Help Desk

HELP DESK: Making a Statement

Welcome to another week of HELP DESK, where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to–contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues. Email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions. All submissions remain strictly anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving.

Happy birthday to David Hockney, born today in 1937.

I’m in the process of writing an artist statement for a gallery that has recently picked up my work. What makes for a really good artist statement? Ideally, I would like to write something that is approachable and easily understood by other artists, the gallery’s clientele, and the rednecks I grew up with. Any advice here would be greatly appreciated. I find myself in the position of having to write statements at least every few months, but each time it seems difficult to put into words what I’ve been trying to do, as my subject matter changes often, and I do not often write about my work.

Oh, the artist statement, that reviled and maligned document! Artists loathe writing them, and it usually shows. But they’re not really that hard to create if you have a clear goal in mind.

David Hockney, Rubber Ring Floating In a Swimming Pool, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

Let’s begin with your particular case. Even though your subject matter changes often, perhaps you can craft a basic short statement that fits your overall practice, and every time your subject changes you can swap out a couple of sentences as needed. That way you won’t have to start from scratch every time. If you’re not in the habit of writing regularly about your work, I encourage you to start. It doesn’t have to be anything grand, just jot the occasional phrase or sentence down in your sketchbook, or keep an “open thread” type document on your computer. That way you’ll have a grab bag of ideas to choose from when it comes time to put your work into words.

What makes a good statement? Well, it has to be readable and say something concrete and interesting about your work. When you tell me that you want your statement to be equally accessible to “other artists, the gallery’s clientele, and the rednecks I grew up with” I worry that you’re trying to serve too many masters. Who is your audience? If your audience is mainly yokels, then by all means write a statement that will appeal to them; but otherwise, the hillbilly parlance will have to go. This statement is for the new gallery, so aim to connect their visitors and collectors to your work.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 feet

That’s not to say that you have resort to highfalutin opacity. Your statement is an introduction to your work, the what, why, and how of your practice, and pretentious language will only put your audience off. Here are some tips:

-Don’t overlook the what—I’ve read so many statements that talk about Kierkegaard and liminal space and “the quiet mind” or whatever and I still have no idea what the person makes. Don’t let that be you. If you make sculptures and performances, just say so.

-The why is probably the hardest for most people. But really, what makes you go into the studio every day? Are you trying to capture something, figure something out, or just work with your hands? You don’t have to give us the Pop Psych 101 details of your crappy childhood, but if there’s an idea there that helps the viewer understand your motivations, then write it down.

-You don’t have to bother with the how if your process is pretty standard, but by all means, if there’s something that you do that is unique or inventive, let us in on it.

-Art theory only has a place in an artist statement if it has a direct bearing on your day-to-day studio practice. Otherwise, skip it.

-Aim for clarity. Could you hand your statement to a stranger and have a reasonable expectation that they would understand your practice? Because once your statement goes up on the gallery wall, that’s essentially what you’re doing. If writing’s not really your game, emphasize facts over flowery language or personality.

-Nobody wants to read more than 250 words. And let at least one other person read/edit your statement before it goes public.

-Finally, a plea: leave the artist-statement clichés down in hell where they belong. Please do not, under any circumstances, include the words “I’m inspired by nature” or “My work is about memory.” Because who isn’t inspired by goddamn nature??? If your work is based on the natural environment, give some specifics. Same for memory. Let’s all just agree to reserve vapid generalities for Top 40 lyrics.

David Hockney, Chair, 1985. Photocollage

About those rednecks: crafting a narrative for your work that fits an art audience might make you feel like you’re leaving Aunt Billie out in the cold, but remember that contemporary art is a specialized field just like information technology or plumbing. The non-professional can’t expect to fully understand everything in one go. With a little effort you can probably think of a few things about your work that family members might connect to, whether regarding your medium or subject matter or studio life, and you can say all these things in a holiday conversation. Your statement is for a particular audience—the audience that regularly reads and cares about artist statements—and since Aunt Billie’s not going to exhibit, sell, or buy your work, you don’t have to write a statement aimed at her. Your statement is an art-career device, not a literary effort designed to please everyone.

Congratulations on your new gallery! Good luck!

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Readers, I recognize that there are a lot of ways to write an artist statement and if you’ve got a good strategy I’m sure we’d all love to hear it. Please leave your tips on statement writing in the comments.

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