Saturday, June 23, 2012

It's Too Big

Hat-munching in front of the temple of Isis

The current visual Grand Canyon Association Artist in Residence, Melinda Esparza (who has just been outdoing herself in all manner of things lately), let me tag along for the ride for a couple of days, and I cracked open the old guerrilla painter's pochade full of wonders and soaked an otherwise unassuming page of my watercolor journal.

The Canyon is just too damn big to paint small, and of course someone who rarely touches bristles to paper isn't going to 'capture' it. But drawing and painting makes you look carefully, in a way that staring and shading your eyes for five minutes isn't going to do.

Here's another joy: in school we were restricted in our palette to primaries and neutrals by our instructors and our budgets. But now I have more latitude. I snagged a grab-bag full of winsor and newtons from Ebay, and discovered the joys of saturated tertiaries.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Memes, Semiotics and Art as Propaganda Blather Blah

I had a conversation with an artist friend recently ... we were discussing our relative positions on "What is Art?" [yeah, I know: you know what you like]. I like to think that my definition of Art is quite broad, broader than the typical man in the street's. But I do make qualitative distinctions within that broad definition: I'm always asking myself, "Yes, but is it good Art?"

So, my friend and I, as I was saying, were talking-- and I was shooting off my mouth about the relative values of 'expressive', versus 'decorative', versus 'message' art. Now, I love me some pretty art... but pretty alone doesn't hold me long. I'm always looking for some other level, something to sink my teeth into.

When I look at paint, I can't help but viscerally feel the process of the creation. It's exciting to be confronted with a painting that's all energy, whether from the joy of discovery or from the frustrated struggle to get the paint to "bend to the will." I'll admit: if you pour your passion into your work, then I'm a fan-- and that's just a personal predilection, not a requirement.

So, we were discussing "message art" because this artist friend had just attended the opening of a show that she had a piece in, which was themed on "Artists Respond to Earth." I had gotten a look through the show's catalog, which had reproductions of nearly all the works, and had a rundown from two people who had seen the show. Now it's true, I hadn't seen the show itself. But I know what I like. A lot of artists had submitted works that were "message art." And a lot of that was...bad. And my friends -- both of the people who had gone to the show -- were of the same mind, but being of a kinder temperament, they didn't want to put it that way. Because judging seems harsh. But judgement is what we do. We need it to live.

I've heard arguments that there is no room in art for messaging or moralizing (Clement Greenberg, I'm looking at you). Now here's where I start diverging from the man in the street [and really dude, how smart can you be, standing in traffic?]: good art, bad art, decorative art, expressive art, conceptual art, naive art, finger paintings, a short piece of rope nailed to the gallery wall ... I appreciate them all. All of them get the full standing as "art." It doesn't need to 'move' me to get credit. I've seen works which turned my stomach, or made me ask, "Why?" and yet I would still concede they were good-to-great works.

Message art is dicey, because there's a line that one may oh, so easily, cross, where one's passion about the subject outruns one's creativity. It forms a division between what you want to say and what the art does. So here in the catalog were all these works, some of them decrying fracking, some showing a puppy with the Earth between his paws. [Look at the puppy! What a cute puppy! Look, he's got the Earth between his paws! Such a cute puppy! Mumm umm mmumm..!]

Some worked better than others. My friend's work was a mixed media piece, including leaves. I liked it, and not just because she was my friend. It fit the theme, and it wasn't heavy handed. And it's not that I disapproved of the messages I saw. Flammable water? I'm pretty firmly against that. And I'm not against saving the world so that giant puppies have something to hover over, in space.

As I was blathering, trying to articulate what it was about these works -- with messages I approved of -- that I didn't think the art was good. The craft was fine. The puppy was very nicely rendered. I realized there was danger in message work. You know what's on the other side of that line, the one between being passionate and wanting to instruct your audience, the one between expression and pedantry? It's kitsch. Triteness. The cliche. And if you want to go there, well, you better have your eyes open.

