Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Axe Murderers

Ok, if you need to get this out of your system first, here's a link to the Monty Python Lumberjack Song
This is a post about a digital image--not a window.  It may become a window someday in some form, but for now, it is an idea for wallpaper.

I had this idea a while back  (do I begin a lot of posts with that line? There's a reason for that...) The idea was to do a chopped down tree--possibly with the person chopping it down.  They could look concerned...a look, perhaps that could say, "why yes, I did read Jared Diamond's book Collapse regarding how civilizations and societies which collapse often do so as the result of ecological pressure, you know, like climate change?? And I did take note of the part which stressed that deforestation is, well, a huge effing problem!"

I did some rudimentary sketches.  Crappy stuff.  Now (endless Covid summer) is a time when I am gathering and consolidating threads to see what going to be a project and what isn't.  So I have this ephemeral "idea-thing", more like an urge, and I have a crappy sketch!  Now what? Urges and crappy sketches do not a project make.
 I commenced to try to figure out how to draw a fallen tree.  Not so easy. I mean, what does a fallen tree even look like?  A pile of chaos! I feel a lot more must happen before I touch glass, if that's what's going to happen.
It took a while, but knowing I wanted to be influenced by my own fine self, I worked with an old drawing and customized it into a facsimile of an oak tree.  That took a long time--like maybe a few days working all day, trying to force/coax tree-ness out of an old sketch and magic fairy dust.  I find that getting negative reinforcement on a project can feel dire and devastating.  And at the same time, its kind of a tempest in a teapot, by which I mean, my own skull.  I mean, why on earth do I expect to get a decent image the first few times around? When all my so-called best ideas are not clicking, I hear the siren's call.  Time to rearrange the basement! Or clean the cat box. Or some such. Most of all, I want to change mymind and abandon ship.  Sometimes this feeling is has an incredible gravitational pull.  I know from teaching that this is a real moment for less experienced artists.  It can be really awful.
This is when art making really becomes an act of faith.  Not faith that I will succeed, whatever that means. That's a little too goal oriented. But faith that something interesting will happen if I persist enough.  In fact, one thing that does happen a lot is that I find I create a lot of material I can't use in this project but can be tabled for anther day. And I also find that there are amazing things to be discovered if one persists and resists the urge to change their idea.
what?  I can't even see what it is I would have to render here.

This is the tree for me.
Maybe something like this?  Or maybe NOT!
As for the lumberjack character, I have a whole file of lumberjack images. I am into the romance of lumberjacks with what I would describe a  de riguer superficiality.  I mean, what do I know of lumberjacks?  I've lived in cities my whole life! I guess I mean I like old woodcuts of Aesop's "The Trees and the Axe". 
But yeah, I read Collapse too.
Sad, romantic, and totally remorseful lumberjack
As it happens, I am descended from people, man-people, who chopped down pretty much all of mid-Pennsylvania in the mid-1800's.  Then they moved west, presumably to find more trees to chop, and they chopped all them down too, then, lucky for them, they struck oil in Titusville PA and they all converted to oil men.  My grandfather was a geologist for Phillips 66 which is how my mom came to be from Bartlesville OK.  You see the thread here?  Trees used to be an energy source.  Then they found oil. It was no biggie to just tear down a forest and move along to the next one and tear it down too. But there was no sense that this was leading to wanton self destruction, at the time. No sense whatsoever that the energy industry might be "fueling" an unsustainable mess. Deep sigh....
Kinzua PA, my ancestral homeland, now under water.  Thanks Allegheny River!
As for the drawing, I took a bunch of my axe man sources and put them in Photoshop. I never work from life. First of all, I hate life.  Just kidding. I love life!  Life drawing, not so much. When it comes to models, I like action poses, which no model could ever maintain for more than a second.  Interesting art fact: The reason some art is so boring is because when you draw from life, the model has to stay put so all paintings are of people sitting or lying or stuff sitting or lying there...oh my gawd wake me up when its over!  Who draws action poses?  Cartoonists and illustrators.  So the content of Fine Art vs illustration is very much influenced by that fact.  How weird is that? Think about it and submit your 500 word essays in the discussion module.

