Tuesday, September 3, 2013


During the year between my undergraduate work and my enrollment in a graduate MFA program I worked at a bookstore. That was the best job that I have ever had outside of my positions in the field of art. I had previously not thought of myself as much of a reader, but then I realized I was always reading, but it was not the typical “bookstore books.” In other words, I did not read much fiction.

I enjoy some fiction. That has never been the problem. I was just more likely to be reading art history and criticism, philosophy, or theology. A bit dry for some tastes, I admit. Most of the prose does not compel one to keep turning the pages late into the night. There are few surprising plot twists. This chasm between writing styles has meant that I typically plod through the non-fiction in my library in order to get a deeper understanding of a topic but not much enjoyment.

However, I am deeply grateful when a rare non-fiction title comes along that is written with such skill that it keeps me thoroughly engaged. If I keep getting to the end of a chapter and saying to myself, “I know I need to get up early, but just one more before I turn the lights out,” then I recognize I have an excellent book. Provenance, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo provided this kind of experience.

Provenance read like a mystery novel. The difference was that I knew “whodunit” after the first chapter. The skill of the authors was in slowly unwinding just how the ruse was accomplished through the admission of the perpetrators and the revelations uncovered by those caught up in the hoax. Even the afterward provided a partial resolution and “happy ending” while still leaving some things open ended, almost like a Hollywood ending that leaves enough room to make the obligatory sequel.

There are many books about art forgery and forgers. It can be interesting to see how someone works to skillfully pass off a piece as that of a master. These books often divulge the secret tricks and techniques of the forger that allowed him to pull the wool over the eyes of even the elite art history scholars. Oddly, that is little of this tale. The title of Provenance provides the key to the scam laid out in the book. The forgeries were sometimes barely passable, but the documentation of what owners and exhibitions were attached to the works—the provenance—were what allowed so many to fall prey to the scheme.

While the role of the forger John Myatt is a key to the scam, he is both a likeable and sympathetic figure. Myatt is merely one of the pawns. The master manipulator is John Drewe. He is the one who convinces Myatt to paint the fakes for him; first as works for Drewe’s own collection, then—playing upon Myatt’s vanity and need—as the objects of a widespread fraud that has never been completely unwound.

Drewe is able to not only manipulate people, but to manipulate documents. After gaining the confidence of some of London’s leading museum staff he is allowed the opportunity to do some “research” in their archives. His work in the archives is permitted because of his numerous connections. Name dropping gets him far, as does his top secret military and defense connections which he can never fully divulge or verify. Regardless, with a little time at the Tate Gallery he is able to doctor paperwork enough to get his scheme the proper credentials for a full scale fraud that spans the globe. By the time the book ends it seems the museum name should be changed to Taint, as it is difficult to tell just which documents are original or not.

The cast of characters all play either a part in the scheme or in unraveling it. The reader will root for the tenacious archivists at various organizations and foundations who do not founder in their denials of authenticity of suspect works. They assist investigators who first uncover suspicious behavior through trails that also lead to arson and murder. The love and promise of money in this story are the root of all this evil. Drewe plays on this. He obtains and uses money in his frauds, but he manipulates others by the conspicuous use and promise of funds. His promises of greater sale prices to Myatt are matched by his five star dining and allusions to art and cash gifts to museum staff.

The web spun by Drewe is so tangled that the reader keeps reassessing this as fiction or truth. Once witnesses start coming forward one wonders just how Drewe could keep such a complex system of lies straight. He never falters. And the reader wonders what exactly is true about the man. His entire life, from his school days, seems to be one giant fabrication. The art forgery scam is the pinnacle of his “career.”

I picked up this book because the jacket promised some interesting insights into a section of the art world with which I am not as familiar. I did not expect to be so riveted by the story. I would suggest Provenance to those who actually know little about the art world, too. The story is crafted in such a way that it is a compelling read. It does not get so deep into the names of artists and galleries that it is overwhelming. If you like intrigue and twists and turns then you will enjoy Provenance.

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, Penguin Press, New York, 2009

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Let me show you my etchings...

I often work on the carving of my relief prints in public places. If I have a particularly intricate linoleum or woodcut design that will take hours and hours to carve then I break it up over several weeks or months. The process can both be tedious and tiresome, so I keep the block in the car and work on it at Starbucks for an hour or two between appointments or classes. This provides an introduction to all sorts of conversations and I see it as an extension of my educational work with the broader public.

As annoyed as I feel inside when a stranger refers to my process of carving as “making a stamp,” I do understand that the terminology provides a way though which many people can enter the process. Most comments are made concerning the carving alone. It is only through further explanation that these casual observers recognize that the finished artwork is not the block itself, but the eventual transfer of the image onto paper.

Etching is also a form of printmaking, but it is such a foreign process to most that it takes a bit more explanation to understand. In fact, Some people assume I am “etching” when they see me carving a wood or linoleum block. Etching, by its very nature, cannot happen in such a public setting as Starbucks. It requires materials that are not quite so portable.

