Recent Writing


Radio, Imagination and Art

Bendix radio

Lately I am listening to radio dramas as I work in the studio. I have been a “listener” since I was six years-old, a Bendix radio perched atop my desk. Drawing and listening became a composite whole, the aural environment invited imagination.

 

The space of listening and forming images seems fundamental. My parents read to my brother and me each night. There was a quality of magic (another “image” word) for me in these stories. Much later as an adult I hunted down some of them by fragments of memory: something about a lion and a wardrobe, Scallywagons, a short-wave radio mystery, a voyage to a mushroom planet. Lots of fantasies, mysteries, sci-fi obviously, but then Aristotle’s word “phantasia” is usually translated as “imagination.”

 

Later I listened daily to Bill Cavness “Reading Aloud” on NPR before there were such things as books on tape. I discovered the ZBS audio dramas that were carried on Public Radio. These were fantastic stories of Jack Flanders, richly realized, deeply layered audio environments created by Tom Lopez with elegant original music by Tim Clark. There were also some great productions by the BBC including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and A Canticle for Leibowitz and an NPR Playhouse production of Star Wars. This surge of radio theatre faded gradually after the 80’s. Recently, the availability of high quality affordable digital audio and the possibility of publishing via the Internet has created a resurgence of such work. ZBS is still active and the quality and breadth of their work and their catalog has only increased. Slipgate Nine’s Edict Zero-FIS is a rich new addition. I continue to look for new productions that have the sound depth and imagination that supports my work in the studio.

ZBS Steam Dreamers, ZBS Ruby, Slipgate Nine Edict Zero-FIS

While these sound environments fed my imagination it wasn’t until recently I realized something even deeper was going on. As an artist, the stories like the music I listened to were a kind of background energy but essentially separate from the artwork itself.

 

I met my wife to be when we were members of a panel discussing Creativity and the similarities or differences between Theatre and Visual Art. As a visual artist, the notion of audience was almost foreign to me. Maybe that was stupidity or merely ignorance, but I think it was common in graduate school in visual art to ignore or denigrate audience as a slippery slope to selling out. The world of the visual artist is so much more introverted, cloistered than that of the actor or even playwright. Yet with this on-going discussion in my relationship, with my long influence of story, the experiences of things like Cirque du Soleil performances, the incredibly visual staging of Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass operas like Akhnahten, things began to change. My persistent fascination with radio or audio drama began to have a much greater meaning for me.

 

Phillip Glass Akhnaten in Houston 1984, Robert Wilson Death, Destruction and Detroit II in Berlin 1987

My work this year has been more and more influenced by this persistent argument for audience and the facets of understanding or perhaps provocation that exist between theatre and visual arts. These are issues of the arc of a story, relationship, the objectives of the characters, obstacles to objectives, conflict and tension, transformation. This is obviously a big theme and one that is active, unresolved for me but very productive in this molten state. It is something I will blog about as ideas arise.

Posted in Reading and Listening, Studio Updates | 11 Comments

Edges and Boundaries

I am interested in edges, a reasonable pursuit for a painter. I look at different painters and how they handle the edges of forms. Some make edges that are crisp and clear, others that are soft but simple, others make edges that are atmospheric, complex and vague, still others where the paint itself and the texture of the brushstroke overtake the form altogether. It’s more than style.

van der Weyden, Sargent, Nerdrum, Ryden details

 

In the age of Photoshop, edges have become a fetish, drawing forth a whole arsenal of tools designed to make easier or better selections to define one form from another in a variety of image situations. The notion of edges in the digital world has become complicated. Enlarging a traditional photo eventually leads to the breakup of the image into grain clumping patterns, evidence that the image is still a physicality, a material reality. The digital image is dependent on the resolution of the input and the magnification the viewer uses, but in enlargement at some point it dissolves into softened pixel blocks, which are somehow entirely immaterial and which call into question the whole idea of an edge.

some of photoshop's selection tools

 

Children begin to draw by using line as they begin to learn words, to reinforce that things are separate from each other (and from their own self) and by depicting them that way, declaring a kind of mastery over them. Names equal outlines. But as we learn more sophisticated ideas of drawing, we discover that putting an outline around something is problematical. It creates more separation than we actually see and it flattens forms by creating contrast at the edge coming forward instead of going back.

