Seth Kaufman – Practice & Perception


When I was younger I took risks, got high on danger by throwing myself off balance, feeling self satisfied for having found a way to survive. Exciting subject matter, if harnessed and encapsulated in a piece of art, is not necessarily rich or resonant, but may only be a bright flash. I now understand that to live in the center, held within a broader sense of balance, is not only attractive, but is also
tough. It’s the difference between a tightrope walker using a toothpick or a twenty-foot rod for leverage. How do I live a life, expand my grasp of understanding in all directions, and deliver the essence of that inquiry in a simple gesture of equilibrium?

Despite my knowledge and skills, however formally and empirically obtained, regarding the production of art and a degree of commercial acknowledgment for my capacity to create beautiful and unusual objects, I found myself in a creative stalemate.

Tethered to a social pedagogy of visual protocols, and emotionally and spiritually constricted by self-inflicted pressures of marketplace competition, I was unable to develop satisfactory questions let alone deliver compelling answers.

When looking at art, commercial or fine, I found myself encouraged and inclined to recognize the historical/cultural origins and derivations of art at first sight. There were also the various layers of formal composition and visual linguistics to contend with: what to see first and where best to see it from.

Gradually I realized I needed to step off of the viewers’ pedestal, front and center, and I began to caress the space around the art, in some cases despite its resistance and my own discomfort.

I began to focus less on the making of art, as I became interested in examining my desires, expectations and biases as a viewer of art. From the position of viewer, I began to reorient myself, breaking away from the conventions of viewing that many of us have been programmed to participate in.

Although I remained reverent of the professional artist’s commitment to art making, the opportunity for enmeshment and a deeper intimacy with art remained rare and elusive. Year after year, I circled art, exploring the mechanisms of viewing.

One day, while favorably critiquing a friends painting, remarking on it’s fuzzy compositional boundaries and it’s humble yet gutsy marks, I suddenly took a monstrous gasp, plunging towards the unknown, and with a dizzying splash, found myself falling deep into the center of the art-work. Underneath the marks, inside the composition, within the paint, was a viscous limpidity.

Layers began breathing, heaving, merging, combining. Compositional elements were floating, dancing, celebrating a newfound camaraderie. Colors and shapes erupted from within and around me, each one distinct and based on it’s own unique characteristics, yet free from the endless promotion of a value driven polemic. I was “of the art”, experiencing surfaces and structures from new perspectives. I was, in short, within, not without.

Carter Ratcliff writes in an article titled Jackson Pollock and American Painting’s Whitmanesque Episode, (Art in America, February 1994, pp. 64)

In a well-composed picture, where large things are happily subordinated to small, hierarchy is not merely stable. It is beautiful, and this beauty has important uses. For the gorgeous hierarchy established by traditional composition symbolizes far grander kinds of order; social, cultural, spiritual. Traditional composition is a visual rhetoric designed to persuade us that hierarchy is good. Thus subordination, including our own, need not feel oppressive.

In his article Radcliff goes on to state, with the tone of a question, Order without hierarchy may be a practical impossibility‚Ķ and I’m glad he used the word “may,” because it indicates he was open to another possibility, remote as it may have seemed. I am also glad he used the word “practical” because if it were possible, it would be facilitated by developing new tools, expanding our understanding of
the working relationship between the mind and the eye.

My description of a Fine Artist is “one who has a desire to expand understanding of conventional definitions”. If this is true, it is incumbent upon the Fine Artist to push the implicit boundaries of language, (visual, political, linguistic, musical, physical, spiritual) into arenas that are in the margins of popular values. How generous is ambiguity? If not for the sake of being inaccessible, or offering an obtuse provocation, then it must simply be the result of a gentle process of “expanding understanding of conventional definitions”.

Do I use my eyes to see the world around me as a substrate to be decorated, a backdrop for our performance, or do I see and understand myself as immersed within, recognizing distinction as variety without hierarchical value?

When traditional perceptions shift, traditional practices will begin to shift as well. I believe these ideas are slowly becoming manifested in my practice, as I learn to balance how I see with what I make.


I begin developing new work by softening my grasp of what I think I know about my preferences and prejudices. I seek immersion. To truly become immersed requires shedding the excesses of personage, the determination for distinction and the ego-based skills of survival. With rigorous curiosity I excavate source material beyond the margins of personal and cultural stasis—that which has little value, better yet, no value or better still, that which is unrecognizable. Upon this retrieval, I meditate on illuminating a subject or the media’s least apparent visual language.

Although the objects I produce seem to mirror natural occurrences, this is only as a result of discovering and implementing natural processes. When I succeed in manipulating the physical world, including myself as a raw material, the results appear as if they are of nature even if the materials are themselves synthetic.

Bounded only by fear, which is itself fodder for inclusion, my palette is vast. Unique characteristics are coupled within each consenting procedure, culminating in a visually diverse array of consequences.

Considering a particular exhibition spaces’ architectural composition, I juxtapose the works in such a way as to expose and encourage communication of their inner dialogues. The individual pieces become active components in an environment where the viewer participates in a living embrace, the model for this being the experience of Nature.

The true premise: one visually consumes a field of grass, which is dominated by a single tree, prominent in the landscape, which is in turn consumed by the width and breath of the field, which is overwhelmed by the weight of the sky. Each element, viewer, tree, field, sky, remains autonomous, yet integrated. Iconic as a whole or within each part, elements offer up their own distinction devoid of hierarchy, to participate in an egalitarian landscape.

The artist, refines function.
The fine artist, defines desire.

Seth Kaufman, October 2002