The main difference between the way woodcuts and etchings are produced is the way they are printed. Carved wood and linoleum blocks print from the high surface, from the areas left after the carving has been completed. Etching, one of several intaglio processes, prints the ink from the recessed areas, those lower than the top surface of the plate. Ink is pushed into those recesses and the top surface of the plate is wiped clean. The plate is then run through a press which forces paper into those recessed, inked areas to offset the image.

That is the quick explanation. Etching is different from most of the other intaglio processes because an acid actually does the work of making those recesses in the plate. That does not mean that producing an etching requires no physical labor on the part of the artist. An etching plate can be manipulated and changed in several ways as the artist works toward a final image.

The etching shown here is one I produced to show my students the processes of hard ground and soft ground etching. I find people are more familiar with the hard ground etching style. The result looks like a pen and ink line drawing. In this process the metal etching plate is coated with a material that protects it from the corrosive effects of acid. The artist takes a sharp tool and scratches a drawing or design through that protective coating. When the plate is placed in an acid bath the exposed lines are bitten into recessed areas of the plate. The acid does the work, not the scratching of the artist. The longer the lines are exposed the deeper, darker (and sometimes wider) the resulting lines will be.

While hard ground etching was used in this image, much of the gradation of tone was produced with soft ground etching. The soft ground never completely sets on a plate. You can impress your finger prints into the soft ground and they will eventually bite into the surface of the plate. Typically, artists press fabric textures into the soft ground and bite those into the plate. Dick Swift often used the textures as an integral and very obvious element within his etchings. Kathe Kollwitz also employed the textures of cloth within her soft ground etchings. She used an alternative method, additionally, in which a piece of paper is placed over the plate with soft ground applied and then a drawing is made on the paper. A soft, pencil-like line pulls some of the ground away and can then be bitten into the place, as opposed to the pen and ink-like line in hard ground etching.

I used all of those methods in this print. You can see the progression of the image through the eight different states. I did not want the fabric texture to obviously read as fabric. Several times I bit in a texture for a few minutes, then re-applied soft ground and did another fabric texture for a similar amount of time. Slowly, the values were built up in this way. Essentially, little dots of value are being bitten into the plate, not unlike what we see in a close up of a computer printout. These are like pixels.

You will also notice that some areas get lighter from one stage to the next. That happens through scraping and burnishing the plate. This is the more physical part of the process. It is like using an eraser on a drawing. Metal tools actually remove thin layers of the surface of the plate so that less ink is caught in the recesses. The recesses actually become shallower. When this is done multiple times, along with the areas being repeatedly bitten with soft ground, very delicate grays are possible that look less and less like a fabric texture.

Many of the etchings I have made over the last decade or so have either been inked in colors or have employed text in some way. My process for developing those plates is similar, but many of those prints are far less realistic. I created this print as a stand alone work, but I also wanted my students to see what possibilities are available in this process. It is fairly easy to make a bold soft ground texture, but not necessarily easy to do that well. And when “mistakes” are made in the plate there really are ways to get rid of them and totally change the image. However, as with all art making, it does take time and work.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Glossing Over It: The Process of Glazing

When I first began to seriously work on painting, as an undergraduate art major, I preferred a thicker, more opaque application of paint. It was not that I was painting with such dimensional strokes as Vincent Van Gogh, but it was not in the style of some renaissance master, either. I still rather enjoy applying paint with a heavily loaded brush. It just feels good.

However, “art life” happens and styles change. In fact, style is more often dictated by concept than anything else within the fine art world. Take Pablo Picasso, for instance. Those only familiar with his more extreme forms of Cubist abstraction—and with little or no knowledge of what this master was trying to achieve—believe that he had no traditional skill. That is simply not the case. The work from the period when he was a very young artist reveals that he was every bit a master draftsman, yet he subverted that skill to challenge our assumptions of what a painting actually is. It is those endeavors in abstraction that set in motion the major shifts in much of the art of the twentieth century.

I, on the other hand, moved in the opposite direction. My painting style became more traditional as my work evolved. This was not because I necessarily improved as a painter—though that did happen, as well. It had more to do with a change in the materials I was using. Once I started painting over text, especially book pages, I needed a more transparent paint application if I wanted viewers to still be able to see the words. So I returned to the process of glazing.

Even before this shift in style happened within my own work I was teaching the process of glazing to my beginning painting students. I have them experiment with a variety of surfaces and paint applications so that they can get to know the materials and what seems to suit their own artistic needs. This particular method seems to test the patience of many students. I suppose part of it is that it is not an instantaneous process. It takes time. It requires an understanding of both color and materials.    

The paintings shown here were actually produced as an attempt to help solve that problem. They were painted outside the confines of any specific series on which I am currently working. They are slightly connected to my main body of work, but do not carry the same concerns or weight of concept. They came into existence because 1) I had these canvas panels laying around and wanted to finally put something on them after ten years, and 2) I wanted to show my students just how many layers of paint go into creating a realistic glazed painting.

