Monday, October 5, 2020

Death and Decoration

These are random thoughts, inspired by a suggestion that I address the decorative in my work and by reading an article in Cabinet Magazine this morning on thedominance of rectangular form In Western art. My thoughts are sadly limited to my western euro bias, FYI, but I will say, I think rejecting decoration is a problem of European inheritance.


I used to tat lace.


Two great efflorescences of decoration are the Gothic and the Victorian (I don’t know enough about the Rococo and the culture at the time to comment, but yeah, throw them in there too!). I wonder if one could claim a connection between these cultures practices/obsessions with death and a tendency towards obsessive ornamentation? Of course, cultural preference/rejection for decoration probably follows a pendulum’s path of over-saturation and subsequent draconian palate cleansing. So, there’s that.

Could the rejection of ornament and decoration arise from a fear of death? There is nothing more terrifying than imagining our insides getting out. For this reason alone, people obsess on coloring inside the lines. If you can’t manage your histrionic expressions, what’s to say disembowelment isn’t next on the agenda? De-composition is, a process by which a seemingly integrated thing becomes literally dis-integrated.  Its encoded right there in the word, after all. Could it be that decoration reminds us of our own inevitable end? If art was only striving “to make order of chaos” as is sometimes claimed, decoration would indeed be a crime. When organic material rots, does it not come forth with a profusion of sorts which implies the decorative? When the dignity and authority of a person is devoured by a colony of shiny little maggots, don’t they look pearly and precious; at least if you can consider them beyond the merely disgusting? Aren’t the stages of de-composition the most florid, overflowing and flamboyant? Could decoration be an imitation of death because decoration represents a threat to the orderliness that ensures our insides don’t erupt from their confines? Is this why we love to hate it? 

Enjoy some random details of my work...

If there’s one thing I know about decoration, it’s that it does make it hard to discern the structure and it breaks down the confining outline—that which reassures us that what’s inside is inside and what’s outside is outside. Another comfortable illusion, but I will leave that alone for nw.

Curlicues, arabesques, frills, fur, fringe, lace, swirls, serifs, all manner of lavish flourishings, in all their particulate glorious detail tend to make for a diffuse border that threatens to dissolve whatever it is encrusting into its surroundings. Excrescence makes it hard to see the macro and the micro at the same time. By focusing on the minute, we can’t see the contained whole. Perhaps all this makes some people nervous.


I suppose it’s also possible that ornament and decoration are a Thanatic embrace of “the great unknown”.  An attempt to populate what must necessarily be a void in our imagination with a profusion of stuff. Usually stuff that is pulsating with life or, if abstract, visual energy. Is it an attempt to enact a sacrifice to God— “here, take this fascia, this repeating rosette, this dearest embellishment, this pearly extravagance, (from Latin extra "outside of" + vagari "wander, roam".)  instead of my actual children?” Is horror vacuii an escapist strategy to avoid the terrifying inevitable? Assuming that the decorative focuses on the small details, would that make it sort of the inverse of Romantic ideas of “the Sublime” (this could apply to Rococo and grottoes, cave vs the vast expanse of sky etc)? A deep dive into the eternity contained in the infinite infinitesimally tiny. Come back later, death! I’m busy—with an emphasis on busy (as in “the surface is busy with detail”).

Ornament.  I love it.


Is it a coincidence that when we toggled from obsessive funerary culture to an obsession with sex(iness) at the beginning of the 20th century that we went from ornament to brutalism? When we went from pondering the dissemination of body and soul into the heavens (or hells) to a firm consolidation of body into the corporeal—which no doubt is smart when you want to have the living be the consumers, not the dead, or god, what with their lack of cash and credit and all.

Although consumers tend to like ornament so maybe that theory is a flop. Or maybe it merely ensures the kitschification of ornament when the ultimate “end user” is us mortals instead of God?