So, I have developed what I call the "Henry Darger Drawing Method". Which was developed actually by Henry Darger.  This link has a paragraph about it. I, too, use source images. Sadly, despite the vast infinity of the world wide web, most images of human bodies can be put into three lame categories; selfies, porn and icky stock photos.  NONE of that is useful to me. Again, its cartoons and illustrations to the rescue.

So, with the lumberjacks, I found about 7 good sources--good poses--and I gave all the source images heads drawn by me. Then!  I switched their legs!  Then I draw them over in pencil   No one will ever find my source images. Except I am kinda showing you here.  But they are now entirely original. And I never once had to get someone to pose in historic costume with an axe.  Yay!
BUT I HAD TOO MANY LUMBERJACKS! What to do?  It became obvious that apropos of obviousness that to put a lumberjack with a fallen tree was too obvious!  And I had seven nice pencil drawings of lumberjacks looking pretty good together, so why not make them their own piece?

Seven lumberjacks
Can I just say? I really enjoyed drawing lumberjacks.
And then I thought, because I often do, how about making it a repeat tile?  Because its one thing to have seven lumberjacks in  a row or whatever, and its quite another to have seven million, which could happen with a repeat tile. Yes, sometimes utilitarian design concerns inform concept.  Chew on that, friends.
Beyond that, my, isn't this looking a lot like a statement about deforestation and about the sociopolitical systems we have that depend on such unsustainable practices? (Please forgive me, ancestors!) And doesn't it also seem to be making a statement about (toxic) masculinity at the same time? 

Oh yes, apropos masculinity,  I also drew a stump.  But....I had to chop off the roots in order to make the design work.  Who's destroying the metaphorical environment NOW??  Oh the irony.
emo tree stump

This is not the final--but a reasonable approximation.  Gonna go for the ketchup color background to symbolize, ya know, blood and french fries.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

What They Say/What They Think They Mean/What They Really Mean

Here is a post for art students or aspiring artists of any stripe if there are any left after the pandemic. Its about what gets said in critique or about why Art with a capital A can seem so rarefied and/or snotty..

What they may say:
Your artwork is too much like illustration
Your artwork is too decorative
Your artwork is craft, not art
Your artwork is too kitsch
Your artwork is too "stylized"

What they think they mean:
Your artwork is too much like illustration:  it is too obvious a narrative, the image is less important than the story, it is too easy to understand by “reading” it,  it is too easy to sell for $, and/ or too easy to use to sell something.
Your artwork is too decorative: it is too pretty or too entertaining, or too trivial, at the expense of meaning—which is usually understood as something like a philosophy—in other words, things that decorate or are pretty are not deep enough to be art.
Your artwork is craft, not art: it is too technical, too skill-based (at the expense of meaning—which evidently is so fragile it can only exist as a purity unto its own solitary self.)
Your artwork is too kitsch: it is too easily confused with cheap consumer goods, too  appealing to one’s “baser” emotions, too insulting to one's intellect, possibly too “ethnic” but I doubt anyone would say that out loud.
Your artwork is too "stylized": You have branded yourself with a consistent visual vocabulary.  Like those who design products for Kmart and Walmart--stop it!

What they really mean (a.k.a. what I have come to understand they mean):
Your work doesn't look enough like what a certain group of people (Eurocentric white hetero males) with certain interests and tastes call Art. Art is narrowly defined as exclusively as possible to protect certain people’s market share, prestige and mystique. And maybe to protect their ego. In short, to protect their status. Please remember exclusive automatically implies exclusion—its right there in the word. The idea of art as something other than illustration, decoration, craft, design, kitsch etc is very recent. And when I say “other than” those things, which are very art-like things, I intended to denote a hierarchical position with Art at the tippy top.  It is really not possible to say art is "the same" as craft or design or whatever, in this conception. That’s the entire point of the invention of the word to distinguish it from them.

