Sunday, October 22, 2006

Far Back and Afield

Returning to an earlier conversation about looking back and afield:

I receive several emails a day from e-Flux, a subscription service that sends out press releases for exhibitions all over the world. I get many I don't care about, but it's a great service because it's astounding how many exhibits are going on all of the time all over the place, plus it's the best way to be alerted to things I do care about but didn't know was happening. It's also the best way to read some of the most astoundingly asinine curator's statements with tremendous convenience. And it's also the best way to see who is hot, at least among curators- when you see Liam Gillick's name in at least one press release a week over a few months, you kind of wonder if he's really that great, or whether he's really cute or a great partier. I have no idea. Anyway, at the very least perhaps it's the art version of staring at the cover of People and Us while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Maybe almost a couple of months ago I received an announcement for a soon to open show called High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975. The press release says:

High Times, Hard Times not only captures a tumultuous period of political and social change, but also reflects the impact of the civil rights struggle, student and anti-war activism, and the beginnings of feminism in the art world. Painting is the one element usually left out of this complex narrative, remembered only as a regressive foil to the various new mediums. But this version of the story greatly oversimplifies the situation, effacing painting that earned a place among the most experimental work of the moment, very much in sympathy with the era’s radical aesthetics and politics...

Artists in Exhibition
Jo Baer, Lynda Benglis, Dan Christensen, Roy Colmer, Mary Corse, David Diao, Manny Farber, Louise Fishman, Guy Goodwin, Ron Gorchov, Harmony Hammond, Mary Heilmann, Ralph Humphrey, Jane Kaufman, Harriet Korman, Yayoi Kusama, Al Loving, Lee Lozano, Ree Morton, Elizabeth Murray, Joe Overstreet, Blinky Palermo, Cesar Paternosto, Howardena Pindell, Dorothea Rockburne, Carolee Schneemann, Alan Shields, Kenneth Showell, Joan Snyder, Lawrence Stafford, Pat Steir, Richard Tuttle, Richard Van Buren, Michael Venezia, Franz Erhard Walther, Jack Whitten and Peter Young.

I instantly ordered the catalog, and I'm glad I did.

In 1976 I was attending a local community college, trying to figure out if I was going to go into journalism or art. Or something else. The short story about that is that I just kept doing what interested me and I did the art thing. It was like it was never really a question. I just followed myself.

Dan Christensen: Pavo, 1968, Acrylic on canvas

I was a lousy student, and I still am, in the sense that I've never liked going to class, never liked the assignments, and have always learned best on my own, even if it takes my three times the amount of effort to learn something on my own. And I didn't want to learn about art by practicing perspective and making color charts. I liked drawing the figure, and I liked the studio classes because I could come late and leave early and do all of my work at home without anyone else around.

Once I discovered Abstract Expressionism, at age 18, and about twenty years too late, I found it hard to be engaged by much else except for the Bay Area figure painters like Diebenkorn and Park. But that's another story to tell, about how long it took me to not see art as a bunch of file drawers and a timeline, but rather as a large amoebic thing where painters from all eras have so much in common. And I had to figure that out on my own, too. But I did manage to figure out something about NY painting of the 60's and 70's, and it wasn't until I started thinking about High Times, Hard Times that I realize what an impact painting of that era had on me.

Somehow in that first year of college I figured out that the library had periodical stacks. I was already checking out books, but I didn't really know how to use a library and I didn't know anything about the treasure trove of material there. I can't recall how I figured it out, but I think I accidentally stumbled on the stacks while looking for one section in the library.


I did what lots of art students did (do they still?): when I discovered the back issues of art magazines I started poring over them- Artforum, Art in America, Arts, Art News, Studio International, Kunst. There must have been others. And I started from the present day working backwards. And then I figured something else out- lots of books and articles in magazines have footnotes. If I was reading an article about Frank Stella in Artforum that referenced a Donald Judd review of Stella in Artforum five years earlier I could go read that. It was like reading a dialog. Amazing.

