Titling Artwork, Pt. II

Passing Through the Dust, 2009
acrylic, toner, and graphite on panel
10.5" x 10.5"

While I can't speak for any other artist, or for artists in general,* I can share with you my approach to titling artworks. Over the years I've found that my titles can be primarily categorized into two types: the simple explanatory and the obliquely narrative. Today, I will just deal with the first type. . .

1. The Simple Explanatory Title

In many ways, this is the easier of the two types as it requires only a word or two to convey meaning. In essence, this sort of title seems to state what the work seeks to depict: Orchard, Mirror, and Baubles are all titles I've employed before. But with the exception of Orchard, which is actually a drawing of an orchard, the title isn't a strictly literal interpretation of the artwork. Mirror is a drawn self-portrait derived from a photograph I took in the mirror. As such, it serves as a double entendre. Baubles illustrates a strand of globular beads on a necklace. The word 'necklace' would have provided a more literal title, but baubles alludes to something precious, beautiful, and rounded. With English boasting at least half a million words it isn't difficult to conjure up a host of synonyms that might offer a subtler statement than the prosaic declarative word.

Sometimes the simple explanatory title is anything but. There are many drawings I've created where the subject of the work is simply a foil for some sort of emotional or religious resonance. Interlude, which captures the sun setting behind a copse of trees as witnessed through a rain soaked window, doesn't need a title explaining the image, it needs a title explaining a confluence of moments: the fleeting moment of sunset, the wistful moment of staring out the window, the inspired moment of releasing the shutter, etc. The real magic of such a simple title is that it leaves the artwork open to the viewers interpretation while, at the same time, whispering a little something into their subconscious.

I recently finished a small piece called Weep that shows a tree that has been carved into and is oozing sap. If it was hanging on a gallery wall and you asked someone to describe it I doubt you'd get a much more narrative explanation than the one I just provided. But I have a tremendous amount of context that I want to share about that image and the title has to provide part of the means for that communication of context. Admittedly, a title is not going to help the viewer determine that this tree was outside a crypt at the Santa Barbara Mission and that I'd just been contemplating statues of Christ and Mary prior to encountering this desecrated trunk in the mission's garden. But they may understand the idea of violation of the natural world. They may consider how certain attempts for immortality can be destructive and, ultimately, somewhat futile. They may sense suffering, on some level, and the recognition of human suffering is paramount to the mission of the Christian tradition. And this, in turn, creates some small connection between the removed act of considering a drawing on a gallery wall and the spiritual impulse of Christianity.

Ultimately, the simple explanatory title offers the artist a quick way to either explain the image and/or invite the viewer into sharing in a more complex reading of the work. I think that the only one-word-title which fails to do either is the ever popular Untitled.**

Next up, the obliquely narrative title. . .

*Although I did it yesterday— "Most professional artists, when pressed, will state that titling is important."

**And I recognize that this is a contentious statement for any MFA students or philosophy majors, as it could be argued (usually after a few beers) that it is the very fact that it is a non-statement that makes it such a powerful statement. To which I say, "Meh." I see your post-modern drivel and raise you one example of preemptive self-aware retort!

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