Communicating your hopes, dreams, and struggles in accessible language to another human being is quite understandably, really really hard. That’s why we hire writers and therapists. But for lots of freelancers (take visual artists for example), it’s a crippling part of the job description.
Before we got married, Gleb never put artist statements, titles, or even his own name beside his work. For one of the most artistically opinionated people I have ever met, he wouldn’t say 2 words about his work: Gleb Noujin. So early on in our relationship while preparing for a group show, I offered to do the writing. And he responded: I’m going to marry you one day. (And a few months later, that happened).
The idea of help in this area was revolutionary to Gleb. But why? Are musicians expected to write about their music? Have you read the amazing prose by Mozart? Do chefs write about their food?
The most confounding thing is that visual artists don’t realize they aren’t writers. And they take it upon themselves to craft their artist statements in a bubble, and worse- often apply all their creativity to it.
In the hopes that I too, may one day join the small margin of artists that don’t suck at producing a well-crafted statement, I’ve been researching. I began by reading the good, the bad, and the ugly of artist statements to better understand the challenges and opportunities. These are a few guidelines and anecdotes that I’ve taken away:
Can’t go wrong with:
- Informative, objective language. If you had to, could you say it in 5 words?
- Being really really specific. Your practice is devoted to capturing water flowing over stone? I’m so curious!
Avoid these words, or only use with considerable writing skill:
- Gorgeous (unless your work is the visual universal equivalent of Audrey Hepburn)
- Uplift (this is a questionable word since lift already contains an upward motion)
- Unmistakable (avoid hyperbole in your statement in general–it’s not a movie blurb)
Never combine these words in a sentence:
- Spirit & uplift (unless you’re working on a commission for a religious institution)
- Distinctive & style (your work can’t be both unique and reoccurring…)
- Almost & illustrative (I love illustration, but for some reason the adjective ‘illustrative’ can mean absolutely nothing when used in a passive sentence)
- Joyous & uplifting (we will assume you’re talking about a flower painting)
- Referring to yourself in 3rd person, if you wrote the thing. (Are you that famous?)
- Overuse of ‘power’ adjectives (ex: Bold, Timeless, Exquisite)
- A small pile of words (Your work might be totally abstract, but that’s no excuse for convoluted writing!)
- Throwing in the award winning proofs. (This is like double third person. Are we talking about your work or your awards of the work?)
- Confusing the words contemporary and recent
- Sentences that cancel each other out (Like the above no-no word combination example ‘Distinctive & Style’)
- You are not the only artist whose canvas goes through layers of paint that result in a painting…
- “Pushing the boundaries of realism.” (Most often translates as: you’re too shy to say you like to paint realistically.)
A random list of words that can be great when used well:
- Subject (as opposed to painting or dogs)
- Gift-able (no shame in saying it like it is)
- Flame worker (this title was from a statement of an artist that worked with fire, and I was charmed and intrigued by how he described himself)
- Exuberant (a surprisingly excellent word for flower painting)
When in doubt
No one can argue with your intention. Talk about why you do what you do, vs speaking for the work itself:
“(So and so) paints to express his love for life and the land, reflecting the joy he finds for colour and form.”