Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A selection

So these are a few images I'm continuing to work on.  Though I'm not satisfied with them, I need to post them since the purpose of this blog is, in part, for me to throw out ideas so I can work out them or abandon them—to hear what I can say about them, feel it through and agree or disagree with myself.  The other part is that this blog is here to hold myself accountable to projects I've started—since I have a tendency to let them putter out.  So, here is a selection:

My impressions:  I've been calling them “portraits,” but they're not.  For me, someone who knows each sitter, they are not about these people; they don't reveal anything particular about them—their personalities, histories, circumstances, or my interpretation of any of those things.  They could be anyone.  Instead, they strike me as images about themes, such as flesh, mortality, & degradation, in large part because they remind me of death masks, contorted out of form.  Perhaps they're reflected on a shimmering surface of water.

In each of these images there seems to be a particular feature of interest—an exaggerated cheek or ear, expressive hands or lips—through which I enter the image and begin to interpret it.  What is this?  Who is this?  What is she or he doing?  How are things so skewed?  What is the point of view?  How deep or shallow is it?  This control in the image I like a great deal.

One thing I'm uncomfortable with right now, is how moody many (though not all) of the images are.  Right now, themes of flesh, mortality and degradation are compelling and interesting to me, but when they are rendered through simple and commonly associated moods or emotions such as pain, loss, melancholy, or fear they tend to become trite.  Some would say juvenile.  In either case, without any sort of complication of them, images like this are uninteresting to me.

So, I am now wondering if these images need to contain narratives, something like the image above.  Perhaps a story and some bit of animation that will provide them with a sense of life that can counterbalance the strong feeling conveyed by the death mask image.  By the process itself, I'm not going to be able to change the death mask element, so how can I work with it and make it more meaningful?

Although I had not intended any resemblances when I started this project, I was merely experimenting with the tools I have, I did quickly realize some similarities between these images and Francis Bacon's bodies.

Francis Bacon from Three Studies for a Portrait of Peter Board, 1975

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976

  Self-Portrait, 1973

In a lot of ways the comparison is not apt, but it could be useful to productively flesh out how my images do and do not work.  First, and most obviously, Bacon's works are paintings with brush strokes, scrapes, and splatters of extreme intensity.  Bacon's process, his physical energy and, by inference, some part of his state of mind, show up in his paintings.  These features of Bacon's works make them dynamic and charismatic, and draw me into the abstraction of the image, wanting to piece together the distended, fragmented bodies.  That these works compel me so deeply to interact with them is a sign of a well executed artwork.

In comparison, my images are cold and unrevealing. They do not show my “hand,” my physical movements or state of mind as the image was created. Although I can make choices of color tone and contrast to convey some of those things, those means are not as effective, loaded, or moving. And I don't think should I expect to find something precisely comparable in these images. So, what are the compositional elements of these images that are uniquely productive? Well, if you know these are scans, and you know how a scanner produces the image by a slow, linear chronology across the pane of glass–then as a viewer you can piece together a short, fragmented history of movement. You could imagine how the sitter may have changed positions, or even how he or she changed moods over the course of the image. But for each small section revealed in that history, there are much larger sections on both sides of the “read head” left unrecorded—obscured. And yet, because of their superficial similarity to photography, I am compelled to read these images, like photographs, as if they convey a singular fleeting moment—as if the ambiguity lies in the particular moment captured rather than in the sequence that must have occurred between various moments. Figuring out how to best take advantage of that is important.

Second point. Bacon's works bleed references from classic paintings, Catholic imagery, and even borrow from some of Muybridge's studies of motion.  This underlying structure can be probed and questioned intellectually.  We can ask productive questions about modern versus classical representations of the body, and what Bacon may be doing, perhaps as a postwar response to human-inflicted suffering and mutilation, or perhaps as his sort of working out of the homosexual body in light of the strict norms of his time.  What I'm driving at is that Bacon, with references like these, has created a second non-physical layer to the works that we can respond to emotionally and intellectually.  And as we interact with his works, we see the two layers in conversation, in productive tension or cooperation that build a full and powerful image.

After Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon

Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Diego Valazquez

Tryptic - August 1972

"Men Wrestling," lower half of a plate from Eadweard Muybridge's The Human Figure in Motion, taken from Bacon's studio

In contrast, my images currently have no references, no intentional precursors, and no deeper structure I am manipulating.  They are all surface right now.  Any references one could make in one image would not be sustained across multiple images.  And there are no connections between them that create tensions or relaxations that would particularly productive. What connects them is a common “look,” a mood, and basic themes.  That alone is just boring.

So perhaps that gives a little direction for these works. In conjunction with tweaking the “looks” (color tones, contrasts, mode of presentation, all the formal elements), I could be working on some content—a second, compelling layer perhaps accomplished by the narratives I was thinking of including earlier. That layer could serve to counterbalance the general moodiness and the dominance of the themes in each of these images, while perhaps giving some continuity across images.

Whatever these images need exactly, they need more generally a place for the imagination and intellect to romp and play and push productively against ambiguities; they need to interact with—temper, complicate, contradict, or expand—the blunt emotional evocations the work produces. Otherwise, people will interact with it purely as an illustration, which although is not bad, is not what I'm going for.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In two parts


Two artists whose work I admire. I came across BLU last month and immediately thought of William Kentridge—a comparison I imagine is common. The thought came to me when I saw the “ghosting” in BLU's MUTO video (how the characters and objects leave a physical trace of their positions from the prior stop frames). I've always loved the ghosting in Kentridge's work; it's such a powerful way to formally develop the themes Kentridge is interested in: South African memory and the resonances Apartheid. For BLU's videos, the ghosts are effective too, in a similar although not identical way. To me, they resemble the swatches and blocks of paint left by property owners or cities that paint over graffiti or street art to discourage their makers. Even if they use the exact same paint it never blends in perfectly. You can tell at least that there was some image or message left there at one time. Often you can see it faintly underneath. These paint swatches resonate for their neighborhoods and provide some sense of layered, indelible memory—the overlapping of opposing forces—the history of conflicts, crimes, and the human impulses to gouge & plaster over.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

James Castle, Part 1

After being sternly warned by a security guard that “Absolutely no photography is allowed in this exhibit,” I continued to photograph the drawings. Since there was only one guard in the exhibit, it was a simple caper. I just kept tabs on his rounds through the different rooms. To avoid drawing attention to myself, I would pretend to scribble something down in my notebook while I traced the course of his footsteps by ear. During one round, as the guard was about to exit the room, I overheard a young man dismiss one of the drawings, “This isn't art.” To the credit of a young woman he was with, she quickly responded, “Of course it is!” Their conversation ended there and I snapped a photo of a barnyard drawn in soot.

Garden Valley House with Outside Staircase

Soot-and-spit drawing, with stick applied lines and wiped soot wash on gray cardboard faced with cream paper (from Rinso box); punched, stretched and tied around edge with white string.

I tend to agree with the young woman, but with a slight variation on her response: “Of course it can be!” In fact, most anything can be art: a tattered shoe lace in the gutter; the rhythm of the surf on a beach; a mathematic fractal calculated and spit out by a computer. When we call something “art,” we are not simply identifying it as one of a particular class of objects, or one of a certain sort of actions. We call that thing “art” because we are having a relationship with it—an active relationship (albeit, of a very particular sort). So when the girl exclaimed, “Of course it is art!” she was affirming that she was having this sort of relationship with the drawing. And when the boy murmured , “This isn't art,” he was merely pointing out, with bitterness, that he was not. The abruptness of their conversation made me wonder if not another sort of relationship had just been denied.

I have a hunch that this response, “this isn't art,” (and the denied relationship it most clearly implies) is not an uncommon response to James Castle's drawings and cardboard objects. After all, this temporary exhibit was relatively quiet on both free Thursday nights I've visited while the rest of the museum buzzed with visitors. But perhaps most museum-goers would not question or be interested in whether or not Castle's objects are art. Instead, their lack of enthusiasm could be the result of their answering—in the negative—a much more sophisticated and interesting question of James Castle's work: “Is it good art?” That question is deceptively simple, however, so to begin to answer it for myself, I'll pose a related question that requires a little more work: “In what ways does it fail and in what ways does it succeed if we engage it as art?”

