Yesterday was the artist’s reception for my joint show with sculptor and glass artist James Tracey. It was a very successful show, we had a great turnout, and I had lots of fun conversations. I even sold a few paintings.
The most commonly asked question or comment about the work was about the titles. In the past, I never really titled my abstract work. I’d name them things like “Abstract Number 3,” “Abstract with Green and Yellow, or sometimes “Untitled.” Is calling something “Untitled” actually giving it a title? In some circles the thinking is that abstract art should remain pure, with no context to it that gets between the viewer and the art. If you paint a mother and child in front of a window at twilight, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes the view is responding for the most part to the context, not the image as a purely visual experience. Titles can also influence the viewer’s perception of the work, get between the art and the viewer. Now I’m not saying that I subscribe to that school of thought. At least I don’t have a premium membership. I have the free budget plan.
When I started doing these latest paintings a couple of years ago, on a whim, I started giving them titles, and to be honest, I felt a little guilty about it. Like I was going against one of my beliefs about art, that representatives from the cult would come knocking on my door. That’s the kind of crap that comes to mind when you study this stuff in college. But then I started having some fun with it.
Folks asked how I come up with the titles. Various ways. Sometimes they just pop into my head when I’m working on them, like divine inspiration, not always having very much to do with the image itself. Other times there’s something that the image evokes, like a Rorschach test, and I base the name on that. In other cases, I’m stumped for a name. I spend too much time staring at the painting trying to pull some kind of an idea out of it. Sometimes I come up with a theme but can’t find the right words. Then I have a trick up my sleeve. Shakespeare. I look up Shakespeare quotes, sometimes using a keyword but often just scanning through lists until I have an “that works” moment.
I do have a concern that giving the work a title pushes the view into seeing the work a certain way, again getting between the viewer and the image. And although I’m not totally comfortable with that, people seem to have fun with it. I think the titles bring people into the work. When I watch people looking at art, I can tell the ones that just don’t get abstract. They just pass right by it, hardly giving it a look. If the title can make them stop for a second and try to figure out the reason for the title, I’ve pulled them into my schtick. Which is a good thing.