Saturday, December 27, 2008

As Plain as Black and White: The Art of Kara Walker and William Kentridge

Regrettably, the United States and South Africa share a tainted history of repression of the black citizens in their midsts. Even though the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century predated the fall of Apartheid, Americans have little to hold over the heads of our South African brothers and sisters. The far reaching effects of generations of mistreatment and inequality cannot be wiped perfectly clean. Even a chalk board leaves residual traces of its previous content.

Coinciding with the political struggles for equality in the tumultuous decade of the ‘60s was the burgeoning business of identity theories within the art world. The art of the twentieth century had dismantled the traditional media, modes, and subject matter of art making of the previous centuries. When there was no longer a common, shared narrative artists were forced to seek other avenues for inspiration. Many of them looked inward and found their subject matter in such topics as feminism, sexual orientation, Marxism (or other political theories), and ethnic identity.

While this change of events has had the unfortunate effect of giving us far too many details about what goes on in the bedrooms of some artists, there are also some positive outcomes. Underrepresented artists, such as women and persons of color, have gained a voice that they did not previously possess. This has provided a much needed spotlight on issues and concerns that were virtually absent within the general discourse.

William Kentridge is an heir to this form of political and ethnic art. His is not a direct descendant, however. Kentridge is a South African of white European descent. His work, while often narrative, is not overly didactic. It often contains metaphors and references to the troubled past (and present) of South Africa and the relations among its inhabitants.

His medium of choice is charcoal on paper. And while the graphic contrast of black and white is not accidental, this is also not simply drawing. More often than not Kentridge’s drawings are given an animated life through the media of film and video. He repeatedly draws, erases, and then draws again on single sheets of paper; photographically recording each new, altered image. As the scene changes with each new drawing, the version played back is more than a typical animation. The animation retains the history of its creation. Like the chalk board, it leaves a residue and reminder of what came before.

This residue in black and white befits the continuing challenges that face South Africa. A nation can make claims of equality and enact laws that prohibit oppression but that does not blot out the reality of history. That is a good thing. The sticky quality of our collective history can be our conscience when we would rather ignore our past offenses and biases.

It is little surprise that Kentridge fell into this particular niche of politically tempered theatricality within his art. In college, in Johannesburg, he studied Politics and African Studies, as well as Fine Art. By the 1980s he had moved to Paris to study mime and theatre. For nearly two decades he worked in theatre and television—behind the scenes.

It seemed almost inevitable that Kentridge would take up the challenge, in 2005, of set design and production for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The essence of opera is over-the-top theatricality. The artist embraced the baroque elements of the medium as he combined the frenetic qualities of his typical style with live action and sound. His drawings, as well as text, flashed behind and sometimes on the performers. The remaining, more stable, parts of the set were also rendered in his trademark expressionist style. Essentially, everything was executed in black, white, and gray. The gray implies that the unending struggle of black and white is seldom "black and white"—life is far more gray.

William Kentridge’s American counterpart, in some respects, can be found in Kara Walker. While Kentridge continually chips away at the sins of society, Walker manages to offend nearly every possible faction with her explicit art works. Heralded and derided from the time her work first caught the attention of critics upon her graduation from the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kara Walker utilizes stereotypes to push the envelope with topics of both gender and race. The immediate and forceful quality of her work brought her to the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, from which she received the coveted Genius Grant—one of the youngest recipients ever.

It is also not an accident that, like Kentridge, Walker limits nearly all of her output to black and white. The medium with which she is most associated is cut-paper silhouettes. Sometimes the black image is painted directly on a white wall, but most are mural size works that she first draws on sheets of black paper then meticulously cuts out with an X-Acto knife, finally adhering to the wall with wax. Though the process and materials are simple, the imagery is complex and almost always offensive. That is where the controversy exists.

Walker’s imagery is derived from the antebellum south. Since all we see is the silhouette there are certain gaps and ambiguities that arise between figures. Figures blend together into complex forms in which appendages are difficult to ascribe to a specific individual. Men and women, adults and children, blacks and whites morph into one another, along with various elements of flora and fauna. The results are fantastic and sometimes repulsive.

Walker easily presents the offenses of white slave owners against their black slaves. This may be physical abuses, but the sexual abuses are equally represented. They can be in the form of adults on children, men on women, and even men on men. No one is really left out of the mix. This is exactly why Kara Walker has received such intense criticism. For her, it seems that nothing is sacred or off limits.

Because the imagery is often the result of mixtures of stereotypical and politically incorrect illustrations from the period, even Walker’s African American viewers have taken exception to her work. In particular, artist Betye Saar, who had herself questioned stereotypical representations of African Americans through her work in the 1960s, proposed a letter writing campaign against the exhibition of Walker’s work. She found Kara’s work to be an odd reinforcement of the stereotypes her forebears had worked so hard to eradicate. Yet Walker has been given major exhibition after major exhibition.

There is no denying that Walker’s work is offensive, but she is an equal opportunity offender. This is part of the power of her work. She makes everyone complicit in the atrocities depicted. Everyone plays a role. And though the imagery is black and white, delineating cause and effect is about as tricky as it is in real life.

The choice of cut-paper silhouettes is important not only because of the black and white elements but for the social connotations associated with the medium. It is a lowly craft form, not on par with arts such as painting. It could, thus, be taken up by eighteenth and nineteenth century African Americans—those in a lower station of society. Walker also took it on as a medium because it was a more democratic form that required no special training and was often associated with the lower standing of women in the culture.

Though her images are static on the wall, they share a theatrical bent that is crucial to William Kentridge’s work, as well. Similarly, Walker has begun to utilize video within her art production. Though the work is very different from Kentridge’s stop-action animation, it is analogous in the way it incorporates the elements of Walker’s primary medium. The videos are akin to Balinese shadow puppetry. Walker creates silhouette puppets that she manipulates behind a backlit cloth scrim. The work is put into motion and takes on a new dimension that can never be achieved through the motionless forms on the wall. Kentridge, himself, had worked with puppetry decades before.

In both Walker’s and Kentridge’s work the theatrical becomes a key to understanding the message. The use of black and white imagery has much more to do with conflicts between ethnic groups than clarity of meaning. The theatrical element shows the viewer that the concept is so significant that an almost melodramatic turn must be taken to lift us out of everyday existence. Something extraordinary—which mimics life but is apart from it—is needed to call our attention to the matters at hand.

What both artists are able to achieve in their various works is a component that lies at the core of what art is in contemporary times. Even though each artist is adept at creating representational imagery, that is far from the final goal of their works. Transcendence is the key. The work transcends mere representation and fills viewers with questions instead of answers. Since it is somewhat politically based, the work is forcing viewers to examine and acknowledge their role in the interchanges of society. This transcendent quality will lead in various directions depending on the art and the artist , but the best of contemporary art will take viewers outside of itself and outside of themselves. It is only when we view ourselves from another vantage point that we are able to critique our attitudes and behaviors.

Communication Breakdown

Among the frustrations related to my lack of a devoted studio space and time to work on a new series of altarpieces during the past few years, is the overwhelming urge to share the concepts of these proposed pieces with an audience. Lack of time never prevents me from dreaming up new pieces. In fact, the ideas are constantly coming to me (see the previous posting entitled Contemporary Altarpieces and the Italian Tradition). One fear in prematurely revealing the ideas is that it will steal some of the thunder from the finished piece. Recognizing that each of these works is so multilayered that there will be plenty to keep the viewer returning to consider the works’ implications, I want to give a preview of what will be appearing over the next couple years.

I won’t share the working title since my titles often mutate a bit over time—as do the pieces. The concept is what is most important anyway. I have already written about my interests in text and semiotics as they relate to my work. Communication in a contemporary context interests me in other ways, too. It is current conditions of public and private communication that form the basis of the sketches included above.