I am pretty sure I use decoration in my artwork as I described Victorians and Gothic people using it above. Even as an atheist I have come to see the hellhound at my heels as one of god’s avatars. A god who craves bling. One whom I am most anxious to please, lest I or my loved ones be recalled before we are ready!  Although my own pleasure and that of the audience is of great importance to me, it is ultimately unwise to aim the work that low.  Apologies to all humans for what must seem a disparaging remark—I do not intend it to be so—just an indication that we are exceeded by the celestial empyrean at least in metaphor and believe me, nothing matters more to an artist than metaphor! And human connection always needs a lubricant and I can’t think of a better one than embodying love in various modalities both material and metaphorical and for some that means taking the time in ever-so-painstaking devotion to detail and embellishment of an object.

There's a reason I call myself a "Militant Ornamentalist"


I used to think each single instance or inspiration was the last one I would ever have. So, it would be nothing at all to invest a few months, if not decades in elaborate diversions into my imagination (not to mention materials and techniques) which is to say, decoration was and still is a way of creating a stay of execution most literally. I hope god is pleased. I am also aware that other people tend to like it too.  Win/win! Meanwhile, I find that I would rather work on one piece for a long time than many pieces for shorter times.  So long as I am in the midst of a project, I have a reason to wake up in the morning. I truly loathe beginning new pieces.  So, if I can drag out the process for a few months or years, all the better.


Apropos of all this, it saddens me that ornament and decoration are pejorative terms in art school critiques. Still!!!  (You would think by sheer force of time and fashion trends we’d be over it by now.) I do see a hefty element of sexism, homophobia and white supremacy in that—a rejection of notions that, for reasons of pure coincidence (and I could go into this…) have become feminized. It could be as simple as the curves of a female implying an indirect path that men (or those invested in securing their status as something different from a female), cannot afford to be deviated (or, more importantly, devianted) by as they focus on reaching super-linear goals. It is a way to maintain a white male images of male seriousness, of gravitas and genius.  A lot of males have bad association with anything that seems “sissy-like”, so goodbye decoration which somehow got cast as the domain of the female or gay man. It all seems rather capricious, but that’s how exclusion works.  You gotta have some set of traits that are the good ones—even if you are attaching these values arbitrarily.

In fact, these motifs are increasingly become my whole game.


And then there is the dependence on hierarchical understanding of art history; as if art could somehow progress! As if one could install a certain aesthetic as “top of the heap”. It’s ok to be influenced by “primitive” but make sure to establish dominance over it...yadda yadda (see Adolf Loos for the ultimate and hilariously dated explication of this and watch how he sticks decoration as the lowest of the low, because …well, just cuz. Mainly because he didn’t like it..and why…oh the circles you will go round...)  Rejecting ornament in no way ensures you have secured the true path to enlightenment! It’s just a reassurance de jour that seemed all kinds of right in the mid 20th c back when ideas of “purity” were allowed to persist. A form of Modernist reductive lunacy when we should have learned our lesson ca 1945.

Let me repeat that: any theory of aesthetics that disparages decoration because it “obscures the purity of structure” did not learn the lessons of extremist thinking about racial purity put forth by Nazis.  STOP IT. 


Finally, just because decoration reminds us of bottleflies on a corpse doesn’t mean it doesn’t make our brains turn on the pleasure juice switches. Why, why, whywhywhwywhywhy does sensual pleasure always end up reminding us of excess’ inevitable rot? That’s easy.  We are terrified that pleasure is temporary, and the true state of life is endless suffering so why get your hopes up?  And yup, life can be that way!  Everything we love will die.  But that’s one lousy argument for becoming an austere, celibate, pleasure rejecting fool. The problem with preciousness (in the itty-bitty-beauty-pretty sense rather than economic although they are related)—is that we suspect that if we succumb to our passion, we will be rendered so powerless in its presence and we go directly from dazzle to despair. That we will literally be inviting maggots to eat us. 

Because I said so.

So, we sometimes hate precious things. We sometimes hate beautiful things; we sometimes hate decoration and ornament. But you know what?  You were already powerless.  So, go out and enjoy some decorative art today!




