Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thursday Confessional #11 - The Danger of Playing With Symbols

Cloud 2 
6" x 6"
Acrylic on Board

Still limbering up with my Wall of Shame (the wall of shame is referring to six prepped wood panels I put on my wall that are shaming me into painting them.) I have two down, 4 to go. These pieces are meant to be more like studies, they are getting me back into my normal autumn, winter, spring schedule of painting from home. If you look, you can see the bright hits of orange - that is that Molotow paint marker that I've been experimenting with. This piece it was all for the lines. I'm having fun with it.  Now onto the Confessional....

I have a love/hate relationship with symbolism. I play with it in my own images all the time whether you notice or not. Symbols are a tricky thing because while you might believe everyone reads them the way you do, you are completely powerless to the experience, culture and context with which the viewer receives them. I confess to being irritated when a symbol (or something that isn't meant to symbolize something) is misunderstood, misread and misused. Here's how:

Misunderstood - Sometimes people notice things in my art that they assume must have a deeper meaning. Example: I once did a painting that was inspired by medieval illumination/church fresco. The painting was of baby Christ seated on Mary's lap. I had it on display and an old lady came up to me and asked me the significance of His hand. I was confused, thinking she meant the gesture. She rephrased, saying "What is the symbolism behind Jesus having 6 fingers?" Mortified, I looked at the painting and confirmed what she saw. I replied that there was no significance... I had made an error. 

Misread - Context is everything ESPECIALLY with generally accepted symbols. The colour red has a different meaning depending on what part of the world you are from, sometimes it has no meaning. A swastika is a loaded symbol but when viewing Eastern European folk art that predates the Nazi era, you need to realize that it was free from the associations we hold today. Symbols change and are distorted and subverted all the time so it is wise to not rush into interpretation without thinking through the time and place a symbolic piece was created in. 

Misused - I had a friend in college who was obsessed with the exotic. He wanted to see the world but lacked the funds to do so. To fuel this Gauguin inspired fantasy he feathered his studio space with Asian inspired treasures. To tie it all together he painted a huge bamboo screen with a striking black glyph. When asked what the symbol meant he replied "nothing. I made it up", questions arose on why he didn't just do a few moments of research to find an actual symbol that spoke to him to use instead. Even that you have to be careful with, cultural appropriation is big news these days with corporations regularly being skewered in the press for using cultural symbols thoughtlessly for trendiness and profit. 

So, should someone avoid enjoying or using symbolism because of this? No. I think it is something that can be easy to navigate and decide that you like/do not like if you take some time as well as let go of the idea of that a painting is like a puzzle and you will "solve it". Or that by using them in art you need to have an encyclopedia of symbols to give you a correct set of meanings for your images.

A big help in all this is getting to know more about the artist. When did they live? What were cultural influences? Did they write about their history? Were they shaped by major or personal events? Did they follow a particular religion? Art can still be meaningful without knowing these things, but often the experience is made far more interesting to dig a little to see where they were coming from. 

Anyways, I tend to keep my symbols low key and am developing this more in my upcoming work. Hopefully the meaning I have will not be so rigid that others cannot relate nor be so loose that the work is meaningless. 

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