Farmscape with houses, Totems and "Tumbleweed" Bushes

Soot-and-spit drawing, with stick applied lines and wiped soot wash on cream paper.

An introduction to James Castle is in order, but you're not going to get it from me. I'm lazy. So rather than paraphrase an already concise one, I'll just reproduce a section of the introduction on the Art Institute's website [1]:

An artist who has received growing attention over the past few decades for producing a remarkable body of work without undergoing formal training, James Castle is especially admired for the unique handmade quality, graphic skill, and visual and conceptual range that characterizes his art...

Castle, an Idaho native who was by all accounts deaf since birth, drew over and over again the living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, barns, sheds, and chicken houses that were rooted in his rural surroundings. His favorite medium was a combination of wood-burning-stove soot and saliva. Because he used found papers, not commercially produced ones, and homemade rather than professional artists’ materials, his works have a singular, immediate, and natural quality—a sort of passionate commitment particular to his art—that complements perfectly the skill and acuteness with which he manipulated his materials.

Castle did not learn to lip-read, fingerspell, or sign but instead seemed to have turned his obsessive and constant production of drawn images into his primary mode of communication. Lacking the tools of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, Castle structured his own sense of place through the precise architectural and spatial references of his familiar surroundings. He also drew upon a broad assortment of sources for inspiration, including magazines, books, catalogues, advertisements, commercial packaging, newspapers, and cartoons, as well as from the deep resources of his constantly investigatory and analytical mind.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rising

The rising sun

The rising moon

These are two images I made a little over a year ago for a series I was tentatively calling "the rising."  The visual look of the series was developing from what I was seeing in Japanese ehon [1] and watercolor. The structure of the series, I was hoping, would loosely represent a lifespan. The first image, besides evoking the Japanese flag (as a nod to the Japanese artistic traditions I was drawing from), was intended to be an image of birth generally, while referencing the mythical birth of Amaterasu Omikami [2], the Shinto sun goddess.  As well, it borrows from western symbolism the comparison of two types of human creativity—expression and birth.  I find this metaphor particularly interesting—both telling and compelling—and my use of it here is in part my working through one of my favorite sections from Whitman's "Song of Myself" [3].  I intended the second image, to represent in part a passage into death, but also, as the moon functions symbolically in Western tradition, a form of rebirth. I had it in mind that the images would be viewed cyclically, so that one could start again at the rising sun.

Overall, I was hoping the work would flaunt the divide between “eastern” and “western” pre-globized culture that has persisted for both practical and political reasons. The images would be sort of be an irreverent mingling of the two, for the joy of it.

These two images and that general outline above was as far as I got before being derailed by other things—life. I'm not sure if I'll ever pick up the project again or not. So, I figured I'd bring them back to mind and see what would happen.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Something along it's way

This is something I've been working on in my living room, for over the couch. When I made the initial sketch I had a particular interest in the challenges of these two materials—leaves and watercolor—with which I have very little experience. The leaves, I figured, would be an unique challenge since their shape (2- and 3-dimensionally), color, texture, and sturdiness are constantly shifting not only while I produce the work, but also for a long time afterward. I figured they'd fade, crinkle, crack, and crumble over weeks—which would provide an interesting juxtaposition to the watercolor materially and narratively. Possibly, after a few months, it would look like the leaves were being squeezed so all the color was being drained slowly out of them down the wall. It's not there yet, and I still can't anticipate if it'll ever look like that.

