June 26, 2011

"Untitled (519)" & The Issue of Titles

Untitled (519)
ink, graphite on clayboard
© 2011 Lumi 9

"...unless you want to make your art as obscure (and many artists do), the title of an abstract image is particularly important. Often the title is the only key to the art other than the piece itself..."

- I was floating around the internet, looking for people's thoughts on titling abstract works "Untitled" and I found the above quote from about.com, by Helen South.

You may have noticed the #s I place in the title section of the labels under my art on this blog and on my website [see Untitled (498), or Untitled (504-12)]. These numbers are assigned in order of what pieces I start. I have to keep track of all of the different bits of information relative to each work in a file on my computer and I would have a hard time remembering hundreds of "Untitled"s individuality (much less, what medium I used) without some sort of title distinction. Once I felt the pressure to start rushing my art naming, I thought it was better to take a cue from musical composers and just number each piece.

Those of you who have been following me since 2010, will notice I used to title all of my paintings and drawings. I've increasingly begun to lean on my numbering system for more and more works. This is, in part, because I think I'm starting to understand more about what I'm doing and therefore the art takes less time [from hundreds of hours for Delta to about eight for Untitled (516)]. But, it is also because when I look at other's art I don't like to keep a title in my minds "menu" - so to speak - while looking (much less, the entire label). I think it's very distracting and helps feed the habitual need to answer the "What is it?" question, as opposed to the "What is it doing?" kind of thinking that I prefer while experiencing works of art.

Of course, I acquiesce to the necessity of putting labels near a work of art. I obviously do it myself. People need that information. And it would be terrible to not know the names of who made your favorite paintings. But I, personally, make a conscious effort to not let the label be a part of my experience of other's work unless the artist has chosen to make that label a subject of their art (I can't think of any examples).

On a certain level this is an impossible task: to keep the information on labels out of your mind while that creamy white sticker, or matted, calligraphic font appears so repeatedly, so perfectly - so unconsciously - following the literary habit of top to bottom, left to right, waiting for your finished eyes to end with the finality of the experience as: "Johnny Paintsalot, Design in Blue, oil on canvas, gift of Dorothy McMoneybags". 


And I suppose, in a way, every artist makes the label a part of the work when they give their art a title (now I've thought of thousands of examples). So there's a certain inescapability of the thing that I would like to shirk, but feel like I have to accept to a certain extent.

What I accept is that artwork, when displayed, needs labels. What I don't accept is that abstract art requires, or for that matter, needs a title. Leaving an abstract work of art "Untitled" gives the viewer a chance to see it for the first time again and again, keeping the experience away from a certain measure of cataloguing temptation where the art is brought to mind, but finishes as quickly when a breath of "The Scream", "Broken Obelisk", or "The Dream" leaves your lips. This is where my contention with the quote above arises. It presents the problem of titling works of art as a task likened to presenting knowledge of a treasure, while reminding you of the importance of leaving the map so that you can actually find that treasure (therein, removing obscurity). I prefer to look at the situation a little differently. I consider untitled, abstract work to be both the treasure and the map, while the things on the labels are just what they actually are: information used to differentiate treasures. If a title is to be chosen for the work, it means that something has been added, even gifted to the completed work; a lens through which the tone, mood, color, space, subject, object or anything the artist desires may be made maleable or rarified in the physical artwork standing (or hanging) before you.

My choice to keep works untitled, is meant to remind the viewer that my art is not intended to be seen as abstracted flowers, or potential faces or masks, or whatever one may be seeing in any of my pieces that have correlations in the outside world. This is not putting obscurity on a pedestal. It is the conscious decision to keep the action of the work between the retina and the surface, leaving labels for their better purposes.

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