Sunday, December 30, 2007

resisting paint

I had a back-and-forth, restless time in becoming a painter. While loving color and pigment, I still resisted its dominance, spending most of my time making fanzines, windows and works with found objects. Looking at gorgeous painting was a double-edged sword, too, because really great painting can humiliate as well as inspire.

Monday, 25 January 1985
I study a lot of painting now and it looks so difficult. Yesterday Luke and I were at the De Young Museum. I spied the Robert Henri. This work, plus a few others, I stared at a long time.
- Then at night I was reading about Moholy-Nagy. Feininger wrote his wife: “All this talk about mechanics, light and motion and throwing the Old Painting away. Poor Klee is worried.” Frustrated Klee might have been, but he probably wasn’t that worried. Klee was such a master. Still, I feel for Moholy’s idea. There’s a part of me that hates the idea of painting, a framed thing on the wall to go oooo and ahhh over.”

It’s odd to read this now, after all these years and all this painting. But maybe that is why I have never framed anything – and still have, to this day, a complex relationship to paint. The past few years I thought it was all about money, but maybe it’s something else.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

the practice

Roberta Smith has an interesting article up on the words of the art world. The word practice is one I’ve had some trouble with, so I was glad to read what she had to say about it.

I’m with her: I don’t practice art. I live it and not just when I am in my studio. In fact, the studio really just gets the tail-end, a summation/execution of an ongoing activity, and one without end.

The word practice does give what an artist does this sense of authority and academic absolution, as she points out. I think that’s another reason I’ve become uncomfortable with it. It doesn’t describe at all what an artist is doing. Art is not something you do in your studio. It is not something I worked on yesterday afternoon from 2 to 6pm.

Perhaps my old neighbor said it best. We grew up together but I hadn’t seen her in years, decades. She had the great wisdom to define what I became better than I could. She was a nuclear physicist too! But she said: “When I leave my job, it’s over. But you are always an artist.”

Recently I had the word in this piece of fiction I am writing and it felt a little odd, without really knowing why - until I read Roberta Smith. The story takes place in the underground art scene of 25 years ago and that word wasn’t tossed around like that then. It did not feel authentic and now I know why. It’s a term I have adopted like just about everyone else, but I’m done now.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

scenes from a movie

I did not see It’s a Wonderful Life until I was a working woman in my 30s in New York City. I was actually a little shocked at the story and initially vaguely disappointed. Why? Because it seemed tragic that George Bailey never got out of Dodge to be the architect he wanted to be. While most cheered the superdad and heroic businessman, I related to the frustrated artist.

He’s got dreams, visions and they're never going to happen. Yet no one seems to care about those, but more about whatever he can do for them that day or year.

By now certain scenes are emblazoned into my mind. That pivotal moment at the train station when he is told that his brother has married – the slightly out of focus lens pans around him as his dreams come crashing down. You can read it all in his eyes. It is a terrible, awesome moment.

People get offended if you look at the film in this way. They see it as a sweet family movie. If you are not seeing the pain George feels when he sweeps away those architectural models, then you are missing a key ingredient in this film. It is this which leads him to the bridge to contemplate suicide, not just the lack of money.

Most of my favorite scenes are truly that – just set design. The streets in snow, the starry sky from which Clarence comes, the honky-tonk Pottersville at night, the pharmacy, the architectural models swept away in his breakdown, the crashed car, the graveyard, the savings and loan, the raven – and most of all, the bridge where he contemplates taking his life.

Someday I want to make a body of work around it; I don’t know whether it will be photomontage or painting. Of course photography is more to the point, but a limited palette in paint is actually interesting, and so is architecture.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bing Crosby/ Richard Hamilton

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, 1967

Last night I watched White Christmas. Ever since I studied with Luigi, a master of jazz dance in New York City who also danced in this movie, I see the film with a special interest. I always look for my dance mentor.

But it’s been ten years since I danced with Luigi everyday. After all that viewing, the film took on various other meanings and I started looking at Holiday Inn as well. What really hit me last night was Bing.

