Saturday, March 31, 2012

Final Printing for the Public Art Project

It's been a long time in the making, but I am finally in the last stages of putting everything together for the public art project that I have been working on for the city of Urbana, Illinois. For details of the project, click here.

Below is a photo showing all of the images of the participants holding the whiteboard, printed onto Lazertran, a waterslide decal that transfers to the plexiglass panels of the luminary:

I flipped all the images first, so that I they will be on the inside of the luminary when it's assembled, facing outward but protected from curious fingers.

I also printed a test page for the accordion book. The images will be printed along with each person's name, in alphabetical order, over a background watermark of Urbana's Market at the Square:

Tomorrow, I start transferring the Lazertran images to the luminary panels. I will install the work in the Urbana Free Library next Saturday.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Six of the Best, Part 4

Part 4 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity. Today's artist is painter Kurt Ankeny, who lives in Massachusetts. If you're on Google Plus, you might also be able to catch Kurt live and on-air sometimes in a Hangout.

"Massacre of the Innocents," oil on canvas

Philip Hartigan
: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Kurt Ankeny: I'm an oil painter. I prefer oil because it is infinitely plastic (which fits nicely into my background as a cartoonist) and because it holds so much affinity for our own mortal casing. Oil is the part of our flesh that our current society likes to deny, tries to banish. Greasy, sweaty, our own nature offends politeness and decorum. Oil paint can throw that back in our faces in ways that other mediums cannot. And the pigment is in its simplest form, dirt. I like the earthy quality, the raunchiness of oil paint. It can play nice, it can behave itself in polite society, but it isn't fooling anyone, not for long.

PH: What piece are you currently working on?

KA: I'm working on a five panel painting with the working title of "Mother and Child" and a diptych, "Mary of Egypt."

"Mary of Egypt," work in progress

: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

KA: In "Mary of Egypt" one panel is an abstract composition conveying Mary's lifestyle before epiphany, and then the right panel is after. What surprised me most was the composition of the right panel (which is divided into two sections, making a de facto triptych) which did not work for a long time despite numerous scraping/re-paintings of the panel. What eventually resolved the issue was making the right most section of the right panel wider, so that the balance between the two sections was not so even. Once that happened, everything clicked into place very quickly. 

PH: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

KA: I think those of us that end up as artists have a natural tendency to always be living inside our heads, to be always filing things away for later use. As an artist, I nick a bit here and lift something there. It doesn't have to be from art, though it often is. The way Cézanne used blues and greens, the heavy reliance of Matisse's palette on viridian, the whiplash motion effects and pulsing tumorous masses of AbEx painters like de Kooning and Mitchell, the lines of Uglow, Klimt, and Schiele. But it's also frequently from reading. I like the way words, especially those of poets, songwriters, and philosophers twist our normal thoughts into something new and surprising. There is a process there, as the information flows into your mind through the cloud of electric sparks which not only receives but also creates the information. And as it filters through your brain, sparking neighboring neurons and tickling nearby clusters, something new is frequently formed. In those spaces, I find the seeds for new paintings, new ideas on art.

PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

KA: There's lots of art that I have from childhood that I don't remember making, but there's one piece, in middle school or slightly before that stands out distinctly. It was a little drawing on a sheet of typewriter paper, of a little skull-faced demon in a leather jacket with a huge, fang-filled grin on its face. And I distinctly remember being repulsed and attracted to it deeply, both at the same time. It was so scary to me, and that fear I had of my own creation made the drawing seem to come from somewhere that was not-quite-me.

Anyway, my mother came along, and was absolutely disgusted by the evil little figure leering at her from the page, and my father was disturbed as well. Now, this may have been because at the time they were semi-fundamentalist Christians, and therefore prone to thinking that their child might be possessed, but nonetheless it was a powerful message to me as a young person that this image that came out of me could have such power to cause reactions in people. And because of their disapproval and partially because of my own thrilling fear of the drawing, I folded the demon out of sight and pushed it under the top layer of the wastepaper basket, too scared to physically destroy it.

So it's the story of my first piece of art and the story of my first act of artistic cowardice.

Looking back, though, if I had that piece to look at now, with adult eyes, I'm sure that its power over me would have faded and become a bit of juvenile silliness. But having destroyed it, I have only the memory of its power.

"Salome," oil on canvas

: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

KA: Because I can't help it? 

