Friday, April 24, 2009

Playing a Serious Game—The Art of Amy Day

Just how is it that art "works" on us? There may be a commonly held belief that art should possess aspects of beauty. Even a narrow definition that excludes aesthetic sensibilities like the sublime recognizes that art possesses something more than merely technical skill—mimesis of nature’s beauty. There is something transcendent in art that takes us out of ourselves and causes us to look at the world through a different lens.

Sometimes it takes the unsettling to make us take a new look at an old concept. Performance art has had an unsettling quality from its genesis. It wasn’t visual art in the traditional sense and it wasn’t even theatre. This hybrid nature caused questions to naturally arise in viewers and this has often been used to the advantage of artists who employ performance as a medium.

Amy Day utilizes her body in her performance works. Her body is her primary medium. The actions of her body, combined with other symbolically laden objects, reference attitudes and beliefs common in society. Day, however, turns viewer assumptions on their heads. By re-presenting beliefs and assumptions in a new context, Day causes the viewer to consider the cultural qualifiers that may color basic beliefs.

Day’s series of videos entitled Bible Bath (all hyperlinked titles can be viewed on YouTube) consists of various "episodes" in which she plays the hostess of a video story-time. Amid floating bunches of plastic grapes, she relays various biblical tales that are both loosely self interpreted and drawn from versions found in children’s coloring books . Her Eucharistic fantasy is enlivened with occasional sips from the wine glass constantly cradled in her hand, no doubt adding to some non-traditional interpretations of Noah and the Ark, and David and Goliath. All the while she lounges, self-baptized in a water filled bathtub.

Part of the artist’s intention for this work was to relay what her faith would resemble at the age of thirty if it had never changed from the condition it was in when she was a child. In the gospels Jesus admonishes Christians to possess a childlike faith, but that doesn’t mean a childish faith. Day presents a problem to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Are they more concerned with the conversion of the unsaved masses than in the maturation of those same newly converted "baby" Christians? Is American Christianity based disproportionately in the Just As I Am altar call of a Billy Graham Crusade? If this is true then the recent predictions of blogger Michael Spencer, concerning the imminent demise of evangelicalism, may be true.

Bible Bath appears as both amusing and disconcerting. It is imbued with an honesty that makes it unnerving, while still fostering an appeal to both those in Christian circles and in the art world. The use of the artist’s body in other works is more immediate, dramatic, and potentially offensive. Day does not shrink away from the traditional symbolism connected to the physical bodies of female performance artists. The woman’s body is the battleground for feminist concerns and ideologies. By stripping down their bodies, Day and other female performance artists regain the control taken from women by a patriarchal society.

This is most evident in Eve. Once, again, connecting to religious tales, Day presents herself as a sinless figure of the mother of humanity. Her naked body is covered in flour to reveal its Edenic purity. As in much of Day’s work, the performance is then inhabited by the accoutrements of childhood. This time it is in the form of the childhood game of bobbing for apples. One by one, Day grasps these blood red, candy coated apples with her mouth, drops them down her torso, and into her lap. Images of sin, death, loss of innocence, and sexuality merge into one powerful scene.

Eve is far from subtle. It tackles Christian beliefs head on, but it communicates in the language of contemporary art. Physical vocabulary is important to Day. Even when she is not using her own physical body the works enlist a materiality that calls attention to the truth of the circumstances presented. A comparison between Ritual Obstacle Course and Closer to the Light is a case in point.

In Ritual Obstacle Course Day navigates the mythic tasks of some self-imposed bodily challenge. She interacts with structures she has previously built in the natural world. The rituals begin with the gathering of pottery from the puddles of a muddy plot of land. Dressed in garments of white, like her figure in Eve, she performs various tasks with the vessels at the appointed stations. until her white, mime-like mask is washed clean from her face in the "rain machine," completing the ordeal.

Closer to the Light is the alter ego of Ritual Obstacle Course. It is the child’s version—the title coming from a book of the same name that addresses near death experiences of children. It is a stop-action, puppet animation that finds the central character—a doll that seems a cross between Snow White and Alice in Wonderland—performing identical tasks in a world of toys. This is the child-like Bible Bath version of the actual biblical tale. Day wants the viewer to understand that we sometimes require a re-telling, a re-imagining of our archetypes, in order to better dissect their content. Our familiarity with the stories and practices of our youth may cause us to neglect the high seriousness of their full implications.

Performance and even video art are like a foreign language to many people. They do not often possess the intrinsic beauties that many assume are the hallmarks of good art. Amy Day’s work is fun and humorous, but also serious. She uses the first two elements to elicit questions in the minds of her viewers so that the latter is palatable. It is these vivid reinterpretations that work on our imaginations over time.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Even though I construct altarpiece-like box constructions, as an artist, I hate to be confined to a box. I find that the art world may be even worse than other areas of the culture in confining people to specific categories. One look at the job postings section of the College Art Association’s website is enough to convince people that there are more rarified and miniscule areas of study and expertise in the history of art than can be imagined. Labels make life easier, but they limit our human—or humane—interactions.

