Essay by Lara Gough as part of Contextualising Practice course.
The objective of this essay is to analyse the importance of sincerity in my artistic practice. I will investigate how sincerity manifests in my creative methodology, cultivation of reference material, and production. I will also evaluate the content of relevant artists, writers, and movements; examining the relevance of sincerity in their respective work. Sincerity is the virtue of being free of deceit, dissimulation, duplicity, or hypocrisy (Webster’s New World College Dictionary 2010). In the context of art, I would argue that to be sincere is to express with the chosen medium the most authentic rendition of the artists soul. When I observe the work of artists I admire, I acknowledge that the attributes I find most endearing in their work; are the qualities I most wish to express in my own paintings—namely, authenticity and honesty to one’s character.
In the biographical essay about the eminent American Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, author and journalist Joan Didion (1979) uses an anecdote about seeing O’Keeffe’s painting, Sky Above Clouds with her daughter at the Chicago Art Institute—to explore the idea that through ‘every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid down or not laid down’ O’Keeffe’s paintings betray her character, exclaiming: ‘style is character’. In the case of O’Keeffe, that style is a vividly coloured, sensually textured expression of the artist’s aggressive femininity. The assertion that ‘style is character’ speaks to my conviction that sincerity in the artist’s expression is fundamental. In other words, when an artist expresses themselves sincerely, this will be reflected in their style—a sort of unique artistic language.
While I believe it is the artist’s intuition to express themselves in an honest way, I also believe it takes a significant amount of self-contemplation and skill to do so effectively in an artistic practice. As the science-fiction author Aldous Huxley (cited in Popova 2016) articulates, while it may be the artist’s objective to create something reflective of their sincerity, lacking the appropriate skill to do so may result in work that appears to be ‘false’ or ‘conventional’. I have the conviction that the subject matter you choose to represent is not just as it appears, but is also inherently an extension of yourself, as an artist.
The French artist Henri Matisse speaks at length of the importance of sincerity of the artist:
Art in my opinion, is a mirror reflecting the artist’s soul. In his pictures the artist should reveal only himself. And everything that serves as a subject for his art must merely be a pretext for the constant and repeated baring of his own soul. First and foremost, I demand one thing from the artist: sincerity and modesty. He should, if he’s a real artist, avoid any posturing and show his “I” as it is, without feeling embarrassed that his private world is not a very great one. It may not be a great one—but it is his, and only his (2009, p. 24).
This assertion resonates with me and my practice as I often tend towards rather unremarkable subject matter due to the sincere nature of portraying my intimate environment. A work by Matisse I believe to possesses these qualities is Goldfish (Matisse 1912). The painting shows a cylindrical tank of goldfish being diffracted through the water, sitting on a pink table, set amongst a background of household flora. The subject matter, although being representational, is simplified to the point of abstraction, with colours seeming to range from realistic to more expressive and interpretive. While the subject matter emanates serenity, the tonal contrast, gestural brushwork, and composition suggest a sense of unease. The image in the end represents the artist’s home space, but through his sincere expression he has imbued the painting with himself in essence.
In the essay Trust and Sincerity in Art, contemporary philosopher, Thi Nguyen (2021, p. 4) asserts that we implore sincerity of the art we consume over other virtuous qualities because as spectators we hope to foster ‘creativity and originality, and because we are hoping to encourage a very particular form of shared experience’. I find this statement to be very true of my own practice and my appreciation of art and artists. I feel a repulsion towards artists whose sole intention is capital gain or cynical expression, as I believe this erodes the integrity of art. This perhaps has to do with my autism, as it has been noted that those with autism can have quite rigid ideas of what is morally right and wrong (Baron-Cohen, cited in Gummerum, Li & Zhu). This moral quality of my neurodivergence is also an important part of creative methodology, as it informs my creative process—namely my motivation to create works that reinforce the importance of sincerity and shared experience.
One way in which sincerity influences my creative methodology is in my sourcing of reference material. I’ve progressed through many methods of developing reference material that I find stimulating, engaging, and aesthetically pleasing. I have found that the reference imagery I find most connection with has a direct correlation with the degree to which I believe it portrays sincerity. For instance, in my painting Left on the Counter (2021)(Figure 1) the subject matter consists of a plastic tub full of eggs, half a lemon with its rind removed, and a glass bowl full of bread tags refracted by water. This is unconventional subject matter for a still life painting, as none of the objects depicted are what would generally be considered beautiful, contradicting the accepted, time-worn practice of only representing the beautiful. While the subject matter may be lacking in generic appeal, I would argue that there is an esoteric quality in the arrangement of objects in this painting that makes it attractive, that being: sincerity.
