Art Country

I recently watched a beer commercial during a break in a hockey game.  It showed a horse running down country roads, streets in small towns, children raising the Stars and Stripes, a firehouse, men shaking hands.  It ended with a father and son standing on a porch.  The sun had begun to set, and one handed a beer to the other.  They smiled reluctantly as if too shy to fully acknowledge the love they felt for each other.  They sipped their beer and looked out over their land.  The horse ran by…

I thought that it might be interesting to see if a sales formula leaning hard on nostalgia, patriotism, and old fashioned hokum could be applied to another American product.  I tried Painting, and failed of course.  But failure can be funny:

 

This is the story of paintings made in the heart of America, in a community where a gallery contract is a bond for the artist (but not so much for the dealer). 

thomas hart benton reaping

Thomas Hart Benton

These are the paintings made for those who took on the challenge of defeating ennui, who found an opportunity to defray the tax costs of inherited wealth, who forged a new hope for a cleverly invested future.

 

jack levine woman fan Jack Levine

 

These paintings were made for a generation willing to sip wine, speculate over risky masters (the ones who stubbornly outlive their most valuable periods), to remember a time when it was easier to choose a bankable artist from amongst the desperate, paint-spattered rabble.

 

Daumier

 

This is a story bigger than painting…This is the story of ART COUNTRY.

 

Roy De ForestRoy DeForest

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What Painters Think About

Folks have asked me what I think about while I’m working on a painting.  If it’s a funny or sarcastic project, they assume that I’m cackling nonstop as I mix colors and apply brushstrokes.  Some seem unaware that canvases can take hundreds of hours to complete, and that no one maintains the same mental state longer than a few seconds.

A children’s counselor once told me that artists are insane while they make their art.  I failed to convince her that I’m lucid while working, and that no one (Van Gogh included) could make a painting work if he or she didn’t make thousands of clear-headed decisions.  I also told the counselor that she might be mistaking the nonverbal thought patterns that arise in painters’ minds for signs of insanity.  The inner monologue sometimes falls away as we work.  Instinct and feeling take over…Time seems to disappear, and painting becomes more like prayer or meditation.

Below is a recreation of my thoughts while painting.  It’s not a transcription, of course, but may give readers an inkling of what I think about before I hit the sweet spot of inner silence.

 

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Mexican Bull (oil/canvas)

Maybe I can finish this today.  No, can’t work too long.  Got to get groceries and pay some bills.  That color’s garish…No wait–It’s better than what I wanted…What the hell was that?  Sounded like a five hundred pound squirrel landed on the roof…maybe a magnolia pod.  Did I dream about that chewing sound in the attic last night, or have the rats returned?

 

DSC_0298 (2)Quilt (oil/canvas, 2018)

Oh crap.  This looks like Paul Klee.  Who am I ripping off besides him?  Hello Kandinsky.  Hello Max Beckman.  Steal from the best, leave the rest…Jesus, the left side looks like a greeting card.  Got to mess that up.  I’ll sour those colors and add a black line…Better, but still too pretty.  Might as well add bunnies and flowers.  Picasso said you have to destroy something if it looks too good too early in a painting…Asshole…I wonder if artists have to be assholes to become famous?  I’m an asshole…When will my ship come in?

A truck drives by with a dog hanging half way out the window.  It barks at regular intervals as it progresses down the street, and the noise fades and shifts key as it moves farther away.

Doppler Dog strikes again…I wonder if we should get a dog.  No time right now to take care of a dog…Hmm…that passage looks like a dog’s tail…Or is that a toe?  Meh.  It’s a blob of paint.  Ugly blob…Scrape it off…My shoulder hurts.  There goes the knee.  Is it hot in here?  Maybe I should get up and turn on the fan, stretch, but first…Well that looks better, but now I have to change five things to compensate…Patience, man, patience.

