If you make art for yourself and no one else, then make whatever you want. If you make art for the rest of us and you’re interested in having us appreciate and understand what you’re up to, you better make it in ways that give us a fighting chance to figure it out. You understand your art perfectly because you’re the one making it, and you know yourself and your motivations extremely well. The rest of us, on the other hand, either don’t know you that well or don’t know you at all, which means that we need help deciphering what your art is about. So help us.
Now the easiest way to do that is to work in series– to create unified, cohesive, coherent bodies of work. Many artists aren’t aware of the advantages to creating multiple works of art around the same idea, theme, philosophy, concept, topic or subject matter. Instead they produce what I call “onesies.” Their typical approach goes something like this– “I’ll make one of these, now I’ll make one of these, then I’ll make one of these,” and so on and so forth, resulting in a largely unrelated incoherent hodgepodge of work (not to the artist necessarily, but certainly to us viewers). To make matters worse, they often present everything together and in no particular order on their websites, image pages, social networking pages or in their studios with little or no organization or explanation, as if to say, “Here’s my art; you figure it out.” But that’s another article.
The problem with the “I make whatever I feel like making, whenever I feel like making it” approach to art is that when everything is different and there’s no common thread, it’s difficult for us to get a grip on where you’re going, what you stand for, what your art is about. Viewers try their best to sift through everything and make sense of it, but if no clear order, pattern or intent is evident, they basically give up. Each consecutive piece they see is different from all those that preceded it, so what they end up having to do is pretty much of a start, stop, start, stop, start, stop process of trying to figure every one out from scratch, and then trying to figure out how they all fit together with the rest. That’s not only time consuming and labor intensive, but it’s also confusing and in most cases, ultimately exhausting.
When I ask artists why they create art this way, they often say they want to make sure they have something for everyone. Unfortunately, way more often than not, they end up with nothing for anyone. People are either overwhelmed by the variety, or they don’t the have time and energy to look at and analyze every single piece, or they can’t get a handle on what the artists’ identities or purposes are, or they’re so inundated with options that they can’t make up their minds what they like best or why they like it. Way too many choices. Far more often than not in situations like this, they end up confused, frustrated, and buying nothing.
Another common excuse artists give for not working in series is that they don’t want to get repetitive, bored, or locked into particular compositions or categories, or end up in a rut. It’s all about their artistic freedom, they say. But is this approach really a rut or a loss of freedom? Not necessarily. The idea of working in series or in distinct purposeful directions is actually the opposite of condemning oneself to a life of sameness or repetition. The process is not about repetition at all, but rather about being able to explore, investigate, examine or address particular ideas, themes, compositions, concepts or topics in progressively deeper and more meaningful ways, and from an increasingly greater variety of perspectives than just one or two. It’s like looking at something under a microscope as opposed to giving it a casual passing glance. The closer you look, the more you see, and the more you see, the more fascinating it gets.
If you only do it once or twice and then move on to whatever you feel like doing next, then how much can you possibly learn or benefit from such a brief encounter or experience? How much in-depth wisdom can you gain? How much can you use that limited amount of knowledge to benefit us, the viewers? What do you ultimately have to share or communicate? Not much.
If however you produce a unified series or body of themed related works, you in a sense become the expert or authority on whatever thoughts, inspirations or ideas are embodied within that art. The knowledge and experiences you accrue from working within a well-defined set of parameters, yet expressing yourself from a range of different perspectives within those parameters, allows you to nuance your compositions more subtly, purposefully and in greater depth and detail, and to communicate the results of your observations and explorations in more impactful, compelling and consequential ways. In other words, you’re able to more convincingly get your point across and to more profoundly connect with your audience. The truth is that people have an easier time understanding, appreciating and being moved by what you’re up to when you make an effort to explain it to them in detail (through a unified body of works and from a variety of different perspectives) rather than offering a brief or incomplete answer (through only one or two works) which tends to give the impression that you don’t really have that much to say.
