What is an artist statement supposed to do? For the artist, it can be a way to connect with the viewer by revealing more. Elements of an artist statement generally include:
Media – Did you use oil? pastel? acrylic? Why? Artist statements tend to be posted with a show so they are often specific to the body of work on display. Bodies of work, unless they are retrospectives, tend to be very cohesive. My favorite retrospective so far is David Hockney’s. His use of a wide variety of technologies and media from pencils to iPad was inspiring.
Process – If there is something accretive to meaning about the artist’s process, include it. Jackson Pollock’s process of flinging paint was important because it showed how he achieved such a wildly different effect.
Subject – If the subject is portraits, the viewer can probably tell, but are who are the people and how did they end up sitting for you? What’s important about your choice of subject? Alice Neel painted wonderful portraits of neighbors, children, people she knew, not famous but everyday.
Why – if you’ve watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk you know that this is the most important part. People don’t care about your what if they don’t understand your why. Last night in the Basil Hallward Gallery at Powells, I read the why of the artist on exhibit, Annamieka Hopps Davidson: “People who give a damn need access to the power and the resilience that joy brings.”
Extra credit – including these in your artist statement shows that you understand more than just your own work.
Tradition – how does your work relate to other work in the same tradition? Another way to get at this is to ask yourself, “Who inspired you?” Austin Kleon suggests that you track that even further back and ask, “Who inspired them?”
Distinction – how is your work different from those who influenced you and from contemporaries? What does it add to the conversation? You are unique. There is no one else like you in the world ever. You bring that uniqueness to the work. Where does it show up?
If you’ve been through an MFA program, these questions are very similar to ones asked on the pre-thesis or oral exams conducted by a panel of teachers.
Do you understand why you are doing what you are doing? Why this material and not that one? Why this amount of embellishment and not that? How do your artistic decisions about media contribute to the overall meaning of the piece(s)? Do you understand your place in the canon? Who is your work influenced by or derivative of? How is your work new and different?
I created a notebook of all the pre-thesis questions asked over a couple of semesters at San Jose State to prepare for my own oral exams. Answering these questions requires a level of inquiry that assumes at it’s foundation that your work as worthy of study. That you’ve brought something to the “page” that’s valuable and that can be improved through examination.