My former position as the director of an art non-profit involved a fair amount of travel. It also produced an average of fifty to one hundred email messages in my inbox each day. For these reasons, and more, I spent a considerable amount of time working on my laptop in coffee shops at various locations throughout the US. People often assumed that I was connected to the internet through a local wi-fi service, but I actually went to coffee shops to avoid the unending email and the office phone. I could actually complete the tasks associated with previous emails in a comfortable environment that did not produce the same distractions found at home.

That is not to say that coffee shops are devoid of distractions. One particular distraction that did confront me was people watching. Let’s admit it. We all do it. However, I performed this activity with the discerning eye of the artist. I was astonished to observe that the distinctions between public and private communication continue to breakdown, blur, and blend. This isn’t peculiar to coffee shops, but they seem to be conducive to the multiple forms of communication alterations.

The use of the computer in public is best observed at a coffee shop. While dozens of people are engaging in actual interpersonal communication (i.e. customers ordering drinks from baristas, friends chatting over coffee, etc.), there remain a handful of people involved in virtual conversations on their laptops. This is common place, yet it is paradoxical that we make public places a destination at which we ultimately seclude ourselves in order to engage in forms of pseudo-communication. The introduction of ipods/itunes and headphones for laptops only complicates the matter because we are able to fully shut off the external environment as we create our own interior realm.

There is something comforting about being in the presence of others, even when we are isolated within that setting. Surface communications have stunted the growth of interpersonal relationships. Yet there remains a need for deep connection with others and one way to temporarily fill that void is to be in the presence of humanity.

These surface communications are alive and well in nearly all public settings, though the coffee shop provides a particularly beneficial Petri dish for evaluating them. The cell phone, whether for talking or texting, is the primary medium. It is now unusual to not find a person in line for a drink talking on a cell phone. The conversations tend to be insignificant, but they are apparently more important than talking to the barista who is taking drink orders two feet away.

The converse is the cell phone conversation that is far too intimate for a public setting. Individuals engaging in these conversations have no appropriate boundaries. They may be in the throes of an argument and utilizing profanities that would embarrass even hardened prison inmates. They may be divulging the personal details of a relationship in what nearly approximates phone sex. They could even be gossiping about a third party, creating a new twist on an old pastime by making information (true or otherwise) available to an even wider circle of listeners. This is all a form of misplaced communication. The intended receiver is but one of many and the boundaries between private and public have been crossed.

The coffee shop also lends itself to being a neutral zone at which personal conversations are undertaken so that neither party holds the upper hand. I recall overhearing—and one didn’t need to eaves drop to catch this conversation—a conversation in 2002 or 2003 between a husband and wife. The gist of the conversation was that the husband was having an affair, the wife knew and wanted him to end it or grant her a divorce, but the husband refused to both give up the mistress and to divorce the wife.

Friends who have worked at various coffee shops assure me that marital unfaithfulness is one of the foundations of the business. It seems that all those people who answer personal ads lack creativity and discretion when it comes to finding places to meet. It is not unusual for a regular customer to carry on in an affectionate manner with an extra marital lover one day, and then show up the next with the spouse. This becomes awkward, at best, for those working there. What was once kept under cover (literally) is now displayed unabashedly in the public arena.

All these are just some of the more obvious messages and ideas that I intend to explore. The communications, miscommunications, and hidden communications of the public sphere are intensely interesting. Communication has been fraught with challenges from the first grunted syllables of humans, yet we have refined it so that at least the essential elements can be conveyed. Why then, after thousands of years of seeking clarity, have we moved in a direction that limits the reception of our messages? How have we confused the public and private, the proper and improper? Keep watching this blog for my visual responses.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Word and Image as Symbol

I like to think that I am pretty open to the shifting face of art. The past hundred years have seen some major modifications in the materials and modes of art making. Many people are still just trying to come to terms with the forms of abstraction that Picasso introduced through Cubism, though art’s evolution has progressed far from that transition. While my own work tends to retain enough elements of representation to appease a more general audience, I believe that it also connects with even the most contemporary concepts.

To the casual observer, the process of painting on text, or more specifically book pages, is little more than a novel twist on traditional painting. The text, however, is not simply a foil to work against—not just an additional texture or value. In these paintings the image and the text are both readable, yet each is partially obscured by the other. This balance between the readable/recognizable and the indecipherable is not simply some postmodern ploy undertaken to confuse the viewer and skirt around a specific concept or theme within each particular piece. It is, rather, based in theories of deconstructionist philosophy an semiotics.

Semiotics is the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication, and includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood. Our contemporary written languages evolved from earlier forms that were more pictorial. Letters were nearer to Egyptian hieroglyphics. As time progressed these pictographs were abstracted into symbols that increasingly looked less like objects from the natural world. Eventually, as words composed of various letters strung together to denote specific sounds became the norm, the symbols had less association with original objects. Words not only symbolized objects but actions, complex thoughts, and ideas.

Connecting this to the deconstructionist views of Jacques Derrida and other philosophers of the later twentieth century is the idea that these symbols (words) for ideas and objects are not quite as clear as we typically assume them to be. Your understanding of something as simple as a chair, brought to your mind when you see the word "chair" in this sentence, is very likely different from the specific model and style of a chair that I am conceiving as I write the sentence. While we both have a general agreement on the basics of a chair it is nearly impossible for the author to clearly convey the most specific message to his or her audience. Even when using very descriptive terms, such as a plush green recliner, there are too many variables to allow the full intentions of the author to be completely and accurately relayed to a reader. [For the prime visual example of this look to Joseph Kosuth’s conceptualist work entitled One and Three Chairs.]

Symbols seems to be the best we can do when it comes to communication. They help us get by but they can also be a hindrance to our fully understanding one another. Language and words are only the most common of these symbols. Even pictorial symbols like those used to prevent us from, say, slipping on a wet, freshly mopped floor, take on cultural qualifications that cause them to be almost indecipherable to persons outside of their culture of origin. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the pictorial or other symbolic elements evident in visual art are misconstrued as much as verbal or written language.

Communication, however, is not a lost cause. You probably are able to comprehend the major elements of my message through this writing. Still, it is these inherent misperceptions and partial communications that have been embraced by artists working in a postmodern context over the last four to five decades. What does are mean and how does it function if the intention and message of the author cannot fully be comprehended? And is art even fulfilling its primary function if it takes a whole cadre of writers to describe the layers of association that comprise its totality?

I am not a philosopher so I do not intend to answer all these questions and others like them. I do, through my methods, acknowledge and embrace the limitations and nature of communication. I even use them to my advantage when I can. Art. like written communication, may have one intended audience. The artist or author is never fully able to limit reception to that intended audience. Knowing and accepting this limitation expands the possibilities of meaning.

The narrative presented, both in words and images, within my paintings are painstakingly chosen. Sometimes the juxtaposition of text and images will further illuminate a concept. At other times the two are merely complementary. Whatever the case, the combination of the words and images is able to heighten the understanding of the intended meaning. This is possible, but not always likely. The images obscure the words and the scenes are often so esoteric that they do little to expand the knowledge of the viewer. While some would claim that I am intentionally playing a game with the viewer, the objective is to elicit more engagement with the work and interaction with the viewer.

In a way, my paintings are pedagogical. I create and present them in such a way as to instruct the viewer in how he or she should approach all contemporary art. The work is layered and interactive. That means that the viewer must not only approach, but reapproach the work. Each work is something that reveals itself over time and a viewer is not intended to "get" or comprehend the work in its totality in one five minute perusal—and five minutes is overly generous considering that most viewers give less than a minute to any artwork. If a viewer truly wants to appreciate and receive the messages of an artwork as intended by the artist then he or she needs to do a little homework. It is no different from contemporary literature that often references tales from our cultural history.

