I’ve always found it interesting how inept we humans are at virtually every metric of survival, but that of ingenuity. We come in well toward the rear of the pack at land speed, we cannot fly, we can only barely swim, we can hear, but not particularly well. We see okay, but not great, and we smell bad, or I should say, we smell poorly. We have no special abilities to locate prey through our sense of feel by vibration, or echolocation, we are vastly out of the
top tier when it comes to birthright weaponry. Our claws are small and weak, our teeth are short and dull, our hide is easily skewered, we freeze to death in our natural state with relative ease. Why do we even bother with hair? I don’t! We stand out in most any environment like beet jello at a potluck. We don’t have a stinger, or any sort of venom or toxicity, except, of course, in the special case of the politician.
In short, we come up short. We humans get the cheap stuff when it comes to tools, but for the opposable thumb, and the brains to see its potential.
So, while contemplating my sculptural ideas, I often find myself musing on the powers of other creatures. Whether we are talking about feeding or fighting or freezing to death, a look to other creatures usually offers answers. “What would a duck do? How about an alligator? Does
the answer lie in the tools of the sluggish tortoise, or the swift swordfish?” These thoughts
creep in on me in virtually everything I make. The “what if?” of the situation. What different ways might there be to do this?
One fellow artist said to me at a show a few years ago, “You are an idea guy, where many artists focus more on beauty. It’s not about capturing an image for you, but rather creating one.” Something to that effect anyway.
I took it as a compliment, and I think he meant it as one. He said he did. But it left me wondering if it is true, that I place beauty behind ingenuity, or if my idea of beauty is divergent from that of many others artists. I guess to me beauty is shallow if not for that spark of intrigue. That thing only a human mind can conceive . A mountain lake or the graceful gazelle is beautiful, and may even be perfect, but when it comes to art, I don’t find myself long-engaged by perfect lines or perfect surfaces as we normally think of them. I appreciate them, but I don’t see the point in duplicating them for the sake of getting it just right, like the lines in a Ferrari. I want textures of imperfection, scars from the battles of getting from point to point, and I want figures to have conflicting or incongruous contours, where adaptation has left its mark. I know that harmony is the graceful and complimentary mixing of different notes, and I seek a form of harmony in my work, but sometimes a clap of thunder or a dog chasing a chicken across the stage can be the high point of a concert.
In my latest bird piece, as an example of my focus on adaptation and reinventing form, the starting point is not the bird that is obviously the apparent subject, but the human desire for birdlike powers. Air, land and sea capabilities that eclipse our own natural abilities in each environment. I want to poke at the foibles of such a goal as to be birdlike, and our clumsy evolution in that pursuit. We can’t do it the way birds do. We will have to compromise. We can’t use skin and feathers to get there. We can’t create the skeletal framework and the soft tissues, and the neural workings that perform in the same ways. We can use man-made materials of any sort, and never make an actual bird to our desired purposes, or to any purposes at all.
One might think that I am describing fantasy art, but I’m not interested in super powers, or suspending belief in the nature of things. I’m interested in how we really do solve problems of being just human, and the problems we create when we go about solving them. It is the human story. I like to see how one man or woman might insert their own ideas to further our understanding, or even further confuse our understanding of what is served up so perfectly by this real thing, nature. I feel like these ideas are the gifts we humans have that make us unique among all creatures, these ideas of adaptation and invention.
Does an elk appreciate the beauty of a mountain meadow? Does a fish gaze at the sky in awe of its vast blue depths? Does any creature, other than a human being, care about ideas beyond their capacity to accommodate a basic need of their survival? I don’t know the answer to that, but all evidence to me says that we humans are the only species that cares whether a painting is by Leonardo da Vinci, or Hieronymus Bosch. We are the only species that has any feelings whatsoever in evidence when it comes to the visual arts, but for the occasional startle reflex of an animal mistaking a sculpture or photo for the real thing. Animals with much higher acuity of vision don’t look at a painting for more than a split second. See it, got it.
I have a great fondness for, and in many ways envy other animals, but I don’t want to feel like I expect they do when I look at art. I want to take some time seeing something, and feel that the time was worth it. And to do that, the artist has to take some chances, dare to bring beet jello to the potluck. I want art to serve me up some ideas that I’ve been waiting around to see, like creamy chocolate banana huckleberry mocha almond ice cream, served in a frosted carburetor body from a 1959 Buick Electra. I want what I’ve been missing, without my ever knowing I’d been missing it.
It’s a tall order to surprise people with much of anything these days. It’s filling the missing void. If it isn’t there, and hasn’t been there, how do we know what, if anything, is missing?