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.