That may seem like a lot of effort for many viewers. All I can say is that this is the state of contemporary art. It takes an equal part of energy on the part of the viewer as on the artist. However, the rewards of unwrapping the layers that make up the artwork is that much greater. Anything worthwhile takes some effort. So I guess the intended audience for my work may be those who are willing to take on that responsibility. And I hope you are one of those people.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Damien Hirst and the Rebirth of Symbol

While there are traces and references to Christianity nestled within much of contemporary culture, there remains one arena of the culture that seems virtually untouched by the influence of Christian thought and practice. The contemporary art world, with its elitism and insider mentality, is seen as out of touch with the mainstream and so remains off the radar for the average individual.

When contemporary art does enter ordinary conversation it is typically because of some outlandish stunt or vulgar assault on our social mores. Such is the case with the 1999 exhibition, Sensation, that captured the national headlines when, then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani threatened to pull city funding from the Brooklyn Museum over several controversial works. One of the chief perpetrators was British artist Damien Hirst. Already no stranger to controversy, Hirst catapulted to worldwide notoriety with his use of materials such as actual sharks and cows—in part or in whole—displayed within large glass vitrines filled with formaldehyde.

These are certainly not traditional art materials. The shocking nature of these works initially caused many to pronounce Hirst as a flash in the pan—all show and no substance. Nearly twenty years into his career, Hirst has proved to be much more than this, continuing to invite controversy with each new project. Of his many attention getting ploys, titling pieces with explicitly biblical or religious references seems a minor infraction.

A former Catholic, Hirst generally refers to himself as an atheist. At the same time, he cannot deny the power of religion, stating, "I always think that art, God, and love are really connected. I don’t want to believe in God. But I suddenly realised that my belief in art is really similar to believing in God. And I’m having difficulties believing in art without believing in God."

All too often, any references to Christian themes and symbols within Hirst’s work are explained away as his personal attack on archaic modes of religion. What art world insiders seldom observe is that Hirst’s work is infused with Christian symbols and that, even at its most ironic, it possesses an earnest questioning of faith. Hirst recognizes that if we dispose of religion the big questions of life are still sitting there staring us in the face.

The use and abuse of Christian symbols is nothing new in modern and contemporary art. In fact, Hirst sees himself as the rightful heir to Britain’s original bad boy artist—Francis Bacon. Bacon’s grotesque abstractions of human figures foreshadowed the shocking imagery that Hirst would produce nearly forty years later. Bacon, through both compositions and titles, referenced the crucifixion. However, it was not the actual crucifixion of Christ, but the idea of supreme brutality, produced in condemnation of the atrocities of the twentieth century.

Bacon’s work of 1946, Painting (at the Museum of Modern Art), was directly referenced in Hirst’s own unique manner in 2004. Bacon painted rotting sides of beef flanking a hideous specter of a figure, feebly attempting to shield itself with an umbrella. The splayed flesh brings to mind outspread arms while the figure exerts some diabolical taunt. Hirst mimicked this scene of apparent crucifixion with the actual materials, sans the grotesque human figure, in The Pursuit of Oblivion which first appeared in an exhibition entitled In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida at the Tate Gallery, along with work by Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. He did include a small school of tropical fish within the glass case, perhaps to add some levity, or comment on the absurdity of life.

I had always approached these modernist adaptations of the crucifixion as further evidence that Nihilism had conquered the thinking of twentieth century humanity. Then, while listening to Gertje Utley lecture about the place of religious imagery in modern art (From Gauguin to Picasso and Serrano: The Uses and Misuses of Christian Iconography), at an event sponsored by the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) during their exhibition Sacred Art in a Secular Century, a new theory manifested itself. Utley explained that, but for a very few examples, modern artists who incorporated any kind of Christian imagery in their work overwhelmingly referenced the crucifixion. I posed a question to her: If the modern artist had mockingly employed the crucifixion as the primary expression and image by which to put to rest Christianity, once and for all, wasn’t the cross itself—the key symbol of Christian faith—also a type of resurrection symbol within modern art? After all, crucifixion imagery and the historical concept was not truly destroyed. It continued to rise again as the symbol of ultimate sacrifice on behalf of helpless innocence. Like the phoenix (another symbol of resurrection), the crucifixion rose from the ashes of modern art time and again.

The Christian cannot see the crucifixion without also acknowledging the hope of the resurrection. They are two sides of the same coin. Should it be a surprise that when the symbols of faith show forth in the general culture, even mockingly, that their truth will make itself known?

Damien Hirst, maverick that he is, is not satisfied to question faith and religion via this most obvious symbol alone. In his interrogations of the meaning of the endless cycle of life and death he is uncertain what comes after. Is there something in us that goes on to a next life? Is there something that lasts forever? More than any other art world figure in recent memory, Hirst embraces this other side of the coin. This lies within works that, on first viewing, appear to be just a melding of biology and aesthetics. Numerous works are formed by affixing brightly colored butterfly wings in symmetrical patterns to enameled canvases.

The butterfly is an ancient Christian symbol for resurrection. It references both Christ’s defeat of the tomb (cocoon) and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Often, Hirst fully references the death and resurrection of Christ in the butterfly works through the symmetrical pattern created with the wings, which doubles as a cross. While these symbols may escape the viewer in a casual glance, one need not delve too deep to find them.

But it is Hirst’s 2007 headline grabber that proves this is more than a passing interest. Death was a theme for Hirst even from the very start of his career. It was inevitable that Hirst would eventually begin to question what comes after. For the Love of God is a title with two meanings. It is partially serious but mostly used in jest, as an expression people might likely use when discovering the materials: a diamond encrusted human skull.

Typical of Hirst’s working style, For the Love of God was conceived by Hirst but actually executed by highly skilled craftsmen to his specifications. Hirst had acquired a male human skull from the 18th century from a London taxidermy shop and decided that he wanted to create a replica of it studded in diamonds. The jewelers replicated the skull in platinum and then set 8601 flawless diamonds within it. They used the original teeth from the skull, polishing them up a bit first before resetting them. The forehead of the work is crowned with an impressive 52-carat pear shaped diamond, surrounded with 14 smaller pear-shaped stones.

It took the craftsmen 18-months to create the piece and the diamonds alone are worth about $25 million. This time around Hirst is almost attempting to defeat death through a different means—by buying it off. Of course, he knows that he "can’t take it with him," that all the millions he has acquired through selling his art will mean nothing in the face of death. He is mocking death, nonetheless. Hirst is challenging us to consider that death is actually a motivational concept that helps us determine how we live out the days we do have. This celebratory gesture could even be seen as a nod to the Christian belief that our deaths are merely the doorway into a new life in the presence of God in paradise.

The shock of For the Love of God is not due to the disgusting, nor even the macabre, but the obscenity of the use of these costly items and the retail selling price. The asking price for the piece was $100 million. In the face of the poverty and calamity that plagues much of the planet this artwork taunts us. It is this fact alone that brought the harshest criticism. And yet, as we stare into the face of mortality it stares back with the glimmer of the immortal and indestructible.
In the end, the work was purchased by an investment group. Eventually it was revealed that Hirst was actually one of the investors. This seems strangely unethical as it places him in a new realm with the highest selling price for a piece of contemporary art ever, yet he was part of engineering that sale. Part of the agreement of the sale was that the piece would need to travel to several museums over the next few years.

This may seem to be ultimately self-serving, but the savviness of Hirst far exceeds his lust for money and fame. Hirst has become a celebrity. He is in a category that transcends the typical art world and places him in the eye of the general public. And while he uses this as an opportunity to act outrageously through his public persona, there are few contemporary artists who are able to reach the masses with their work in this day and age. His antics are only the means to get people to pay attention to the work. The depth and importance of Hirst’s ideas then have the opportunity to be considered. His reintroduction of ancient Christian symbols not only gets the common person interested in high art once again, but sparks renewed interest in a faith that many thought was outdated and insufficient.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mapping Purgation—The Ritual Art-making of Craig Goodworth

Art, as we know it, was born out of ritual and religious ceremonies. In his seminal work, Art in Action, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff explains that the essence of what art once was changed when Western cultures began to remove the artifacts and objects of ritual from their primary functionality. Once monarchs in Europe began amassing artwork in collections built for aesthetic contemplation alone, the founding of public museums was quick to follow.

