The Power of Context

Once upon a time, an artist I was working with spent a long time priming and polishing her artist statement for a very serious studio exhibition she was planning in Boston.

She had been working for over a year on a series of oil paintings that had taken her in new directions, and she was attending to every detail of the exhibit with loving care.

Her large, abstract work was engaging on its own. But when you got a chance to read about her process and her thoughts as she painted, the work took on an even larger presence.

Part of my job was to coach her on how to present her artist statement so it reflected the same attention to detail that her art did.

But, as the saying goes…you can lead a horse to water…

When you care, we feel it

My theory is that we humans resonate with what has been cared for. Not something endlessly fussed over, or primped into oblivion; but something that we have infused with our own energy of care and attention.

It’s a subtle thing… no flashing neon to demand our attention. It’s more like…we just want to get closer and might not even understand or know why…we just do.

And what could be more important than having people want to get closer to you and your art?

The knockout punch

In my recent series of blog posts – Is Quirky Art Real Art? – you can see the power of context clearly.

Those marzipan babies (which weren’t marzipan at all but polymer clay) were made even more life-like by being held in a human hand. We saw real flesh, and the association of that reality spilled over into the baby forms.

With the driftwood horses, they were also placed in a living context: by the sea, in the woods, in a field. And once again, the natural setting created a flow of association so our reaction becomes entwined with “what’s real?” and “what’s imagined?”

In both cases, the art itself was compelling. But combined with the power of context that comes from being associated with what we consider living reality, it was a knockout punch.

Back to my story    

I don’t often travel to an artist’s out-of-town exhibit. But this artist was one of my coaching clients and I liked her. And I wanted to see her work “in the flesh.” And I liked her artist statement.

Her studio was in one of those artist-renovated factory buildings that drew an astounding crowd of people on an art walk tour. Her two rooms were packed with warm bodies.

She had the requisite table of food and wine. Her work was hung at the perfect eye level for its size, and spaced just right between pieces. She’d even paid attention to which pieces were next to each other.

Within moments of coming into the studio, I looked for her artist statement, but didn’t see it anywhere. She was mobbed, or I would have asked her directly. After mulling over several of her pieces, I made my way to the food table at the end of the room.

When you don’t listen to your coach

As I reached over to pour some Chardonnay, I noticed a pile of papers next to the cheese plate. It was a heap of plain 8 1/2 x 11 typing paper. You could clearly read the top line: Artist Statement.

After that, you’d have to pick it up to read anything else. I decided to stand to one side and watch.

It was pretty amazing. In over 90 minutes, only one person bothered to reach down and pick up the top sheet, briefly glance at it, then put it right back down.

The power of context

Or in this case, the competition of context would be more accurate.

Her carelessness of both presentation and placement played out just as I would have expected. And she gained absolutely nothing from her hard work of writing her artist statement.

Much worse, her buyers gained nothing either. It’s not that her work didn’t stand on its own, it did! But they missed getting that extra layer of connection, the one that increases the stickiness factor.

What are you doing to maximize the power of context for your work?

3 Responses to “The Power of Context”

  1. i just hang mine on the wall near some pictures and i am always surprised when people stand there and read the whole thing and alot do. you can find mine here..

  2. Ariane Goodwin says:

    Good for you, famousnemo. People are interested if you give them something to be interested in, yes?

  3. Nemo, I had to click on over to your site and read your whole artist statement. Really liked how it read like a story. Then I had to check out your artwork after reading about it – love it. My favorite piece is, “Pink Flower”.

    I enjoyed this post and agree that context/presentation does make a big difference.

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