Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Permanent Fixtures II: Further Travels Through the Male Mind

I have finally reached a point of ambivalence concerning the reception of images and symbols within my artwork. Postmodernist concepts about how we approach both texts and images—with the individual knowledge and baggage that is unique to each person—along with the ramifications of displaying work openly on the internet have paved the way. As an artist, I can never fully manipulate or direct the reception of my work by a viewer.

I actually recognized this fairly early in my career. For a time I was utilizing imagery of rope in my compositions, as a metaphor for being tied to past habits and behaviors. I had several works on display at a coffee shop a few months after my college graduation, including one of the rope works. I received a call with an invitation to meet and talk about the pieces with an area high school art teacher. When we met, he asked me to consider talking with his students about my painting method, since he was primarily a sculptor. In the end, I think he was more interested in asking me out on a date, though he never did and I was oblivious to his motivations.

A couple weeks after I met the art teacher I received a phone call from an area gallery. The teacher had suggested my work to the art gallery director for an upcoming show. I was young and pretty excited about the opportunity which had come out of the blue. As the conversation continued, I discovered that the exhibition had a theme of sexual deviance and apparently, because of the one work with rope imagery that I had displayed, I was slated to fill the “bondage” slot. When I explained what that work was really about the conversation quickly cooled, and though the gallery director claimed he wanted to see more of my work, I never heard from him again.

The following year, as I was further developing the rope imagery in graduate school, another humorous misreading occurred. I was working on a self portrait that contained various draped and looped lengths of rope in the background. I actually didn’t think much about the image—it was more like a study or painting exercise. Several of my fellow grad students saw the piece in my studio and inquired if they should be worried about my emotional state. They thought the ropes resembled nooses and that I might be suicidal. I laughed it off and assured them nothing was further from the truth, and I never exhibited the work.
When I began my recent Permanent Fixtures series I faced the inevitability of multiple misreadings of the work. My ambivalence is now great enough that this doesn’t bother me. In fact, I embrace the existence of multiple readings and the use of imagery on book pages helps support this. Nonetheless, I do wish to offer some limited explanations that might assist viewers as they approach the work.

As I was trying to research some current scholarship on the concepts I am investigating for this series, I realized that even the terms that I had buzzing about in my head were confused and unclear. I didn’t view the analysis of male self concepts in contemporary culture as a category of gender studies. The whole idea of gender studies often seems to focus on feminist issues. The area of gender studies on college campuses seems to often focus solely on feminism. So, I thought the appropriate terminology might be something closer to gender identity. I soon discovered that that phrase is almost exclusively reserved for the territory of transgender individuals—men who are biologically and anatomically male yet feel emotionally and psychologically female, and vice versa. That was definitely not the intended topic of this work.

The American male psyche is a complex thing. It is not some monolithic and homogenized manner of masculinity and self understanding. At the same time, however, cultural expectations partially govern our assumptions of what it means to be male. This is true for what both women and men expect.

For all the challenges that feminism proposed to counter the stereotypes that existed for American women—the demure, defenseless stay-at-home mom and housewife who keeps an immaculate home and has dinner ready on the table as her bread winner returns home from a long day on the job—there has been little reconsideration of the masculine stereotypes. If roles and identities have shifted on one side of the traditional spectrum then alterations would naturally follow on the other side.
The absence of an on-going dialogue on male identity has led to widespread confusion, though one would hardly recognize it because the traditional male stereotypes are overwhelmingly perpetuated through a stubborn male refusal to talk about “feelings” and “emotional responses.” A necessary question arises. What stereotypical male traits are derived from the biological makeup of the XY chromosomes and what aspects of those stereotypes are exhibited purely from the effects of nurture, including the cultural environment? When we consider the variations of accepted and expected male behaviors in non-Western cultures our American ideals are challenged.

These questions are merely a few that the Permanent Fixtures paintings address. Cultural norms are complex things. When they are paired with the infinitely multifaceted personalities of each human individual the configurations can boggle the mind. A urinal becomes much more than a porcelain plumbing fixture.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Arman: The Sum is Greater than the Parts

The imagery of Pop art was based in the banal—the commonplace items of everyday life. Conversely, the esoteric and existentialist compositions of the Abstract Expressionists did not sit well with the average person. There was little within those swirls and splatters of paint that seemed worthy of the traditional, lofty goals and intentions of fine art.

