Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cildo Meireles: Expositor of Brazil's Christ-Haunted South

Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles’ work, often considers the ongoing confluence of Christian European culture with that of the peoples of South America. Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987, is composed of a narrow tower of communion wafers that teeters high above a sea of 600,000 glittering coins. The sky above the coins and wafers is a canopy of illuminated large animal bones.

Though mostly unknown to a North American audience, this Brazilian conceptualist’s work has been featured at nearly all the major international art biennials over the past few decades. Each time Mission/Missions is installed in a new location the coins used are drawn from the local currency; always utilizing the lowest denomination, the most insignificant coin. In keeping with the highly complicated relationship between Brazil and Western Europe, there is not an exclusive reading of the work.

When the Jesuits brought the Roman Catholic faith to the tribes of South America in a manner both nuanced and complex. This sometimes bore the marks of syncretistic faith in which elements of the indigenous religious systems were either transmuted or subsumed into Catholic doctrines. At other times Christianity was abruptly foisted upon the South Americans, producing a hybrid culture that remained neither Western European nor native Brazilian. On the heels of this religious conversion came the much darker aspects of colonization. The natives were enslaved as cheap and expendable labor while the Spanish and Portuguese stripped the land of its wealth and resources, often in the sign and name of Christ.

The enduring shadow of Western capitalist traditions stretches even further over the form and materials of Mission/Missions. The pendulous expanse of bones can be understood as a metaphor for the slaughter of the indigenous peoples brought about as a result of colonial enslavement. Yet, a more contemporary reading might connect the bones to the consumerist economics of first world beef production. Brazil has been transformed into one of the world’s leading cattle producers. That beef is raised on the deforested parcels of land that once hosted the Amazon forests. The allusion to death implied by these bones may also signal the larger ecological impact Western traditions and systems have placed on not only the global South, but the entire planet.

Meireles’ message has often been political. The ‘60s and ‘70s found Brazil in political upheaval after a military coup brought to power a dictatorial government in 1964 and kept the population living in fear for over two decades. Meireles always understood that that political unrest was a descendant of colonization and that the adverse effects of early colonial impositions could never be completely separated from the Roman Catholic faith that arrived with that system. The allusions within and titles of the artist’s major works often reflect this.

An example is found in the currency of Brazil that mirrors the entrenchment of Catholicism within the culture. Brazilian banknotes are called Cruzeiro—cross—and this is not lost on Merieles. In the 1970s he produced several works that utilized this currency. The Zero Cruzeiro (1974-8) banknote contains two portraits: a native Brazilian man and an insane man. It is a work that not only makes comment on the economy but on the condition of the intertwining relationship between Brazil and the religion of the Europeans. The figures represent the discarded, those rendered as worthless within the culture. This idea of worthlessness also connects to the hundreds of desaparecidos—the disappeared. These were the outspoken political figures who were abducted by Latin American military governments, including Brazil’s, in the 1960s to 1980s, never to be seen again.

The Zero Cruzeiro project is directly tied to the Insertions into Ideological Circuits projects. For some of these, Meireles stamped messages on actual cruzeiro banknotes and then reinserted them into circulation. Messages such as “YANKEES GO HOME!” implicate not only the Western Europeans but the North Americans. This process was also employed with United States dollar bills. These altered currencies continued to function in their intended ways, yet also acted subversively throughout the culture.

Another of the Insertions used equally common and utilitarian objects: glass Coca Cola bottles. These bottles used the standard deposit system of the period to promote reuse. When empty of their contents, the artist printed similar messages on the sides of the bottles. These remained essentially invisible until they were reintroduced to the Coca Cola factory and then placed, refilled, back on store shelves. The message “YANKEES GO HOME!” was all the more appropriate when visible on a product that remains a potent international symbol of American consumerism. The printing of this message on both the bottles and the dollar bills is an obvious indictment of the Monroe Doctrine and the influence and intervention of the United States in Latin American affairs.

A larger room sized installation, Red Shift, 1967-84, appears to be born out of Minimalist environments. The first of the three rooms in the installation—Red Shift: I. Impregnation—is arranged like an actual living space in a home, except that every object is red. These consumer products and materials were all created red at the factory, they are not simply painted to fit the space. There are variations in the hue, but there is an overwhelming sense of being engulfed in this color. Even the subtitle of Impregnation suggests an encasement within a womb.
As one enters Red Shift there is a sense that there is more to the space than the mere unease related to color perceptions. There is a noise—the sound of constantly running water—yet in this chamber there is no indication as to where the sound is centered. This beckons the observer to move deeper within the environment.

In the second room (Red Shift: II. Spill/Surrounding) one encounters a corridor where a small glass bottle appears to have spilled an unknown red liquid all over the floor. Closer inspection reveals that this liquid would actually fill a volume much greater than that of the small bottle. The viewer is confronted with this inconsistency. The direction of the spilled red liquid then leads into the final room: Red Shift: III. Shift.

Here, the viewer experiences a darkened space with a large porcelain sink, tilted diagonally, with a continuous flow of red liquid spewing and splattering from the spigot. It appears that this is what the viewer was meant to eventually stumble upon. Though his methods and materials are certainly varied, Red Shift is a work that seems somewhat different from earlier Meireles works. The spatial considerations seem to connect it to the rest of his oeuvre, while the strain of Roman Catholic imagery and symbols also connects the works and cannot be denied. Just as there are multiple interpretations of the animal bone “sky” of Mission/Missions, there are undoubtedly various analyses of this bloody fount in Red Shift.

