Nowadays art lovers (and galleries too) want the full package. Not only do they want an intellectually engaging and technically amazing never-before-seen art exhibit, now they want you to write about it. While it may seem like a low blow to expect artists to be proficient in writing as well as visual art, the artist statement (maybe even artists’ statement if you are in a group show) is a relevant part of what viewers and curators come to expect when they see a great art show. In this article, I will attempt to explain what to put in an artist’s statement and what to avoid.
The good news is – THERE ARE NO RULES. Artists love to hear that. My advice in this article is just that … advice. You can take it or leave it. Generally, there are no hard and fast rules to include in an artist’s statement. Different galleries may have different suggestions, but I am going to point out the kinds of things I look for in a solid artist’s statement.
First off… What NOT to do.
Do not put off writing your artist’s statement until the day before you turn your work over to the gallery curator for hanging the show. People can clearly see your work is great and you don’t want to undercut their expectations by having a rather poorly written artist’s statement. I know artist’s love to procrastinate and some creative minds even thrive under the pressure of deadline, but waiting until the last minute to compose your artist’s statement is an insult to your audience.
Do not leave your artist’s statement so broad as to say, “I paint what I’m feeling at the time.” You would not believe the number of critiques I have sat through in which artists tried to pass that excuse off as an actual artist’s statement. Even if you do paint what you are feeling at the time, please… please… come up with a different way of saying it.
Do not make your artist’s statement so convoluted that the average art lover can’t read it. Many artist’s statements are so muddled with art jargon that viewers are left feeling that this art must somehow be beyond their understanding. This windy language is one of the primary reasons that most people feel completely alienated by art. There are actually automatic artist’s statement generators that show how ridiculous art language has become. Here is one called “500 Letters” that I found on a Google search. Try it. You simply plug in your information and it randomly completes the most over-the-top-sophisticated-terrible fluff you could ever imagine. Also, do not actually use this to write your real artist statement.
And now for the DO’s…
Do prepare your artist statement well in advance of any upcoming exhibit. Almost all exhibitions (particularly solo exhibitions) will expect an artist’s statement, so don’t be surprised when they ask for one. If you have a consistent body of work, your artist statement can cover all of your work, but if you have created a brand new body of work specifically for one show, you will want to write an artist statement that focuses on what makes your latest work a bold new direction for you.
Do be specific about your work in your artist’s statement. The artist’s statement is written by you about your own work. This is one situation in which you can’t possibly be wrong. You are the utmost expert in this field. Tell people what the work is about, how it relates to you, your experiences and (maybe even) your techniques. This is your chance to tell everyone why this work means so much to you – your opportunity to invite your viewers into your world. If your work is influenced by Van Gogh, Mongolian throat singing, or the Three Stooges–the artist’s statement is a great way to help the audience make the connections that may lurk beneath the surface. Even though these connections may seem obvious to you, they may slip past even the most observant art lover if you don’t explain yourself to them. If you haven’t thought about your art beyond, “painting whatever you are feeling at the time,” you may need to examine your work in greater detail. Take a bit of time for introspection and try to find what medium, images, moods, colors, techniques or shapes you are drawn to and try to figure out why your work so often approaches these themes. I once read about a famous artist (I can’t remember which artist) that said he would paint for six hours a day and then spend six hours looking at the work. Just looking… While this could be dismissed as navel-gazing (and I certainly don’t have that much time on hand), I can appreciate that this artist took the time to reflect on his work and really figure out what made it tick.
Do make your artist statement make sense. Use the most basic words you can. I know that you want to seem intelligent to your audience and big words seem like a quick way to impress them, but there is no greater skill than to explain complex ideas in a simple, meaningful fashion. Although your flowery art-speak may have gotten you through critiques in college or art school, people in the real world can’t be bothered to try to wrap their head around such confusion. Keep it short. Brevity is appreciated in artist’s statements. You want your entire statement to fit on a single page, if at all possible. You can write books by the shelf-load or manifestos about your work, but for the sake of an exhibit a single page will do nicely. If you can’t say it in a single page, you need to rethink how you say it.
In short, your artist statement is your chance to fully explain your work to the audience. It is a conversation between you and the viewer. If you have never written about your own work before, give it a try. I often find that writing about my work – transferring what is in my head onto the paper (or screen) helps me to better understand my own working methods, themes, and reasons for creating. Although “making stuff” is generally considered more desirable than writing for artists, taking the time to be honest with yourself about your work and committing it to paper will no doubt yield greater insight to who you are as an artist.
This article originally appeared in the September Artists ONLY, an enewsletter full of calls to artists, exhibit opportunities and inspiration for professional and aspirint artists. Click here to receive Artists ONLY in your inbox!