What is message art? It's art for a Greater Cause. Art which is no longer primarily a human connection, but is a Lesson, a Warning, or a Dogma... "That's propaganda," I proclaimed. And these kinds of bigger ideas, they can be a beautiful thing, when the artist's heart is opened and poured out. Think about the Death of Marat, or Goya's The Third of May 1808. But true emotions -- well, love is not shaped like the hearts in a deck of cards.

The scratchboard work above? Thanks for asking. It's a letter to my son... Message art, in the most literal sense. So, now I've really stepped in it, right? Feel free to pile on.

To be sure, my message is 'aimed' at my son. He knows me. We have a history--and with that, there are inside jokes. Which means a more general, blog-reading audience isn't going to "get" all of it.

All the images are from communist propaganda, over a hundred years worth. (Don't quote me on that. The guy with the shovel might be Czarist propaganda. It's from a WWI recruitment poster.) In this piece I was thinking about how ideas come and go in and out of currency. I chose the concept because, of all ideas that are currently out of style, communism's way near the top. Capitalism has "won." Today, we're all happy Tweeters now, and there are no commies left.

But capitalism--and I don't think this is an ideological statement--is unquestionably a dead end, because before all the world's resources are even fully exploited (which would end growth, and capitalism would collapse), we're all going to be replaced by robots. I used to think about this, and I believed the economists' claim that we'd all be freed up for other jobs then. Jobs like "Robot Repairman." [They said the same thing about 'free trade' agreements. Yes, those made some new jobs... in international banking. But only so many people work in banking, because it's mostly done by computers now. And the number of jobs created was nowhere near the jobs lost. Yes, we export more now to those countries than we used to. But we import far more. A net loss. Moving all our jobs to the service sector, where we manufacture nothing except 'fries with that', has caused wages and living standards to fall. And besides, look what the bankers did.]

And now I know that soon, machines will be able to make and repair other machines. Then, with no way to earn money, how will we buy things from the people that own all the factories?

So, if it came to that, we would be forced to evaluate our options along the dividing lines of the basics: how will people eat if we can't buy food, and what would people do about it, if someone else is hoarding all the food? It could get messy. Substitute anything else you want, that's important enough: fresh water. Health care. A safe place to raise kids. Freedom from bigotry.

That's the background on the imagery. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek. Kinda. But the exercise is real: What do you do when your best idea turns out to be a dead end? Ideas are critical, every day. What are your art ideas? Where are they leading you? See, even there. You make judgements. And if it could be so, I would want my son to help make a better world. So, I wrote him a letter. It's fatherly love, and hope. Remember hope?

The uploaded image doesn't have enough resolution. Click the image. The Blogger viewer shows the image in a dark background. Right-click that image (in Windows), and choose "View Image." The JPG opens in its own page, and the cursor turns to a magnifying glass. Click again and see the full sized JPG. The tiny little text around the frames says this:
"It is ... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life...we shall call it semiology" -F. Saussure. What are the semiotics of facial expressions? Of famine? Of love vs. affection or admiration? How will we know the signs of moral rightness? How do we read the language of political weaknesses so that we may be forewarned? Because

what is the value of a signal which can only be decoded in retrospect? The fact that I rush to finish an opus in the anxious hours, waiting word that you passed safely under the eye of the hurricane is a sign of so many things. That I care if you live, and fret about how to know if you will succeed, and that I worry that I won't have had

the time--or will wait too long--to impart my full book of secret signs you must know to wage your campaign successfully. Imagine the power in Insurreccion Evangelica! I worry that

I will not live to see your greatest day. And I grieve in anticipation that I will have waited past my last chance to tell you "I love you." We leave signs as much to impart knowledge as an effort to

be not forgotten. Ideas are like capital, they acquire value according to their ability to generate more ideas. Ideas are fungible, and can be split, liquidated, exchanged, and hyper inflated. And, they are

used, sometimes, for corrupt ends. What value will "Life" have, when the machines control the means of production? Remember that large groups are nearly unstoppable but beware of the message from the lone gun man. Ideas are like child-

ren. They can be born, can grow with nurturance and will propagate in the presence of others. But if you should have a bad idea, there's no call to feed it. A better one will come along sooner or later. Beware reliance upon stretched analogies. Some ideas will live again in the resurrection to come, but some will claim the ideas weren't really dead. Some ideas mutate and evolve. And some will die in an asteroid winter.