By the 1950s and 60s this trend of aesthetic contemplation had transformed modes of art making. One of its purest forms was Minimalism. This work left some cold and it objectified art to a certain extent so that it existed as little more than a commodity. A reaction against a purely aesthetic style eventually arose in the format of process and performance based artworks. Artists sensed that the new religion that art had become to some was lacking the spirit of art from the past. The ritual of making the art—the process and not the product—became the essential artwork.

Ritual is at the heart of Craig Goodworth’s art. Like many conceptual and performance based artists, Goodworth relies on documentation of his acts through photographs and videos. The bold, primal, and masculine nature of the work is a reflection of its author. An imposing and intense figure, Goodworth does not produce art for traditional aesthetic effect. In fact, many would object to his work as offensive and perhaps inhumane. Surface, however, should never detract from the underlying substance. The work is, in his terms, a sacred offense.

Goodworth’s rituals are rooted in Eastern Orthodox traditions and bound to the natural world. The activities are tied to a rural and ancestral heritage. They have been documented at locations as diverse as Pennsylvania, Slovakia, and the American Southwest. The practices are built upon asceticism with an overriding theme of sacrifice, emptying (purging), and filling.

Mapping Purgation is Goodworth’s journey through a series of rituals that embody this concept of emptying and filling. The opening sequence is a genesis, or literally birth, of the artist’s vision. The camera captures the birth of a calf. Like any birth, one senses the miraculous. A farmhand assists in releasing the newborn bovine from the heaving hulk of its mother’s body. Elements coalesce to make the occasion more solemn. The crisp air is accented by the steam of new life. As the calf is ejected from the safety of the womb its mother instantly rises to lick the amniotic sack from her offspring, in an act that is both instinctual and tender. She gently prods the calf to a wobbly stance within the straw covered stable. Even while we recognize these as ordinary farm animals there is an undeniable connection to the circumstances of the miraculous birth of Christ—among the lowly beasts of burden and in the obscurity of the ordinary.

The video then proceeds to chart the slaughter of various animals in locations around the world. It is graphic but it is not senseless. Whether on farms or ranches, most of these events are built purely upon sustenance. The animals were raised as food. The slaughtering of the animals—and this is a word that now holds more connotations of violence and unjust war than food supply—is a form of sacrifice. The animals die that we might live.

Of particular note is the emptying of the bodies of their internal organs. Although what one views are not religious rituals, Goodworth has imbued the ordinary with spiritual significance. The interior of each carcass is painstakingly purged of its vital organs until all that remains is a hollow, or even hallowed, form. The emphasis on purging is inextricably connected to the filling of that which has been emptied.

One particular early segment of the video—Concrete Cruciform—begins to hint at the more sacred purposes of the artist. In a simplified, almost Bergmanesque framing, Goodworth emerges from the cool late autumn air in hooded coveralls. This figure is on a journey or pilgrimage with a wheelbarrow laden with the carcass of a deer. The cowled figure is reminiscent of a medieval monk. This fitting comparison signals the months that the artist has spent with a group of Eastern Orthodox monks in a secluded region of Northern New Mexico.

Eventually the hooded pilgrim arrives at what seems to be a pyre made from the branches of felled trees. He secures the carcass atop the pyre in an inverted cruciform. One immediately associates the sacrificial parallels to both the Abrahamic tradition and the story of Christ. The interesting twist is that this deer has already been gutted. It is not simply left as a decaying stand-in for sacrifice. Instead, Goodworth counteracts the purgation with a ceremonial filling. He mixes enough concrete to fill the void left in the deer. Once the carcass has fully decayed what will be left is this fullness—the literal volume of the once living elements of the dead beast.

Goodworth’s quest in these ritual acts was initially linked to the aesthetic theories of beauty. In conversations with the artist I questioned him on his choice and emphasis on the beautiful when the subject seemed to, increasingly, be leaning toward the category of the sublime. As his concept began to change in consideration of this, the separation between life and art began to break down. Spiritual quests (his stays at the monastery) aligned with personal quests focused on his heritage (trips to his ancestral home of Slovakia). All of these were interrelated within the work he had been producing in the studio and in natural settings.

The offensiveness of the sacrificial acts was minimal compared to the precepts of the artist’s faith. The scandal of the Christian faith is bound to the belief that a perfect and sovereign creator became his own creation and subjected himself to the limitations of the physical human form. While other ancient religions had rather anthropomorphic dieties, it was a rather outlandish claim that a god would sacrifice his power and life on behalf of humanity. It was offensive to the contemporaries of Christ and this sacred offense, that makes the hideous the object of ultimate beauty, is exactly what Craig Goodworth is after in his work.

However, one should not see the scenes within the video as voyeuristic. The work is not produced by Goodworth for us to simply gaze upon in disgust, even when he is the cameraman documenting the sacrificial acts of others. He is actively performing these rites and rituals in most cases. He is acting as an intermediary or like a high priest (in much the same way Christ is referred to as a high priest in the biblical passage in the book of Hebrews) on our behalf.

Near the end of Mapping Purgation Goodworth performs one of the most tasking and revelatory acts in a three day event entitled Triduum that takes place over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When he discovers the empty and desiccated carcass of a deer in the desert the artist pierces it with forty or fifty steel rods. The interpenetration of a corpse makes us aware of the way an eternal God, through his son Jesus, intersected time, space, and humanity. By the time Goodworth found it, the corpse had already been life giving. In the death of this animal other scavengers were nourished. Again, the comparison can be made to the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Jesus become nourishment for his followers.

Traveling to and from the remote location of the animal, carrying the steel rods, is an ascetic practice. It is like the completion of the forty day purgation of the Lenten season. After the exhausting task of pulling the rods back out of the carcass, Craig documents how they have changed the shell of the deer. Certain views show light piercing through the hide. Within the interior, a place of darkness and death, light is now streaming. Once again, Goodworth is allowing us to see that it takes the darkness of purgation to reveal the fullness of God.

In the final scene Goodworth is found in the beams of car headlights on the side of a remote highway. He has come upon a wounded deer that can no longer walk. The fear and pain are evident in the darting eyes of the deer. The beast is now only suffering until it can ultimately die. Goodworth realizes that this event is the bookend to the opening scene of the birth of the calf. He performs his final sacrifice as a mercy killing, cutting the animal’s throat that it may finally be free of the pain. The mercy shown is what is referred to as a severe mercy. Sometimes the difficult path is the best for us.

Through all these scenes Goodworth reminds us that the physical is inextricably linked to the spiritual. He denies the Manichean and Gnostic notions that humanity is called to shed the physical in order to come to some super spiritual state. Instead, he reveals that we only understand the spiritual through the physical. The physical is our primary language. It is through the ugliness of the sublime that we have a proper foil against which we can perceive true beauty.

Updating Time-honored Techniques

A hallmark of postmodern art is the vigorous borrowing or appropriating of images. This can just as often be images from art history as images from pop culture and mass media. While I do often use other photographic sources as a partial basis for elements in my work, I rarely make reference to or borrow obviously from non-photographic resources (i.e. another person’s artwork).

In 2006 I made an exception to this practice when I created a couple etchings in homage to Georges Rouault. My work is normally quite different from the style one associates with Rouault, one of the most noted Expressionists of the twentieth century. The occasion for the creation of these etchings was the exhibition This Anguished World of Shadows at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City. The foundation of this exhibit was the fifty-eight intaglio prints that comprise one of Rouault’s crowning achievements—Le Miserere et Guerre. The creation of this series of etchings was complicated from the start and there are plenty of authors who have detailed that tale. The technique the artist used has been foundational to my process and that is what I wish to explain here.

Rouault began the series by creating ink drawings for each of the images. A photographic process, probably photogravure, was used to produce the initial images on the copper plates. Rouault was completely unsatisfied with the results and proceeded to work back into each of the images by hand, using more traditional etching and intaglio processes. The photo-based images possibly looked like black and white photographic reproductions found in books and newspapers—when you look closely you find that they are composed of dots.

