I’ve made some preemptive resolutions for the coming year, one of which is to use words less often. The world is full of them already. That said, sometimes I like to talk about where a new work comes from. So here goes.
Sunk was called Disinterested Witness for a while, but after about a week of looking at it in the house it wasn’t holding up to repeated viewings. So, now it’s Sunk. Before the DW nomenclature there had been a ghostly image of a ship at sea in the piece, but no photos survive to document that permutation. And prior to all of that, this panel and canvas had been home to a painting from 2005 called TAF Prototype, from my days as a painter of faux-marketing-graphic-design-satire.
But, again, now it’s Sunk, and I think it’s going to stay that way.
The red and lavender palette and tissue-paper-looking paint call up images of muscle, cartilage, brain, all of the softer parts that make our insides work. The colors also remind me of kings and queens in their plush, royal cloaks and gold crowns. These colors are some of my favorite to work with, when I can pull it off.
I’m making the effort to present the artwork in different environments. Being made entirely out of acrylic, these 14″ x 10″ paintings love to be held and photographed. You could leave one in the yard during a week of rain and hose it off and it’d be fine. Is that a selling point? I don’t know. But if it adds a little human touch, a little flare of the real, to this modest piece of plastic and paint, then that’s what I’ll settle for.
All of these paintings, being made on clear plexiglass, have an altogether different view from the back, so I’ve included one photo of the back of this piece, because it is particularly distinct from what we see on the front. Please don’t be the one who says, “I like it better on the back!” That won’t help any of us. What’s done is done, and the hardware on the back is permanent. Need I say that I prefer the front view? The loops of paint look contrived. I’m more after spontaneous grit.
This painting had a bit of a long and tortured beginning, as with a lot of my paintings. I made this 25″ square panel 4 or 5 years ago, and the first painting it became was an oil of a logo I designed for a brand I invented called Koby Teith. The brand’s image, as I conceived it, was about rugged Americanism expressed through poetry, with lots of deep, earthy colors and a logo that looked like it wouldn’t be out of place on a cattle brand or bottle of hot sauce. Here’s that old painting, which is now destroyed. (On the off chance that you like this old painting, please refrain from expressing it now that it’s gone: you had your chance during the 4 years it existed:) Believe me, it needed to be put to rest.)
The next job for this canvas was to be a neat experiment in painting with UV light. I layered many glazes of fluorescent acrylic on it until it was a strangely vibrant, dark monochrome. For the next stage of the plan I was going to create a solid stencil to cover it, affix the stencil to the painting, cover it in clear plastic, and leave it on my roof for several months. Fluorescent paint being poor at holding up to direct sunlight, this technique was going to burn the image from the stencil into the paint. It was an exciting idea for a spell, this notion of making an image using only light rays, but in the end it didn’t really say anything I wanted to say about art or the world, so once again I set it aside.
Next, most recently, I pulled it back out and started layering acrylic on it for sanding. My first pass with the sander was circular; I thought a rough, blurry, sanded circle would look nice on the square canvas. I was wrong. So I renewed my sanding and got the painting to a point where I thought it was good and finished, with something like a white contrail passing across it.
But, after looking at this image for a few weeks it felt contrived and didn’t look so hot; it couldn’t stand up to repeated viewing. I got pissed and really went after it with the sander until gesso and canvas started to come through. Finally, I arrived at the image you see above, which is more spontaneous and gritty. The image has a chip-on-its-shoulder attitude. I titled it What You Looking At: a canvas that’s been through this much pain shows a raw face to the world, and “What you looking at?” is how I imagine it would address a viewer it it could.
What You Looking At is acrylic on canvas, 25″ x 25.” Back in the day when this canvas was Koby Teith Star I was convinced that I was in the middle of my ascension to the contemporary art pantheon, so I priced that painting at $1,000. Now that my feet are back on the ground and I have a new, less pretentious vision of what I want out of my life as an artist, I’ve priced this canvas at $500, which I feel does justice to you and me both.
A common thread in my artwork seems to be an urge to use every color in every piece I make. This goes back a long time, and if you look at thumbnail images of all the work I’ve put on this site, you can see that trend at work. If you were to take a jpg of pretty much any piece of art I’ve made and reduce it to 1 pixel, thereby forcing the color content of the piece into a single square that represents the average color of the entire work, you would likely get grey. I don’t mind this tendency in what I do; in fact, it’s something that’s fun to find ways to push against.
For example, in these sanded works like the one above I actually use quite a range of color as I build up the layers of paint. If you ever hold one of these paintings in your hands, you can flip it over and look through the clear plexiglass (the substrate I use to make these paintings) and see a record in reverse of how I put the painting together. There is almost no resemblance between what you see on back and what you see on the front; that is part of the adventure in making these.
But, because all these different colors are layered, the top color is obviously dominant, and the thicker the coat the more dominant it is, even if you spend all day sanding it. In this way, I can use Technique to fight against Habit, in this case, my tendency to throw a rainbow at every painting. In these sanded paintings, the rainbow is still there, but buried, and I dig and scrape until I reveal those pieces of the spectrum that contribute to a nice looking picture.
So, even though I’ve used all kinds of color to generate this painting, it’s basically a blue monochrome with noise in it. The effect is one that really works for me because my eyes–enjoying the wash of blue, darting around with the different brush marks, picking up bits of maroon, taupe, black, and so on–get a lot out of these 140 square inches of acrylic.
Vernon Fisher told us undergraduates at UNT that an artist is a problem-maker. We go into the studio with an intention to make something, and in the process of making that thing, we encounter problems that we have to solve to get us where we want to be. Really, we create the problems, confront them, and in working through them, we create more problems. A working artist isn’t likely to run out of directions in the studio, because each piece conjures up problems that spiral outward into what becomes new pieces of artwork, and, of course, new problems.
In this way, and in so many others, the conventional wisdom that artists and scientists dwell in opposite realms–right v. left brain, passion v. reason, etc.–is just bogus. We artists and scientists love the chase. We love a good question: it gives us the occasion to focus our powers of observation and channel our experiences into the pursuit of Truth and Beauty, which is the dual prize artists and scientists seek, and is, as the Romantics tell us, a singularity.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
That’s what Keats says, and he’s right. In our hunger for the experience of Truth and Beauty, we artists and scientists look closely at the world and try to find new places where they might reveal themselves to us. It’s like a drug addiction, except that both seeking and obtaining the fix actually make life better.
This centrifugal cycle of problems begetting problems in the studio or lab, all in pursuit of the elusive, noble duo of Beauty and Truth, this is the grandiose version of how such paintings as the eight above get here. I have so much to figure out about what happens when I try different approaches to my studio techniques, so I lay out some panels, open some paint, and start working through and creating more problems. When the result looks good, I make it available to you; and, when it looks bad (which happens a lot!) I just paint over it and start the chase again. An art studio is just a science lab with more paint.