Saturday, July 30, 2011

Waiter art

I'm in the wild canyonlands of southern Utah at the moment. My wife and I ate at a good restaurant in the town of Escalante last night. I asked for my leftovers to be wrapped to go, and the waiter picked them up in some foil, and proceeded, with great deftness and artistry, to turn the food-in-a-foil package into this objet d'art:

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Interview with writer Katey Schultz

Katey Schultz is an incredibly talented writer with an interesting story to tell. I met her during the recent Interlochen Writers' Retreat, where she was one of the assistant faculty. She has work forthcoming in "War, Literature & the Arts," the only government-funded literary magazine in the United States, published by the United States Air Force Academy. Further links to her work are here. Today is the sixth anniversary of her blog, The Writing Life, on which Katey has documented not just the daily life of an emerging writer, but a fascinating journey across the United States which began two years ago. All good reasons, I thought, to talk to Katey in more depth.

Philip: Why did you decide to start a blog? As an online journal, promotional tool, or another reason?

Katey: Back in 2005, blogs were still relative babies in the internet world. I knew enough to know it might be fun, but when I created The Writing Life Blog, I had no idea how much blogging would take off in the years to come--or how much I'd come to enjoy it myself. My initial impulse was spurred by a change in my career and I wanted to mark that change publicly somehow. A blog seemed like the right thing to do. Never mind that I only had dial up Internet, didn't own a digital camera or cell phone, and lived in a cabin with no indoor plumbing. I'd been teaching teens for five years and decided to leave that to pursue the writing life--whatever that might come to mean. I found a job 15 miles away slinging coffee and mopping floors for 6 hours a week. One shift, that's all they could give me; but I had my foot in the door and eventually worked my way up to 25 hours a week with benefits. That job at Penland Coffee House supported me through grad school and taught me how to balance a steady paycheck with the unsteadiness of being a writer. Incidentally, the first post I ever wrote details my first day on the job.

Philip: What’s your daily routine with the blog?

Katey: The concept is really pretty simple: I write 250-1000 words in 30 minutes or less, 5 times per week, no editing or futzing allowed. I'm not publishing freewrites in their purest form, but I'm also not publishing fully formed or polished essays. The blog is, in many ways, my sketch pad. I try to put a conscious effort into providing my readers with variety, interesting information, specific details, and telling a good story. I rarely blog about blogging, complain publicly, or use my blog to incite controversy. I prefer to stick to the realities of what matters in life when you're trying to make it as a writer. How does a writer experience and make sense of the world? What does a writer do to feed the creative spirit? To empty it onto the page? To fill it back up gain? The end result is, I think, a blog with content including things like: explorations of landscape and culture, musings on my own literary challenges and successes, honest commentary on the highs and lows of the creative process, and keen observations about the human predicament--all packaged up in what I hope is a slice-of-life post that can leave a mark on someone's day.

Of course, a big part of pulling this off is discipline, and by that I mean not just the good ol' fashioned toosh-in-chair method of writing, but also honing a particular way of seeing the world. When I first started The Writing Life, I blogged seven days a week, no excuses. Then I cut back to five. I stick to that 95% of the time but if I'm sick or traveling I give my self a waiver and if I have an event or publishing news, I announce it on the blog. After six years of this nightly routine, I have to say that in some ways my daily life shapes the blog as much as the possibility of the blog shapes my day. I often find myself taking a snapshot so I can use it later on the blog, or seeking more information in conversations in case there's a hook for a possible blog post. To that end, writing for the blog has become a way for me to make sense of the world one day at a time. Each night I sit down to compose, I have to try and find a narrative thread from the day that I can weave into a meaningful, fresh post. In this way, I seem to be using the truths of my daily life to practice finding story, which of course is a really important muscle to be exercising since I primarily identify as a fiction writer.

Philip: During the last two years, you’ve been living on the road. Can you tell us about this ‘writing life’?

Katey: The other big shift in my life happened when I finished grad school and was simultaneously laid off from my job at the Coffee House. This was at the height of the recession. I decided to hit the road for 2 years (or more), attending writing residencies and fellowships across the United States. I had the teaching degree to help me earn a little income along the way, but by and large I stuck to organizations that offered fully funded residencies or fellowships that paid a modest stipend in exchange for very part-time teaching. I've organized a page on my blog that outlines each stop along the tour, highlighting the best posts from my journeys. That can be found here, and might be a good resource for other artists wishing to attend residencies themselves. Since January 2010 I've been Writer-in-Residence for Interlochen Arts Academy, Weymouth Center for Arts & Humanities, Fishtrap, Jentel Foundation, and more.