I owe a large debt to Rouault’s ingenuity. Nearly all of my etchings go through a similar process. I begin with a drawing that is either scanned into Photoshop or produced with that software. The values are then inverted (black becomes white and white becomes black) and the image is printed onto a transparency using a laser printer. When I place that image face down on a copper plate and slowly heat it, while rubbing the non-toner side of the transparency with a wooden spoon, the toner offsets to the copper. It is a little more complex than that, but that is the general idea. The toner acts as a resist when the plate is placed in a bath of acid. When inked, the etched plate will print nearly the same as the original drawing—in theory. The image transfer usually has some flaws and the print will have that same dot pattern that likely annoyed Rouault. Therefore, I go back into the plate using the same traditional techniques that he used nearly a century ago.

Because the owners of the particular set of Miserere prints that were in the MOBIA show are friends of mine, I had the privilege of inspecting and studying each and every print by hand before they were framed. On some prints the texture from the photogravure was still evident in certain areas. In others, the technique was so diffuse that, aside from the plate mark, the image could be mistaken for a charcoal drawing.

The image reproduced here is based on plate 8 of the Miserere—Qui ne se grime pas? (Who does not wear a mask?) It is significantly smaller in size and, like much of my work, is actually formed from text. The text is segments of the Passion of Jesus, scanned into Photoshop from portions of the Gospels. Layers of that text were placed over an image of Rouault’s print and the lighter values of the etching was then "erased" from the text layers in Photoshop. Eventually, enough text layers were produced that when Rouault’s image was removed the text essentially formed a facsimile image. This is what was transferred to the copper plate.

This image went through about a dozen states before it finally looked like it does now. The text needed to be made darker and lighter in various areas. I would add traditional etching and aquatint to darken portions. The next proof might reveal that some areas were too dark and then I had to scrape away some of the surface of the copper. It is actually a fairly physical, almost sculptural process. I probably enjoy printmaking so much because it possesses this quality of physically making something.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Seven Days in the Art World

A new book was recently released that attempts to offer a glimpse into the nebulous realm of the contemporary art world. Those who are not part of the inside conversation of the cultural elite tend to give this segment of society little attention. It isn’t difficult to understand why since contemporary forms and mediums are often non-traditional, at best, and the language used to describe and analyze them is coded and dense.

However, Sarah Thornton has made a noble attempt at demystifying art, artists, and the system that envelopes them with her book Seven Days in the Art World. The chapters are broken down into some of the main organizational categories that comprise the engine of this sub-culture. Topics include Museums, Galleries, Biennials, Art Fairs, and Critiques. These are the specific places and means by which the art world hums along.

I found the style to be engaging. Thornton draws us into the locations and people, even if the subject is quite new. Yet the book would require a little extra effort for those totally oblivious to the names and places that hold a particular sway over contemporary art and artists. This was noticeable in the chapter on the Venice Biennale. For those who rarely engage high culture, Thornton does describe what a biennial is—simply an exhibition, usually international, that happens at a specific institution or location every two years. She even reveals that Venice is the granddaddy of all biennial exhibitions. However, some of the names and activities could lose the uninitiated reader almost as easily as the labyrinthine streets of the canalled city. More importantly, though, is the maddening pace and sheer offering of exhibition venues that overwhelm a Biennale viewer. Thornton is fully able to convey the exhausting tempo of the Venice Biennale in this chapter.

My favorite chapter is on the group critique, or "crit," as the art school and MFA crowd call it. Thornton chose CalArts as the place to experience a crit in its fullness. While the coastal extremes of LA and New York continually vie for importance, the LA scene does tend to favor the conceptual, theory-based artist. Thornton spends an entire day—going well past midnight—with the art school students in their group critique.

The personalities of the student-artists come forth. The group of bohemians at times argues polar opposite views based in social, class, gender, and ethnic theories. The entire spectacle is seen as a performance-based work in its own right by Thornton. Everyone is striving to find his or her own artistic identity through the process of the critique. The class has its high and low points. The language becomes quite oblique at times and Thornton later has to ask students for definitions for some of the artspeak terminology thrown about.

This portrayal of a crit is spot on. Better yet is Thornton’s analysis of the MFA system and its successes and failures. Her description of how the art student comes to the MFA program confident in his or her abilities and artistic vision, only to be torn down to the smallest, most essential beliefs that can then be built upon, is exceptional. For over a decade I have attempted to describe this very process to former students and friends as they have entered MFA programs. No one seems to understand it fully until they experience it first hand. For this chapter alone, I would be willing to use this as a text for an undergraduate studio art course.

Seven Days in the Art World is a great starting point for anyone interested in contemporary art. Those initiated into the fold will see themselves and others they know within the pages. Those at the periphery will be welcomed farther into the circle.

Contemporary Altarpieces and the Italian Tradition

Ideas for artwork come from everywhere. For me, this is especially the case with my altarpiece assemblages. The first dozen were mostly conceived through reading I had undertaken in the mid-1990s, but that was just the starting point. As the series developed and there became a greater emphasis on the reliquary objects component, the overall design began to evolve. I don’t know that I even envisioned them as altarpieces, per se, initially. I am certain that the use of gilding was an afterthought, when I needed some kind of surface treatment to mask the freshly cut wood—weathered and grey on its other exposed surfaces.

Once I began the process of determining what type of objects should be used for the reliquaries for particular "saints," the form and direction took a new turn. When I asked a friend what object(s) might be appropriate for the St. Clive altarpiece she suggested Scrabble tiles. This impacted the entire composition of the work in ways I had not previously considered. Soon, I started finding objects that sparked ideas for new pieces and moved the constructions into a more conceptual realm—not based so closely on specific individuals.

Trips to antique shops and flea markets provided more than enough material to get me thinking. Old wire-rimmed spectacles brought to mind the accumulations of Arman, so I began collecting them for some undiscovered use. Cast iron bathtub claw feet would enable the pieces to come down off the wall and become more interactive. I did not, however, always know what some items would represent or in what way I would eventually incorporate them. One of my best finds, that impacted me greatly when I spotted it, though I did not know why, was a pair of battered, antique porcelain doll arms. I talked the dealer down to 50 cents. It took a few months of studying them to discover their meaning and in which piece they would work.

In October and November of 2006 I spent four weeks in Italy teaching a class on collage and assemblage for Gordon College. Until that point I had been scanning art history volumes in order to establish some of the design elements for my altarpieces. The opportunity to spend days studying functional altarpieces and reliquaries in churches, and others preserved in museums, was invaluable. I spent hour upon hour sketching and taking notes on architectural elements and ornamental structures. A flat photograph from only one view is simply not sufficient. Even detail photographs don’t provide adequate information about how the objects were created.

One day while cleaning out the studio spaces in the Italian convent where we lived and worked, I stumbled upon some spare fragments of old, punched metal screening. It isn’t that unusual of an item and I have even seen similar materials here in the U.S. In Italy, in the setting of a convent, and with imagery from churches and cathedrals swimming in my head, this provided a unique revelation. History is preserved in Italy’s architecture. There are ornamental embellishments on everything. The same types of designs appear inside and outside the buildings. The screen was reminiscent of the screen in a confessional. I had been sketching confessional booths for weeks at this point. The altarpiece I then had in mind would incorporate the idea of confession and would contain this golden brass screen in some way.

Again, this object provided just the initial concept. It would still take several weeks or months of sketching and planning to decipher the structure of the work and determine how the screen would be used in conjunction with other objects that had not yet been uncovered. Even though much of that has now been set down on paper, it will inevitably change once I begin building the structure. It always happens that way.