Pop artists in Britain and the U.S. recovered recognizable imagery, but there was something else at work beneath the surface. Pop’s sister movement in France—Nouveau Realisme (New Realism)—was perhaps a better indication of things to come. The performative nature of art making, by Action Painters like Jackson Pollock, had set the stage for Conceptualism. Yet it was the New Realists who proved to be some of the most innovative transitional figures between mid-century abstraction and process oriented conceptual styles of the 1960s and 70s.

The New Realist artist Arman is not known to the masses like Pop’s Andy Warhol. His individual works are not generally recognized outside of the insulated circle of artists, curators, and art historians who compose the art world. His work, however, contains the germ of transition that formed the foundation for much of the significant work of the later twentieth century.

Arman’s work is mainly composed of collections of ordinary objects. They are certainly the next step forward from the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp. However, where Duchamp’s simplicity was found in the single, unadorned object—the urinal or the bottle drying rack—Arman’s simplicity was often located in his singleness of focus. Arman is primarily known for his “accumulations.” This apt title denotes assemblage collections of similar, real life items and objects.

It was not only the Dadaist Readymades of Duchamp that impacted Arman’s aesthetic. Kurt Schwitters, a Dadaist of a different stripe, composed quite formal looking abstract collages out of detritus. These highly structured and meticulously designed works contain intricate patterns and repetitions. Often, similar items are reused within an individual work. Taken out of their original context, they become non-objective visual elements that enhance the overall impact of the work through a “sameness.” It is that very same element that viewers of Arman’s work find most compelling.

Arman’s art, because of its typical three dimensional nature, can also be aligned with the box constructions of Joseph Cornell. In fact, many of Cornell’s boxes employ repetitions of similar objects, creating an analogous effect. However, Arman should not merely be compared to his predecessors since his relation to his contemporaries is what actually determined his place in art history.

Though both Arman and Yves Klein were both reared in Nice, it was not until they were adults, both studying art, that they became friends and influences on one another. Klein’s work always had a more conceptual and performative aspect, but it originated from a comparable place to Arman’s. Each man studied the martial art of judo (Klein was even bestowed the title of master) and the influence of Asian thinking and philosophies came to bear heavily on many characteristics of their artworks.

Both Arman and Klein typically provided viewers with an art object, yet each often arrived at that object through some form of performative activity. Klein’s Anthropometries may have gained more notoriety (if for no other reason than their blatant exploitation of the female nude) but both artists performed some destructive acts that ultimately resulted in art objects. Some of the Anthropometries even employed flammable actions. Arman also utilized fire to manipulate objects for his works, such as musical instruments.

Arman might smash or burn a cello or violin and then reassemble the remnants as a new art object. This destruction or deconstruction has obvious connections to the theories of both Jacques Derrida and John Cage. Yet, with all the artists who utilized destructive techniques, one should avoid a simple reading that their intentions were set on completely dismantling the concepts of Western art. The influence of Eastern philosophy was often at work and it brings to mind the Hindu god Shiva. The attributes of Shiva include his simultaneous roles as creator and destroyer. There is a direct correlation to this particular subset of Arman’s assemblages.
Arman’s work also signals the shifts toward Conceptualism through reconsiderations of established cultural boundaries. John Cage’s blending of art forms—music, visual art, dance, and theater—began to permeate the high art culture of the mid-twentieth century. Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine each dabbled in performance art and utilized Duchampian readymade objects in their works, much like Arman. Though mainly recognized as a pioneer in video art, Nam June Paik’s works incorporating violins and cellos are not far afield of Arman’s work with musical instruments.