I found this to be the case with my former position with CIVA but also because of any associations with Christian institutions (i.e. colleges) I have had. It was far easier to write me off as an ignorant Bible-thumper than to engage in meaningful interaction. Time and again I encountered artists, curators, scholars—you name it—who were ready to terminate a conversation as soon as one of these labels found its way into our discourse. I could usually turn things around when the individual found that I was more than conversant in and knowledgeable about multiple aspects of the contemporary art world.

I must confess. I have been guilty of the same kind of crime. On one occasion I met James Cooper, the editor of the American Arts Quarterly, for lunch while on a visit to New York City. His work with the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, along with his well-considered editorials for the journal, left me with the presupposition that he was interested in only a fairly narrow segment of the art world. On the contrary, we had such an enlivened discussion on all facets of art that I was internally embarrassed I had ever harbored such a notion. We concluded our visit with a trip through the Edvard Munch exhibition then on display at the Museum of Modern Art. I think we both left with a new vision and comprehension of the Norwegian Expressionist’s work.

This brings me back to the American Arts Quarterly. In the Winter 2009 issue I was pleased to find a review of the recent George Tooker retrospective exhibition at the National Academy Museum in New York City. Written by the eminent art historian Donald Kuspit, this wide-reaching review gave more insight than many I read these days. Kuspit made a not entirely original analogy of Tooker’s 1950 painting Subway (above) as a Hell for the Modern world. The claustrophobic painting teems with bewildered Manhattanites lost within the labyrinth of the city’s subway system. It stands as a metaphor for the disillusioned fate of Modern humanity.
Granted, Kuspit is not the first to point this out. Yet as I pondered the relevance of the subterranean metaphor it agitated my sensibilities in a distinct way that previous interpretations of the painting had not. I imagine that this time around my more recent familiarity with the subways of both Boston and New York internalized the interpretation. In the sweltering heat of a Northeastern summer, these subway systems certainly can give Dante and Virgil a run for their money.

My acquaintance with the subway as a type of Hell launched my mind into the configuration of a new altarpiece with a Boston "T" car as the vehicle of Hell. Living just outside of Boston, I regularly used mass transit to enter the city, arriving at North Station underneath the parquet court of the Celtics. From there, the Green Line was my typical starting point, often bringing me to the Park Street Station—the oldest subway station in the U.S. What better place than Park Street to re-imagine a New England Puritanical Hell?

I miss Boston—even the hellish quality of the Green Line on an afternoon when Fenway Park is hosting a World Series game. Still, the "T" as Hell was only a premise on which to build a more complex work. Sure, the subway car could play host to Charon. I guess the Charles River would be his route instead of the Styx. Probably some would say that the great Satan of liberalism lies across the Charles in ivy covered Cambridge. But that would require taking the Red Line and my intuition was not necessarily leading there, clever as the concept might be.

Typical of postmodernist appropriationism, I felt that some kind of Last Judgment image was more in keeping with my theme. Many people are aware of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Its location in the Sistine Chapel along with its controversial nudity has perhaps made it more famous as a type than a recognizable image. I rather enjoy Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgment, as well. Michelangelo visited the cathedral in Orvieto to view it when preparing his own version. My month in Orvieto allowed me plenty of opportunity to study this work. In the end, however, my favorite Last Judgment is Rogier van der Weyden’s. Those poor, naked, doomed souls being chased into Hell are on my top ten list of northern renaissance images.

Lest I give my elaborate concept away in full, I will conclude. The totality of this work will be based in some specific personal experiences. This will not configure a typical Last Judgment. And this brings me back to my original annoyance. I expect that many might place my work in the category of "religious art." I agree that there are some pieces (woodcuts and cathedral etchings) that fall more comfortably into that designation. The altarpieces, however, do not. They do appropriate religious imagery and trappings, but they are far more complex than that simply reading. My hope is that when the next wave of altarpieces is completed they will receive a broader audience that more accurately reflects their complexity.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Engraving and the Art of Stanley William Hayter: Taking the Hard Line

I can’t see that there is a very accurate measure for fame. In fact, I’m not sure we would really want to attempt creating such a system. Fame is not an indicator of what kind of influence or importance a person actually holds within his or her immediate circle or within the larger culture. It is more of a popularity contest based on some least common denominator.

For this reason, most people do not know the name Stanley William Hayter. Most artists don’t even recognize his name. That does not diminish his importance. As a printmaker, Hayter initiated some of the most significant media-specific changes of the twentieth century. But it was his inventive spirit that ultimately impacted hundreds and thousands of artists who would not necessarily classify themselves, primarily, as printmakers.

