Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Provenance

During the year between my undergraduate work and my enrollment in a graduate MFA program I worked at a bookstore. That was the best job that I have ever had outside of my positions in the field of art. I had previously not thought of myself as much of a reader, but then I realized I was always reading, but it was not the typical “bookstore books.” In other words, I did not read much fiction.


I enjoy some fiction. That has never been the problem. I was just more likely to be reading art history and criticism, philosophy, or theology. A bit dry for some tastes, I admit. Most of the prose does not compel one to keep turning the pages late into the night. There are few surprising plot twists. This chasm between writing styles has meant that I typically plod through the non-fiction in my library in order to get a deeper understanding of a topic but not much enjoyment.

However, I am deeply grateful when a rare non-fiction title comes along that is written with such skill that it keeps me thoroughly engaged. If I keep getting to the end of a chapter and saying to myself, “I know I need to get up early, but just one more before I turn the lights out,” then I recognize I have an excellent book. Provenance, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo provided this kind of experience.

Provenance read like a mystery novel. The difference was that I knew “whodunit” after the first chapter. The skill of the authors was in slowly unwinding just how the ruse was accomplished through the admission of the perpetrators and the revelations uncovered by those caught up in the hoax. Even the afterward provided a partial resolution and “happy ending” while still leaving some things open ended, almost like a Hollywood ending that leaves enough room to make the obligatory sequel.

There are many books about art forgery and forgers. It can be interesting to see how someone works to skillfully pass off a piece as that of a master. These books often divulge the secret tricks and techniques of the forger that allowed him to pull the wool over the eyes of even the elite art history scholars. Oddly, that is little of this tale. The title of Provenance provides the key to the scam laid out in the book. The forgeries were sometimes barely passable, but the documentation of what owners and exhibitions were attached to the works—the provenance—were what allowed so many to fall prey to the scheme.

While the role of the forger John Myatt is a key to the scam, he is both a likeable and sympathetic figure. Myatt is merely one of the pawns. The master manipulator is John Drewe. He is the one who convinces Myatt to paint the fakes for him; first as works for Drewe’s own collection, then—playing upon Myatt’s vanity and need—as the objects of a widespread fraud that has never been completely unwound.

Drewe is able to not only manipulate people, but to manipulate documents. After gaining the confidence of some of London’s leading museum staff he is allowed the opportunity to do some “research” in their archives. His work in the archives is permitted because of his numerous connections. Name dropping gets him far, as does his top secret military and defense connections which he can never fully divulge or verify. Regardless, with a little time at the Tate Gallery he is able to doctor paperwork enough to get his scheme the proper credentials for a full scale fraud that spans the globe. By the time the book ends it seems the museum name should be changed to Taint, as it is difficult to tell just which documents are original or not.

The cast of characters all play either a part in the scheme or in unraveling it. The reader will root for the tenacious archivists at various organizations and foundations who do not founder in their denials of authenticity of suspect works. They assist investigators who first uncover suspicious behavior through trails that also lead to arson and murder. The love and promise of money in this story are the root of all this evil. Drewe plays on this. He obtains and uses money in his frauds, but he manipulates others by the conspicuous use and promise of funds. His promises of greater sale prices to Myatt are matched by his five star dining and allusions to art and cash gifts to museum staff.

The web spun by Drewe is so tangled that the reader keeps reassessing this as fiction or truth. Once witnesses start coming forward one wonders just how Drewe could keep such a complex system of lies straight. He never falters. And the reader wonders what exactly is true about the man. His entire life, from his school days, seems to be one giant fabrication. The art forgery scam is the pinnacle of his “career.”

I picked up this book because the jacket promised some interesting insights into a section of the art world with which I am not as familiar. I did not expect to be so riveted by the story. I would suggest Provenance to those who actually know little about the art world, too. The story is crafted in such a way that it is a compelling read. It does not get so deep into the names of artists and galleries that it is overwhelming. If you like intrigue and twists and turns then you will enjoy Provenance.

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, Penguin Press, New York, 2009


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Let me show you my etchings...