The Christmas before my two-year tour started, I moved 17 boxes of books, my grandmother's chairs, and 3 instruments into my parent's attic. I don't own a home, so it was either there or a storage unit. Everything else I own fits into my 1989 Volvo station wagon and that's how I get from place to place (ok, well, I flew to Alaska). In January 2010 I hit the road and it's been, in many ways, a writer's dream. Nineteen months into the tour, I've met more talented and innovative artists than I can count. I've seen parts of the country I'd never seen before. And I've been humbled by the support given to me by other artists. I've snowshoed across a frozen lake, inadvertently charged a bull moose while looking for the Northern Lights, taken Iditarod sled dogs on a training run, lived in a haunted mansion, coached hundreds of teen writers in flash fiction, watched bald eagles in the high desert of Wyoming, been caught in an Eastern Oregon cattle drive, seen the first signs of spring in the deepest canyon on the North American continent, and listened to world class musicians perform lakeside in Michigan's North Country.

The flip side to all that are the uncertainties that come with living life on the road. I'm not always certain how I'll make ends meet, where I'll be living, or if I'll get accepted for a residency I have my heart set on. This has forced me to try and live even more in the present moment--that's all we have anyway, isn't it?--which is especially tricky when I'm constantly filling out applications for the future. Most days, I can laugh at the irony of this. Some days, the uncertainty gets me down. But always, always, I have the great fortune of moral support from my family and friends and that puts it all in perspective. They help me remember that even though bravery sometimes feels like insanity, and dreaming sometimes feels like foolishness, at the end of the day I'm doing exactly what I should be doing.

Philip: Your fiction has claimed an impressive list of awards recently. As well as writing, you also teach, co-edit a literary journal called TRACHODON, and do karate. How do you see each of these parts of your life developing in the near future?

Katey: In 2010 I was able to research and finish (in draft form) my first full-length body of work, Flashes of War. This is a collection of 29 short stories told from the perspectives of various characters in and around the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm currently seeking an agent to represent this book, and sending out individual stories for publication in the hopes of getting as much of this writing out into the world. In the meantime, I've started a quirky series of flash fictions involving minor urban catastrophes. It's sort of my way of playing around on the page with rather mundane subject matter after writing about war for so long.

With regard to TRACHODON, it's a labor of love and also one I anticipate being in a long-term relationship with. I manage the magazine's blog, Cheek Teeth, as well as get to participate in publishing TRACHODON in all digital and print formats. You can even read it on a smart phone, which is hilarious to me, since my own phone is "dumb." But still--it's out there, and it's my way of encouraging emerging writers in the field to keep on writing. It's no secret that a story can change someone's life. Getting to be a hand behind the scenes that helps bring those stories into the public domain is really thrilling.

Martial arts is a passion for me, no doubt. The great thing about being my own writing boss is that I wake up most days and get to decide what I'm going to do. Martial arts balances that out, because when I train it has nothing to do with what I want to do or how I'm feeling or what kind of mood I'm in. You show up to the dojo. You put your gi on. You do what you're told. That outer discipline very certainly helps shape my inner discipline. In the end, martial arts is more about mental training than physical training, and that includes battling your own demons. As artists, I think we all know a little something about those demons. It's nice to have a physical activity that correlates conceptually with the ways in which I hope to grow as an artist.

Philip: Finally, congratulations on six years of blogging. What do you think ‘The Writing Life’ will look like on its 10th anniversary?

Katey: Perhaps by then I'll have a smart phone and I'll be blogging from a laser-projected keyboard displayed on the dashboard of my Volvo. Perhaps I'll own a home, have a book or two, plant a garden. Whether my hands are gripping the steering wheel or harvesting potatoes, I imagine The Writing Life will still mirror my daily attempt to make sense of the world through the most powerful tool I know--words.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What I am reading (formerly Book of the Week)

Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, edited by Michael Hamburger (Anchor books, 1960).

