Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Eyes Have It

Sometimes art makes us uncomfortable, or rather it should make us uncomfortable. I recognize that this flies in the face of popular concepts of art consumption. When many people consider “decorating” their homes with art they gravitate toward the tranquil, peaceful, and beautiful. If the work matches the sofa all the better. I have no problem with considerations of color palette. The work in my living room actually matches the furniture, too. We are bound to be attracted to specific color combinations. That, however, is not my main point.

There is a time and place for beauty, but that is not the only purpose of art in the twenty-first century. Art has a forcefulness to it and to neglect that power is to push it into the background—to make it wallpaper. Some art, even that placed in the sanctuaries of our homes, should cause us to pause and consider the deeper aspects of life.

Art that deviates from the beautiful or causes us to consider the great questions of life may not be what everyone wants in his or her bedroom, but it does have a place in the home. This kind of imagery works on us over time. It forms and informs us in subtle ways. If that work is not within our living spaces, but only in museums, then it does not fulfill its purpose. It does not reach its potential.

With all this in mind, I recently obtained several sets of antique doll eyes (pictured here). These are the type of eyes that close when Betsy Wetsy is placed on her back for naptime. The lead weights dangling from the bottom of the pairs of eyes causes them to pivot inside a doll’s head. The first time I came across some of these was at a summer art workshop. A friend had some reserved for an assemblage project. I was fascinated at once.

They are creepy. I will not deny that. Any time we find eyes loosely roaming outside of a head it is creepy. The fact that some of these sets are missing one eye and that I have other eyeballs rolling around that are not even connected to these sets makes them even creepier. I purposely photographed them on the crushed red velvet because it adds a bloody element that is even more disturbing. Maybe not what you want to see when you first awake in the morning, but the unsettling quality can be beneficial.

The idea of using these eyes has been gestating within me for about six years. Even before I purchased some of them I was writing notes about their “artful purpose” within my sketchbooks. Once I had them in hand I started making sketches for the altarpiece construction for which I envisioned them. A few days after I made these initial sketches I found some old notes in another place in my sketchbook and found that the combination of objects and imagery I had been sketching was something I had already been thinking about much earlier, though I had forgotten.

As is normal for postings like this, I’m not going to divulge too much more information about what I plan to do. However, I am going to share that these eyes will be used alongside a type of book page—a form of text—that I have not previously utilized. Gospel pages from a Braille Bible. Okay, now I’m ruining the suspense. Keep checking back for future details.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blasphemy: Art That Offends

I have occasionally heard people state that the older one gets the more each person tends to be like him or herself. In other words, our natural tendencies and inclinations seem to be enhanced with age. Some people, for instance, become more laid back, while others complain about the slightest inconvenience. I have found that it takes much more to offend my sensibilities than it ever used to. I may find comments or images distasteful, but they rarely agitate me to the point of being personally offended.

I imagine most of my ambivalence comes from having viewed so much artwork that was produced to make comment on one thing or another, typically through provocation directed at one specific subset or group. A major component of artwork over the past century or so has been to cause offense through explicit, suggestive, disgusting, blasphemous, or otherwise shocking imagery. So much so, in fact, that little surprises me anymore. A brief examination of offensive imagery is considered in S. Brent Plate’s book Blasphemy: Art that Offends.

The book cover, itself, sets out to let the reader know that the fodder of the American culture wars is going to be a major theme. Mauricio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora—a fully three dimensional, life-sized image of Pope John Paul II being struck down by an errant meteorite while leading a liturgical procession—portrays a recognizable figure and automatically raises questions. While this is not a work generally known to the American public, it produces the desired effect. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ—also discussed in the book—would seem a more logical choice for cover art. However, while many people have heard about that work, far fewer know what it looks like. And the actual artwork is quite aesthetically pleasing, so it would not draw the same attention on a bookshelf as the Cattelan image.

While the two works mentioned tend to offend the sensibilities of some within the Christian faith, that is only one segment of society that the author considers. Jewish and Muslim traditions of blasphemy are equally analyzed. And though these three religious traditions tend to consume the greatest portion of the text, the author actually extends the conversation into some additional areas that round off the discussion in a helpful way. Blasphemy, we find, is not as clear cut as one might initially imagine.

