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.