Bringing Art Making Into Your Life
What you name your art can have a big effect on how it is received, understood, perceived.
Artists name work with all sorts of things in mind. Sometimes the name can give a clue on how to read the work. Especially if it’s an abstract work. If you see a large canvas painted in oils with swirling orange and brown, if it’s called ‘Untitled 32’, you aren’t going to have much to go on, but that may be what the artist is intending. It’s completely up to you to decide what the work is about. Maybe the artist is telling you to see what you want to see. Maybe the artist doesn’t think the work is about something concrete, the work might be an exploration of a more abstract notion like colour. Or it could be about something personal that the artist doesn’t want to share.
If the same swirly orange and brown painting is called ‘Autumn Romance’ you are immediately going to read it in a totally different way, imagining wild autumn winds and a handsome couple rolling playfully through the leaves, oblivious to the worsening weather…. whatever, but you get my drift. The title you read on that little placard at the gallery affects what you think of the work.
I never look at the title of a work before I look at the work itself because I want to enjoy it as it is. I also never read blurbs by curators before I look at work, I find it much more fun to go in cold without being primed. I like to sidle up to a piece of art and say ‘Well hello there. What are you doing here?’ I want it to speak to me on it’s own. But say you are looking at a piece of art and you are bemused, not really knowing or seeing the point of it. You kind of think ‘Hmm’. What if you then read the title and it’s ‘Oh, that’s what it’s about.’ The title is leading you along. This can be good, especially with conceptual art.
I saw a piece of art at the Adelaide Festival 2012 at the beginning of the year. It was in a long gallery, and the only thing in this gallery was a long piece of string [maybe 25m long] tied from one end to the other at about my chest height. I knew whose work it was, but not what it was about or its title. I also knew the artist was inclined to political work. I walked along the length of string, which was made up of many smaller bits of string tied together. The bits of string were like thick dental floss, not a natural fibre. The string was quite grubby looking, but apart from a vague sense of being repelled, I really didn’t have any idea what it might be about. I knew the artist wanted me to focus on this long piece of string, after all it was the only thing in the room.
After looking at it for a bit I went and read the title and its translation into English.
‘127 cuerpos’ (2006): Siempre sobra un trocito de hilo en una autopsia.
Above: ‘127 cuerpos’ (2006) : Remnants of threads used after the autopsy to sew up bodies. By Mexican artist Teresa Margolles.
Once you read the title of the piece by Margolles a world of images floods into your brain. Reading more about the work later you find out that the strings are from autopsies done on people who have suffered a violent death related to the illegal drug trade in Mexico. So this work is undecipherable without its title. Usually I like work to stand up for itself without knowing anything about it or its creator. But sometimes the title practically is the artwork. This piece is not really about the string, it’s about where we know it came from and what it was used for. It’s a sign pointing out the great number of horrific and pointless deaths happening in Mexico.
Artists also like to have a little joke sometimes with their titles. If you saw my previous post ‘Working though an idea- an example’ you would have seen the second horse figurine I painted. He had a rather bloody look by the time I had finished with him so I was calling him Bloodhorse. My husband said I should call him ‘Untitled No.37 [bloodhorse]’. This has become a bit of an ongoing joke amongst artists, it both removes and conveys meaning. It’s a bit of silliness. Sometimes the work really is untitled but then everyone will keep calling it something, ‘the green one’, ‘sparkly’; you do need to be able to refer to a work if only to plan where it will go. It’s hard to remember that something is ‘number 12’ as opposed to ‘the green one’.
I talk about whether people should like or understand your work or not in Meaning section of the Making Art website. Really it’s up to you. If you want people to like or understand your work you have to give them something to go on. I care more about people being interested in my work than liking it. I don’t generally make pretty things. But I also choose not to make my work really obscure. If your work is really obscure, conceptual or abstract and not pretty you may indeed have trouble getting your audience to do anything other than walk straight on by. Giving your work a meaningful title is an opportunity to open a little window into what it’s about. If you don’t care that nobody understands it then fine, call it what you like, but if you do care then throw ’em a bone, give the piece a meaningful title.