Brent Plate begins the analysis by stating that the term Blasphemy has been around for a few thousand years and that it has been leveled against various, images, texts, and activities. The three Abrahamic faiths have also used the term in many different ways that have evolved over time. Therefore, it is too slippery a term in the first place and he prefers to narrow it to the context of the sacred and profane. Of course, those terms have also evolved in a way that causes us to designate only a limited amount of things as profane. Essentially, though, these are anything in life not immediately termed as “holy.” And that is nearly everything.

Additionally, Plate considers that blasphemy has traditionally been used to describe offensive speech or writing, though we now sometimes hear it in connection to images, too. The author’s analysis of  this term within the judicial realm gives insight into our current usage or misusage of the term. This connection to court systems also alludes to Plate’s later examination of the strange bedfellows of religious and political systems within this discussion.

The final chapter considers how patriotic tendencies are often aligned with religious ones. The use of flags, for instance, can cause an equal uproar as the use of religious imagery—often by the same factions. Particularly in American society, discussions of freedom of expression and speech blur in and out of the confines of church and state. So, for some, an offense against the flag is both an offense against the nation and God.

Blasphemy: Art that Offends does not give definitive answers on any front. It does, however, propose some pertinent questions to the reader. It should be noted that while Plate (and myself) do not find the images within this book particularly blasphemous, those who are easily offended by images that touch on aspects of religion, sexuality, and patriotism will likely take some offense. The text of the book, however, provides some vital discussion that assists any open reader in finding out just why he or she is offended by the imagery. That is the great achievement of this book.

Blasphemy: Art That Offends, S. Brent Plate, Black Dog Publishing, 2006

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pipe Down!

Each individual artist works at his or her unique pace. I have some artist friends who are so prolific that I still cannot comprehend how they complete so much work. Other artists may only complete a dozen or so works in a year. That can sometimes mimic the quantity of my own output, though that has more to do with teaching nine months or more during each year. And some artists who work full-time on their art are simply just methodical and thoughtful craftsmen, so their output can be nothing other than minimal.

Because I work in a variety of media, some pieces naturally take longer than others. I have stated previously that the altarpiece constructions tend to be multi-year projects. There are several reasons for that. The actual construction of the boxes takes some time, followed by many additional steps in the finishing process of the exteriors. The painting portions take some time, too. Additionally, there are years of “fermentation” time during which I think about the form, imagery, and objects that will compose these works. The complexity of the work dictates this kind of extended timetable.

A few years ago I first mentioned that I had rescued two keyboards from an old, discarded organ. I had not yet decided how I was going to utilize them. In the intervening years I have worked on various sketches and changed my mind numerous times. Early on I had decided that this piece was going to look somewhat like a pipe organ. Just how I was going to achieve that look was uncertain.

I regularly spend many hours wandering the aisles of home improvement stores, considering how I might use materials in ways that are typically dissimilar from their intended purposes. While doing this, I worked through a few different concepts for the pipes for the “organ” project. For part of the time I considered using metal pipes. There were various types of metal pipes that I considered, but they all seemed too heavy. Then I thought about using PVC pipe, applying gold leafing so it would appear to be metal. That solved the weight problem but the time investment seemed a bit burdensome.

Eventually, I returned to the core of my original concept. I wanted this to look like a pipe organ, but finding actual organ pipes was going to be difficult. Then I thought of one of my favorite places to find inspiration—eBay. There were often pipes available there but most were full sets from old organs and they cost many thousands of dollars. They were also far larger than what I intended to use. It took a few months, but I finally did find some small sets of pipes that were perfect for my design.

One change, that I had not previously been considering, was the use of wooden pipes. I found some small wooden pipes and then some other, larger ones. The small ones were just the size I had been searching for. The larger ones, I decided, could be used more structurally within the piece; more as a decorative embellishment. However, I still wanted to use some metal pipes. Those were elusive. But I did manage to track down a set that fits perfectly with the smaller wooden pipes.

Sometimes I am willing to make slightly larger purchases for materials, for the sake of the artwork. This piece needed the authenticity of the actual organ pipes. They are, however, only one portion of this much larger project. I expect this construction will be far larger than any previous  altarpiece works I have completed or designed. The pipes and keyboards are just a couple portions of a much greater scheme. I look forward to sharing more of the process as I begin constructing the work later this year.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Gardner Heist

Prior to living outside of Boston I knew very little about the city and its rich history. Certainly, there were the vague generalities gleaned from junior high American history courses. Most Americans recall phrases like Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the shot heard ‘round the world, and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. I actually did know a bit about the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but my knowledge of the art scene in the city was lacking. I was mostly aware of the MFA’s collection of John Singleton Copley works which I had discussed while teaching an American Art History course.