It doesn't have to. Principally, this was going to be a sort of experiment—an exercise in learning how to recognize and respond to new materials. While the watercolor worked out very well, even better than I anticipated, the leaves have surprised and frustrated me in a number of ways that would make me handle them differently if I ever use them again. Establishing the outline and adding depth to the cloud was particularly difficult and in the end, those aspects didn't match up exactly to the first or any of the revised sketches I made. Originally, I wanted the leaves to have the exact shape of a thunderhead—just a simple representation of a cloud. Later, I wanted it to look more like a pile of leaves that the viewer was raking up when at this frozen moment in the chore, looking down on the pile, it resembles something like a thunderhead. The dripping watercolor, I was hoping, would evoke the lines a rake leaves behind in the cleared grass—as well as the obvious tie-in to the imagined thunderhead. I think in the end, it's not too far off from the second sketch, but the pile of leaves really needs more depth. However, besides these materials being unpredictable, they are finite. I hadn't gathered enough and there were no more to be had by the time I and the leaves got to this current state.

As far as using the two materials together, I was wondering what sort of productive tensions they would establish, in particular in the representation of a cloudburst. The differences in the way they convey depth, their materiality, gravity, moisture and shape seem to be the most relevant ways in which the two materials disagree. On another hand, they are joined imaginatively, beyond the simple representations of a cloudburst or a raked pile of leaves, by the image of blood and flesh—a sense of mortality. At best, I would hope these three impression would run together for the viewer—allow him or her to create a little narrative in their imagination about raking leaves and the moment in which we recognize a shape in something seemingly random (like finding a face in a carpet). And then hopefully, the sense of mortality could leak into whatever other resonances that symbol of a cloudburst might have for the viewer. So I guess the piece would be about that moment of recognition and the imaginative and emotional flight that follows.

Maybe someone would see that, but I'm having my doubts. The thing that bothers me most about the work so far, is actually the visual relationship between the watercolor and the leaves. For a lack of a better word, it feels “gimmicky” to me. I guess the disparity between the two materials is too great. They are too different. They lack the sense of one material needing the other. There's probably some other material out there, beside watercolor, that would accomplished everything I described above, more poignantly. I don't know what that material is, but I've just got a gut feeling these two don't quite work together.

So, at this point, I'm looking at this piece like it's in a middle stage. I'm needing to add something to it, but I'm not sure what yet. Maybe it needs a third material to somehow “join” the watercolor and leaves. Maybe the whole leaf pile narrative/idea needs to be dropped and I should re-imagine the representation as a full blown child's fable or something. Not sure. I just have a feeling what ever I add, I will be adding blue—a rich cobalt blue...


I designed and installed this piece back in September for a music professor's office at the University of Alabama.   The office serves as both her individual, professional space and a place for her to teach students and small classes.  Despite it's present state of collapse, it's a fully functional shelf .

I was a little rushed to finish it and would like to go back to tweak a few things I think aren't just right.  I'd jostle a few records and I'd probably add a little life to the books and picture frames on the bottom shelf--changing the narrative  so the top shelf collides with the bottom. Right now, it's the instant before the top shelf slams into the bottom.  But generally, I think the piece has got what I was driving at.

Also, I'd like to take some photographs of the shelves in the beautiful natural light of her office.  These were taken at about 3am, when--even as far south as Tuscaloosa--there is surprisingly no sunlight. 


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Body Eclectic

{Images to mull over}

André Kertész
American, born Hungary, 1894 - 1985
Satyric Dancer, 1926
Gelatin Silver Print

El Lissitzky
Russian, 1890 - 1941

The Constructor, 1925
 Gelatin Silver Print

Hans Bellmer
German, 1902 - 1975

Untitled, 1936
Brush and white gouache on black paper tipped on pink paper

all from Art Institute of Chicago's exhibit, "Photography on Display: Modern Treasures"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Our buildings will rise, poke out our own eyes.