In a month when Google has just introduced another online service that is based on instant electronic communication between millions of people, I picked up a volume of letters written by Beethoven, selected from the thousands that he wrote during his life. This is not a great number for a busy, educated, and famous man living between 1770 and 1827, when a letter was the only way to communicate with absent friends or business partners, even those who lived in the same city. As this volume shows, Beethoven’s daily life involved not just writing music, but sending the manuscripts out to copiers, communicating with his publishers, his aristocratic patrons, musical societies and orchestras across Europe that wanted to perform his works, his family, his would-be lovers, dealing with solicitations from people who wanted to visit him – all of which required a written note, from a few lines to pages of detailed instructions.
This volume concentrates less on the letters devoted to his music-business dealings and more on those that bring alive his voice and his character. On this, my third, re-reading, what I find most fascinating are the accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by other people. The editor’s decision to include these next to the contemporaneous letters written by Beethoven provide a consistent picture of the composer’s life, particularly after the serious deterioration in his hearing around 1805. Here is an extract from a little later, written by Beethoven's friend Gerhard van Breuning:
Click to enlarge
Apparently Beethoven had always lived a disorderly life: visitors describe the dust everywhere in his apartment, the chairs, tables, and even the piano piled high with papers, clothing, plates with scraps of food on them, the floor covered in puddles of water due to his habit of emptying a jug of water over his head to cool off and just letting it splash wherever it landed. In this chaotic setting, they tell of his launching into loud talk as soon as visitors entered his chambers, monopolizing the ‘conversation’ because he could not hear anyone else when they spoke. He would offer people a slate and chalk to write down questions, and would start to answer as soon as he recognized enough of the words. This picture of Beethoven talking endlessly without being able to hear his own voice, and talking obsessively about the same subjects (always complaining bitterly about the Viennese and lauding the English, whom he was convinced were more appreciative of his music) – this brought home to me how lonely his condition must have made him.
He was no saint: the letters concerning his nephew Karl, whom he took from Karl’s mother by a form of legal abduction, show him to be overbearing, domineering, even cruel when he felt that he was being crossed. But in general the letters give one a sense of the conditions that gave rise to such conduct, the difficulty of enduring a life under the worst affliction that a musician could suffer, and the amazing fortitude that it took to continue creating such idealistic music without lapsing into despair.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

First draft animation

This is the first draft of an animation for the Lucerne Project show in October. Except for the painted backdrop, which is 3ft high and 6 ft wide, it may not look like this. I just wanted to try a few things out, get my hand back in, put my thoughts in order, see how it looked, before I buckle down to work on something longer.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

What we learn from children

At a party last weekend, our friends Chris and Megan brought along their three year old boy Caleb, who did the above drawing in collaboration with another kid there. After Caleb had brought it over to show his parents, he put it down on the table and immediately wandered off towards something else that had taken his attention, as children do. My eyes stayed on the drawing. I am always attracted to the colourful drawings of children, the way they instinctively place the objects face-on, squarely in the picture space; the way their lines are so strong and definite; the way they make the most basic possible mark -- the scribble -- which is nevertheless so expressive; the way they gravitate to hot colours. Except for the level of intention, Caleb's drawing is not so different from this:

"Neige", Joan Mitchell

Whenever Patty and I teach the Journal and Sketchbook class, we talk about the drawings we do as children, how unselfconscious they are, and how many of us have that educated out of us as our academic careers progress. Caleb's drawing is a prime example of what we are talking about: that naive spontaneity that we strive to recapture as adults.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

News about The Lucerne Project

This weekend, details about The Lucerne Project show (at Finestra Art Space, Chicago, in October) were officially added to the Chicago Artists' Month sites, and we were given the go-ahead to start using the organization's logos on marketing materials. If you look at the Lucerne Project blog, you'll see the CAM logo in the right column.

I therefore spent my latest studio day taking better photos of the accordion book against a white background, and making publicity photos of it, such as the ones shown here:

It feels that I'm nearly finished, and also that there's so much work left to do.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Artists-Writer-Artist: Fiona Banner (2)

For once, I found something useful on Wikipedia. Under 'Art', it provides a broad ranging and useful summary of the different functions of art. They are: non-motivated functions of art (basic human instinct for harmony, balance and rhythm; experience of the mysterious; expression of the imagination; universal communication; ritualistic and symbolic communication) and motivated functions of art (communication through illustration; art as entertainment; art for political change; psychological and healing purposes; social inquiry, subversion, or anarchy; propaganda/commercialism).

