Tuesday, July 23, 2013

For Emily...and probably you too

There’s this young lady I know who is a tad skeptical about contemporary art.  She’s well educated, articulate and has a genuine interest and talent in art, but when it comes to this modern stuff, she says she just doesn’t get it.  And she’s not unlike a ton of other people I know.  Most of my family and friends would share her concerns and heck, 20 years ago I pretty much felt the same way. 

This young lady was a student of mine years ago.  I saw her skepticism about the content of contemporary art during my first semester with her but my job was only to teach her about design.  Our debates then were brief and I would only try to give her a nugget of concept to chew on.  After her second semester with me she graduated and moved on with her life.  (Married, job, happiness – I’m very proud of her.)  Over the years, every once in a while I’ll hear from her through the interwebs and she’ll pose a question or seek some clarification on her thoughts on contemporary art.  Her established role is that of the funny skeptic.  Mine is that of the artist hoping to get her to connect and engage with contemporary art.  From my perspective, she’s a trained artist with skills and she’s trying to figure out what to do with them.  What is it that she’s supposed to draw or paint?  Do you do it just to show off your ability or is there some more valuable purpose for creating art?

Recently I posted a photo of a new drawing online and she left a comment saying, “I would like an explanation of this drawing”.  For those of you who do not speak Sarcasm, that translates roughly into, “This is one of those contemporary artworks that I’d really like to understand because right now I think it’s a bunch of jibber-jabber!”

I grew up with this same skepticism about contemporary art.  The last thing I wanted to be was one of those contemporary artists who made weird stuff.  I learned all I could as an undergrad about materials, processes, design, composition but I came away with only a slight understanding of concept.  Sure, I could make a drawing or a sculpture “about something”, but it was generally “about” it in the most elementary and straightforward way possible.  It was the kind of work you understood almost immediately after reading the title.  The kind of work that doesn’t engage your mind or cause you to put forth any effort as a viewer.  I took my abilities to grad school and one of the first things my sculpture professor told me was, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”  He wanted me to think about my purpose and focus on why I was making something.  You want to have an existential crisis?  Spend a little time thinking about your purpose.  And then do that with a few deadlines hanging over your head. 

Worldview is important to consider when you contemplate why you are making art and what sort of art you want to make.  And your worldview may be influenced by things beyond your control as well as by things in your control.  My worldview came from a rural upbringing in the South.  I was taught to believe in God, to help people, to do my best at all times and to laugh.  These were not my ideas at first, they came from my parents.  I grew to doubt and question each one and eventually I grew into a real knowledge and belief in each one.  Their ideas eventually became mine.  So now when the question is “Why”, the answer is usually, “Because of the Divine, because they need help, because it’s your duty to do your best, and because if you really think about it, it’s pretty funny.  My worldview is who I am. 

I grew up thinking I would make masterful portraits like the Renaissance celebrity painters.  And I could create posed portraits focusing on airbrushed realism and drapery, but that’s not who I am.  I could do it, but it would be empty.  No one loves the coast more than me and I could sit in the sand and paint armies of paintings of waves caressing the shoreline, but that’s not who I am.  It’s not what I’ve experienced through my worldview.  And when you make work that is not true to who you really are and what you’ve experienced, that work is hollow and in my opinion, without real value.

When I was a teenager I went to the local museum to see the Andrew Wyeth collection.  I was in awe of these very traditional paintings of people, landscapes and old structures.  I walked into the next gallery and there on the wall was a huge canvas featuring a de-skinned lamb.  It was soaked in the red that can only be blood and in stark contrast to the Wyeth paintings this one was unapologetically not pretty.  At that moment I was torn.  Why would someone want to paint something so disgusting?  What does it mean?  And while I did not want to look at it, I also could not force myself to move away from it.  It was oddly compelling.  This artist did not know the back roads of Maine and it would have been a lie for him to paint the things that Wyeth painted.  This artist knew something less panoramic, less photogenic, but perhaps it was just as filled with truth and value.  The lamb seemed to be symbolic, perhaps of religious origin.  Though this canvas was not pretty, it had a setting, a cast of characters, there were props and so there had to be some kind of story being told.  In this way, there was a connection to Wyeth’s paintings in the next room.  The characters looked different, the setting was less inviting, the props were kind of scary, but there was a story.  Maybe it wouldn’t look nice above the couch or on the mantle, but the artist was sharing his worldview.