Contemporary art aficionados might connect the sink in Red Shift to the sinks in the work of American Robert Gober. A former Catholic, Gober works out of a similar place as Meireles, wherein the iconography of centuries of Roman Catholicism subconsciously manifests itself in multifaceted forms. Both artists endow ordinary objects with manifold symbolic meanings. Though Gober’s sinks reference concepts of baptism and sexuality, both artists, through the use of porcelain bathroom fixtures, automatically reference Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain.

Since much of Meireles’ work explores the sufferings of the indigenous Brazilians at the hands of their European colonizers, the blood-like flow of Red Shift seems to indicate Brazil’s blood soaked landscape. Whether referencing incidents from the sixteenth century or the late twentieth, the sacrificial tenor of the work may also lend itself to other interpretations. After all, the red flowing fountain in Meireles’ work digs deeper into art historical sources than those of just the past century.

Red Shift‘s biblical allusions are more clearly recognizable in a much earlier pre-Renaissance work by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb is better known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Its central image portrays a scene from the final New Testament book of Revelation in which the hosts of heaven bow down before Jesus in the guise of the Lamb of God. The Lamb, standing on a sarcophagus that resembles the high altar of a church, spouts a stream of blood into a eucharistic chalice. There is something about the purity gained through the messy affair of sacrifice that links the van Eyck painting to the Minimalist scene spattered with blood in Red Shift.

Each artwork mimics the late nineteenth century hymn, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?(Elisha Hoffman, 1878):

When the Bridegroom cometh will your robes be white?
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?
Will your soul be ready for the mansions bright,
And be washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the blood,
In the soul cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are you garments spotless?
Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

This is essay is a shortened and edited version of the one that will appear in the Spring 2011 issue of CIVA's SEEN Journal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Come to the Garden Alone

Over the past two years I have grown more accustomed to sharing the stages of progress of my work. It remains somewhat difficult at times to let others see some of the more raw stages of certain pieces. There are times when the unfinished work simply doesn’t look that good. Still, I realize that for many non-artists a glimpse of how an artwork comes to be is quite interesting.

During the past few months I have slowly been working on a mural project for a Central Florida church. I have included a few images here of the early stages of the painting. There is also a short video that shows the preparation of the 6’ x 8’ panel on which I am creating the painting—quite a lengthy process itself. In Florida, it is far easier and more comfortable to produce a work of this size within air conditioning, out of the direct sunlight and humidity.

The church board asked me to consider producing this mural for a garden courtyard. There were not many parameters other than that. My concept for the image was inspired by the intended location of the work and the already established pictorial scheme of the church. There was previously no image of Christ in Gethsemane so this image fit quite well.

I also chose to paint over text, as I have been doing in my altarpiece series and several watercolor works. The text here, though much of it will be obscured, is taken from the Anglican Book of Prayer—the liturgy for the Eucharist. That communal event is foundational to the life of the Church. The image will be obvious from a distance, but the inquisitive viewer will also find nuances within the text when viewing it closely. The combination of word and image is also a direct reference to Jesus himself—the Word made flesh.

As with the oil on book pages works (the altarpieces), I have begun with an underpainting of dioxazine purple. That choice may seems strange to people. It is such a vibrant color. The purple does modify quite easily when subsequent layers of color glazes are placed over it. In these images there are passages where yellow has been applied over the purple. The complimentary nature of these colors changes the purple into a neutral brownish color, bringing out some of the more red hues the purple. On top of that, translucent white is slowly built to form the gowns. The text is more visible in certain areas than others. This begins to give an idea of how the painting will proceed.

While the imagery is somewhat different—more obviously narrative—from many other pieces that I typically produce, I have found the process of collaborating with a community of people an interesting challenge. I have to make the work pleasing to a group of people while keeping an artistic integrity for myself. This is my test for the success of the final piece. Keep checking back to see the progress.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Art Prize: The Popular vs the Progressive

Today begins the second installment of a unique public experiment. Grand Rapids, Michigan is in the throes of Art Prize. Through October 8, venues around the city are paying host to an array of artworks from artists from across the country. The artwork—both typical and atypical—is displayed in locations and establishments that are also both traditional and nontraditional. In the midst of a still faltering economy, the 2009 Art Prize seemed to add a much needed shot in the arm (not the Chris Burden type, mind you) to one of Michigan’s larger cities. It is no secret that the Great Lakes State has retained one of the worst unemployment rates in the nation. Who would have thought that planning an art event would stimulate the economy? Rick DeVos, for one.

Anyone familiar with Grand Rapids and the surrounding area would certainly recognize the DeVos name. Half of Grand Rapids was built with DeVos money. This family was one of the co-founders of Amway. Luckily for Grand Rapidians the DeVos family is also quite philanthropic. The total prizes equal almost $250,000 and that amount is touted as the highest prize given for contemporary art.

This is an event that is made for the masses. The public chooses the winners. Yet the populous of Grand Rapids has not always had the best relationship with Modern and Contemporary art. In the 1960s the city erected the enormous Alexander Calder stabile sculpture La Grande Vitesse. The public was not pleased. Over time the displeasure was replaced with pride and the sculpture is now recognized as a symbol for the city. In recent decades the city may have gone too far in their “acceptance” of the work since its image not only decorates taxi cabs but the sides of garbage trucks in the city.