The process of producing these works is long. It often takes several years, but it always follows a similar pattern. The concept arises through something I have seen, read, or heard. I probe the idea through sketching, reading, and other forms of research. Some specific texts and objects assert themselves as appropriate and then I compile all the elements and design the structure. At that point one might imagine that I jump right in to finish the work. Instead, I work for a bit, put the piece side for awhile, then keep slowly revisiting it over several months or perhaps a couple years. I have found that the longer I let the idea gestate, the more it becomes multilayered, with the end result that I am seeking.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Innocent Eye of James Castle

Many of the great modernists, particularly those who had connections to surrealism, were proponents of artwork created by children, the untrained, and the insane. There was a naivete associated with this work that some modernists were striving for in their own. The idea behind this was that these works were able to communicate the most primitive and primary elements of human experience in the most broadly understandable way. Children, or the insane, have no intellectual baggage of art history and world culture that comprised the bedrock of art making over the centuries.

There is probably something to this, though the concept can lead to comments such as, "My three-year-old could do that." The problem is that we cannot unlearn what we, as artists, know of art history. And though Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings may seem like something a child could produce, they most assuredly are not. The skill of making something look effortless is on par with making something look "realistic." The latter, after all, was one of the chief goals of artists until the most recent decades and is still one of the elements that many in a general audience prefer. A good example of someone who could achieve both is John Singer Sargent. Up close the brush strokes look haphazard and fully abstract, yet from a distance they form astonishing portrait likenesses. The look is fresh, not belabored, but was no simple task.

It is rare to find an artist so detached from the past and the present who is still able to communicate to the common viewer and attract the interest of the art world elite. The prime example of an artist who achieved this is someone whose life shows why this is an anomaly. While I was living in Idaho in the late 1990s I came upon the work of James Castle. He was already deceased but his work has only started to gain national attention in the last decade. I was able to view Castle’s work at his primary dealer’s gallery—the J. Crist Gallery in Boise—and at the Boise Art Museum.

What makes Castle’s work special? For one, he lived in remote Garden Valley, Idaho for most of his life. Added to this was the fact that he was both deaf and mute. Once one sees his choice of media the equation is further complicated.
James Castle’s parents owned the general store/post office in Garden Valley. It is from here that James literally "found" most of his art making materials. Cast off or unclaimed cardboard, envelopes, paper, catalogs and magazines were the foundation of much of his work. This would not seem shocking in the era of Cubist collages, but the work of some avant garde artists in Paris was more than a world away from a deaf-mute boy in rural Idaho. Now, it was not for lack of encouragement from James’ family that he employed these materials. His parents bought him every imaginable "normal" art material. He just refused to use them.

If you are not already impressed by Castle’s ingenuity wait for the last ball to drop. The ink that he used to draw imagery on his found papers was made from soot and his own saliva, applied with wooden sticks that he sharpened himself. Some of his drawings may seem crude, but when you consider all this the images take on a new significance. Personally, I would find the works important on a level of pure human achievement, not artistic merit, if it was not for their more transcendent qualities.

Art was Castle’s communication with the wide world outside of himself. I think it is appealing to contemporary connoisseurs because it retains many of the qualities of the best postmodern and contemporary art. Some elements are easily recognizable and understandable, while others are beyond our comprehension. The work communicates on certain levels, but is often open to several interpretations. Castle shares our world, but not fully.

I have often been drawn to two specific types of Castle’s work. Some of the drawings mimic the format of high school yearbooks. Small portraits are placed in a grid pattern on the paper, while scribbled lines that stand in for text rest below each image. There are even examples that have been sewn together like books. Though Castle could not read or write (aside from his own name) he clearly understood the significance of the written word. We can only assume that this was ingrained in him even more by observing all the printed matter and letters that passed through the post office.

In 2006 I had the privilege of viewing some of Castle’s work at the Knoedler and Co. Gallery on the upper east of New York City. This work, mostly with elements of letters or text in it, was paired with some late Polaroid photographs by Walker Evans (the exhibition was titled: James Castle and Walker Evans:Wordplay, Signs, and Symbols). It was a compelling comparison. Castle’s work certainly held its own next to one of the twentieth century’s most important artists. The manipulation and recontextualization of letter forms displayed a higher level of creativity than I had previously seen in Castle’s compositions.

The other "series" of Castle’s work that impresses many is his constructions. Utilizing the same found materials, James would build objects he observed in his world. Birds, animals, and sometimes people were crafted by folding and coloring (with what means we are still not certain) papers. Crude sewing was often a means of binding the little sculptures together. The ingenuity of all this is uncanny. Because of his limited communication skills one recognizes that Castle’s powers of observation were far above the average individual.

Again, this is a great story of human triumph, but I assert that it is more. These images are complex and multilayered. They are not the elementary scribblings of a child. Castle is what we often refer to as an Outsider Artist. He is outside the elite art world because he was not groomed and trained within its somewhat incestuous and closed system. However, his work is appreciated for having that primal and untrained quality. Much of the work heralded as the best Outsider Art these days fails to impress. The slap dash qualities, inherent in so much of the work, can come off as cliche instead of significant.

James Castle is among a handful of Outsider Artists who compete as equals among the best artists of their time. If one forgets the backstory of Castle the work still holds up. I suggest that in Castle’s case we should be considered the outsiders. We exist outside of his closed system. We are deciphering his messages, his language, that we cannot wholly comprehend. This makes for work that is not static. It compels us to come back again and again.

Castle’s first major museum survey opened in October 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum also has an exhibit of jewelry fashioned by Alexander Calder (until November 2008) that is well worth seeing.

Woodcuts: Questioning an Evolving Style

This is one of the most recent woodcut projects currently under production in my studio. I have not yet titled it. I usually wait until the edition has been printed before I do that. This was a test print (also known as a state proof) of the first of two blocks. I thought I had finished carving this, but if you look between the two central feet you will find that the filigree texture had not yet been carved out. It will be soon.

This is yet another woodcut featuring feet. Feet were not a preconceived motif for this series, but they did show up often as the pieces progressed. I have been working on the series on and off for about seven years. I am revising two earlier prints and have this one and four others to cut and print before the series is finally complete. People often ask what the "hairy or furry" areas are. The plain and simple truth is that they are design shapes that add texture and movement to the compositions. I arrived at them organically and they then started to weave their way into my style. They don’t "represent" anything in particular, nor do they have any hidden meaning.

Speaking of style… I’ve had several people tell me that the woodcuts remind them of work by Albrecht Durer. I can understand where they are coming from, but I would never put myself on that level. The reality is that I certainly look to Durer’s work for inspiration and design elements. He is, obviously, one the greatest masters of the woodcut print. There are also only so many ways that the medium can be used to create representational figurative images. So, there will inevitably be some similarities.

My woodcuts are easily recognizable as a particular style, but I am currently considering what will follow this series once it is complete. The importance of combining text and imagery has me questioning how concept will eventually impact technique in the woodcuts. My 2007 Christmas card print was the only relief print to date that combined image and text. It still looked like my typical style but with text lightly spread through the background. It would be nice to more fully integrate word and image, like I am doing with the current etching/intaglio series, but I may need to forfeit some of the recognizability of my current style. This ends up being a fairly common concern among professional artists. Do you keep churning out the work that people really connect with (and are more apt to buy) or do you take risks into some uncharted territory? Stay tuned to find out how I resolve that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bill Viola: Video Art’s Role in the Museum Experience

When an artist chooses to produce work in a medium that is not a more traditional material the general viewer can find the work somewhat suspect. This may be more pronounced when it comes to video as an art form. Video, by no means, is new. Artists have been using it for over forty years, in one form or another. In the 1960s and 70s much of the video work produced had documentation as its basis, though there were some truly experimental pioneers such as Nam June Paik. Today, with the proliferation of miniDV recorders, video phones, and iMovie software anyone with access can create video works. Much of what the novice produces in this medium still has documentation at its core, and video remains a democratic medium. It is for everyone.