Often Rauschenberg is seen as an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop because his Combine Paintings retained the gestural paint application of the former, while the real life assemblage objects denoted the latter. Arman kept one foot planted in the recent art historical past, too. Examples of this are found in the accumulations that incorporate actual paint tubes, often imbedded—as if in suspended animation—in clear plastic. The concept is not reminiscent of Rauschenberg as much as his colleague Jasper Johns. And the streaming paint brings to mind the soak-stain paintings of Morris Louis more than the drip paintings of Pollock.
For all the similarities with his contemporaries, Arman remains a distinct figure. His style is unique and recognizable. The accumulations, in particular, possess a presence that one is not always able to articulate. There may be elements of humor, as with 1982’s Long-Term Parking, but at the same time there can be underlying political or sociological messages. The abundance of like items or objects within a limited space focuses the attention of the viewer on intrinsic qualities of those objects.
The accumulations recontextualize the materials by stripping away distracting and extraneous elements. The sum of these works is significantly greater than the individual parts. Separated, the objects are often bypassed; combined, the impact of their essential qualities is inevitable.                                                                       The adoption of installation as the preferred medium of so many contemporary artists shows the debt the art world owes Arman. While there are certainly some artists of a new generation who devise compositions through amassing similar objects in an Armanesque style, the collection of disparate objects within a space is more common. Though this may seem to be a distinct differentiation, the recontextualization of non-art objects finds its genesis in Arman as much as in Duchamp. Arman’s accumulations are thus a hallmark of the postmodern desire to deconstruct and then reconstruct meaning from the remnants of Western history and culture.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Lies Beneath: Underpainting as a Technique

The tradition of building up glazes of pigment to produce a rich and subtle form in painting goes back to the introduction of oil painting as a medium—often attributed to the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck. In the Renaissance, artists preferred to create an underpainting in a single color on top of which they would layer the glazes that completed an image with a finished, naturalistic appearance.

Over time, the use of glazing as a method of painting fell out of fashion. By the time of the Realists and Impressionists (mid-19th century French painting movements) painters were beginning to favor a more immediate approach, with thicker paint application. This resulted in paintings that resembled something other than the photographs that were becoming increasingly more commonplace.

Even though I experimented with a variety of painting techniques when I was in my undergraduate painting courses (including glazing), I ended up preferring an approach that was closer to Realism. I enjoy the freshness and vibrancy of the colors. In fact, when I now paint just for the fun of it this tends to be the style to which I revert.

When I began painting on book pages the approach of painting with a thicker, more opaque paint soon revealed itself as unsuitable. I started investigating the process of glazing once more. The first problem I encountered was the dullness of color that is often traditionally associated with glazing.

Painters in the Renaissance preferred either the dull green, terre verte, color or a brownish pigment (burnt umber) as an underpainting. Starting with a more neutral color allowed the artists to temper the form with additional colors in order to make the image more vibrant, or less, according to their particular needs.

Some artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, used a combination of brushes and their fingers or hands to produce the underpainting. Examples, like da Vinci’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi, provide a glimpse to non-painters of what an underpainting entails. A painting, at this stage, is actually more of a drawing. It provides a foundational structure in a full range of values. Leonardo’s finished works tend to exhibit little more color since he preferred a smokier, more atmospheric effect that lacked hard shadow edges.
Duccio was producing paintings in the era prior to Leonardo. Much of his work was actually in egg tempera, a precursor to oil paint. In fact, many artists continued to use tempera as an underpainting even though they completed the glazes in oil. The tempera dries to a hard surface and dries much quicker than the oil medium. In Duccio’s work we can see the effect of the terre verte underpainting. Some pigments fade over time when exposed to light. In Duccio’s work we find the green underpainting showing up as the skin color.

When I began to use glazing again I chose to use a color for underpainting that is not typically employed—purple. You don’t necessarily notice it in the finished works, but the underlying values are completed with this dioxizine purple. This forces me to glaze over the purple with other, equally intense colors. Thus, the images tend to retain something of the vibrancy I prefer, but also the transparency that is desired for the works on book pages. The text is still somewhat readable.

Here I have included some photos of one of the new altarpiece constructions in process. Few people ever get to see my work in this state, before I apply the subsequent layers of color. I chose to share these images to provide some additional insight into the process.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thomas Demand: The Art of Artifice

The invention of photography forever changed the course of art. While some remain fixed on the old debates on the legitimacy of photography as an artform, the current discussions cluster more around the evolving technologies and their impact on the medium.

