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.