Rich Visual Vocabulary

A lot of Renaissance art is stuffed with symbols we hardly see now: oh, that orange on the table in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding? Means sex and money, like a boss. Or before The Fall because it's not an apple. The single, lit candle? The Holy Spirit. Spheroid mirror with the shadowy figure looking at the scene? Both the artist and God at the same time.

Let's skip a few decades and wonder where the visual vocabulary went.

Shocking and Impartial

"It's referencing religion."

"It's referencing body image."

"It's referencing consumer society."

These sentences were somewhat common during my Fine Arts Honours Studio undergrad classes in the late Nineties. People's painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture projects ranged from technically brilliant to absurdly lazy (too much negative space was often a giveaway to the latter). And sometimes it was hard to understand what side of an issue the artwork itself came down on.

I recall one instance during critique class where confusion reigned. In turn, students, then professor then the art student on the spot would comment on the art and what they tried to do. "It's referencing abortion," the artist told us when it came 'round to explain the piece. All of, fellow students and professor had misunderstood. This wasn't what we had each guessed. A painting with continuous tones and soft blended brushstrokes of a mother looking down at her swaddled baby, surrounded by collaged newspaper clips of successful women. Abortion? None of us had guessed it. The exasperated student explained that she wanted to show an ideal mother (the softly lit mother with infant) and surrounded by a modern world of "bad mothers": Oprah, Nicole Kidman, a couple of tiny stories about abortion we hadn't noticed.

The whole room, her fellow students had read the painting's symbols in the exact opposite manner. We thought it was about successful women balancing family and career. As university students at a predominantly liberal and feminist campus, in a program mainly attended by women, discovering one of our studio classmates was pro-life and pro-traditional role of women as mothers was something of a shock.

This was memorable because it was rare. A studio project about abortion - or religion, body image or consumer society - was not rare. Projects culled from the headlines of the day were all around us in those studio classes.

Shake-n-Bake Art

The important word was this: referencing. It's something of a fine art buzzword. You can make your art about any controversial thing you want, by "referencing" it. It means you are not giving a specific opinion on the topic; you're referencing it. It's up to the viewer to decide their opinion. The artist is hands-off, aloof, kind of like an impartial journalist; only presenting emotional, visual poetry without guiding you to a specific emotion.

It was the way many students did art in those late nineties' classes. Want to make a painting about religion? Paint a crucifix into a larger work. Want to paint about body image? Kate Moss. There were sooooo many Kate Moss paintings during the "heroin-chic" nineties. Referencing consumer culture? Coca-Cola logo. Abortion? Fetuses, both sublime and shocking.

This type of art, taken from the headlines was ideal because it came pre-packaged with every viewers' own baggage. Hint at "problems with society" by including waify Kate Moss or a Coke bottle, and you didn't have to work too hard. The images are loaded with mental baggage for most of the people viewing them. And every one of us in those classes learned that more than the cross, crescent moon or star of David, the Coca -Cola logo is the most recognized symbol in the world.


A few of my friends and I began to disparagingly call it "Shake-n-Bake art". One unknown troublemaker (thank you whoever you were) even put up a poster, high on the walls of the studio space where it was difficult to remove entitled, "How to know you're an Art Hack" with a top ten list of themes. Yep: fetuses, crucifixes, Kate Moss and Coca-Cola logos all made the list. I don't recall if naked self-portraits was on the list. It should have been. Lots of students "bravely" painting and photographing themselves naked without context back then.

One of the best examples I can think of that falls under Shake-n-Bake art is Hanging Old Masters backwards, from 2004. It was just that. Hanging paintings by Old Masters backwards, ""They'll all be flipped, to completely take the space and turn it into something new and unexpected." That's the curator Andy Lamprecht talking. Appropriating images rife with history and detail and adding very little to them and calling them something to behold. Shake. And. Bake.

The Wikipediafication of Fine Art

When I returned to my fine arts degree in 2009-2010 after a decade of working and painting and blogging, I was immediately faced with a number of stark differences. A fine art studio professor who loved fossils, geology and science. And students who were not afraid to paint everything about a subject, including the kitchen sink. The proverbial one, not actual kitchen sinks.

We had to do an assignment about the landscape of the university grounds. I settled in and looked at the history of farming in the area, the lack readily-found fossils on campus due to the scraping of the glaciers, and created my piece Sowing Seeds and Fossils.

Another of my peers did a wonderful piece that involved coffee due to the consumption on campus: the art touched on the coffee trade, the history of the New World, sustainable and ethical farming and more. It was a rich and full-bodied piece of art (I wish I had it here to share), the very opposite of Shake'n'Bake stuff. I was struck by it, and a number of pieces in the class having been affected by the internet. Quick access to knowledge at artists' fingertips begat livelier paintings with more mystery and depth. I think I produced some of the best art of my life (so far) after that realization. I had to, to keep up.

Does this mean a return to the days of Van Eyck? I think not. Science-inspired fine art will be hopefully about more than symbols of sex and power and violence. I hope. But I think the concept of a rich visual vocabulary is making a return.

And this is the wonder that Wikipedia and its contributors and donors gives us: a richness of topic and visual cues to lead us down a myriad of paths instead of one-note shocker headline images. The fine art coming out in the next 20 years will be richer and hopefully more insightful than the instant sight-cues of recent decades.

Because of Wikipedia I now know the official name of what we referred to as Shake'n'Bake art is typically called Art Interventionism. Thanks wiki-editors.

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Further reading:

I slam Marc Quinn and the Young British Artists a bit above, I know. But I also think he created the Greatest Self-Portrait of All far

And yeah, I should have kept in better touch with my graduating classmates. Here's one! I reviewed Soyeon Kim and her illustrations for the children's books Stardust.

Also my apologies to the wonderful da Vinci and to Paul Stanisfer, the creator of the Wikipedia logo for the quick 'Shop I pasted on the top of this piece.