Honestly, there are so many easier paths through life. I take the long view of art, partially because, being 36 years old and still completely unknown, I must, but also because I feel that the art needs time to mature inside oneself, and that it takes a great strength of personality to throw off the shackles of a successful art-selling career and make drastic changes to the artifacts/residue of your life-long artistic practice. Especially if success finds you early. 

This is partially why I think there is so much ill-considered emphasis on the Young Genius in the art world today. The Young Genius makes a good story, and if one clips their roots while young, you get a marvelous, beautiful little artist which has a great story of precocity, and which is much more likely to stay planted neatly in a small pot which is marketable and easy to care for. They're like little bonsai trees. Magnificent in miniature. An artist which has deep, gnarled roots, and has weathered years of storms, is much sturdier, much more unruly, and much more likely to tear up the front sidewalk. Which is how I find it most comforting to think of.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Six of the Best, Part 3

Part 3 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity. Today's artist is Mia Leijonstedt, a Finnish artist who lives in England. 

"How Stories are Born" artist's book

Philip Hartigan: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Mia Leijonstedt: I have a broad general training in visual arts, but my main discipline for the past 15 years has been contemporary bookbinding and sculptural book art. I'm easily bored with any one art technique, and books have proven to be a canvas that can accommodate an endless amount of creative experiments and numerous different materials, thus keeping me hooked. But beyond its any given outer form, my art is about conveying tales through the use of materials, the tactile details being the language in which a story is told.

PH: What piece are you currently working on?

ML: In the past year I have been transitioning from book art towards making jewellery, and at the moment I'm working on a series of lariats that to me are much like "artist's books". I see the meandering combination of stones and knotwork as a tale without words, and I'm telling a story through the use of materials in a very similar way that I've always done in my book works. My current tales just happen in the shape of wearable art instead.

Example of stones and knotwork

PH: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

MLIn general I'm surprised these days at how enjoyable it can be just to follow the materials, listen to the direction where they want to lead me and see what comes up. It's always been an important way of working for me, but now that I'm not locked in by certain technical considerations of a book structure, I can truly revel in the pure joy of combining different tactile materials and let them lead me to the final piece. Elements just seem to fall in their right places without forcing and there's less and less of "creative agony" in my studio these days. I seem to have found the kind of a flow and ease in the making that I used to long for in my early years as an artist.

PH: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

MLI love to go beach combing, just wishing I lived closer to the sea. When I do manage to go, I lose the track of time collecting peculiarly shaped stones, driftwood, shells. Later, I examine the tones, shapes and textures in them, and much of it translates into my work eventually, one way or another. I'm endlessly fascinated by the natural world, its phenomena and discoveries. Rugged shores, desert, storms, wilderness - the presence of nature charges me up. I also love to discover artists whose work instantly grabs me as having a certain combination of emotional depth and professional skill in which they express the inner workings of their creative mind. I'm always intrigued by what makes individual artists put the time and effort into whatever they create.

Lariat style necklace (work in progress)

PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

MLAs I sat at my grandmother's kitchen table for the first four years of my life, drawing for hours every day from pretty much the moment I was able to sit by myself, I have no recollection of the "first" piece. Some of those drawings survive, like a line drawing of an elephant that I drew at the age of 3 after getting to meet one up close. That drawing is still infinitely better than what I'd be able to draw now. But even if I was drawing a lot as a child, it was specifically the making and crafting of things that was closest to my heart - using sticks and stones and strings to craft all sorts of arty objects. I guess pretty much what I'm still doing!

PH: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

MLIf I was a leopard, being an artist would be my spots. Developing my creative projects is almost like an additional sense through which I experience the world, and working in the timeless space of my art studio is the way I meditate. But it's also special if what I create also resonates with someone else outside my studio. If my work inspires another on their own life path, that's a fulfilling reason for me to be an artist.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"American Skin:" A True Chicago Classic

An odd thing happened at the Chicago Classics literary event last night.

Several hundred people had gathered in the auditorium of the MCA Chicago for the final event of Story Week 2012, the annual celebration of writers and writing organized by Columbia College Chicago's dynamic and internationally-respected Fiction Writing Department. They were there to hear about twenty Chicago writers read short passages from their favourite Chicago writers. So, for example, journalist and radio host Steve Edwards read a poem by Chicago poet Maxine Chernoff; author John Schultz read from Saul Bellow;  writer and director Coya Paz read from Achy Obejas. The spirit of the event, beautifully hosted by veteran journalist Rick Kogan, was all about writers paying homage to this city of great writers, through writing that meant something personal to them.

