What is the Subject?


This is not a post, its a question. Does that make the question the subject?

What is it? Someone asks, when they see a work of art.

I like what you’ve done, but don’t feels strongly about the subject.

I haven’t given much thought to this, because I thought the question had been abandoned long ago. But having recently heard this raised–the question about the subject, it’s been troubling me. Most of my work has no subject, not one that I think about. But some do. And then, there’s conceptual art–which I haven’t given much thought to in relation to my own. Maybe I should. 

Something about the context of the conversation where this came up that troubled me. It had to do with #303 on a recent post, a piece which seems to have a subject–it’s figurative. Does that face represent something? I’m sure it does for some. Is that important? I ask, because for me–I have no idea. It’s something that emerged as I scrubbed pigment onto a weathered, heavily textured piece of plywood. I saw an image that was like a face. So it was, the face happened. There was already that piece of roofing, and the plastic, and the duct tape at the bottom. Like a wall of an empty lot…  I added the oil stick graffiti. And after that photo was taken (and my camera died), three nails, from which I wrapped heavy twine, brushed with black and red paint. To make it three dimensional.

I was following what I found suggested in what was there, what I saw. And that was the first thought I came up with when I asked myself, what the subject of my art was: SEEING. It’s about what I see, and what that does to me. How then, does that work into pieces where there’s an idea, a conceptual subject, like the one I called, America Agonistes, a piece I made the first weeks of the Ferguson protests. But the concept isn’t, and wasn’t important to it’s making–it was about making something visual that wasn’t, that wasn’t visual because it was something invisible I was seeing everywhere, but only as something I felt. I made it out of the need to make that feeling physical. I say, “feeling,” but there’s more than emotion involved–it was how I found myself entangled with the police murders of black men and women alone–where I found myself, a white man in this fucking racist, horrible violent place and time, called America.

I might call it, after Stephen Daedalus, the  ineluctable materiality of the visible. In that sense, even those works that suggest connections to ideas, that take on namestitles, are for me–de-conceptualized, in their becoming material. That is–the impulse to make art is like an immaterial tumor eating at me that pleads to be given form, color, shape–to become material. Pinocchio wanting to become, no longer a puppet–an artifice, a semblance of the real, but life materialized.

While I might be guided by an idea, something that one would call a “subject,” and what results will bear the imprint of that guidance, it’s not to realize the idea, but to shape visible material into something else, something both more, and less, something, that is, disinvested of the idea, even as it bears its imprint–and so not imprisoned by it.

Almost a paradox. Daphne as a nymph, an object defined wholly by Apollo’s desire, is freed from his objectification by becoming what appears to be … a thing, an object… a tree. Beyond the grasp of his desire–no longer ever again, a possession. So it is with what I seek to do when I make a work of art.

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