How do we recognize the signs of a good idea? Ideas thrive, like life, in a gradient -- between hill top and valley. They might be impossible in a symmetrical universe. Look for them in contrasts -- without black and white, form would be indistinguishable from space. Sometimes an idea gets tarted up in a party dress, and looks good only be-

cause of tailoring. These are ideas transmitted by masters of semiotics. But some memes persist simply because they are broadcast by the highest-powered transmitter and they drown out the semiotics of other meme-carriers.

Having put all the work and thought and concern into the piece, I thought maybe it was worth sharing with a larger audience. Now I'm looking at you. Maybe--just maybe--I could start you thinking. Without being too heavy handed about it. The cliches? Those were chosen with eyes wide open. I'm not trying to convert you. I'm hoping you'll see things in a new way.

You be the judge.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ravens and doves

A trip to New Mexico resulted in an extended experience: first in Lordsburg, then in Santa Fe, when the two events came to work together.

The text on this piece says:
"New Mexico World"
"I watched an aerial battle today. A small gray-brown mourning dove chased a young raven in circles over the tree-lined street. Around and around again. The raven landed on a power line & the dove lighted about twenty feet away, as though a momentary truce was declared, to catch their respective breaths. Sure enough, the dove arrowed at the raven once more. But this time, the raven couldn't get away with his lazy circles, as the dove cut across his arc, coming up at him from below and behind. Again and again the dove made vicious contact and the raven nearly flipped over trying to get out of her reach. Now, he twisted and turned, dodging between narrow gaps in tree limbs. Finally he landed again on the wire, and the dove took to a tree, watching him to see if he needed another beating. Another raven landed near the first, who was now tending his hurts. They cawed and billed each other. The second raven sidled up to the first, lookinng him up and down. I'm sure the message -- between two juvenile pranksters -- was, 'Dude, you just got your ass kicked by a dove!'

"In Lordsburg stand two endangered mountains, the ore processing plant that is eating them away is in place about a half mile from them. I saw this, and the sky looked vast and dwarfed the mountains and the chemical plant. In the distance thunderclouds were gathering for the afternoon storms, and I realized that, while these mountains will disappear one after the other, to be reprocessed and redistributed into great flat expanses of concrete, the storms have been coming and going for millions of years, wiping out mountains and scattering the ruins of lost civilizations. So, as picturesque as a blue sky is, and as frisson thrilling as it is to watch a storm from a great distance, I realized that nature was going to win this one. Because just when you start feeling like you rule the skies, some dove is going to show up and kick. your. ass."

This is presented with many thanks to Ms. Clarity for letting me tag along in New Mexico. It is always an inspiration to see you inspired. And, many congratulations as well, to Artist Melinda Esparza, artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon. Your talent and hard work well deserve the honor.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

[Untitled] Art Blog Post

Still image from Untitled, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. No, really funny, ha-ha funny, not funny-peculiar. We streamed an indie film from Netflix, called [Untitled]. That's the title: [Untitled]. It's set in the contemporary New York art world. Out last year, it stars Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton, and Eion Baily, with a supporting role by Vinny Jones. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, if you've ever had anything to do with art, or wondered why some things get chosen as 'avant garde' and others get passed over. [My site-safety software has tagged the movie's web site,, as "untrustworthy", so I'm not sending you there, but here's a trailer from youtube:]

Adam Goldberg plays Adrian, a struggling experimental music composer. He drops lines like "melody was invented by corporations to sell pianos" as death knells to tonalism, the professional 'outsider.' His compositions feature wailing, torn paper, the sound of a metal bucket being kicked, and clarinet. He becomes involved with Madeleine, the Chelsea-style gallery owner that is representing his brother Josh, a commercially successful abstract painter whose work is bought in the back room, in large quantities, by corporate collectors who are looking for big, colorful works that blend into bland hotel lobbies. (Ouch.) Josh is expecting a solo show in the gallery, but Madeleine keeps turning him down in favor of showing her cutting-edge artists, like Ray Barko (Vinny Jones).