 

We usually develop drawing before painting, at least in an art program, and so we struggle for a time trying to draw our paintings until we experience that leap of faith that takes us into the paint as a thing entirely its own and entirely compelling. Beginning painters do a drawing first then like a coloring book, try to paint within the lines, fearing to lose those boundaries that give them a sense of security. But later as they begin to find the heart of painting, they see edges as fluid, coming and going. The analogy I give them is that it is like the seashore. Part of our fascination with the shore is that the boundary is always changing, it is alive and it resonates with that quality in us. A painting with boundaries that have evolved organically that way is likely more inviting than one where the boundaries have been stiffly defended from the start.

 

I slip into substituting the word boundary. And that for me is where this takes a deeper course. I think a person manifests a certain sense of order consistently in their life. I often have students in my drawing class line themselves up one day after they have been together for a semester at least: at one end, the person who is most attached to order, at the other, the person least order oriented. Rarely do they have any trouble doing this themselves. They see it in everything from the condition of their art locker to the way they dress, to the nature of the work they put up for critique each week and much more. There is no judgment in it. It may be that they express the order they have grown up with, or it may be they create the order that they want or need psychologically. I see this same continuum driving around the neighborhood, looking at the yards people keep, the edging, the beds, the way things are stacked or stashed. I often think you could do a fair amount of personal counseling based solely on photos of people’s yards.

some details from yards near me

Certainly there is a craft issue in the degree of definition in paintings. Paintings done from photos or from life, paintings alla prima or by indirect layer and glazing approaches gravitate toward different kinds of edge treatment. But craft is always developing: you drag it behind you as you try to achieve your vision. Deeper still is the sense of order and the sense that there is a metaphysical struggle going on as a person explores expression and creates the environment to resonate with their sense of form or formlessness.

Posted in Issues of Culture, Looking, The Practice of Drawing | 4 Comments

Frustration

 

crosswise

I think our culture is stuck. I think the frustration I feel, that it seems so many feel with the logjam in Washington right now is just the obvious emergence of a broader frustration that permeates our whole culture. Frustration has a very useful property. Artists become aware of it early on. I talk about frustration with my students because frustration is inevitable when we are trying to do something beyond what we can do now. It is a symptom of energies beneath the surface churning against some obstacle that doesn’t yet move out of the way. It is evidence that something is about to happen, that enormous resources are being brought to bear on a place we are stuck and that a breakthrough may be near.

I have been reading a book by Seth Godin called Linchpin. A few days ago I heard an interview with Jeremy Rifkin on the Diane Rehm show and shortly after I watched a TED talk on line by Daniel Pink. The synergy of the messages was overwhelming: we can’t succeed with 19th C. resources for 21st C. problems. The Thread of all 3 pieces was the need to move away from centralized, narrowly focused, mechanical and task-oriented solutions toward individualized and creative ones.

 

godin, rifkin, pink

I taught at an arts magnet high school, the creation of a visionary artist and administrator who saw an answer to many of the problems of inner city schools while others were stuck in ideas of management. But such a vision needs visionaries to sustain it, too. And that is usually against a tide of management-oriented thinking. I watched my district resolutely marching back into the 19th C. by increasing centralization, standardizing of curricula and testing, narrowing the focus of outcomes, and creating a climate of fear that reaches from the district level all the way down to the classroom. In other words, if something isn’t working well, do more of it harder and use technology to back it up. Seth Godin and John Gatto describe this as the Factory: quantize everything, focus the goals as narrowly as possible, divide them up into mechanical, repeatable steps so that compliance can be easily measured, rewarded and punished. Minimize departure from the norm; produce compliant workers as administrators, instructors, and students.