The reference image for the painting Left on the Counter was a photograph taken on my mobile phone in a share house. My housemate had placed the bread tags in a bowl of water to clean them and I had placed the eggs in water as they were old, and I wasn’t sure whether they were still edible. As for the lemon, I’m not sure who put it there.
The reason why I chose to paint this reference image was the spontaneity of it. The ‘scene’ was not set up, it fell into place by the nature of shared spaces, a very fleeting, momentary beauty that was captured after I noticed the scene and felt attracted to it. I believe all these intrinsic qualities make for the feeling of sincerity in the finished painting. As Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University, Robert Wellington (2018) observes in his essay in defence of beauty in art, it is through the portrayal of objects we deem beautiful in art, that the viewer and the artist are connected in the mutual experience of beauty.
Contemporary fiction writer David Foster Wallace makes a strong case for the virtues of sincerity and truth in contemporary culture in his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction in which he argues for the reclamation of truth and sincerity from the post-modern mockery. Furthermore, Wallace argues that perhaps those bold enough to express themselves honestly-are the true rebels of today, willing to endure the scoffs and eyerolls of those lost in their irony and meta-worlds. For Wallace, it is those who can truly enjoy the richness of truth and sincerity who will have the advantage in the end.
Sincerity also plays an important role in my motivation towards the painting process. I have found in many instances, that when I have set up a ‘scene’- with the intention of painting or drawing from what I see – that the resulting process tends to be laborious and unmotivating. This often resulted in paintings that I felt disconnected from, due to the work feeling forced and disingenuous. Because of this realisation, I have been working to ‘cultivate reference material’, a technique that functions in two parts: surrounding myself with beautiful things, including flowers and foliage I find on my daily walks, and being conscious of beauty in my surroundings.
In my painting Flannel Flowers on Ultramarine (2022)(Figure 2), the foreground portrays a number of white flannel flowers, painted in a softly blended manner, giving the illusion of realism at a distance. The flowers are framed by a vivid ultramarine painting in the background. The rough, gestural application of gouache with a very matte finish, contrasts with the satin finish of the oil-painted flowers and creates an illusion of illuminated flowers and a distance between foreground and background. The subject matter for this painting focuses on my studio space during Melbourne’s long lockdown – my bedroom – and the flannel flowers which were collected on one of my long government-sanctioned walks (about the only thing that allowed me to maintain some level of sanity during the period of social isolation).
An important aspect to my creative process is Ambient Music (Eno 2020). Ambient Music focusses more on the atmospheric qualities of music, rather than song structure, rhythm, beat and melody. Contemporary British musician Brian Eno (2020), who coined the term ‘Ambient Music’, in his essay of the same name, alludes to the predisposition of painters and writers to this genre of music as it is ‘conducive’ to the creative environment. I have observed that this form of music helps me fall into a state of flow more easily-and as a result, I can act more intuitively during my painting process. Figurative painter, Francis Bacon (1980) refers to a ‘cloud of sensation… called instinct’. I believe acting on intuition during the creative process frees oneself of critical thought that may hinder the process of flow.
I’ve always admired the uniquely Japanese aesthetic that seems to be rooted in a long history of handcrafts and ceremony. There is often a focus on wabi sabi, or the beauty of imperfection. In the essay The Japanese Perspective, written by the Japanese Philosopher Soetsu Yanagi (2018), Yanagi refers to this uniquely Japanese aesthetic as ‘the art of odd numbers’ in comparison to the western ideal of perfection in beauty, which he refers to as ‘the art of even numbers’, citing Greek sculpture and the painter Andrea Mantengna. Yanagi references the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, and his particular interest in the Japanese word e-soragoto meaning: ‘art is fantasy’. Yanagi explains that e-soragoto ‘refers to the quest for truth that goes beyond truth; it refers to the art of imperfection, the art of odd numbers’. This, in a very poetic way, seems to touch on the deep appreciation of sincerity in Japanese art and handicrafts.