I often work on the carving of my relief prints in public places. If I have a particularly intricate linoleum or woodcut design that will take hours and hours to carve then I break it up over several weeks or months. The process can both be tedious and tiresome, so I keep the block in the car and work on it at Starbucks for an hour or two between appointments or classes. This provides an introduction to all sorts of conversations and I see it as an extension of my educational work with the broader public.

As annoyed as I feel inside when a stranger refers to my process of carving as “making a stamp,” I do understand that the terminology provides a way though which many people can enter the process. Most comments are made concerning the carving alone. It is only through further explanation that these casual observers recognize that the finished artwork is not the block itself, but the eventual transfer of the image onto paper.

Etching is also a form of printmaking, but it is such a foreign process to most that it takes a bit more explanation to understand. In fact, Some people assume I am “etching” when they see me carving a wood or linoleum block. Etching, by its very nature, cannot happen in such a public setting as Starbucks. It requires materials that are not quite so portable.

The main difference between the way woodcuts and etchings are produced is the way they are printed. Carved wood and linoleum blocks print from the high surface, from the areas left after the carving has been completed. Etching, one of several intaglio processes, prints the ink from the recessed areas, those lower than the top surface of the plate. Ink is pushed into those recesses and the top surface of the plate is wiped clean. The plate is then run through a press which forces paper into those recessed, inked areas to offset the image.

That is the quick explanation. Etching is different from most of the other intaglio processes because an acid actually does the work of making those recesses in the plate. That does not mean that producing an etching requires no physical labor on the part of the artist. An etching plate can be manipulated and changed in several ways as the artist works toward a final image.

The etching shown here is one I produced to show my students the processes of hard ground and soft ground etching. I find people are more familiar with the hard ground etching style. The result looks like a pen and ink line drawing. In this process the metal etching plate is coated with a material that protects it from the corrosive effects of acid. The artist takes a sharp tool and scratches a drawing or design through that protective coating. When the plate is placed in an acid bath the exposed lines are bitten into recessed areas of the plate. The acid does the work, not the scratching of the artist. The longer the lines are exposed the deeper, darker (and sometimes wider) the resulting lines will be.

While hard ground etching was used in this image, much of the gradation of tone was produced with soft ground etching. The soft ground never completely sets on a plate. You can impress your finger prints into the soft ground and they will eventually bite into the surface of the plate. Typically, artists press fabric textures into the soft ground and bite those into the plate. Dick Swift often used the textures as an integral and very obvious element within his etchings. Kathe Kollwitz also employed the textures of cloth within her soft ground etchings. She used an alternative method, additionally, in which a piece of paper is placed over the plate with soft ground applied and then a drawing is made on the paper. A soft, pencil-like line pulls some of the ground away and can then be bitten into the place, as opposed to the pen and ink-like line in hard ground etching.

I used all of those methods in this print. You can see the progression of the image through the eight different states. I did not want the fabric texture to obviously read as fabric. Several times I bit in a texture for a few minutes, then re-applied soft ground and did another fabric texture for a similar amount of time. Slowly, the values were built up in this way. Essentially, little dots of value are being bitten into the plate, not unlike what we see in a close up of a computer printout. These are like pixels.

You will also notice that some areas get lighter from one stage to the next. That happens through scraping and burnishing the plate. This is the more physical part of the process. It is like using an eraser on a drawing. Metal tools actually remove thin layers of the surface of the plate so that less ink is caught in the recesses. The recesses actually become shallower. When this is done multiple times, along with the areas being repeatedly bitten with soft ground, very delicate grays are possible that look less and less like a fabric texture.

Many of the etchings I have made over the last decade or so have either been inked in colors or have employed text in some way. My process for developing those plates is similar, but many of those prints are far less realistic. I created this print as a stand alone work, but I also wanted my students to see what possibilities are available in this process. It is fairly easy to make a bold soft ground texture, but not necessarily easy to do that well. And when “mistakes” are made in the plate there really are ways to get rid of them and totally change the image. However, as with all art making, it does take time and work.



