The Visitors Series

A simple distillation of thought recreated in the calligraphy of the everyday hand on 18 canvases.

I accept as true, the premise that we as humans understand that we are temporary, despite our own vanity. We know better than to rely on our own memories to carry our ideas into the future, so we write. We write so that another person in another time can share a thought as we once held it. Of course we also know that a read thought cannot somehow re-create the same response and experience as when it was originally conjured. Instead the written idea becomes a falsehood – a facsimile of an idea. This is degraded and altered by the ever-changing context of time and it remains far from a perfect process, but it is the best tool that we have for the preservation of ideas.
Our efforts in writing and photographing ourselves are then, futile attempts to stretch our own influence (and existence) through time using a logical code of images, symbols and processes that human cultures have grown to accept. All cultures use words to allow our thoughts to transcend space and time in ways that our bodies simply cannot: an idea crosses a continent in seconds; sentiments of love and lust linger on a page long after love has grown cold; the excitement of a hunt remains on a wall thousands of years after the artist dies; a philosophy is shared from generation to generation and eventually shapes nations.
In this series, I have transcribed a chapter from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden entitled, The Visitors. The act of visiting implies that one will be leaving without any permanent trace aside from the memory of his visit. Much the same can be said for our brief time here as sentient contributors to the human experience. To more closely examine the premise of thought, writing and the symbols we use to fuse the two, I have hand-written the chapter and abstracted from the very center a small sample of that writing. In doing so, a more romantic image has been created and it becomes less about the words and more about a shared experience. This is a simple distillation of that human experience of sharing a thought from one generation to another.
We are all just visitors here.

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Random musings

So now I know why artists and writers and photographers keep sketchbooks and journals and cameras with them at all times. In the past few months, I’ve been overrun with a deluge of ideas. Each of them feels like an epiphany when it comes and most of them I end up forgetting. Those I remember, I try; most of them turn out to be false starts. Those that aren’t false starts end up becoming something more, but never quite what I expected them to be. Long story short, keep a journal. I haven’t, but I should have.

I know that I find beauty in linework, handwriting and maps, wires and all sorts of simple things that come together to make shapes. I know this and am inspired by it, but at the same time I am afraid of being stifled by the very same ideas that generated so much of my work. Through experimentation comes innovation, but with limited funds it seems like experimentation is just a waste of good supplies. This isn’t the case. Sometimes I look at the crap I made just to better appreciate the things I can show with pride.

Walking through galleries and museums, good art amazes me and every time I find something new and beautiful, I wonder why I didn’t think of it. I guess that’s the point, really. Even if anyone could do it, only one person did. Then I go back to the studio and feel like I should incorporate the parts that I found most successful in that work into my studio work. Big mistake. If ever you feel the same way, do yourself a favor and ignore it. What makes one person’s work successful is not what will make yours – instead it will make yours derivative and flat. I think what I’ve learned from making flat and derivative work in the past is that, if you want to be an artist and collect your environment as you live in it, internalize it first before you use it. When it comes out after you’ve had time to ruminate, it will be more you than your inspiration. Process is key. Keep working. Make time.

It’s hard to imagine that most of the work we make won’t pass our own inspection. If that’s not the case, consider inspecting your work more carefully. I say this as much to myself as to you.

Make art and collect art. You’ll be happy you did.

An Abridged Study of What Informs My Work.

