Artists’ biographies frequently concur on one point: their subjects first awaken to the idea that they may be able to make art when they encounter the work of an established artist. That is, most artists are converted to art by art itself. This first creative affiliation encourages the fledgling artist’s latent ambition and bolsters their self-belief; it may then be supplemented with others, forming a network of mentors-by-proxy within which the burgeoning artist begins to articulate their voice.
Peruse the book collection of anyone with a serious interest in art and you will find a similar network here too — an inner circle of ‘desert island artists’ represented by the most-thumbed books on the shelf. Whilst a prevailing aesthetic may be evident, any suggestion that the relationship between the viewer, the image and the artist is just a mutual appreciation of formal values is to deny that artists are able to tap into something that runs much deeper.
One could speculate that good artists act as conduits, putting the experiences of their lives into their work. Great artists are able to put something of themselves into it as well. These are underlying qualities, but they can often be recognised by the viewer, whether consciously or not. So if art can explain the artist, I would suggest that the art we surround ourselves with explains something about who we are, too. The qualities we admire in an artist, which we ‘know’ through the emotive function of their work, are the qualities we value, or aspire to, in ourselves. If paths run through people as surely as they run through places, the art we revere represents a crossing of the artist’s paths with ours.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, if the developing artist becomes aware of a stylistic junction with their mentor, their instinct is often to cover their tracks rather than explore the common ground. This is the ‘anxiety of influence’ that has created avant-garde movements in art, most apparent in Modernism’s ‘fear of contamination’. If the quest of the artist at this crossroads is for a truly innocent gaze, it will always be out of reach: motifs in art exist throughout human history and across cultures, supporting the concept that we are born with a foundation of shared images — a collective unconscious of archetypes.
Artists evolve by absorbing what they need at any given time, from any given place. They collect and refract into their art a spectrum of influences through their own prism of insights and limitations, eccentricities and obsessions, certainties and vulnerabilities. To take one example, Peter Fraser does not flinch from the creative influence of William Eggleston, nor Eggleston from Cartier-Bresson, nor Cartier-Bresson from Degas, nor Degas from Manet. In each case the artist has an innate personal vision strong enough to prevent their art from being inundated with influence, but equally knows that embracing its intertextuality prevents their art from stagnating. They absorb existing ideas, re-energize them, make them new, and pass them on. Artistic influences may be amplified or compressed as they pass through artists, but their passage through history is recorded in the open-ended volume we call tradition. Every image is constructed through inheritance and reciprocity; every image bears a lineage from previous images, and every artist a lineage from previous artists. Paradoxically, whilst the creative desire is always to look forwards, ‘original’ art is always, at least in part, an encoding of work from the past.
Hometowns takes a reflexive look at this process of encoding. It began life as a line in my notebook: ‘Photograph the hometowns of your heroes’ — an idea for a layered investigation into the places which influenced those artists whose work has coloured my own. Two years later, that line has become a sixty-five-image, photo-homage to a unique group of artists who have been my own mentors-by-proxy, and an endeavour to untangle the strands which connect me to their work.
In total, I have travelled to twenty-five towns and cities — the environments where ‘my’ artists each spent their formative years. Every trip was preceded by a period of biographical research, which inevitably refreshed my memory of the photographs, paintings and sculptures that emerged (at least partially) from these neighbourhoods. Important artworks had persuaded me to travel to these locations so, unavoidably perhaps, I photographed each hometown through their afterimage. But each place provoked an individual response, and I found myself swimming with and against those currents.
Paying tribute to the spirit in which each artist worked was a central concern, but intrinsically this meant making my own imprint too. After all, to make works that were mere genuflections would have been an artistic betrayal. The key seemed to lie in the paradox of this series: that these photographs have been formed by a process of unravelling. So I have tried to find opportunities where I can add ‘twists and turns’ of my own to the photo-mechanism of re-braiding. Overall, I hope they have an underlying quality that reflects the ambivalence experienced by every artist: both the anxiety and ecstasy of influence.
