No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. — Oscar Wilde
‘See how calm that water looks? That’s because it’s a long exposure. Waves were crashing against that jetty, but the ghostlike mist between the rocks was all that registered on the film when he left the lens open for two minutes,” I explained to the man. Having caught the authoritative tone of someone in the know, two women who had been walking by paused to listen in. The man had asked a technical question, but I felt compelled to explain the rest via a personal anecdote for the ladies’ sake.
“David loved going to the beach at dawn because he found it peaceful. But when he tried to capture the feeling, the snapshots of waves crashing appeared chaotic, even violent, which isn’t how he felt when he was there. He realized it wasn’t the water alone he found so calming, it was also the strong line of the horizon, the vast expansiveness of the ocean, and the steady rhythm of the waves against the shore. When he took a long exposure, the waves became placid, and finally he had an image that reflected his mood as he watched the water over time.”
When I finished speaking, my audience had grown to five people. The group looked from me to the black-and-white photos on the wall and nodded in appreciation. “Let me know if you have any other questions — after years of hanging around and listening to my man at events like this, I’ve memorized most of his answers.” I smiled and turned to greet friends who were just arriving.
This was David’s first exhibition at the Ordover Gallery in Solana Beach, but no matter where his work is shown, the questions are always the same — people want to understand more about the artist’s creative process, the whys and hows behind the pieces. It was only after I’d absorbed David’s approach to his own work that I began to consider not only the philosophies and methods of other artists but those of art buyers.
I didn’t have much of an appreciation for art before I met David. Artists, yes — I’ve always loved to surround myself with creative people; they give off a certain buzz I find stimulating. That’s one of the traits that originally drew me to David — a fine-art photographer. But, Art? Not so much. Sure, I might’ve found myself in a museum contemplating a historic statue or a pretty painting, but no individual piece ever meant anything to me.
“If you couldn’t tell the difference between a copy and an original work of art, would you still value the original more?” David asked our friend Mia, who, along with our friend Liz, had joined us for dinner at Pacific Coast Grill after the show.
“Yes, I would,” Mia answered. When David asked why, she said, “Because it’s worth more.”
“But even if you couldn’t tell the difference?” David prodded.
“Yes, even then. Maybe it’s an ego thing, but I would want to know I had the original,” said Mia.
“I don’t think it has much to do with ego,” I said. “I like having something original, even if it’s a sketched study, because it’s like possessing a piece of the artist — capturing a segment of time during their creative process. It makes me feel more connected to them.”
I thought of my own modest collection, the handful of items adorning the walls in my home office. Each piece has its own story, and each conveys a message from the artist that speaks to me on three levels — visual, visceral, and intellectual.
When I lived alone, the walls in my apartment had been bare but for two items — a brush-varnished poster of Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus in an ornate frame that was worth way more than the poster itself, and a big sheet of white construction paper covered in varying shades of red lipstick kisses (upon moving in, I had taped the paper to the wall by my front door as a sort of decorative blotter). At the time, I considered “art” to be synonymous with “decoration.” Now, I realize that though the two may overlap, as concepts they are decidedly different.
“My personal and unpopular opinion,” David shared, “is that art is the communication of an idea or feeling through craft — the concept is art, and the execution is craft. We commit art.”
“So anything can be art?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, if an ‘artist’ claims that it is, like, if she’s trying to communicate some message through the work,” said David. “But that doesn’t mean it’s good art. I think the measure of whether a work of art is good or bad is how successfully it communicates the intention of the artist.”
“But you can also create art for yourself,” said Liz. “My dad will never sell one of his pieces.”
“I suppose it can also be a form of personal exploration,” David said.
“But even exploration is a form of communication,” I said. “The only difference is that you’re seeking to communicate with yourself.”
“Most artists want an audience for their art,” said David.
“Then I guess it’s up to the viewer to decide if that message is worth seeing,” I said. I remembered David’s advice to a fledgling photographer: “Show me something I haven’t seen before.” Now I realized it’s not just about what is seen — people want more than a surface understanding. That’s why they stop to listen to the stories I have to share about David’s work.
As stunning as an image may be visually, gallerygoers seem to appreciate it more when they learn, for example, that it took David three years to capture his ideal image of the jetty or that he braved a humid sky full of mosquitoes to photograph the unfinished pier while I played Scrabble on my phone in the comfort of an air-conditioned car.
“Why do you prefer to have an original piece over a copy?” Mia asked David.
“I get pleasure imagining the artist working on it,” he said. “To think that this exact physical object was formed by his or her hands during the creative process. It’s a unique record of a period of creativity in the life of the artist. It’s almost like owning a piece of that person’s life — like Barb said, it feels like there’s a connection there. I guess that’s not so different from someone wanting to own a famous Mickey Mantle home-run baseball or a page from the flight log used by the Apollo astronauts during the first moon landing.”
“I do have to admit,” I said, cutting in, “that I like the fact that my favorite piece — my painting called Writer’s Block — is the only one in existence. Would that be ego?” Three heads nodded in response. “Well, then, I guess that explains why limited editions are so popular,” I said. “We value more what there is less of. But then we’re getting into economics, and I’m going to need a lot more wine before I try to tackle that subject.”