Monday, April 9, 2012


I had planned to go to the studio yesterday but instead got side tracked into working in sketchbooks; spending time cutting things out, gluing, arranging, painting, wondering, reading from time to time, eating, taking a nap and before I knew it, twas too late. I know when the time is right and more when it is wrong, wrong after a certain hour because haste becomes the subconscious driver, for me that is never good.

During the day, thoughts about recent conversations with a colleague about art and work, work in this case being on our art, not labor to earn a living, came to my mind. Why the distinction between labor and work? The confluence of several themes, not related to my art practice but dominant within the greater industrial arts complex came towards one another and when I ‘bounced’ out of bed this morning, they had met. Even without the first cup of coffee the confluence of these micro events was being built into an edifice and a structure, which I needed to get down on digital paper.

Now the occasional reader may ask, why do I bother to acknowledge this minutia, why not get to the heart of the matter? Well I write this more as a conversation with myself somewhat; conversational is of interest, not lecturing or brow beating. The minutia is a way of marking thought and place and the background is the soil of life lived practical experience, which has helped form and sometimes focus my thoughts.

This is in contrast to what will follow.

I’ve mentioned previously that I studied zoology with an interest in animal behavior, besides that though I minored in Philosophy and received a somewhat practical liberal arts degree. I’ve kept only a few text books from those college years: “Food Production and Its Consequences” by Philip E. L. Smith, “Population, Evolution and Birth Control” assembled by Garrett Hardin, “Invertebrate Zoology” by Robert D. Barnes, “Earth” by Frank Press and Raymond Siever and finally the one book that I still bring up in conversation and will do so now, “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” by Karl Marx.

One of the hallmarks of today’s successful artist is that they actually don’t make anything, save for the occasional old fart like Terry Winters. I say old fart, as I am one too although not quite as “old”. It is common knowledge that Damien, Jeff and a litany of others never get their hands dirty. Hey neither did Donald Judd and even in the days of long old, works were fabricated by assistants and the master would come in to touch it up. But the level of involvement by artists in the conception, fabrication and production of their work has gotten to an all time high or low depending on your preferred nomenclature, it is as if, to actually physically interact with your ideas made material is retardataire.

I know for a fact of an artist who had a late mid career retrospective in France who exhibited more than a small handful of working drawings for sculptures and the actual sculptures, these sculptures along with the drawings were conceived, fabricated from low unto high by the assistant and the artist came in to later sign and back date the working drawings. This artist never chose materials, colors, size, anything! Wow, must be good to be the king, or queen in this case.

What does this have to do with good old Karl, well relax, I’m not going to go into some long winded theoretical monologue about capital, just a few quotes as food for thought.

From Estranged Labor

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.

In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.

The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.

Hence within the relationship of estranged labor each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the relationship in which he finds himself as a worker.

||XXV| We took our departure from a fact of political economy – the estrangement of the worker and his production. We have formulated this fact in conceptual terms as estranged, alienated labor. We have analyzed this concept – hence analyzing merely a fact of political economy.

Let us now see, further, how the concept of estranged, alienated labor must express and present itself in real life.

If the product of labor is alien to me, if it confronts me as an alien power, to whom, then, does it belong?

To a being other than myself.

Who is this being?

All italics are in the original and the bold mine.

I knew an artist, a now well known artist, Hugo Boss winner and the like, before he became a hot tomato. We worked together, work as in labor, and I also worked with him on a few of his projects, I appeared in a video of his and performed in several of his performance works. He was complaining one day about how he felt constrained by his gallerists and was tired of making his “thing”, his brand. My thought upon hearing that was that he was estranged from his own practice, I knew he did not have a studio and was working only through ideas. Hey ideas are great, they are necessary and a lot of work suffers because it is thin on ideas. We have two extremes, work that is idea less and the other, all ideas and no praxis.

The studio practice for me has been an invaluable laboratory to conduct R & D. I get an idea into my head and make it in the studio into a tangible physical structure but along the way, as I work, as I struggle, as I play, other ideas form on seemingly their own accord, almost independent of me. I see how a material operates with another, a color against another, a form or picture in struggle and the work hints at me, sometimes yells at me, do this, do this!