• I write things down every day. So do you. The things I write down probably aren’t very different from the things you write down: to do lists, grocery lists, my name, notes about a moment, thoughts, an artist that makes me think- the things I don’t want to forget. These things I write I write for my future-self so that I’m able to recall or re-create an experience, a memory, or a list. When I’m reviewing this writing, it is almost as if I am visiting another person whose only manifestation is through a record of his actions. The record becomes the person. This idea is fascinating to me.
• Walking through museums, I admire the time-tested tradition of formal portraiture: the lighting on the face, the seeming accuracy with which the artist captured another person in two simple dimensions and only an implied sense of depth. For all that fascination though, once I enter the abstract expressionist room, I am moved in ways that other art can’t seem to do. It’s more than mere admiration. It’s feeling like home. It’s finally identifying with the work. It is awe. I feel that I learn more about an abstract expressionist in one painting than I do gazing into a hundred glazed portraits of royalty, middle-class merchants and military men.
• Maps tell us everything about an area we might need to know, factually. They may not go on about the character of a city or its people even though the placement and pacing of its streets and its population might help. Logically, though a person can go there and know exactly where he is. This is one step closer to the community than he was before the map.
• When small things are enlarged beyond their normal scale, we begin to notice things about them that the simplicity of shape couldn’t tell us. By examining small things in a grand scale, we can evaluate them in terms usually associated with people or buildings or furniture. The tittle just above an “I” becomes something entirely different – a sun behind a skyline.
• A walk through any city (or town, for that matter) will put you in front of a hundred markings left by graffitists, by cars, by birds. Some intentional, others not. Every mark though is a layer that, if inspected closely enough, will tell you something about that place, specifically. Where these marks are tells us as much about the marker as what the mark actually is. A dented guardrail was not a parallel parking incident. An intervention on a billboard was not the drunken folly of a few teenagers.
• The documents that outline the very fundamentals of our society are as much cultural artifact as legal groundwork. Pre-Guttenberg Bibles, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and any number of hand-written guidelines for civilized living act as records of the people who wrote them, the times in which they lived and the sculpting effect they have had on the daily lives of generations to follow. Looking at these surprising feats of humanity can help us better understand our own cultural context and in turn, can help us become better artists.
• Commercial printing and early graphic design are outstanding inspirations for fundamental design principles and for future work. Hand-crafted work has a soul that the contrived drivel we see on television and in magazines seldom approaches. Work with computers is essential for our digital minds, but one must translate and transpose between the analog and digital worlds for anything human to come of it.

My Life with Art

It hung on the wall the same way most everything hung on my wall: either shiny scotch tape adhered to the four corners of the paper, invariably tearing bit by bit as the poster aged or by thumb tacks, following a similar fate, but from the inside out.  “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN” it read in bold san serif white under the brightly printed American flag on some cheap, high gloss poster paper.  In hind-sight it was ridiculously kitschy and dramatic; I’m surprised my parents let me put it up in my room, so close to the kitchen and the main entrance to the house.  Maybe if the message wasn’t so blatantly pro-establishment, they would have given it a second thought.  Anyway I didn’t think of it as art, but I thought the phrase’s dual meanings made it powerful enough to place it in plain sight of anyone walking by my door.  I thought that that alone would make people realize that I loved my country and that they wouldn’t have to look at the red white and blue striped wallpaper and the “electric blue” accent wall in my bedroom (as if they had a choice) to get the picture.  I say I didn’t think of it as art probably because I didn’t think of art in general. 

The closest anyone in my family ever got to being an “artist” was a cousin who water colored as a hobby and my aunt’s cousin who taught it in high school – he did a lot of water color, too.  All of their work was purely aesthetic: waves crashing over the rocky coast, colonial homes or tourist scenes from Kennebunkport.  I don’t remember the first time I stepped foot into an art museum or gallery, probably because it wasn’t that big a deal.  I had been to science museums, sports museums, natural history museums, history museums and children’s museums and each has its own resonant memory even today.  For some reason, though, I don’t recall going to a single art museum as a kid.  I’m sure we did- my family, that is.  Maybe my classes in elementary school went, but not one art museum experience stuck.  All I knew of art, I originally learned from a single friend and two art classes.  I had built pinch pots in middle school and drew for most of my life on drawing pads that my parents had used to encourage the drawing that had begun to overtake the margins of my quizzes and worksheets at school.  All of this was somehow preparation for me to become an artist. Somehow.

I can remember walking by gallery windows and seeing framed paintings hanging in them.  I remember hearing about Jackson Pollock’s huge drip paintings and about Van Gogh cutting off his ear.  This was art to me: the demented people who made big things that somehow ended up in frames at wealthy peoples’ homes around the world.  I’m not sure why or how this eventually became my definition of art, but it seemed that every professor I had in art school served only to question that very definition I had become so comfortable with.  Since when do professors stand in the way of convention?  I used to think their job was to distribute and preserve it.

Even after I had begun taking art history surveys in college, that narrow definition remained on the whole unaltered.  If anything, I would say it made my idea of art more regimented, despite my new found love of graffiti a la Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy and Barry McGee.  While I walked through Portland, the urban center of Maine, I used the time to become what I thought was something of a graffiti connoisseur.  I would point out flawed positioning and spotty execution among the new graffiti writers and I would relish in the precision and detail practiced by those who had finally mastered the craft.  It was still a craft though.  I wasn’t even sure what I was doing in art school except that maybe I could go into graphic design and make advertisements or marketing campaigns for small companies around home.  Maybe, I thought, I could teach painting in college, get tenured and grow fat and happy in a small town.

