Saturday, July 16, 2011

Art: Dead or Alive?

When it comes to art, many have wondered over time if there is anything new to say. The painter Delaroche is said to have looked at a Daguerreotype (the first successful photographic process) in the early 1800s and said, “From this day forward, painting is dead.” It’s a sentiment that has been repeated through every generation and art movement since. Actually “there’s nothing new under the sun” is a comment made in Ecclesiastes over 2000 years ago. So this quest to explore and find the "new" of life and the lament that it’s all been done before goes back pretty far.

Now 2000+ years later, history clearly shows that there continues to be new things to discover even when it appears as if its all been done. But what history also teaches us is that none of these "discoveries" and achievements satisfy that essential need that causes us to hunger for the “new” and we still are in a lament for it.

It’s this seemingly insatiable quest for the “new” that makes us wonder if painting and maybe even art itself has run its course and is lying on its own death bed. Today one of the louder, more notorious voices in art is Damien Hirst. Although not as dead as the critics may currently suggest, still he challenges us to wonder if art just might be. He took the “ready-made” and upped the ante by putting the “God-made” in the gallery for our viewing pleasure and shock. But even a butchered shark in formaldehyde is not enough to shock us into a new state of thinking for long and we remain dissatisfied. Maybe he is too. His most recent work is a series of paintings that have left the art critics confused and yawning with a “been there, done that” attitude to it all.

One artist friend recently commented…
"everything today is the same thing over and over but the sting is gone.... we can participate, but it’s as if we already know the outcome."

But I wonder if “the outcome” has ever been the point...we have always known the outcome. In the end, its death. Death is a given even for those of us who believe in life after death. We are born into a life where we always, already know the outcome. Art can’t simply be about getting to a new punchline because there is no new punchline to get to.

So what is it that we are hungering for? Maybe it’s not the question of our death that plagues us as much as why are we alive to begin with.

There are always new things to "discover" and "rediscover" about who we are as human beings. The universe as it's laid out today, as we have made it with all our technology, our mistakes, our triumphs, our global warming and cloning, our debt ceilings, fallen towers, heroic rescues, space missions and child soldiers...these are not our quests but rather the context in which we search for answers to questions we have always asked.

If art appears dead to us today maybe it’s because we’ve given up searching for real answers to possibly unanswerable questions. It turns out that the most relevant, shocking, transformative art happens when an artist expresses something real about the journey they are on. Somehow it affirms the journey we are on as well. Art that serves up some version of an answer may tickle our brain cells for a few minutes. But we quickly move on. But the piece that moves us into a deeper, wider exploration…that piece we come back to over and over...that’s the art that will never be dead.

I recently went to Monet's room at MoMA. There sits an expanse of color moving across the wall on three huge panels of canvas. It’s one of his last works done when he had mostly lost his eyesight. This is not a painting of the world as we know it, its a painting of the world as it could be known by an old man whose sight only grew deeper as he closed in on death.

Here before this oil painting, hung on a wall, many sat or stood, few spoke. By Monet living out his world of inner sight on canvas, he invites us into our own world of seeing. It was not an understanding of gardens we were seeking, nor a contemplation on oil technique. He beckons me to join him on this pilgrim journey through a mystery…his mystery...our mystery…

Art that invites us into the act of seeking our own answers will always feel fresh to us. Monet’s work always captures my spirit no matter how often I see it, because when I stand in front of it, I am reminded again of just how curious life is…waiting for me to explore. That kind of art will only die when I stop choosing to live.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Just Living


Earlier this week I was invited to do a "workshop" for an arts group meeting in a small town about half an hour out of Madison. Racing there after work I was regretting my agreeing to do it because I was in the middle of designing a website at work that was having problems. I was quite distracted and wished I could just stay focused on that problem.

I finally made it to this little town, by now dark outside, and instantly got caught up in the glow of all the Christmas lights. It was like entering a Dickens novel as it began to snow, quite picturesque. My mood began to soften.

Once I found the house, I was greeted by a lively woman who I later learned was 78. She had this small cottage-esque house that was like walking into a creative and cozy other-world. Everything was beautiful in a very organic, country way. The wooden floors covered in rugs, the windows with various patterned fabrics, art everywhere, capturing my eye and imagination.

Only four of us women came, many in the group were sick on this blistery winter evening. But four fit perfectly around the dining room table and we shared a meal and conversation. Everything became so calm and comfortable for me and I realized something very meaningful was happening...life...just life. No tasks were being left undone, no problems were unsolvable, nothing and no-one was irretrievable. We talked about heavy things actually, everyone sharing their own stories. But it wasn't in this, "the world is going to end" kind of way but more in this "here are our lives" sort of way.

After dinner we got out the wax and griddle, I did an intro into painting with wax...and then we just played. All of the women were artists themselves, so it was a delightful play as we all discovered the wax. Me included.

As I drove home I realized it was one of the best evenings I've had in awhile. There is something quite beautiful about just living, just moving to the flow of things. I spend alot of time in my design job racing up to a deadline, pressing through a challenge, learning new technologies 30 seconds before I need to implement them only to race on to the next new thing.