I think this gets to the root of the problem for most people.  On some level we want art to be pretty.  We want the beautiful models, the quiet shoreline and the tranquil meadow of wildflowers.  And maybe there are artists who have those stories to tell.  But if we are honest, our lives are not always composed of beauty and peace.  Some might even argue that you must first experience the chaos and turmoil before you can really appreciate that beauty and peace.  So aren’t the stories about the chaos and turmoil just as important?  When you browse contemporary art it’s not difficult to find the stories about negativity.  There’s violence, grotesque portraits, graphic nudity and emotionally disturbing images around every gallery corner.  I can be honest; this is tough for me because my personal aesthetic leans toward the humorous and positive.  But I’ve learned to appreciate the beautiful and sublime content in these dark and negative stories.  Especially when you consider that these artists must have experience with the stories they are sharing.  It doesn’t make me more negative to listen to the story; in fact, it likely gives me more of an appreciation for the positive.  I don’t have to like it in order to benefit from it’s sublime value. 

Here’s something I’ve always struggled to understand and if you even know what “Sunday School” is this will be familiar to you:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10 NIV

I’ve always thought that “Blessed are the happy” must have been omitted by some clerical error.  Some monk spilled his ink bottle on that part and it became illegible, right?  It’s taken me many years to realize that “Blessed are the happy” is not one of the real Beatitudes because Jesus was being honest about the world he experienced – about the world his audience was experiencing.  Real life is not all peaches and sunshine.  I think it was the Dread Pirate Roberts who said, “Life is pain” (or maybe that was Buddha).  Regardless of your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, contemporary art seems to be a narration of the world of the Beatitudes.  Contemporary artists are not afraid to show us the world where the poor are literally stepped over by the rich.  Contemporary art shows us the people and places of hunger, emptiness, grief and shame and it forces us to get a little uncomfortable because if we are honest, this is the world we all know.  This is the world we experience each day.  And even in a world like this, we find beauty – disarming and awe inspiring beauty. 

Sometimes we find it because a contemporary artist reveals it to us.

Monday, July 22, 2013

new drawings

 "You Can Go When You Need To"
ink on wood

 "You Don't Know"
ink on wood

 "You Lookin' For Something?"
ink on wood

"It's Silly Really"
ink on wood

Monday, July 15, 2013

news! ...or, it's not you, it's me

Each January, summer appears on the horizon as a tiny blip.  A blip that promises that ever elusive "leisure time".  When summer finally arrives, there's a blur of activity and when I look up it's August and time to go back to school.  

There are trips and vacations and cool things, yes...but most of my time gets consumed by the boring, daily tasks that never seem to go away.  Don't get me started on the amount of grass I cut each week.  So instead of boring you with the details, let's just get to the art news.

This morning Blue and I delivered two drawings that got into the 1st Annual Juried Exhibition at the Spartanburg County Public Library main branch.  The exhibit runs August 5 - September 27 and was juried by Will South, Chief Curator for the Columbia Museum of Art.  The reception will be held on August 24.  Below are the two drawings I have in the show:

 "Dog" 24" x 36" ink on wood panel

 "The Green Grabber" 12" x 24" ink on wood panel

A couple of weeks ago I shipped a box crammed full of art across the country to a gallery in Seattle, Washington.  The gallery is called Alqvimia Tribe Care and is located at 2805 43rd Avenue West, Seattle, WA.  I sent a few sculptures and a few drawings for an exhibit that will open on August 10.  If you're nearby or know someone who is, please let them know and ask them to buy everything!  This is one is in the exhibit:

 "How About A Waffle?" 12" x 24" ink on wood panel

And I recently learned I got into the 2013 South Carolina Biennial Exhibit at 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia, SC. 

The Biennial will take place in two parts this fall with Part I being held Sept 5 - Oct 20 and Part II being held Nov 7 - Dec 22.  I'm not sure yet which dates I'll be in but I'm thrilled to be listed among so many artists I love and respect.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

lost in nashville

We didn’t really get lost, although there was the one morning I decided to explore Vanderbilt’s campus on my morning run and ended up…not exactly where the hotel was when I started.  But then, are we ever really lost these days with Siri always ready to provide a map and surly instructions?

Georgie and I are currently watching Lost on Netflix.  If you don’t know about my Netflix problem, just scroll down a few entries and catch up.  If you’re one of the normal people who watched the show when it was on please know that I do not want you to tell me anything about what happens.  And if you’re oblivious like me, Lost is 6 seasons of a series that drops a diverse group of people into a desert island scenario.  A plane crashes on an island in the Pacific and all the survivors band together to stand against some really strange forces already existing on the island.  It’s a very strange ride and we average 2 ½ - 3 episodes each day in our current addiction. 

My good friend Donovan got married in Nashville on July 4.  I was a groomsman in the wedding so last Wednesday Georgie, our good friend Ginger and I drove halfway across Tennessee to attend the festivities.  Another of Donovan’s good friends, Amanda was a groomsmatron or groomsperson.  She’s female and she wore a dress but she stood on the groom’s side, you with me?  So Amanda and her husband Justin joined us in a block of hotel rooms and the five of us made the most of the Nashville trip together. 