We (yes, even artists and aspiring artists) tend to accept that art is "the stuff in museums" (or something like that)  without taking into account how it got to be chosen. "Fine Art" as a thing was invented recently (circa 1500 in Europe) and you, as an aspiring artist should know that. It comes with a set of "rules" and assumptions and there are consequences to playing the game, consequences to playing it your way, to refusing to play it and also to ignorance. If you call yourself an artist, you will have to exist in relationship to this social construction of what art is.

Do I sound peeved?  I'm really not.  I am trying to be completely factual and educational. I am trying to prepare you for life.  This is reality. Is it currently falling apart with pressure from Black Lives Matter, MeToo and other attempts at social justice? We shall see.  Perhaps.  But I still see the criteria in critiques (like “excellence”) being unquestioningly tossed about and what that signals to me is that it’s still a certain group who are controlling the very definition of art in a way that serves their interests.  Perhaps not yours. Sometimes this happens knowingly by actual Eurocentric males who stand to gain the most, but I have ALSO seen it by women, BIPOC, LGBTQ persons in unconscious ways. It is HARD to avoid (or resist or recreate) the mythos of what Art is. But it is a myth from which we will derive everything else: the modes of distribution, the marketplace, the institutions and, most importantly to the aspiring artist, who and what merits their good graces. Unless it is replaced with some other myth. But for the time being please don’t go into this unawares.

It can be really, really specific, too! Certain things have come to be known as more art-like than others.  There used to be an old art school graffiti—I heard it attributed to Tyler, RISD and a number of other schools: “First make it big and if that doesn’t work, make it red.  Or something like that.  So large scale, “expressionistic” brushstrokes, sloppiness; these have become signals that Art is taking place here!  I mean, I find myself wondering about how UTTERLY RANDOM it is that we fetishize brushstrokes in paintings.  Or size.  And any number of other art-like gestures that are more signifier and less anything else at all.  Ok, now I am a little peeved!

I’ve seen a lot of friends and students write themselves out of art because of these distinctions and that’s a pity.

My main thought here is: ask yourself: why is "too obvious a narrative" a bad thing? I am not saying it is or isn't.  Just YOU should decide for yourself.  Then proceed accordingly. Why is kitsch a bad word when some of it is so wonderful?  Why do we think entertainment or decoration is stupid? Are the necessarily so? Why are material and technique considered as separate from concept and message? Again, you should decide for yourself and then proceed accordingly.
Ask yourself are brushstrokes really an important way reveal to your inner soul?  I suppose some may say yes, but some may have found other ways.
And sometimes a cigar is a big honking phallic symbol.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Raft/Ship of the Medusa/Fools

If  I decide to output this as a digital print, it could possibly resemble this jpeg.


 I had this idea last August to make a pile of people like I had made a pile of snakes. So I generated a quickie "collage" in photoshop using old figure drawings and let it sit there until about two weeks ago.

This is the quickie collage.
Two weeks ago I finished my large piece and thought I would take a look at some of my ideas which sit in waiting on my hard drive in a mislabeled file called "Current".  I had an urgent need to work on this idea--even though lately I have been less figurative. You know what I think?  I think that when an artist has an "urgent need" to make something, they should listen to that voice.

The original painting "Raft of the Medusa" by Theodore Gericault, depicts the survivors of the wreck of the ship Meduse.  Read about it here!  It's a painting I have adored for a long time and I do not wish for anyone to compare my piece to that one as I am not capable (nor all that interested, to be honest) of that type of painting.  BUT, I did think I could contribute to the genre somehow.  (Of which genre do I speak?  Why the "shipwrecked on a life raft as a metaphor for life" genre.  That one.)

