There are all different kinds of tones you can take in your artist’s statement. Here’s an example of the “why I make what I make” statement. It provides background that feeds the reader’s imagination. Ideal reader: someone who’s seen the work, and wants permission to understand it, love it. Who wrote it? Alfred Steiner. Work pictured below. (Be sure to keep reading, below that, for a quick Q & A with him.)
“I spent my elementary school years in rural Ohio, in a big pile of animal parts. My best friend’s dad had a VCR with only three VHS tapes, one of which was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was my favorite, and not just because the fictional events took place on the day I was born. There’s a scene in it where one of the nubile victims stumbles into a room strewn with bones—mostly animal—at once terrifying and rustic in the yellow Texas sun. Not to be outdone, my friend and I discovered a boneyard ourselves while roaming a nearby farm, harvesting a few cow skulls that we cleaned with bleach. There was also this fur dealer who lived in a hovel, just past the creek. In our only encounter, I watched this man enthusiastically carve out the heart of a fox and hand it to me. (I had asked for the organ to use in a third-grade science project.) But even that experience didn’t prepare me to find a severed blue eye staring back at me from the mailbox. Lowering the door of the box, I found the milky, apple-sized sphere suspended in a jar of formaldehyde. Turns out this horse eyeball was a gift from our veterinarian, who had already noticed my peculiar predilection. Pressing my memory for other seminal experiences involving animal entrails, I come up empty. But I do remember my friend telling me that his dad had a fourth videotape. Adult cartoons.” Q&A: Alfred: How hard was this to write? A: It was very easy once all of the components gathered themselves rather spontaneously in my mind. I was feeding my daughter her nightly bottle at the time, sitting in a rocking chair in the dark. Q: How long did it take you? A: Probably an hour and a half, including editing. Q: What’s the reaction been to it? How did it make you feel to write it? A:I haven’t received much of a reaction yet, so I’m not sure what it will be. It felt great to write it because it brought together some formative experiences from my past that I hadn’t realized probably influenced my work. Q: What impact has this statement had, if any, on your work? A: That remains to be seen, but I think it may improve the focus of my work.
Now, here’s another short statement, also by Alfred, in which he focuses on a single body of work. If, like Alfred, you work in more than one medium (painting, drawing, sculpture), it’s a good idea to pick one series and just talk about it.
My latest drawings are watercolor portraits of cartoon characters that I’ve cobbled together from haphazard tangles of body parts. These strange new beings dissect the offspring of a grotesque bloodline – one whose progenitors, from Martin Schongauer to George Grosz – I had been transfiguring for the past six years, using only ballpoint pen. Rickety lean-tos of anatomical pathology, these pseudo-medical illustrations perform a needed autopsy on Pop Culture, from Scooby Doo to Marge Simpson. This coroner believes that the purported corpse may yet live.
Normally I tell artists to eschew the polysyllabic (you know—don’t use big words…it’s confusing!). However, Alfred is a lawyer by day, and a sincerely intellectual guy. He truly sounds like this, so I let it fly.
Below is a long statement on a single body of work (drawings on paper) by Chris Spinelli, a Williamsburg-based artist, who looked into his soul and figured out how to talk about some pretty personal stuff. Honesty reads well, right? Don’t worry, artists. You can start like this if it feels right to you, and always edit down later on.
Years ago, while working as a security guard at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, I decided to translate a batch of personal letters into Morse code. Wanting to make autobiographical work, but fearful of mawkishness, I thought I could steer clear of sentimentality if I cannibalized a portion of my personal history, treating it like a specimen to be consumed rather than a myth to be honored. I found the patterns of Morse code characters mesmerizing; the repetition of the dot dash sequence simultaneously calming and unnerving. Thinking this would be a good way to disguise expressiveness in rational forms, a kind of techno-drag, I set about teaching myself the alphabet. As luck would have it there was an added bonus: bored out of mind day after day, poorly protecting the artwork of others, and in desperate need of a task to keep from going out of my freaking mind, learning Morse Code, tapping words on the walls of the museum, held out the promise of sanity. As it often does life got in the way and I soon dropped the project. Years later, during a nasty bout of depression, I decided to give it another shot, hoping the repetitive task would jumpstart my neurotransmitters. By this time the Internet had transformed my personal and working life — just as Morse Code and the telegraph transformed the lives of so many in the 19th century.
To streamline the process and make it more manageable I began using Morse code translators available on the Web. I key blocks of text, usually one or two paragraphs, into an automated translator, receiving dot and dash sequences in return. Starting with a grid drawn in lead, I work piecemeal, using black ink, and transcribe the Morse code patterns onto paper, building detailed, compressed drawings. I repeat the paragraph(s) until I’m satisfied with the result, often adding additional materials, such as watered down acrylic paint or coffee, to stain the surface and give it a faux time worn appearance. I move between predetermined goals and improvised gestures. At times I tease out recognizable forms that grow out of the dense markings (e.g. a waveform, a line graph with peaks and valleys). Other times, I let the drawing lead me to the form it wants to take. Recently, I’ve been combining additional source material with the personal letters text. The former material is tangentially related to the letter text: a newspaper article from the day the letter was written, the multiple definition of a word used, a sentence from a referenced book, etc. I’m trying to add context, context indistinguishable from the “details” of the letters. The space between figure and ground disappears. As I work and sometimes over work the drawings, I make them clot and clog — a simple but laborious process.
This next statement was the result of an assignment I gave to my former students at The New School. I asked them to interview each other, and then write a statement about the person they'd interviewed, rather than themselves.
Painter, Hanna Mandelbaum, is the author. Cynthia Ruse, and her installation for the Dumbo Arts Festival, is the subject. It's reproduced here, with zero edits by me. (Photo courtesy of Dumbo Arts Festival.)
Cynthia Ruse believes that “Art should be more dangerous.” Her purpose has always been to convey a narrative by providing elements for the viewer to piece together into his or her own story. Ruse’s recent work, employing knitting, is a departure from her earlier work. The stripped down bone-like structures give way to more fleshy forms of expression.
For “This Year’s Model” Cynthia Ruse created a knit cover for her car. The covered car resembles a stuffed toy for a very young child. She also takes detailed photographs of the piece that stand apart as abstractions. Ruse designed the work to be displayed parked on the street amidst regular uncovered cars. The unexpected contrast between her piece and other cars on the street is visually arresting, inherently funny and risky. When a work of art is humorous, there is a danger that its impact will wear off quickly. “Model” is a dynamic piece that defies reduction to a singular punch-line.
There is a transformative relationship between the covering and the car beneath. Ruse’s effort in the piece, the time spent on it, is obvious in the final product. Her knitting is an obsessive activity. It is an act of labor and a labor of love. This handicraft builds upon the robotic assembly line construction of the car beneath. The red stitching suggests veins and further imbues a sense of life to the inanimate armature.
Cars occupy a unique place in American culture and imagination. While the current dialogue contextualizes them in terms of their environmental impact and as an expression of selfish consumerism, historically the car has been a symbol of individual freedom. By using her car as an element in her work, Ruse is declaring independence from conventional restraints on displaying art. To show her work, she simply needs to find a parking spot.