In Art and Illusion (1960), E. H. Gombrich proposes a theory of re-presentation that begins with creative action: the artist, in seeking to imitate the world, begins by making a mark. By evaluating and adjusting these marks, the artist learns more complex techniques and methods for creating an image that is closer to the truth.
As a painter, trained in re-presentation, my work originates in this impulse towards imitation—the excitement of seeing the world re-made by my own hand—but also the experience of painting itself: of oil and pigment and brush against canvas. In the past couple of years since reading Art and Illusion, I’ve taken Gombrich’s theory as a defense for my own creative process. This defense was necessary to me, since the culture surrounding art (especially since 1960) has seemed increasingly conceptual, and threatening to my own way of working. I saw this movement dangerously one-sided, more concerned with ideas (content) than with the bodies (forms) needed to express those ideas.
The paintings that I have made in the past couple of years have been deliberate exercises in expressing the intuitive and physical aspects of the creative process; as if, by simply copying the world around me, I could show that this was all that was needed in order to make good art. These paintings were successful exercises, but also, ultimately, one-sided.
When I began working in the MFA program at Wash U, I knew that my ideas would cause frustration in trying to communicate with peers and professors whose beliefs are different than my own. What I did not imagine was that it was my attitude of defensiveness, rather than my attitudes about art, which would cause the most difficulty. I have realized over recent conversations that, in this defensiveness, I’ve been missing the opportunity to learn from others making work differently from myself, and to imagine a creative process that is more integrated and more inclusive.
The following diagram is my first attempt at envisioning what this could be.
By Action, I'm referring to the act of making, the act of working with the body and with materials. For the painter, it is putting paint to canvas; for the writer, pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard); for the musician as well, laying fingers on the keys. (It's both the movement of the hands, as well as the music itself.) Even though I've put Action at the top, I don't mean to imply that art must begin with making; the creative process is a cycle, which repeats continually while the artist is working.
If Action refers to the physical aspects of creativity, Knowledge refers to the entirely non-physical, and non-active. I'm not talking about the process of thinking, but about knowledge itself. I mean: the whole soup of memories, culture, history, etc. which together make up my fundamental understanding of the world.
Through Imagination, I project my Knowledge into my work. Through Reflection, I allow my work and the working process to inform my fundamental understanding. Both are necessary in order to successfully create, and understand what I've created.
Even though my own creative practice begins with painting, it is also so important that my actions (as a painter, and otherwise) reflect this understanding of the creative process as a whole. Thinking about these aspects of the creative process is helpful for bringing balance and integrity to my own work. But I hope that it will also help me to understand others' work; the extent to which each artist's work uniquely embodies these aspects.