Introductory text by Aaron Schuman.
Several months ago, my wife and I allowed our son – then nine-years-old – to wander out the front door and down into town, alone, for the first time. It began on a Sunday morning, with a mission to get a pint of milk from the nearby shop. With change in hand, he tentatively meandered around the corner and out of sight; a few minutes later he returned triumphant, literally jumping with excitement. In the subsequent days, many more journeys to the same shop followed – for butter, for sweets, for whatever he could think of that would get him out on his own for a little while. And then his territory began to expand rapidly, to the park, to friend’s houses, to the playing fields, the town center and beyond.
As both his familiarity and confidence with his surroundings grew, I was struck by how much he relished his newfound freedom and sense of independence. I was also reminded of how, on such early childhood expeditions, even the most modest facets of one’s immediate environment – a street corner, a parking lot, a crooked crack in the sidewalk, a low-hanging tree branch offering access to its canopy – become pregnant with private meaning and purpose. As one begins to consciously consider and survey this vaguely familiar but nevertheless novel terrain for the first time, the boundaries of one’s own life, experience and understanding of oneself are expanded exponentially. And through the process of identifying and absorbing particular landmarks, contours and features that contain specific significance for oneself, one redefines and reestablishes one’s own idea of ‘home’, of its borders, and ultimately of one’s relationship with the world at large. Within a matter of weeks a child explores, and then absorbs, their surroundings in a remarkable way, not only defining it for themselves but then defining themselves through it – ‘the town where my home is’ becomes ‘my hometown’.
In his poignantly observant body of photographic work, Hometowns, John MacLean pays homage to the incredibly subtle yet important influence of the hometown, particularly in relation to the fundamental visual development of artists themselves. Beginning with a simple idea that he quickly jotted down for himself in a notebook several years ago – ‘Photograph the hometowns of your heroes’ – MacLean has since explored and photographed more than twenty cities, towns and neighborhoods around the world, where a number of his artistic ‘heroes’ spent their childhood. From Moscow to Mexico City, from the south-west of England to the American Midwest, MacLean has traversed the globe not in search of its most spectacular monuments or most exotic landscapes, but instead in search of the everyday places that served as the most basic visual experiences and foundations for those artists who have inspired him, and thus for his own catalogue of creative inspiration.
Extremely well versed in the works, approaches, practices and personal biographies of his ‘heroes’, MacLean is remarkably adept at visually tapping into each one of their childhood environments, and invoking the underlying role that even the smallest of details may have played within the young minds of great artists-to-be. A soft morning fog slowly evaporating around a radio tower that stretches high into the Californian sky invokes the ever-shifting heavens explored by James Turrell; a tangle of dirty rope and rusted wires lying across Moscow snow pays happenstance tribute to the serpentine brushstrokes of Wassily Kandinsky; simple and straight-talking signage seen throughout Oklahoma City – for softball, sound systems, and Chevrolet – quietly mimics the pop-infused imagery and deadpan aesthetic of Ed Ruscha; and so on.
Yet beyond delicately echoing, referencing and reverberating with intimations of each of his ‘heroes’, MacLean’s photographs are strikingly original, visually arresting and deeply personal in their own right. In a sense, Hometowns collectively reflects MacLean’s own artistic ‘hometown’ of sorts, built of childhood stomping-grounds and populated by influence of those artists that he most admires. Like a child let loose into the world alone for the first time, MacLean carefully surveys, defines, explores and then absorbs his surroundings – in this case the territory of his own, personal artistic influence – but then expands far beyond it, mapping an entirely new and fascinating creative terrain, and redefining himself as a unique and mature artist in the process. In doing so, he allows both himself and his audience to reflect on the notion of influence altogether, and then relish in the newfound insight, playful excitement, and remarkable sense of independence that such a freedom to roam affords.
Aaron Schuman 2015.