Friday, June 21, 2013

Glossing Over It: The Process of Glazing

When I first began to seriously work on painting, as an undergraduate art major, I preferred a thicker, more opaque application of paint. It was not that I was painting with such dimensional strokes as Vincent Van Gogh, but it was not in the style of some renaissance master, either. I still rather enjoy applying paint with a heavily loaded brush. It just feels good.

However, “art life” happens and styles change. In fact, style is more often dictated by concept than anything else within the fine art world. Take Pablo Picasso, for instance. Those only familiar with his more extreme forms of Cubist abstraction—and with little or no knowledge of what this master was trying to achieve—believe that he had no traditional skill. That is simply not the case. The work from the period when he was a very young artist reveals that he was every bit a master draftsman, yet he subverted that skill to challenge our assumptions of what a painting actually is. It is those endeavors in abstraction that set in motion the major shifts in much of the art of the twentieth century.




I, on the other hand, moved in the opposite direction. My painting style became more traditional as my work evolved. This was not because I necessarily improved as a painter—though that did happen, as well. It had more to do with a change in the materials I was using. Once I started painting over text, especially book pages, I needed a more transparent paint application if I wanted viewers to still be able to see the words. So I returned to the process of glazing.

Even before this shift in style happened within my own work I was teaching the process of glazing to my beginning painting students. I have them experiment with a variety of surfaces and paint applications so that they can get to know the materials and what seems to suit their own artistic needs. This particular method seems to test the patience of many students. I suppose part of it is that it is not an instantaneous process. It takes time. It requires an understanding of both color and materials.    



The paintings shown here were actually produced as an attempt to help solve that problem. They were painted outside the confines of any specific series on which I am currently working. They are slightly connected to my main body of work, but do not carry the same concerns or weight of concept. They came into existence because 1) I had these canvas panels laying around and wanted to finally put something on them after ten years, and 2) I wanted to show my students just how many layers of paint go into creating a realistic glazed painting.

The video below is a tutorial for my current and future students. I have posted it here because I feel that those who are unaware of the processes of creating paintings may be interested in seeing one process of how I develop a painting. I hope you find it interesting or useful.




Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Story of Asher Lev


I recently reread two books by the author Chaim Potok. Many people are familiar with his writing through the book The Chosen. That title continues to be popular on school reading lists and it was also turned into a major motion picture. However, the books that I revisited are the ones about the fictional artist Asher Lev. They share a common theme with Potok’s other books which focus on the lives of observant Hasidic Jews. The Asher Lev books center on the title character, who is an artist.

The first of the books is My Name is Asher Lev. It was actually required reading for all students at the college that I attended. I first read the book for my Drawing class and then again for a capstone course when I was a senior. As the only art major in the second class I was regularly questioned about all things in the book relating to art and art history. I was certainly glad I had read it once before.

Once I began teaching college level art courses I adopted My Name is Asher Lev for my Senior Seminar class for art majors. Even the students who resisted any and all reading assignments came to love this book. The story investigates the balance between the life of faith and the art world—showing that the two can often seem in conflict for those with a strong, conservative religious bent. I read this book every year as I taught that course and was continuously amazed by my discovery of new things each time I reviewed the work.

I find that rereading this book always pushes me to evaluate my life as an artist. That is why I chose to read it once more in 2012. I wanted to examine my artistic self at this particular stage in my life and I knew this book would pose the questions that I desired to ask myself.

While Potok does a stunning job of creating an engaging narrative set in a believable world, I have always had one small problem with the way he describes Asher Lev’s mode of seeing. The young artist, Lev, is a child prodigy in the field of art. His parents cannot prevent him from drawing every nuance of the Hasidic Brooklyn world which they inhabit. Drawing is like breathing for Asher. The author describes the way Asher sees people and objects as if it is through a lens that dissolves each item into seemly Cubist shapes. As an artist, I always found this portrayal unrealistic, but I suspend this critical analysis while reading the book because the concept makes complete sense within the fictional world of the story.

Both My Name is Asher Lev and the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, are ultimately tales of surrender. The act of surrender is far more complex than our contemporary concepts. We may understand the need to surrender but we often understand it in terms of a clean cut resolution to a conflict, neatly confined to the thirty or sixty minutes of a television drama or the two hours of a film. Real life conflict and surrender rarely fit within such neat and tidy packages.

