Leaning into the Light

By Matt Kane

In the second grade, my science fair project tested the effects of light on plant growth. I setup a row of shoe boxes with varying sized slits cut from the tops, exposing each plant inside to a different amount of light. Inside grew germinated lima beans. Sure enough, I confirmed plants grow greener the more light they receive. But the more interesting takeaway was a result of an error in my experiment. I hadn’t controlled the position of the light for each plant. Only using a single lamp over the far side of the shoe boxes, I noticed the plants drastically warped in order to grow in the direction of the light. The further away a plant was from the light, the more dramatic the angle it leaned. Humans are no different.

2nd grade science fair project 1989

Leaning into the light; we see this phenomenon in nature and we see this in ourselves. We tend to lean or grow in the direction of what we find rewarding. For plants and trees, a motivating factor for how they branch is sunlight, the requirement for energy generating photosynthesis. Humans are more complex, but not very. Perhaps the most popular of motivating factors determining how a human branches is money. Different individuals will develop different motivating factors though. As an artist, I’ve had my own experience leaning into a light silhouetted by a dollar sign.

For an artist, the definition of hell is spending time and resources where your creative vision is not. I was scraping dried oil paint from a glass palette with a razor blade when my Motorola clam-shell phone began vibrating madly. “Maaaaaaaatt… these large oil paintings are really selling. More of these, yeah? Can you make mooooooore?” Sixteen years ago, when I was a 23 year old young man, I heard these words from my gallerist. I’m not ashamed to admit that at the time, I lacked the experience won wisdom to rebut, “actually, I have this other concept I’m already working on that I’m really passionate about.” Instead, I leaned into the light of the art market’s glow and became distracted with hurriedly producing another series of over-sized canvases. They were good paintings and I used the opportunity to push myself in some ways. But the experience of making these pieces felt more like work than creative play. The creation of these paintings proved to be a fool’s errand, merely serving to distract me from taking up the path I was meant to be on.

first one man show – march 2006

Fortunately, these bulky paintings didn’t sell as phenomenally as the first batch. There was to be no excited phone calls asking for more. So with no market demand, I was left to my own devices. What followed was venturing into making a large body of small, intimate works made in an experimental media. I allowed my creative vision to be the sole driver. Each time I worked on a piece, it felt like a treat. My heart would swell and I’d literally find myself dancing across my dusty studio floor whenever I needed to gaze upon my work from a distance. I was pursuing what I felt internally driven to make. As a result, I was awarded my first one-person show and every piece sold. From then on, I’d make art for myself and become less influenced by external market demands. For the next sixteen years and to this very day, I returned to leaning predominantly inward toward my own creative inferno.

In this young two-year-old cryptoart market, I observe greater diversity in art than collectors have taste to accommodate. This is no knock against collectors. Everyone should like what they like and collect that. But let’s be honest about the phenomenon we’ve been observing. In her recent Cent Spotlight interview, artist Sarah Zucker remarks “I don’t mean this as a criticism, but some artists– it’s very clear that they are seeing what is selling, they’re seeing what is making the big figures– and they are replicating it. Or they’re letting that really strongly inform their future pieces.” Personally, I’m frustrated most as a viewer when a work of art tells me more about the taste of a market’s collectors than the artist making the work.  

There’s nothing wrong with branching out and stretching toward rewards external of ourselves. It makes our work more diverse, interesting to explore, and often leads to learning things about ourselves and other people. But balance is key. If there’s a warning to be had for artists and collectors alike, it’s to beware stretching unnaturally in one direction too hard for too long. In time, more artists and collectors will join us. Many will value art differently and swing the market toward different trends.

I’m confident a sun will eventually rise over at least some of our underappreciated works in the space. These artists will benefit for weathering these early days. Something I witnessed in my science fair project all those years ago was that the plant grown in complete darkness grew straight and true. It was a sickly pale yellow color compared to the other’s varying shades of green. But it had a healthier structure than the plants that saw a glimmer of light and warped themselves to reach it. Everything can grow through times of darkness. It’s just that things lean greener in the light. 

I’d argue that true genius is light. Artists aspire to be the light which others lean into, not the other way around. In my own humble collecting of art, I’m specifically looking for artists who are  guided primarily by an inner light, working outside the trend. Or if their work is within the trend, then they are the trend setter. I look for a genuine burn, not simply a mirrored reflection of a market’s glow. To my experience, reaching in the direction of your own creative passion will never steer you in a way you’ll regret. And the deeper you dive toward your own light, the brighter it will be– for yourself and for others.  

Author profile
Matt Kane

I designed my custom software to leverage algorithms with my own human input. I build paintings layer by layer, making design choices through how the algorithms I've written should interact. I communicate in color and pattern in ways I long understood but which are too complex or time consuming for my hand and materials to manifest physically with traditional methods. I'm interested in exploring historical aesthetics with code; trying to do with geometry what the great painters did with oils.

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