We had a big time.  Along the way it occurred to me that our group might do well in a desert island scenario.  We had Georgie the nurse, Ginger the chef, Amanda the magazine editor and possessor of a wide range of knowledge, Justin the writer and philosopher and me, the artist and builder of sculptural traps and shelters.  Not only would we have survived, but it seems we would have laughed and been thoroughly entertained while we were on the island.  (Seriously, what a group:  Ginger Morrow – www.ddinmansc.com, Amanda B Heckert – indianapolismonthly.com/bios/story.aspx?ID=1682777, Justin Heckert – byliner.com/justin-heckert.

For the last several days Nashville was our desert island and here’s a glimpse of how that went:

 I think this is the Clinch River in TN

 The Parthenon was very close to our hotel.  

 The story behind this is pretty interesting but you'll have to Google it.

 The steeple at Woodmont Christian Church, the site of the wedding.

 I'll give Donovan credit for finding a church that actually looks like a church.  This was no warehouse style metal building for sure.

 Live bluegrass band at the rehearsal dinner.

 Post rehearsal dinner Taco Bell run.  Justin gave me the encouragement I needed to try the Doritos tacos for the first time.  They lived up to all the hype.

 The morning of the wedding in the groom's back room.  If you look closely you'll see breakfast and a pile of cash on the table.  Don't ask.  That's Donovan in the beard looking nervous.

 I'll be starting my venture into wedding photography soon.  That's Donovan and Megan doing photos before the big event.

 The desert island crew at the luncheon at the Mad Platter.  L to R, Justin, Amanda, Ginger, Georgie.

 Across the table was Donovan's dad, Donovan, Megan and friends of the bride.

 The reception was held at Carnton Plantation outside of town.  There was an old mansion, a cool garden and the site of a Civil War battle.

 The first dance.  Who knew Donovan could dance?

 Antebellum?  Isn't that a word?

 Several hundred Civil War soldiers rest here.

 The next day we headed to the Frist Center for Visual Arts.  This sculpture made of Humvee parts greeted us.

 The Frist, or "ArtQuest" as we began to call it did not have a permanent collection.  This was a bummer, but the exhibits were nice and the building itself provided some of the aesthetics you expect from an art museum.

 Housed in the old Nashville post office, the building is drowning in Art Deco.  The interior is very ornate.

 Down to the last detail.

 Justin was keen on participating in all the interactive art exhibits.  I think he had a lot of fun lending his artistic voice.

 When we left the Frist someone joked about stalking Jack White at his recording studio.  So we did.  

 The novelties part of his studio was eccentric and very entertaining.  I have no idea who the girl is who photo bombed me.

 Novelties and the Loretta Lynn poster.

 The old photo booth worked and we proved you can fit 5 adults in there.

 Next, Amanda and Justin put us on the trail of Prince's Hot Chicken.  This proved to be one of the high points of the entire trip.  If you are within driving distance to Nashville, you MUST go here before you die.  It was amazing.  I chose "medium" and did not regret it.  Go hotter than that at your own risk.  Half gallons of milk are available next door if you need it.

 Then we hit up the Country Music Hall of Fame because we thought it was a requirement.  While I've never been big on country music, my parents gave me the country music memories I needed to be able to appreciate what I saw.  That's Buck Owens' "American" guitar.  

 In fact, the instruments were the most interesting part of the CMHOF for me.  Maybelle Carter's guitar from the Carter Family.

 Hank Williams' guitar.

 Johnny Cash's guitar!

 A surprising touch was the Thomas Hart Benton painting of "The Birth of Country Music".

 And Taylor Swift's guitar complete with glitter.  Ok Taylor, that's strike one.  Glitter is forbidden.

 After the Hall of Fame I took a quick walk over to Broadway.

 I walked up just a bit past the strip of honky tonks...

 To check out Ernest Tubb's Record Shop.  I found the map to the star's homes but decided we'd done enough stalking already.

 We ended the night at Husk with some tasty food.

 And since eating is one of my superpowers, I was happy we went to the Loveless Cafe for breakfast the next morning.  I was tempted by the BBQ pork omelette, but I decided to create my own awesome breakfast by getting the huge pancakes and a side of BBQ pork.  I piled the pork on top of the pancakes and drenched it all in syrup.  Oh man....it was sooooo good.

Did I mention that it rained the whole trip?  The radar always showed a thick line of green and yellow precipitation flowing right over Nashville.  I hate rain but I will not complain about running at 70 degrees in a light to moderate rain shower each morning.  And since I was expecting it to be 100 degrees and blazing sun for a July wedding, this was an unexpected and welcome spot of weather.