For Asher, the idea of surrender is tied to competing traditions. First is his religious tradition which is inextricably linked to his family heritage. He is part of a dynasty that is deeply connected to the leader of their religious sect. This leader—the Rebbe—comes from a line of religious leaders who have sought a renewal of traditional Jewish religious practice and the ultimate messianic salvation of the Jewish people. The opposing tradition is the world of visual art and its secular base. For many in Asher’s religious community these two cannot be reconciled, but the wisdom of the visionary Rebbe sees past the dichotomy and Asher plunges headlong into the world of art, while still keeping his feet firmly planted in Hasidic tradition.

Surrender comes into the equation when Asher must decide how completely he will give himself over to the direction of his artistic inspiration. He must, simultaneously, surrender to the will of his people and his muse. The resultant decision marks the central conflict within the novel, which is actually brought about through the artist’s synthesis of earlier conflicts in his life. That central decision places him in a position in which, at the end of the novel, Asher seems condemned to a perpetual balancing act between these two forces.

The second book, The Gift of Asher Lev, finds Asher twenty years later, married, with two children, and living in France as a successful artist. The comfortable life he has carved out for himself is soon disrupted with the news of his uncle’s death. Upon the family’s return to the Hasidic Brooklyn enclave of his childhood, Asher discovers one riddle after another. Some riddles are answered within the novel while others are left unresolved. The key riddle, again, is answered with a form of surrender.

As I age, as an artist, I find The Gift of Asher Lev to be a more compelling story. Potok’s writing is more subtle and refined. The doubts faced by an artist that necessitate an evolution of style and form are accurately portrayed. The anxieties and surrender are handled with complexity and maturity.

The gift mentioned in the title is actually multifaceted. One would expect it to reference Lev’s gift of artistic talent. That is, however, only the most obvious reference. The gifts can also allude to Asher’s family. His wife and his children are a gift. The gift is his family heritage, his life in France, his successful art career, and his faith. The gift is also connected to the secret art collection of his recently deceased uncle—this is also one of the novel’s riddles. And the surrender is both a surrender to some items and circumstances as well as a surrender of some others.

Each time I get to the climactic moment in The Gift of Asher Lev it is an emotional wrenching. I know what will happen. It has not been a surprise since the first time I read the book. Still, the tale is so engrossing and the characters so compelling that I cannot help but get caught up in the story. This is why I often suggest these books to people. For artists, they are essential, but for others, they are simply gripping fictional tales.

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, Anchor Publishing, Reprint edition (2003)
The Gift of Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, Fawcett Books, First Ballantine Books (1997)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Eyes Have It


Sometimes art makes us uncomfortable, or rather it should make us uncomfortable. I recognize that this flies in the face of popular concepts of art consumption. When many people consider “decorating” their homes with art they gravitate toward the tranquil, peaceful, and beautiful. If the work matches the sofa all the better. I have no problem with considerations of color palette. The work in my living room actually matches the furniture, too. We are bound to be attracted to specific color combinations. That, however, is not my main point.

There is a time and place for beauty, but that is not the only purpose of art in the twenty-first century. Art has a forcefulness to it and to neglect that power is to push it into the background—to make it wallpaper. Some art, even that placed in the sanctuaries of our homes, should cause us to pause and consider the deeper aspects of life.

Art that deviates from the beautiful or causes us to consider the great questions of life may not be what everyone wants in his or her bedroom, but it does have a place in the home. This kind of imagery works on us over time. It forms and informs us in subtle ways. If that work is not within our living spaces, but only in museums, then it does not fulfill its purpose. It does not reach its potential.




With all this in mind, I recently obtained several sets of antique doll eyes (pictured here). These are the type of eyes that close when Betsy Wetsy is placed on her back for naptime. The lead weights dangling from the bottom of the pairs of eyes causes them to pivot inside a doll’s head. The first time I came across some of these was at a summer art workshop. A friend had some reserved for an assemblage project. I was fascinated at once.

