Difficult: An Introduction
Over the past few years, I have seen an increasing number of artists producing work that places great emphasis on process and fabrication. I think of this tendency as representing the idea of the difficult, and the title of this issue logically follows this descriptive label. The most salient characteristic of difficult work is a fetishism of effort, and an obsession with detailed and complex surfaces. It creates an equality of importance between concept and process.
At its core, the difficult is fundamentally opposed to the self-containment of Modernism. Multifaceted and variegated, this work is NOT baroque. Despite its surface detail, it is not decorative. These works are not self-contained but rather organically complex. The elaboration of detail is not superfluous or over-the-top but is, instead, integral to the meaning of the piece.
The objects and images these artists create are more than simply labor intensive, although my concept of difficult work includes intricacy and obsessive repetition. Fundamentally, the work can be carried on indefinitely. Because it is not generated from a basic compositional strategy that considers or creates the conditions for completion, the work can be extended into infinity. The notion of the finished artwork is neither of interest nor consequential. Within this sensibility, the process of making an object is entirely open-ended; there is no stopping point defined by logic, concept or narrative.
The stopping point is reached without reference to any definition of complete, but rather simply by ceasing to work. Another crucial aspect of the difficult is its quality of being demanding to create. I refer here to the effort such surfaces and structures demand in terms of physical and mental exertion. The enterprise itself requires a profligate expenditure of labor and mental focus on the part of the artist.
Regardless of the final visual effect, artists involved in this enterprise propose an entirely different relationship between image, process and idea. More importantly, by not concealing the processes of thinking and making, they also change the relationship between object and viewer, making this basic experience more intimate and more revealing. The work produced by this sensibility is entirely earnest, optimistic, and unapologetically concerned with the marriage of beauty and information.
The final interpretation of the work is also open-ended, mutable, and changed by each repeated encounter. Difficult art owes a great deal to process and performance-oriented work of the 1960s. Many artists involved with making such work have been influenced in particular by Eva Hesse's knotted, fiberglass-dipped pieces. These were quite crudely made, generated out of an intuitive thought process, and are potentially endless in terms of construction, scale and detail.
Such involvement with the difficult produces work that can neither be entirely seen nor understood with a cursory glance; it attracts and compels sustained looking. Often, a verbal explanation of the process is necessary in order to clarify the means of production and to facilitate the understanding of the work. As a working artist and critic, I believe it is essential that artists make substantial contributions to the critical dialogue that surrounds contemporary artmaking. Consequently, the majority of contributors I invited to respond to the notion of the difficult are artists who also write about art.
Becky Hendrick, a New Mexico artist who discusses the work of El Paso artist Adrian Esparza.
Paula Owen, President of the Southwest School of Art and Craft in San Antonio writes about the work of Maryland artist Yuriko Yamaguchi.
I discuss the work of Houston painter Virgil Grotfeldt.
I also invited two artists to write about their own work:
Constance Lowe responded with a description of the process that both informs and constructs her most recent body of work.
Martin Gantman, a conceptual artist from Los Angeles, responded by producing a Kafka-esque work of fiction that grapples directly with the notion of difficult in a novel and extraordinary way.
Also, contributing are:
Wendy Atwell, independent critic and art historian, who discusses the work of San Antonio artist Joey Fauerso.
Chris Miles, Los Angeles critic and art theorist who writes about the work of Scandinavian sculptor Olafur Eliasson.
I am deeply grateful to John Bryant and the Board of ARTL!ES for giving me the opportunity to edit this issue. I dedicate it to M.M.J. who introduced me to Texas and continues to help make it my home. Kathleen Whitney is a Contributing Editor to Sculpture Magazine.