I have often wondered if the title of a piece of art makes it more intriguing, whether a judge, critic, or viewer reads significance into the work based on its title. Naming a figurative painting “Little Boy on Mother’s Lap” is not nearly as evocative as “Madonna and Child” or something similarly stated in Latin or French. (I have heard that an artist should never title a piece “Untitled,” but I’m not really sure why.) I have noticed, however, that my collages with the most erudite or obscure names seem to be treated with more interest, and are more likely to be accepted into an exhibition.
Early last year I completed a piece based on a photo I took along Central California’s coastline (most specifically, in Montana de Oro State Park) looking down into an arroyo filled with wild nasturtiums. The steep walls leading into the chasm are volcanic grey, sharply contrasting with the vivid orange-reds of the “flowers.” I used little cutouts of people’s faces as the flowers. When I looked up nasturtium in Wikipedia, it said that the name literally means “nose-twister” or “nose-tweaker” because of its peppery taste: hence, I entitled my collage “Nose-Tweakers.” As it hung on my wall in my studio, a customer pointed out to me that a “tweaker” is someone who is addicted to methamphetamine (which I’ve since confirmed in urbandictionary.com). Now, maybe the title has absolutely nothing to do with it, but this collage has been accepted to every exhibition to which I’ve submitted it, and it has won awards. Are the spectators reading into it some significance that I never intended?
Or take the case of my collage of peeling eucalyptus tree trunks (based on a photo I took on a foggy day in Los Osos/Baywood Park, CA). I couldn’t think of a title, so I randomly opened my copy of The Oxford Anthology of Modern British Literature and landed on an obscure passage from TS Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding”: “In the uncertain hour before the morning / Near the ending of interminable night/ At the recurrent end of the unending . . .” (II, 4). I named the collage “In the Uncertain Hour,” and it has gone on to many exhibits and awards, including an award of merit at last year’s National Collage Society’s online exhibition.
Or then there’s “Dante’s View,” which was simply borrowed from the name of the mountain peak in Death Valley from which we took the original photograph. Not only has it shown well (currently in Art Kudos’ international online competition at www.artkudos.com ), but it was purchased by an art museum in Minot, North Dakota, of all places. Is it because people think it’s a picture of Hell?
If title has anything to do with the success of a piece, then my latest creation should be a doozy. I used a lot of arms, legs, feet, and hands in the tree limbs. I named it “Thanatopsis” because it is based on a photo I took of dead Utah juniper trees along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and a thanatopsis is a contemplation of death. “Thanatopsis” is, more importantly, the title of a famous poem by the American Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant (1811): “Earth that nourished thee, shall claim thy growth, to be resolved to earth again . . . [thou shalt] go to mix forever with the elements.” I’m hoping this allusion to poem most people read in 11th grade American literature will help this collage be my big ticket for 2015.
Can you imagine what a dud it would be if I’d named it “Untitled”?