There’s no question in my mind that art of the non-motivated kind is vastly superior to the motivated kind. How to identify the different kinds of art that one sees, and deciding where to place them on this sliding scale, is an unending process of evaluation and response. The categories are not mutually exclusive, either. Pure aestheticism (pretty pictures of flowers to put in the bathroom) can be as banal as pure agitprop (down with patriarchal society!). Confronted with the former, I want to say to the artist: “Haven’t you at least tried to read Walter Benjamin? Have you ever looked at something by Andy Warhol?” Confronted with the latter, I often say: “You know, the idea of including beauty in art is not per se a capitulation to conventional power structures.”
I hesitate to use terribly old-fashioned terms like form and content, but it’s difficult to avoid this, or any of the terms listed above, when thinking about the art created by someone like Fiona Banner. I return to this again because of the positive things in her work, or perhaps my suspicion that there are positive things that I am missing. I admire her sincerity of purpose and the consistency with which she expresses it. I admire the fact that her pushing together of text, object, and performance creates a kind of art, or perhaps a series of moments full of the implied possibility of making a work of art, that blur some of those boundaries. That can often be a sign that an artist really is conducting a worthwhile experiment, trying to find a new language to say something. I think that Banner falls between two stools, however. On the one hand, she wants to make a political statement: I will take an actual fighter jet, write some text on its tail fin, suspend it in a gallery, and hope that the audience questions its own role in propping up death from the skies via its political choices. 

This is a political analysis I happen to agree with. So why do I feel that this is a banal piece of work, both as agitprop and as ‘non-motivated’ art? Perhaps because she herself seems to want to cordon off the meaning of the work from the taint of the mysterious, the imaginative. In other words, she is determining the meaning very clearly, and the meaning is about as complex as a slogan on a banner: you read it, you either agree or disagree, and you move on. Case closed. Next object.
With the work that consists entirely of words, or word-blocks, it’s this idea of anti-narrative that is frustrating. This may indeed be an intended effect again, the reasoning probably going something like this: “We read long pieces of text assuming that it will have a form and structure to it, a narrative, the implication that this is a connected series of thoughts or moments that arrive somewhere. But I, the artist/writer, reject that idea, because it implies that I am imposing something on the material, and therefore imposing a structure on the reader. Far better to subject the reader to pure repetition, in order to draw attention to the inherently authoritarian nature of so-called narrative shaping. The reader will then be exposed to the idea of freeing him/herself from the shackles that bind him/her under capitalism.” I get all that. I’ve read all the texts that this aesthetic is derived from, and have taken part in arguments based on them going back decades to my university days. I agree to a large extent that our society is organized wrongly and should change; I no longer believe that art is the way to do that. As Lenin said, if we had to rely on artists instead of workers to rush to the barricades, then heaven help the Revolution.
And I truly do not believe that to write in any form of narrative, even with the most conventional fictional forms, is a way to avoid engaging with any of those urges to explore society as it is and society as we would wish it to be. On the contrary: to immerse oneself in understanding and trying out narrative art might be the best way to depict and bring about those changes. And that would be the very least of the discoveries that a visual artist, or a politically engaged artist, might make (think of the social implications of understanding character, dialogue, scene, story arc, and so on).
So my quest continues for an artist who uses writing not in a failed attempt at linguistic subversion, but in a sincere attempt at narrative.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Interview with artist Phillip Buntin

Phillip Buntin is another artist with whom I became acquainted via Facebook. The word that springs to mind with Phillip is "intelligence": it was the intelligent discussion on his Facebook page that led me to look at his work, which revealed itself to be a body of highly intelligent abstract mark-making. As a teacher at Kent State University, Phillip clearly tries to instill in his students the same application of critical intelligence that he applies in his own work. I think you will see the same qualities in the following interview. 

(Note: Because I am Philip interviewing someone called Phillip, I used our surnames in transcribing the exchange.)

Hartigan: Your work seems to play with notions of scientific precision, drawing from mathematical and scientific diagrams, yet you also seem to value open-endedness in art. In practical terms, how do you balance these impulses in your painting?

