Let me first say that being mythic doesn’t make something untrue. There are plenty of artists who need to work in isolation as much as possible. What I mean is that the Hermit Artist is a kind of mythical archetype, as much as the Old Wise Woman or the Trickster. They are both potentially real people and also part of our cultural mythos. The Hermit Artist is still often the image many people have of the Artist generally and there are more than a few artists who take on that role… and sometimes just the image.
It occurred to me after a few days of setting up my installation at the BWAC that I am absolutely not an Artist Hermit. Perhaps I was at one point… but my process and work have grown more and more towards collaborative and participatory work. The past few years even prodding complete strangers for reactions and unique viewpoints has become an important part of my process.
I feel that if my work is to reach many people on many levels it is essential to talk to people I would not normally see in my social circles (broad and diverse as those may be). So I talk to strangers. I talk to friends. I teach and I learn from my students. What I don’t do much of is talking to other artists about work in progress unless I am collaborating with them.
Let me explain… I have had my art history, I am aware of modern and contemporary art and artists, but I am wary of too tight a dialogue with the art community. It is hard to have truly new ideas in an echo-chamber enviroment. Perhaps this is what drives some artists into Hermetic practice. I believe there is a danger in looking too tightly at just art history, current artists, and the forces of the art world (critics, curators, dealers, etc.). I get the impression that a lot of the attempts to innovate within that world may be coming from the desire for innovation itself, or to distinguish oneself (even brand oneself) as a unique artist. It is a necessary career move, and a reasonable prod to thinking up something new… but I think the freshest innovation comes from truly seeing something in a new way and bringing it to life in a way that makes the most sense for the artwork. More seeing something in the world outside, less self-consciousness. Yes, there are a thousand ways to look at the system of the art world for material, even for critique, but too much and it becomes navel gazing in a small circle. Perhaps some of the artists who are considered Hermits are really just hermits to the art world for those very reasons and are quite open to the rest of the world… but I don’t think it is all of them.
All that said, what I most valued in my recent New York trip was the intensity of dialog, and a lot of that valued dialog was with art-insiders. The difference was that I had intense conversations with artists and curators and many other people about the things that are seeds for art. People, society, history, gender and identity politics, cultures, myth, symbolism, psychology, religions… and art. Almost every waking hour of that week (usually until 3AM) I was working in one way or another, but even while I was physically working with my hands, I was often in discussion as well… and these discussions are integral to my work. The whole trip was a long discussion, and when I wasn’t with people, it was with books and articles. The trick to breaking out of the echo-chamber is the variety of sources and topics.
One thing is true though- there are moments in my artistic process where it is death to the work to talk about it in any detail. This is partly because the focus must be directed at making the work, and talking about it dissipates that drive. It is also because there are moments in a process that are so fragile and etherial that if you try to say it out loud or explain what you are doing it dissolves in your hands like an object in a dream. This is perhaps that almost mystical aspect of the artistic practice that those who are Artist-Hermits strive to protect. It is when you are following your unconscious, listening to the materials, working on instinct. Of course, “instinct” explains very little- let us say it is operating from the unconscious all those ideas and skills that are so internalized that they are a part of you. The more one grows as an artist, the deeper that well gets.
Maybe after that hermetic moment is over you can step back from what you’ve made or thought up and say “ah… This aspect relates to x and is connecting in these ways to y and z concepts. Maybe it takes until you open your process to observation again and someone else looks at what you’ve done and immediately understands it. Sometimes that person is able to articulate something that is in fact there but which you missed because it was so much a part of you that you could no more see it than a fish notices wetness. Then you can go back and analyze.
Either way, yes that hermit-space is absolutely an essential part of the process, but it is only a part for me. Regular dialog with the outside- with the past and past artwork, with other artists, with collaborators, participants… and even complete strangers is equally important.