First: I did an actual pencil drawing with PENCILS.  I am sure you remember them. At this point, I have, like ten ways of drawing.  I doodle in ballpoint.  I mess around in Photoshop.  And I do the occasional meticulous pencil drawing. Please note: meticulous pencil drawings are NOT a necessary step in the stained glass design process.  You can make windows out of scrawlings on napkins if you so desire.
The pencil drawing looked like this:

Real pencil drawing!
Then I input that drawing into Photoshop by scanning it which was a P.I.T.A. because my scanner is 12" x 14" or something.  So I had to seam the thing together, but no matter--its not that hard.
And yes, Virginia, this will be a stained glass window someday, or that's the plan. I am thinking a black and white grissaile, assembled with lead, my favorite metal.  However, I tweaked it an that might end up looking something more like this:

(do me a big favor and picture a raft below them)
Apropos of burning urges, I wanted to do it in color too.  That entails separating each figure into a single Pshop document and "painting" it--in Pshop.
Which looked like this (once they were compiled):

Yes, I did love paper dolls as a child!
But that's not all! I should mention that when I first drew it, lightning struck and I had the sudden desire (and yes, this too felt urgent) to make it an endlessly repeating block.  This is not something that one can have a digital platform just do for you with the click of a button (or if there is an app for this, I don't know about it!) So, first I needed to make more figures:
The new figures were drawn on a separate page and put together in Pshop.

A note on the figures.  Yes indeed, if you are some sort of compulsive follower of my work you will recognize almost all of these characters from older stained glass pieces.  It amuses me to pretend they are real people who left my pieces, continued with their lives and perhaps at some point planned a reunion on a cruise ship where they could reminisce and relive the trauma of my having exploited their non-existent lives in one of my "Perils of Pauline"-style artworks.  Only to all get shipwrecked together and to re-appear in another window.  Cue evil laughter on my part: MUUHAHAHA!.  There's "Child Bride", "Persephone", "Sin Eater", "Andromeda" (who is now a POC) and some of the characters from "The Battle of Carnival and Lent".

As for the subject matter and why it might resonate for me at this moment?  I will let you decide if it does and how and why it does that.  Suffice it to say, I was pretty concerned with any attempt by ME to represent "HUMANITY"....but, I decided to try anyway. Its one of the more presumptuous parts of the artist's job description.  Plus, there's this irony about figurative art that ensures that it will always upset, offend, outrage people (which I think explains a lot about iconoclasm, a topic I would like to take a deep dive into at some point). Why is this?  Because figurative artists only have two choices and they both kind of suck.  Represent one's own self or represent The Other (any and everyone else who is not them).  I have always tried to dodge this catch-22 with what is a semi-viable third option: imaginary people!  But this piece is supposed to be human-kind.  So I had to depict people other than my own proxies.  I will sum this topic up by pointing out that humanity seems currently to be a writhing mass of fear, despair, confusion, rage and discontent.  As an artist, I hope, actually to present a venue for contemplation which is safe, "nice" to look at (or perhaps better stated that I deliberately provide aesthetic incentives for looking) and maybe a little humorous.  Not that there's ANYTHING funny about what we are contending with right now--because there  really isn't.  But art hides behind its fourth wall and the artifice is one of its best strategies to sneak into your consciousness and give people a platform to make actual change.  And aesthetics, including beauty and humor encourage active and sustained engagement with a subject that can be otherwise unbearable.

So, back to the technical hoohah: making it repeat sounds simple but its not--it took days on end actually.  So finally,  here it is: the perfect wall paper for your powder room or home abattoir.

Color version repeated four times

Black and white version repeated four times

Some details of my favorite sections

The Stockholm Syndrome section of the piece.

Character in this section include "Persephone", "Icarus" and the wresting guys from the lower left panel of "Battle of Carnival and Lent"

Monday, June 15, 2020

New piece

 Scroll down for written stuff.  Or just enjoy the pictures!

Title: “Over Our Dead Bodies”, Size 40" x 60" (approx)
Stained glass

So, this is an image of all the glass parts but its not actually assembled yet as I need a rebar frame made before it gets soldered together. But this is what it will look like.

I started working on this piece several years ago (that is true for all of them--there's a long lage between inception, conception and ejection)   I wanted to work with the "tree of life" idea. Who doesn’t enjoy a good “tree of life” image?  Apparently close to everyone!!

