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.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Looking ahead, behind and inside

Mail art.

The cool thing about a mail art piece -- in my case (with all due deference to Ms. Clarity, goddess of mail art in my circle)*-- is that, the nature of the audience is generally better known than the audience for a piece of work that "nobody asked for." I created this piece as a letter to my son.** It embodies a great deal of 'code' that, had I been designing for the public, would have been simply enigmatic.

As an example: For my specific audience, we have shared the fun of things I read to him as a child. Comics were a special treat brought on camping trips, and often read by flashlight. He understands why I chose the comic format, and immediately has a deeper connection to my choice of medium than if I'd chosen something else. But today I have an adult audience (0f one), so the format no longer speaks as to children. Here, themes concern the notions of dreams as opposed to work; love as something that happens in the midst of life... and the human capacity to render even the most outré and specialized activity banal.

But, let's just say he couldn't "get" all of it. But if you are of a certain age, you'll understand if I say that Darren McGavin and James Clavell made an impression. And Ben Stein has been a disappointment.

But as a letter, father to son, it embodies my qualms about the future (his future, I guess), a few nods of the head to his childhood, and still manages to be a personally soul-searching endeavor, if comic-book action-opera and humor qualify as soul-searching. I did get some decent psychological benefit from the exercise, but it may have cured me of my notion to make a body of work consisting of single pages from mythical comics... those guys (and they're almost all guys) work hard for the money.

*Ray Johnson, the likely originator of mail art as a massively interactive work of collaboration and unlimited reproduction, had a different notion. Call me parochial.
** Reproduced here with permission of the original audience.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A last look

Catalina State Park, 2010.Watercolor on paper, approx 5"x7"

This view is of the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, which Tucsonans refer to as the "backside of the Catalinas." Catalina Park is about 40 minutes North of Tucson. With the [risible] budget shortage in the statehouse, the park is on the short list to close until revenues "recover". So, look now, while you can.

Our legislators have lowered taxes nearly every year for more than a decade -- despite having the lowest budget of many states, and an education expenditure which vies with Arkansas for the bottom of 50 states. When you're on the I-10 crossing from Arizona to New Mexico, you can hear the clunking, roaring, chattering pavement ruts go nearly silent as you cross the border into New Mexico, a state that knows how to take care of infrastructure.

It irks me that they would put something as fundamental to the common welfare (and to my inspiration as an artist) at risk, as a nature park. Let's make a resolution for the New Year that we take care of what's been given to us.