In this dance and in the learning over the years about the physical nature and limits of my materials I have been transported to a place I could never have imagined being. That trip has been of utmost importance, it has allowed me to become aware of my potential. Only in the working within this physical realm could I have gotten there. Ideas lead to other ideas but if they just are of the mind they tend in my opinion to wither in potency. We do not live just in our heads but inhabit a body, in fact the head is just a part and extension of the body.

The body knows itself and comes into being by its interaction with the physical world, not just human to human contact but actually knowing and understanding the materials. A great chef knows the freshness of their food, if it isn’t fresh they know how to dress it the best way possible. A lot of great recipes and sauces were invented to mask the severe lack of freshness, more like rot and how did they arrive at this? By taking the time to interact with it, to play with it and with the accumulative life experience of the kitchen they know which spice or other thing will punch it up.

Food isn’t theoretical, it is real. We share food, we share our meals and we converse, sometimes over a good bottle of wine about the food and life. Food is a necessary staple but also a gift that we share as SOCIAL ANIMALS. And I dare say, art is a similar thing but now we are inundated with recipes for art and not the actual meal itself.

Another river that came into confluence was regarding young internet artists or artists who use the web and social networking as their meme. Upon reading some of what I would say are amateurish manifestos, more of the same cynicism and recipe art with the real goal being getting attention and being taken seriously was the constant theme of “Branding”.

The problem with Branding is that it circles the wagons and says this is it, this is our stand, this is mine. In fact there was this kind of generational ax to grind, as this is ours and you can’t touch or have it. No community meal there, no desire to share, no desire to give. Branding means coming up with a commodity and a tagline, branding is death incarnate, it is the death in the guise of individual expression that denies the social aspect of sharing and the ability, one would hope of personal evolution and hopefully larger social political engagement with the great ills we face. This is the great irony of the social network, the individual branding has shown a lot of the same unquestioning mindset, visual lack of appeal and more banal SAMENESS. Branding in their terms was said in complete seriousness and lack of irony. I’ve had it up to here with irony but branding in today’s culture needs a good solid whack down.

There is much to be thought about in regards to how the internet is changing our way of communicating to one another, it is as shattering as the printing press, but this was/is not it, just old conceptual ideas in new window dressing.

It was and is to my mind the continued infantilization of culture, more so here in the United States. Where else can the 40’s be the new 30’s? If that is so, the the 20’s are the new teens and interesting as adolescents are in their rebellion, most want to be loved.

Maybe more later, now it is time to go to the lab.

Friday, April 6, 2012


A lot is written about the market in regards to art and somewhat deservedly so, however, the market for art has been around since the Dutch Golden Age in various forms and guises. Previously to the artist being unmoored from the patronage of Church, Royalty or the Political elite, well you had the Church, Royalty and the elite supporting artists and those artists had to work within confines of subject matter and materials, a certain amount of lapis lazuli might be required, etc.

With the Dutch Republic came the artist out marketing his talents. If you were Vermeer you were a minor painter; Hals, Rembrandt and others painted the Burghers, the New Wealthy middle class and you had a beginning to what we now call genre painting, landscape, still life et al.

Come the French and the Industrial revolutions and traditional patronage is shattered. You have Courbet and Manet setting up their own exhibitions outside of the official salon (the original DIY?) and others, the Salons of the Impressionists, the Independents, etc. etc., all vying for attention and all hoping to sell their wares and make a living. Reading the accounts, letters and various journals, correspondence and fictional accounts from that time illustrates that it was not an easy time for artists if you were not officially sanctioned and deemed of import.

I touched briefly on this in current obsessions.

What distinguishes today’s market versus those of the not so distant past, is that there seems to be no valid cultural ambitions or artistic motivations that, at least for me, address the concerns of art as a vehicle of personal or cultural import.

We no longer have the shadow of movements, for better or worse. Me, I am ambivalent about movements, maybe even hostile. Ab Ex, Pop, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Body Politic, Earth Art, blah blah blah. Each one of those “movements” has some wonderful and amazing stuff and more than a fair amount of dreck.

