essentialism in art


The term essentialism originates with Aristotle and the idea that everything has an essential nature to it. This idea was abused during the colonial era by suggesting that different races were limited by their very specific essential natures and therefore were not to be considered equal. Obviously an erroneous concept. Later on into this century the term has been used to describe a certain concept in the biological field—which is not of primary concern to us in this writing, except to say that all of these definitions and uses of the term essentialism are not what I mean by the term.

My use of the term retains the original Aristotelian idea of the essential nature of things but applies it more to the process than to the result. For instance, I have found that every idea that I have conceived for a sculpture really had a primary impulse to it, and that impulse or feeling was the thing I had to stay focused on in order to create the intended work. This sounds quite easy but in the throes of creativity one can easily be led down errant paths which more often than not end up changing the final work to something other than what was originally desired. There are artists who would use this more unconscious path as their primary method of creating a work of art, but at some point in the process of creating the work the artist will crystallize what the piece is about and need to make everything work towards that end. In either case the work will have an essentially defining character to it, if the artist has used an Essentialist approach.

The core of the idea of essentialism as I have come to regard it is an ability to go directly for the most compelling stroke to achieve your expression. Don't get sidetracked no matter how appealing the new possibility may appear. I don't add anything unnecessary to the piece, especially when the work is progressing. At this point in the game it is most important to get the work up to it's general dimensions before you focus on any details. This does not mean you can't explore when accidents happen, but if you do you will risk losing your main direction.

I have found that art works have three fundamental aspects to them. There is a technical, an emotional, and an aesthetic side. The technical aspect is the most obvious characteristic and includes such things as the structural integrity, the logic of its engineering, and the competency of its construction. The emotional aspect includes the emotions one gets from the actual shape of the forms in the work as well as the feelings coming from the content or storyline that may be expressed. Finally, the aesthetic side deals with such things as the composition, the line and mass relationship, the surface treatment, and the final placement of the work. When all of these aspects have been given due consideration in a work of art one gets an essentialist piece.

Using an essentialist approach does not guarantee a masterpiece, but it does signify a certain quality of expression and a marked distinction in the final character of the work. Essentialist work has a clarity and directness that are lacking in other works that seem overworked or full of excesses that do not reinforce the primary concept. As the name implies, be essential. There will always be an exquisite simplicity to essentialist work no matter how complex the piece becomes. Complex work can easily be confusing, but if the artist has understood the principles of essentialism, that final complex piece will have clarity.

Lets consider for a moment one of my sculptures and run through the process I went through building it. The work I will speak about is "Gaia" which can be seen on this web site. This work was originally commissioned by a diocese of the Catholic Church, but I had already been working on a concept for many years about rendering images of womanhood as seen through three aspects, one of which is woman as a Madonna expressing purity of mind and body. The other two aspects of woman I wanted to explore are woman as erotic, and woman as mysterious or inward spirituality. When I received the commission I was already involved in this type of thinking so it was not like some other commissions I receive that are not in line with my own ideas. Let me add here that usually the client gets the best work when they let the artist have as free a reign as possible or when the commissioned idea is along the same track as the artist is involved with in his own creative world.

The initial problem of any work of art is, of course, the inspired idea. In this situation, the vision for the piece came to me in a period of contemplation; the next problem was to draw it, which I immediately accomplished. I then had to confront the task of building the face in my technique. My method of sculpture is cutting sheet metal , then shaping it with hammers, welding it together with a mig arc welder, and then grinding the excess off with an electric angle grinder. This is a very labor intensive process but one that is a fraction of the cost of modeling in clay and then casting in bronze or some other material. It is also much faster and allows the artist to change the finished work at any time after completion; a quality I find most effective in achieving satisfaction with my ever-changing creative mind. Most of my work is meant to last for a very long time and so I often find that I don't realize the true end until I have lived with and studied the supposedly finished work.

Let's return to the actual building process. I proceeded to hammer Gaia's face out of bronze and got fairly close to the drawing so I was very encouraged that I could actually build an over-life-sized figure in stainless steel and bronze. Despite the previous sculptures of the same complexity, I had never attempted doing a figure in stainless steel, a metal that is much harder and stiffer than bronze or mild steel. The main concern for the body was that it be sensual but not sexual, graceful but not erotic. The Madonnas that I had researched were all either too sexy or too stiff. Once I had created the face and the cowling of the headpiece, I needed to gauge the overall height of the work so I temporarily raised the bust on a pole, spot welding the pole to a base. Then I began to build from the waist upward including the arms. The commissioned work was to be a fountain with water pouring slowly from her right hand (my decision) so obviously one hand had to extend and the logical balance would place the other hand in a gesture that would give some movement to the overall work.

When I was a young boy I always admired a Japanese goddess figurine that my parents owned. It had one hand outstretched before it, palm upward and the other hand crossing in an upward gesture with the finger raised as if in benediction and so I confess to the influence despite the fact that my Madonna (Gaia)is a bit different. What amazes me most is the message that is conveyed by the subtlest gesture of the human hand and the almost infinite variation that can occur. I did not build the hands at this time, however. The essentialist dictum is to keep building the work without becoming involved in detail that can distract and that can easily become wrong later on. I also only built the very front part of the cowling/hair at this time since the view from the side and rear could easily change as one makes decisions of the overall curves and straight lines. The primary thing to go for is the main body gesture. "Gaea" is in a standing position, wearing a heavy robe. There is nothing indicating in the position of the legs and hips that would suggest a figure beneath the cloth. I had to create the feeling that this figure was a human body beneath the robe even though, if one looks closely, one can see she is elongated and very abstract from the waist down. I achieved the illusion of a fully modeled figure by subtly contouring the stomach, the thigh and the breast and the shoulders. I have chosen this work to demonstrate some of the essentialist concepts not because it represents the most Essential of my sculptures, but because it is a very complex work and required me to incorporate all of the essentialist elements that I have been working on.

There is a larger concept of Essentialism that I am writing about, at this time, so anyone interested can check back from time to time to see if I have posted anything new on the web site.

Robert T. Cole

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