Charles Sheeler
American, 1883 - 1965
Industry, 1932
Gelatin silver collage (triptych)

from Art Institute of Chicago's exhibit, "Photography on Display: Modern Treasures"


Mess. Occasions drew me early to this City,
And as the gates I enter'd with Sun-rise,
The morning Trumpets Festival proclaim'd
Through each high street: little I had dispatch't
When all abroad was rumour'd that this day [ 1600 ]
Samson should be brought forth to shew the people
Proof of his mighty strength in feats and games;
I sorrow'd at his captive state, but minded
Not to be absent at that spectacle.
The building was a spacious Theatre [ 1605 ]
Half round on two main Pillars vaulted high,
With seats where all the Lords and each degree
Of sort, might sit in order to behold,
The other side was op'n, where the throng
On banks and scaffolds under Skie might stand; [ 1610 ]
I among these aloof obscurely stood.
The Feast and noon grew high, and Sacrifice
Had fill'd thir hearts with mirth, high cheare, & wine,
When to thir sports they turn'd. Immediately
Was Samson as a public servant brought, [ 1615 ]
In thir state Livery clad; before him Pipes
And Timbrels, on each side went armed guards,
Both horse and foot before him and behind
Archers, and Slingers, Cataphracts and Spears.
At sight of him the people with a shout [ 1620 ]
Rifted the Air clamouring thir god with praise,
Who had made thir dreadful enemy thir thrall.
He patient but undaunted where they led him,
Came to the place, and what was set before him
Which without help of eye, might be assay'd, [ 1625 ]
To heave, pull, draw, or break, he still perform'd
All with incredible, stupendious force,
None daring to appear Antagonist.
At length for intermission sake they led him
Between the pillars; he his guide requested [ 1630 ]
(For so from such as nearer stood we heard)
As over-tir'd to let him lean a while
With both his arms on those two massie Pillars
That to the arched roof gave main support.
He unsuspitious led him; which when Samson [ 1635 ]
Felt in his arms, with head a while enclin'd,
And eyes fast fixt he stood, as one who pray'd,
Or some great matter in his mind revolv'd.
At last with head erect thus cryed aloud,
Hitherto, Lords, what your commands impos'd [ 1640 ]
I have perform'd, as reason was, obeying,
Not without wonder or delight beheld.
Now of my own accord such other tryal
I mean to shew you of my strength, yet greater;
As with amaze shall strike all who behold. [ 1645 ]
This utter'd, straining all his nerves he bow'd,
As with the force of winds and waters pent,
When Mountains tremble, those two massie Pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro,
He tugg'd, he shook, till down thy came and drew [ 1650 ]
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sate beneath,
Lords, Ladies, Captains, Councellors, or Priests,
Thir choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this but each Philistian City round [ 1655 ]
Met from all parts to solemnize this Feast.
Samson with these immixt, inevitably
Pulld down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only scap'd who stood without.

from John Milton's Samson Agonistes, "The Argument" [1]

July 8, 1932 – The Dow Jones Industrial Average reaches its lowest level of the Great Depression, bottoming out at 41.22. 

November 21, 1932 – German president Hindenburg begins negotiations with Adolf Hitler about the formation of a new government.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A steel plant

Luke Swank
American, 1890 - 1944
Steel Plant, 1932
Gelatin Silver Print

from Art Institute of Chicago's exhibit, "Photography on Display: Modern Treasures"

Vivid contrasts, studied and subtly unbalanced symmetry, energetic lines and angles. Against a romantic cloudscape. [1] [2] Against. Violence. [3] A battleship docked at port? Towers, smokestacks looming over electrical lines. A comparison of power—military and industrial. No? A Steel Plant. Steel. Plant. Comparison yet. Light and darkness, movement and pause, tranquility and upheaval, disarray and design, natural and human, romantic and modern. A story, a vignette, a declaration of the rise of a modern industry, magnificent and shadowy! Arise, arise! billowy clouds bursting from the stacks—handrails atop the towers—mysterious, sourceless light that hums in the sky—power lines, like scratches in the film, gouge the surface and deny with an enormous X the things beneath!

“[Swank] served in the U.S. Army during the first World War, and was assigned to a research facility to study the manufacture of poison gasses.” [4]

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-from, Deluce Et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Song of Myself, Section 25

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.

We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break.

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.

Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?

Come now I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation,
Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?
Waiting in gloom, protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts, it keeping tally with the meaning of all things,
Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this day.)

My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.