Written by Chad Wys
There’s a risk that every artist faces when one sets about discussing their own work. Chiefly, there is the threat of limiting reception: of over-explaining from where the work’s inspiration and intent derive to effectively influence an audience to such a degree so as to narrow and limit the scope of experience that each viewer takes from a body of work.
Following the proliferation of postmodernism during the 1960s, including in visual art, the rise of reception and the “death of the author” (as French philosopher Roland Barthes aptly put it in his influential 1967 essay) has become a guiding principal for many artists. Whereas the late 19th-century and first half of the 20th-century were focused on the liberation of artistic expression, including the tangible function of mediums and the elevation of the artist’s voice as purveyor of meaning alongside increasing visual abstraction, the postmodern era would instead focus on audience and concept, thereby giving the viewer, or the receiver, the power to determine for him or herself what a given artwork means to him or her. Thus, the “death of the author” indicates the shift of importance from the artist’s “true meaning” (the pursuit of modernism) to the individual receiver’s experience of the work, and all the varied interpretations that subjectivity elicits.
In this way, contemporary art carries with it practically infinite varieties of sensation and interpretation based principally on the unique individual’s interpretive process — typically developed internally and sometimes subconsciously. Those of us invested in postmodern or post-postmodern theory generally believe that this was always the case; that receivers throughout time ultimately experienced art for themselves regardless of the mythical pursuit of “true meaning” — so, why pretend otherwise? Now, we’re just more honest about art’s open-endedness.
That being said, the contemporary artist is not without intent. There is meaning in his or her actions that operate very much like empirical data. There’s a reason I have chosen to appropriate found objects and imagery and incorporate those cultural artifacts into my work. There are reasons why I use computers to create digital collages, or use paper and paint to craft analog collages. And these concrete tools and actions are empirical facts that will guide and influence a receiver’s interpretation of my work. But — and this is where contemporary artists make the biggest break from modernism — overall “meaning” and experience is largely established by the viewer, to such an extent that the art object, particularly where conceptual art is concerned, is of less importance than the ideas indexed by the object. My work is much less dependent on narrative and aestheticism and more dependent on a kind of poetic-intellectual sensation, or a tonal consideration of the social-political conflicts referenced (e.g. as cultural criticism). “What does this artistic recipe mean to you?” I and other artists seem to be asking the viewer while nudging them into particular fields of thought through semiotic queues.
I outline this state of reception in recent art history principally to outline the difficulty and perilous nature of discussing my work publicly, but also because my work is squarely concerned with these very processes of reception and how each of us comes to find meaning in the visual world. I risk subverting the important process of reception that I’ve developed in my work — I risk resuscitating the artist (myself!) and bringing him back from the edge of oblivion — if I endeavor to be too explicit about my personal intent. This is why my peers so often shun artist statements; or, written essays that are oftentimes flowery, sometimes esoteric, and drafted by an artist to act as a guide map for his or her work, like a cheat-sheet or Cliffs Notes for audiences to rapidly become engaged in work rather than put forth the effort of developing a personal, nuanced interpretation from scratch. Understandably, some artists deride the idea of a shortcut, or of repackaging their work for easy consumption by a fly-by audience who isn’t necessarily invested in the multi-layered, intellectually-infinite depth of artistic expression. I’m personally of two minds here: I believe it’s possible to harm the reception experience through over-explanation and the narrowing of the conceptual field; but I believe it possible, and even necessary, to discuss the broader issues present in one’s work in an effort to elucidate some aspects that may be too arcane for a variety of receivers.
But this discussion has so far been vastly postmodern and retrospective. It’s difficult to diagnose and describe the immediate present because it is always in a state of disorganized construction. I surmise that art has changed a great deal since the 60s — hell, since the 90s — and it’s perhaps best to refer to our present period of production as post-postmodern, or post-conceptual, or even post-irony. I can speak authoritatively only for myself and my experiences as a 21st-century artist, but what I feel is an intense and urgent return to sincerity in my work and the work of others; in other words, a subversion of irony.
For so long the postmodern response to modernism has been metaphysical irony. That is to say, through the power of conceptualism, the art object has lost supreme importance, and the tool of intellectual irony has assumed a dominant discourse outside of the object itself. We see this ironic shift at work in the oeuvres of Warhol, Koons, and Hirst, to name but three key mainstream figures, but irony has also prevailed in the works of self-ordained outsiders like Banksy: a street artist who has used tongue-in-cheek imagery to rage against social, political, and even art world machines. But the problem with using irony as a methodology is that artists have raged so long and so loudly that they see themselves become key players in the very systems they critique. Irony, in essence, became mainstream… a marketable cliché. To some degree, this seems to be the cyclical inevitability of every artistic method. but these cycles are essential for spurring innovation and mutation.
Currently, I’m experiencing an exploration of sincerity under a post-conceptual frame. What does it mean to be both post-art-object (having negated the importance of the art object as the only/purest vessel for meaning/critique) and post-irony? How does one craft an art object that is self-aware and consciously subjective, but also a sincere artifact of process, medium, and concept/ideology? This is the space where I and other artists are presently experimenting. And as an artist who has long valued appropriation and collage, I have found myself turning enthusiastically to pastiche as a way of embracing sincerity not only in concept but also mark-making.
I think my work has always been sincere. The marks I make have always come from a place of sincere concern for the power of alteration, context, and visuality to influence our interpretive processes. But there has also existed a lesser form of irony in the materials I find appropriate. Through the elevation of a thrift store landscape into a fine art object, for example, in an effort to underscore mass-production and the malleable nature of visual information, there has existed an aspect of irony in my work: since that mass-produced ready-made had not initially been intended to act as a hub of social commentary, as it was produced merely to be the thing that it is — a decorative bobble.
As I turn to sincerity as a kind of playground for post-conceptual philosophy, I find myself naturally using pastiche and collage to index not only sincere conceptual inquiry but a sincere process. Pastiche, to me, involves the merging of past and present motifs into a future-facing exercise. And sincerity involves the utter absence of irony: what is visible and what exists as discourse inside and outside of the art object is that of sincere concern for process and criticism, free of cynical satire or dry wit, but not totally anchored to the object itself. My current work, as always, is self-reflexive and squarely concerned with reception. And the question I most want to place before the viewer is: what is the role of art and visual information in the post-conceptual (or post-object) age, in conjunction with post-ironic sincerity? How can we process disembodied rhetorics that are as sincere as an impressionist landscape but untethered to a material reality? In many ways, this dilemma is one intrinsic to the Information Age itself: the pursuit of sincerity and realism in a world of phantom and displaced objects.