Arts importance is gone, if it was really ever there to begin with, as far as the general public is concerned. Before the time of absolute visual gluttony, artists worked on a variety of levels. Painting of course but also doing what we now call design work for festivals, coronations, engineering, what ever was needed in regards to visual production.

The advent of the printing press and cheap forms of photographic reproduction with offset printing and then the growth through technology of film, television and now video cameras and cheap gear galore has completely “democratized” production.

But this democratization hasn’t raised standards, the ‘standards’ that were, dropped dramatically. Look at the amount of tumblr’s, youtube videos and the incredible variety of blogs (perhaps mine included) and then add to that the array of illiterate comments, especially in political blogs and you can see for yourself that we live with a lot of trite shit that looks, smells and voices the same. If I had a nickel for every young person I’ve met over the last ten years who was in marketing or branding, well I would be living on the coast of southern France.

But back to the Market…
When the last gasp of Post-Modern societal critique was exhausted in the 90’s so was the death of ‘movements.’ And with the death of movements, which for the most part are or were attempts to codify or “Brand” a certain way of thinking or visual style, the art world at large, the galleries, the museums and sadly to say a lot of artists were free to address what their prime concern was, MONEY.

Is it any wonder that we have so much tired, lame, poorly conceived and for the most part visual literature or illustration, if one can be so bold to call it “literature” more like some trashy beach read, bad visuals for poor uninformed thinking, exists?

The last bastion of this is the repeated ad nauseam “Institutional Critique”, because that is all they have left in their arsenal to prove their cultural worth, when at the end of the day, the art fairs, the biennials, the triennials, the documentas, etc. all they provide is the circus, just like the official salons of 19th century France.

As an artist, who, partial disclosure, was briefly active in that circus I say BOLLOCKS. Is it depressing at times? Certainly. Does it affect my studio practice? NO.

The point of art is to be art and what we have passing officially as art is nothing but window dressing, hence Meissonier, one of the most celebrated and financially successful artists of the 19th century, whither him now?

Same as it ever was.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wow - the Beginning

I’ve been looking at art since I was a little kid and drawing since I could hold a pencil. I drew voraciously everyday until 7th grade when a knife accident and the resultant surgeries left my hand in bandages and therapy for several months. Growing up as a kid I remember being taken to museums like the Met, MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum quite a bit. Mummies were a favorite and I drew all kinds of Egyptian motifs and made books about dinosaurs and all the things little boys like.

I was fortunate to see Picasso’s Guernica as a child at MoMA and remember vividly the impression it left upon me with the horse in agony, the mother holding child, the lamp and the Minotaur. But at that age I never gave a thought to becoming an artist, no, an archaeologist was what I wanted to be.

My route to becoming an artist was circuitous. I studied science intensively with an aim to becoming a zoologist specializing in animal behavior but this was the Reagan era with funding for research being dropped and I found myself disillusioned due to the rigid world view that my teachers had and my future prospects.

I dropped out of college and eventually decided to go back to school to study art. At the time I thought it would be a way to get an easy degree (slacker?) however, something funny happened along the way. I found much to my amazement that I could look at paintings, even the most abstract ones that artists made and by the brushwork tell who made them. Within two months of being in the program I absorbed into my memory a large quantity of information that amazed my fellow students.

More importantly I found my calling. As much as I loved science and still do, art gave my life something that hitherto had been missing, a sense of purpose and belonging that was missing and another family, the family of artists and art. In that way, art became a way for me to integrate into the world that I was alienated from and this is the work that led me to it.

In 1985 I was visiting NY after my first semester in art school.

De Kooning
Painting, 1948
Enamel and oil on canvas
42 5/8 by 56 1/8
MoMA Collection

I remember walking into the gallery and seeing this work, which was a sloppy mess (can you tell that I like sloppiness) with the streaks of enamel, the congealed surface in areas, the choc a bloc overlapping of form that hinted at so many possibilities.