But here is where my thinking and experience as an artist and teacher leads me: frustration is not something to get rid of as quickly as possible. Our feeling stuck may be merely intolerance of a messy, incomplete churning of forces. It might be the opportunity to look into this churning, to see it as the cauldron of new invention. Could we believe it is there for growth and the chance to create something new if we let go of insistence upon old ideas, on control and uniformity, on narrow measurement of success and the impatient and compulsive need to “win?”

Posted in Issues of Culture | 9 Comments

Note about the galleries

The gallery names Formations, Explorations, Observations, Recognitions were not meant to be artificial or presumptuous, but because the simpler “Painting” and “Drawing” categories did not seem to fit very well. The process and the purpose of the making were better concepts for me to organize around.

“Formations” for the paper reliefs was obviously a category that could stand on its own. It is for me play and manipulation of form in a more concrete and physical way than the two-dimensional work that is my primary thread.

Process and Craft are part of all artwork, of course. But I wanted to emphasize that for much of my drawing and some of my painting, process is central and the motivating force. The physical, kinesthetic gesture, the touch, the tactile and textural contact with the surface and the physical properties of the material help me get underneath my mind and my conscious control. Control is part of craft but also subject to habit and limitation. I tell my students that the first attention they must get is their own. If they can’t surprise and delight themselves, how can they expect it from their audience? Thus the category: “Explorations.”

Under “Observations” I group two visually different bodies of work, but whose purpose is fundamentally the same. The single longest-standing art Practice is based on working from observation, painting or drawing or sculpting from life. My own life drawing does not exactly fit the academic model, but it is very much about the intensity and persistence of seeing and about regularly reclaiming the sensitivity to organic form. In fact, there is a relationship between these drawings and the paper relief formations I think.

The other images under “Observations” are small paintings done from life where the idea is to start and complete a piece each day. This is a practice followed in diverse ways such as the famous “morning pages” of Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way (theartistsway.com), or more specific practices such as the 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks,  the small musical notations of Bobby McFerrin , the paintings of Duane Keiser.

“Recognitions” again includes drawing and painting. These are not so much about process as about purpose and Meaning. There is some original intention for these, but the process has to be slow developing in order to invite images to gather around the original idea, to refine or complicate and certainly to deepen something held tenuously at first. There is a tension created by the proximity of gathered images and holding that tension allows me to notice, to recognize something that emerges from it that I can develop further and that leads me deeper into the purpose than I might consciously be able to go.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

On Voice

the voice

My undergraduate college’s motto was “a voice crying in the wilderness,” which suggests an inauspicious truth for starting a blog. But it strikes me that having a Voice of any kind is a good thing. The artist statement I wrote for my September show at the Cloister Gallery is really about voice:

Visual artists are usually introverts. Their “performance” comes in solitude and they often struggle with public appearance. That is evident in my 25 years of teaching in Visual Arts and is in contrast with my wife’s experience as the acting teacher in Theatre. I am myself an introvert, which can be an awkward trait for a teacher. Nonetheless, a show of work is an invitation to a conversation and I think art of all kinds is an important conversation going on in the culture, although we may not be aware of that because of the formality of a museum or gallery in which we encounter it.

Robert Bly says a poem is a snapshot of the poet’s consciousness at that moment. Karl Jung says that an individual’s consciousness is connected back at its roots to the consciousness of the whole of humanity and eventually to Spirit. It seems then that a piece of art or a body of work is an attempt the artist makes to catch reflections that appear on the surface but that connect to deeper common threads, questions about who we are now, what beauty is and how it matters, whether we can create or find Meaning in a world that seems to thwart or deny it so consistently.

Posted in Issues of Culture, Looking | 3 Comments