Reflecting on the past year (2022/2023)

Anyone, from an art critic to someone who knows nothing about the subject, could easily make the assertion that my practice has changed exponentially throughout the year. I have explored new materials, transitioning from working in mainly two dimensions, with markers and paint, to primarily crocheting, sewing, and working with fibre arts, in three dimensions. Alongside this, one concept I have been trying to deconstruct throughout this year is the idea that contemporary art needs meaning in order to be successful. I have been focusing on trying to understand when this statement became a part of my belief system and what I can do to critically analyse it, to try and eventually come to understand that art does not need to have a meaning behind it to be ‘good art.’ However, this deconstruction has led to problems, in the form of questions around ‘what constitutes good art’ or ‘is there such a thing as good art?’. This is something I have been exploring internally throughout this year, and something I am highly interested in. I have also been analysing, albeit more recently, how I have failed to contextualise my practice within the working art community. I feel I have not made enough of an effort to situate myself within Leeds, and with its artists, therefore not being supportive enough to my fellow artists where I should be.

 

In general, I have found that there are two societally accepted images of an artist: hugely successful socially and financially, or the trope of the ‘starving artist.’ Naturally, as a result of being brought up within society, these are the two images of artists I have internalised. Everyone wants to be successful under capitalism, as the fear of not being able to meet your basic needs is a very real one, and one that affects a significant amount of the population. It makes sense to idealise your future self as massively successful, drowning in money, with everything you could ever dream of; as a result, I am worried that throughout my life, I have not considered enough that I most likely will not be hugely successful. I probably will not ‘make it’, with a high chance of ending up in the ‘Dark Matter’ Gregory Sholette writes about. However, this isn’t necessarily a problem, as it is okay to work behind the scenes, and I do not need to be a household name to be an artist. I have been focusing on deconstructing the internal idea I have of an artist; huge success isn’t intrinsic to being an artist or practicing art. As well as this, I have been focusing on trying to build a community with the people around me, helping my classmates where I can, and trying to offer my support wherever it is asked or wanted. Growing up under capitalism leads primarily to a heavily individualistic mindset, and I have been trying to analyse and get rid of this, by learning to remove my ego and instead work towards functioning as a part of a living organism with other people. I aspire for all of us to work together, to try and function with one another as one being, in order to add less weight to the individual, and more to community and mutual aid. Deconstructing these ideas has not been an easy task, and although not being wholly successful yet, I feel I have made significant progress compared to where I was at the beginning of the year. One reason that this has been difficult for me is that I am autistic, and due to this, I struggle with understanding what people want unless they are direct with me. I also struggle with communication in general; I am hyper aware of how I may come across, and therefore am always worried that if I ask for something, it may be perceived as rude. As a result, I have to work on these worries and concerns as well as building up community – I cannot deconstruct one idea without doing the same to the other. This has been difficult, as throughout the year, I have found myself at many different mental health services and have had about four referrals. Without a consistent place to talk about and deconstruct negative self-images, I have made significantly less progress than I would have liked.

 

As well as the objective appearance of my work changing massively, the thoughts and concepts behind my work have developed alongside this: going from filling space, to representing mental health, and landing on marine life and the aquatic. I started the year focusing primarily on working with negative and positive space, investigating how I could fill space as much as possible, as well as leaving out certain areas to reflect my subject matter or my conceptual motivations. I realise now that subconsciously, this was a direct response to my viewpoint of myself – I worried that if I was not doing everything, or as much as I could, I was then not good enough and I did not deserve to be here, in this institution. This showed in how even my work itself was filling up as much space as possible, as leaving barely any negative space in my pieces was a representation on the self-image I had created. As I started to feel better in myself, I decided to harness negative thoughts I had and use them as my primary subject matter. I was still working with space in the same manner, but it was not fueled by current self doubt. My pieces became a reflection of the darkest times in my life. It was me communicating with myself that if I could survive my mental illnesses at their worst, I could survive them now. In a way, it was also a communication to others that they could get through the same. Upon telling people the concepts behind my artwork, it became known to them that these pieces were about survival, and how it is possible, despite what an individual might think. This survival ability was intrinsic to my practice, it was the driving force behind my work, I wanted to help myself and others realise that they too could get through their darkest moments, and that recovery is not an idealistic impossibility, but an achievable reality. Now, I mainly work with marine life and fish, and despite being very different in objective outcomes, there is still an underlying theme of mental illness and neurodivergence within the conceptual thinking behind my practice. My obsession with fish started when my girlfriend took me to The Deep aquarium in Hull, and since then I have hyper-fixated on aquatic life forms. My art is a direct response to this hyper-fixation, which formed as a result of having autism and ADHD. Despite the work itself looking vastly different, and working with different subject matter, my ideals behind it are similar, both focusing on the effects of neurodivergence and mental health on an individual’s thinking and perception of themselves. I have found that working with crochet and fibre arts is more interesting to myself with this current subject matter. I am very interested in the juxtaposition between the texture and appearance of different objects, and so combining the slimy and slippery texture of fish with the soft squishy yarn seemed logical, and is something I am very excited by.

