I started thinking today about images from art history that featured figures wading in water. Previously, I had explored images from art history that related to my work in terms of the visual execution, and I decided that it was time for me to start considering works that have the same subject matter in common. As much as I can, I’m always trying to find new images that relate to the work I’m doing while also revisiting familiar pieces as a means to providing inspirational support to the work I’m doing. Not only does this give me the opportunity to create a context for the work I’m doing, but it keeps me motivated and continually excited about the work I’m doing. Simultaneously, this is also another way to make sure that the work I’m doing doesn’t become derivative of someone else’s work, something I’m very conscious of. People are very quick to make associations with images that they see. I’ve found that for the most part, very strong associations with other images can really prevent a viewer from looking at a piece of artwork on its own. In that situation, the association with another image dominates any sense of self the piece of artwork ever had. The best scenario is when a piece of artwork can imply or allude to a relationship with a past image and yet simultaneously be undeniably in its own category. I’ve always believed that its my responsibility as an artist to have an awareness of images that are related to what I’m going both in terms of technical execution and subject matter. I think nothing bothers me more than artists who make their work in a vacuum due to ignorance or out of sheer laziness.
The image that came to my mind most quickly was John Millais’ classic Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia. I have to say that for the most part, I don’t particularly like most of the Pre-Raphaelite works. I find most of the work to be very stiff and isolated from the contemporary viewer, and that I’m more interested in pieces that are able to maintain a more timeless quality, regardless of their specificity to their time period. Millais’ painting of Ophelia I think is definitely an exception to my general distaste for the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s a haunting quality and atmosphere to this work which I find quite terrifying but beautiful at the same time. Speaking of derivative works, I remember very clearly someone I went to school with who did a blatant ripoff of this painting, and that they tried to pass it off as a “self-portrait about renewal and rejuvenation”. Yeah, right.
Another image I considered was John Singleton Copley’s giant oil painting “Brook Watson and the Shark”. This painting is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so not only have I had the chance to view it multiple times, but I have memories of seeing it when I was much younger, as well as my more recent experiences with this painting. Stylistically, this painting could not be more different than my own work, but I think the rendering of the water is incredible, especially how Copley chooses where to submerge the figure in the water and where he allows the figure to escape it. The water itself is quite stunning as well, as representational as it looks, upon further inspection it’s amazing how abstract it becomes.
I discovered the contemporary artist William Kentridge just a few years ago at an exhibition at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. When I saw his work I couldn’t believe that he had been around for so long without my knowledge of his work. I think he’s one of the most exciting artists out there today, particularly for his incredible drawing facility and how he’s been able to translate it so fluidly into animation. I love his work because it’s symbolic, iconic, and yet so genuine and real at the same time.
And of course, there’s always Rembrandt’s oil painting of Hendrickje bathing in water. Interestingly enough, although this is an image of a figure wading in water, what’s also fascinated me about this painting is not the water itself but rather the extraordinary painting facility that he demonstrates on her clothing. There’s a sense of luminosity and form that for me is just incomparable.