One gallery that we visited in London was the Tate Modern, in the old power station on the South Bank. A huge space and a really dramatic old building set the stage for a varied and challenging art collection. The exhibits range from beautiful Cezzane portraits of his gardener, to small piles of firebricks and a sheet of cut out paper afixed to the wall. The more recent contributions to the collection seem to spend more time trying to challenge perceptions of art rather than really producing anything appealing or even displeasing to the eye, which seems to be a common condition of modern art. All form and idea, not much expertise or craft on display and not much consideration of the surface appearance.
In one room, a Mark Rothko colour painting of rectangular swatches hangs beside a massive Monet canvas of water lilies, facing a Jackson Pollock action painting. I sat there for a few minutes taking all three of them in and thinking about the crazy focus each of those three artists brought to such a narrow range of subject matters. The gallery had just recently finished a large exhibit of Rothko paintings, all very similar, different sizes, different colours, different arrangements but all his trademark swatches of rectangular regions of colour. I do wish I'd been there early enough in the year to take all of them in at one time, just to see them all in one space. Over the years I've seen many Monet paintings of waterlilies, huge panels, small paintings, different colour palettes awash with the same simple theme. Pollock's action canvases are similarly focused on the same techniques. Weston's photography of 30 peppers until he found the right one is a small example of a similar level of photographic commitment to a theme.
What drives someone to return to the same small set of subjects time and again? I've talked about creative constraints in the past but these three seem to take those ideas to further extremes. Maybe that is something that separates the great and good in the art world from the rest of us. This monotonic focus and manic ability to return to the same small set of constraints time and again to see what is there. Contrast that with the typical hobbyist photographer that always wants to argue for creative freedom of expression or never wanting to be boxed in by the same subject twice. I know repetition is a key to doing interesting things with a subject, returning time and again to find something new. I'm just not sure I could take it to the extremes I see in Rothko or Monet or Pollock.
Karen expresses concern that nobody would be interested in 35 images of clouds for a SoFoBoMo contribution, but I think if an image or theme is repeated often enough it can help the viewer start focusing on the differences between each instance of the subject. You start to really take the time to notice what is special about each individual composition, rather than just labeling and dismissing it as the general theme of all the images. The subtleties get a chance to come out.