Monday, September 14, 2020

A Patient Lady

"A Patient Lady" 23" x 22"

 This all began quite some time ago: the idea was to make a small, quick piece.  When you are in the business of making large, complex pieces that take months on end, quickies can be a real palette refresher.  Also, if I think of them in a certain way, they seem more fun because there's less pressure.  Or at least that's what I tell myself at the outset...the road to hell, etc etc.

Who doesn't just love Holbein?  Well probably someone... I dunno--I love much of the portraiture of the Northern Renaissance.  I love the peacock blue of Holbein's backgrounds.  I love the flourish of a decorative vine lurking in the background.  I love nun-fashions.  Not to wear myself...but you know, those big white head wrappings...  There are a few specific Holbeins I looked at: Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling , Portrait of a Woman and Lady Guilford

Its not a good idea to rip off an artist as good as Holbein as it will only underscore all one's shortcomings but apparently I forgot that for the duration...

Portraiture is such a freaky genre in so many ways.  And is this piece here that I have made a portrait?  Well it can't be because the character is from my imagination, so no. But its drawing on the tropes of the portrait tradition: a person just. sitting. there. Doing nothing but being seen.  Holbein's pieces are, I am guessing,  wealthy patrons. One of the reasons why I think portraiture is weird is because it really speaks to motive: why would anyone paint someone's portrait?  There are so few reasons!  Money and to remember them--that's it right?  Can anyone think of another reason an artist would want to choose this subject? I guess a love of the human form?  Self portraits can be done for additional reasons (lack of models, practice, desire for immortality/insecurity).
Portraiture as a form reduces the world to two philosophical possibilities as represented by the artist's selection of subject.  In figurative art you can do a self portrait or a portrait of someone else. That's IT: one's self or the other.  Which suggests that psychologically we are screwed. Once again, leave it to art to remind us we cannot breach the barrier into a single other human or animal consciousness...we are stuck in our own heads trying to decide if others are characters in a dream you are having from the laboratory in which your disembodied brain is sitting in a vat dreaming crazily. Or if maybe we are the character in some other brain in a vat's dream.  

Do a self portrait and you are stuck in a solipsistic world of narcissistic self referral.  Paint anyone else and its exploitation of their body, pure and simple, every time. (And then there's the vast range of response we have from iconoclasm, to censorship, to support--the whole gamut often all in the same time and culture--but certainly over the eons and all over the world.  Attempt to depict a person and you are usually screwed!)  What I think allows some breathing room in this mode is that, hopefully,  portraits can be a prime venue for empathy and possibly compassion.  They are not a chance just to consume the subject, but to inhabit their to speak.  But don't imagine for a second that by creating an image of a human that just happens automatically (well, maybe..)...empathy doesn't just happen every time you see a picture of a human.  No, one must pay mind to gesture, to expression, to color, design, mood, and tweak it in such a way that the viewer considers it an invitation to step into that person's consciousness for a sec.  And of course, empathy is merely a step towards compassion--they are not identical.  But art can only do so much.

So why would anyone make a portrait of an imaginary person?  I should be able to answer that because I have done it oh-so-many times!  No, they are not all supposed to be ME!  Although I don't think I could ever make a character I didn't identify with, so there is an element of dress up here, ala Cindy Sherman.  Aside: I have, on more than one occasion, been told I am "nun-like"...not sure if they mean  Maria Von Trapp nun, Sister Helen Prejean or the evil stereotype of Catholic school.  Its pretty funny to be told you are nun-like when you are an atheist, but I do see what they mean. Sometimes I'm Prudith and sometimes I'm Lewdith. So this is yet another character I have invented to stand in my proxy and presumably, hopefully, other people can relate.  Also, right now I am digging the fact that its hard to accuse someone of exploitation when you use imaginary characters...but that was not an issue when I got my start. 

I made the glass head last year and I even soldered it together because I knew if I didn't I would keep messing with it and ruin it.  Because I had convinced myself she was a "quickie" I thought I was gonna slap this one together while making dashing creative decisions of great risk and derring-do and in the process stumble upon a whole new line of inspiration without having to do any heavy lifting or deep underground mining. HAHAHAHAHAAAAA. That's never happens--at least not to me.

