Crossing Uneven Ground

On Our Way to Jolly Old…

Salt and Pepper Shakers that look like a wolf and cow
My winning image: “Things We Have in Common.”
Artist’s Statement: My work explores the celebratory disharmony of diner culture. With influences as diverse as Martin Parr and Machiavelli, new insights are manufactured from both random and ordered structures.

There are so many great quotes from the 1984 movie-mockumentary This is Spinal Tap and one comes to mind on this occasion. “It’s such a fine line between stupid ….and clever.”

I have won a very big prize and the way I won it deserves some explanation. I’m a member of a group of photographers called CoPA – The Coalition of Photographic Arts. They sponsored a photography contest for all Wisconsin Photographers called “Arty Bollocks,” and first prize was a trip for two to London. For reasons that are both complex and unlikely, I won.

The underlying motivation for this photography contest is contempt for the much-hated “artist’s statement.” These days pretty much whenever you want to hang your images in a gallery or enter a serious art competition you must conjure an accompanying statement that reveals why you are doing this art. Now real artists create stuff because they are compelled to. They do it for love, beauty. They create visual art ’cause that’s their passion. If they wanted to be writers then they would work in that medium. It is said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Same thing with photography or painting. There is an underlying meaningless stupidity that pervades the artist’s statement. We all know this, but it took the CoPA president, Pam Ferderbar, to hatch the idea of making a contest about it.

Pam is the heart of CoPA.. I’ve belonged to a few arts clubs and found that the successful ones have a healthy dose of passion that keep them going. Pam is the passion that makes this organization tons of fun. I am continually impressed by the ways Pam and the leadership of CoPA keep coming up with ideas to engage photographers, the community and sponsors. She has been responsible for getting a lot of pictures on a lot of walls. Milwaukee can be a pretty lonely place for an artist looking for an audience. In the realm of photography, Pam and CoPA are changing that.

When Pam announced that CoPa was going to have an “Arty Bollocks” photography contest in cooperation with the website of that name I thought it was hilarious. In my past frustrations with producing artist statements I had searched the web for a “how to…” article and ran smack dab into the ArtyBollocks.com. lampooners. Key to the site is the now famous “artist’s statement generator.” On the site you click a button and get a statement. I saved the first statement I generated:

Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the essential unreality of the universe. What starts out as yearning soon becomes corrupted into a carnival of lust, leaving only a sense of unreality and the inevitability of a new order.

It still makes me happy because its so stupid, but honestly if you want to engage in some art related sport go to galleries and get a load of the statements. Some are helpful but a lot are, well…pretentious, lofty, unrelated and bollocks (British for BS).

The artybollocks.com folks came up with an artist’s statement generator just for the contest. The idea would be that you generate a statement and then try to make a photograph to match. My initial hilarity quickly turned to my more familiar state of insecurity and confusion as I pondered just how much the image and statement should match. Should it be ironic? Maybe the two should bear no relationship, in keeping with the snark of the web site creators. Maybe it needed to walk that fine line between clever and stupid.

I generated statements and made pictures. I even got my brother, Mike, to dress in camo and wear a headlamp for one I call “In The Cave Of Polyphemus.” I’m a big Homer fan so I thought it would be funny to pull a critter out of “The Odyssey” and pair it with a pretentiously staged photo.

“In the Cave of Polyphemus” Artist’s Statement: My work explores the subtle contradictions of recovered memories. With influences as diverse as Andreas Gursky and Georgia O’ Keeffe, new tensions are manufactured from both traditional and modern techniques.

I got the distinct feeling that a lot of the arty generated statements were Wisconsin-centric. I pushed the ArtyBollocks.com button quite a few times and got references like:

  • My work explores the celebratory surrealism of the dairy industry… 
  • My work explores the fragile tendencies of pastoral scenes… 
  • My work explores the fragile surrealism of rural communities…

Then I got:

My work explores the celebratory disharmony of diner culture. With influences as diverse as Martin Parr and Machiavelli, new insights are manufactured from both random and ordered structures.

The diner was in Belgium, Wisconsin. A place called Belgium Delight. It actually is delightful, decorated with tons of Wisconsiny kitsch. The people are friendly and the food is great. My wife, Joanne, and I love the place and on a day when we were driving around, talking about how random William Eggleston’s photography can seem, we stopped there. I was really thinking about Eggleston when I made the photo of the wolf and cow salt and pepper shakers, not being familiar with Martin Parr. (Parr is a better kitchy-photo match. Thanks ArtyBollocks.com.) I am also positive, upon reflection, that lurking in my subconscious as I tripped the shutter was Machiavelli’s admonition to “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” I’m talking to you cow!

To say I was gob-smacked (British for surprised) when I got the prize is an understatement. There were a lot of other great image/ arty-statement combos that could have easily won. Oddly, I have to admit, I think this was a good exercise. I spend a lot of time crafting my work and sometimes, I think, I’ve got my head too far into that very serious pursuit. I talked to some of my friends at the Arty Bollocks Ball, where the prizes were announced, and they expressed similar feelings. This was kind of a difficult challenge as it turned out. For me the difficulty lay in tilting from the work of attempting clever to the joy of allowing myself to have some fun. Stupid?

The Arty Bollocks Ball was a grand celebration of non-conformity, photography, and rebellion engineered brilliantly by Pam Ferderbar and the board of CoPA. There was music, photography, It was held on June 7th in Milwaukee at No Studios. To see more of the finalists click here: UrbanMilwaukee.com

To see the amazing, first time ever in Milwaukee, massive, outdoor multi-media projection the was the finale to the Arty Bollocks Ball: click this.

10 thoughts on “On Our Way to Jolly Old…

  1. Diana Duffey

    Congratulations!

    I have seen some of your impressive work with our friends Mary and Bill Drehfal (Northwestern.)

  2. Sus

    Heee heee heee hee! Love it, especially your artist’s statement! Celebratory disharmony, indeed!
    Our yearly tribute to the Youth Art Month yearbook is due, and must include
    an art teacher’s statement. A HS teacher posted one that made me barf it was so pretentious;
    something about ironical literacy.
    I was contemplating borrowing Gully Jimson’s quote in The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary-
    something about go shoot a policeman or jump off the Tower Bridge or walk into Parliament with a pocketful of firecrackers if life isn’t exciting enough,
    but don’t be an artist!!!!

  3. Margo

    Bully! Bully! Congrats Tom! Didn’t understand the concept til you delved further into it. Love the “keep your friends close and enemies closer”. Now I get it! Have a great time in jolly old England and will be looking forward to those pictures too!

  4. Kris Roepsch

    I loved the photo immediately. Clearly Tom was making a statement about the treatment of animals in our culture visa vie eatting habits. Juxtaposed over a theme of wild vs domestic animal inevitable choices, the photo dives home Tom’s vision of a Trumpian future.

    Congratulations Tom. Brilliant news!
    And a fun post!

  5. Muneo Nagaoka

    Congratulations on your great prize!
    I am proud of you.
    I will wait for your photos from London as well.
    Mune

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