When I talk to people who don’t think they know very much about art, I say, “Just look. What do you see?” If someone can tell you what they physically see, and then stop to think about how it makes them feel—that’s really at the heart of any experience with art regardless of how much art history you know. Perhaps knowledge of the artist’s work, different mediums, artistic movements and styles will enrich your experience of the work—or, perhaps not. But it’s refreshing to walk into a gallery show that feels like it would be accessible to even the most novice art lover (or liker). I was struck by this feeling when I walked into the opening of Prairie Gallery’s new show, Daybooks: Artists’ Daily Reflections. The show features the work of three artists: Amy Hildebrand, Ester Wilson and Susan McCaslin. All three have blogs which serve to document many things—their lives, their work and what’s going on around us.
Local photographer Amy Hildebrand says that in art school she felt really engaged with her work—when there were assignments and critiques, a forum for dialogue. But when she graduated, got married and had children, she found it harder and harder to invest herself in her art. She also had begun to feel somewhat disconnected from her life. She wanted to get back into it, but wanted to do so without having to explain herself. She decided to launch a photography blog that she calls With Little Sound. Hildebrand posts a single photograph to the blog daily and intends to continue to do so for 1,000 days. She is currently in the 700’s. The photographs vary from images of her children, to things she sees in the world, to even the most private images, including some of her husband’s father in hospice and images of the funeral after he passed away. She does this with very little commentary. Occasionally she will interject comments like, “Today reminded me of the first day of this project. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and I find myself hesitating on moving forward.” The work in Daybooks is a selection of work from With Little Sound.
Each of Hildebrand’s images on their own is lovely, but what makes her work—and the work of the other artists in this show—engaging, is seeing it as a reflection of days in their lives. We all see random things that make us laugh; in Hildebrand’s case it was a Latino woman pumping gas in her wedding dress. We all have brief moments of joy, as seen reflected in some of the images of Hildebrand’s children. We all go through difficult times, as seen through her eyes and the images of her husband’s father. It’s all very relatable and intimate.
Another artist in the show, Ester Wilson, posts from her sketchbooks to her blog Daily Drawings. This work is slightly different because it feels as if we’re getting insight not so much into Wilson’s daily experiences, as into her thoughts. Her drawings are exceptional, and included in the exhibition are her mixed media works produced on wood block that incorporate her drawings and other elements like scraps of wallpaper, a cigar band, pages from a handwritten journal. Wilson also has an extensive website where she features these mixed media works, but also entire sketchbooks that you can page through. Her work is playful and interesting, and while she focuses on realism in her drawing, which is at the heart of her work, she consistently uses a variety of mediums.
In his discussion of the show, Prairie owner David Rosenthal says these artists “blur the line between traditional finished art and the artist’s sketchbook which, similar to a diary, can serve as a forum for impulsive or compulsive visual and written responses to the every-day world.” This idea of a sketchbook and daily reflection is an interesting one when considering the artists’ blogs. It could also speak to the feeling that this work is incredibly accessible to people. It’s less formal.
There is an interesting post on fibreculturejournal.org by José van Dijck from 2004—when the number of online users blogging was really beginning to proliferate—called, Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs. He says, “The paper diary reflected the idea that the memory object is a petrified, unchangeable relic, stored in its authentic form and retrieved to invoke a past experience….The fusion of old and new technologies results in a hybrid tool that seamlessly combines communicative and archival functions; blogging allows for exchanging, storing, and revising entries all at the same time.” He posits that bloggers are retooling the practice of diary writing, and I would agree that in the case of Daybooks that perhaps these artists are retooling the notion of a sketchbook. As the audience for their work becomes endless through these digital platforms, the meaning of memory and experience begin to change. If you think about it from a publishing perspective, there have been countless numbers of diaries, journals and even sketchbooks, published posthumously. They may have been published in print, or digitized in library and museum collections. These give us insight into times past. The work of these artists is being published real-time, and users are able to look at it, and think about how it makes them feel in the context of contemporary life. As Hildebrand says, the work is able to speak for itself.
– Laura Partridge
Daybooks: Artists’ Daily Reflections will run through November 5. Prairie Gallery, 4035 Hamilton Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45223. Open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.