William P. Seeley
Associate Professor (part time) | Adjunct lecturer
University of Southern Maine | UNH - Manchester
wseeley2 at gmail dot com
Oxford University Press
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Clement Greenberg identified modernism in art as a self-critical tendency. A practice is 'self-critical' in this sense if its goal is understanding and refining the conventions constitutive of activities that define it. Greenberg argued that the conventions indicative of a type of activity are determined by its medium. Much has been written in the intervening years concerning socio-cultural influences on aesthetic practices. One might argue, however, that although socio-cultural forces define the activities constitutive of art, e.g. the goals, intentions, and conceptual framework that define different categories of art at a time, the medium of its instantiation is a strong constraint on the methodology of its practice. A carpenter works with wood. A fabricator works with aluminum, steel, brass, and etc. The conventions of their practice are in large part determined by constraints set by their material medium.
Art is no longer bound to static media, nor for that matter static categories like painting, sculpture, or performance. In the contemporary context the medium of any artwork transcends the medium of its particular instantiation. The formal considerations guiding the construction of a work are, as a result, no longer constrained solely by a physical medium. In this regard all art becomes conceptual. Nonetheless, Greenberg's model still stands. Once the medium becomes, at least in part, conceptual, the practice of art adopts the conventions and constraints of the particular conceptual framework within which each particular work is placed. For instance, if one undertakes to construct a Minimalist work, whether genuinely or as critical commentary, the deliberate choices made in constructing the work are shaped by conceptual conventions that serve as constraints on its construction. These constraints function as touchstones which ground the content of the work and communicate its meaning.
The conceptual framework within which I work is loosely formalist, drawn from the Futurists' concern for dynamics, the lightness of Calder's mobiles, the machine aesthetic of Modernism - economy of function as a design principle - and the organic forms and minimalist structure of Eccentric Abstraction. But, while rooted in the vernacular of 20th Century formalism and abstraction, the constructions at the same time convey a sense of play, a whimsy which is itself a critical commentary on the putative weight and gravity of formalist aesthetic concerns.
My early work was roughly figurative. The goal was to abstract from the gesture of traditional poses in order to capture the dynamics of the human form. But I found the work heavy, leaden, too rooted to the earth. I began to open up the forms in an attempt to sculpt gesture alone. This led me to conceptualize open forms as vectors of motion. I was now able to abandon the figurative vocabulary, no longer needing it as a touchstone for the dynamics of the work.
My current work is a self-critical examination of dynamics and form. The starting point is a vector of motion conceived as a gesture. Many of the works are cantilevered mobiles constructed of delicate lines that connect sculptural elements. These vectors flex under the work's own mass, like space curving in reaction to gravitational force. The cantilever severs the connection of mass to earth, producing lightness. The equipoise of lightness and mass together generate the dynamics of the compositions.
I use the phrase "dynamics as self-sufficient narrative" to define the "organic content" of a work. This term is intended schematically and abstractly. 'Organic' refers to the form, or life of the work as a self-sufficient entity (i.e. not to its visual design alone). In this regard, Eccentric Abstraction functions as my precursor. Eccentric Abstraction differs from the cold, machined aesthetic of Minimalism. The forms are not presented for their structural properties (symmetry, proportion, etc.). Rather their structural properties generate a narrative which is suggested by the finished work itself. I use the word narrative non-literally here, in opposition to "imagistic" or "representational." It refers to the being of the work. In this sense, an artwork is not about something. It is not a mere symbol of something else. It is itself. Its narrative is its own identity.
My work in progress in sculpture extends the exploration of lightness, mass, and dynamics in a series of more abstract exercises. The works are suspended from the ceiling, hang on the wall, or lie discarded on the floor. The narrative is the object's readiness-to-hand as a tool. By a tool I do not mean an implement to be picked up and used. Rather I mean an object whose dynamics are transparent. We can see how it would be used, or what its activity would be if we were to set the forms in motion. In this sense, my works do not have punctate narratives. They are not puzzles to be figured out. Rather each piece is a formal algorithm whose dynamics are open-ended expressions of the activity explicit in their construction. The works generate a narrative from their readiness-to-hand as tools, not as implements tied to a task, but as objects whose dynamics are transparent and open-ended, as gestural vectors whose content springs forth as a functional relation to a viewer acting as their interlocutor.
I have in recent years undertaken a larger collaborative drawing project that explores the dynamics of communities of actors. This project emerged from a teaching exercise that I developed for students in my Philosophy of the Arts classes. Drawings are often constructed on large, 8’ x 24’ sheets of paper in open public spaces. They are composed of randomized sets of embodied drawing instructions, choreographed movement paths for making marks of the page, e.g. “Choose an oil crayon from the box; stand with your toes touching the wall; draw a point directly in front of the bridge of your nose; fixate on a point and reach as high as you can; keeping your arm straight and your elbow locked, use your shoulder as the hinge of a compass and draw an even curve extending to a point just above your knee" or “Stand as close as you can to the paper; reach out as far as you can and make a mark 45 degrees above your shoulder; take two long steps away from your mark; change hands and make a mark as far as you can reach, 45 degrees below your shoulder; snap a chalk line that connects those two marks.” Everyone who uses the public space as a means of transit is invited to participate. The drawings encode information about their reach, bio-mechanics, and body size of a sample of the population that uses the open space. The trick is that there is some problem solving involved in making the marks that constitute the drawing. What emerges is an embodied visual conversation that records traces of the actions and creative choices of the participants (for instance, marks tend to cluster together at first before participants branch out to engage the whole drawing sheet). The net result is an embodied interactive representation of a community.
Brooklyn, NY, 2002 / Bath, ME, 2022