Beginning the engraving
Later in the engraving
She used to have a Marge Simpson beehive.
But I cut it off and gave her a wimple instead and a suggestive flower.
Layers of glass used to create all the colors.  Lambert's R/CLB, Desag gold pink on clear, St Just 221 teal on clear.

First off: All I wanted to do was copy exactly stroke for stroke the vine in the Holbein piece. But that's I set about creating my own and when you put all that work into it, it can't just be part of the background--a way to activate a blue field. So I  turned it into an oak branch and put it in her hand.   This pleased me immensely. Why? Once again: ORNAMENT IS ONLY A CRIME because it reminds certain people invested in being seen as "Serious Geniuses" of fashion accessories; which, by those people's critical assessment must necessarily be the very definition of not serious and not geniusy...because...well, because they are girly. WRONG ANSWER.  Decoration is not frivolous: it takes time and energy to produce so it represent a sacrifice of valued resources on the part of the artist. And they do it to say YOU ARE WORTH IT.  I want anyone seeing this thing to never doubt for a single instant that it mattered to me to make it and it matters equally that you see it.  So she's holding the damned oak branch, its not floating up from the background like some frou frou grape vine.  Oak: for strength?  Or because pin oak leaves are so cool?  You decide.  I like it--who carries around tree branches and then sits for their portrait with one?  It looks meaningful...therefore, by the power invested in my by the Communicative power of art, I declare it be actually meaningful.


At some point, she took her shoes off.  They were on for a long time... I was really happy when this happened.  The real reason  for this (especially after they were completed!) was because the bottom half desperately needed some color. Of course I could have given her red shoes...or wacky socks.  But the first thing that came to mind was her feet...and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed dead on as a solution.

She had shoes on

You know: bare feet on a fully dressed person in a portrait say something...maybe in the Kenneth Clark sense of nude vs naked.  Adam and Eve are nude, a nude is a natural state of being, etc: to have clothes on is to leave the Garden.  And to have some of the expected clothing missing draws attention to this nude vs naked thing. They allude to the natural state of nude...she's dressed but her feet are two nudes. 

To me they say: she's patient but she's also allowing herself some comfort, letting her feet feel the warm breeze, get less moist. They may be erotic--but not in the sexy sense.  Erotic refers to Eros who  breathed life into the dead planet before becoming Cupid.  (That's all wrong... the real stuff is discussed in Anne Carson's excellent book  "Eros the Bittersweet", highly recommended)  Eros, then is life itself and the creative force that breaths life (i.e. inspires) into the world.  To show her feet, the character (at least in my mind) is allowing herself to reconnect to the planet directly.   And its so much easier to walk in another's shoes if you don't have to pull them off their feet.  And there they are...(my shoes.  I took a photo.)


The brown side panels were to play up the Holbein palette thing.

The title was inadvertently suggest by my friend Candace Jensen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Two drawings

"De-Luxe" click to enlarge












Sometimes a drawing does a mitosis.  (Mitosisizes?)  Well, the thing split itself into two pieces somewhere along the line.

I had this notion to do an old woman barfing.  Yeah, I know, not really a new idea for me...I am deathly phobic of barf, so it always seems a fresh, relevant take on life...especially in these political times.  So I had my usual Photoshop mock up and stuck in a folder for later.  

Old woman barfing
Old woman barfing rough sketch











Later turned out to be about a week ago.

Second generation of sketch











Let's see: along the way a lot of changes happened, things morphed, things stretched, other things contracted...and in the end this was the drawing I made.  In my mind, I was making something about ageing...  I struggled with the barf--mainly I was thinking..."what does this even mean?" and "how will I render barf this time"?  And those two questions killed it for me.  

I guess I had always thought about contrasting an abject action with the signifiers of wealth and power--a rich cloak, embroidered robes, lace and pearls-- you know, when I was a kid going to the Boston MFA, I used to love those Rococo portraits of noblewomen.  Maybe someday, like at my PROM, I can wear a dress like that!  And oooooooooh lookie how well the artist renders silk!  Can I please drown in lace collars, pearls and jewels for one minute of my acne-ed pathetic puberty?

