Leadership in Art
This is an occasional paper using the Influence Dimensions tool to explore leadership styles between collaborating artists.
One of my oldest friends, David Wallage, finished his long career in consulting and then, For his third act, decided to become an artist. An accomplished artist with gallery shows and sales and excellent reviews. I love his work; it is painstakingly exquisite, draws you in and entraps you by its surface simplicity. He asked me to come and see his latest exhibition where he had collaborated with another artist, Dr Michael Mark, whom he respected.
Standing in the gallery looking at the three walls with Michael’s paintings on the left, David and Michael together on the front wall and then David’s paintings on the right hand wall I experienced and saw living collaboration between two extraordinarily different artists. David lines the canvas over and over again and, over and over yet again. In one painting he will use a green colour spectrum he paints pale green with yellow green with darker green with mottled green with yet more brown/greenish lines; vertical lines, horizontal bands, thin lines, thicker lines, shaded bands, definite lines, invisible overpainted lines.
Michael’s work it’s a splash of colour and movement, a galaxy of space and time swirling around and through you. His paintings envelop you in colour and energy, all of which leaps out from the canvas and escapes beyond its borders. Michael’s work is verging on chaotic in contrast to David’s constrained, contained, compressed work. One example of their dual work is shown above.
As a psychologist, I could not help to wonder how they did it. How did they communicate? How did they share? How given the stark differences did they produce the dualism?
Comparing leadership styles
I invited them to collaborate with me on exploring the way they communicated and created this exhibition. I also gained their agreement to complete the uniquely designed leadership influence measure (the Influence Dimensions).
I wanted to explore this collaboration as a leadership interaction. The ID distinguishes the unique non-verbal ways of communicating, and I wanted to see how these two different artists interacted before and during the showing of their work. It reveals the way leaders develop their mindsets and communicate their meaning to each other. The ID identifies the leadership style of a person made up of six communication dimensions. Everyone is unique and everyone brings their own strengths and biases to every encounter, or painting.
On the ID profile the leadership style identifies the predominant mindset or the way we approach any matter. For David and Michael this represents the overall way they approach their art and each other.
Individually they both shared with me some of their thoughts about their work and each other. They each completed the ID questionnaire and then we had a combined session discussing their working relationship in juxtaposition to the ID measures which are discussed here.
Leadership style/predominant mindset.
The measure identifies four possible types: Planner, Analyser, Creator, Developer.
The four styles in brief are:
- Planners like organising, running things, running people, project managemen, starting at the beginning working to the end and following the plan.
- Analysers are our constitutional lawyers, work needs to be done the right way in the right time in the right place. Following the rules and engaging in practices that are correct is important.
- Creators are fun and experimental. There are no rules there is only experiment, trying it on, starting and ending and picking it up again later, exploring outside the box and under the box. Maybe the box itself gets included.
- Developers are those of us who take other people’s ideas and expand on them and grow them sometimes in startlingly different directions. This style of leader is concerned about how people get along during the process.
David is an Analyser while Michael is a Creator. If you look at their works of art you don’t have to be an organisational psychologist see the Analyst in David and the Creator in Michael.
David’s works follow the rules. They are lined rules and grids; precisely correctly immaculately. He describes his art in this way: “I would describe myself an Abstractionist/Process painter. Stylistically my work is minimal with no real pre-conceived signature style. I commence by considering the underlying mathematics of a work, trying to plot a credible result. Achieving a ‘perfect’ order is an illusive goal, yet I am repeatedly drawn to a systemic attempt at exerting control over a piece.
The layering, sanding and polishing of up to 100 layers of polymer and pigment satisfies a craving to lock away visual elements as historic references but always allowing a glimpse, a reveal of what was, deep within the work represented as blurred images with privileged access to our subconscious. I’m really into the physicality of creating a quality handmade product. The constants in my work are the use of lines and grids. The line, in its horizontal form, represents stability and purpose…vertically it represents growth and movement. The grid represents the brain…the centre of thought and emotion in both its simplicity and complexity. The other consistency in my work is precision and repetition. Most of what I do is pre-planned and meticulously considered insofar as style, layout, colour, materials, process etc. I leave very little to chance.”
And then David adds, not just as an afterthought, “I think of myself as a bit of an art adventurer…an experimenter. My work is diverse, forever evolving, often using unconventional materials and, more than often, involving lots of time spent on repetitive activity.”
‘Diverse’, ‘Experimenter’? Combined with repetitive activity? Only a card-carrying Analyser could describe his art this way.
Michael’s works could go anywhere and they do. There are no rules; no attempt to control. The painting expands with a colour and direction on its own. There is a big splash of creativity. It reaches out and shakes you.
