Just Call It Larry
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
One question I’m sure to get whenever I make a new piece is, “What is it called?” But I am a sculptor. Am I supposed to know what a thing is called? I work with lines and shapes and textures. Does a sculptor owe his audience titles for his work? Does a mime owe a verbal explanation for his performance? But I'll not be called a contrarian, I’ll go along. I just want to know why we can’t just call anything and everything Larry!
I struggle to name my works. I know people like a title, but a sculpture is not a thing of words. It is a visual thing, and a tactile thing, and naming something appropriately is a different art form. Sometimes I luck out and come up with a title that I feel sounds about right, but about as often, someone else answers that call for me.
But I know it when I hear a good title for a piece. It's clear to me that a flippant title can debase a serious and contemplative image. A grandiose title can come across as pretentious. A title that is seen as trite can make peoples’ eyes roll almost before they even look at the form. But the title isn’t the piece, and whether words should be allowed to bestow gravity or baggage to an image is a good question. It seems to me that a name shouldn’t have this power, and when I rule the thought-police, it won’t! But until such time, I’ll have to contend with this fact: We give things names, and in general, when naming a piece of art, “Larry” just doesn’t cut it. Not that “Larry” isn’t a perfectly fine name! I like Larry! He is my friend!
Of course, in the real world, a sculpture is almost always seen before its title can be read. A title cannot make or break the intrinsic qualities of the work. The image speaks as the image does, in its own visual language. But for many people, names can lend reference, set the stage, or affirm an understanding of the intent of the artist, or in what sort of mood the image was born. And depending on the words used in that title, the effect can be for good or bad in what sort of impression is formed.
I have named things, only to come along weeks or months later to name them something else. (But then again, we did that with one or two of our two kids.) And sometimes a name that is wholly inappropriate has a way of sticking. In polite company, most people call me David, but when I look in the mirror, I see something more feral, more like a Jack, (as in Jack Nicholson). It is serious business, this whole naming of things.
Or not. Sometimes a name can be entirely neutral, lending nothing, nor taking anything away from an image. Say, for instance, “Winter, 1955, #3”. (which I don’t think my parents ever strongly considered naming me). But for whatever reason, people generally protest at such a trivial effort on the part of the artist to come up with a fitting title for a sculpture. A painter might get away with that, because they might paint three, or even a couple of dozen paintings in one winter, but a sculptor will not likely be completing three works in that sort of time frame. We sculptors are more sloth-like in our habits. And there are real reasons. Unlike painters, sculptors don’t get to say to our audience, “Hey, that is not my angle! Don’t look at it from over there!” It’s that damned third dimension that gums up the works.
I am every bit as bad as the next person to find myself influenced by a name. If I see a piece with a name like “Jubilant spring”, or “Sarah’s Serenity”, or “A Touching Grace”, I immediately feel like the artist is trying to give me too much, like an advance directive, trying to lead me to think what they want me to think. It is like being groomed on what one is supposed to see in a blind date. But that is a call I want to make for myself. A piece bearing a name like “Beauty, Untold” will have to clear a very high bar for my experience to match the hype of the title. I prefer to make my own measure of a work, and let the title lend only a quiet influence.
Back to our friend Larry, it’s like this; he can name his son Lieutenant Colonel, but until the lad has gained some respect as my commanding officer, I’m likely to call the kid PFC Larry #2. A name doesn’t make the man, or the artwork. But it can sort of break it.
Artworks deal in all sorts of emotions, and a good title should reflect appropriately on the work. A title like “9th Life Pajama Cat” or “Deadbolt, the Security Dog” could accompany a relatively light hearted or playful image, but not so much a majestic or solemn piece. A more sober piece should bear a more sober title.
I once named a piece “The Fifth Amendment”, only to later change its name. While the title lent the piece the gravitas I believed I was aiming for, it wasn’t the right title. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution is a specific document regarding specific rights on self-incrimination, the taking of life, liberty or property, and the rights of due process under the law. My piece was more of a general reflection on the human and animal suffering that has accompanied the creation of so many of our world’s renown religious heritage sites, from the Sistine Chapel, the immense Buddha figure at Leshan to the Great Pyramids at Giza. After considerable puzzling, I renamed my piece “Offerings”. It was a less specific sort of title, and yet more to the point of how historically our rulers have shown a lack of concern for the sacrifice of laborers, both human and beast, in the making of what often amounts to a tribute to themselves.
Titles are traps, or they are our friends, and we neglect to deal with them at our peril. Back before I built my own foundry, I took a new piece to a commercial facility to be molded. The piece depicted a stylized female form, borrowing some elements from the wood-carving art of the West Coast of Africa. I had structured the breasts of the woman to elicit the idea of vessels of nourishment, more or less in the shape of bananas, fastened around her neck like pendulous jewelry. The image was tasteful in my mind, solemn, and appropriately reverent towards the real-life hardship and sacrifice many women endure to provide for their young. But when I went to the foundry a few days later, a friend working there said, “So I saw we got the mold done for “Old Banana-Tits”.
I heard that name forever after, when the piece came up in conversation, both in and outside of the foundry. When I got around to giving the piece its real name, it came from my oldest son, (Barry, not Larry) who was trying to tell my bride and myself when something in particular had happened. As he struggled to get us to understand, he finally said, “It was the night that made this day.” Tori and I looked at one another, and thought, how poetic! Our son, a poet, at three and a half! And so the piece was named, “The Night that Made this Day”. It fit the mood, and the selfless giving of a life, or a day, or just a meal, that my figure of a woman was meant to celebrate.
Another piece I made and neglected to name before someone at the foundry got to it first, became known by another name not of my choosing. The theme of the piece centered on the idea that woodpeckers are very skilled with their beaks, not unlike a person with a sharp chisel. Why don’t they use that talent to a purpose, instead of beating mercilessly for hours on end on my tin roof, or on the gable vents of my house. It seemed to me, if they have that sort of time on their hands, or beaks, why not start chipping out a great cat-like figure from an old log, as a good defensive strategy for a secure nesting site. Anyway, when I went back to the foundry to check up on how my new molds came out, I saw clearly written, with black Magic Marker on each of the mold segments, “Cat with Two Peckers”! I was mildly successful in renaming the piece “Pecking Orders”, though in private, we still call it the “Cat with Two Peckers”.
Everything gets called something. It often depends on who gets there firstest with the mostest. And that is usually fine by me. In regards to my works, as long as I like how the title relates to the piece, I am happy! Of my most recent pieces, I have named one, (Aardvark in Plaid). Two have been very nicely and aptly titled by people who help support whatever it is I do, (“Making Ends Meet,” and “A Darwinian Conundrum”) and one piece has no name at all.
So, my sincere thanks to these fine and thoughtful people, Melisa Kroening, and Kai Hahn, who’ve recently helped me find the right words for my titles. Your ideas are so appreciated, and right on! (Not exactly in the casual hippy sense of the words “right on”, like hey, groovy dude, as wisps of smoke drift across sleepy eyelids, but in that you nailed these names!)
But this new and unnamed piece, (Larry 2020) is a sitting duck, until it has a real name! Do I defend it with vigor, keeping it out of sight until I can christen it with all due gravity, or do I let it find its own name in due course, from whatever source happens by. It’s hard to know. It could find a most marvelous and appropriate title, or it could suffer an indignity the likes of which Booger Hole, West Virginia could only imagine.