I was asked to write a little something about fine art as narrative for the show coming up at the Cole Gallery in Edmonds WA. First, what makes something art? One could say that art is unity…a balance of all the elements between chaos and boring. Another word for art is form. Art with a narrative ‘tells a story’. Art without a narrative – in other words, paintings that exist without subject matter (pure abstract art) – relies entirely on form to make its statement.
Form is the ‘stuff’ in art that is not subject matter such as color, texture, value, line, edges etc. Form is the ‘stuff’ that creates beauty. Once an artist puts representational symbols or subject matter into their work one could say the artist has directed the viewer to an easier ‘way’ in to the painting leading the viewer to a conversation within his /her own mind, thus eliciting an emotion. This viewer response is a considerable and perhaps ultimate goal of the artist. Subject matter in a painting is to a painting the same as the lyric is to the music.
Now on to the narrative painting. Sometimes art is hard to talk about as it is visual communication. But let’s imagine a series of paintings. The first one is a large yellow canvas. The second is a landscape. The third is a still life with flowers. Yet another is a city street with cars and pedestrians. Now imagine one that has a little more for the viewer to use to step in to the painting, for example a little girl clutching a favorite stuffed animal. That subject matter is giving a little more direction ‘in’ to the paintings meaning than, say, a pure landscape, although the goal of any painting is to elicit emotion. Now lets imagine a painting that has a little more narrative, or visual story – a man on a boat catching a fish and having a very happy look on his face while his hungry looking wife and kids look on. That is getting more toward a story line with less left up to the viewers own imagination; it is about a man happy to feed his family. Without the family and the happy look on the fisherman’s face, the painting would be less narrative. Imagine a man in a far away boat fishing at sunrise? There is a lot more the viewer could imagine or make up on their own about how the painting should make them feel.
So when is a painting a narrative painting verses an illustration? I think a good answer to that is that a painting is an illustration when the narrative is more important than the form of the painting. Norman Rockwell did paintings that were highly narrative, but when seen in person the form is incredible art.
Narrative is on a sliding scale. One end of the scale is non objective, while the other end tells more of a story or is illustrative. In creating a narrative in painting, the artist is limited in some respects. We do not have ‘time’ as movies and books do. We do not have ‘sequencing’ as a carton strip might have, using many illustrations to tell the story. Our story is an image of one moment in time that has to keep the viewer engaged for the lifetime the patron owns the painting.
This show is themed narrative painting. Each viewer will enter into their own world of emotions reacting to the various paintings on the walls. You, the viewer will come to your own story within each painting. The artist is no longer present or needed. Once the painting is hung the artists work is finished…now it is up to you, the viewer, and your thoughts!
~ Susan Diehl