The Struggle To Right Oneself: On Artists' Statements

13 September, 2005

Art critics, especially good ones, are fond of saying that there are few forms of writing less creative than art criticism, that groping struggle to hang heavy, awkward words on the ethereal and ineffable. Each time I've tried my hand at writing critically about art I've empathized with this despair. But one part of the process always bucks me up and gives me faith in the necessity of the writing: reading artists' statements.

Below even badly translated technical manuals, arcane government regulations, and most poetry, artists' statements may be the most oppressively awful literary genre in existence. With a uniformity that is almost shocking, they follow a forkless path on the way to pretensiousness and inscrutability: invocation of an obscure, usually gloomy, Philiosopher followed by a fuzzy-headed description of the themes that infuse both the Philosopher's work and the artist's that takes the form of broad platitudes and near meaningless phrases which sound more like the titles of interdisciplinary graduate school classes than the description of any actual physical objects: Embodiedness and Globalization in the Decline of Nature and Aboriginal Identity, etc. Next comes the self-mythologizing section: an explanation of how they gained a profound personal undertanding of all these broad themes only when they travlled to rural Borneo to the deathbed of their long lost twin. Finally, they finish up with an actual, if vague, description of the work ('by taking pictures of cats, I. . .') and a precisely described, if imaginary, projection of its effect on the world ('. . .will inevitably bring greater attention to the crisis in the region').

The truly maddening thing is that the excreableness of these statements is completely uncoupled from the quality of the work they describe. Less horrible statements can describe inane work and the most baroquely kafka-esque of them can describe work with a simple and direct power.

A great, maybe quintessential, example of this is Kerry Skarbakka's artist's statement about his series titled The Struggle to Right Oneself. I will try not to put you through too much of Skarbakka's statement, but to give you a taste, it starts:

Philosopher Martin Heidegger described human existence as a process of perpetual falling, and it is the responsibility of each individual to catch ourselves from our own uncertainty. This unsettling prognosis of life informs my present body of work

And ends with this:

The images stand as ominous messages and reminders that we are all vulnerable to losing our footing and grasp. Moreover, they convey the primal qualities of the human condition as a precarious balancing act between the struggle against our desire to survive and our fantasy to transcend our humanness.

Now, like you (and Skarbakka himself, most probably), I have no idea what this means. I don't know much about Heidegger and I can't even parse all of the dangling prepositions in that second excerpt into a gramatically meaningful unit (the balancing act is between the struggle and the fantasy but the struggle is also against the desire and all of this is somehow the primal qualities of the human condition as the balancing act?).

Beyond this question of bad writing, though, Skarbakka's statement completely misses the point of his work, which is, largely, light and playful in tone. Take, for example, Naked:

At first, you see the captured action itself: bouncing on the bed. His raised left leg and back-tilted head emphasize the arc of his flight and give you a strong feeling of downward motion back towards the bed.

But then something strange happens. The body seems to settle into place in mid-air. It becomes a kind of classical sculpture. Rather than a single moment stolen out of an ongoing process, the poze is eternal, general. The shadows it throws on the wall and bed from the direct lighting make the body pop off of the rest of the background increasing this illusion of its three dimensional solidity. Like a bronze, it seems heavy, but at rest.

Often times, Skarbakka makes this joke of the flying body as sculpture all but literal, like in Fence, where the figure balances impossibly on the tip of one toe like a plastic pink flamingo in a garden pushed almost all the way over by the wind:


or in Studio which catches the artist in a permament Wiley Coyote moment, after the edge of the cliff, but before the fall. Where, in true cartoon logic, the only thing that can cause the fall is the realization, which will never come to this frozen figure, that you're walking (or, here, lying) on air:


Skarbakka does also have a dark side, which is equally misrepresented by the existential moanings of his statement. Images like Sarajevo (left) and Hopkins (Belize), of bodies falling from rundown buildings in third world countries, in a post September 11th world:

sarajevowater tower

These pictures resonate strongly with the television news footage of people jumping to their deaths to escape fires on the high floors of the World Trade Center towers -- one of the central images of our often apocalyptic-seeming times. Although Skarbakka has, under political pressure, explicitly foresworn any such connection, this seems like an especially rich area for him. If he can bring his understanding of frozen moments of falling, and even his sense of humor about them, to bear on this horrific possibility of contemporary life he would really have acheived something of the depth and profundity at which the muddled words of his artist's statement can only hint.

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