They are creepy. I will not deny that. Any time we find eyes loosely roaming outside of a head it is creepy. The fact that some of these sets are missing one eye and that I have other eyeballs rolling around that are not even connected to these sets makes them even creepier. I purposely photographed them on the crushed red velvet because it adds a bloody element that is even more disturbing. Maybe not what you want to see when you first awake in the morning, but the unsettling quality can be beneficial.

The idea of using these eyes has been gestating within me for about six years. Even before I purchased some of them I was writing notes about their “artful purpose” within my sketchbooks. Once I had them in hand I started making sketches for the altarpiece construction for which I envisioned them. A few days after I made these initial sketches I found some old notes in another place in my sketchbook and found that the combination of objects and imagery I had been sketching was something I had already been thinking about much earlier, though I had forgotten.

As is normal for postings like this, I’m not going to divulge too much more information about what I plan to do. However, I am going to share that these eyes will be used alongside a type of book page—a form of text—that I have not previously utilized. Gospel pages from a Braille Bible. Okay, now I’m ruining the suspense. Keep checking back for future details.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blasphemy: Art That Offends

I have occasionally heard people state that the older one gets the more each person tends to be like him or herself. In other words, our natural tendencies and inclinations seem to be enhanced with age. Some people, for instance, become more laid back, while others complain about the slightest inconvenience. I have found that it takes much more to offend my sensibilities than it ever used to. I may find comments or images distasteful, but they rarely agitate me to the point of being personally offended.

I imagine most of my ambivalence comes from having viewed so much artwork that was produced to make comment on one thing or another, typically through provocation directed at one specific subset or group. A major component of artwork over the past century or so has been to cause offense through explicit, suggestive, disgusting, blasphemous, or otherwise shocking imagery. So much so, in fact, that little surprises me anymore. A brief examination of offensive imagery is considered in S. Brent Plate’s book Blasphemy: Art that Offends.

The book cover, itself, sets out to let the reader know that the fodder of the American culture wars is going to be a major theme. Mauricio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora—a fully three dimensional, life-sized image of Pope John Paul II being struck down by an errant meteorite while leading a liturgical procession—portrays a recognizable figure and automatically raises questions. While this is not a work generally known to the American public, it produces the desired effect. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ—also discussed in the book—would seem a more logical choice for cover art. However, while many people have heard about that work, far fewer know what it looks like. And the actual artwork is quite aesthetically pleasing, so it would not draw the same attention on a bookshelf as the Cattelan image.

While the two works mentioned tend to offend the sensibilities of some within the Christian faith, that is only one segment of society that the author considers. Jewish and Muslim traditions of blasphemy are equally analyzed. And though these three religious traditions tend to consume the greatest portion of the text, the author actually extends the conversation into some additional areas that round off the discussion in a helpful way. Blasphemy, we find, is not as clear cut as one might initially imagine.

Brent Plate begins the analysis by stating that the term Blasphemy has been around for a few thousand years and that it has been leveled against various, images, texts, and activities. The three Abrahamic faiths have also used the term in many different ways that have evolved over time. Therefore, it is too slippery a term in the first place and he prefers to narrow it to the context of the sacred and profane. Of course, those terms have also evolved in a way that causes us to designate only a limited amount of things as profane. Essentially, though, these are anything in life not immediately termed as “holy.” And that is nearly everything.

Additionally, Plate considers that blasphemy has traditionally been used to describe offensive speech or writing, though we now sometimes hear it in connection to images, too. The author’s analysis of  this term within the judicial realm gives insight into our current usage or misusage of the term. This connection to court systems also alludes to Plate’s later examination of the strange bedfellows of religious and political systems within this discussion.

The final chapter considers how patriotic tendencies are often aligned with religious ones. The use of flags, for instance, can cause an equal uproar as the use of religious imagery—often by the same factions. Particularly in American society, discussions of freedom of expression and speech blur in and out of the confines of church and state. So, for some, an offense against the flag is both an offense against the nation and God.