This kind of love/hate relationship with art lies at the heart of the tempestuous relationship that the general public has with art. People may enjoy, say, a painting of a recognizable object or scene (such as the large painting of churning water that took the top prize in 2009), but they are less comfortable with work that pushes the limits of traditional art. And while Art Prize has the feeling of an international art fair, in one respect, it is far removed from those fairs in another way.

Sarah Thornton accurately portrays the atmosphere of a typical international art fair in a chapter from her book Seven Days in the Art World. Her discussion of the Venice Biennale—the granddaddy of all the art fairs—gives a glimpse of the interactions among art world elite and wealthy collectors that take place at such fairs. The term art fair, for many, conjures up recollections of arts and crafts fairs found in countless communities throughout North America. The two could not be further removed from one another.

In the United States the only real international art fair that exists is Art Basel Miami Beach—and that is a stepchild of the Basel, Switzerland event that predates it by several decades. Collectors and curators come from around the world to check out the newest works by the leading contemporary artists. It is doubtful that these same folks are hopping on planes to southwestern Michigan to find out what this cadre of mostly Michigan-based artists currently has on display.

The international fairs focus on works that set the discourse for contemporary art. The media and materials are often atypical and the meanings opaque. And the art world seems to like it that way. There is an amount of elitism marked by insulated conversations that leave others on the fringe—uninitiated. So it is just as inconceivable to believe that folks outside of the art world would be interested in attending one of these international fairs.

There is no doubt that the work exhibited in international art fairs somehow impacts and influences the work shown in Grand Rapids. Some of the Art Prize artists may not even realize the connections (I, for one, immediately thought of Vija Celmins work when I saw the 2009 Art Prize winner). The shame is that these two worlds don’t or can’t meet. For all the critical theory that goes into creating and explaining the officially canonized works of contemporary art it would seem that the relevance to the average person on the street should be enormous. After all, the subject and content of these works really does touch on all our everyday lives, even if the economic factors do not.

I expect that I would not truly enjoy many of the works displayed at Art Prize. Yes, I guess I might be in that elitist category, too. Still, I give a lot of credit to DeVos. While the quality and importance of the Art Prize works may not be top notch, and the event may not attract the world’s best artists, Grand Rapids is making an attempt to begin a conversation between the public and the art world. It is like Middle East peace talks. You have to get the major players in the same room and everyone has to give a little to get the desired result. I commend Grand Rapids and DeVos for taking the first step.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

And the Text Became Image, and Dwelt Among Us

A few years ago I began to think about changes I might make to the designs of my woodcuts that would better weave them into the other text-based work I had been producing.  Recent intaglio and lithographic works were utilizing text, but the woodcuts remained the same. Of course, there was a good reason for the lack of change in the woodcuts. I am still finishing off a series of related prints and the designs needed to be consistent within the series.

About a year ago I was invited to participate in a print portfolio focusing on woodcut as the process. I always use such opportunities to experiment with something I don’t feel I can readily use when in the middle of a defined series. The print, Blessed, shown here, is my experiment.

The majority of my woodcuts are designed to be printed with two blocks: one in a color and the other in black. I stuck with that concept as I began to design this image. You will notice that this first version is only printed in black and white. I’ll explain that later. The designs for the blocks were developed in Adobe InDesign and Photoshop. I copied a predetermined text into InDesign. There, I was able to remove the paragraph breaks and manipulate the spacing between the letters and lines.

I then exported the text into Photoshop where I could manipulate it more as an image, like a drawing. Using an earlier photo reference as a source, I began to layer the text multiple times to darken areas that needed to be a deeper value. I also erased words, letters, and parts of both until the image of the figure could be discerned.

The image for the second block was developed in the same way. I kept the overall value of the letters at a lighter gray so that I could differentiate between the images for the separate blocks. Yet in the designs of both blocks, the printed area is composed completely of text.

To get the designs from Photoshop onto the blocks of wood I printed them on a laser printer (actually a photocopier) and placed them face down on the wood. I lightly applied wintergreen oil to the back of the sheets of paper and rubbed the paper with a wooden spoon. This essentially melted the toner and transferred it to the surface of the wood. The image is transferred in reverse, so the text is backwards. That is perfect since it will print back the correct way in the final print.

The next part is where things began to get difficult. I think I worked on carving the “black” block over about five months. Of course, I was doing other things as well, but in the last couple months I worked on the blocks for 2 – 4 hours almost every day. My estimation is that the carving took well over 150 hours. It would not have been nearly as tedious in linoleum. With wood you have to work with the wood grain or small pieces chip or tear away. Alternately, in linoleum, you can cut multi-directionally with the carving tools.

Since so much of the wood surface had to be cut away it took a very long time. The work was also extremely delicate and my hand could only take about three hours of work each day. I think I will use this kind of design again, but I will probably produce the “black” block in linoleum. I like the wood grain texture that comes through when there are broader passages of color.

The video below shows some of the carving and also shows a glimpse of the second block. Once I finish off a couple other outstanding projects I will return to this other block and then print an edition with both, as originally intended.

