Artists increasingly making the leap into other media

    Used to be once you were a sculptor, you were always a sculptor; once a photographer, always a photographer. But these days artists are mixing things up, refusing to stick to a single, traditional medium.

    Used to be once you were a sculptor, you were always a sculptor; once a photographer, always a photographer. But these days artists are mixing things up, refusing to stick to a single, traditional medium.

    Jane Irish‘s early paintings are elaborate French baroque interiors, with furniture, wall moldings and vases. Her “aha” moment came when she decided to actually make the things in her paintings.

    Irish: “I wanted to take the leap to making it rather than paying homage to it. It’s a wonderful form because it’s 3-D, you can present three or four ideas on a work of art.”

    (Pictured above is Irish’s Connolly Long Bien Bridge Vase)

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    Irish’s boldly colored, French Baroque-style vases are part of the Dirt on Delight clay show now at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The vases look messily handmade.  On them are written poems that relate to wars in Iraq and Vietnam. Having received a masters in fine arts in painting, Irish used to consider herself a painter.  But artists have been veering away from the categories art schools use to sort them.

    Marincola: “I think for myself, I became aware of it in the early 80s, when I noticed that young artists they used was the appropriate medium to embody the ideas in their work.”

    Paula Marincola is director of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. She says when French-born artist Marcel Duchamp famously included a urinal in an art show in 1917, he gave artists permission to make work about ideas, rather than physical objects.

    Marincola: “Sometimes you didn’t even make an object. So I think those factors have contributed to this sense that contemporary artists have that any tool they want to use to communicate with is available to them. And often what we find is a set of ideas that are consistent across an artist’s practice rather than a particular medium.”

    Getting conceptual and following creative yearnings might feel great for an artist.  To audiences, though, it’s not always an easy sell. Andy Fife is director of Shunpike, which provides marketing help to artists.

    Fife: “If you are an audience member and you’re thinking, what do I want to do this weekend? I want to see some theater, or look at some paintings in a gallery, there’s a certain expectation that you’re going to have a defined experience. So when people break out of those traditional engagements, it tends to lead to a challenge in terms of how you’re expecting to engage with them.”

    Fife recalls working with a group that wanted to use a public space for a month for a piece that wasn’t exactly a sculpture, or a theater performance, or performance art. Fife couldn’t get them any sponsorship. Paula Marincola says, what inspires an artist to experiment often conflicts with the public’s expectations.

    Marincola: “There’s always a tension between what the market wants, which are ‘saleable’ items, and what artists want to do, which is explore creative expression. And it’s up to us as viewers to meet the artist half way and try to understand what it is they’re trying to tell us or comment on.”

    Not all artists are on fire to combine different media. Philadelphia artist Kevin Finklea calls himself a painter. He says he’s in no hurry to join what he sees as the fad of multidisciplinary art.

    Finklea: “For instance, if we see people making work and they feel they have to include a videotape with it, it’s almost as if this is an enforced idea, when their work may be sculpture, painting drawing. But it becomes a requirement of the style of exhibiting now. That makes me question it, whether it’s valid, or ‘le dernier cri,’ the thing that everyone’s doing at this moment.

    If sales are any indicator that multimedia artists are here to stay, Finklea may have his answer: Jane Irish’s vases are selling just fine.

    Click on the play button below or right click on this link and choose “Save Link As” to download. [audio: arts20090320medium.mp3]

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