistent desire that art remain tactile, physical, grounded in the everyday world of our ordinary experience.
Personal confession time. I have been guilty of taking a hand-processed paper negative, exposed in a simplistic pinhole box camera, processed in a dingy, dust-laden darkroom in the corner of my garage, and Photoshopped the bejeezus out of it in order to remove spots, hairs, fibers, scratches, blemishes and all other evidence of the physical nature of the medium and process. As if I were ashamed of the means by which such images are created; utter nonsense given my access to photographic image making of every conceivable level of sophistication.
I hand process paper negatives from simple handcrafted cameras because I find the process rewarding at both the level of physical involvement with the materials and the aesthetic qualities of the resulting images. The means by which I share these results, often via online discussion forums, provide little assurance that things are as they appear, since manipulation is intrinsic to the nature of the image file. Suffice it to say that I strive to ensure that such images are as faithful to the darkroom print as I can achieve; yet there remains those nagging dust motes and imperfections that I embarrassingly clone-stamp away, like dirty laundry hidden from view.
I am now coming to the place of deciding that all such commonly perceived faults, whether they be surface imperfections or compositional, represent artifacts of the photographic image as a literal document of the unfolding process. Just as Garry Winogrand asserted that there are no rules of composition, no horizons that require re-alignment with the frame’s edge, so too are the peculiarities of composition and focus in my images literal evidence of a particular angle of view as seen from a defined vantage point in space by the camera. The photograph is that most tangible of data points within the Space-Time Continuum, including the dust specks, scratches and blemishes that serve as documentary evidence of the material condition of my process within the darkroom environment. They are evidence of feeble human attempts to struggle at overcoming fundamental physical limitations in the pursuit of art. They are my badge of courage, my medal of achievement. My brush strokes.