I suppose another thing that caused me some delay was working on the block in public. This practice is debatable. I have carved wood blocks and worked on the sketches and drawings for various projects in public places for about a decade now. I don’t do it because I’m starved for attention. In fact, I still can get annoyed when people stare at me while I’m working. I work in public because 1) I don’t currently have a table at a proper working height at home, and 2) sometimes I just need to get out of the house. I also use this as a way to bring art to people. So few people actually live with art in their homes. The processes of how it is created are fascinating to them. I am happy to explain what I’m doing to people who ask. I do get a little annoyed when people try to slyly catch a glimpse or stare at what I’m doing, but can’t muster the nerve to ask about it. If you can stare you can interrupt and ask a question.

I am not yet ready to definitively state that this will be the new direction for my relief prints. I have been pleased with the response so far. I do still have a half dozen or so earlier woodcut designs from the ongoing series to complete. Keep checking back here to see what happens next.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tim Rollins and K.O.S: A History

There has been sufficient literature on the collaborative works of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) since their debut in the mid-1980s. Still, there has never been a unified source that both provides a solid history of the art and artists along with an analysis. Ian Berry serves as the editor for this new volume that affords a breadth that alludes to the complexity of the works and the artists.

The historical backbone for the book comes partly from the dissertation of James Romaine, who is also one of the contributors. I expect that is from where the bibliography for the book and the list of exhibitions come. Romaine is nothing if not precise and Rollins often joked during the years of the dissertation’s completion that James knew “how many socks I have in the drawer.” The essay by Romaine provides insight into the early years of the art collaborative and some background about Rollins’ early years in rural Maine. It is essential for an understanding of both Rollins and the work of his young students/collaborators.

Julie Ault, a longtime friend of Rollins who met him at the University of Maine at Augusta, and later worked with him in Group Material, yields a brief essay that accurately portrays the artist’s charismatic personality. The brevity of the essay should not invite an interpretation that it is slight. In fact, as the opening text of the book it is a superb piece to set the stage for the remaining essays. Brief inclusions by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres (also a member of Group Material for a time) and Lawrence Rinder are key pieces that complete the fuller picture of Rollins and K.O.S.
Since much of the work by the Rollins and K.O.S. is based in concepts some would view as political (or even identity based), individual pieces and series are ripe for interpretation. David Deitcher offers some excellent analysis of the collaborative works. His consideration that the “wounds” painted on the pieces based on the text of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage seem to suggest the lesions of Kaposi Sarcoma—often associated with those suffering from AIDS—is appropriate for works created in the mid-1980s. While this may not have been the full intent of the group, and Tim may have prompted the young artists to consider “the civil war that rages within everyone who chooses to fight life as it is,” there is no denying that the ravages of AIDS in New York at that time were subconsciously on the minds of all the city’s inhabitants.
Indeed, Deitcher’s essay seems to use queer theory as a primary lens through which to view the work of Tim and K.O.S. He extends the discussion of AIDS and its impact on the gay community to the paintings based on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The bold triangles that appear in several of these works are noted to be an association with the stigmatic marking of gay men in Nazi Germany—the pink triangle, similar to the gold star that marked the Jews. Of course, the pink triangle was beginning to be used as a symbol of gay pride by the 1980s. This may, however, be an oversimplification of the imagery as the artists utilized the triangular form in works related to Martin Luther King, jr., as well.

Similarly, the use of animal—specifically lambs—blood in some of the Defoe works, but especially in those based on Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony is viewed by Deitcher as an association with the blood borne disease of AIDS. The essay somehow misses the religious connections of lamb’s blood. While contemporary art can often employ Christian symbols ironically, that is never the case with Rollins. It is the essay by Eleanor Heartney that takes up this nuance of Rollins and K.O.S.’s work.

Heartney is no stranger to contemporary mixtures of Christian imagery and high art. Her book Postmodern Heretics is an essential analysis of the topic. Her essay here considers the religious background of Tim, his return to the church in 1990s, and the overwhelmingly Catholic faith of the artists in K.O.S. While she does not detail the associations of blood to Old Testament sacrifices or Christ as the Lamb of God, Heartney does examine further works like the prints inspired by Haydn’s The Creation oratorio. She also suggests the that the triangles of the King works relate to the “mountaintop” that Dr. King mentions in the printed speech.

Heartney acknowledges associations to the religious in some of the most well known works of Rollins and K.O.S. Works based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exhibit an enormous IM across pages from the book. The letters evoke several things aside from the book’s title. Dr. King famously stated “I am a Man,” but the name/phrase “I AM” is also the name of the God of the Jews, as given to Moses. It is the complex readings that make the work intriguing.

The interview with Rollins and Berry seems to fill in the remaining pieces of the book and provides a sense of the artist’s personality. Throughout the pages are lush examples of the collaborative works—many that are not even covered in the essays. Additionally, the authors do not hesitate to bring up the controversies that have swirled around Rollins and K.O.S. over the years. Is the work really Tim’s alone and the “Kids” just a tool to receive artworld attention? Why is Tim using traditional western masterworks as the basis for the work? Isn’t that a bit WASPy considering these kids are from the Bronx? Is Tim not just pushing his own political or religious agenda? All of these and more are firmly countered by the authors. The work stands on its own. Its strength lies in the resiliency of the artists who made it.

This book is not for art enthusiasts alone. The story of Tim and K.O.S offers inspiration for teachers of all subjects. The history of this collaboration gives hope to the hopeless and that is a rare thing in this day and age.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History, Ian Berry, ed., MIT Press

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Artistic Fathers: Masters of the Readymade

I have a friend who is a traditionalist when it comes to his taste in art. Craftsmanship is an essential element for him. This automatically knocks out of contention anything that is fabricated for an artist by a craftsperson not typically associated with art production; works like Donald Judd’s, for instance. For my friend, it all goes back to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. It is as if Duchamp’s urinal was a virus that somehow infected the art production of the twentieth century.