Viewers have come to trust the photograph as an accurate form of representation. We know that a camera can capture a likeness in astonishing detail, yet we also know that photos can be manipulated. Even before Photoshop became the dominant digital method for altering photographs, darkroom manipulations were a normal practice in film photography.

Somehow, we like to suspend our knowledge of this fact. We know that adjustments are made to the waists, thighs, and faces of the supermodels gracing the covers of fashion magazines, but we still harbor dreams that their perfection is genuine. If we remove the consumerist element then some doubts about “truth” in other photographs immediately arise. For instance, what is to stop the manipulation of photos used by the media?

When it comes to fine art photography we may recognize that there are manipulations, yet the acceptance of truthfulness as an inherent element of the photograph remains at the subconscious level. German artist Thomas Demand calls our attention to this conflict in his large scale photographs. Demand’s work assesses the unreality of photography. It draws attention to the aspects of artifice that have been linked to photography from the early days of the medium, when portraits were created in a stiff and unnatural manner that spoke more of the slow shutter speeds than psychological insights into the sitters.

As a younger German photographer, Demand has sometimes, inaccurately, been linked to the “Becher School:” those photographers who studied under the husband and wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. Indeed, the immense size of some of Demand’s finished works can favor the pieces of the Becher School, but he should be more closely aligned with the YBAs (Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and Jenny Saville) since he studied sculpture at Goldsmith’s College in London in the early 1990s.

An initial glance at Demand’s work does not suggest the depth of artifice that underlies his work. The images are of simple interior scenes; often rooms that suggest little significance. However, Demand came to photography through sculpture and a close observation reveals the subtleties at the heart of his work.

Each of these interior scenes is a reproduction of an earlier photograph. Usually the original photos are not even taken by Demand but are found in mass media magazines. The artist then recreates the scenes, typically in a 1:1 ratio, using paper and cardboard. It is only after Demand has meticulously rebuilt these scenes that he photographs them.

It is the photos themselves that are the artwork. The paper and cardboard constructions are built in the artist’s studio and quickly dismantled after the photographs are made. The disposable nature of the constructions is similar to the disposable nature of digital photography. With film photography, the artist developed each roll of film and then chose which negatives to print. Sometimes he or she returned to negatives years later, with a fresh eye, and then printed a gem that somehow had been bypassed on initial inspection. Time was an essential aspect of the entire process.

With digital photography, countless “bad” shots are immediately deleted from the camera’s memory. Our need for instant gratification outweighs our patience to find something more subtle. Still, in a twist on this idea, Demand returns to overlooked images and mines them for additional value.

Demand’s scenes are mostly accurate reproductions but not exact reproductions. The most telling and distinguishing features are often eliminated. papers strewn about desktops lack text. Logos and other commercial markings are also absent. This produces generic scenes that would otherwise have specific cultural and historical significance.

A notable exception is the images of the Oval Office. Though titles on the spines of books and identifying facial features from the framed pictures are absent, the familiar colors, patterns, and shapes of the room are true. The somewhat eerie quality of the lighting makes the images seem almost like a 3D digital rendering of the space.

Most scenes seem more innocuous. A janitor’s cleaning closet appears to be just that. One must do some investigation to recognize why the artist would choose this specific photograph. It is one of a series of images that were (originally) taken of rooms at a German pub where a notorious child rape had occurred. The court had restricted photographs of the victim and others connected to the crime scene, so only images of the empty building could be taken.

Demand’s images take the viewer two steps further from the original story. They do, however, retain a sense of the sterility that seems to imply something almost sinister. It is a generic evil that we are not quite able to place a finger on.

A quick glance at Demand’s work exposes nothing special, nothing unusual. The mundane quality of the images can be likened to much of the work of Andy Warhol. Warhol’s “disasters” were also culled from mass media sources. His use of repetitious imagery was a way to comment on our desensitization to the horrors that surround us every day. Many of Demand’s interiors examine a similar theme.

The overwhelming sense within the photographs is that things are not as they appear. Truly, this is a concept that serves the viewer well when approaching any artwork, but particularly contemporary works. There is usually more than meets the eye and only the fully engaged viewer reaps the rewards offered.