An Awkwarder Elegance

by | Jan 29, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Today’s Write Away is a guest prompt by Joseph Young, who will teach our upcoming workshop, Writing with Art (with Joe). More on that at the bottom.

In the world of painting (and writing), a high value is often placed on elegance, an elegance of line, color, composition, and, of course, execution. We are often, and rightly so, attracted to pieces of art that demonstrate not only harmony in these elements but also the superior craft of the artist, a painter that brings an obvious degree of skill and practice to their art. Think, for example, of the great technical skill and delicacy of composition in the work of Johannes Vermeer.

Elegance is so favored in art, in fact, that when we run across a well-known artist whose work doesn’t seem to demonstrate this grace, this skill, we might become confused or upset. “Why’s THAT considered art?” we might say. “They’re famous??”

One of my favorite artists, the Bay Area Figurative Painter David Park, could be considered a case in point. In his painting shown above, “Man in a T-Shirt” (1958), we see a decided inelegance of design.

For one, look at the man’s face. It’s barely a face at all, not in our typical consideration. It’s mishappen, void of much detail, the proportions all wrong. There’s the colors in the painting too: blotchy, rough, indelicate.

And then there’s that arm. The right one, in the foreground. Something’s not right there. It’s so…awkward. Too big maybe, too chonky, no grace.

Of course, you might see something rather beautiful in all this lack of elegance, as I do. The blotches of color—expressive. The childishly rendered face—lyrical. And the arm? I submit to you that the arm is doing a lot of important work here, that Park made good choices in depicting it in that way.

Start by seeing how Park used paint there, the long, smooth brush strokes, the uniformity of color, as opposed to the other arm. And how he highlighted the arm in red, as if to reflect the red in the man’s rather silly ears. I suspect that in these contrasts and comparisons the painter meant in fact to underline the arm’s awkwardness, perhaps to say something about the man’s personality, perhaps to remark on the inherent awkwardness of sitting down to have your picture painted.

 

The Awkward Writer

Writers and poets sometimes use awkwardness too, naturally. Not just, say, in describing an awkward situation between two characters, but using language itself in awkward ways. Like in this poem by Ishmael Reed: American Airlines Sutra.

The haphazard use of capitalization and punctuation, the spelling of “yr,” the seemingly clumsy juxtaposition of the last two lines in the second stanza, add up to, in my mind, a deliberate kind of inelegance. It’s a kind of inelegance that tells us more about the poet, or his subject, his themes, the interaction between the passenger and driver, or whatever, than Reed could have achieved using a more “erudite” writing style.

This Week’s Writing Prompt

Write a poem or short piece of prose where you deliberately use language in awkward ways, in which you make clumsy choices to achieve something in your writing that might be difficult to get across using traditional grammar or sentence construction.

Harness awkwardness to say something about your characters, the situation or scene you describe, the atmosphere of your poem or story. You may want to pay attention to syntax (the way words are arranged) or diction (the individual word choices you make) or whatever else suits your fancy.

Get awkwarder in your languagey paint!

Like what you see?

Consider signing up for “Writing with Art (with Joe).” This generative and informative class looks truly unique and—if you’re interested in art or writing—it’s something that’ll stimulate your creativity for a good long time. Check it out here. The cost is $325 but Studio Friend members (that’s you) get $50 off, automatically!