I can’t fully agree with my friend. I join his complaints about the lack of craftsmanship evident in some contemporary art. I don’t, however, think we should solely blame Duchamp for this. The emphasis of content over craft in many art schools during the last four or five decades has done much more to erode the state of craftsmanship and technique than the use of so-called Readymades. Still, I don’t like to narrow art to such antiquated categories as pure painting or sculpture. Or maybe it is more that I make room for a wider variety of non-consecrated materials. The hardware store palette of Tim Hawkinson comes to mind.

However, the exhibition of Duchamp’s Fountain did set into motion a chain of events that altered art making. In the early days of the twentieth century Picasso and Braque had already begun breaking down the picture plane. The use of “real” materials in their Cubist collages paved the way for Duchamp’s Readymades. It was still a great leap from collage to the Readymade and that is the primary reason why it took over a generation for the art world to catch up with Duchamp’s concepts. By that time he was playing chess.

One can’t help but appreciate Duchamp, nonetheless. He challenged the centuries old traditions of art making and essentially took us back the square one. Before humans ever began manipulating clay, stone, or wood—or used pigments and minerals to draw images on cave walls—they did something humans from all times have. They noticed the resemblances of human and animal forms in trees, rocks, and clouds. Eventually they accentuated what they found in nature and that process turned into sculpture.

I’m not saying that R. Mutt (a.k.a. Duchamp) noticed some natural form in a urinal and thus plucked it from obscurity to share his revelation with the world. He did, however, perform that very human act of designating an object as art. In many respects nothing had changed. The designation of art objects has always been about the setting apart of items for special—or holy—use or consideration. All ancient religious practices did just this. The philosophies of the twentieth century merely replaced the old religions with a new one. The cathedral and temple were replaced with the art museum. Duchamp was bold in his statement and his ideas gradually infiltrated the whole culture.

A continuation of this shift in art making came several decades later with Robert Rauschenberg. His “Combine Painting” Monogram is a seminal work because it further initiated the breakdown of art categories and established materials. The use of a taxidermied angora goat—paint spattered though it was—was really a nod to Duchamp’s Readymades. When the canvas, and the goat, came down off the wall and settled on the floor the viewer was forced to consider whether this was a painting or a sculpture. One of the best aspects of these Combine works is that they are neither painting nor sculpture; they are simultaneously both.

The work of Rauschenberg is sometimes designated as Neo-Dada (the movement with which Duchamp was associated), but it could equally be categorized as Pre-Pop. it borrows elements from Duchamp but also prefigures the work of the Pop artists. One automatically thinks of banal, everyday objects when the name of Andy Warhol arises. Though Warhol returned to art with representational imagery, his choice of subject matter obviously owed a great debt to the work of artists like Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Each of these artists based their work in the ordinary and mundane.

Long before any of these artists changed the rules concerning what we consider viable artistic subject matter, the masses had objected to the use of “real,” common subjects or objects. We may recall that it was not the portrayal of a nude in Manet’s Olympia or Luncheon on the Grass that so scandalized the sensibilities of the Parisian bourgeoisie. It was that the model was a common woman—and a prostitute to boot. What remained transformative in the artworks of countless others who followed was the continued use of the great themes found in masterpieces from centuries prior.

That transformative element is why I am drawn to works by artists like Damien Hirst. It is why these earlier artists have been included among the figures in my Saints, Sinners, Martyrs, & Misfits paintings. They moved art forward in a similar way to what the seventeenth century Dutch still life and genre painters had. The stuff of everyday life is reconsidered in light of the big philosophical questions of life. When this happens we are able to encounter the transformative in the quiet, fleeting moments of an average day. If art and artists can cause us to do that then something great has been achieved.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dick Swift: The Art of Physical Printmaking

Many people first discovered my artwork through publications or exhibitions that included my printmaking. In truth, I had never worked in any printmaking medium until I was enrolled in my graduate painting program. I appreciated the various techniques as another way to explore the concepts I was developing within my paintings. In my second year of graduate school I was asked to take on a gallery assistant position in the School of Art. One of my main objectives was to design a database and enter records for the 2000 – 3000 artworks in the collection. It was rummaging through the vast print collection there that most peaked my interest in printmaking.

If there was no prior record of a work, I could often figure out the printing technique by some plate mark or lack of one. When I came across a couple different pieces by the artist Dick Swift (who recently passed away in June 2010 at the age of 91) I was at a loss for how he created the works. I pulled in one of my printmaking professors to explain the processes to me. This began my fascination with Swift.

The two works in the Bowling Green State University collection were etchings. One was Station Six (Veronica’s Veil) from Swift’s Stations of the Cross series. The other was a large multi-plate color etching entitled The Prophecy II. My professor told me that much of the work was done with soft ground etching and that the irregular plates for the latter image had been shaped with either a band saw or a jeweler’s saw. The plates were then printed with the viscosity method. I was able to find out more about viscosity etchings through my research into the work of Stanley Hayter—also represented in the collection—but I located only scattered details about Dick Swift. This was in the days when it was still fairly difficult to do very extensive research with the internet. I did, however, make a vow to myself that if I could ever find a copy of The Prophecy II I was going to buy it.
In the year 2000 I asked the members of a printmaking email listserv if anyone had information about Dick Swift. A few members let me know that they had studied under Swift in the printmaking program at California State University—Long Beach. Next I received a message from Dan Lienau of Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, California. The gallery actually represents the work of Dick Swift. Dan said that Dick had recently brought in some works and that is where I was able to obtain a copy of The Prophecy II. I was also put in touch with Dick; the telephone conversation we had about his work provides the foundation for the analysis below.