 

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Lake Louisa (oil on canvas)

Helen thinks that I’m a nut job, and that Friday student thinks I’m Donald Trump’s twin…”Who am I anyway?  Am I just my resume’?”   What was that song I heard yesterday…I’ve heard it before…Don’t have the cd, but the singer’s name is…Senility strikes again…I’ll think of it later, but her last name started with a P.  Penn…Penwright…Peyroux?  

I get up to look at what I’ve done, move that painting off the easel and stand it against a wall.

Did I just make everything worse?  Man, the middle needs a highlight, and those colors on the right look too mucky now.  When did I begin to lose all my talent…what little there is…Oh, come on now…it always looks bad half way through…maybe if I pop that red, palette knife a little white, glaze a purple over that mess and…

Judy knocks on the door to the studio and invites me to join her on a walk.  We head up Chilean Drive and talk about an upcoming visit from our daughter, the folks who used to live in the house at the corner, and the north wind that’s bringing another cold front.

When I get back my mind is clearer, and I look at the painting with fresh eyes.

It almost looks done!  When did that happen?  Time to spray for elves…Now I’ll just accent that scrabbly field of yellow, twist a red line along that edge…Might be done…Should I sign it?  I hate signing a painting…You get close and a signature screws everything up…An act of hubris and the gods of painting smite me…Can’t think of anything more to do on this one, and it’s good enough…for now…Ah, the familiar feeling of partial defeat…But that other painting in the corner is calling me…Maybe that one’ll turn out better…Wait a minute!  I can fix this one if I…maybe…That’s better…hmmm…

(Silence.)

 

Walk Through An Art Show

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I saw my show, “Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People”, for the first time last Thursday.  My wife and daughter came to the opening that night, and I mostly interacted with faculty, a man named Tony, and two high school art teachers who happened to be on campus at the time.  I gave a lecture about my work to the folks listed above and a class forced to attend.  But the somewhat listless students listened and didn’t lapse into smart phone drifts of attention too often.  I got a few questions at the end that helped me to explain things a bit further.

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Judy helped me to refine my speech, and we agreed that the underlying theme in a lot of my work is humor.  So I opened and closed my presentation with jokes.  One featured hump back whales, and the other told a story about swimming lessons involving trips to the middle of Lake Erie, a tough father, and being tied up in a bag.

My work was treated with respect, and the reception felt warm and friendly.  I recommend Daytona State College and the curator, Viktoryia McGrath, to any artist interested in exhibiting their work in a college setting.

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My daughter, Annie, spent the weekend with us and brought along Shakespeare and Sedgewick, her two dogs. She left early Easter Sunday afternoon, and Judy and I both felt a bit sad now that the flurry of activity had ended and the house was a lot quieter. We decided that we will be moving next door to a child once they settle down in a permanent location.

Now I’m looking forward to making new paintings under less stressful conditions, finishing out my semester, and starting summer projects.

A Tale of Two Projects

“It was the worst of weeks; it was the best of weeks.”

Max Ernst collage          He Didn’t See It Coming (acrylic, 2017)

The past few weeks I’ve been working feverishly on two contrasting projects: a power point presentation meant to summarize and explain my work and creative process; developing kids craft projects for an Easter egg hunt at Winter Park Presbyterian Church.

Paper Bag Puppets                                   Build-A-Bunny

On the one hand I referenced avant garde 20th century artists, outlined their influence on my work, and discussed three phases in my career. I matched images of my pictures to images by Max Ernst, Hannah Hoch, Balthus, Stanley Spencer and Philip Evergood and hoped that the comparisons weren’t too presumptuous. And then I wrote a text that to tie everything together in what I hope will be a digestible portion lasting no more than 20 minutes.

On the other hand, I designed paper bag puppets, crayon resist drawings, and a collage drawing of a bunny holding an egg. And once I decided that kids from 5 to ten might want to do these projects, my wife and I spent hours cutting up color shapes (bunny noses, ears, legs, etc.) from construction paper.