Blasphemy: Art that Offends does not give definitive answers on any front. It does, however, propose some pertinent questions to the reader. It should be noted that while Plate (and myself) do not find the images within this book particularly blasphemous, those who are easily offended by images that touch on aspects of religion, sexuality, and patriotism will likely take some offense. The text of the book, however, provides some vital discussion that assists any open reader in finding out just why he or she is offended by the imagery. That is the great achievement of this book.

Blasphemy: Art That Offends, S. Brent Plate, Black Dog Publishing, 2006

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pipe Down!


Each individual artist works at his or her unique pace. I have some artist friends who are so prolific that I still cannot comprehend how they complete so much work. Other artists may only complete a dozen or so works in a year. That can sometimes mimic the quantity of my own output, though that has more to do with teaching nine months or more during each year. And some artists who work full-time on their art are simply just methodical and thoughtful craftsmen, so their output can be nothing other than minimal.

Because I work in a variety of media, some pieces naturally take longer than others. I have stated previously that the altarpiece constructions tend to be multi-year projects. There are several reasons for that. The actual construction of the boxes takes some time, followed by many additional steps in the finishing process of the exteriors. The painting portions take some time, too. Additionally, there are years of “fermentation” time during which I think about the form, imagery, and objects that will compose these works. The complexity of the work dictates this kind of extended timetable.

A few years ago I first mentioned that I had rescued two keyboards from an old, discarded organ. I had not yet decided how I was going to utilize them. In the intervening years I have worked on various sketches and changed my mind numerous times. Early on I had decided that this piece was going to look somewhat like a pipe organ. Just how I was going to achieve that look was uncertain.

I regularly spend many hours wandering the aisles of home improvement stores, considering how I might use materials in ways that are typically dissimilar from their intended purposes. While doing this, I worked through a few different concepts for the pipes for the “organ” project. For part of the time I considered using metal pipes. There were various types of metal pipes that I considered, but they all seemed too heavy. Then I thought about using PVC pipe, applying gold leafing so it would appear to be metal. That solved the weight problem but the time investment seemed a bit burdensome.

Eventually, I returned to the core of my original concept. I wanted this to look like a pipe organ, but finding actual organ pipes was going to be difficult. Then I thought of one of my favorite places to find inspiration—eBay. There were often pipes available there but most were full sets from old organs and they cost many thousands of dollars. They were also far larger than what I intended to use. It took a few months, but I finally did find some small sets of pipes that were perfect for my design.

One change, that I had not previously been considering, was the use of wooden pipes. I found some small wooden pipes and then some other, larger ones. The small ones were just the size I had been searching for. The larger ones, I decided, could be used more structurally within the piece; more as a decorative embellishment. However, I still wanted to use some metal pipes. Those were elusive. But I did manage to track down a set that fits perfectly with the smaller wooden pipes.

Sometimes I am willing to make slightly larger purchases for materials, for the sake of the artwork. This piece needed the authenticity of the actual organ pipes. They are, however, only one portion of this much larger project. I expect this construction will be far larger than any previous  altarpiece works I have completed or designed. The pipes and keyboards are just a couple portions of a much greater scheme. I look forward to sharing more of the process as I begin constructing the work later this year.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Gardner Heist


Prior to living outside of Boston I knew very little about the city and its rich history. Certainly, there were the vague generalities gleaned from junior high American history courses. Most Americans recall phrases like Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the shot heard ‘round the world, and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. I actually did know a bit about the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but my knowledge of the art scene in the city was lacking. I was mostly aware of the MFA’s collection of John Singleton Copley works which I had discussed while teaching an American Art History course.

Even after I was living in Massachusetts for a year or so I was still unfamiliar with another treasured landmark—the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I had heard from friends and acquaintances that it had a superb collection and that it had been the victim of an infamous art theft, but I had not made the time to visit. So, my first visit was with a friend from the Church of the Advent. I had heard tales about the museum and its namesake from people who worshipped at that church.

I attended the Church of the Advent for three years. At each mass I was entranced by the extensive neo-gothic stone reredos that graces the back wall of the chancel. I was told that Mrs. Gardner had actually gifted that item to the church. She had attended there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A rather peculiar individual, Gardner is said to have scrubbed the steps of the chancel by hand—on her knees on Good Friday—as a form of personal penance. Her will stipulated that a requiem mass be said for her there each year around the middle of April. It was possibly these stories of a famous former parishioner that led me to my first visit to the museum.