This was a very comfortable way to go about my first couple years of undergrad, but eventually I took a printmaking course and that changed everything.  I learned how to use Xerox copies as lithography plates and I learned photo based methods of screen printing and finally I learned about photo etching techniques.  All of this offered me the ability to make photo real images without honing in too far on my loose drawing abilities.  Suddenly I could recontextualize images from the newspaper.  I felt as though I could make art that could be important.  A similar feeling came over me in sculpture classes where I could carve shapes from clay, limestone or wood, but how do sculptors store their work without cramming their stuff into every crevice of their homes?  Painting was beautiful and I really enjoyed working with it, but most often I worked with house paints and very little oil paints, let alone medium or linseed oil or anything like that.  And again, where does one keep them?  The thought never crossed my mind that I might be able to sell them and that some people may be willing to buy them.  I guess this perfect storm of circumstance paired with a marvelous and relatable teacher led me square into the path of printmaking, like it or not.

The more art history I took, the more interested I got in the Portland Museum of Art and its contents.  Despite the broad sidewalk in front of it and the barrel vault hallway under its grand façade, it feels like the building stands on Congress Street the way those old buildings in Venice stand on the water.  Every time I walked in, I skipped right past the feature exhibition hall, up the stairs through the European impressionist rooms, even skimming through the cubists and post-impressionists, past the Picasso and the Wyeth, past the Benton and past the Hartley and right into the modern and contemporary room.  I was always a bit offended that the stuff I related to was relegated to a small (albeit tall) room so far from the entrance. 

It was here that I first engaged with Robert Indiana and Yvonne Jacquette, Alexander Calder and Anselm Kiefer  The Robert Indiana piece that hung there (and I think still does) is called Electi.  I thought somehow at first that it was some sort of Latinate word that reached toward the root of our experiment in democracy.  It wasn’t until much later that I found out that it originally read “Election” but was damaged in the artist’s studio.  A happy accident, I thought because adding the “on” would just be too much and we get the point as it is.  The vertical stripes were inverted from the American flag and left the viewer with an after-image of clear red and white stripes.  The circular symbols were curious for me, as was the very low contrast between the letters and the color behind them, but it all worked as part of my contemplative experience.  I didn’t necessarily know what I was looking at (or what effect it would have on me) until later, but it felt like I was experiencing something bigger than I was and that if I could manage someday, somehow to get one thing that I had made into a museum, any museum, I will have made it; I will have made “art.”  Alas, my second definition of art: that which resides in galleries and museums.  This freed my work from the need for a frame, even though I still thought that a frame to separate the piece from the viewer and the world in general was important if the work of art was to have and to keep any sense of reverence or spiritual experience. 

But then again, perhaps my most spiritual museum experience was my entire first visit to the new MOMA.  It was like walking into some bizarre hybrid of church and text book, only every object I saw moved me in some new way entirely.  Clifford Still, Franz Klein and Jackson Pollock. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Van Gogh and Gaugin. Monet and Rodin.  Mondrian and Braque.  Every piece I saw I can see right now as I write and even now I am moved.  In fact, maybe it felt purely spiritual, not so much text book driven, but text book informed.  I think it was during that same visit that I saw the Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum.  There was something about the chambers of the building, like chambers of a heart, pumping the public through like blood vessels, each becoming oxygenated by the inspiration housed there.  This isn’t hyperbole to me and I really don’t think I can overstate the effect that that place had (has, rather) on me.  Was it the torn veneer of the Clifford Still work or was it the compilation of daily thoughts, objects and symbols of Rauschenberg that stuck?  Maybe it was the shocking sense of underwhelm-ment I felt as the crowds slowly cleared from Starry Starry Night.  I came back to Maine energized though.  For me back then, energized meant working the way I thought Pollock or Basquiat worked, creating all sorts of stuff and feeling like each one was somehow a master work- the best possible stand-in for myself, should I ever leave the room.  I also felt somehow that I was their equal, despite my unfinished education and my meager attempts to copy them.

Robert Rauschenberg’s collected images and text and Jasper John’s encaustic work were equally inspiring to me from that visit on.  Even before I knew about their relationship, they worked on me together and fostered in me a profound interest in semiotics.  Johns in particular, with his color studies and maps made me keenly aware of the power of context when working with symbols.  As in “False Start” where all color names are stenciled in various other colors over still other colors.  I know this doesn’t sound very earth-shattering to those reading now, but to me then, in the midst of all that ab-ex looking brush work, this changed my world.  All I could see when I discovered “False Start” was this index of creative energy flowing slowed by what looked like deliberate breaks of layering, over and under of stenciled words.  Without the words, I would see a very colorful Franz Klein- amazing, I’m sure.  With the words, I was engaged on a host of levels that I aspired to activate in my own audience.

