Interstitial Visual Arts:
An Impossible Marriage of Materials
by Charles Vess
Successful Interstitial visual art (painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.) is like a savory soup made by a master chef using the very best of wisely chosen ingredients. These are simmered to perfection, and ultimately result in a sublime melding of divergent ingredients that offers an exhilarating burst of flavor.
What I remember most about taking art history in college were the instructors' insistence that the modern world of art was in chaos because there was no dominant "ism"or artistic movement that we could all cling to, and perhaps blindly follow. By my instructors reckoning, and indeed by all the pre–subscribed history in our textbooks, the whole of world art history was one of those "isms," followed smoothly by another until we reached the present day, and one rival art faction fought it out for dominance over another. Romanticism. Impressionism. Symbolism. Expressionism. Cubism. Abstract Expressionism. Then the modern chaos of Conceptual Art vs. Pop Art vs. Photo Realism vs. Constructionism vs. Minimalism, and so on and on. There was no present day firm critical foundation to base our artistic "faith" on, and we were all flailing about seeking a new meaning and purpose for our art. The critical establishment bemoaned that this was the end of Art.
Those thick art history tomes the university made us buy each year clearly supported this theory and further, sought to explore a "comprehensive" history of world art by spotlighting only those chosen, critically sanctified, art movements. The course always began with Egypt and then moved up along the sea coast of the Mediterranean (Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece and Italy) over into Spain, then further north into France, Germany and Great Britain arriving finally in New York City, the current center of artistic thought in the world. Our teachers kept promising at the beginning of each semester's class that we'd get to some of the other world art "if we have time."
But there was never enough time.
By their choosing to repeatedly ignore the artistic offerings of a vast multi–cultural world, these teachers sent a blatant message that it was not worth the time or the effort to study and learn from them.
Growing older and developing my own tastes concerning art, I began to discover many, many more movements that had been glossed over by those art textbooks as either unimportant or unnecessary to a “proper” study of the history of art. My personal path of discovery led me through the rich treasure trove of the Victorian Fairy Painters, the pre–Raphaelites, the art of the European Fin–de–Siecle movement, Art Noveau, American and European illustration, Japanese Woodblock Art, African mask making, Native American craft and sculpture and on to so very many more art "movements" that have always been there, co–existing alongside all the official "isms" sanctioned by the critical establishment.
That panic that had been instilled by my art instructors' declaration of the death of ‘Art’ began to subside. I came to know and be comforted by the fact that there has always been a great surging sea of artistic movements taking place in the far corners of the world. Out of this supposed, aesthetic chaos that continually swirls round about us a synthesis is formed, combining the strengths of each of these individual tides. Without the infusion of these combined strengths, the art of the officially sanctioned art world would soon breed itself into an anemic oblivion as it continued to subsist only off of its own regurgitated, inbred juices, until it would indeed simply fade away into nothing.
There should be no impenetrable border to fear, no barrier strong enough to keep artists from their “hero's journey” of artistic discovery. These borders and boundaries were erected out of an age–old, habitual desire to protect what has no business being protected. There are far too many bastions of critical thought or designators of the “correct” theory of art filled with the same impulse: "It's mine, my precious. Mine!" For instance I see no reason that the everyday commercial comic book can not have work that is as personal and risk–taking as the most avant garde fine art in a prestigious uptown gallery. In fact I think it is important that true art not be relegated to an ivory tower gallery or museum that is all too rarely visited by everyday civilians. I enjoy the sly subversion of slipping aesthetic meaning into everyday, well–handled objects. Indeed, I think that the world would be a much better place if there were more of it.
If he were alive today, the 19th–century visionary and founder of the English Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, probably would be asking: "Why can't a shopping mall be a pleasant environment to while away the day in and not just a purely commercial space that one only puts up with for the convenience of its offerings?" The architects that designed Tlaquepaque Mall in Sedona, Arizona (or Horton Plaza, San Deigo, etc. ) have as much to be congratulated on as the much lauded designer of the Guggenheim. "Why can't a mere comic book 'draw' music?"—as does P. Craig Russell's adaptation of Wagner's 'Ring' cycle, choosing to illustrate even the purely symphonic interludes with carefully chosen images suggested by the very myths that inspired the composer's score in the first place. "Why shouldn't a painting or any work of art, no matter where you find it, make you ponder the deeper meanings of life?" Helena Nelson–Reed's “notecard” art says as much with her single images about myth and its meaning in modern life as any well–developed essay by psychologist Clarissa Pinkhola Estes.
And right there you have several fine examples of Interstitial art. It is an art that might use ancient folklore and mythic traditions to speak to the complexities of our modern multi–cultural world. It is an art that might apply fine art sculpting techniques to doll–making, construct a complex literary narrative out of the ordinary practice of the written letter and postcard, or develop the ancient art of glass blowing into a story–telling art form that defies its traditional, commercial place in our society. It is an art that defines itself by what it isn't and not by some arbitrary critical designation or commercial niche.
Today's artist should find a heady aesthetic freedom in choosing from whatever method or medium works best or whatever cross–cultural icons suit their pictorial vision in their relentless pursuit of personal meaning in their own art.
Picture this: you've just walked into a fashionable art gallery and there on the walls are multiple canvases covered in large splashes of color. Hot pinks blurring into white and black. Thick smears of hyperactive paint, gestured across a rough canvas. Typical of work that had its origin well over 50 years ago, but it's still being hailed as “modern art” today. The painter has obviously bought into all the currently fashionable high art theories, and in thinking in that mode, has stripped his or her painting of the possibility of multiple levels of meaning by the use of objective abstraction. The result of which leaves only lonely dabs of paint, sitting randomly on a vast dreary canvas, having a never–ending, meaningless conversation with itself.
Now see yourself walking into a supposed bastion of commercial enterprise, the local card shop, gift shop, or bookstore. Right there, on the spin rack, amongst the happy puppies and grinning birthday clowns you find images by Mara Friedman or Rachel Clearfield that strike a deep, personal chord. These and many other like–minded artists transform imagery from traditional folklore, myth and fairy tales into their own deeply personal vision. The results are paintings that cross that oh–so–strict boundary between fine and commercial art, finding a place in the Interstitial borderlands. In that bookstore, too, you'll find Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine His splendid collage of text, stamps, color and paper transports the simple act of writing letters and postcards into an artistic literary device that reveals plot, character and action. Bantock and other contemporary book artists such as Peter Sis's Tibet: Through the Red Box and Charles van Sandwyk's Animal Wisdom have taken the old world techniques of letterpress bookmaking and used them to transform the commercial mainstream book into a personal artistic statement.
Interstitial artists, like the very best chef at the finest restaurant, will have a thorough understanding of all the herbs, spices and condiments, all the myriad ways of cooking and shaping an intentioned flavor. Their kitchen will be thoroughly stocked, their knowledge of the history of food preparation deep and wide ranging and their cookware extensive. They will know when to keep their creation simple and when to add just the right, perhaps unexpected, ingredient. These chefs will not find themselves limited to only one “correct” method but will use their intuitive knowledge to pick and choose the very best way to reach the ultimate end, a sublime taste.
So, too, should today's artists have at their disposal various methods and mediums for executing their ideas. Their studios
shelves should have an extensive array of tools, be they paints and brushes or stone chisels or digital cameras—their knowledge of the history of world art as broad and as intuitive as possible. When the time comes to develop their ideas they should not be trapped into the usual methodology, but able to render those ideas in whatever medium suits it best.
Interstitial art is in fact an impossible, but wholly satisfying, marriage of materials, techniques and ideas that speaks quite clearly to our modern world and its concerns.