I recently participated in an event that prompted me to reevaluate my thoughts on style. The show was available online and when viewed this way, I felt my painting style did not easily "fit" with the general feel of the show. There were many excellent paintings, all versions of the prevailing visual appearance, and it made me question whether my ideas about personal style ought to be reassessed.
I have always felt that style developed over time as the artist found his visual language. The way we mix the paint, hold the brush, the direction of the stroke or the ideas behind the composition are all part of style. I still believe this. But I want a richer understanding by expanding on that idea.
The standard advice for artists has always been to develop a style that identifies you, so that your work is recognizable. So the question is how far can the artist stray from the norm before their audience becomes confused as to the style they are expecting? It should be easy, but it’s not.
The definition of style, which you can read in full here, is straightforward: Innovation in style rises through the work of a single or small group of artists, and those that follow are said to be working in a similar manner, or the school of, where essentially they are taking the ideas and expanding on the body of work, but not necessarily changing the trajectory. So an artist must eventually decide where he fits within a particular school (or set of ideas) and work in that direction, or risk being labeled as disorganized and confusing.
But how broad can that direction be? Where is the boundary, where this side you are safe, and that side you are at risk?
In this article at quartz.com, we learn that art collectors at the high end are looking for artistic rigor, work that challenges the status quo, communicates ideas, displays outstanding technique, a distinguishing narrative – all while playing “outside the rules.” There is no real surprise here from the art sector that believes in preserving high culture for our society. Art that is intellectually challenging, while reflecting the bones of art history beneath innovation and contemporary approach is meaningful at this level. And while attitudes at the top eventually filter down to the lower tiers, the collectors outside the auction houses have different expectations. They are more interested in ideas around the beauty and artistic prestige of a particular work, the emotional connection or narrative depicted, and a sense of recognition between collector and artist on a subtle level. But one idea that will not change no matter what group you are talking about is that people bring their experiences and expectations to the artwork, and they want to understand what they are looking at - and the strongest, easiest mode of communication is style.
Style does evolve organically, but the argument can be made for the artist to fit their work between the fine lines of innovation, expression, and expectation. This is especially true if you are trying to get your work accepted into prestigious shows or important galleries. While there is leeway, there is also a strong pull toward "fitting into the whole presentation." While looking at your own portfolio, there may be a strong sense of continuity, of work that is easily identified as yours. But when that work moves out into the group shows, what is better? To fit in with the group or to work at the edges? Does your personal style fit close enough to the expectation of the audience or does it feel discordant? Are you too sensitive to your own voice, too insecure with the acceptability of your style that you over-react (always possible), or does it signal the need to step back and reassess?
It comes down to the artist deciding what their work is about and how they want to develop the ideas, and then how and where they want to present that work to the marketplace. The reception is going to be risky no matter whether you are following the traditional path or the “play outside the rules” path. Art has always been about problem solving, and risk is part of the artist’s development. It is said that art at any level can find a buyer, but most serious artists I know are also looking for high artistic achievement, producing the best work possible, improving their technique, and then translating that into recognition and eventually sales. I hope I am opening a discussion, and look forward to other artist's thoughts on this subject. Please add your ideas through the comments section.
The story behind the Desperation Ridge paintings: there is no specific geographical place called Desperation Ridge, although seeing parts of the Oregon Outback I am sure more than one gold miner, or short-cut following wagon train called one or more of the volcanic ridges and gullies by that name - or others more colorful. While not totally born of imagination, Desperation Ridge reflects many emotions artists experience when a painting does or does not come together as intended. And not just artists. We all have the obstacles we are determined to overcome at all costs. There is beauty in that quest.