I admit that I knew next to nothing about printmaking until I was about halfway through my graduate program in painting. I knew the minimum about techniques. I also knew a bit about Durer and Rembrandt, which came from general art history survey courses. And I had some interest in the work of Leonard Baskin, but that had much more to do with style than technique. When I came into the presence of a color intaglio work by Hayter (Saddle, above) my interest in printmaking skyrocketed.

I think my earlier lack of enthusiasm for printmaking and printmakers was largely due to my preconceptions about the medium, I figured that it was merely a medium by which paintings and other artworks could be inexpensively duplicated for the masses, only in black and white. This was exactly the kind of thinking that Hayter worked against for most of his life. He wanted to transform printmaking into a highly original and creative medium in its own right.

Hayter’s first prints were in black and white, but they were works unto themselves and not derivative or reproductions of other prototype works. (A side point is that printmaking has continued to suffer from the belief that prints are mere reproductions. There is a major and distinct difference between what many call "prints" and true original print media.) Hayter’s primary process was intaglio—which encompasses a wide variety of techniques that incise or abrade a metal plate. Nearly every intaglio work by Hayter incorporated engraving. He referred to himself as an engraver and that technique was at the heart of his method.

Although Hayter is often linked to the Surrealists, he transcended the movements of the twentieth century. Hayter worked with several Surrealist artists, but his imagery was not intrinsically linked to their styles or concepts. His engraving favored freely flowing virtuosic lines that mocked the unforgiving nature of the metal surfaces he utilized. Themes for the engravings often came from literature. A master work, Death by Water (above), takes its title from a movement in T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land. It was not unusual for the works to take on such existential themes, particularly during this early black and white period.

The passage from the poem reads as follows:
Phlebus the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

While Hayter generally took a much more abstract approach to his literary transpositions, this work retains a certain faithfulness to the text. One senses the whirling undercurrents of the seas as they assault the tragic figure of Phlebus. Yet delicate lines also seem to suggest the gentle picking clean of the Phoenician’s bones.

Rescuing printmaking from the realm of simple reproduction of previous imagery would have been a sufficient and noble goal. And Hayter’s engravings were able to accomplish this in the minds of many. His next endeavor was more far reaching. His belief in the medium as an avenue for unlimited creative expression empowered him to open a printmaking workshop—Atelier 17—where others could come to experiment with intaglio processes.

At first, Hayter did not visualize himself in the role of teacher. He championed an approach of freedom in the print studio, though, in the end, if one came to study at the workshop he had a somewhat regimented approach to the medium. This was, however, a structure within which a great deal of creativity could still be expressed. Atelier 17 opened in Paris before WWII and was a creative meeting ground for many renowned continental artists of the period. When the war threatened France Hayter uprooted the studio and transplanted it to New York for a time.

Many artists came to Hayter’s workshop with little experience in printmaking. Their clean slate status, mixed with the experimental nature of the workshop atmosphere, provided the impetus to challenge tradition. Hayter harnessed the questioning spirit of these artists, bringing their collective energies together so that the whole of the Atelier’s efforts became something much more than the disparate parts.

The next challenge that Hayter and his associates undertook was printing in color. Previous color intaglios were either printed in black and white and then hand colored, or printed with multiple plates. The multi-plate method was cumbersome and produced unreliable results. Hayter felt that if multiple colors could be printed from a single plate, on only one pass through the press, the results would be more consistent.

Cinq Personnages (above) is the watershed print that marked this transition. At times Hayter had created stencils through which he had rolled colored inks onto the plates before they were passed through the press. The colors were a bit diluted with this method (though he did create some incredible images with this process). For Cinq Personnages, the colors were applied to the plate with silk screens. This rendered vibrant colors. But, while the registration of colors was better, using all the silk screens was still somewhat laborious.

What one begins to sense in this transition is Hayter’s new way of conceiving imagery. The same lyrical line quality is apparent in the engraved portions, but color and shape are equally comprising the finished products. It is this presence of color and shape that connects the work more to painting than to drawing. Drawing and printmaking had traditionally been grouped into the category of graphic arts. Hayter, who was also a painter, wanted to transcend these media specific categories.

The last stage of the color printing transformation came when members of the Atelier (usually this discovery is attributed to Krishna Reddy) found that multiple colors could be applied to one plate by producing varying levels within the plate, then inking the plate with inks of different viscosities, using rollers of different hardnesses. Saddle, the first work I encountered, is a variation on this method: it only incorporates two inks with one rolled color. The intermixing of the various inks created a breadth of color combinations and sparked a revival of interest in printmaking.

The vibrancy of the colors used in these prints was like nothing seen in intaglio works during the previous centuries. By the 1960s and 70s Hayter’s style had taken a slightly different direction, in keeping with the new multi-color printing. Still stemming from his engraved line work, the jarring color shifts resulted in combinations of either analogous or complimentary colors. The results were somewhat similar to the Op Art works of the period, yet retained a distinctive quality of their own.

Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentinean-American, studied with Hayter while Atelier 17 was in New York. Lasansky’s color printing methods were much different from Hayter’s but, along with Hayter, his impact on printmaking in the U.S. was astounding. Lasanksy started one of the first MFA printmaking programs and his students went on to found the major university printmaking programs across the nation. Still, the renewal in printmaking—intaglio specifically—was initiated when Atelier 17 was briefly located within U.S. borders.

There was actually a confluence of multiple factors that caused this renaissance in printmaking. Much of it had to do with timing. Hayter was in the right place at the right time. The U.S. was perched on the edge of its first original, world-impacting art movement—Abstract Expressionism. The experimental qualities of Abstract Expressionism were similar to the innovations found in Hayter’s workshop format. Although Stanley Hayter is not the household name that Jackson Pollock is, his spirit infused the work of many mid- and late-century artists, even if they may not recognize it.

The Art of Self-Disclosure

It wasn’t really that long ago that the proper subject matter for great works of art was somewhat narrowly defined. Tales from religions, mythology, and history were the only subjects deemed worthy of our highest regard. Disruptions in this belief became evident with Realist artists like Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet during the nineteenth century. Within one hundred years it seemed that the entire hierarchical structure had crumbled and that the politics of personal identity had displaced the previous themes.

This is a somewhat dramatic oversimplification, but there have been significant shifts. While there may only be a fraction of contemporary artists producing work that fits the traditionally held formats of history and religious painting, many artists continue to reference these same stories of humanity’s past. The purpose may be to scrutinize long-held beliefs the artist finds to be false, or to align the work with some sub-theme from the past. Likewise, not every contemporary artist utilizes his or her artwork to investigate questions concerning gender, race, or sexuality, or to exorcise some specific personal demon.

One thing that is certain, the realm of the personal and intimate has a prominent position among the various and valid themes in the contemporary discourse. From Tracey Emin’s rumpled bed sheets and womb-like tent installation listing every person she has ever slept with, to the sado-masochistic performances of the now deceased Bob Flanagan, who mixed elements of his cystic fibrosis with his art and sexual practices, the highly personal has become highly public. My question as an artist is where do we draw the line?

I am not saying that these particular artists, and others like them, have crossed some moral boundary that marks their work as something other than, or less than, art. All these categories and many others are certainly fair game for the creation of art. If the work takes us no further than the bathroom humor of a fifth grader then I question its artistic merit. If it has a more transcendent presence, even if the medium used to get us to that place is a difficult one, then it is valid as art. My question is more about my boundaries.

The creation of artwork is, by its very nature, personal. Andy Warhol may have worked to destroy some of that notion, but there were still aesthetic choices made in his "machine-like" works. The Duchampian emphasis on the choice of the artist finds contemporary artists inhabiting a different system than our forebears did. If multiple artists were given the same basic task and tools, the results would still differ in regard to style. Even when we try to hide the evidence of individual style it is bound to show through in some way.

Since text is a major component in much of my work I vacillate between the extremes of how much of it I should reveal. The books I read certainly tell viewers something about me. Is it better to spell out why some specific work has impacted me by making certain passages fully readable? Is it better to obscure the passages under paint so that they are still integral to the work but not a road sign pointing out a particular path?

It isn’t just the text—the physical objects and scenes depicted have personal meaning, too. These are often more highly symbolic for me, but that poses another problem. If I, like Joseph Cornell, am employing everyday objects to form a new personal, symbolic vocabulary, do I not risk being misinterpreted?
All of these possibilities are part of the fabric of contemporary art and its interpretation. It can often be a misinterpretation. While the role of the personal in art production has introduced the personal more fully into interpretation of the same works, the artist has to be somewhat comfortable with the misinterpretations that may result. The savvy artist uses the interpretations of others to assess how well his or her goals are being met and to recognize if there are apparent aspects of the work that he or she didn’t even consciously intend during its creation.

I have always employed a somewhat personalized and symbolic form of figurative imagery. Often, it retained a distinct connection to the historical and religious stories or themes mentioned earlier. As my imagery began to veer into directions that were increasingly personal I had a fear that the work would cease to find a connection with a broad audience. I soon learned that even highly personal themes retain enough of our common human truth to be approached as fully human, and therefore something to which any viewer can relate.

The probability of misunderstanding symbols and texts is great. I connect my pantheon of images and resources in my own specific ways. I associate them with things most viewers commonly would, but also with things almost nobody else would. In the end, my work is not meant as full and perfect communication. It is partial communication and partial self-discovery. I don’t mean this as some form of art therapy. It is more like a pathway, subconsciously directed, from one piece to the next.