Both projects have been equally time consuming and wearying, and I’m not sure, in the end, which will provide the most enrichment. But the goal of both is to get folks, college students and kindergarteners alike, to imagine new possibilities.

I first saw this week’s efforts as an exercise in cognitive dissonance, of contrasting tasks that warred against each other.  But now it seems that one was the flip side of the other.

 

Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People

I’m due to give a power point presentation at an opening for a show at Daytona State College on March 29th.  I’m going to try to explain the history of some of my work, the influences, etc.  Here’s a cut down version of what I have so far.

My grandfather told stories about his boyhood in Dayton, Ohio, how he saw the Wright brothers flying their airplanes over the church steeples and department stores, how he got a job mucking out shops downtown after the 1913 flood inundated half the city. His baby sister, my great aunt Margaret told jokes, as did my great uncle Norby. They were at their best at funerals. If anyone looked a bit too glum, they’d make a quip and lighten the mood. So, I grew up on stories and jokes.

When I got to grad school, my professors expected serious artists to do three things: paint big; use thick paint; make it ugly. Bigness, thickness, and ugliness were signs of a desperate need to communicate the raw essence of one’s soul. At the time I painted small and thin, but my still life objects were ugly enough to earn me a partial pass. I began to paint still lives that were little tableaus. I arranged figurines, toys, posters into set ups that told odd tales.

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Penelope, Oil/Canvas, 1989

Years later, I grew desperately tired of painting still lives and began a series of narrative paintings with figures and interiors created from memory and imagination. Stanley Spencer, Balthus, and Philip Evergood were sources of inspiration. I painted stories about everyday life and my personal history. “Every Day” is a portrayal of the rituals of married life, of intimacy that eventually becomes mundane.

Picture 004

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Every Day, Oil/Canvas, 2000

I took up another subject: blue collar life. Third Shift is the story of a man who comes home early in the morning from work. His wife’s schedule opposes his. All he wants to do is to collapse, but she has other things in mind. The Night Factory is a bit of working class surreality. The men and women build things even in their dreams.

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Third Shift (top), The Night Factory (bottom).

I began to think about combining words and images to tell jokes and farces.

The main sources for the paintings in the show are 19th century portraits and illustrations. I’m drawn to the stiff formality of the former, and the exaggerated drama and sentimentality of the latter. I enjoy undercutting them by making ironic juxtapositions and hinting at unfortunate back stories. Paintings by Magritte and collages by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch are lurking in the back of my mind when I work on these pieces.

 

Top left:  Hannah Hoch.  Bottom left:  Rene Magritte’s Premonition.                                           Right:  Max Ernst collage.

Sometimes the words are at war with the image (what does it all mean anyway?). Sometimes the joke is on me when I devote long hours to craft an image that is nothing more than a punch line for a stupid joke based on a pun…all that effort and technical knowledge to create something pointless and silly…Sometimes I create open-ended narratives. I like to short circuit a story by using vague texts that hint at multiple plots. My fables are open-ended, and outcomes are only suggested. The picture becomes something more than an illustration if the meaning isn’t fixed.

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Inseparable, Acrylic on Board and Canvas, 2018

 

What Kind of Drugs

I wrote an existential, absurdist dramatization of how burned out I felt as I approached spring finals at the end of my freshmen year in college. I performed it in speech class and used my natural jitters to enhance the edginess of the delivery. It went over well, but one guy came up to me as we walked out and said, “What kind of drugs were you doing when you wrote that?” I said, “I just used my imagination.” He shrugged as if to say, “Well, if you’re not going to tell me…”

Years later I gave an art lesson to an eight-year-old boy, who astounded me with his ability to draw foreshortened animals from his imagination. The kid had a camera in his head and the ability to accurately capture what he saw in his mind’s eye. I told his father, a professor at Penn State, that his son had tremendous talent. The man looked at me in disbelief and mild horror. He appeared to be afraid that his child had come down with a fatal dose of creativity.