So when one person took the stage and took the opportunity to essentially belittle and poke fun at his chosen book, it seemed to my mind to stick out very sharply from the tone of the rest of the evening. That this person decided to do this with the book "American Skin", by Don De Grazia, is particularly puzzling, because of all the contemporary writing that was read aloud on that stage last night, it is "American Skin" that truly deserves the title of a Chicago Classic.

When I first came to Chicago, at the end of 2000, my then girlfriend Patricia Ann McNair put into effect a cunning plan: to show me so many landmarks in Chicago that I wouldn't want to leave. So she took me on a boat trip around the shoreline. She took me to the observation deck of the John Hancock Tower ("the taap of the 'caack," as Patty said in her broadest Chicago accent). And she took me to readings by Chicago authors, one of them an event that included Don De Grazia reading from the first chapter of "American Skin."  I remember responding strongly to the writing, but in my typical British way (thankfully modified since then) I went up to Don after the reading and said something flippant, which he graciously let pass.

When I took the time to read the book, I realised that Patty had indeed introduced me to a landmark every bit as overpowering in its effect as seeing the view from the John Hancock tower for the first time: you feel raised up into the air, far up into the sky, to be offered a view not just of a landscape but of a continent, from an angle that can certainly make you dizzy, maybe that can induce vertigo, but which will stay with you for a long time.

Here, for example, is a section from "American Skin" that could have been read to the audience at the MCA last night:

Does anyone remember that De Grazia quotes Sherwood Anderson at the start of the book's epilogue, and that Don himself chose to read from Anderson's "Winesburg Ohio" when he took the stage at the MCA? Read that passage above again. In its sense of scene, the closeness of the observation, the tenderness of the underlying emotion, it's clear that De Grazia is the natural heir to a writer like Sherwood Anderson, and to Ernest Hemingway, and to Hubert Selby Jr.

I've come to know Don fairly well in the last ten years. I wouldn't say we're close friends, though that might just have come about because of different schedules. Whenever I spend time with him, he strikes me as a generous-spirited man, fiercely loyal to the people he likes, completely committed to the Fiction Writing department where he teaches, always thinking of the student writers who flock to his classes. Don is a big guy, too, who looks like he could hold his own in the ring with some of his heroes. So on a personal level, if you see what I mean, Don doesn't need any defenders.

But this piece isn't about that. It's about acknowledging something that got a little lost last night, when "American Skin" ended up being the only work to be mentioned and then not heard from. In a way, to even write any of the above as a kind of defense is absurd, in the same way that attacking or defending the John Hancock tower would be absurd: you can say whatever you like about it, but it's still there, dominating the city. I mean, imagine if you stood outside the Hancock and started shouting insults directly at the side of the building: people would think you were bonkers, wouldn't they?

"American Skin" is already mentioned in the same breath as "Last Exit to Brooklyn", as a piece of fiction that sums up a time for the benefit of all future times. It is a Chicago Classic, which in the words of Stravinsky talking about Beethoven, "will be contemporary forever."

And yes, it is available not just in used bookstores, but very much in your local independent bookstores like The Book Cellar, in Chicago, and on Amazon (link here).

Six of the Best, Part 2

Part 2 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity. Today's artist is Paul Baines, whose spectacular work caught my eye on Google Plus.

"Garbage Man", 2012
Philip Hartigan: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Paul Baines: I usually sketch in ink and then colorise digitally. I do paint but at a snail's pace. Print gives me the speed and scale I need. I am currently and very slowly working on a large scale painting, and even a novel, all long term plans.

PH: What piece are you currently working on?

PB: "White Castle" - I don't want to give it away, but it's definitely British art.

PH: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

PB: I've realised I live in a "police kingdom" as a opposed to a "police state". I've always resented the idea of being a subject of anyone, dear old bleedin' monarchy or otherwise, but with the increasing surveillance culture, ACTA, and more CCTV than anywhere else in the world (including dictatorships), I'm starting to wonder is Britain the least democratic democracy in the world?

"Day of the Dud," 2009

PH: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

PB: A combination of fear and dreams. I've a wild imagination, ideas run around my head all day, some creative, some political, some metaphysical. Sleep seems to be where I make most sense of what I've learned each day. Art is the proof that it happened.

PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

PB: A paper mâché lighthouse complete with flashing light. In fact my mum made most of it.

