Studio or lab?

One day, an art tutor suggested we think of our studio space as a lab where we could explore our painting. I was appalled at the idea...

I am moving from full-time work researching the linguistics of metaphor to spend more time with art; having a studio is one of the joys I am reaching for. Everyone I know seems to want a lab. Me, I want a studio.

The lab yearning is part of the physics-envy so prevalent in my field – humanities with reliability and null hypotheses; testing poetry; replicated experiments on the meaning of metaphors. All the messy glory of human understanding reduced to numbers.

Cut, cut, slash, slash.

“If we get rid of all this individual superfluous subjectivity, then we’ll understand what it’s about.”

No, you won’t. All you’ll know about is stripped-down, less-than-human puzzle solving.

You won’t know how one man comes to kill another.

You won’t know how a woman’s heart breaks, again. 

You won’t know how I muddle my way through to understanding another person from what they say, from how they look, and from where their eyes move.

You won’t know what happens when my body jerks in recognition of beauty perceived, in a response that moves out from my core. The hesitant wonder in front of the canvas when I make that happen. Those moments of fearful recognition that keep artists going back to the studio. The studio, not the lab.

Where the lab must be kept pristine, germ-free and shiny, the studio accumulates cuttings, images snipped from magazines, jottings on odd bits of card. Pens lie scattered around after their last use. There’s a dried-out rose in a dried-up jam jar – transformed to a new beauty. There are colours on the cloth, on scraps of paper. Colours that recall a finished painting and the emotions it carried. Brushes stand, waiting. Tubes of paint lie, calling. Paintings stalled and speaking. Books open to revisit. Rose petals. 

There’s a poem to be found, a composition to be worked out, shapes to be thought through.

Dance labs, metaphor labs, poetry labs – all longing to be psychology labs, which in turn want to be biology or physics labs, or more lately neuroscience labs. I don’t want a clean, regulated room; a series of trials and tests; hypotheses rejected; data collected. I want a ‘research studio’ where colours and shapes mix with lists of metaphors and patterns of talk. Where possible meanings are tried out as sketches, and thrown or kept. Where paintings are imagined and happen. 

There’s hard work and there’s thorough, skilled work. And there’s enthusiasm, energy and play. There’s uncontrolled chance and happenstance alongside expertise and skills, nourishing and richness. Not the poverty of a lab environment, not an uncontrollable chaos, but a human mess – of the enticing, the interesting, the amazing, the possible, the perhaps – that allows the emergence of beauty, awe and laughter.