The video below is a tutorial for my current and future students. I have posted it here because I feel that those who are unaware of the processes of creating paintings may be interested in seeing one process of how I develop a painting. I hope you find it interesting or useful.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Story of Asher Lev

I recently reread two books by the author Chaim Potok. Many people are familiar with his writing through the book The Chosen. That title continues to be popular on school reading lists and it was also turned into a major motion picture. However, the books that I revisited are the ones about the fictional artist Asher Lev. They share a common theme with Potok’s other books which focus on the lives of observant Hasidic Jews. The Asher Lev books center on the title character, who is an artist.

The first of the books is My Name is Asher Lev. It was actually required reading for all students at the college that I attended. I first read the book for my Drawing class and then again for a capstone course when I was a senior. As the only art major in the second class I was regularly questioned about all things in the book relating to art and art history. I was certainly glad I had read it once before.

Once I began teaching college level art courses I adopted My Name is Asher Lev for my Senior Seminar class for art majors. Even the students who resisted any and all reading assignments came to love this book. The story investigates the balance between the life of faith and the art world—showing that the two can often seem in conflict for those with a strong, conservative religious bent. I read this book every year as I taught that course and was continuously amazed by my discovery of new things each time I reviewed the work.

I find that rereading this book always pushes me to evaluate my life as an artist. That is why I chose to read it once more in 2012. I wanted to examine my artistic self at this particular stage in my life and I knew this book would pose the questions that I desired to ask myself.

While Potok does a stunning job of creating an engaging narrative set in a believable world, I have always had one small problem with the way he describes Asher Lev’s mode of seeing. The young artist, Lev, is a child prodigy in the field of art. His parents cannot prevent him from drawing every nuance of the Hasidic Brooklyn world which they inhabit. Drawing is like breathing for Asher. The author describes the way Asher sees people and objects as if it is through a lens that dissolves each item into seemly Cubist shapes. As an artist, I always found this portrayal unrealistic, but I suspend this critical analysis while reading the book because the concept makes complete sense within the fictional world of the story.

Both My Name is Asher Lev and the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, are ultimately tales of surrender. The act of surrender is far more complex than our contemporary concepts. We may understand the need to surrender but we often understand it in terms of a clean cut resolution to a conflict, neatly confined to the thirty or sixty minutes of a television drama or the two hours of a film. Real life conflict and surrender rarely fit within such neat and tidy packages.

For Asher, the idea of surrender is tied to competing traditions. First is his religious tradition which is inextricably linked to his family heritage. He is part of a dynasty that is deeply connected to the leader of their religious sect. This leader—the Rebbe—comes from a line of religious leaders who have sought a renewal of traditional Jewish religious practice and the ultimate messianic salvation of the Jewish people. The opposing tradition is the world of visual art and its secular base. For many in Asher’s religious community these two cannot be reconciled, but the wisdom of the visionary Rebbe sees past the dichotomy and Asher plunges headlong into the world of art, while still keeping his feet firmly planted in Hasidic tradition.

Surrender comes into the equation when Asher must decide how completely he will give himself over to the direction of his artistic inspiration. He must, simultaneously, surrender to the will of his people and his muse. The resultant decision marks the central conflict within the novel, which is actually brought about through the artist’s synthesis of earlier conflicts in his life. That central decision places him in a position in which, at the end of the novel, Asher seems condemned to a perpetual balancing act between these two forces.

The second book, The Gift of Asher Lev, finds Asher twenty years later, married, with two children, and living in France as a successful artist. The comfortable life he has carved out for himself is soon disrupted with the news of his uncle’s death. Upon the family’s return to the Hasidic Brooklyn enclave of his childhood, Asher discovers one riddle after another. Some riddles are answered within the novel while others are left unresolved. The key riddle, again, is answered with a form of surrender.

As I age, as an artist, I find The Gift of Asher Lev to be a more compelling story. Potok’s writing is more subtle and refined. The doubts faced by an artist that necessitate an evolution of style and form are accurately portrayed. The anxieties and surrender are handled with complexity and maturity.

The gift mentioned in the title is actually multifaceted. One would expect it to reference Lev’s gift of artistic talent. That is, however, only the most obvious reference. The gifts can also allude to Asher’s family. His wife and his children are a gift. The gift is his family heritage, his life in France, his successful art career, and his faith. The gift is also connected to the secret art collection of his recently deceased uncle—this is also one of the novel’s riddles. And the surrender is both a surrender to some items and circumstances as well as a surrender of some others.

Each time I get to the climactic moment in The Gift of Asher Lev it is an emotional wrenching. I know what will happen. It has not been a surprise since the first time I read the book. Still, the tale is so engrossing and the characters so compelling that I cannot help but get caught up in the story. This is why I often suggest these books to people. For artists, they are essential, but for others, they are simply gripping fictional tales.

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, Anchor Publishing, Reprint edition (2003)
The Gift of Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, Fawcett Books, First Ballantine Books (1997)