Michael says of his art, “My work grew, initially, out of a response to a rather conservative approach – the observation and recording of three-dimensional forms onto two-dimensional surfaces. However, as I matured and deviated from the ‘observed’ world, a new series of concerns emerged; light, energy and colour, all gradually became more important than the depiction of landscapes, portraits and still-life. My work, today, is best described as containing notes of Romanticism, abstraction, and the embodiment of the physicality of a painter. It is barely discernible, yet important to note that, I paint with my hands, with gloves on, no brushes. I’m just making finger paintings”.
Michael captured the leadership mindset differences in this observation. “We certainly start in different ‘head spaces’, I am much more likely to start with a tabula rasa and build where my emotions lead me. David carefully plans each step and then executes. My response to a colour comes from the colour I see in front of me rather than a preconceived notions of this colour will go with this colour and put the two down, side-by-side. I would, for example, paint the first colour, look at it and then say ‘Aha…this colour goes next’, then build off that, a sort of chess game with colour, and composition, intention last. I think of it much more akin to building and re-building a cathedral perhaps, but without any final plans, and a few centuries of fires and rebuilds and earthquakes, eventually it all arrives, but not through a thoroughly recognisable approach.”
Only a creator could use these images.
David commented on the process
“Michael produced three overwhelmingly beautiful monochrome paintings that, on first sight, blew me away. Somehow I was having to respond in such a way as not to diminish their aesthetic quality. Oh boy, what had I started? After pondering the dilemma for a some days and discarding numerous drawings and ideas, I eventually settled on using colour as the key to hopefully coupling our conflicting styles. The first challenge was matching colours. Michael’s oil version of Van Dyke Brown was entirely different to my acrylic version of the same colour…his, a warm rich brown…mine, a cold dead brown. After numerous mixes and matches I finally found my solution to the colour conundrum. From there the rest was fairly straight forward. I did what I know best style-wise using the matching colour and lo and behold the yinand the yang all started coming together beautifully and, most importantly, Michael thought so, too.
After my work was done and I assembled the six panels into three Diptychs I suddenly saw three works of art that neither Michael or I could have produced independently…and isn’t that the essence of a successful collaboration. It was at the end of the process that it really dawned on me the level of responsibility I had been feeling and how much trust Michael had afforded me.”
The six ID dimensions
The speed of how we communicate and expect people to respond falls on a continuum from rapid to gradual.
Both artists are similar by being rapid. There’s was no delay, there was no hesitation. The collaboration was proposed, thought about, reacted to and commenced.
If they were both gradual they might still be discussing whether to collaborate or not. Rapids do get moving quickly and sometimes this can be a rush to disaster.
David said, “I was nervous but I felt I needed the challenge. My worst fear was that I would be shown to have less talent or be seen to be the weak link. On the positive side it was going to open up the opportunity to possibly exhibit together exposing both of us to new audiences. I was both thrilled and flattered as I have such a high regard for Michael so to have the opportunity to work with and exhibit with an artist of his skill and note was simply brilliant. However it had its threats.”
Michael stated, “David initiated the collaboration, and made it so easy, both in practical terms, but also in finding the ‘key’ to a successful collaboration, a side-by-side solution as opposed to a dog’s breakfast of working on top of each other. He made it so easy for me to say yes, he overcame my hesitations by providing a surface to begin work on, therefore less anxiety about starting.”
In general terms some leaders provide a lot of emphasis or exaggerate the matter, whilst the alternative is to understate or downplay the matter. In art, there are exaggerated or dramatic styles, or understated low-key styles and of course a comprehensive mix in between then two extremes.
In terms of this ID dimension, Michael’s art is exaggerated and over the top while David’s work is powerful but subtle.
David observed, “Michael, like me, is an abstractionist however in almost every other way our work is different. I would best describe his work as ethereal, atmospheric, classical, lush, elegant and otherworldly. His method is gestural, unpremeditated and instinctive. Quite the opposite to me.”
The way we form our thoughts and express them on the page or on the canvas or in conversation, can divide leaders into those of us who are very linear versus those of us who are lateral in our thinking/design approach.
David’s work and method of communication is very linear. First this then that in the next step. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Conclude.
On the other hand Michael speaks with a dab here and a dab there. His paintings reflect that outside the box and around the corner knowledge, where anything can be included and associated.
Both artists tend to be conceptualisers, while Michael also has some elements of a detailer.
Conceptualisers must first approach a matter (painting) by considering the overall goal or concept before paying attention to the details. While David’s art is excruciatingly detailed he cannot even start without defining his overall concept. Michael is so conceptual he does not even have a goal! He just is moved by colour.
Detailers cannot manage the big picture or the overall concept without understanding all the bits and pieces would make up the concept.
Their discussions about collaborating, clearly reflect their matching as being focused on the concept where the details were only added later.