That visit also led me to eventually pick up the 2009 book—The Gardner Heist—that examines the multifaceted art theft. This remains the most infamous art heist on record and Ulrich Boser provides an enthralling account of the tangled web—or rather, endless cocoon—that surrounds the mystery.

There is something in this book to engage nearly any reader. A reader need not know anything about Mrs. Gardner, her museum, or art in general. Boser initially approached his writing somewhat distant from all these. The reader becomes enveloped in the tale just as the writer became subsumed by the mystery. Boser had never intended to be so personally invested in the theft, yet he was compelled.

The tale begins like a scene from a movie. Using the details given by witnesses, and from the author’s countless interviews over several years, he paints a vivid image of the night of the museum robbery. The reader is already invested in the story by this point. The author then proceeds to unravel the tale, from every imaginable vantage point.

Boser, first, details how he was infected with an unrelenting fever that kept him chasing every lead in the case. The author initially met Harold Smith, a renowned art robbery detective, in early 2005. His goal was to research the story of the Gardner heist for a writing project. Smith has solved several major thefts in the past. However, the Gardner theft had remained unsolved for a decade and a half by that point. It was no small job as the thieves had taken a Vermeer, a Manet and two Rembrandt paintings. It was always just out of Smith’s reach. Within a year the detective was dead and the mystery was still not solved.

After all those years, chasing down all those leads, Boser decided to continue tracking down the art himself. Through that journey he provides us with detailed accounts of all the major figures. Gardner herself is considered. We learn of the wealthy eccentric and her passion for collecting art. We discover some history of the museum and the lax policies that allowed the robbery to happen, along with Gardner’s own stipulation that the works remain in the places she left them upon her death. This last tidbit provides an ever present reminder for the museum staff that part of their precious treasury is still missing.

From there the paths spread out across Boston, North America, and around the globe. Boser moves from one Boston underworld figure to the next. Each seems a likely suspect. Even when discounted for one reason or another, the author second guesses the mobsters’ involvement. At one point the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger is even implicated. This was before his recent arrest. Bulger had been on the FBI most wanted list for some time, but stealing artwork was minor on the list of charges.

The Boston underworld connections take the author to the British Isles. Some informants suggest that the IRA was connected to the missing paintings; that they may possibly be stored in Ireland. Near this part of the story Boser evaluates his own involvement in the long tale of the missing paintings. He brings the book to a close, leaving the reader still examining the possible leads not yet resolved. And it is this lack of resolution that actually makes the book so intriguing. The reader does not feel left in the lurch. The mystery remains and the reader is still considering the heist, waiting for the eventual return of the paintings.



Ulrich Boser, Smithsonian Books, 2009

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creation through Destruction

There is something quite intriguing to me about the processes of our creative endeavors. While viewers of artwork are immediately taken by the object or image that is ultimately presented before their eyes, artists have more opportunity to consider the creative process in relation to and separate from the artwork itself. As with many other activities of our daily existence, we can make some analogies to the deeper questions of life when we examine art in this way.

That seamless connection between the art object and its creation was ramped up during the mid-twentieth century when artists from the Abstract Expressionist movement joined psychological and philosophical ideologies to consider the prominence of the “act” in the making of art. The existentialist concept that “being is doing” pervaded some of that work, such as in the action paintings of Jackson Pollock.


Still, the conceptual analogy of the art making process goes back even further. Pablo Picasso, though still often misunderstood among the wider population, was even seen by the conservative art establishment of his day as destroying the foundations of art. Yes, he and Georges Braque did pull apart the picture plane, but he did other things that were equally “destructive.” One of his unique additions to art production was the process of reduction relief printing.

For centuries prior, there had been woodcut prints composed of multiple colors, printed from multiple blocks. Picasso’s new twist on this process was to use only one block to print multiple colors. In order to accomplish this he had to basically destroy the linoleum block to create his final image.