I saw the moment of the famous Richard Hamilton piece (of which there are several versions). Bing has his hat and jacket on, he’s about ready to leave. There are those downcast eyes and the subtle smile. And I saw in that moment the Hamiltons I stared at repeatedly during my years in London in the 70s. The only thing I could compare the experience to would be seeing a still of Marilyn or Jackie in its original context after seeing a lot of Warhol.

“You finally got Bing,” said my film freak friend. Actually I have read that Bing was the first hip white person in America and I’m not even sure what all that means. I know he was the number one superstar of the late 30s and early 40s.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

the hunger

A friend of mine has been working more in teaching, involved with her art peers, a longtime dream. She told me, however, that she finds herself editing her life more and more. She mentioned selling shoes to someone the other day and they looked at her with a very measured skipped beat, as though she was divulging her leprosy.

Odd too, because at least in theory, we are often poised to take an interest in social issues, in the working class and even life of the streets - there's a great respect for art about life's dirty experiences. Just don't have any! Or if you do, don't talk about it. I know a little bit about this - when I told people how I was a maid at Portland's very own Hilton Hotel, you could almost feel the squirm. Yeah, that's right, cleaning 16 toilets a day. Imagine artists doing that.

Since my friend has had some times at the school of hard knocks, she's not all that interested in making art about them. No need to go there for street cred, that’s for sure. The elevated vision, a heroic vision, a pitch for beauty - is one that she fought tooth and nail for, just to get a glimpse at.

- Not to say that she’s not concerned about hunger, jail, suicide, domestic violence, alcohol abuse; maybe indeed a little too familiar. So much so that some of the trafficking in said territory by her art peers often looks a lot like, well, tourists. They did not grow up with it. It’s not a part of their interior view.

That still doesn’t bug her, as long as they don’t put their let’s-starve adoption on her or judge her work by that particular hunger. Some actually see fluff in beauty, can you believe that? In her case, the surface has a complex substance. Perhaps they believe it is predictable somehow, or a white man’s game. Wrong. It is possibly the game of those who did not grow up with food in the house.

I’m not saying that those of us who grew up hungry will never make art about it. But I do think it’s no accident that we like champagne (not PBR) and want to make beautiful things.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

his breakdown

I am still speeding along with Eugene Witla, who, after his breakthrough has a breakdown. His health, both physical and mental, is falling apart. He cracks under the pressure to be a genius.

And what mends him? Work. Regular labor in the salt mines, you might say. By watching and working with the masses, he slowly comes back to his senses. He decides to sketch one day and his working class mates are deeply impressed. He’s an artist! Slowly Eugene comes back to some idea of his old self by being back with the world, not just the art world.

Of course Dreiser doesn’t write it out quite like that. The journey is one thick book filled with innuendoes. But I recognize this bit of the journey because I, too, have sometimes cracked under the specialized, beautiful, elite but be-damned-pressure of the glorious art world. And I also I know what it is like for someone to stare at whatever I was drawing, while we’re on the time clock and muse gee, you really are an artist. What the hell are you doing here?

From there, Eugene is back on his way. He climbs a mean streak of one art director job after another, until he is running a publishing house – a huge empire, moneyed, full of beautiful and talented women, the best wines and country houses, the fast lane and fast cars.

His wife misses her artist though. She thinks he will someday return to making those big paintings which made everyone think he was a genius, instead of the very clever ad man he’s become. She brings it up, says she is saving money so he can go back to being an artist.

But Eugene wants nothing to do with that. He says the starving was just not all that interesting to him! - I think it’s more than that. The pressure to make brilliant art under big expectations and with no money was bigger than any advertising house.

Friday, December 14, 2007


I attended a holiday studio sale where I met an artist who does portraits, mostly self-portraits. He is also a damn good illustrator, with a style a little reminiscent of the 1930s and 40s (not a bad thing in my book). He also had some constructions around which were sources of aggravation to his teacher, he said, and were torn apart at his critiques. He stopped going in that direction.

