I will be showing a series of new paintings at Cleveland's William Busta Gallery in March 2011. For the last several years, I have been working almost exclusively on paper, and a recent shift to working on linen has opened up exciting new territory for me. I look back at my student days in the early 1990s at the UW-Madison and my training in painting, and remember the delight of pushing the oil paint across the canvas, letting the materials speak for themselves as the lines blurred between abstraction and narrative. However, the delight in the materiality of oil paint on canvas was overshadowed by an idealism and the flames fanned in me through studies of history and popular culture.
A history department seminar on popular culture, led by Professor Rudy Koshar, introduced me to Greil Marcus' book, Lipstick Traces, and his approach of interpreting history by linking significant moments in time. Rather than a traditional linear and chronological view of history, Marcus took the event of a late 1970s Sex Pistols concert as the launching point for his research and recording of what he felt might be similar moments in time, ones that challenged the establishment, and or status quo, and altered the ways in which culture may be defined. My introduction to Marcus' line of research, and to my other studies of early American history, and 20th century European history during this time made my head swim, and also made me feel that my art-making practices were impotent compared to the power of ideas.
I stopped making work seriously for a couple of years - ideas had won out over image-making. Once my idealist flames cooled a bit and I learned to appreciate theory along with practice, I started to sketch again. Reconciling with the fact that art (at least in the U.S.) is most likely not going to be a catalyst for change, I turned to drawing and relief printmaking, and let myself simply enjoy the process of making. I intentionally chose materials that I considered accessible and egalitarian - paper and wood - and I rejected what I thought of as the austere materials associated with the historical tradition of oil painting.
I continued to impose additional parameters on my work, using simple materials such as graphite and marker on paper, and developing an increasingly reductive visual language. For me, these years of practice felt like the "wax on, wax off" methods of the master's teachings in the movie, Karate Kid.
I felt like I had literally drawn myself into a corner, and in reaction to this, I turned to a practice of automatic drawing full of color with an ongoing series, Field Notes. I stretched a few canvases and it felt great. Recent drawings and paintings are the result of the discipline of my earlier practice, yet they speak more directly to my interest in chance and in evoking an essence of transformation, or the passage of time. For me, it is important that my work begins to better reflect the energy and intensity that I associate with the culmination of experiences, including traveling, looking at great art that inspires me, reading the newspaper, listening to music, discussing politics, researching water resources, living abroad, and on and on. My practice and process, like jazz improvisation, builds on a foundation of discipline, draws on many sources of inspiration, and excites me with its potentiality.
I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on art making in the 21st Century. Joining me were artists Tom Bartel, assistant professor at Ohio University in Athens; Diana al-Hadid, sculptor based in Brooklyn, NY; Margo Crutchfield, adjunct curator at MOCA - Cleveland; and moderated by Kent, Ohio-based artist, Scott Olson.
I looked forward to engaging in a dialogue with three professionals who had successful careers in the arts. We had forged different paths, and we had all found interesting opportunities in our chosen communities - chief curatorial position with a dynamic contemporary art organization, professorial appointments in institutions of higher learning, artistic opportunities in high profile galleries, and artistic opportunities and arts advocacy roles in a mid-tier city. Scott Olson provided us with challenging questions a few days beforehand, and for me, these questions jump-started my efforts to really think about what is relevant to contemporary art in our current time.
Crutchfield launched the discussion by showing a series of images that illustrated the wide variety of materials used by artists in the last few years. These images included the works of several artists using paper in unique ways. Other artists were cited for their use of non-traditional materials including hair pomade; enamel on vellum; DIY materials such as foam, cardboard and plywood; sound artists using vintage analog equipment. It was an interesting way to point out what might capture the attention of curators and gallerists looking for fresh new art, by fresh new faces coming out of the higher-profile MFA programs in the U.S.
I'm also inspired by the uninhibited use of non-traditional materials, especially when it is done extremely well, and drives home a broader conceptual idea that the artist is contemplating. I myself, up until recently, worked exclusively with paper, mounting exhibits of room-scale drawings, working on mylar, and collaborating in a sound art installation with a classical composer. However, I also see many of these works as temporal, as throwaway objects that are not intrinsically stable, with extremely limited shelf lives. For me, that can add to an object's beauty, knowing that it will crumble and disappear within my lifetime. What I see as a more important shift is that often, these art forms make for amazing and alluring digital images. What intrigues me is the shift from the importance of the quality of the art object itself, to the more-important impact of an art object as a digital image - one that can be captured and disseminated rapid-fire on the internet.
I'm waiting for the backlash. It reminds me of the early 1990s when Pavarotti was caught lip-sinking a performance in London. Maybe the general public didn't care that much, but the true appreciators of the art form of opera went up in arms. Often times, the hap-dash DIY qualities of some contemporary art, when viewed up close and in person, unabashedly acknowledge its crude, theater prop-like qualities. This interests me, and with a cynical chuckle, I think it's an authentic reflection of the values of our consumer culture. However, during a recent conversation with a respected gallerist in Los Angeles, he questioned whether some of these curatorial choices will be able to be justified twenty years from now as we look back at our current time. He wasn't overly confident.
In the meantime, I'm going to work on paintings - and they feel good to be around. I hope you get to see one in person.(untitled, 2010, oil and acrylic on linen, 34"h x 43"w)
I will be participating in a panel discussion on art-making in the 21st Century on Saturday, January 15 at 1:30 p.m. at Kent State University's School of Art. Joining the discussion will be Diana al-Hadid (artist), Tom Bartel (artist), Margo Crutchfield (former chief curator and current adjunct curator, MOCA Cleveland) and moderated by artist and KSU instructor, Scott Olson.Here's one of my recent 21st Century paintings (Crossing, oil and acrylic on linen, 2011). >> Previous Next <<