Dick Swift was one of several printmakers (including Ynez Johnston and Leonard Edmondson) who worked in somewhat experimental styles in the Los Angeles area in the 1950s and 60s. Swift studied at the Otis College of Art & Design under Ernest Freed, another artist caught up in the revival of printmaking that swept the art schools in the mid-twentieth century. The chief architect of this renaissance was Mauricio Lasansky, the Argentine-American printmaker whose University of Iowa intaglio-based printmaking program produced a generation of printmakers who went on to establish printmaking departments at universities throughout North America.

Printmaking in the United States, like all art in the mid-twentieth century, was largely influenced by artist immigrants from around the world—specifically Europe. Stanley Hayter had initially started his famous Atelier 17 in Paris. It temporarily moved to New York during the period of World War II. Swift studied at Atelier 17 in 1964-65, after it reopened in Paris. Hayter was intent on bringing printmaking into a new stage of development—a period in which it would not be used solely in service of other art forms, like painting, but would be seen as its own creative medium.

Swift favored intaglio, mostly etching, within the studio. While the Long Beach print studio had facilities for intaglio, relief, lithography, and silk screening, nearly eighty percent of the work was completed in intaglio. Dick was drawn to the interaction with the metal etching plate. The tactile, almost sculptural, process of etching shines through in his intaglio works. The use of soft ground etching, especially, became somewhat of a trademark in Swift’s process.

Even though Dick joked about how a printmaker friend referred to the soft ground process as the “venereal disease” of printmaking, he was able to transform the process into something new. The Stations of the Cross prints provide a glimpse into his process. While Hayter’s work, particularly from the late 1950s onward, was almost purely abstract, Swift preferred mixing representational imagery with abstraction. The impressions made in the soft ground on “Stations” plates reveal the use of fabric textures. These do not act purely as decorative elements but as integral design forms. The haloes on the figure of Jesus seem to be lifted from the textures impressed into the ground from a paper doily. The textures in the clothing of the figures seem more natural because it is often based on textures of actual cloth. One can already find elements of the artist’s personal visual vocabulary cropping up in this series.

The Veneration of the Ancestors is another work by Swift that utilizes soft ground etching extensively. While this is a color etching, it was produced more like Hayter’s early experiments with color, or like the methods Lasansky employed. Hayter sought to print multiple colors simultaneously on one plate. Some of his first experiments used color passages that were silk screened onto an inked intaglio plate. It appears that Swift rolled colors onto this plate with stencils. The color fields are broad and pure. The texture, however, is more overpowering. It creates rhythms that draw the eye throughout the composition. One is not able to fully appreciate this work in a digital image or even a photographic print. Swift’s love of the physical possibilities of the plate comes through only with examination of the actual prints.

However, it is works like The Prophecy II, its earlier counterpart The Prophecy, and Oedipus that show Swift’s mastery of the medium. Again, the prints cannot be fully appreciated in reproduction. In order for the simultaneous color viscosity printing to work there must be distinct levels in the plates. This creates incredible texture in the prints. Each of these works used a variation of the soft ground technique that Swift developed (as explained in Leonard Edmondson’s book, Etching). After an initial soft ground texture was bitten into the metal plate Swift “inked” the plate with more soft ground so that the pits and crevices were filled with the soft ground. The plates were then placed in acid once more until the open parts of the plate were at a lower level than the textures created initially.

These works are so intricate that Swift says they took more than a couple months to complete. It is no surprise that they would take so long to create when one investigates the intricacies of these prints. The mixture of representational forms, Hebrew text, and abstractions found in the Prophecy works is mind boggling. Swift felt more could be done to the first print so he worked on a second version. Not only did he leave out one of the original plates, a comparison between the individual printed portions shows that Swift altered the images, adding linear etched passages and textures as he further developed the plates.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Swift’s work is the religious content in so many pieces. The artist was baptized a Roman Catholic, but he told me that he no longer ascribed to any specific religion. Though Eastern philosophies and religious concepts were more prevalent in the art world at mid-century, Swift felt that his connection to traditional Western religious concepts actually helped the acceptance of his work at the time. For him, the myths and stories of our cultures and religions touched on some themes common to all humanity.

These large, multi-plate works convinced me that there were aspects of etching that could compliment my painting processes. The realism embedded in portions of these prints let me know that it was possible to utilize color etching—and viscosity printing in particular—in a way that was not as abstract as Hayter’s work. It took some time for me to figure out how this would manifest itself in my own work. I first employed the technique with the Cathedral Floorplan etching series. Taking cues from Swift’s use of Hebrew text, I eventually began a series that mixed the abstractions of text with representational imagery, all completed with the viscosity technique.

It is a shame that so few people know of Dick Swift’s work today. It has such a unique style that offers something for everyone. If you ever have a chance to view any of his works in person take that opportunity. You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Public Observations of Private Lives

More and more, I believe that the role of the artist has less to do with the creation of a specific object or thing and more to do with observation. The artwork may be a byproduct that lets viewers into these observations, but the artist has always been an individual with a keen sense of observation. The artwork may no longer consist of a representational image or object, still, the medium will convey unambiguous insights.

