In an essay published by online journal Triple Canopy in 2012, David Levine and Alix Rule coined the term International Art English. It refers to the often-confusing language commonly used by academics, galleries, and institutions to describe art and the concepts behind it, and partly explains why some of us might be cautious to engage an artist in conversation. Undoubtably, art can be challenging, but this can be used to your advantage. When approaching an artist, start with a healthy dose of curiosity and don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is a treasure trove of information to discover about the art you love.
A great way to start a conversation is to ask an artist about their creative influences. Artists are inspired by so much, asking this question always yields fruitful results. Sydney-based artist Angus Martin’s sinuously figurative forms are inspired by music, poetry, and psychology. By using carefully chosen colours and shapes, Martin’s paintings transform feelings into poses. For other creatives, influences can go all the way back to childhood and learning more about what has led them to art provides valuable insight and new meaning to their work. Talking to an artist about their influences will also help you to learn about other artists, expanding your own knowledge of the art world and aiding future conversations.
Be curious about materials and process. Artists choose their materials for a reason. They might be drawn to a particular colour or texture that feeds into the overall theme and subject of their work. Melbourne-based artist and disability arts advocate Renee Broders is known for her vibrantly painted portraits, and she says, “Discussing what am I trying to convey by creating a specific expression or by using certain colours would be very helpful in becoming familiar with my practice.”
Further north near Cairns, the artists from the Pormpuraaw Art & Culture Centre use discarded fishing nets collected from beaches to form their spectacular ghost net animals. Using this material allows the artists to raise awareness of the damage abandoned fishing nets cause to the environment.
If commissioning a new work, talk to an artist about deadlines. Most artists are juggling multiple commitments so always allow plenty of time for a work to be completed. For Noosa-based painter Darren White, finishing a commission can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. “If someone knows exactly what they are after, the commission may only take a couple of weeks. However, if a collector needs help in unravelling what it is they are drawn to, and happen to settle on a less common size, it could take twice as long.” He also points out supply chain delays can also affect time frames. “Being transparent about the impact of outside influences is key,” he says. “I had a recent pair of commissions where the second one leapfrogged the first. They both had a clear vision, but the delayed time frame was solely based on the canvas size and stock available.” The whole process of creating art takes planning to do well. Because of this, never ask for a discount. Art is work.
When asking questions about an artist’s practice be respectful of their creative vision. They are highly skilled practitioners, who have most likely trained for years to reach this point. Most artists continue to learn throughout their careers, taking on new ways of making. Ask them about residencies they have completed, who played a role in shaping their aesthetic or helped them develop their professional practice. “I feel the best type of questions are the open-ended ones that are not directly about the art, but more of an insight into the artist,” explains White. “The advantage to understanding the artist is that you’ll hopefully foster a deeper connection.”