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  • 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 unique and unusual aspects of what I'm doing to galleries and collectors. I hope I'm not scaring them off. What's the best way to present this type of art? Should I focus on what it's made of as opposed to the art itself?

    A: Before you focus on anything, you have to investigate, understand and familiarize yourself with the various properties of your materials and assess if or how they might potentially impact the quality or stability of your finished works of art 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 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, anything more than a delicate cleaning or dusting could easily alter the shape and texture of their surfaces. For another, the artist was unclear on 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 he didn't know himself. All he seemed to know was that it wouldn't dry "for a while," whatever that meant. Whether the substance would gradually ooze off the canvas due to the sheer force of gravity was another unknown. The artist had no good answers to any of these questions and with asking prices of up to $9500, collectors were taking considerable risks by buying the art.

    Now in the artist's defense, possible changes 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? You buy it, you watch it change (or not), and you more or less hope for the best. But having no idea what those changes might be, whether the art would eventually disintegrate, whether it would become a sticky mess, whether it would crack into little pieces and fall off the canvas, whether fine art restorers would ever be able to preserve it if necessary, whether it would degrade into a worthless glob of nothing, or whether whatever it ultimately ended up looking like would even mean anything-- all those were complete crap shoots.

    Before incorporating unique or experimental materials into your art, do your best to find out in advance what you're getting yourself into. You may understand how they behave in the present and what their possibilities are, but you also need to consider the future. If you haven't yet done so, speak with experts who already work with or have knowledge about the physical properties and long term implications of those materials. People you might check with include 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 find out about problems relating to longevity, deterioration, chemical changes, color shifts, or any other progressive effects and you still want to create the art, then go ahead and do it. As long as you understand the outcomes up front, anything goes. Sometimes changes can actually be incorporated into the art with positive outcomes that will enhance its appearance or make it more engaging over time as opposed to less. Just know what you're dealing with to the extent that you'll be able to address any concerns that galleries or collectors might raise. Whether or not anyone asks, disclose all findings fully and in advance. People who buy, sell or exhibit art like to know what they're getting; NOBODY likes surprises.

    Now that you've got 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, so be prepared to defend not only your art, but also your motivations and intentions in making it. In situations like yours, people rarely just accept whatever you throw at them without 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 substantially, degrade, deteriorate or depreciate over time.

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