Even after I was living in Massachusetts for a year or so I was still unfamiliar with another treasured landmark—the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I had heard from friends and acquaintances that it had a superb collection and that it had been the victim of an infamous art theft, but I had not made the time to visit. So, my first visit was with a friend from the Church of the Advent. I had heard tales about the museum and its namesake from people who worshipped at that church.

I attended the Church of the Advent for three years. At each mass I was entranced by the extensive neo-gothic stone reredos that graces the back wall of the chancel. I was told that Mrs. Gardner had actually gifted that item to the church. She had attended there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A rather peculiar individual, Gardner is said to have scrubbed the steps of the chancel by hand—on her knees on Good Friday—as a form of personal penance. Her will stipulated that a requiem mass be said for her there each year around the middle of April. It was possibly these stories of a famous former parishioner that led me to my first visit to the museum.

That visit also led me to eventually pick up the 2009 book—The Gardner Heist—that examines the multifaceted art theft. This remains the most infamous art heist on record and Ulrich Boser provides an enthralling account of the tangled web—or rather, endless cocoon—that surrounds the mystery.

There is something in this book to engage nearly any reader. A reader need not know anything about Mrs. Gardner, her museum, or art in general. Boser initially approached his writing somewhat distant from all these. The reader becomes enveloped in the tale just as the writer became subsumed by the mystery. Boser had never intended to be so personally invested in the theft, yet he was compelled.

The tale begins like a scene from a movie. Using the details given by witnesses, and from the author’s countless interviews over several years, he paints a vivid image of the night of the museum robbery. The reader is already invested in the story by this point. The author then proceeds to unravel the tale, from every imaginable vantage point.

Boser, first, details how he was infected with an unrelenting fever that kept him chasing every lead in the case. The author initially met Harold Smith, a renowned art robbery detective, in early 2005. His goal was to research the story of the Gardner heist for a writing project. Smith has solved several major thefts in the past. However, the Gardner theft had remained unsolved for a decade and a half by that point. It was no small job as the thieves had taken a Vermeer, a Manet and two Rembrandt paintings. It was always just out of Smith’s reach. Within a year the detective was dead and the mystery was still not solved.

After all those years, chasing down all those leads, Boser decided to continue tracking down the art himself. Through that journey he provides us with detailed accounts of all the major figures. Gardner herself is considered. We learn of the wealthy eccentric and her passion for collecting art. We discover some history of the museum and the lax policies that allowed the robbery to happen, along with Gardner’s own stipulation that the works remain in the places she left them upon her death. This last tidbit provides an ever present reminder for the museum staff that part of their precious treasury is still missing.

From there the paths spread out across Boston, North America, and around the globe. Boser moves from one Boston underworld figure to the next. Each seems a likely suspect. Even when discounted for one reason or another, the author second guesses the mobsters’ involvement. At one point the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger is even implicated. This was before his recent arrest. Bulger had been on the FBI most wanted list for some time, but stealing artwork was minor on the list of charges.

The Boston underworld connections take the author to the British Isles. Some informants suggest that the IRA was connected to the missing paintings; that they may possibly be stored in Ireland. Near this part of the story Boser evaluates his own involvement in the long tale of the missing paintings. He brings the book to a close, leaving the reader still examining the possible leads not yet resolved. And it is this lack of resolution that actually makes the book so intriguing. The reader does not feel left in the lurch. The mystery remains and the reader is still considering the heist, waiting for the eventual return of the paintings.

Ulrich Boser, Smithsonian Books, 2009

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creation through Destruction

There is something quite intriguing to me about the processes of our creative endeavors. While viewers of artwork are immediately taken by the object or image that is ultimately presented before their eyes, artists have more opportunity to consider the creative process in relation to and separate from the artwork itself. As with many other activities of our daily existence, we can make some analogies to the deeper questions of life when we examine art in this way.

That seamless connection between the art object and its creation was ramped up during the mid-twentieth century when artists from the Abstract Expressionist movement joined psychological and philosophical ideologies to consider the prominence of the “act” in the making of art. The existentialist concept that “being is doing” pervaded some of that work, such as in the action paintings of Jackson Pollock.

Still, the conceptual analogy of the art making process goes back even further. Pablo Picasso, though still often misunderstood among the wider population, was even seen by the conservative art establishment of his day as destroying the foundations of art. Yes, he and Georges Braque did pull apart the picture plane, but he did other things that were equally “destructive.” One of his unique additions to art production was the process of reduction relief printing.