As I looked at it a strange feeling overcame me that I had never experienced before. The best way to describe it was like a humming sound, of course there was no hum except in my head and body. I found myself absorbed into this thing, as if looking at it completed a circuit with the power suddenly now ON within me. But what was this me? I realized that the painting and I were one. I needed the painting and the painting needed me, that reality was not me isolated from the world or floating in this gallery amongst strangers, that reality was the moment of my conscious connection to the world and the world to myself. The concept of self magically evaporated as a fiction, self in the western way I had learned to believe in. My sense of self became this living circuit between my body interfacing with the world and my sensory experience of it operating as a looping system, both interfaces propositional and transitional.

It was at that moment that I realized now having been an “art student” for one semester that I had found meaning. The work was whispering and shouting and telling me Yes, Yes, Yes. The only thing that made any sense to do was to commit myself to being an artist, that I had to listen to this voice as it were and that I had to paint, that I had to wrestle with this strange new feeling, that was intoxicating, visceral and earth shaking, as far as I was concerned, it was the most important thing I could do with my life.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Wow Paintings- or Paintings that make (made) me Wonder

Paul Corio in his blog No Hassle At The Castle has an ongoing series called “Paintings I Like” which I always find to be of interest. I enjoy seeing what other artists like as it gives an entrance way into their thinking and appreciation. With my recent blog post about motif, a constant concern of mine, I thought I would do the same. The reason for this is a similar one but also because sometimes stepping back and attempting to write about a work of art forces one to put, best as one can, the ineffable qualities of a work into a more tangible substrate of words, for better or worse.

In my analysis of the works presented I hope to answer to myself why motif is of vital concern and the approach the artist takes in applying paint to canvas (or as we will shortly find some other substance) leads to creating a work that I find important.

The criteria for this and future essays will be that the painting gives me a Wow moment. A moment of excitation that goes back to my post Conceit with the Paul Valéry quote, “A pleasure which sometimes goes so deep…..”

In short, paintings that say “yes”, that puzzle me, that trouble me, that have a place in my memory as to the first time I saw them, that echo in my studio or at least my minds eye and have left a lasting impression on me. So without further ado and hot air…

Sigmar Polke
Negative Value II, Mizar 1982
Oil, pigment of violets and red lead underpainting on canvas
260 by 200 cm, 102.36 by 78.74 inches
Raschdorf Collection

I first saw this painting at the Brooklyn Museum at the Sigmar Polke retrospective in 1992. This is part of a triptych and I would include all three but this is the only image I could find online….

Polke’s play between illusionism and reality in this painting is of interest. First there is no recognizable imagery and the color in itself is ambiguous. What gesture that exists, if one could call it that, is not in the traditional painterly terms that one or at least myself thinks about in creating space. The space that exists in this does not make the canvas plane, the proto-typical concern of a Greenbergian formalism in late 20th century the primary focus. In fact this surface plane is of no import, hence the illusionism. Polke has created a spatial infinite not unlike a Pollock classic drip.

What I remember being “Wowed” by was the fact that there was no traditional approach to design, motif, application, formal concerns or painterliness. It was like a giant mess wrought real.

The bands of violet do somewhat affirm the surface plane but are askew and haphazard and overlaying this are moments of drips, stains, blotches of material that physically sit atop the surface and in their presence on the plane as raw materiality are just that, material and real.

What Polke started in this painting for me was another way of thinking of color. Oil paint carries a historical weight and this despite the oil materials operates outside of that realm. I cannot say with certainty but from what I know of Polke’s oeuvre this might be the beginning or the door to his large scale paintings that used resin, varnishes and other materials not traditionally associated with painting. This material fracture forced me at least to rethink materials and color.

The imagery, if one can call it that and Polke certainly mined this particular non-image as image, breaks out of the conventions of abstraction. In this work, Stella doesn’t matter, nor does Johns or De Kooning; this works operates as if it exists in an alternate universe of the late 20th century painting dialectic.

It is weird, hallucinatory (as much of Polke’s work was) and of the fantastic, fantastic in the sense of being a phantasm. Polke showed me a door to getting out of the box of my painterly and artistic concerns, out of the Greenberg knot of formalism I had been steeped in thinking. Polke’s work is not one dimensional but multi-dimensional, his later works using imagery following the rabbit down the hole to another way of thinking, a way of thinking that allows mystery, confusion, dislocation and then affirmation into the world and the viewer. Polke allowed painting to breath again.