The Outer Reaches of Inner Space (with apologies to Joseph Campbell)
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Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.
Space is pivotal in all aspects of art making. Two-dimensional, 3-D, and 4-D serve as a basic categorization of all visual art. Collage serves me with a means to collocate different spaces together to form a new, unpredictable type of visual space. Lately I’ve been piecing together old paintings and works on paper to form the basis of new works for a series of paintings titled Revenants (shown right), the bottom of the flame with blue and white stripes is cut from an old painting on paper and used to form the new work.
Ancient and sacred spaces have been a constant source of curiosity for me and influenced much of my work. Geographically, the closest example to me is the Oreon E. Scott Chapel designed by Eero Saarinen and Associates on Drake University’s campus, a non-denominational space for contemplation. It is both a strange and mystical space that, upon entering, changes the way that you see and feel – while the domes in Renaissances provide religious awe, Scott Chapel encourages the visitors towards introspection.
Another type of space is that of cultural space. In Renaissances the pluralization of this word says it all – reawakening is not any single culture’s claim. Artemisia Gentileschi strengthening her own agency despite the cultural order. Rembrandt making work based off of Mughal Empire paintings. The cult of individual genius Il Divino Michelangelo or, yonder, detailed colorful paintings and massive (though seemingly floating) temples of anonymous beauty and community aesthetics like the great tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah.
I was challenged as a young artist to think about the possibility of representing a single chair from multiple perspectives on the same, flat, picture plane like the Cubists. It started a lifelong interest in the complexities of space. Gaston Bachelard forever changed the way that I think about houses and Yi Fu Tuan revealed the beauty of geography and its relationship to human scale. The implications of space transcend any one of these examples.
As an artist, I think that there is a constant negotiation of individuality and collectivity. Painting – the material that I’ve had the longest history with – is a relatively solitary studio experience. I’ve recently submitted some short films to festivals and found the experience to be invigorating and supportive as a creative community. Some artists are making socially engaged work and I believe that this, in part, is from the complexity of the construct of artist as (individual) genius. Add to this the historical baggage of the differences between arts and crafts (or, something I see more of in the U.S., the difference between high art and low art), and you’ve got a mess of identities possible to anyone engaged in creative production.
There is, too, the negotiation of your audience – who are you making your artwork for? Are you selling paintings, or do you make work that isn’t commercial? All of these questions and discussions are also judgments from other artists and viewers. One way that I’ve navigated this myself is to look outside of visual art and to someone I admire greatly: Alan Lomax. Lomax is someone that was able to navigate and archive a variety of folk music and, in some ways, collapse the cultural space of difference through the unity of the aesthetics of music. When I’m unsure of my place in the art world, I like to think of myself as an artist equivalent of someone like Hazel Dickens or Roscoe Holcomb – here to make something that contributes to life and living above all else.
Benjamin Gardner is an artist living and working in Des Moines, Iowa. He has exhibited his work throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is an Associate Professor of Art and Design and the Center For Humanities Research Scholar at Drake University.