Beginning with 1976, I started working backwards through the magazine into the mid-sixties, reading articles and reviews. And when I saw the press release for High Times, Hard Times it just hit me- I know all of those artists, I like that work, and come to think of it, much of that stuff has been pretty important to me, even up until today. Steir, Gorchov, Tuttle, Benglis, Fishman, Young, Baer, Palermo- I think about that stuff. Work that might seem less relevant to me- Pindell, Loving, Lozano, Christensen, Schneeman- no, no, that stuff is great. All of that had a great imprint on me, and it comes out of a very interesting period that the catalog for the exhibition makes clear- political unrest, drugs, music, civil rights, assassinations- these events are part of the landscape of my adolescence. These events have had a significant impact in shaping how I see the world and what I expect of it, and the art of this period included in this exhibition, which has been somewhat forgotten or ignored, has also had a similar hand in this.

I'm really happy that this work is getting another look now. I think much of what it deals with is still tremendously relevant, and probably still not fully digested and understood. And I'm really happy that these artists, some of whom have not been much in the public eye for sometime, are getting a second chance.

There is much more to say about this topic, How Far Back and How Far Afield Do I Look?- this is just a taste.

I've made 265 drawings this year as of today

I'm not really the sketchbook type. I start a sketchbook with the intention that, this time, I'm going to really take it seriously, really use it as a place to record ideas, develop motifs, think and track my development. But I go a few pages, set it aside, and then typically don't get back to it. I have lots of half-full sketchbooks going back years. I'm just not that organized, I guess.

I really admire, and envy, artists that work out their ideas in sketchbooks of notebooks. Some just record impressions, jot down titles, or keep their hand limber by constantly drawing. Some track their work, or work through and iterate ideas in an almost academic way. I recently visited an artist who actively uses a notebook in a way that it becomes almost a visual and written record of his inner life as a painter. Recently, I've been reading Pia Gottschaller Palermo: Inside His Images, and she examines some sketchbooks Blinky used to develop the series of paintings on aluminum, the final large body of work he was working on in the last couple of years of his life. They are impressive.

I was in Mauai a couple of weeks back for a few days, and I took a sketchbook with me and three pens- black, blue, and red. Late at night I scrawled a bunch of drawings continuing the motif I'd been using for the Bojagi and Ornette paintings, and I did a bunch more on the flight home. I keep meaning to get back to these, but since I've been home I haven't used the sketchbook except to scan all of the drawings and post two a day on my weblog.

I have posted on my weblog everyday since around 2002 (I think I missed five days in 2005, and have a perfect record so far in 2006). The weblog is my real sketchbook and notebook, the place where I record things that I don't mind being public. It is the only thing like a sketchbook that I have used consistently in my entire life, and it's something I find easy to do. I like the archive aspect of it, and that it's searchable, and the fact that it is public holds me accountable, at least to myself and my policy of posting something everyday. I have known for a very long time how integral my weblog is to my art life, or really, to my life life.

If I set for myself the project of posting not only an HTML drawing but a scanned drawing to my weblog I'm sure I would use a sketchbook religiously. Scanning and uploading an image takes more time, and I suppose that's why I haven't committed myself to that project, yet, but it is something I'm thinking about. I had thought recently that 2006 has not be a very productive year for me in terms of art, but then I counted in my head and realized I've made seventeen paintings, and two of those consisted of four panels each. Not bad, really. But I have not completed any works on paper- finished drawings- this year, which surprises me since so much of what I made during 2005 were drawings. Perhaps I need that drawing-a-day project. I respond to the project model.

I have lamented out loud a few times that I am not getting much work done. One friends reminds me, well, but what about the HTML drawings- you're making a drawing everyday. And I realize, yeah, that's right, why am I not counting those? Today, October 22, 2006, is day 265 of this year. That means I've made 265 drawings this year as of today. That's pretty good.

Saturday, October 7, 2006

In the Field

You ask how far afield I look, not just how far back.

Everyone has objects and images that resonate for them. These are some of the things that reverberate in the art I make (you won't see them in my art, but their vibrations are in there):
. Pieces of tile that I picked up on a beach on Ischia, worn smooth from the action of the waves. They've been on a small glass plate in my library for years, next to...
. an amateur postcard-size scene of the Faraglioni--the big rocks off the island of Capri that jut high up out of the water—which I picked up on my first trip to the island. An elderly grandmother was selling these little paintings, in oil on what looks like balsa wood, that were made by her grandson, an art student. Maybe that was a scam and I was a gullible tourist, but nonna or no, the woman had some resonant locals scenes to sell.
. That little scene is next to a small photograph I took of the interior of the Pantheon (the classic light-pouring-through-the-oculus image), which is next to a commedia dell'arte mask from Venice, from my first trip there in 1985 when the lira was so low in relation to the dollar that I, a poor painter, felt rich enough to buy objects to take home.