When we consider the naturalism of the Greeks and Romans, or the precise renderings of the various artists of the Renaissance, it is the skills of observation that seem to most impress us. And after the invention of the camera caused artists to reassess the nature of their work, observation was still a chief concern. The Cubist abstractions of Picasso may seem far removed from the precisely accurate depictions of a Northern Renaissance master, but the Spaniard’s attention to the objects before him was what allowed for greater understanding of the essence of physical objects.
 While I continue to employ naturalistic representations in my work, it is not the close observation and subsequent rendering of the people and objects that matters most. My observations of human nature and personal interactions is what I desire viewers to contemplate.

I find myself fascinated with the interactions of people in public settings and spaces. Our private lives have somehow made their way into the public sphere. Technology is a catalyst, but it is amoral so it can’t bear any of the blame.

Private telephone conversations, that fifteen years ago would have taken place between two people within the privacy of their respective homes, are now on public display. Facebook and Twitter have accelerated an earlier technology—email—by pushing more private conversations, that would have taken place among only a handful of individuals, onto the world stage. Yet these are only the tools by which individuals express their conversations.

There is something at work within the mind of the individual that has nothing to do with the tools of technology. It may be a type pf exhibitionism or narcissism that drives some people to share their lives so openly. For my part, I seem to get sucked into these dramas playing out before me in the same way that many of us find ourselves drawn to the equally inappropriate behaviors of “characters” on reality television programs. After all, most of us have at least one guilty pleasure television show, and we don’t watch these for the insights into the wholesome and good natured lives of the “cast members.”

Again, all these “outer” things that we observe are merely symptomatic elements. The reality television shows are edited so that our opinions of the characters are manipulated into polarized camps. The half conversations that we overhear in the checkout line of the grocery store are also edited. We can’t hear the phrases, emotions, and tone of speech offered on the other end on the line. This is why I don’t trust the single occurrence of private/public behaviors. I seek out patterns of behavior within groups over time, or multiple instances of similar behaviors in anonymous individuals.

A recurring symbol of scrutiny and observation in my work is the “lensed” object. These take the form of magnifying and eye glasses, microscopes, binoculars, film and movie cameras, and even Viewmaster viewers. These objects give us clearer vision. they bring details into focus and allow us to capture moments, both public and private.

Another device that appears (or rather will appear—most of the works including these elements are still in production) is the mirror. While most of my observations are of the public/private variety detailed above, I do not neglect the idea that we constantly need to hold the mirror up to ourselves to assess our own behaviors.

As I stated before, the behaviors tend to be symptoms of things deeper. Often, our most public behaviors—good or bad—are indicators of character. They may also suggest unresolved or unconscious psychological developments. For me, this ties into the use of words and images together. The images may suggest one meaning through a cursory examination, yet they reveal a deeper truth as we “read into them.” It is only close observation that provides a deeper assessment and understanding.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bravo’s Work of Art

I think we have all seen enough examples of reality television shows over the past two decades to understand that they might better be dubbed “selectively edited TV.” From MTV’s The Real World to The Biggest Loser and Home Makeover: Extreme Edition, we recognize that producers and editors manipulate viewer emotions through music and sometimes one-sided footage. While the Survivor-style reality TV competition had already been a prime time fixture for several years, it was not until Bravo launched its successful Project Runway that a new sub-genre was born. And since that time Bravo has essentially built its network programming around reality-based shows.

June 2010 saw the launch of Bravo’s newest Project Runway-style offshoot. Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (full episodes available from Bravo's website) follows the same format as its predecessors: Project Runaway, Top Chef, Shear Genius, and Top Design. These competitions among members of the creative class have gained quite a following, both by those who are part of those communities or aspire to be. I was uneasy about the premise of a competition among artists when I first heard the show was in production, but was also interested to see what kind of animal this show would be. This assessment of the show is based only on the first three episodes. My opinions may change as the episodes progress and the first season reaches completion.

The contestants fit the stereotypes that we have come to reply upon for any reality-based contest show. There is a loud-mouthed, over-confident figure who claims to have “already won.” There is also an untrained artist who learned quickly that the cry of, “I’m not trained, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of the artworld,” was not going to fly with the judges. There are older artists, younger artists, a good split between the genders, a mix of ethnicities, artists from various faith backgrounds, and, because this is Bravo, at least one gay artist. This is the tried and true recipe that began with the first season of The Real World. It guarantees that personalities are going to come into conflict, making for more entertaining TV.

There is another stereotype that is perpetuated in Work of Art. It appeared in the first episode when executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker made a surprise visit to the artists. As she encouraged the artists in their quest one particular statement struck me. She wanted them to remember that “This is a competition.” Working alongside other artists can certainly push us to do our best, but instilling the idea that the artworld is competitive benefits no one. There are certainly elements of competition since some artists get that big grant, prize, or exhibition. Yet there always remains the element of subjectivity and the contemporary diversity of styles and materials is matched by the particular tastes of the tastemakers—gallerists, curators, critics.

Still, this is a show has a prize and that is one of the things that makes the premise worthwhile. The “winner” will receive an one-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Perhaps this was seen by the Brooklyn as a good way to repair an image that was sullied by the Sensation exhibition. I suspect that the winner will not provide us with anything nearly as controversial as Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, though he or she may utilize materials that are outside the expectations of the general viewer.