Je me deux, enamel on plexiglass, 20" x 16", 2011
Buntin: My use of diagrammatic imagery is largely metaphorical and they are used to allude to our strivings to understand the phenomenal world.  In my decision making process, I am looking for a visual connection first, an embodied reaction.  It has been a long term visual interest to seek out experiences that are simultaneously complicated/complex, yet also have a barely discernible order.  I was originally interested in this relationship phenomenally, but over time have developed a more reflexive understanding as to why I am drawn to such experiences.  Put simply, I am interested in how we come to terms with complexity and how complex phenomena always, on some level, elude our grasp.  The balance is struck by driving the images to the point of elusiveness, through fragmentation, the degree of complexity, or obfuscation of various sorts.

Hartigan: You have also quoted Roland Barthes’ phrase “a thinking of the body in language”. How do you relate that to your studio practice?

Buntin: I don’t know if I could successfully argue this point for all, but I think that building understandings/interpretations in language is a fundamental part of the beneficial aspects of both studio practice and the engagement with artworks.  Artworks in their creation and reception are vehicles for sensorial communication.  Coming to terms with what happens in those sensorial communicative moments in language is a means to make our inchoate and nascent experiences manifest to reflexive consciousness.  In making them manifest we deepen our conscious relationship to the reality of self, body and our external world.  In essence we are setting up a feedback loop.  If I can understand in language why I am drawn to one visual experience over another, I can better understand myself and the world in which I am situated.  This is true, in my thinking, of both studio practice and also the reception practices of the viewer, with the same benefits for the viewer.

My thinking in this is influenced by philosophical hermeneutics, which speaks to the importance of interpretation and communication as the means by which we weave a space for the creation of situated subjectivities through situated communicative praxis.  Studio practice as a personally motivated intensive communicative praxis aims to communicate sensorial content that is seen as intersubjectively important.  In doing so, one learns to “think the body in language,” to seek to “think the body in language” for others, but also (maybe) to learn in that dialogue what is important to strive to communicate in relationship to both self and others.

Hartigan: At the moment, I am particularly interested in artists and writers who cross-over into the ‘opposite’ medium. Have you tried to express your ideas in extended written form? Your statements at the very least seem to suggest an equivalence between written language and painting-as-language.

Buntin: I do think there is a beneficial relationship between the two, as I am sure the above reveals.  Writing is something that I would like to dedicate more time to and see the two as having a reciprocally beneficial relationship.  Generally there seems to be reluctance among many artists to write or acknowledge the benefits of writing.  I am not of that mindset at all and think that it is important, in the right measure, to sit down and try to get clear about what it is that I am trying to do.  Often the fear is that written interpretations close off experience, but I have found that the exact opposite is true.  I would like to move beyond just writing about my own work eventually, although I am still coming to terms with what it is that I might have to offer.  Right now I am particularly interested in becoming more familiar with phenomenology, hermeneutics and mindfulness practice so that I might be able to write about their interrelationship with art making and viewing.

Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking, enamel on plexiglass,
20" x 16", 2011
Hartigan: Why express these ideas mainly in painting rather than in other media?

Buntin: I think that the painted line as opposed to the printed line brings a sense of embodiment to the process, and creates an interesting contrast.  Trying to understand a diagrammatic schematic through the body speaks to the limits of the differences between qualitative and quantitative understanding.

Hartigan: How has teaching at Kent State University affected you as an artist?

Buntin: Teaching has primarily taught me the importance of teaching!  It is so much more direct in its effects compared to the making and exhibiting of artwork, and subsequently, I take it very seriously.  The teaching itself though does not have the same degree of influence as working as an academic does.  The environment and pressure of the tenure and grant writing processes leads to a particular modality of artistic practice that may or may not be in line with individual interests and inclinations.

Hartigan: You have a very lively Facebook page (which is how, in fact, I first encountered you). In what ways do you use social media, and how do you see their use developing for you in the future?

Buntin: In spite of its limitations, I have found social media to be of extreme importance.  I have used it primarily as a means to build and feel as though I am part of community.  The conversations have been of surprising depth and breadth.  This has been particularly beneficial and enriching as the area I live in is relatively rural and the nearest urban areas are at least an hour away.

Although Facebook is more overwhelming than it was two years ago, I expect to continue there in much the same way.  In relationship to my comments on writing above and certainly taking some inspiration from your fine blog, my next step might be to start a blog.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: Fiona Banner

Fiona Banner is an artist who takes text as her medium in a way that some artists use clay, or paint. In the 90s she produced a 1,000 page book called Nam, which was the result of her sitting and watching, back to back,  four Vietnam movies - Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and the Deer Hunter -  and writing down what she saw, in real time.

