Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let's Look at Titles with Dorothy Howe Brooks

Jane Spencer with Dorothy Howe Brooks
Not being an artist, I have never faced the task of coming up with a name for a piece of art. I can appreciate the challenge, though, as I often struggle to come up with titles and subheadings when I'm writing a feature for Florida Weekly.  And so I was interested in poet Dorothy Howe Brooks' insights on the art of naming an artwork at the Visual Arts Center last week.  It was loads of fun.

By way of introduction to her subject, Dorothy talked about the difference between titles of poems/other forms of literature and titles of artwork.  In literature, the titles are front and center.  They are cues that give the reader a sense of what is coming up and influence whether you want to forge ahead into the writing.

In art, titles tend to be secondary.  When you walk into a gallery, it is the artwork that beckons.  When a work grabs your attention, you go closer to get a better look.  Then you might look at the wall card to find out who painted the work and what it's called. A good title will enhance your appreciation of the work.  A bad title runs the risk of turning you off.  

O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell"
The most common type of title is fact-based. "This is a painting of xxxx," the artist tells the viewer. This approach establishes a context and can be particularly illuminating for more abstract works. Dorothy used Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell" as an example.  Most everyone recognizes the nautilus shell, but the fact that the background is a hill often eludes viewers until they learn the name of the work.  The title adds to the viewer's experience as it piques their curiosity as to whether such a hill really exists in nature. 

Patricia Anderson Turner's "Mud cookies" 
We talked a bit about how a factual title can establish the political context of a work. Sue Taylor shared how struck she had been by Patricia Anderson Turner's social commentary pieces, particularly her “Mud Cookies.”   At first glance, you see a colorfully dressed woman holding some disks.  The title was intriguing, however, and led both Sue and me to read Patricia’s explanation of the work.  We then learned that the disks are “cookies” made out of mud that Haitian women feed their children.  This was a very powerful use of a fact-based title. 

Dorothy categorized other ways to title works for us.  A title can focus attention on a particular aspect of a painting.  Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” draws our attention to the glimmering light as the sun rises on the day.  A name like “Harbor at LeHavre” (the original title of the work) is informative, but doesn’t share with the viewer what really struck the artist about the scene.

"Study in Blue and White" by Dana Cooper
Other types of titles might reveal the artist’s inspiration in a common narrative (a myth, perhaps, or a historical event).  Or it might focus the viewer on a craft element of the work, like Dana Cooper's "Study in Blue and White."  A title can name an emotion being expressed by the artist (an approach Dorothy does not favor because it seems to dictate what the viewer should feel).  Finally, an artist might go with “Untitled” as the name of her work, leaving its interpretation wholly to its audience.

Carol Fogelsong's work
 Then the real fun began as Dorothy showed us some works without revealing their titles and asked us to suggest names.  First up was this work by Carol Folgelsong.  We quickly realized how hard it is to develop a good title (particularly, as one artist suggested, for a work you didn’t create). Suggested titles were “Flight’s End,” “Captured,” and “Out of Reach.”  We talked about how the bright colors evoked a happy, whimsical feeling that was contrary to some of the names we’d come up with.  (FYI, Ms. Fogelsong named her painting “Lost and Found.”)

Becky Donatucci's work
We also brainstormed to come up with a name for this painting by Becky Donatucci.  So many different types of titles could work for this one.  A fact-based title could name the cemetery or what is presumably a church.  You could call it something like “Blue Door” (an approach many people favored).  Someone suggested “Before and Beyond,” a title that uses a metaphor.  Another person proposed “Perspective of Shadows,” drawing focus to the craft element of the work.  Ms. Donatucci went with this approach, titling her work “In the Shadow.” 

The session was engaging and thought-provoking and lots of fun.  I surely will pay even closer attention to the titles of artwork in the future as I consider what they add to my experience.  Let the viewing begin!       

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