In addition to the Brooklyn Museum’s role in Work of Art, I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the judges. In particular, the presence of critic Jerry Saltz on the panel of judges seems to add credence. In fact, the quality of the comments that the judges make is possibly the best feature of the show. After each competition “project” and its subsequent exhibition by all the artist contestants, the judges speak with the highest and lowest scoring artists. These limited critique events are actually something that I would suggest art school students watch. These comments give some relevant insights into what curators and gallerists are actually thinking when they are assessing the work of artists for exhibitions.

The individual projects that artists must complete are where the competitive nature of the show produces a problem. The artists are coming to the show with pre-established styles, adept at creating with certain materials but perhaps ignorant of the methods needed to work in other media. Most artists will not be overly proficient in a great multitude of media. When some artists failed to produce pleasing results in a competition based on assemblage it was by no fault of their own. Other artists, used to working with specific themes, did not fare well when trying to produce a book cover design—something that is actually considered the work of graphic designer and not a fine artist. There are corporate sponsorships at play here that have more to do with money than with good art. Are we supposed to think that Penguin Books approached Bravo with the idea of having an artist do a book cover for them?

The final decision of the judges in the first episode, wherein the artists had to produce portraits of each other, proved that they believed a “portrait” had to be based in a somewhat representational image of a person. The more abstract images, whether or not they revealed more about the subject than a mere image of that person, were not well received by the judges. Since there was no indication that this was something the judges expected, breaking the traditional mould for portraiture proved to be problematic. As in the actual artworld, the contestants found that it is always a risk to break the rules since sometimes it pay off and other times it does not.

What makes Work of Art more palatable is that the artists seem to have an innate understanding that, though they want the prize money and the Brooklyn Museum show, they are really in competition with themselves more than each other. They are challenging themselves to do bigger, better things. Bravo’s other competition shows seem much more cutthroat. Participants seem willing to sabotage one another. These artists are more apt to—believe it or not—help each other with their projects. The ideas and the images are going to live or die on their own, but the work is so diverse that the artists are more willing to help when they have more expertise with a certain material, offer suggestions (which may eventually lead to sabotage), or simply to help lift some enormous object.

This is the most redeeming part of the entire program. Contemporary art is built upon the art of the past. Each artist is indebted to his or her predecessors and contemporaries. Sharing and borrowing is part of this system and appropriation is at the heart of much contemporary art. Maybe these artists understand that better than the executives at Bravo.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sean Gyshen Fennell: Fashioning the Facade

For nearly a half century now the politics of identity have been a staple subject within the artworld. Critical Theory has caused many artists to reassess the cultural narratives that may have left certain persons—because of gender, culture, or race—to have no voice in larger conversations. The resultant art can sometimes be a bit too esoteric or narcissistic, but when the work touches on the universal human qualities we share it speaks to everyone.

Sean Gyshen Fennell’s work is based in gender identity. Many works are highly personal, yet they remain open enough to strike an empathic chord with those who do not share his identical experiences. The self portrait photographs that compose his Sewing the Facade (Sean) series come from a specific back story. One need not know all the details to uncover much of the emotional content.
In the pieces a viewer finds the artist, nude from the waist up, in evocative poses. Facial expressions fall somewhere between ecstasy and grief. The black background and choreographed movements recall Bill Viola’s Passions videos. Both artists are heirs of the postures found in religious art from the Renaissance.
Looking closer one finds that the artist has broken the picture plane. Actual needles and thread are piercing the surface of the work, creating sutures across the artist’s chest and torso. Stitches encircling the artist’s nipples seem at once sensual and painful. They call attention to a highly sensitive area and stir up questions about sexuality. As the chest is pushed together to form cleavage, the artist binds the gap with a seam of cross stitches. Although there appears to be no physical wound here, there is no escaping the concept of healing in this gesture. The placement of the actual needles in the hand of the artist lets us know he is working to heal his own wounds.
A related series of photographs, Sewing the Facade (Nathan), pushes the idea out of the artist’s strictly personal experience into a universal realm. These digital photographs are printed on canvas. That media choice is profound. The texture of the canvas can make the work appear like a photorealist painting. With similar poses, the photos seem even more closely aligned with renderings of mystics and martyrs depicted in Renaissance paintings.
Placing the images on canvas also connects the work to trends in mid-twentieth century artworks. The canvas, again, is pierced with needles and thread. One can relate this to the aggressive and destructive slashes of Lucio Fontana’s canvases. However, Gyshen Fennell is not content to leave gaping holes in the canvas. These pieces offer healing. When we find the double portrait of Nathan, connected by threads from one canvas to the other, we experience the desire to heal the wounds of the self.
The fabric and instruments of sewing also connect to the feminine. These tools were reclaimed as badges of honor for early Feminists. They were the indicators of “women’s work”—tools of the lesser crafts that the artists wore as a badge of honor. For Gyshen Fennell to appropriate these materials in his own work is to question gender identity once again. Is there now any gender specificity to the tools of art? Is anything appropriate for one artist but not another?
Since these pieces are about identity, the double portrait is significant. The images of Nathan appear less like works of healing and more like construction. The individual is creating his identity, fashioning his persona. The exterior facade is a construction based on the interior life of the individual. It is these universal elements that extend the artist’s work past the merely self referential and into a place in which we all exist.