The fate of video is related to its older sibling, photography. Both have had some difficulty gaining acceptance as full fledged art media. The popularity and accessibility of each with the masses is at the heart of this. Once Kodak made film cameras inexpensive enough for the average middle class citizen there was a certain cheapening of the medium. Everyone could fancy himself or herself a Photographer. However, the snapshots for which most of us are responsible are simply not the same thing as a photograph produced by a fine artist. The medium is the same but the skill, intent, and process are worlds apart. It used to be that an artist spent an exceptional amount of time in the darkroom, assuring that the final photographic print was tweaked in just the right ways. Now that time is often spent in Photoshop. Either way, there is much more to these images than what results when most of us snap a cell phone image while on vacation at the beach.

Returning to video, the analogy can be made with YouTube. There are many humorous and interesting videos floating around cyberspace. The vast majority can scarcely be considered art and the creation of these does not prove their maker to be an artist or a great cinematographer. Yet there does remain some video that is, and should be, considered high art.

My observation, time and again, relating to the general public’s attitude toward video as art, has less to do with the medium than a broader attitude toward art. When video art is displayed in gallery and museum settings a common scenario is repeated day after day. Viewers approach the screen or wall where the video is displayed, look at what is transpiring for maybe ten seconds, get bored and move on. This isn’t unique to video. It happens with traditional paintings and sculpture as well.

The best of video art, however, has something unique to offer those who wish to view art. Time. Without the time element a video is just a still image—a photograph. There, of course, can be sound, too. That is peripheral to the element of time, though it may certainly be essential to a given work. The misperception with which many approach video is that it should be fast paced and to the point—instantaneously understood. This is exactly what a consumerist culture has prepared us to accept and expect. We view more traditional art forms in this same fashion because our lives move at fiber optic speed.

A contemporary master of video—and the element of time in particular—is Bill Viola. His ideas and themes are ancient though his choice of medium is fairly modern. Blending elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism and other eastern philosophies, Viola explores the questions that have plagued us since the birth of humanity. These ideas are so pertinent that he demands our attention—our time—through his medium of choice.

There is a particularly excellent example of Viola’s work in the Yale University Art Gallery. When I came upon Study for Emergence in the museum galleries it was just over half-way through its 10 minute playing cycle. I expect that this may be another reason why viewers abandon video pieces so quickly. When you start mid-way through you miss important information. Patience is essential. This is a fairly long piece. It moves achingly slow. Two women are perched upon low steps. At the top of the steps is a large stone box. Not far into the piece each woman proceeds to move through an anguished and dramatic act of grieving. Because the scene is significantly slowed down we observe their pain in a more heightened and intense way.

The women interact in a cursory manner. They are never fully consoling one another. Their grief seems common, but not actually shared—it is deeply personal. Ever so slowly, water begins to cascade down the sides of the stone box. It flows down the steps, interrupting the women in their sorrow. Again, very slowly, the women begin to move up the steps to what is now being revealed as a sepulcher. From within the water filled tomb rises a pale and limp figure of a man. The women muster enough strength to lift the body from its chamber and rest it upon the steps on which they first began the sequence.

The imagery would be poignant even at normal speed but the belabored slowness of the work acts as a magnifying glass on their emotions. I viewed the work about two and half times. This is asking a lot of the viewer. Without that kind of commitment, however, the nuances are not revealed. Not only is the artist asking much from the viewer, he is asking a lot of the art. That is what is actually expected from art, that it is transcendent, able to take us above and beyond the banalities of every day existence.

It is a tall order to ask viewers to invest this kind of time on an individual work of art. With the current trend of crowded blockbuster museum exhibitions it isn’t really even feasible in many instances. Still, the challenge to the viewer is relevant. Art is one of the exceptions for most people. We approach it passively, expecting it to tell its story and reveal its meaning immediately. When reading literature we expect to work a little at it. There are truths to be revealed but we have to dig a little to find them. Even those who enjoy watching sporting events understand that in order to fully appreciate them they need to understand the rules of the game. In short, we have to do our homework.

Contemporary art is not self evident. It does not become any clearer by avoiding it. The challenge is to take the time to look past normal expectations and preconceptions. Viewers need to be in dialogue with the work. That, like all things worth doing in this life, takes an investment of time.

“And why are those people naked…?”

There is one question that invariably arises when people view my artwork. “Just why are all the people naked?” Nude is the correct term, but that is not something to quibble over for the time being. There are several answers to the question and I will address each of them in turn, but I need to lay out a bit of my background before I do that.

The vocation of artist was not something that one would have foreseen in my future early on. I grew up in a small village—not even large enough to be designated a town—in Michigan. It is quite rural and many of my friends and classmates actually lived on farms. A large percentage of my family were and are teachers. And while most in my family are musically inclined, any artistic leanings never led toward any formal training or professions within the creative sector.

Academically, I was a fairly exceptional student which provided many options for a career path. It was not until I entered high school that it became obvious to me that what I truly enjoyed most was creating artwork. At that time, like many artistically talented kids, my main goal was producing realistic drawings and paintings, often of animals and wildlife. What can I say? I grew up pretty close to the earth and my family and friends certainly appreciated that style. Much to my dismay, several of those old paintings still adorn the homes of my family members.

Once I began my formal art education in college the trajectory of my work soon took shape. I had an equal interest in art history and was drawn to figurative painters, in particular. I honestly didn’t start out planning to produce mostly nude figures, but in order to understand the human body, even clothed, one needs to know its structure without clothing. When I began to produce work with nude figures, even from the first, it made me somewhat of a maverick. Since I come from a very conservative evangelical/fundamentalist protestant background, and the undergraduate institutions I attended share a similar heritage, the work wasn’t deemed as the most appropriate. It continued to cause problems in those settings as time went on.

Fast forwarding to the work of the past decade, I am able to explain the use of the nude in more depth. On the most basic level I am following in the long tradition of figurative artists going back to the Greeks. Modern and contemporary artists who have had a profound impact on me are Leonard Baskin, Lucian Freud, Kathe Kollwitz, and Odd Nerdrum. Surveying the work of these artists one can easily see that I am often drawn to more psychological and sublime portrayals of the human form. The figure is an equal element with color, value, shape, and line inside the composition.

The next, more generalized reason for employing the nude figure, is connected to my use of text along with imagery in my work. I am exploring an incarnational view in which the person of Jesus is at once the Word of God, but also the physical manifestation of God on earth. The Word and Image of God, equally. As my friend Ed Knippers often states, if Jesus truly came in full, physical, human form, as a Jewish man, then he came anatomically correct. This doesn’t mean that I am glorifying his sexuality, but neglecting or subverting it is equally dangerous. It amounts to a modern day Gnosticism. This is actually one of the most shocking premises of Christianity and it continues to be a difficult element of the faith.

Conservative American Christianity is often more than uncomfortable with the body and sexuality. Again, this leads to a renewed Gnosticism. While there is plenty of pronouncement against adultery, fornication, and homosexuality, there has been far too little time given to discussing human sexuality in the most basic sense. The fear that talking about sexuality openly and frankly, because it might be an encouragement to young people to experiment sexually, has led to neglecting to talk about it much at all. That lack of discussion has probably, inadvertently, led to more than one teenage pregnancy. What I am getting at by using these nude figures is confronting this basic fact of human sexuality as part of the fullness of our humanity.

I would add that this is not relegated solely to conservative forms of American Christianity but is symptomatic of American culture in general. The Puritan roots of American culture have somehow led to us overly sexualizing the physical body so that any hints of the body in our culture connect it to sexual themes or concepts. So, even the average America, Christian or not, is apt to find nudity in art as vaguely or explicitly erotic or perverse.

The final, specific use of the nude in my work is related to the nude figures portrayed in the altarpieces. In this instance the nudity is used as a leveling agent. Again, my protestant background comes into play here. These “personal saints” are every day, common people, not necessarily those canonized by the Holy Roman Church. I have chosen to portray them as saints, venerating them for living exemplary lives in one way or another. They are ordinary people placed on a pedestal for others to consider. Saints are living all around us. As I elevate them I also bring them back down to the level of each of us. They are equally as human as you and me.

