Small Wild Things

Copying other artworks is part of any trained artist’s education. I’m not sure if the primary objective of mimicry is to sharpen your own handling of traditional art materials or to instill a crushing respect for all the greats who’ll forever outshine you on the pages of history. I suppose it hardly matters; either way you first feel humbled. . . and then grow defensive. How would Raphael fare copying a Rothko? Imagine Frank Stella tackling a Chris Ofili? No one is exempt from a dose of failure when so many parameters lie outside your own level of training and comfort.

This past week I copied fifteen artworks by one of my former instructors. Or, I should say, I copied fifteen copies of her paintings done by another former student who, in all fairness, was copying fifteen copies done by another artist. In truth, I don’t know how many degrees of separation exist between myself and the original fifteen paintings. I’m just one connection in a collaboration that can most easily be explained as a visual game of Telephone.

I expected this project to feel much the same as the three agonizing weeks I spent trying to recreate Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park color palette. There would be tears, certainly, and a mounting sense of disgust with myself followed by the aforementioned defensive rationalizations for my inability. But from the outset I felt far different than I had expected. These were, after all, my peers, not some patriarchal group of historically vindicated uberartists. A presumptive understanding of my former instructor’s visual tendencies made me suspicious of certain technique and material choices that existed on the fifteen copies before me. The question that confronted me wasn’t along the lines of, “Can I achieve an accurate copy?” so much as “Should I be accurate to what lies before me or what I believe to have been true in the original?”

Being a tad yellow-bellied and prone to obeying all mandates I did as the project rules instructed and recreated what was before me. Upon finishing I compared my replicas with the set I’d received.

They were remarkably different.

Not in size, shape, or placement mind you; those things were spot on. It was the technique and material choices that seemed. . . off, somehow. It was humbling

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