David commented, “My interest was focused on the juxtaposition of our respective competing styles. I was fascinated with the aesthetic challenge of exposing a rich classical image against a hard-edge orderly image. There’s an old saying that opposites attract and I was keen to see if that applied to imagery as it might to relationships. I had just finished making three Diptych substrates (six individual panels) so I asked Michael if he would consider taking three of the panels and painting whatever he wanted and to my delight he agreed. The deal was that once he finished painting all three panels I would pick them up from his studio and bring them back to my studio. I would then respond to what he had produced.”
Leaders can cluster down either end of the evaluation continuum. They can look inwards and examine themselves objectively and critically (self evaluators) or they can look outwards and consider others objectively and critically. (Other evaluators).
Both Michael and David scored as other evaluators. I heard a fair level of concern expressed by each of them about how the other artist would view their own work and this is a normal personality trait of self questioning. They were united however around the rules of good quality art and collaboration. They respected each other’s work and were in tune with holding themselves in the exhibition to objective standards of a great display.
In any negotiation or collaboration one person needs to take the initiative.
Paradoxically, David is the Responder whilst Michael is the Initiator on the ID evaluation.
Delving more deeply I unearthed this comment from David, “I had alluded to doing something with Michael on a few occasions without actually coming out and asking him.” (This is how a shrewd leader initiates an idea with an Initiator. They insinuate rather than request it.)
David concluded, “Although having initiated the collaboration I don’t think I hadn’t fully considered the challenges involved in the response process.” Michael concurred, “He made it so easy for me to say yes, he overcame my hesitations by providing a surface to begin work on.” David further noted that he arranged for Michael to start the first works. “Perhaps he recognised that by agreeing to go first he could avoid the challenge and torment of having to respond?” This did not occur to Michael.
And to cap it all off, admirers like me imagine that all artists must dominate in the visual or experiential modes of perceiving the world.
David is experiential and visual but is also a little bit auditory. Read above how he sees images and engages in the ‘physicality’ of the art.
Michael however is auditory only. I immediately imagined that he talked to himself while painting and so when I subsequently asked him that question he said, “ Yes I argue with myself over and over again and I also play music. I can’t paint without music or books on tape”.
Finally, what were they going to do with his joint exhibition, and what were they going to call it?
Micahel said, “ We discussed what we were going to do with the works only upon completion. We both knew of this gallery featuring abstract work, and I think, therefore, it was ‘in the air’ so to speak. David and I had heard of the gallery for years. Luckily Five Walls Gallery were calling for exhibition proposals. I put a very compelling case together outlining the premise of the collaboration; a description of our styles, our Bio’s, backed up and a of selection of images. The proposal was accepted, the exhibition date was agreed, and the physical exhibition space was selected. I was elated to hear we had been accepted. It is always a boost to the ego to learn one has been ‘accepted’. The gallery has a good reputation and David and I are both pleased to be associated.”
David added, “Thereafter we collaborated closely on how we would utilise the space and what and how many support works we would add to the exhibition, and finally Michael and I agreed on a name for the exhibition…Dualism (the division of something conceptually into two opposing or contrasting aspects). Then came the day of hanging the exhibition. An arduous task of laying out, changing order, establishing heights and spaces along with numerous other physical, emotional and aesthetic decisions. I was thrilled as to how it eventually came together. I really felt our diametrically opposed styles came together in that small space exceedingly well.”
Another artist’s perspective.
Blockprojects Gallery Director, Jeremy Kibel’s perspective on his exhibition of these two artists is excellent.
“When David Wallage asked me if l could write on his collaboration with Dr Michael Mark I was faced with trepidation. I feel that it is an incredibly difficult process to write about two artists’ works which are aesthetically combined; where to begin and where to end, but maybe that is the point of this exercise we call collaboration. To set up the chaos which in turns creates opportunities to stumble upon something new. A new hook, melody, rhythm or the creation of original visual language being the goal.
Collaboration in painting is often frowned upon, works made utilizing this process are usually seen as in-betweens or after-thoughts, and in many famous cases critically attacked due to the uncertainty of the outcomes. Strongly stated cues and signatures of the artists’ works fall into a constant flux when the participants start riffing off each other. This, to me, is the great alchemy of the process which opens up new avenues for the artist; a kind of aesthetic reboot: mode of reinvention.
However, if Art History has shown us anything, ground-breaking moments are able to be achieved when artists collaborate.
Within these works we meet David’s compulsive and delicately weighted bands juxtaposed against Michael’s atmospheric and undulating fields of colour. The idea of a stringent minimal order against a romantic painterly field of colour is an intriguing and risky one. You have the feeling on paper that these opposing styles would be in constant conflict, but on the contrary, the artists within this collaboration have found balance out of the flux. Order within chaos. Both artists found a new hook on abstraction within their practices. Out of this comes the body of works, aptly titled Dualism. A place of funtimes.“
This was such an enjoyable engagement. Working with my own favourite piece of art (the Influence Dimensions), with two brilliant artists and their collaborative art works.
Perhaps I could have titled this paper, ”Two artists and a psychologist walk into a bar……”