Inspiration vs. Imitation
By Dr. Clark David Olson
Just where do artists draw their inspiration? Landscape artists typically spend much time in nature. Still life artists work with composition by collecting vases, flowers, tables, and fabrics. But figurative artists gather their inspiration from people—people everywhere. For Michael Carson, he admits “Anything I see, a hairstyle, whatever, I’m constantly gathering.” And just think of the variety of people one encounters during everyday life.
No doubt if you’ve visited major museums around the world, the Metropolitan in New York City, the Louvre or d’Orsay in Paris, or the Prado in Madrid you’ve seen talented artists in the galleries, working to recreate the works of the masters as they set up their easels and bring their palettes (and permits) to the museum to see if they can’t replicate these masterpieces. It’s commonly said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
But where should, and where can one draw the line between pure imitation and genuine inspiration? Artists typically surround themselves with the arts—fine architecture, music, fashion, theatre, and paintings and sculptures. Often these influences resonate within an artist and they are synthesized into their creative spirit, distilled, and then reflected in the unique art they create. As Carson notes, “artists only do themselves a disservice by not taking from other people’s art.”
Indeed, various artistic movements and schools have begun and benefitted by artists collaborating toward different styles. Kandinsky was the first known “Abstract Expressionist” followed a generation later by American Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst and Willem de Kooning. Color Field was inspired by Mark Rothko, and continued with such artists as Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Helen Frankenthaler.
Carson willing admits to being influenced in his figurative work by college roommates and artists Malcolm “Skip” Lipke and Milt Kobayashi, who obviously influenced each other. Both of them became successful artists and teachers, who passed down their style and techniques to countless students, some of whom have become successful in their own rite. Among artists, there is a culture of sharing, of borrowing, of finding inspiration in another artist’s work and putting your own unique spin on it. In Carson’s view, this give and take is what helps artist progress with their work, finding new and more personal ways of expressing their own artistic vision. Without it, he cautions, there is a risk of falling into an artistic rut. “People who I see who have their own completely original ideas—or say they do—I don’t see them evolving as fast as other artists.” And while being inspired by other artists, finding elements he wants to uniquely work into his own paintings while still retaining his own creative voice, seems, for Carson, quite intuitive. He says, “I can never be influenced enough…any new idea is an influence.” Carson believes that his growth as an artist hinges on his keeping an open eye and open mind to what his fellow artists are doing, using those influences to break new artistic ground.
Within the past two years, since he’s relocated from his native Minnesota to the Arizona desert, Michael notes that not only have his figurative subjects’ wardrobes changed, but he is aware of a shift in his color palette, using fewer colors to create a more sophisticated look. “I feel like I’ve evolved into a different artist,” he comments as he now works painting in layers to achieve of simpler, looser style. He admits to a complete evolution as an artist. His upcoming show evidences a new confidence, leaving old influences behind, as he makes little effort to hide brushstrokes, drips, or even the sketches he began with on the canvas.
It is Carson’s hope that audiences who experience his paintings will be keenly aware of themselves as viewers and question how that affects their relationship with the work as he takes figurative painting in a new direction. “I want to take the genre and do something new in that field. . . .I want to do something different with it. I will always keep in the back of my head that I want it to be a beautiful painting. . . but I also want to create something new for myself. It’s kind of a selfish thing that I do, actually.”
Sadly, some observers still make unfair comparisons of his work, as well as the work of other figurative artists. Carson believes that figurative art is a little unfairly targeted when it comes to critical discussions of imitation, “It’s kind of interesting how in the figurative painting world, it’s a little more obvious to pick [similarities] apart. I could walk into a gallery right now and see two or three landscape artists whose paintings look exactly alike, but no one ever talks about this with landscapes. There’s something about the figure that’s so recognizable. . . .I notice more of a conversation around artists imitating when it comes to figurative work.”
Despite such criticism, Carson proceeds boldly in his own, new directions. Acknowledging his skillset gained from his teachers and mentors, he now works to combine all the influences he exposes himself to toward painting in his own, bold and unique direction. Both skeptics and believers agree that Michael Carson’s paintings are original and truly inspired works of art.
Michael Carson’s show, “Depth Perception”, opens on Thursday, February 7th at 6pm until 9pm. His show will run in the gallery through February 26th. Visit our website to see all the new works for the show or view our show catalog at this link: MichaelCarson2013DepthPerception