What these objects have in common, aside from being visually and tactilely interesting, is that I acquired them on my first trip to Italy in the early 80s. Every time I see them, which is almost every day, they remind me of the newness of the experience. It's easy to get jaded after living so many years and taking so many trips, and those little pieces remind me of the joy of seeing something for the first time, and by extension, the joy of seeing old things anew. And of course there's the sense memory of that time and place, so they're firing a lot of neurons for me.

(By the way, that light-pouring-through-the-oculus shot is very similar to the one on the cover of a new magazine, Culture and Travel, edited by Michael Boodro and directed by James Truman, both late of Conde Nast, and published in New York by the people who give us Modern Painters magazine. Have you seen it?)

I also have a collection of round vessels--pots and baskets from Mexico, South Africa and Thailand, on stands (set Brancusi-like, one interesting shape atop another) on carved Ghanian stands and tiny Chinese tables, and an American dovetailed oak box that probably held someone else's treasure. The interaction of each vessel on its stand, and the vessel/stand in relation to the others is endlessly interesting to me. When I see them, I also reconnect to a show of Brancusi sculpture I saw in Paris some 15 years ago at the Pompidou. You could get so close to the sculptures that your breath almost fell on them. Connecting to Brancusi always makes me think of how how this artist, wanting to be in Paris to make art but having no money for travel, walked there from Romania. Walked! And a little bit of that burning desire is kindled in me when I see my vessels on their stands.

Mostly, though, I don't own the things that reverberate. In my previous post I talked about quilts and baskets along with some specific paintings from other times and places. I don’t like to get too caught up in the high-low of esthetic expression, especially considering that the "low" is often work made by women.

What do I get out of it? Well, there's the cultural connectedness I feel to humanity--the same impulse that I have to smear pigmented goo on a prepared surface was felt by the cave painters right around the time of, oh, the discovery of fire.

And then there are purely sensory experiences make my life richer. When I go to another city on business, what I do is look at art, because that’s my business. When I go on vacation, I look at art beause that’s my pleasure. Indeed my business and my pleasure are so intertwined that there is no distinction between them, at least in terms of seeing. One thing I can say is that the act of seeing is surrounded by other equally strong sensory perceptions. When I’m walking to the Louvre, I might notice the light at the end of the day; or entering the Accademia in Venice, I might notice the humidity in the air. At the Museo Archeologico in Naples, one of my favorite museums, I enter looking for the statue I love most in the world, knowing I will sit quietly with it for a while, connecting with it in a spiritual way, and then go eat pizza—the authentic stuff— afterward in Spaccanapoli, the old part of town, and then sit in the quiet Cloister of Santa Chiara.

Diana of Ephesis (aka Ma Rhea, aka Diana the Hunter, aka Artemis) personification of strength, creation, life, who was worshipped in Asia Minor before the Christian era. She entered the Christian religion as Mary. She is life size, just under six feet tall, carved of pinkish alabaster, with a cast bronze head and hands. In the folds of her gown she carries animals. On her torso she is weighted down with multiple breasts, though her ethereal presence makes her appear as if she is levitating. Museo Archeologico, Napoli.

So aside from the pleasure of seeing, what I get out of looking at paintings, or art in general, is a general sense of sensory well being—emotion, spirituality, smell, taste, all tied up with what I have seen, where I have been, who I am. And, I don’t know if this is true for "civilian" tourists, but as an artist, the act of taking pictures, and seeing through the lens and recording what I have seen—and lately, Photoshopping what I have shot-- deepens the sensory experience.

Am I an artist because I am a sensory junkie? Isn't that why people get addicted to drugs--because the high is so great, and then their bodies become so dependent on the high that they need the drug just to stay normal? Or am I a sensory junkie because I'm an artist? Maybe we can talk about this topic more in a bit.

But in the meantime, talk to me more about seeing far and wide.