This evening reminded me once again to breath. Let go, sit back and let things move as they will.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Elevator Statement

I 'm getting a bit tired of elevator statements. Admitting this could get me in deep doo-doo at work, because we are all about distilling things into short, pithy statements, imagining we are racing up 30 floors in a small shaft with a valuable partner who wants to know what in the world we do.

But it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am not one for soundbites. (heads are nodding). Its not that I just have a hard time editing myself...its more that I like conversations that go back and forth. But then I also was one that enjoyed the long volley in volley ball game rather than the spike and the most rewarding tennis games were always the ones where my partner and I managed to keep returning the ball. So I have always preferred the "back and forth" more than the need for the slam dunk win.

I have a Twitter account but, much to the chagrin of my twittering friends, I rarely post. I just find it hard to think in 140 characters or less.

Now being professionally in the business of exploring new media and spending parts of every day exploring the social media net and participating in the virtual "public square," admitting this will probably not help my career. And I'm not suggesting anyone stop twittering. In fact I admire people who can get it all said in a sentence.

One person I deeply respect because of her brevity is Jenny Holzer...now there is someone who has made an art of the soundbite...literally. She is the queen "woman of a few words." When I found her on twitter I immediately followed. What a perfect medium for her! All the sudden Twitter made sense to me...I was somewhat disappointed to find out that someone was impersonating her and she had no such twitter account. Jenny! Why aren't you there yourself, sister....???

I personally don't think I'm totally alone on this need for more than 140 characters...which is why I think so many love blogging. Here's our chance to say our say and use as many words as it takes to say it. Of course I'm sure the longer the post the fewer people read it.

I recently wrote an article for on online magazine that got linked to someone's blog and then "read" by a friend I ran into in the real world. My friend made a point of saying she had seen the article and seemed very interested in it. I took this as an invitation to chat a little about the subject of the article only to find out she hadn't really read it ... it looked long, so it sat in her pile of things to read...but hey, it looked interesting. Well, I guess that's the risk of "having your say"....just because you say it doesn't mean anyone really is reading it....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tearing Up Books


"For their current exhibition, the ArtsTribe
artists engaged in the ultimate in bad-kid behavior: tearing pages out of books...." is the beginning of Lindsay Christians' review of our show in Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal.

It's of course a fun, tongue-in-cheek way to begin her article on our work but the show did create a bit of a buzz about the destruction of books. The first comment in our comment book, the first day was a critique on our destruction of books in order to make art. Later commentators in the book actually responded to that comment in our defense. It also came up in our artist talk as a question...

I had a hint of things to come when sharing with the artsTribe group early on, that I intended to take some pages out of the Bible and reassemble them with wax. Now, I was just thinking about the concept of our show which is "books" and the theme of the Wisconsin Book Fest that we opened in which was "beliefs." For me, since I have a relationship to the Bible as I sort out my own personal beliefs...it seemed appropriate to me. My concern was more on how to say something personal and honest around this bigger-than-life book of the ages.

The rest of the tribe looked at me and kind of gasped..."are you kidding? You can't tear up the Bible." It was not, I'm sure, the holy wrath of God anyone was concerned about as much as the reality of the now-iconic controversy of Serrano's "Piss Christ" coming to haunt us. And the fact that there was a guy in Florida who was currently threatening to burn the Koran and raising national ire added to the mix. Our simple little book show all the sudden was getting risky.

Of course that was before Tom decided to burn his favorite books and put them in jars and Jayne was only beginning to think of shredding a book and dunking it in water. Yes, definitely bad-child behaviour. We then proceeded to cut up dictionaries and just about any other book we could find....so....in the end, no one took much aim at my seven little Bible pages outside of seeing it as an interesting sculptural book-thing.

My piece was first titled "Through a Glass Dimly" and was going off the scripture in 1st Corinthians, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully..." I thought that embraced the mystery I find as I come to the Bible in as honest a way as I could think. For me its an awesome and terrible revelation of God and humanity while at the same time it is a deep and profoundly beautiful mystery.

So the wax, with its translucent film, hiding and revealing at the same time, became a metaphor of my own journey with this book. Some images and marks come out but only as nuances and hints, feelings and guttural experiences.

I later changed the name of the piece to "Faint Glimpses" because I did another book made of glass in the same show and it seemed confusing to call the decidedly not-glass piece, glass, when it was sitting right next to an actual glass piece.

The glass book called "Fleeting Memories" actually ended up relating to "Faint Glimpses," although I didn't make the connection until they were both done and in the gallery. "Fleeting Memories" is a book made up of seven thin sheets of glass that I dipped in wax. So they also have this translucent feel to them. I then wrote a journal entry on each waxed glass plate with a stylus–my private, stupid, profound rants on different days as I was making the book. I pushed paint into the etched words so, at one point, the words were quite legible. I then attacked each page with a heat gun. The color and the wax began to flow–the words coming apart, re-forming, dripping down and fading. To me, the vulnerability of the words was key. Where once they seemed so clear and organized, they reveal themselves finally in this fused state of ambiguity. It seemed like an appropriate way to describe the fragility of my own life-story. Not in a negative, falling-apart way but in this poetic dance-through-time sort of way that reveals the things you think are so understandable and solid one day can be so fluid and fleeting the next.