In the past few years, my work has been drifting inevitably towards something.  I am less interested in the female character which I am known for and the “decorative motifs” which occupied the background are coming into the foreground.  Now I feel I could have predicted this as for years the background was equally important to me as the foreground and as time goes on, its pressing the human figure out entirely. 
Why has this shift in my work happened?  Does anyone care?  Well, I am only speculating here but 1. Change is inevitable in any artists oeuvre.  Narrative, figurative, realist artists might get less so and vice versa.  2.  I am less interested in talking about me personally.  Those female characters were never ME, but boy, did I identify with them!  Now, I am older, and I have had time to grow weary of my own drama.

So, for the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in pushing the flora and fauna forward.  I made a black and white rough draft of the “tree of life” idea a while back, alongside pieces such as “Wild Life”, “Sky Life”, “Cross Pollination” (and these pieces grew out of “Anchoress” and others).  A “tree of life” seemed a logical extension of the idea and something worth exploring.
But what of the preponderance of excellent cultural examples?  What was I going to bring to the conversation?  Ugh, I hate artistic accountability!

Ever since the election in 2016, many artists shifted their focus to a more activist stance, for obvious and righteous reasons.  Although I would never claim to be a political artist, my work began to subtly address environmental issues.  “Beached Whale”, “Immigration Policy”, “Murdered Animal”, “Cross Pollination” for example.  As I worked on the tree of life image, it rapidly became about climate change.

I began calling the piece “Over Our Dead Bodies”.  That was intended to suggest what life on this planet will be like after humans die off.  Even though I feel a certain ambivalence towards my species, I have nightmares about the end of human-kind.  The upside is that our catastrophic meddling with the ecosystem will stop.  One way to see “Over Our Dead Bodies” is of a spectacularly vivid, lush resurgence of animal and plant life.

Then, along came the pandemic to provide the perfect frame of made in which to contemplate these ideas whilst the piece was actually being created. Taking long walks around the city I could see how fast nature begins to reassert itself!  It was pretty amazing and this in only a few weeks!  I saw a Downy Woodpecker!  An Ovenbird!  Kestrels! A Common Yellowthroat (not common in the city!)  There was noticeably less bus exhaust, clear azure skies, etc.  Will we take this lesson home after the pandemic? I sincerely doubt it.  But the respite was profound.  And it informed my piece.

I decided any tree of life worth its salt would most assuredly reflect its origins in the soil.  Although it’s pretty hard to discern, the underworld section has a “branch” pattern which is similar to the tree above.
A tree of LIFE must be predicated on the entire life cycle, not just the living part. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Ladies of the Pandemic

A few weeks ago, I wanted to say something profound about art and hope in the time of the pandemic.  I wanted to say how in times of fear and uncertainty we prefer a "certain type of art" (call it "beautiful", I do!) over images of chaos and rage, which we are getting enough of from real life, thank you very much. I wanted to say something interesting about how we are refocusing our time and creativity.  I wanted to say a lot of snarky things about how much pressure there is to even be creative and how hard that is when one is frightened...etc etc...but?  The feeling has mercifully passed!  I changed my mind about writing all that stuff--too much work!

I have been taking a lot of walks. Often I am really paying attention to birds and nature.  I saw a Downy Woodpecker and an Ovenbird!  I see a lot of lovely spring plants.  Sometimes it looks and sounds (no smell with that damned mask on) almost like being in the woods.

But I also see evidence of human artistic activity.  In South Philly, there are a lot of homes with displays of objects in the front windows.   There are potted plants, vases of live flowers, even more vases of fake flowers. There are just plain vases and ewers all by themselves. There are children's drawings. There are lots of Marys and Jesuses and angels and cherubs.  And lotsa lotsa  figurines: wild animals, domestic animals, gnomes, cute animals and humans.  I got particularly interested in the regular females.
As I took pics and as I did so, some parameters arose.  For example, I wanted them to look enclosed behind glass, so the reflections were important (I AM a glass artist after all!).   I broke my own rule and included a Madonna because the way the refection cut off her head was just too good.
I'm no photographer, but it was fun.  And the top photo was hard to take because she's behind plexi, not actual glass, so apologies for the poor quality.

So here's my photo essay I call; "Ladies of the Pandemic"