Ray, the super-self-assured artist arriviste is the kind of prima donna who spouts paradoxical nonsense like "history doesn't influence me -- I influence it." Barko's over-the-top work features taxidermy animals: a stuffed baboon smooching a vacuum cleaner, a deer in a barber's chair looking at his bleeding severed ear in a mirror, or a bobcat nailed to the wall, pheasants impaled in walls, or raccoons hanging from chandeliers festooned with pearls. His character's lines draw undoubtedly intentional comparisons to Damien Hirst, but it's worth noting that the work, as it was created for the movie by artist Kyle Ng, had more to do with the fact that Ng had a large collection of taxidermy than to the demands of the script (or producers), who originally asked for repulsive fountains and such.

The movie punches right through the issues of commercial art vs. high art, and the industry's fixation on celebrity and notoriety. It gleefully sends up the gallery scene, conceptual artists, speculating patrons, and the length and breadth of artistic angst and the desire for an audience. Untitled had us laughing and wincing, alternating between familiar hilarious absurdities, and the sting one feels from seeing someone you can't help but identify with, get slapped in the face by an uncaring world. Some characters worked their hearts and brains out, and failed to get a second look, but others, whose work seemed to be no work at all, are lauded as genius. I happily give it four stars, highly recommended for this audience.

Mass MoCA Strikes Back

The first time we got up to the Berkshires, we had time for the Clark Institute (tons of beautiful, classical European 14th-19th century work), and on the same day, a quick dash through the Williams Museum of Art (a fine collection of post-war modernist through post-minimalist work plus some themed post-modern shows), and that was it. Mass MoCA lay tantalizingly untasted, a few miles down the road. So, the MoCA was on the top of my list this time around.

I couldn't wait to see the Sol Lewitt retrospective [which turned out to be more conceptual than minimalist], was intrigued by the notion of an exhibit from Leonard Nimoy [which turned out to be a terrific notion executed with good technique, but little depth], and figured I'd have little interest in the material/process works [which proved to be wrong - it was very interesting]. I was hoping against hope that there might be some painting displayed, but understood that would be a long shot, since painting [have you heard?] is dead. [I did find paintings, in a back room. I'll try to post about that another time.]

The ground floor was allocated to "Petah Coyne: Everything That Rises Must Converge," a solo exhibition...

Image: Mass MoCA

Yes. Those are taxidermy animals. Melinda said, "Oh my God. Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

I said, "Wait, is this a joke?"

Other pieces featured a dozen peacocks in a jet-black iron tree. There were taxidermied pheasants, and ducks. Another involved ropes of pearls, and a chandelier. A bobcat and a bat made appearances. On entering the gallery, I had crossed a twilight line into a surreal, ultra-vivid version of Untitled. We walked about, counting coincidences, jaws slack, eyebrows raised. At any moment, one of the security people was going to turn to me and say, "You have an eye."

Even the gallery representing Coyne is in New York. [But then, how could it not be?] Suddenly cast into a satire, we laughed, snickered and coughed in our sleeves as we went from room to room.

Ray Barko lives!

Yes, the work is serious, and has an ominous presence of its own. Like "Untitled #1240 (Black Cloud)" it is uncomfortable, and the animals are posed in feral stances, mid-flight, fighting or mating. Some are half submerged, suffocating in fountains of waxed flowers. Black velvet and black forge dust soaks up the light and defies attempts to see it as more than a silhouette. It is a struggle of life and death. With a lot of death. But. it's. Barko.