I know that producing work with nude figures is ensuring that some people will find it not to be child-friendly, or even cause them to label it as obscene. It also limits those who will be willing to purchase it. That is the risk that I take. I find that being true to what the work is calling me to do is ultimately more important. If the work is not honest in that sense it will eventually be evident to the viewer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg’s Place in the Canon

It was with great sadness that I received the news of Robert Rauschenberg’s death in May 2008. If there is such a thing as art world royalty Rauschenberg certainly was a prince. He was a pivotal artist whose impact on art making will be felt for generations to come.

An art historian friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate on Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. They both came to prominence within the art world at nearly the same time and each was responsible for initiating a shift that we now see as a transition from Modernism to Postmodernism.

While my friend does not dispute how important Rauschenberg was, he thinks that, when the art history books are compiled a century from now, Johns will be the artist who defines the changes of the late 1950s and Rauschenberg will likely end up as a side note, and that possibly because Johns and Rauschenberg were at one time romantically linked. I think there is room for both and that they really had different things to offer to the history of art.

While Rauschenberg is best known for his "combine paintings" from the 50s and 60s, his experimental art making processes foreshadowed many of the divergent paths, styles, and media that would take shape in the coming decades. Spurred on by the composer John Cage, Rauschenberg was one of the first artists to seriously investigate performance art as a valid form of expression. Since this was nearly the same time as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings comparisons are often drawn between the two.

Kaprow (who died in 2006) is always linked to Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. His statement—that one could either continue on with Pollock’s gestural and seemingly ritualistic drip technique or move toward a more performative type of work, making art from the materials and actions of everyday life—marked a seismic shift in what we came to know art as. Rauschenberg, taking his cues from Cage, relied on chance elements in his work. One his most famous statements is about operating in the gap between art and life. His work, not matter what the medium or format, was successful in achieving this.

What Rauschenberg and Johns shared was an understanding of what Marcel Duchamp had been up to nearly four decades earlier. The designation of everyday objects, placed in a new context, as art transformed the contemporary notion of what art could be. Rauschenberg is actually a more proper heir to Duchamp and the other Dadaists because he took their concepts to the next level. The Dadaists had produced absurd theater pieces that contained music, poetry, drama, dance and visual elements. With Cage’s assistance, Rauschenberg was able to broaden his own view of what those artforms were and had the possibility of becoming. He broke down barriers between the differing forms. It was if Rauschenberg was also heir to Richard Wagner’s operatic concept of the Gesmantkunstwerk—total work of art. All of the arts came together so that the whole was much more compelling than each of the various components.

Still, it is the combine paintings that provide the most important leap. Too many underestimate just how significant of a shift took place when Rauschenberg removed the taxidermied angora goat and canvas of Monogram from the wall and then placed them on the floor (see the images above for each state of this piece). When the divide between painting and sculpture was abolished the categories for art were dismantled. For better or worse, art simply was art.

The juxtapositions of swaths of abstract expressionist paint with newspapers, magazine pages, taxidermied animals, and detritus from the street was only possible post-Cubism and post Duchamp’s Fountain. What made the combines so important was that they took all these objects of life and put them on display together, in relationship to each other. While Rauschenberg did not necessarily give clues as to why and how the elements of a given combine came together, he opened up a new type of interaction for the viewer.

Because of the more purely abstract and non-objective nature of much of the work of prior mid-century artists, a disconnect between the art and the viewer was on the rise. Both Rauschenberg and Johns are sometimes called Pre-Pop artists since they shared in the Pop artists’ goal of bringing representational imagery, or at least actual objects and recognizable symbols, back to the artwork. The viewer might not have liked the work, but she could relate to it on some level.

Art had long since ceased to be solely about the representation of images and objects, the retelling of a certain set of common stories and myths. These were still part of the equation, but art had the power to do something more than what a mere photographic snapshot could. While those who were outsiders to the very insulated New York art world were scratching their heads concerning materials used by Rauschenberg (though one could ask why a stuffed goat is any less suited to becoming art than a ground mineral mixed with linseed oil, marble, or bronze) they were being offered a gift. Work by Rauschenberg is open to multiple interpretations. The viewer connects the dots and finds meaning in the piece herself. The viewer has to finish the process of communication by vigorously interacting with the work.

Viewing a large collection of the combine paintings together, as I had the opportunity to do at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2006, allows one to make even further connections. I had noticed back in 1997, while conducting research on the chance methods of Rauschenberg’s work, that there is an underlying grid system to much of it. What appears as haphazard applications of materials when one views a couple combines eventually shows order. John Cage, who had first influenced Rauschenberg to employ chance methods, also had to apply some types of structure to his musical compositions. You can push the boundaries but not break all the rules at once, otherwise the new "thing" created will not be related to its type (music, art, etc.)

This structural system can be seen going back further into Rauschenberg’s past. His all white, somewhat minimalist painting from the 1950s, 22 the Lily White, shows this grid quite clearly. Even photographs of his childhood bedroom and anecdotes from that period reveal that, early on, he was placing found objects in a grid of boxes and crates—categorizing the world around him.

Robert Rauschenberg understood limitations but did not acquiesce to them. He stands as not only a transitional figure in the evolution of twentieth century art, but as a model for artists of all generations. He helped define what was essential in an artwork and pushed past the traditional structures toward the transcendent elements.

Job: Questions about Loss

This drawing is one of several from a series reflecting on the Old Testament figure of Job. Eventually all the images will become watercolors on book pages. Traditional watercolor is a transparent medium, so it is very difficult to cover underlying images with it. When I paint with watercolor on book pages I also mix in a bit of white casein paint. Casein is milk based (though I’m still not exactly sure how that works) and is mixable and thinable with water. My use of casein with watercolor goes back to my freshman year of college when a visiting artist showed us his method of using the white paint with watercolor. I ended up using it because, when thinned with water, the casein becomes translucent and produces a fleshiness that simply can’t be achieved with watercolor alone.

All of the figures from the series are on pages from the Book of Job from a Hebrew Bible from the late 1800s. Painting directly on these pages is strictly prohibited by Orthodox Jewish law, so I’m sure there is a certain segment of the population that it will offend, though that is not my intent. In fact, it took me some time to reconcile myself to tearing pages out of a holy book so that I could drawn and paint on them. My Protestant upbringing, which highly values the Word of God above most other things, didn’t quite prepare me for doing this. When I first started considering employing this process in the late 1990s I questioned a friend who had been using Bible pages in his own art work for several years. He said that the first Bible he used had been brought to him by a student who found it in a mud puddle. Since the book was unusable for its original purpose at that point he figured he might as well do something productive with it.

That freed me up to begin incorporating book pages in my work. This particular Hebrew Bible I found at a used bookstore that I frequented in Idaho. It was laying in a box of books that had not yet been processed. It had no cover and was already disintegrating. I asked the shop owner what the price was and he asked me how much I had on me. Sold! For five dollars. No one could ever read this book anymore. The pages were coming apart every time it was opened to a new section. I decided that painting on these pages gave this book a new life. It was resurrected, if you will.

All of my work incorporating text gets back to the concept of Jesus being called the Word of God—the Incarnate Word of God. Physical presence and being, or an image, are placed in connection with the very utterance of God. Part of what this means, as the Gospel of John states it, is that the Word of God—in the form of the Law given to Moses—is made complete by the physical incarnation of that Word in the person of Jesus. This is complicated, but I wrestle with the concept as I bring the Words and Images together in one form.

For the Job series I wanted to explore some ideas of loss, pain, and anguish. Though I started the series around 2003 it seems even more pertinent now. When the American economy is pushing people to their limits and thousands of people are losing their homes and jobs, what can we learn from this story? Job was literally stripped bare. All his possessions, his family, and even his health were taken from him. Nothing was left. When we are left completely alone we have to confront ourselves. All the noise, possessions, people, and busy-ness of life can distract us from the most basic things, causing us to lose our true identities. These are not the easiest things to ponder, but they are essential.