Monday, December 16, 2013

Horror Vaccui, and why do we do art the way we do????

I was reading an interesting blog recently about why leaving empty space was a good thing in art, especially in graphic design, and that filling all available space was basically a bad thing. Also, the blog author felt that you only have 3 seconds to hold your consumer's or customer's attention. This may or may not be true in graphic design, but for sure, it can be untrue in the fine arts.

I should start out with a definition of "horror vacui," a term associated with art historian Maria Praz. Horror vacui is basically the filling of the entire surface of a space or a piece of artwork with detail.  A good example of this was the crazy filling of every available surface with pattern in Victorian interior design. Outsider art and graffiti art is rife with this sort of thing. Its not new, by any means, just look at ancient religious illuminated manuscripts, Arabic art, some ancient Greek styles, and many other forms of art throughout the ages. So, yes, the fear of empty spaces. Essentially, that is what we are talking about here. Not a new thing, in fact, very primitive, and yet, still persisting. Hmm? Reminds me of something else? Oh yeah, religion! Until yesterday, I did not know about horror vacui. Thanks to Patrick Cross for enlightening me. Certainly many of my pieces would fit this category. Incidentally, this type of art is sometimes associated with mentally ill folks! Just saying.

Back to the question of white space usage. I definitely agree that a minimalist approach is probably advantageous for many types of graphic design, although maybe not for all products. I could see where filling a space with garish color and chaotic content might appeal to certain consumers, especially those who relate to that type of art. Think skateboarders, heavy metal rockers, folks with lots of tattoos, people who are into graffiti, or just people who are overload their senses on a regular basis. Even so, there still needs to be a way in a design to accentuate the primary focus amidst the chaotic "noise." But, that seems doable.

I find it interesting that art critics, such as Mario Praz, seemed to think that the super filled interior design of the Victorian age was suffocating. Yet, the people of that time period seemed to really like this lavish, overcrowded, design style. It seems to me that he was out of touch with what those people liked? If they liked it, then it was good. At least for them. Yep.

From a purely artistic point of view, the leaving of large amounts of white space is purely a matter of opinion. I have done illustrations, primarily scientific, which certainly have plenty of white space.

Romalia microptera, the Lubber grasshopper

However, in my spare time I do ridiculously detailed images of scenes that I feel are mostly emanating from my subconscious mind. I don't create these for the purpose of sales per say, although I do sell them. Rather, the experience of drawing them is a necessary part of my life. Having studied in the field of entomology now for over 25 years, I find my drawings and paintings that are often filled to the extreme are comparable to the chaotic assemblages  of life beneath our very feet, where there is no empty space. For me, looking at the microscopic world is as natural as drawing strange somewhat surreal scenes.

I guess what I am saying is that, art has many purposes, one of which is relating to consumers, viewers, buyers, and customers;  recording history, providing an outlet for outrage against life, and other social reasons; and maybe more importantly, for the artist to express himself in whatever way works best. For some, this might entail writing a three line poem, which is placed in the lower left corner of a large piece of off white paper, but for others it might mean spray painting every square inch of a wall with neon colored paint. For some, if not many, artists, their ability to create art in their own way is their way of dealing with life's stress.

I do know that the three second rule does not have any meaning at all when it comes to non graphic design type art. I have seen this first hand at opening receptions of some of my exhibitions. I have observed people studying some of my pieces for up to an hour or more.

What is interesting to me is that the people who object most to filling spaces completely are typically those who have the most training in the field of art (i.e. graphic designers, art critics, college professors, etc.) "Untrained" regular folks don't seem to have this preconceived idea of what is good or bad. They either like something, or they don't. If we only listened to art critics, we would not have impressionism, surrealism, and a bunch of other isms. So, yes, listen to what you are supposed to do with your art, but also ignore it. Don't put something in the center of the page. Why not? Don't fill the space? Fill it. Don't set your work on fire. Maybe thats ok too (sometimes).

I have received positive feedback from viewers about the crowded pieces that I tend to do. A good example of this was when I had a show on our MSU campus a couple of years ago. I had many interesting comments from attendees of the show. I asked many of these viewers what they thought, and if they had some favorites. Not surprising to me, the majority of viewers told me that their favorites were the biggest and the most detailed pieces I had present, such as "Manic Depression" and "Nine Panes of Thought."

Manic Depression
Nine Panes of Thought
I also had a few pieces of which I did not completely fill the space. I had only one person out of over 200 people, tell me that some of these were his favorites.

Likusian Turtle


Who was this atypical person?? Well, turns out it was Brent Funderburk, a super amazing and internationally known watercolorist and MSU art professor []. This guy has been teaching art for a long time and I guarantee, he knows way more about it than most people. More than me for sure. And yet, what he liked was probably the least favorite for everyone else. Very interesting in many ways. What does this mean? Well, honestly, nothing really, because when I do a drawing or painting, I am not thinking about who might or might not like it, I am thinking only about expressing myself artistically, about the process of creating art, about letting ideas flow from my head to the paper, and other things of this nature. If, by mistake, or because of the fact that I have been creating "art" for over 40 years, I occasionally create a harmoniously balanced piece, then that is cool. It is not my primary goal by any means, however.

Still, this nagging question? Why would Brent, the all knowing guru of art (seriously) like the stuff that the others liked the least? Is this due to the fact that he has studied art for so long that his choices of what is good is better than regular people? Or, is he slightly out touch with what regular folks find interesting? He seems to know his clientele very well, as he is very successful. Perhaps that is part of it, each individual artist knowing what people like about their art?  Maybe it is much more simple. Maybe some people like different things? Go figure. I guess it is pretty much all opinion. There is probably no such thing as bad art. Well, that is likely an over simplification. But, you know what I mean. I like lots of different art for sure.  Not all art, but most art. Some of the stuff I like the most is similar to my own. No surprise there. But some stuff I love is completely different. Go figure. I also like a multitude of different musical styles ranging from heavy metal grunge to blue grass to industrial techno to classical. This may indicate that I am a healthy human with diverse tastes in both art and music. Or, maybe, it means I am half crazy, can't make up my mind about anything, and should regulate my sugar intake.

Now, this does not mean that I, or others, should not listen to the masterful critiques by other artists or people. In fact, the opposite is true. We as artists and humans need to be challenged. Others may offer an alternative method that might better show what we  are trying to express? Something we can use but never thought about. Who knows? Why not? At the very least, they may offer a different viewpoint, which might be worth exploring. So, thanks to all of you with different viewpoints. Brent Funderburk and others! Never stop striving to find new way and interesting ways to create. Never stop observing, listening, exploring.....


Paul S said...

Thank you for your insightful article. You are absolutely correct in your observation that in certain circumstances, such as art for skateboards and rock bands, chaos-filled space is appropriate, but not for others, such as your beautiful insect illustrations, above, which benefit from a lot of white space around them to focus attention on the subject. Your surreal drawings are an excellent example of a super-filled space used to great effect, setting the perfect mood. I might characterize them as Hieronymus Bosch meets H. R. Giger. Beautiful work.

Joe MacGown said...

Hey Paul, thanks for you comments. Hopefully, I did not come across as negative, but rather open minded;) I love all kinds of art and music and stuff in general.