Pros and Cons of Using
Unusual or Experimental Materials in Art
Q: I make my art with materials that artists hardly ever use, combine them in unusual ways and feature them in my work. Sometimes I have trouble explaining the ingredients and how I use them to galleries and collectors. I hope I'm not scaring people away, but some of them seem to be concerned. What's the best way to present this type of art? Should I focus more on what it's made of or on the art itself?
A: Before you focus on anything, you have to explore, understand, get to know, and experiment with whatever unconventional materials you use in your art, and determine if or how they might potentially impact the quality, stability or longevity of finished pieces over time. I remember going to a gallery opening once where the artist had developed a rich dark substance, dry on the surface but slightly malleable to the touch, and had applied and textured it onto large stretched canvases in thick impasto patterns, almost like bas reliefs. Similar to what you do, this artist pretty much developed, perfected and learned how to work with this medium entirely on his own.
The finished pieces looked really good, but I had several concerns. For one thing, any amount of pressure more than a delicate cleaning or dusting could easily alter the shape and texture of the surfaces. For another, the artist was unclear about if or how long the medium would take to dry, and if it did dry, whether it would shrink or crack over time-- probably because the art and material was so new that he didn't know himself. All he seemed to know was that it wouldn't dry "for a while," whatever that meant. Whether gravity would eventually take its toll and the substance would slowly ooze off the canvas due to the force of its own weight was another unknown. How it could be transported without damage or stored long-term were additional unresolved issues. The artist had no good answers to any of these questions and with asking prices of up to $9500 per piece, collectors were taking considerable risks by buying the art.
Now in the artist's defense, possible fluctuations in the appearance of the art over time were stated to be part of the work, the idea being that everything changes over time, and nobody really knows what the future holds, so why not express those uncertainties in art? While this might seem like a reasonable explanation, having no idea what those changes might be, whether the art would eventually disintegrate, turn into a sticky mess, release toxic fumes, crack into pieces and fall off the canvas or otherwise degrade into nothing, were unanswerable questions. Whether professional fine art conservators would be able to save the work if condition began to deteriorate was another unknown. All anyone could do would be to buy it, watch it change (or not), and hope for the best in terms of what it may or may not look like months, years or decades down the road.
In case you're interested, it's now been 30-plus years since the work debuted at a gallery, and that art opening was the first and last time I ever saw either the art or the artist.
Before incorporating unique or experimental materials into your art, do your best to find out in advance what you're getting yourself into. Start by doing some good solid in-depth online research, and move forward from there. Next, experiment a bit in order to better understand how they behave in the present, but you also need to think about the future. Speak with experts who already work with or have knowledge about the physical properties and long-term implications of working with those materials. Professionals you might check with include manufacturers, fine art restorers or conservators, chemists, physicists, doctors, professors, engineers and so on. Explain what you're using, how you intend to use it, and get their opinions.
If you learn about issues relating to longevity, deterioration, degradation, chemical changes, color shifts, or any other compromising effects that progress over time and you still want to create the art, go for it. Sometimes these changes can actually be incorporated into the work in ways that will enhance its appearance in the present as well as make it more engaging as it ages, while other times not. Most importantly, now that you know what you're dealing with, it's your responsibility to fully inform galleries or collectors about what they might be getting into if they decide to get involved with the art. Whether or not anyone asks, you are obligated to disclose all findings fully and in advance. People who buy, sell or exhibit art like to know what they're getting into before they get involved, not after. NOBODY likes surprises.
Once you have a grip on the strengths, weaknesses and longevity characteristics of your materials, how much emphasis you decide to place on them and what role they end up playing in your art is entirely up to you. One trap that artists sometimes fall into here is that they focus on materials to such an extent that the work becomes more novelty or gimmick than anything else, so you want to consider that possible outcome as well. Whatever you do, the more atypical or unusual the finished products, the more explaining you'll have to do in advance, so be prepared to defend not only your art, but also your materials, motivations and intentions in making it. In situations like yours, people rarely accept things at face value without first asking questions.
Most importantly-- and to repeat-- be up front with whatever you know (or don't know) about your materials. Make sure everyone understands any uncertainties involved with your art and what may or may not happen to it over time. Volunteer all information; don't wait for people to ask. Unless collectors purposely and knowingly choose to do so, no one wants to buy something they expect to last a lifetime and have it change in appearance, degrade, deteriorate or otherwise depreciate in value as it ages.
(sculpture by Kim Simonsson)
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