by Corinne Geersten
Narrative Art. But wait, there’s MORE!
I’m a digital artist. I assemble pictures by remixing Victorian photos, Civil War tintypes, photos we’ve taken over fifty years and scans.
My pictures are quirky visual narratives about psychological situations. They pull a lot of subconscious strings. I especially love a good quandary.
My work leans toward surrealism, with odd juxtapositions, non sequiturs, and an element of surprise. It’s narrative.
Let’s be simple. Narrative art is storytelling. Let’s uncapitalize it right now.
The label “Narrative Art” appeared in the mid-1960’s. What now is narrative art used to be history painting, genre painting, and previously, cave painting.
From the 1500’s to the 19th century, art was organized into a hierarchy of genres. History painting was thought to be the highest, noblest kind of painting. (Still life rated at the bottom, just below animal painting and was priced accordingly.)
Narrative art now can be photography, dance, performance art, film, even graphic novels.
In the US and Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s art was conceptual and minimal. If you’re in London, don’t miss the installation art piece 20:50, a spatially disorienting room in the Saatchi Gallery filled waist high with motor oil. Narrative was out of favor.
When I was studying art in the 1970’s, if someone made a piece that told a story, we all felt it had cooties.
Young artists brought it back in the 1980’s.
I suspect the popularity of narrative art now is entwined with its evil and not-so-intelligent twin, social media. The story of our lives is reported, disseminated and commented on relentlessly.
I think we’re hard wired for storytelling. We put what happened in a sequence, choose supporting details and tell. We begin when we learn to speak. This is often how we form ideas about what kind of person we are as an individual, and within our culture and our place in history.
Often, how we remember a person is by a story that represents our idea of them.
Stories are significant. Because they’re made by a human mind, they’re revealing of what it is to be human. They may tell us what it’s like to be somebody else, saving us a lot of bother.
Neil Gaiman says it so well: The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person.
Good narrative art does these things.
How does one build a narrative picture?
1. It’s helpful to learn to think in pictures and stories, stories and pictures.
I grew up in what was the biggest city in Montana, population 60,000. I didn’t see any real art until I was 18. But I had what I needed: The Blacky Tests.
My dad was a psychologist. A psychologist in the 1960’s might show someone a drawing and lead them to talking openly. The Rorschach plates are beautiful. The color Rorschachs are diaphanous, lyrical and evocative.
I liked them, but I liked the Blacky pictures too.
The Blacky tests were for children.
We named our first dog Blackie.
Dad had another set that’s missing its box. It has more wear than the other testing materials in his kit. They’re just numbered on the back, so I can’t tell you the name of the test. The pictures are done by different artists and are nothing but wonderful. When you look at them, you think in stories.
To make a narrative picture, you need to be able to see a good story wherever you look.
2. Don’t show a thing while it’s happening.
It’s far more interesting to show the moment before. It’s like a good book. We want to know what happens next.
This is The Moment Before the Consequence of an Error.
It’s also intriguing to show the moment after. Here is Charm
What one person saw in Charm: “It’s like the Cinderella scene where the birds are singing and flying about, tying bows for Cinderella. This woman is so evil she can get a crow to light her cigarette just by thinking about it.”
When you show what happened before or after, then subtleties, causes and intentions appear almost on their own.
Lean towards plot. Forester said, “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief is a plot.”
3. Space and time: deal with it.
When you read a book or go to an opera, time is what keeps everything from happening at once. When you’re looking at a piece of art, there isn’t time for things to happen in a sequence.
When you build a piece of narrative art, you work trickery with space to give the illusion of chronology.
Susanna and the Elders is a ripping yarn, a story from the Roman Catholic Book of Daniel. Lorenzo Lotto leads our eye around the painting in a merry chase, telling the story sequentially.
Susanna took her clothes off. They’re lying about. She just finished her bath. Two elders rush in. They’re followed by two serfs who will collaborate the elders’ poisonous lies about Susanna. Look back by the castle and you’ll see what happened first – Susanna is her on the way to the bath. Her two maids have left her and are on their way back to the castle.
Voyeurs is my Susanna, only with kangaroos. The sequence is more streamlined. The Kangaroo in the skirt and the two guy kangaroos form a horizontal oval path for your eye to travel like a race track. The two trees on the left horizon represent the two kinds of trees that caught the elders in their lies and led to their deaths.
If you’re wondering about the hot air balloon, what could be more voyeuristic?
Here’s Call Back.
The velvet clad boy has dialed back to the Mesozoic era. The dinosaur has declined the call. Your eye bounces back and forth like a ping pong ball between the Victorian era and the Mesozoic. (When I made this I was thinking of split screens in 1960’s television.) Here’s a phone conversation over space and time.
4. Know what goes in and what to leave out.
This is Interview. It’s easy to take power lines out of the sky digitally, but the picture is about communication. Leave them in.
I liked the blue-grey clouds across the top of the sky when they first went into the picture. I liked them even more when I realized I had subconsciously placed them as stand-ins for cartoon speech-bubble talk.
The negative space between the giraffe and the girl/horn/tape recorder combo holds them together.
I audition objects by The Yikes Method, which is a really fast, bastard cousin of the scientific method (seventh cousin, three times removed).
I hunt through my archive of 37,000 images with a loose theory of what might work. Perhaps I’ll try a hundred elements in a picture, one at a time. If something doesn’t work, yikes, it’s out of there.
Start with one element in the picture. Add another. The third begins a story. It gets more difficult as each new thing is added, because every new thing you add has to fit with more things.
I build the right place for things to happen. I look for the right shapes, colors, textures, lighting, sidekicks and belongings. They need to have the right impact. They need the right amount of detail. They need to be the right size. They need to add negative space that contributes to the nature of the picture. Sometimes things fail by being too intentional or corny. It’s a minefield.
The last few things that go into a picture will use every brain cell you have. Recognizing them and placing them will be the most fun. Eureka!
The details you add are breadcrumbs to help the person looking at the picture.
If possible, introduce some objects that add struggle and an uncertain resolution. This is What Happens at Night. What’s not to like about a good plight?
5. You can add to the story with symbolism.
This is Migratory. A child, a voyage, an owl, a boat, a turtle: each is symbolically loaded. When you can add something with symbolism, that something makes itself at home and unpacks. It brings more than itself to the picture.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
I have a solo show at the Mesa Arts Museum from September 9, 2016 to January 8th, 2017.
You can be part of the show if you like. Just choose a picture from the portfolio pages of my website that speaks to you. Write something that relates to the picture. A limerick, haiku, a fictitious letter. The mother of all weather reports. A grocery list. Playful, serious, scholarly, how you write is your choice.
Your narrative will hang beside the picture you wrote about. Our show is called The Footnote Chronicles.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
If your writing is chosen, you will receive a signed, original print of the art you wrote about.
Portfolio pages here: http://corinnegeertsen.com/artist-portfolio/