I wonder about things like that. I wonder because there’s no guarantee about who’s “right.” His Prof said “That’s over” – that style or medium (maybe both), but is that really true? Couldn't it be more a matter of working on something until you make it your own? Why would, say, painting and drawing not be “over,” still be valid, but not assemblage?

No doubt the things screamed “Ed and Nancy” all over them, but so what? No one starts at XYZ. You start at the beginning and it looks like what came before it.

When I hear things like that, of artists abandoning entire practices based on a class, it startles me. Prejudices get projected. In my own time, I have had very confident, authoritive verdicts assailed my way, only to find out that however certain they were - they were wrong!

If a teacher is free and clear of their own issues, or can at least put them aside, great. If they are steamrolling down the luxurious highway of art making, with perceived kudos at the finish line, they should be able to afford generosity. But when they attack entire mediums and styles, it’s like withholding love. It’s easy to forget that all quality is held in conditions; nothing is without context. What else are we not seeing because it does not meet current fashion and prescribed methods?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

subjective vs objective

Joseph Cornell has a retrospective in SF right now and so I have been reading about him here and there. He seems to be the favorite collage artist, if people tempt to name one. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of his work. While living in San Francisco in the 80s, I saw a nice Cornell box show at Acme Art, run by Richard Polsky.

Then of course there are the fine works at the MOMA. They almost startled me when I first saw them - because I had studied them so much in books and there they were finally. I saw them in winter and to this day, I associate Cornell with the cold. - And the white: perhaps the show to really blow me away was a collection of works all in white by him at Pace. This must have been around 1990 – every work was almost nothing but crackled white paint – pretty impressive.

However. Since then I have come across a million – yes, it seems like a million – artists who use a bird in a box as a launch-pad. It’s very tempting to use an ethereal night-sky in a collage (I’m as guilty as anyone), but much more difficult to make it your own. Of course Joseph Cornell doesn’t own the sky – in fact maybe Max Ernst (below), a more sweeping, exhaustive artist, beat him to it – but it is the challenge of any collage artist to make the methods and materials and images their own. It must speak to his great talent and ownership of imagery, for what I see way too often is that many artists haven’t bothered to do that.

Perhaps I would not be so aware of the million artists if it were not for the Internet. You might think you know one or two (or ten!) artists who think like Cornell, till you get online. For me this exposure has somehow weakened his punch a bit.

It made me think just how easy (or not) it is to copy someone. If you have all the basic ingredients, it’s not that difficult. The proof is out there unfortunately. And this is just another reason why I always keep going back to John Heartfield. Try copying him – it ain’t easy.

The only people who are up to those skills (of shooting their own pictures, resizing, airbrushing, etc) are using a computer - and are probably working on fashion or vodka ads. Technically the work is very unique. It is also peerless in terms of risk.

Years ago I had a fun discussion with a mastermind about subjective vs objective art. At this time, I knew a lot of creative people who stated they preferred a political art. They had a rampant repulsion towards things spiritual, you might say, a reaction against the prevailing new ageism of California at that time. I contended to the mastermind that subjective artists could make some really good art.

“Yes, good art,” he conceded. “But not the greatest art. That’s left for objective artists.” He meant artists like Malevich or Mondrian - and probably Joseph Cornell. - I could not have brought up the inimitable work of Heartfield then, for many reasons. Masterminds need to be always right! But like I said, in retrospect, I think his inimitable qualities speak for themselves.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Claude Zervas

Artdish turned me on to this blog, Hairtonic. If you need Miami, this is it. Great commentary. (Great artist too.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

contest winner

To my question Where are You, we have a winner. All the way from Carbondale, Illusion I received some great mail art from a very famous mail artist, Richard Canard. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

his breakthrough

So much for having no curiosity, or not caring about a story, etc. I have now reached the stage in the novel in which Eugene Witla, the “Genius,” has an art dealer over to see his work. Over the past few years he’s scrapped by as an illustrator, but has slowly built up a body of work – 26 oil paintings.