At a different level, the artists of the Gutai Art Movement of post-war Japan argue the case for sincerity of matter. They state that artists should enhance the essence of material and allow its agency. The Artists of the Gutai movement are interested in the relationship between person and matter. This speaks to the delicate interaction an artist has with the materials they engage with, and I’d argue the subject matter too. In the Gutai Art Manifesto, artist Jirō Yoshihara (1956), states that the intention of Gutai art is for ‘the human spirit and matter [to] shake hands with each other while keeping their distance’. While I find a lot of the content of this manifesto to be somewhat polarising, I find myself in agreement with some elements of their ethos, including that it is the responsibility of an artist to respect the materials that they use and to acknowledge the unique qualities they possess; in the hope of working with, and not against the materials.
Another aspect of my practice is the way that I am drawn to portraying intimate subject matter. It is the art that conveys a similar sense of intimacy that moves me the most in the work of others. A poem that has always touched me because of its ability to betray this intimacy is This Is Just To Say, by American poet Williams Carlos Williams (1991):
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
What strikes me about this poem is the modesty and intimacy it conveys. Being a poem of the imagist movement there is a feeling of objectivity that resonates with me as a still life painter. It is nearly as though in this poem Williams paints with his words. The portrayal of such an intimate, yet every day, scene or occurrence being expressed in such a delicate manner, invokes a feeling of empathy, or simply shared human experience. A sincere and endearing quality.
The poetry of Williams often refers to rather quaint, everyday subject matter presented in a way that seems to evoke adoration and admiration for these simple things. In this, I am reminded of the works of the painters of the Intimism movement of France in the early 20th century. A movement in which artists painted their domestic environments—rejecting the formal qualities of the Impressionist movement of which Intimism was an offshoot and favouring expressive texture and colour in their portrayal of the intimate scenes. Intimism has been defined as ‘a revelation of the soul through the things painted, the magnetic suggestion of what lies behind them through the description of the outer appearance’ (Mauclair 1903).
In essence, sincerity is the foundation of my practice. Sincerity is what I admire most in the work of others, and what I wish to betray in my own art. I believe it takes an immeasurable amount of self-reflection, skill, and courage to be able to create art that is truly sincere. My idea of sincerity and what that denotes has changed vastly in the period I have been creating art, my ambition to create things I believe reflect sincerity has remained a constant. As my practice evolves and my interest in different subject matter shifts, I look forward to the future and what beauty is yet to be seen.
Bock-Weiss, C 2009, Henri Matisse: Modernist Against the Grain, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pa, USA.
Didion, J 2017, ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’, in J Didion (ed.), The White Album, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, UK, pp. 126-130.
Eno, B 2020, ‘Ambient Music’, in B Eno (ed), A Year with Swollen Appendices, Faber & Faber, London, UK, pp. 293-297.
Gummerum, M, Li, J & Zhu, L 2014, ‘The relationship between moral judgment and cooperation in children with high-functioning autism’, Scientific Reports, viewed 21 May 2022, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3945921/pdf/srep04314.pdf>.
Matisse, H 1912, Goldfish, oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm, Pushkin Museum of Art, Moscow, viewed 24 May 2022, < https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/modernity-ap/a/matisse-goldfish>.
Mauclair, C 1903, The Great French Painters and the Evolution of French Painting from 1830 to the Present Day, Duckworth, viewed 18 May 2022, p. 122, <https://archive.org/details/greatfrenchpaint00mauc/page/54/mode/2up>.
Nguyen, T 2021, ‘Trust and Sincerity in Art’, Ergo, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 21-53.
Popova, M 2016, Aldous Huxley on Sincerity, Our Fear of the Obvious, and the Two Types of Truth Artists Must Reconcile, the marginalian, viewed 21 May 2022, <https://www.themarginalian.org/2016/03/28/aldous-huxley-art-artists-sincerity-obvious/>.
Sylvester, D 1980, Interviews with Francis Bacon, Thames and Hudson, London, UK.
Wallace, DF 1993, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 13, no. 2, viewed 21 May 2022 pp.151-194, ProQuest database.
Wellington, R 2018, Friday essay: in defence of beauty in art, The Conversation, viewed 3 April 2022, <https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-in-defence-ofbeauty-in-art-8992>.
Williams, WC 1991, This Is Just to Say, poetry foundation, viewed 18 May 2022, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56159/this-is-just-to-say>.
Yanagi, S 2018, ‘The Japanese Perspective’, in S Yanagi (ed), The Beauty of Everyday Things, Penguin Random House, London, UK, pp. 139-167.
Yoshihara, J 1956, ‘gutai art manifesto’, Guggenheim, viewed 3 April 2022, <http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/gutai/data/manifesto.html>.