About ten years ago I sat down at a party beside an educated woman who counseled children. She stated, for no apparent reason, that artists while making art are in a state of insanity. I turned to her and said, “So, if I’m sitting here reading a book or watching the news I’m sane. But when I pick up a pencil and draw, say, a geranium, I go temporarily insane.” I spoke sarcastically, but she just nodded in agreement. I explained to her that drawing realistically was an analytical, problem solving process, and that it could be taught in a completely rational, step-by-step approach. Surely that was the hallmark of sanity. She answered, “No. When you’re making art, you’re insane. When you teach other people to draw, you’re introducing them to madness.”

I looked at her carefully to see if she was pulling my leg, but she appeared serious. I tried again: “Making art does put you into a nonverbal mode of thinking, but there is a sense of inevitable order as you come to an end of a piece.” “That’s a delusion,” she countered. Last ditch argument: “Van Gogh was completely lucid when he painted. When he was institutionalized during a spell of madness, his painting skills eroded. He was sane when he painted well.” She smiled sadly, cruelly as if she pitied me.

I’m not sure where the tagging of creativity as an abnormality comes from, but I suspect the source is fear. I believe that some folks are threatened by anything that makes them think in unaccustomed patterns or feel unfamiliar emotions.

A woman came up to me at an open house at my studio after she had looked at some of my paintings. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but the underlying question was, “What’s wrong with you?” I told her that I just paint the things that most people don’t want to acknowledge, the ghosts and bogeys hiding in the backs of their heads. She pointed to a painting and huffed, “That’s not in the back of my head,” and marched away. I thought “Oh yes, it really is.”

It’s About Being Creative

I sometimes encountered a bass player named David in a floating garage band that met in two places. Each location had its own roster of musicians, but I limped along at both venues strumming rhythm guitar. I was mediocre at best.  One day David chided me about my playing and said, “You know, sometimes it’s about being creative!”

He referred to my uninspired chords when we played extended jams that spiraled out for ten minutes plus. All songs stayed in E, and I ran out of ways to vary my approach after the first three minutes. I wanted to tell Dave that I might be a bit more creative if I had played guitar as long as he had, but I expected no understanding from him. He’d forgotten that he’d sucked when he first picked up a guitar, no longer remembered that his creativity was the product of instincts and muscle memory built up over years of practice.

I eventually gave up playing music in a group when it became clear that I didn’t have the drive or talent to improve significantly, and when I realized that I felt no special thrill even when I managed contribute a few choice licks. It all seemed a bit mechanical and boring compared to writing a poem or painting a picture.

Years earlier I met similar criticism at the University of Delaware. One instructor pressured me to vary the surface texture of my paintings (he made thick, painterly abstractions). Another criticized the stiffness and timidity of my brushwork. He demonstrated what he meant by taking my brush and making quick, fluid strokes that enlivened dead passages on my painting. Both professors expressed frustration with me when I did not follow their advice. They assumed that I was a tightly wound, repressed individual who would forever cling to a narrow range of effects.

I understood what they wanted, but couldn’t deliver it. I had to paint another seven or eight years before my brushwork became more spontaneous, before I learned how to paint thick, expressive passages with complex textures.

In both music and painting I understood that “it’s about being creative,” but I had a deeper desire to improve when it came to making fine art. And I gave myself time to experiment and fail. My painting technique eventually grew freer, the results got better, and my creativity blossomed.

I recently grew irritated with a student who rigidly stuck to her customary mode when painting an abstraction. She continually reverted to copying from a subject verbatim, held her brush in a death grip, and made scratchy little marks.  She refused to create rhythmic distortions in shapes, to flatten forms, to experiment with color. Instead she turned her picture into a muddy Impressionist mess.

I felt an urge to tell her to loosen up, to experiment, to make new choices. I almost said, “You know, it’s about being…”