I didn't discover art until much later. I've always been creative, but pinning it down as a particular skill has taken a couple of decades. I spent a year on a music production course, I've been a graphic designer in the past too, but that was depressing. Right now I'm writing a novel (which will probably take years). I've even had interest for a screenplay I worked on over a decade ago. Unfortunately the execs didn't like the title, "Milkman". And no, it's not about milk. I think I chucked it on a fire a couple of years later and threw all my energy into building up some decent art skills so I could communicate with a wider circle of like-minded people. If I had the dosh, I'd make films --  I spent a couple of years studying film at Brighton. All I know is that art has purpose again. For a while, it was just for the rich, but street art changed all that. Now every medium is open to the general public. Corporate media is dying a slow and painful death.

"Born Again," 2010

PH: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

PB: I don't know, just lucky I guess.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Six of the Best: Part 1

After a lull in the interviews for this blog, mainly due to my blogging for the New York based outfit Hyperallergic, the series kicks off again with New Mexico-based sculptor Mark Castator. In order to post more interviews with some great artists, at more regular intervals, this new series poses each invited artist the same six questions - hence the title Six of the Best. But while the questions may be identical, I can already tell from the first replies that the answers will be as varied as the artists themselves.

"Plummet and Run"
Philip Hartigan: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Mark Castator
: I am a fabricator. Basically that means I am a welder. I work in mild steel, stainless, copper and bronze. I’m drawn to this material because I like to work fast I enjoy the quickness of the medium. I love the alchemy of using heat to forge a very hard surface into something lyrical and elegant. It is also forgivable in that it is easy to make significant changes. I’m all about the large work. I like to say that I don’t make anything I can’t hit with a one-pound hammer.

: What piece are you currently working on? 

: Currently I am working on a monumental sculpture called “she was in Paris”. It is a steel column 13 feet tall with a 27-inch footprint. It is fabricated with steel remnants from previous work. This piece is made in my transparent style and is influenced by hieroglyphic covered Egyptian columns and the work of the Italian sculptor Amaldo Pomodoro.
Mark Castator with "she was in Paris".
PH: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

: The size and weight of these large pieces can be intimidating. I was trying to lay the work down using a block and tackle when the whole thing got away from me. When it broke loose it went swinging wildly around the studio. It completely upended one of my heavy worktables and the came crashing down on another. It was all very exciting.

: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

MC: I like to paint and draw. I am currently working on a series of representational paintings that combine elements of street style and digital art. For the canvass I am using wooden truck pallets and the bottoms of shipping crates. It is a combination of stencil spray painting, digital transfers and brushwork. I like to use the belt sander too. The idea is to use that raw street style and bring it into a gallery setting without losing the hard core edge.

"Spectrum 3"
PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

: My mom signed me up for painting classes when I was around eleven and the first painting was a still life in oil. I didn’t think I was any good at it and left it behind. I thought I was going to be a writer.

H: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

: I was studying creative writing in college at the University of Houston and had to take a “stupid” art class to graduate. But I kept falling asleep in the dark auditorium class of art history. It was so boring. Finally, someone suggested a sculpture class at the Lawndale Annex off campus.

It was a revelation. During the lectures everything was obvious to me. I would think. “Well, I know that.” For the first time in my college experience I knew all the answers. Not only that it was fun and exciting.

After that semester I found myself in Colorado stuck on a stopped ski lift with a former baseball player. He had never made “The Show” of the big leagues but he had played in the minors with Daryl Strawberry and other greats of the time. He said he never regretted the path that he had chosen. He told me to always do what you love. There, at that moment on that lift I decided I was going to be an artist.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Painting at the Whitney Biennial

Photo by Sharon Butler for "Two Coats of Paint."

As an addendum to my video Meditation on Elizabeth Peyton, in which I mentioned the Whitney Biennial, Sharon Butler wrote about that show on "Two Coats of Paint" recently (link here).

Ms. Butler is always worth reading when it comes to anything related to pigment and brushes, so if you haven't bookmarked her blog yet, now is the time.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Meditation on a painting by Elizabeth Peyton

Number 98 in the series talks about something that caught my eye the other day on

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Minimalism at the MCA Chicago

At the MCA Chicago, there is a very good exhibition of Minimalist art, entitled "The Language of Less (Then and Now)," which runs until at least the end of March 2012. 

Donald Judd, "untitled", 1970
I have two thoughts about the exhibition.