 

In arguments about contemporary art, such as if it is any good, how it holds up compared to the masters, etc, I have noticed one thing being heavily used as a talking point – that is, discussions around the meaning of the work. People often say that contemporary art is relevant and ‘good art’ because of the meaning it holds. I have always accepted this idea that the meaning of contemporary art is what validates it. Recently, however, I have started to deconstruct ideas within myself of whether contemporary art needs meaning. Does the work need to have a mystified, deep, conceptual connotation to be valid, or does the art validate itself by existing? I have found that saying that contemporary art needs meaning is inherently opposed to my system of beliefs, and that the art itself is enough to justify its existence. One reason that I worked primarily with mental health as a theme for my work is that I believed in the assertion that contemporary art needs meaning to be validated. I thought that if I had a powerful context to my art, it would then be more justified. However, as I have started to analyse this concept in relation to my own practice, I have come to the conclusion that my artwork, in my mind, is its own rationalisation. I have found that I do not need to mystify my work in order to feel proud and validated by it, and my art can exist in a vacuum and still be good enough for me. This aligns with a belief I hold that all art is a reflection of the artist, as every thought in an artist’s life so far, the society they were brought up in, their family, education, friends, and more are all intrinsic to their artwork. It is impossible to separate artwork from the artist that created it. So, why worry about mystifying my work, when my entire life is represented in my pieces? Earlier in this paragraph, I mentioned ‘good art’. Despite having used this term, as I have developed through the year, this has become a concept that I have grown to fundamentally disagree with. I have found that within my belief system, it is impossible to label a piece as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without validating the idea that there is either an authoritative voice or internal bias that dictates what qualifies as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There can be bad techniques, or morally questionable subject matter or conceptual driving forces, but it feels, for me, incorrect to label art as solely ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

 

I think my biggest failure this year was my failure to contextualise my practice within the Leeds art scene. I went into this year with the hope of surrounding my work with that of practicing artists, and supporting them through mutual aid, in a manner where we would uplift each other and work as a community. Despite feeling more successful in the way by which I did this with my classmates, I feel as though I could have put more effort into connecting with practicing artists. As well as this, I generally struggle with finding artists that relate to my practice, as oftentimes, I do not know where to start looking – and this year was no exception. The combination of these two issues leads me to conclude that my most significant shortcoming this year was that I have not made enough effort to understand my work through the lens of the contemporary art world in Leeds. I have only really found myself at bigger exhibitions, and so next year I aim to make a greater effort to support currently working artists who have not faced global and significant financial success. Moving to Leeds gave me an opportunity to connect with a new art world, different to that at home, and it is my opinion that I have not made the effort that I should have to contextualise myself within this scene. Perhaps a part of this can be blamed on my autism, as I struggle significantly with changes (such as moving), communication, and other things which would put me at a disadvantage in relation to other artists; however, I feel it is unfair to label the sole reason as being my autism when I could have tried harder to complete my goals. I don’t want to be held back by my autism, and despite my disability, my aim is to immerse myself within the art scene, to build a community that reflects my values, and to support other artists in the same way I would like to be supported. As I mentioned earlier, under capitalism, the focus is on the individual, and despite attempts at analysing and deconstructing this idea, I have not been successful enough. I am not yet at a point where I feel satisfied in what I have done to solidify my place within a community, instead of primarily seeing myself as an individual artist.

 

In conclusion, I would say that this year has been a moderate success in terms of my personal and professional development. I have deconstructed some ideas I felt were harmful, but not as much as I feel I could have. The idea of situating myself within the community is of upmost importance to me, and something I aim to focus on heavily next year. I will attempt to achieve this by becoming more aware of smaller galleries and which shows they are putting on, as well as taking more of a general notice towards signs and posters around the city where artists advertise themselves. I will also make a greater effort to contextualise myself within the readings that we do, and understand where I want to sit within concepts that are being brought up, in a manner which will hopefully lead to me solidifying which place I want to hold within the artist community. I aim to work even more on seeing myself as a part of an organism, with individuals working towards a common goal and dismissing individualism in favour of community; and, as an extension, I hope to understand how to work collaboratively through problems presented, focusing on myself as a part of a machine, and not as the whole machine itself.

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