So as the book of my life, written in my own words, moves in and out of focus, so too, the ancient "book of life" has its own mysterious translucency to me. I realized, as I looked at these two pieces, that I'm vague in my understanding about alot things these days. And its funny, but that has brought a new type of clarity to my thinking.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fast Forward

So...clearly I didn't blog as much as I promised during my July adventure in Vancouver. To my credit though I did create a whole new blog while there called Nihonga Notes where I put up videos and notes on the process all through the class so the students and others could have something to refer to outside the class. So if you want to understand more about the actual process of painting with mineral pigments, take a look.

Ok...fast forward to the "now" in my life. We just took down the "Suspended Belief" installation that was up for just the four days of the Wisconsin Book Festival around the Overture Center for Performing Arts rotunda. The "we" would be artsTRIBE is a group of artists and friends I have hung out and exhibited with for the past five or so years.

We waxed and hung over 1000 pages from an old Oxford illustrated dictionary, turning them into these velvety translucent sheets. The theme of the book fest was "beliefs." As we talked, the dictionary seemed to be the one book that honored all beliefs with a kind of equality. Its also a book where we don't generally question its truth. Its the "verifyer" of our facts, you go to the dictionary when you want the final say on a spelling or a definition or usage question. So its the one book we all agree to believe. Its kind of strange to think about.

It was exciting to see the piece go up. We weren't sure if these cream-colored pages would be able to establish their own presence. But we were really happy with it when up. I loved how the pages gently fluttered and twisted. We hung them from very thin threads and the pages were light to begin with, so, with the movement of people and normal airflow, they moved and had this subtle kinetic thing happening.

It caused a bit of a buzz. We got quite a few positive comments. Thousands of people saw it during the four days it was up as the Overture Center was the hub of activity for not only the Wisconsin Book Fest but also for a Jazz Festival celebrating jazz legend Mary Lou Williams and also the exhibition space of over 140 area artists who were opening their studios up for the weekend during the Madison Area Open Studios event.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

On My Way


I spent most of the day en-route which mostly means hanging out at airports waiting. Airports are kind of weird in-between places. Everyone is on their way to someplace else, in transit, not where they were, not where they will soon be. We all come together in this assigned holding tank. For one small moment we create this bond based on our shared experience of "going someplace other than here." It lasts about as long as a slide down the moving walkway.

But in this fleeting moment, airports reveal themselves as the true global melting pot that they are. As I sit in Chicago O'hare, all kinds of people from all kinds of places around the world sit together, read papers, chat about their families and enjoy a Cinnabon. Cities are compared, politics discussed, and traveling stories embellished as we wait to get on with our lives.

And we more or less agree to set aside our differences. Its the other-worldliness of the airport. We are there to move onto our next destination, not to start a fight and somehow that calls a momentary truce to alot of local and international feuding.

I've never really seen a fight at an airport although there was a close call once when a frustrated passenger got riled with the security people throwing away some expensive hair product stashed in their carry-on. Security, though, is one of the biggest conversation starters. You never quite remember how equally frustrating and scary all this luggage checking and swipes with "the wand" feel until you are there once again...and then you just have to talk about it. "What's going on with our world," we ask each other as we exit the body scan. The real world of mistrust and disorder momentarily raises its head but we all seem equally confused by it.

And then we are on to our next destination, excited once again for the thing before us, on with our adventure, on with our life. Back to the real world and away from this pseudo-reality that seems to have its own mysterious ebb and flow. For me it was on to Vancouver to begin my adventure for the next few weeks hanging out making art.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Nihonga and Encaustic



I've been revisiting Nihonga as I have prepared for this class. For the past couple years I've been exploring Encaustic more....painting with wax. The beauty of Nihonga with the way light reflects off the mineral pigments gets lost when enveloped with wax so I wasn't seeing how to bring these two together.

Both techniques draw me in because they use light in such beautiful ways. I love the depth and the mystery that grows as the layers get built up. I think it speaks alot to the way life actually works...at least for me. Time is a series of layers, each adding is own pain and its own beauty.

I've started combining Nihonga and Encaustic lately though. The above painting is an example. I have to start out in Nihonga since its a water base process and won't work over the wax. But then I've come back into parts of it with the wax. (the blue areas are mostly wax) and it looks almost like it's submerged in liquid.

I'm beginning to work on a series of paintings for a show I'm doing with Julie Insun Youn at the Overture Center in Madison WI in January called Beauty for Ashes Her work also explores layers of meaning and what lies beneath the surface and we thought we would make a good show together. Beauty for Ashes is about mystery and deep spaces as well as transformation. We explore how pain and suffering as well as the mundane and common weaves through our lives and is able to be transformed into something intrinsically beautiful.

I packed my wax and hot plate and sent it up to Vancouver. I'm intending to explore the marriage of these two techniques more.