Please understand, this isn't about the value, effectiveness or merit of the work. It's about the fact that we'd just had work like this broadly satirized, as over-the-top shock and awe art. With that frame, we were completely unable to see the work without referencing the joke, and so, we were thoroughly inoculated from being able to take it seriously. Just the fact that it made us 'uncomfortable' was a joke. As one buyer said in the film "It makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I think of that as a sign of the quality of the work."

MoCA said photos were allowed upstairs, but not in the Coyne show, which I take as an attempt to 'protect' the work from overexposure. Yet, when the most cutting-edge work in the museum screams "derivative" because of a parody film, it doesn't feel like it's cutting edge, regardless of who had the chicken, and who had the egg. It seemed like a parody of ... itself.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I'm grateful for this—this world-wide quasicommunity—because I can reach across space in real-time and let you know that there's a person here, and I can hear you, and I care. It only seemed fitting to post some recent journal images from Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is at least proximal geographically to the "first" Thanksgiving. [The painting was done looking through a hotel window when the day turned cold. Is that still en plein air? Or just 'plein'?]

I'd been to Plymouth, in early years, and stared at the Rock with its trenchant "1624," and have since reflected on the devoted but narrow-minded fundamentalist fanatics that landed in the area. They were wholly unprepared to live off the land, lacking even basic tools for creating shelter (or the wit to learn the skills to make one before leaving their former culture) who had yet the good sense (grace?) to recognize which side of their popcorn the butter was on when winter came and the locals were kind enough to not let them starve. (Yes, popcorn. Corn is a New World grain, and the first people here stored it dried for winter, and ate much of it popped. Without salt.)

I'm grateful for having had the chance to travel, to see the leaves turn in Williamstown this year, and know that life goes on, and feel the flow of it around and through me. To see my son at college, turning into his own man, bursting with new thoughts and feelings, with the potency of dried corn in winter, to think that his knowledge and contributions will be the stored sustenance of the coming age. To see art, and make it. These things make me grateful.

Don't think me bizarre for drawing in a graveyard. They are filled with marks and sigils, semiotics of life, and lives lived. I find cemeteries deeply meaningful, and they fill my heart with love for people who lived, and died, and those who wanted to remember and be remembered. This old necropolis has markers of people born in the 1700's, who were pioneers of western expansion, who lived through the Revolution, and knew what it was to go to war for independence from a distant and greedy governance, and to gain self rule. Who (notwithstanding the people who were already here) had to clear land, make a road for wagons where there were none, and built first one wood home, then many. Their descendants ran schools and volunteer fire stations, voted for mayor and built mills. They played in the rivers and prayed for rain. And sometimes they were grateful, just to be alive.

To my friends and family, "Thank you." It's great to know I have a place, and a voice, and a table with food on it, and, God willing, we'll all make it through winter.

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. —Horace Mann

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Picasso was a sonofabitch

Picasso famously said "Good artists copy. Great artists steal."* No doubt his intent was either:
  1. ironical, or
  2. deliberately subversive, or
  3. referring to the fact that artists don't work in a vacuum, but build on each other's work
Unfortunately, the statement is—like so many things today, when ignorance is considered remedied by a Google search—easily bastardized and misread. I hope against hope that Picasso didn't mean to sanction stealing. He spent a lot of time disputing claims that Braque had a superior claim to cubism, so he could remain the 'inventor of cubism.' Surely, he understood the importance of being first.

In my day job, I work in the intangibles. What bean counters call "Intellectual Properties." [Actually, they just call it "IP." Because the only thing bean counters love as much as money is acronyms that talk about money.] That's right. I'm in Communications. Brands, trademarks, salesmarks, patents, copyrights... broadly speaking, ideas. My stock in trade.

Now, I assume that most of you are [blogging] artists. So, your work shows a broad overlap with my day job, in the great Venn Diagram of Job Descriptions in the Sky. And that means we've got something very important in common: we trade, whether for dollars or readers, in ideas, images, and words.