, Fiona Banner

Black Hawk Down, Fiona Banner

Banner has also created word drawings where she sets up an easel before a nude model, but instead of depicting the model with lines, she writes a description of what she sees, and how she is experiencing what she sees. Sometimes she does this in front of a small audience, turning the action into a form of performance.

This is an artist who definitely writes at length, but not in a way that encourages prolonged reading of what she has actually written. A phrase that crops up a lot in interviews and writing about Banner's writing is "frustrating narrative expectations." Mission accomplished. Very often I find myself giving up after a few hundred words, and I just stand back to look at the whole piece, which resolves itself once more into a shape, a form, an image, a pictorial element. This is no doubt the point, which means we are back in the realm of meta-art, of irony, of commentary upon the act, rather than the act of writing (and reading) being a shared space in which to recreate an experience in words.

More thoughts on this later.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meditation Number 76

This talk opens up to talk more broadly about how the perception of individual works of art (particularly 'controversial' ones) changes over time.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 60: Designing a box

I spent hours cutting up bits of mat-board and masking tape, working out the design of a box to house the 100-page accordion book for the Lucerne Project.

I'm considering this: a box that folds out flat, to reveal more prints fixed to the inside, or a continuous print like a map or something. Here are a few photos showing how it folds back together:

The sides would stay closed using some tiny bits of velcro embedded into the book board.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Interview with me on 'Linocult'

'Linocult, a blog and related twitter feed devoted to all things to do with linocut printmaking, published an interview with me today. Thanks go to Dailey from Brooklyn for his commitment to the cause of block printing. Have a look at the blog some time: he publishes great looking linoleum prints every day.


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How to pour acrylic matte medium onto a panel

Like this:

It's pretty thick, like a cake mix. I pour it all along one edge of the panel, then tip the panel up and let it slide down the surface until it reaches the bottom, I turn it 45 degrees and let it settle in that direction. When it's all flat and smooth, I get rid of any air bubbles by spritzing it quickly with some surgical alcohol (warning, kids: don't drink this!).

The acrylic matte medium is mixed in with a little white acrylic paint, so that it masks the circle painting, but not entirely:

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day 59: How long can it be?

The 100-page accordion book, if unfolded like so:

... amounts to about 40 inches for 14 pages. So to display it all like that come October, I would need a table or shelf approximately 23 feet long.

After doing those calculations, I went on overprinting shapes in blue and sanguine:

Click to display nice panoramic image.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: The Parameters

While this subject of artists who write and writers who create art never leaves my mind for long, it's been absent on this blog for a while, except in the form of teaching the Journal and Sketchbook class in different places this year. With this post, I am proposing to restart the series, and to continue the investigation into the work of artist-writer-artists, in the hope of gaining some fresh insight into the creative process of individual artist-writer-artists, and into the creative process generally as it manifests itself in visual art and the word.

Jenny Holzer

Robert Indiana

Maira Kalman

The last time I talked directly about this subject, I made a distinction between artists who incorporate text into their work as just another visual element similar to a colour or a shape, and those artists who spend some time working with words, who explore the possibilities of expression that arise in the 'opposite' medium. So Jenny Holzer, who works in gnomic phrases cast in neon or in the form of giant billboards, and Robert Indiana, who made giant sculptures out of words, are less interesting to me than someone like the writer-illustrator Maira Kalman, whose witty narratives in word and image have graced the New Yorker's pages for many years. I'm looking for artists who put aside the visual art for a period, and try to make a work of art based on language, or writers who put aside the poetry or the fiction and attempt to make a visual work of art.

What about mixed media works? What about illustrators? What about artist's books? What about Holzer, Smithson, et al? Even if they use short bits of language to make a visual statement, isn't there something useful to be discovered about creativity from that?

Yes, these may also be worth considering at some point. But I'm looking for artist-writer-artists, people who are engaged with a different form for a prolonged period of time. I want to use my own aesthetic sensibility to find good examples of each, in the hope that the investigation will NOT prove that you can only make good work in one medium. I want to talk about these people, and at times to talk to these people.