The small linoleum prints shared here utilize the same process. I printed some extra images outside of the editions in order to show the process more clearly. This allows viewers to see just what is cut away at each stage. Very little was cut away from each block before the first colors were printed. Those carved areas reveal the bright white highlights. The next area carved then reveals the first color printed and down on the line, through the fifth color.

This process ensures that there will never be additional images printed. There can only ever be a maximum of the images printed from the first state of the linoleum block, as the second carving of the block destroys the information available from the first carving.  Each additional carving and printing removes more of the block until the only remaining information is what is left from the final carving. The registration of the colors in the process is usually quite exact because it is all from the same block, yet there are bound to be some mistakes in registration. Therefore, the artist usually ends up with even fewer prints than the number printed from the initial carving.

Confusing? A little. That is one of the reasons I printed the various stages of the process for my students. They typically cannot conceive of what I am explaining to them until after they have done the whole process at least once. Reduction printing cannot produce exactly the same results that multiple block printings do, but it is a useful and sometimes beautiful process.

This concept of creation—and even beauty—from destruction is the concept that most intrigues me with this process. Just as we see in nature, in processes like the death of the seed that creates a new plant, we find elements of this idea in many world religions. Some Eastern deities represent both the creative and destructive forces simultaneously. Related to these piece, obviously, is the idea of the suffering and death of Christ in order to gain redemption and eternal life for humanity. When artwork can remind us of these ideas by its very processes, and not simply through its imagery, it is a complex and wonderful thing.





Monday, March 12, 2012

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


After a significant absence, I have returned to the blogosphere. Thank you to those who have been followers of this blog and who have voiced their interest and comments about the subjects discussed. I do intend to keep up with the entries on a more regular basis, though, if I have to forego something, writing about artwork—mine or that of someone else—is likely to be on the chopping block before actually creating artwork.

I have stated at various times that the process of creating my altarpiece constructions is quite lengthy. The initial ideas and sketches typically come several years before the finished products. Sometimes that is because I am searching for very specific elements and objects to place within the works. It also takes some time to build and age the physical structures. The piece shown here was mostly constructed in the summer of 2011. However, the very first sketches for this work were likely produced in 2003 or 2004. My memory on that is a bit hazy. I tend not to date sketches because I will work on them again and again over several years.




Within these sketches the progression of the concept is seen. I do know that this work came about from the acquisition of several pieces from an antique store in New Hampshire. The first sketch shows some specific elements, most obviously the small electric fan on the top. At that stage, I intended to place some sculptural wings along the top, as well. I never did find any wings that would be appropriate. Eventually, I happened upon a set of porcelain dove salt and pepper shakers at another antique store somewhere near Washington DC, while visiting a friend. They became an alternate solution for the wings.

Two sketches appear next to each other in the second example—these are even in a different sketchbook as the first one had already been filled. The first image subtracts the wings and includes only one of the doves. The sketch below it has included both doves and some additional, new elements. One is an antique military-issued gas mask. Another is two metal acanthus leaf finials of some sort. Those finials were in a box of “junk” that I picked up at a flea market in Massachusetts at least a year or two later. They were not even what I actually wanted in that box of objects, yet I found a use for them.

The evolution of this work was slow. Still, the fan remained as kind of a crown on the top of the piece. Even while the work was being built that was the intention. When I was recently gearing up to work on the piece again, finishing off the trim and all the gold leafing and aging, I decided the placement of the fan on the top was just too much. A sketch, after all, is still distinctly different from a physical, three dimensional thing. Proportionally it did not seem right. The entire work was too tall and the fan seemed spindly in that spot. The fan was, however, an integral element from the conception of this piece.





I recognized that the fan could fit inside the uppermost section and would still operate as a type of oculus for the work. This did require that I shift some of the remaining elements into some other areas and boxes in the piece, but the new solution was much more satisfying. The altarpiece is now ready for the final painting stage and should be finished within the next couple months. That means that it will be nearly a ten year endeavor. That may seem too long for some artists. For a work like this it is just the right amount of time. These pieces need to evolve and change over time. The nuances that are manifested over the creation of the pieces also work on the viewer over longer periods of time. The works are not static, but reveal more with each additional viewing.