...To the wise, is sufficient

There have been movements in art that challenge the notion, the sanctity, of ideas as "belonging" to someone. I welcome those challenges. But so far, those challenges have failed, in that people continue to hold the notion that the work they produce belongs to them, until they give it up. Your paintings are yours until you sell them, give them away, or bestow them as an inheritance ... unless you explicitly grant a permission to reproduce it. They are automatically copyrighted, according to US Federal law.**

You actually don't even need a copyright symbol on it. You don't need to file a copy of it with the Library of Congress. These things help, but even without them the law is clear: it's yours.

Get it? Your words and ideas are yours. Your blog posts: yours. Your cool "hooks" to get people reading, and to come back: yours. The thumbnails of your art: yours. The gratuitous pictures of your cat, or snapshots from your painting outing: yours. And nobody else's. Here's the flip side:

If you didn't think of it and make it, it's NOT YOURS.

This is where I get ugly

Basically, there's no way to "borrow" an idea. If you use it, and you don't explain where you got it, that's "theft" of an idea, because there's no way to give it back if you've already given someone else the impression that the idea was yours. Every schoolchild knows this. It's the same as cribbing an answer off the desk next to yours. When you copy someone's idea, even if you change it a bit to look different... it's still copying. Cheating.

The proper word is plagiarism. It can be defined as:
... the stealing and passing off of the words or ideas of another as one’s own or using another person’s production without due credit to its source...
Plagiarism can get your blog removed from the web, can get you fired, can ruin your professional reputation ... simply put: steer clear of it.

But, but, but...

"... I always get the greatest ideas from things I see and read!" Of course you do. Everyone does. This is probably what Picasso meant. What happens if you read or see something great, and that gets you thinking, and you get an idea that builds on it? That's creativity. [It's still polite to acknowledge where you started from.]

But if you want to "use" someone else's thought, give some attribution. On the blogosphere, that's as easy as a mention couched in words such as, "I was reading this great post over on so-and-so's blog, and it got me thinking. They were talking about the great painting instructor they had, and that reminded me of my favorite painting instructor... etc." The linkback is not required, but is expected under etiquette.

It's that easy to be polite, and steer clear of cheating. So, rules to be an artist by:
  • Own your stuff.
  • Own up to what you don't own.

Dude, why the lather?

  1. I want you to be able to hold on to what is rightfully yours.
  2. Melinda had one of her posts plagiarized recently.
  3. Authenticity matters. Especially among artists.

* I've found lots of attributions of this to Picasso, but I can't find a single citation.
**I am not an attorney. Consult one if you have questions.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keeping promises -- an art journal I owe myself

Moleskine makes a terrific, pocket-sized journal with bristol paper in a japanese accordian fold. Ms. Clarity got me one (Thanks, Melinda!). It makes for an ideal art journal: never intimidating, always a sense of play, expansive when you want it, and portable enough that you can imagine taking it anywhere, pulling it out on a whim, and either drawing what's in front of you, or reflecting on your response to your surroundings.*

This is just the kind of low threshold I need to keep my promise to myself: make more art, post more blogs, no matter how hairy things were. I've even abandoned my habit of 'care' in these drawings, accepting stray lines for what they are: unexpected vectors. I strive for spontaneity and a new way of expressing line and thought. Text is line. Line is line. The page is flat.

I know I'm not the only one who's been staggered recently by the vagaries of life and 'interesting times.' So, I'm not alone. Each of us seeks a way to return to basic principals. To core responsibilities. To reaching out, or plumbing new depths -- whichever it is that brings back our selves, our lives, our heartbeat. Here's to you, and everyone trying to keep the green shoots alive. You know who you are. You have my admiration.

Three journal pages

Are your furnishings plotting something? Sometimes, mine just have a look about them. Shifty, kind of.

... Gumby can squish himself into a ball, and extrude himself through the slit under the door.

Quiet time to read. All we really need is a puffy couch and a ripping good book. Or at least, the book.

*I did not accept monetary or other remuneration for this unsolicited endorsement. On the other hand, no one offered.