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.