I found a lot of valuable resources about artists who use words at Artists Who Write, a blog set up by the University of Oregon-Portland for an interdisciplinary MFA course. There is a lot of information here, though most of the artist-writers they list can be grouped into a few categories:

  • Word as image: artists who use words as another visual element, like a collage shape (Fiona Banner).
  • Word as slogan: you read the words for their meaning, and the meaning is nearly always intended as a socio-political critique (General Idea/ImageVirus, Mark Manders).
  • Artists who work with the serial nature of film, or artists’ publications: There are a lot of artists in this category (Aleksandra Mir, Fiona Banner again, Carey Young, George Chakravati, Alfredo Jaar), and there is a decades-long history of artists’ publications. They all deal overwhelmingly with the form of the book, the abstract idea of seriality, making multiples, what constitutes originality – again, with words receding towards being just another visual element.

A useful classification of what constitutes an ‘artist publication’ can be found on the website for the EU’s archive Artists’ Pub: :
“artists’ books, multiples, book objects, artists’ newspapers and magazines, ephemera such as posters and invitations designed by artists, photo editions, postcards, stamps, stickers, graphic artworks, Xerox copies, stamp artworks, sound art (on records, cassette tapes, audio CDs), radio art, multimedia editions on CD-ROM and DVD, artists’ videos and films, net art and computer art.”
This still leaves the following categories:

  • Artists who write to explore image and metaphor (e.g. poetry)
  • Artists who write to explore narrative (e.g. fiction/non-fiction)

As a summary of these parameters, I'll end this long blog post with some examples, offered without commentary:

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Sean Scully goes past 1,000

Views, that is. My slideshow/webtalk/video on Sean Scully is the latest one from the Meditations on Art to have passed 1,000 views on the You Tube channel I set up for them (it's called The Art Channel, in case you didn't know).

Following close behind are the video talks (what should be the correct phrase?) on Jim Dine, Piero della Francesca, and Bill Viola. Meanwhile the Kara Walker video is steaming towards 2,000.

Take that, You Tube videos of kittens!

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Studios VI: Wicker Park, Chicago

The Wicker Park Studio (staircase at right)
My current studio is in an arrondissement of Chicago called Wicker Park. It’s the East Village of the City of Big Shouders. It’s the Notting Hill of the Windy City. If you want trendy bars, bijou clothes shops, artists’ studios, artists’ collectives, small independent galleries, dozens of hipster hangouts, places to make and listen to music, then Wicker Park is the place for you. ‘So,’ I hear you ask, ‘what are you doing there — you who prefers to listen to Mahler and Richard Strauss while wearing your brown knitted cardigan and slippers?’

In 2007, when I was looking for a studio in Chicago, I was in several exhibitions that all took place within a few hundred yards of each other in Wicker Park. Rather than the youth-orientation angle, I was attracted to the vibrant local art scene, and the proximity to larger commercial galleries just a few miles nearer the Loop. I found a 300 square foot studio for a decent price near Damen and Division, a location depicted many times in the novels of Saul Bellow, particularly my favourite one, ‘Humboldt’s Gift’. All these factors made me write a check as soon as I went to see the place.

Panorama of the studio: click to display larger version.
The studio is actually the basement of a house owned by an artist called Diane Christiansen, whose work is worth having a look at. She and her partner are also in a folk-roots band called Dolly Varden, so I often hear them practicing above my head, or in the large brick garage behind the house that they’ve converted into an artist’s/practice studio. When I sit at the work table in my studio, I can look out through windows at ground level. This confuses the hell out of the three cats from the next house down, who will be strolling by, going about their cat business, only to be brought up short by the sight of me peering up at them and making kissy noises at their startled whiskery faces. 

The alcove with the printing press.
It turns out that there are a few disadvantages to the studio that I didn’t anticipate when I first moved in, to wit: I am 6 feet 2 inches high, and several areas of the ceiling are only six feet high; and shortly after I started renting this studio, Patty and I moved apartments, so I now have to drive six miles across town to the studio instead of getting the bus (I can still get the bus, but it’s a nightmarishly slow journey). But it fulfils all the requirements that a visual artist needs: it’s inexpensive, warm, and dry; it’s well lit and has a slop-sink nearby; and it provides that monk-like space, separate from where one lives, eats, and sleeps, to close the door on the distractions of the world and focus on the process of creating something.

So this is where I am currently making most of the work shown on this blog.
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