Marja-Leena Rathje
Home ::: naming


Just before the holidays, I finished printing the third piece in a group of three large prints that I had been working on during the fall. I'm very excited and pleased with them. As usual they had 'working titles' while under development. However, I have delayed signing and documenting these for I'm struggling to come up with just the right titles. Because they may become part of a larger series, and I do tend to work in series, just the right naming is all the more important to me. I've considered including them in my ARKEO series for they are related, yet they are also different in look and mood and future pieces may be using new materials and presentation.

Last week I spent many hours over several days preparing digital files of my work and the work of an artist friend (who asked for help) for a group submission to a gallery. Of course the naming of those three pieces came up again but remained frustratingly elusive. Ultimately I had to title them temporarily "To Be Titled #1 to #3" just for this purpose. Not "Untitled", because that sounded permanent. Even the artist statement was made even more of a challenge!

As I was about to nod off to sleep last night, my thoughts returned to those pieces once again. Bad timing to start thinking challenging thoughts at bedtime! Like a computer hard drive that doesn't completely go to sleep, my brain kept working all night even while I slept. Sometimes answers are revealed to me that way, in fact a couple of titles did emerge from the night fog, but I'm not entirely convinced by them. Those prints may stay unsigned for a while, sigh, and I know this happens to other artists too. Pardon me if I don't even post the images here just yet.

This is even harder than coming up with names for our human babies!

Marja-Leena | 14/01/2011 | 14 comments
themes: Being an Artist


When I was younger, I just behaved like dictator and named my husbands works. As simple as that. He accepted the names. And thought that they were sharp.

Then he went thru a period when he didn't sign the works, but gave them names in the exhibitions. Then he gave an interview and claimed that he's an amateur, which made noise, because he's not a hobbyist. A lot of explanations: amateur comes from the Latin word amare, to love.

I stopped giving names, not because of the above mentioned, but because I became puzzled over the content. That's allright, now the names come from Greek mythology.

So, Marja-Leena, sleep on it! Your subconscious makes the work for you!

So much easier when your creative areas starts and ends with words! Reveal when ready...

That's funny. I often have exactly the same problem after a piece is finished. I've even posted a few that still had their working titles attached to the file without my noticing. It's a good thing I don't use much profanity.

Our children sometimes arrive with chosen family names and other times come with a name we discover. Indeed, sleep on your choice for the series. It's important.

Ripsa, your husband sure was pretty easy going about your naming his works. I was even looking up Latin words today. One Japanese artist friend would just make up titles from foreign names, even Finnish names, that he'd come across but were essentially meaningless to him, but even that is hard for me. My poor brain, whether awake or during sleep, has been working overtime on this one and will keep on doing so until I get the answer!

Dick, you are so right! Words are hard for me. Want to trade?

Susan, yes, I just have to give it time, I know. Not yet at the stage of profanity, rare for me too!

Ah, you've strayed into my field. Some randomly listed rules:

(1) Never use the first idea you come up with. It will almost cetainly be a cliché. Amateurs often attach great significance to this "bubbling up, fresh water" sensation and insist that tinkering around with it will betray their inner workings. But ask yourself: would you trust this impulse when doing your artwork?

(2) Consider your audience. It's possible to be clever-clever with those who know you and this may allow you to come up with something that is very indirect. Even so clever-clever often reveals itself as clever-clever, emphasising the gap between what you do as a pro and what you do as an amateur (ie, write titles).

(3) Be honest. Needless to say there's a trap to this one. If you find this hard examine the instincts that caused you to do the artwork. How did it come about? Is it legitimately different from everything you've done before? Sometimes, concentrating on the label (headlines in my case) will reveal a fault in the way the original (the article) was conceived and executed.

(4) If the art is completely abstract consider very hard whether it is enhanced with a title that suggests it has real-life roots. Thus an abstraction called Tree 1 may in fact irritate the viewer if, try as he will, he can make no link beween the picture and the title. Abstraction 1 would be far better.

(5) Consider being totally practical. Vancouver 42, Jan 15 2010 may be humdrum but it is at least useful. Translating this into, say, Finnish will give it a touch of the exotic without destroying its usefulness.

(6) If you're drawn to words in a threatened, local, so-called native language (which is a legitimate idea if there's a sense of history attached to your art) make sure you get the words exact. There's no greater insult to a threatened language than getting it wrong and thereby increasing the threat.

(7) If you use an abstract (ie, made-up) word as a title remind yourself of the dangers of forgetting what it meant to you when you first came up with it.

There's more, of course.

Marja-Leena, that must be so frustrating! But it will come to you, maybe right when you give up was fascinating to read about your naming process and the comments, too!

I often have thoughts while half into and half out of sleep, which seem isnpired at the time, but turn out to be crap when examined in the light of day. Either that or I forget what they were when I wake up. In the latter case it seems to me that they would have been worth preserving.

BB, wow, I didn't know there were such rules other than implicitly! They do make sense and I do seem to follow most of them. Sometimes titles come to me relatively easily without the clichés, too much cleverness or being too obscure, all of which I'm careful about. If it were a single minor piece, I wouldn't sweat over it so much, but when it's a series, it affects future work. I have to live with it and be at peace with it for a long time, meaning forever.

Beth, yes and yes! I have to shelve it again for a little while and hope it comes to me unexpectedly as sometimes happens.

Joe, how well I know what you are saying!

Naming art is not easy (unless it's easy, like a portrait). If the viewer can make an intuitive connection between the piece and the name I think that means the name is right. If the name references something that is arcane or obscure and it doesn't have some other nuance that matches the piece your audience may get side tracked trying to figure out what the name means and not really look at the work. I generally feel that visual art should not need words, though words can be lovely additions. There's nothing wrong with "untitled."

I'm sure you will figure it out and eventually come up with the right choice.

amazing how sometimes it is so difficult. the animation i've been working on all these years is one of those elusive things, i've spent a couple of years with one title, a couple of years with the next. hopefully by the time it is finished it will be named, or at least resolved to untitled. i've found naming my babies easier! (though admittedly one of the names did come to me in the night!) x

I should emphasise, these aren't really rules and they're certainly not written in stone. I just dreamed them up; don't feel hampered.

Anne, yes, all you say is true. I've even reluctantly titled a few pieces "Untitled" in the past. Titles should not be necessary for appreciating the work, but they are a way of record-keeping and documenting one's work. I often number within series, such as ARKEO #1 etc. but then I get confused as to which number which piece is until I can actually see them in front of me.

Elisa, you too? I'm finding that my last several series, including this possibly new one, have so many connections to each other that even the names that I come up could be the same or similar.

BB, I know, so no worries! Though I was almost, almost tempted to ask for suggestions for titles from you and everyone who reads this. Not a good idea...

Coincidentally I have just found the right design for a title I have had for many years! It is really astonishing that we so often find names in words for work which is visual. Sometimes, just like in translating one written/spoken language into another there is no direct equivalent. You have said what you wanted to say visually - perhaps there just is nothing which can sum it up in words?

Something usually turns up, however.

Olga, I've been so fixated on finding a title that everything I read now seems to offer ideas! Yes, it's hard to put the complex visual ideas into a short title. I think, I hope, I may be getting there soon as I reread my lists of chicken scratches on scraps of papers.