image by e-magic
This is a guest post from artist Hannah Piper Burns.
Artist statements: the bane of almost every artist’s existence!
Maybe it’s because artists are such visual thinkers, or maybe because it’s literally impossible to translate between mediums. Whatever the reason, writing a new statement is enough to make anyone pull out their hair. Am I right?
While I am certainly not immune to statement stress, I am fortunate enough to come from a writing background. In graduate school, I was often harangued for it, accused of being better at words than artwork. But as the years passed, my peers began to appreciate my unique perspective and abilities. To this day, I am my classmates’ unofficial Statement Doctor! They know I am the one to email for help with exhibitions, academic reviews, grant proposals, and juries, and because I have a well-known and unabashed love of words, I’m happy to oblige. Now I pass my secrets on to you, Internet! Here are five tips for improving any artist statement:
1. Start Off With a Bang
Almost every artist statement I have ever read starts out with the words “My work is”, “My painting/drawing/sculpture/video/performance is inspired by”, or “In my work”. I hereby call an official moratorium on all of these openers! In a competitive field like this one, you need to stand out from the pack. When a dealer or curator or jury or grant committee flips through page after page of statements, you want yours to be a breath of fresh air.
2. Less is More
Seriously! My own artist statement is six healthy sentences long. I find that many artists hide behind verbosity, as if the more they write, the closer they can get to the truth. But if people need to read paragraph after paragraph, they might think your work can’t hold up on its own, and that is a big-time kiss of death. A big part of what I do with other people’s artist statements is trim sentences and words like so much fat off of a steak. Nobody, from dealers to curators to your audience to your own mother, wants to read a novel to get a gist of the work. So keep it short and sweet!
3. Learn to Love Language
Short doesn’t have to mean content-less: Maximize your impact with unique, fascinating verbiage. You’re an artist, after all! Make sure you have both long and short sentences, which create a syncopated rhythm that is enjoyable to read. Please, whenever possible, use active rather than passive tense, and find verbs and adjectives that really strike to the heart of what it is you do. Thesaurus.com, Dictionary.com, and Etymonline are your friends. Personally, I always love statements that utilize onomatopoeia, like “ooze”, “slither”, “flush”, et cetera. Which brings me to my next point:
4. The Words Should Match the Work
Is your work whimsical? Or is it violent? What is the scale? Make sure your prose reflects the qualities of what it describes. Using verbs and adjectives that really match the qualities of your creative output will create a statement that both excites and informs. Have you found a great quote from an artist, writer, philosopher, or theologian that you feel speaks to your process, form, or content? Consider using it as an introduction to your statement, or even as the statement itself! I recommend looking for inspiration online or in the art theory books gathering dust on your shelves.
5. Get a Second Opinion
Just like when we make artwork, sometimes we are so involved in the process of writing a statement that it can be hard to be objective. Make sure you get a fresh pair of eyes to look over your statement before you publish it or send it out. Try reading it aloud while showing some images or clips. That way, you can get a better sense of the rhythm and flow of the prose while your critic can see how well the words actually match the work.
If you follow these steps, you’ll have a statement that is fresh, creative, professional, and accessible. Of course, the best thing you can do for your writing is also the best thing you can do for your artwork: keep at it. Happy statement-ing!
Hannah Piper Burns is a video and multimedia artist, art writer, and curator who walks her puppy in Portland, Oregon. She currently serves as Communications Director for the Museum of Pocket Art and Research Club, and as Social Media Outreach Coordinator for artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson. You can see her artist statement at hannahpiperburns.com