For centuries prior, there had been woodcut prints composed of multiple colors, printed from multiple blocks. Picasso’s new twist on this process was to use only one block to print multiple colors. In order to accomplish this he had to basically destroy the linoleum block to create his final image.

The small linoleum prints shared here utilize the same process. I printed some extra images outside of the editions in order to show the process more clearly. This allows viewers to see just what is cut away at each stage. Very little was cut away from each block before the first colors were printed. Those carved areas reveal the bright white highlights. The next area carved then reveals the first color printed and down on the line, through the fifth color.

This process ensures that there will never be additional images printed. There can only ever be a maximum of the images printed from the first state of the linoleum block, as the second carving of the block destroys the information available from the first carving.  Each additional carving and printing removes more of the block until the only remaining information is what is left from the final carving. The registration of the colors in the process is usually quite exact because it is all from the same block, yet there are bound to be some mistakes in registration. Therefore, the artist usually ends up with even fewer prints than the number printed from the initial carving.

Confusing? A little. That is one of the reasons I printed the various stages of the process for my students. They typically cannot conceive of what I am explaining to them until after they have done the whole process at least once. Reduction printing cannot produce exactly the same results that multiple block printings do, but it is a useful and sometimes beautiful process.

This concept of creation—and even beauty—from destruction is the concept that most intrigues me with this process. Just as we see in nature, in processes like the death of the seed that creates a new plant, we find elements of this idea in many world religions. Some Eastern deities represent both the creative and destructive forces simultaneously. Related to these piece, obviously, is the idea of the suffering and death of Christ in order to gain redemption and eternal life for humanity. When artwork can remind us of these ideas by its very processes, and not simply through its imagery, it is a complex and wonderful thing.

Monday, March 12, 2012


After a significant absence, I have returned to the blogosphere. Thank you to those who have been followers of this blog and who have voiced their interest and comments about the subjects discussed. I do intend to keep up with the entries on a more regular basis, though, if I have to forego something, writing about artwork—mine or that of someone else—is likely to be on the chopping block before actually creating artwork.

I have stated at various times that the process of creating my altarpiece constructions is quite lengthy. The initial ideas and sketches typically come several years before the finished products. Sometimes that is because I am searching for very specific elements and objects to place within the works. It also takes some time to build and age the physical structures. The piece shown here was mostly constructed in the summer of 2011. However, the very first sketches for this work were likely produced in 2003 or 2004. My memory on that is a bit hazy. I tend not to date sketches because I will work on them again and again over several years.

Within these sketches the progression of the concept is seen. I do know that this work came about from the acquisition of several pieces from an antique store in New Hampshire. The first sketch shows some specific elements, most obviously the small electric fan on the top. At that stage, I intended to place some sculptural wings along the top, as well. I never did find any wings that would be appropriate. Eventually, I happened upon a set of porcelain dove salt and pepper shakers at another antique store somewhere near Washington DC, while visiting a friend. They became an alternate solution for the wings.

Two sketches appear next to each other in the second example—these are even in a different sketchbook as the first one had already been filled. The first image subtracts the wings and includes only one of the doves. The sketch below it has included both doves and some additional, new elements. One is an antique military-issued gas mask. Another is two metal acanthus leaf finials of some sort. Those finials were in a box of “junk” that I picked up at a flea market in Massachusetts at least a year or two later. They were not even what I actually wanted in that box of objects, yet I found a use for them.

The evolution of this work was slow. Still, the fan remained as kind of a crown on the top of the piece. Even while the work was being built that was the intention. When I was recently gearing up to work on the piece again, finishing off the trim and all the gold leafing and aging, I decided the placement of the fan on the top was just too much. A sketch, after all, is still distinctly different from a physical, three dimensional thing. Proportionally it did not seem right. The entire work was too tall and the fan seemed spindly in that spot. The fan was, however, an integral element from the conception of this piece.

I recognized that the fan could fit inside the uppermost section and would still operate as a type of oculus for the work. This did require that I shift some of the remaining elements into some other areas and boxes in the piece, but the new solution was much more satisfying. The altarpiece is now ready for the final painting stage and should be finished within the next couple months. That means that it will be nearly a ten year endeavor. That may seem too long for some artists. For a work like this it is just the right amount of time. These pieces need to evolve and change over time. The nuances that are manifested over the creation of the pieces also work on the viewer over longer periods of time. The works are not static, but reveal more with each additional viewing.