At play also is the phenomenon of strength in numbers, of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In a good compelling series, there’s a cumulative effect above and beyond each individual work being considered solely on its own merits. Simply put, a good strong series or body of work gangs up on you. Most people don’t get it the first time; they need help. They need to have it explained, approached or presented in more ways than one, from multiple perspectives. In the case of art, redundancy works– not the same exact thing done over and over again, but rather stated and restated in different yet interconnected ways. Your job is not done until viewers can say, “I get it; I see your point; I know exactly what you’re thinking, where you’re coming from, why this is important to you, and why it’s worth my time to consider.”
In a way, you can compare making art to writing a novel or composing music. Very few ideas can be adequately expressed in single chapters or musical stanzas as compared to how thoroughly they can be treated in entire books or symphonies. The same holds true for art. A single painting has no beginning, middle or end. It has no theme, no plot, no context or direction. It’s a one-off and not much more. We can only guess at its greater purpose, story line or the meta-message it’s intended to convey (assuming it even has any of that). And in the overwhelming majority of cases, that deficit is decidedly unsatisfying for viewers. They need more– a fuller context, understanding or build-out as to where the art comes from, why it exists, and where it’s going. They want an experience, not an instance; they want to feel like they’re on a journey, immersed or involved with something meaningful, and becoming enlightened or informed along the way.
Think about how galleries show art. Pretty much any established gallery showing the current work of any established artist presents a unified selection or body of art. It’s almost like they’re saying, “We have one product or idea or concept or commentary or philosophy or whatever, in a variety of shapes, sizes or colors.” And do you know why galleries do this? For exactly the same reasons stated above. They know that people need help understanding what they’re looking at, and that an unclear, disorganized or disjointed show will confuse audiences really easily. They know that nobody buys anything they don’t understand. They know that advancing someone to the point where they whip out the checkbook or the credit card to ultimately make a purchase takes an eminently complete, compelling and satisfying presentation.
The way our minds work is that we have a constant need to organize, order and make sense of our surroundings. If anything is unclear, we instinctively do whatever we have to do to resolve it, to eliminate confusion and gain some sense of control. We don’t like uncertainty; we don’t like not knowing what’s going on. The same holds true for art. We dearly want to feel connected to it. We want to understand. And this is why a series or body of work is far more effective than onesies. The individual interrelated pieces experienced as a whole help viewers get to where they want to go and rewards them with the satisfaction that they’ve been somewhere and have seen something worth seeing.
Last but not least, a well thought out and executed body of work demonstrates to all those razor-tongued critics, discerning five-star gallery owners and finicky hardcore collectors that you’ve got the moxie, you know what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what you have to do to get there. These professionals understand what it takes for artists to distinguish themselves above and beyond the morass of mediocrity out there. If an artist makes only one or two of something, no matter how good they are, the pros often wonder, “Well, did they just get lucky? Or can they do it again and again and again?” It’s the “again and again and again” part that counts– the depth, the seriousness, the dedication and commitment manifested in a superbly conceived and cohesive group of works as opposed to only one or two. People who know art assess by numbers, not onesies; onesies tell them nothing. A body of work speaks to the breadth, scope and brilliance of an artist’s creative abilities, to the depth with which they can expound or elucidate on a particular subject, topic, concept, idea or whatever. A lone isolated work of art is nothing more than a start. So if you’re going to start something, you better be prepared to finish it.
Additional pointers for working in series:
* Decide what you want your body of work to be about, either early on in the series or before you even start. The sooner and more specifically you’re able to define, quantify and outline your intentions, the more focused and directed you become, and the more unified the works will ultimately be.
* If you’re not sure whether you want to go in a particular direction with multiple works, rather than producing finished pieces right from the start, sketch out various ideas for compositions first. See whether they hold your interest individually or as a group, whether they’re worth following though on or whether they’re not quite as fascinating as you thought they would be, and you need to rethink your approach.
* For those of you who prefer or insist on making different kinds of art, work on several series simultaneously. Or take a break from working on a series and make one or two of whatever you want to make; then get back to work on the series.
* Once you finalize the ideas behind your art, stick with them. This isn’t always easy, but forcing yourself to maintain a high level of focus and discipline without getting distracted keeps you totally involved in the outcome. An unwavering intensity of engagement is always evident in a successful body of work.