Monday, February 15, 2016

Ready, Set, Print

It has taken a few months to get everything aligned, but the time has finally come. The Kickstarter Campaign to make the Palimpsest Portrait Project a reality is now live. You can find out more about the particular printing process I use below, but all the specific details are available right on the Kickstarter Campaign page. The best overview is actually presented in the video shared here.

Your first question about the images you’re seeing is probably, “Why are you pairing those particular people together?” Well, the answer to that comes down to the text that actually makes up these images. That text is from the Desert Fathers, the ancient, mystic monks of the Egyptian desert. While reading of the accounts of their lives, I came across a monk who was said to have asked God to show him which of the saints he was like. God sent him to several individuals, both good and bad, with whom the monk could make this comparison. In the end the monk realized that, “no one in this world ought to be despised, let him be a thief, or an actor on the stage, or one that tilled the ground, and was bound to a wife, or was a merchant and served a trade: for in every condition of human life there are souls that please God and have their hidden deeds wherein He takes delight.” This got me thinking about how I view and treat people. Do I see that element or spirit of God in everyone? Is or was there ever a person I could not view in that way?



These figures, and more, came to my mind and I began to design this provocative project. It is meant to be seen as a whole series and not just as individual works. After years of working on the concept, on and off, it is time to finally see it made. That is why I created the Kickstarter Campaign. This project cannot happen without the help of many people coming together to make it happen. Unless artwork is specifically commissioned, it is typically up to the artist to self fund the project and hope that someone will, eventually, like it enough to buy it. Often, the sale of one artwork funds the creation of the next one. When the funds needed to obtain equipment and materials reach a certain level, turning to crowd sourcing is a wise option.

So, please take a look at the campaign. Join in if you can. Even if you can’t, please share the project on social media (you can do that right through the Kickstarter page). When many people come together around this project it can become reality. 

Note: The full funding goal for this project was not reached through Kickstarter, however, several generous individuals did fulfill their pledges directly To Tyrus so that he could begin a portion of the etching portraits. If you would like to give toward the completion of the funding goal, to see this project fully completed, you can do that through his website.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Palimpsest Portraits: A Resurrection

In 2006 and 2007 I first began serious work on a project that was not yet named. Conceptually, it was to consist of twenty-five portrait pairs—fifty total portraits. Each pairing would situate an image of Jesus, from art history, with another individual. The other person might be historical, from popular culture, or even relatively unknown. He or she may be generally acknowledged as good or bad or somewhere in between. The idea was based in my understanding of a story I read from the Desert Fathers and has been mentioned here before. (for an explanation of “Palimpsest,” refer to the previous posting)

For various reasons the project was not completed a decade ago. Mainly, it was an expensive venture. I did acquire some of the materials needed to complete it, but the process was also quite time consuming and my job at the time left little available time to devote to the task. And, quite a daunting task this was. The color viscosity printing technique planned for the series is technical and complex, too. And I added the complication that the images were to be “drawn” from text—just to complicate matters more.

I had wanted to utilize this printing technique since I first came across the works of Stanley William Hayter and Dick Swift in the university art collection when I was in graduate school. The intensity of the colors used and the complexity of the color mixings enticed me. Hayter’s work tends to be on the more abstract side, though some of Swift’s includes a good amount of representational imagery. I wanted that element of representation, but desired to make it my own. The use of text, running through all forms of my artwork, was my distinctive take on the technique. 

The major pause in the project came when I moved in 2008 and no longer had access to the large rubber ink rollers of varying density that are required for the printing process. Over the past few years I have further experimented with the technique on a limited scale, with the small ink rollers I do possess. They are not large enough to complete the project as planned, but I have been determined to perfect the technique and seek funding for the equipment and materials needed to complete the project as originally envisioned. The images here reveal two of those experiments.


The digital “drawings” of the images are first composed from text in Photoshop. When the values have been sufficiently produced, the image is transferred to a copper plate. However, much traditional etching work still needs to be completed at that point. At least three distinct levels need to be developed into the copper plate (this is for color separation and mixing with the various inks and rollers). Surfaces need to be bitten in acid or smoothed with tools so that colors and values print clearly. Here, I show the multiple states of a self portrait and an image of Martin Luther King. The first tests of each can be somewhat unrecognizable, but over time, the development of the plates reveals both the images and the tiny textual elements that compose them.


These are still only trial images, to give prospective funders an idea of what I’m attempting to produce. The comparison between the first images from a decade ago and these newer versions shows how my process has changed—and improved—over that period. I feel that I am finally ready to complete these works as they first existed in my imagination. The larger images allow for much greater complexity with the text as it relates to the design. Hopefully, new larger works will find their way into future posts later this year.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Love Letter: Foundations of a Family


Anyone browsing through posts on this blog will quickly find that the presence of text and words within my artwork has been evident for about two decades. In paintings this has often taken the form of applying paint over book pages. When incorporated into printmaking techniques the combination has become increasingly integral to how the imagery is actually developed. At first, the layering of words and images was related to the concept of the incarnation of Christ—the Word made Flesh. While that idea remains in the background, I more recently have embraced the terminology of the Palimpsest for this process.

The origin of the term Palimpsest comes from an ancient practice. Before paper was developed in the West, the writing of manuscripts was often done on parchment (dried and prepared animal skins). Preparing the parchment was time consuming and expensive, so it was much more precious and less plentiful than paper would later be. If a parchment document was no longer needed or wanted, the text layer could be scraped off to erase the words from the document. This was ink, so the text was never completely erased. When a new text was written on the parchment the first layer was invariably still legible beneath. A parchment with both layers of text visible was called a palimpsest.


While I first began to develop the use of erasing and relayering texts to create an image with etching, I eventually employed the process for lithographic techniques. With both of these I actually develop the imagery in Photoshop. Portions of a page of text (often scanned as a high resolution file) are erased in Photoshop, then a new layer is added and more portions are erased, and so on. Eventually the values build up and the image is created from the words that still remain.

The images here are printed as polyester plate lithographs. These plastic plates can actually be fed through a toner-based printer or photocopier. The toner will attract the oily ink which can be offset onto another surface when run through a printing press, or even rubbed with a wooden spoon or baren to transfer the ink. The plate is wiped down with a wet sponge during the inking process, like any traditional lithographic printing. While there are multiple ways to develop a plate with this medium, I prefer to create the image in Photoshop and then print the plate through a toner-based printer and print from that matrix. 

In these works I chose to recreate photographic images of my maternal grandparents which I then printed on paper, antique textiles, and even hymnal pages. This takes a bit of experimentation since some fabrics are more receptive than others. Also, any preprinted pages (like the hymnals) require several layers of printing. The first three or four passes are with a white or cream colored ink that deadens the text already printed on the page. The final layer is in black and it is enhanced by the underlayer of text. The “white” printing produces an additional erasure to that already created digitally. 

The text that creates this image is actually from a handwritten love letter that my grandmother wrote to my grandfather in 1936, before they were married. The text that reveals their relationship materializes into a physical form in the prints. It recalls the physical manifestation of their union which was eventually my mother and her siblings, extending into future generations. While both of my grandparents have now died, the materialization of their love still exists in new generations. I believe that these works provide a unique visual metaphor—our words and their intentions are able to carry forth into the future as physical manifestations of who we ultimately are. 

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.