 (I never went to my prom).

And I grew up to understand that art had changed: it had gone from absolute spiritual necessity to flattering those who could afford odious status symbols redolent with signifiers of power.  Ew.  Thanks separation of church and state!  (Just kidding--I love separation of church and state.  But it does do a number on the meaning of art.)

Anyway: I wanted to reference that lacy stuff...I have a long history of drawing princesses and queens.  When I was a child I drew frowning queens all the time--read into that what you will. 

Frowning queen, circa 1966









 I have done a few frowning queens as an adult too!  So I added a crown and sceptre. I also added a giant sneeze cloud in the first sketch (which is not in the final drawing but if I do decide to make this a window, I will probably include).  Well, everyone these days will see that as a giant cloud of covid spreading itself around and of course, covid is mostly affecting those who are unable to avoid others--and wealthy folks can mostly avoid it, but they are every bit as vulnerable to it as a disease.  Especially if they are older.

 So whole I definitely was thinking here about privilege, about class taking a pratfall--but I was still also thinking about ageing.  I didn't want this to be a piece wherein its easy or simple to hate the powerful and laugh at their downfall just because. I want to depose certain structures more than anything, but dehumanizing your enemy is always going to end up dehumanizing yourself.  So I wanted some sympathy for this character.

I also thought she had the wrong face.  The original face was graceful and beatific--too accepting.  So I changed the face and that's when the mitosis thingie happened.

VERY quickly, I took the old face and stuck it on a body and it was magically just right.  How often does that  happen in the creative process?  JUST. ABOUT. NEVER!!!!  So that was exceedingly pleasant!

And here she is:

Friday, August 7, 2020

Garden for Maria Sibylla Merian

This li’l patch o’ heaven is a repeating design.  I started with a hideous Photoshop template cobbled together from rough sketches.  This I used to generate was I was calling “clumps”—clumps of flowers, basically, but in the arrangement that would eventually tile endlessly according to the template.template

There were three flowers clumps and a separate bird drawing and also a separate drawing of rocky soil.

Then I colored them in Photoshop.  My favorite way is to scan them in full color—and my scanner thinks pencils draw in green for some reason, so there’s plenty of weird color information even though the drawings appear more or less black and white to the eyeball.

I use the “selective color” option a lot of the time.  Mostly altering the neutrals and whites.  Just playing around until I sigh with deep and profound happiness.  I love color.  My eyeballs CRAVE color.  Bright, bright, warm color! Lots and lots of it.  But I prefer color relationships to sad lonely isolated colors.

When the coloring was done, I re-tiled the image according to the template.  It did have the teeniest seam…grrr…..which I painstakingly deleted.

What’s it all about Alfie?

The florid profusion of life…the persistent insistence of life on growing despite our best attempts to plasticize the world into a pseudo synthetic ersatzerama of fakedy fakeness.

Have I mentioned before that I barely interact with nature?  Yep: this is what I imagine plant life to be like.  In this way, I have nothing in common with Maria Sibylla Merian 

If you don’t know who she is, for goodness sake, look her up.Details: I was gonna color those birdies but I figured they would totally disappear if I did. So now they get to be ghost birds. Also, they cast a slight shadow on the ground below which helps distinguish them.  Note: I never use the drop shadow feature in the layer menu as every drop shadow looks terrible and very 2-D.As for size, the image is virtual and repeatable. the tile could be as large as, oh, two feet and could be endlessly repeated to infinity. Or smaller...its digital and the files size is ample

 So will this become wallpaper or fabric?  That’s a question I have been getting a LOT.  OK: I have some sort of crazy mental block about actually producing this.  Its not that I don’t want to—its that once the piece is done (and done means the design itself) then I havemoved on to other projects and the very last thing on earth I want to get involved in is figuring out marketing.

YES: I know Spoonflower will set up a shop for you.  My gallery wants to produce wallpaper, but not fabric so perhaps both will happen.

 Details below!:

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"