There are all these negatives in front of him: it will cost way too much, even if the dealer likes it at all. And it is unlikely that they will like it, they are already overbooked and overcommitted, etc., etc.

We all, to some degree, know this moment of holding your breath and taking on what looks like a bleak situation. But you’re an artist and you live on dreams and so, you have no choice.

And then comes this gorgeous flood of encouragement, that the work is singular, that there’s nothing quite like it, that you have a great future. “…I will call them to the attention of those who know. I will speak to those who buy. It is an honor, I assure you, to do this. For you are an artist in every sense of the word – I might say a great artist.”

The waters are parting. Eugene can hardly hear it, can hardly believe it. In plain fashion, he can only manage to say yes, he thought they might be good. But his new wife feels and expresses enough for both of them. Tears welled to her eyes as the dealer catches them. By this time I was crying too.

thank you

How nice it was this morning to see that both PORT and Dangerous chunky had featured my exhibition along with Michael Brophy's. It is an honor just to be there on the same webpages.

Check out the install shots Carolyn Zick has up at Flicker.

I hope my aim of perfection within imperfection is clear. Like growing a forest - 44 trees of the same species in the same year, no two alike. But what I really grew was the landscape. Tonight is the preview, if you are downtown.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

the "Genius"

In my search to read about women artists in fiction, I was reminded about The "Genius" by Theodore Dreiser and decided to read it again. The reason being that the story is littered with women artists, people the main protagonist – the “Genius” – either befriends or beds.

I think the quotation marks around the word are craftily used, because he’s a small town youth like just about any other when we first meet him. He’s got a long way to go when he arrives in New York. But he has a very handy way of using people to get what he wants and in this regard, the book is spot-on. The language of Dreiser was always spare, too, cut with a knife.

Dreiser knows his women too, though they are depressingly expressed as over the hill, having missed their chances by so much parental protection, coddled, unfulfilled. Still, they are the ones who give Eugene most of his knowledge about the ways of the world, where to go in NYC, who is who and what is what. He even thinks that his real education came from a woman artist (over the hill at thirty, but totally essential otherwise), not the Chicago Art Institute.

- I fully expected to be completely engrossed again, like I was last time I read it - I remember loving Dreiser - but maybe I know this story a little too well by now. And I don't mean as fiction!

I must have been in love with young men like him once (er, more than once - ?). It's odd how the type was once so attractive to me and now I am strangely not curious as to how the story will turn out. But it is sort of like an assignment and I will not bail.

Everyone is crazy about Eugene, all the girls are wild for him. He's got everyone snowed. He goes through one after another without a thought to who gets affected. They are all to be used and to feed his appetite, which is painted as naive. But I think the book is very accurate in how he ultimately comes off as a narcissist - without of course the need for any analysis, because what else would an artist be...?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

the inevitable truth

Bruce Guenther was the moderator at the Avant Blog panel the other night. At one point he observed that some blogs were the personal view, developed out of the feminist-journaling tradition. This thread was not expanded upon but I’ve thought about it ever since.

Basically, this tradition comprises of saying things to yourself that you cannot say elsewhere. And we are not just talking snarking or bitching here! Some of it is art dreams, goals, visions, invalidated responses. It’s like you finally have your delayed response – next day, next year - or twenty years later. I’ve got 136 notebooks full of ‘em.

Many are filled with conversations, a record of what was said. But much more of it is a record of what was not said. I am blown away at how much can stay inevitably on the back burner, rumbling.

In a way, art is like this. If you keep track of it all, the interests and ideas, they resurface time and time again and will force themselves out eventually. One artist in an interview had said that she was not wild at how students wanted to rush to “a conclusion.” I agree that there is no need to rush - without the dramas and twists and turns, life would be dull.

But it is amazing to me how many truths were inevitable and you couldn’t beat them out of me if you tried. And lord knows some tried. Some things that you want to do are not about want at all – they are like inherit factors in your DNA. This is not just about content either; it goes for aesthetics too.