One: that the way the artists sought to pare down the material of expression produced work that now has a classical appearance. Classical, in the sense that it appeals to notions of order, symmetry, balance, absence of superfluity both in the materials chosen and the thoughts expressed. Classical in the sense of emotional coolness rather than heat. Looking at a painting by Brice Marden, we aren’t going to be seduced in the same way as by a Velazquez, or even a Monet. But as an object, the picture absorbs us nevertheless.

Brice Marden, "Grove Group V", 1973-76
Richard Serra, "Prop", 1968

Two: that the works chosen as examples of contemporary Minimalism seem fussy and busy by comparison with Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, et al. I liked the one shown below, by a contemporary Portuguese artist, but it seems to have more in common with the recent trends in installation art, which occupy more space than Minimalist artists from the nineteen-sixties and seventies would ever have taken.

Leonor Antunes, "Walk around there, look through here," 2011

Monday, March 12, 2012

Anabasis: Text # 5

Text derived from writer Patricia Ann McNair's daily prompt series, #4, We were never sure what happened:
We were never sure what happened. Because when I picked up the phone, she was still babbling in a high pitched hysterical voice so that I couldn’t make out the words, only her name. I handed the phone over to my mother and said, “It’s Linda.” My mother listened, saying “Oh God, oh God” into the mouthpiece of the big yellow phone, from which I could hear Linda’s voice, tinny and distorted now, still wailing in long sustained notes.
My mother went next door, to where Linda lived, and didn’t return until hours later. Ashen-faced, she told me what she knew. 
Linda had finally locked her violent husband out of the house, telling him that he was out for good this time. 
Her husband, a soldier who had just completed his third tour in war-torn Northern Ireland, had bellowed through the door that he would get her back somehow. 
The next morning, their teenage son Tony had told Linda that the family cat was nowhere to be seen.
Later that day, when Tony came back from school and entered the house through the back garden, he noticed a mound of fresh soil covering what looked like a hole that had been dug and quickly filled in again.
Tony began clearing the soil away with his feet, and then with his hands.
In a few minutes, he discovered the decapitated body of the cat, and the cat’s head, lying in the soil in the garden.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Google Reader Round-Up

Here are some good things I've found on the latest posts in my Google Reader pages:

Studio Critical: Interview with artist Louisa Waber:

Watercolour, gouache & pastel on paper, 8 x 9", 2011

Thursday, March 8, 2012

More Jogged Pamphlets

I started a few more jogged pamphlets in my studio this week. I did two using the 'vortex' print mentioned in a previous post:

And I took some double-side prints made a few years ago and stitched them together to make alternating colours:

Though I now realise that the best method is to print everything on the inside pages first, and then print the 'cover' image last.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Some public art in Chicago

I took a walk around Grant Park, Chicago, on Monday afternoon, in a stretch I've never trodden before. It's the area directly opposite Columbia College, 600 South Michigan Avenue. There are some public sculptures placed on the grass, made from recycled bits of cars.

Exhaust pipes forming a chaotic trellis:

And fenders fashioned somewhat boringly into flowers:

I suppose it's better if public art is just inoffensive, as opposed to actively terrible. I like the shapes that the exhaust pipe trellis make, but the flowers just get in the way of the view back towards the city, in my opinion.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Meditation on a painting by Donna Marsh

Who is Donna Marsh? She's a Canadian painter I discovered on Google Plus. This is pretty typical of her painting style.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Anabasis: First Books

On my last visit to my studio, I started making some books based on the sketches and photos that I did in January. I used the technique that I almost always use these days: taking xeroxes of the drawings and sketches, playing around with the resolution at Kinko's, then transferring them to paper using the paper-litho transfer process.

Here's the first one (works in progress, again):

The image is from a map of all the coal mines in the area of north-east England where I grew up. I printed it in ochre on four strips of paper, then in blue on four more strips of paper, and then braided them together so that you see alternating squares of different coloured maps. I'm going to layer more strips of prints over them, then sew them all together on a base. The idea I have in mind is that you will peel back the upper strips until this is revealed at the bottom of the pile.

Then I took the 'vortex' picture that I drew at the beginning of January, and printed it on something called a jogged pamphlet:

In this case, nine pages are nested, one inside the other, each one getting progressively longer from left to right. Printed like this, the image will appear whole when the pages are closed. When you open the pages, something else will be printed on the inside:

Printmaking, and making artist's books: my two most trusted and favourite activities at the moment.

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