I my video piece, tentatively called “Conversation”, I introduce the viewer to the creative action in a moving index through video.  The stroke of the pen being the point where thoughts and ideas (and all the baggage and connotation that travels inherently with them) moves from our minds and into a new dimension.  The static record of that action on paper becomes an avatar for ourselves, our belief systems and even our psychological and emotional states during that very specific point in time.  By following the action of the pen along the paper, the viewer’s attention is paid to the transition, not the idea or the record of the idea.   The text in this video combines the act of hand writing ideas with religious and scientific origin theories.  The intelligent design argument and the singular (big bang) theory both focus acutely on creation and are created in the video through a steady evolution of ideas.  Johns’ play with English language symbols and our ideas of color and form introduces a cerebral process to an ingrained, almost instinctual symbolic identity.  It is that higher level of thought- critical thought that I hope to inspire through such devout focus on the transitional moment of creativity.

New definitions of art have entered my life very slowly since the evening when I hung up my American flag poster, but strangely the role of language has remained important.  Through spiritual awakening in front of the work of my predecessors, I have become more aware of this fact.  Experiences with semiotics, graphology, Greenbergian thought and the modern church of MOMA may have altered the way I think and speak about art, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how much a good piece of work will move a person, regardless of their education.  Art transcends thought the way language can only dream of.

New Video Work – now on to the prints, then paintings and scultpure.

The act of writing is in essence the manipulation of a set code of characters to portray a person’s mindset, ideas and desires at a given point in time. Such an act is an act of preservation- preserving one’s self for the future self and the future others. In this way, the acts of a logical and moral population are simply the implementation of a set code of ethics. The imperative in this video is from Kant’s lectures on ethics. “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.” Simply put, let each decision you make be one that you wish any person would make in similar circumstances. It is my theory that each person’s actions within a moral code appear as different from one another and as similar to each other as one’s handwriting differs from another’s, or even from his own between one day and the next.

Just a thought.

Now for the thesis.  What do you think? a narrative? an explanatory text? just a great print portfolio?

I really enjoy painting – maybe I’ll get back into that too. But what to paint?  I don’t want to go backwards, but everything I want to paint, I’ve painted versions of before.  Can I do that just because I want to, even though I have this thesis show to set up?  Well, there’s always the New York show too….

Thanks for reading!

Got to get moving

The coming months I think are going to be pretty busy…Of course you may know about my setting up to finally run the 10k I’ve been thinking about for a while now, but now I’m going to print up some gear for me and my relatives whie also want to run!  Aside from that, I’m also hoping to get started on a pretty major show in September in NYC, hopefully getting this mural contract I’ve been working on and I’d like to get a grant written so that I can fund my own employment as a board member of the DAV Centre for Cultural and Creative Development. Very exciting! So now all I have left to do is write my thesis, set up that show and marry the love of my life! I should stop writing about this and get started.

 

 

Stay tuned.

January 25th, 2010

Past the half way mark of the wintersession (and almost into February) and I still feel like I’m settling in.  Settling in to the video editing, animation idea, settling in to the teaching idea, settling in to the year 2010.  All of this settling and yet somehow progress has been made- I think.  I have ideas for my thesis installation, I have a body of research headed my way any day now from all around and I’ve made some animations of the written word.  However these animation studies have me interested in still another example of the written word.  Of course with the advent of digital projectors and the death of the film canister movies, this doesn’t happen any more, but at the end of a movie- the very end- after the credits and gag reels, after the studio identification, there’s a point when the film runs out and just before, you can see (just barely, they’re so fast) hand-written words buzz by the screen, then all white and you can hear very faintly the sputter of the film’s tail, spinning around and brushing against the other reel.  What a beautiful experience.  It’s so short, it’s so fleeting but it exists and I relish it.  I have to get my hands on some old film to find out how this works, so if you or anyone you know has any or can get any- please let me know!!

Along with this, I’ve rediscovered screenprint now that I’m teaching it.  With the feedback I get from my research study, I hope to make a portfolio of screenprints, intaglio (photogravure) prints and maybe a woodcut or two…  No idea how it will look or even what scale it will shape up to be, but I’m excited about it.

Wax is coming back!!  Another manifestation of this project will (hopefully) be in encaustic.  Stay tuned for sketches of all these things!