Archive for July, 2011

The current debt limit debate that’s currently taking place in our nations’s capital somehow brings to mind the TV series from the early 70’s, Kung Fu.  It featured the late David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a young man living in the mid-19th century whose father was an American and his mother Chinese.  Orphaned at an early age, he is trained as a Shaolin monk in both Eastern wisdom and martial arts.  When his spiritual mentor, Master Po (…take the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper…), is killed by the Emperor’s nephew, Caine exacts revenge and is forced to flee to America to find his half-brother. The show followed Caine as he traveled through the Old West trying to pass quietly yet always coming  face to face with hateful bullies who seem immune to the wisdom that Caine delivers in a cool and calm manner.

You probably see where this is going.  In our own scenario, I think President Obama has taken on the role of Kwai Chang Caine and has tried to deal with the situation with rational thought and actions.  He has remained cool and calm yet it has brought no response.  Like most bullies, logic makes little impression and a calm response is seen as weakness which only spurs on even more aggressive bullying behavior.

That’s where we are in our own episode.  Caine has faced the bullies, delivered some tidbits of Zen wisdom and is told by the bullies to get out the way because they were going to burn down the town and everyone in it, including Caine.  It is time for Caine to act.

Now, as much as I enjoyed the little spoonfuls of wisdom that Caine administered each week, I watched the show as teenager to see him ultimately beat the hell out the bullies, to dish out deserved social justice in a whoop-ass manner.  As much as I admire the calm rationale of  President Obama, he must now stand up to those bullies who have taken our system hostage, who have said that their way is the only way.  He must stop talking ,  bloody the bullies’ noses and take the club from their hands.  Exert power–that is what they understand, the only thing they respect and fear. 

Invoke the 14th and simply raise the debt limit.  Just do it.  You given us the aphorisms, we’ve heard the words.  But the bullies are still threatening to burn down the town and get rid of you in the process.  It’s the part of the show where you’re supposed to kick some asses and kick them hard. 

Do it.  This town needs to get back to work.

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First, I would like to thank everyone who came out to the gallery talk at the West End Gallery yesterday.  It was a great group who made my task there very simple in that they began asking questions from the opening moments.  It made for a very fluid conversation which I think made for a more entertaining hour than me droning on.  Hopefully, most felt that it was an hour well spent and that they took something away from it.  I know I did.  Again, many thanks.

I came across this online the other day, a sculpture made from stacked galvanized pipe that resembles the form of a tree.  It’s located in the county of Lancashire in the northern part of England and is called the The Singing Ringing Tree.  It was erected as part of a project called Panopticons which featured several large pieces of environmental art across the county to celebrate its economic and cultural renaissance. 

Sitting on a hill overlooking Burnley, the pipe of this sculpture capture the winds and makes an eerie, discordant moan.  I can only imagine what the sheep or cattle in the surrounding fields think as they hear these almost groan-like emanations from the monolith above them. 

As sculpture, it may not be beautiful in the classic sense with the industrial feel of the steel pipes but it has a certain grace in the curves and lines of its design.  The sound that comes from it serves to more animate it.

Just a little something for your Friday.  Take a look:

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I was asked yesterday what I was going to speak about in today’s gallery talk at the West End Gallery.  I kidded that I was going , of course, to speak about me.

Me, me, me.

I went on to explain  how I approach these talks, trying to read the group in attendance and finding something of interest in the work that sparks a dialogue where they participate.  The hope being that they leave with a little more insight into the work  and I leave with with a little more knowledge of how they view it.   But that offhand joke yesterday about me has stuck in my craw.  Just joking about it has bothered me somehow. 

One of the conundrums of art is that you are expressing a sometimes very personal aspect of yourself in a public forum, exposing one’s weaknesses and flaws to the world for all to see.  The need to do this is the need for an affirmation of one’s own existence in this world.  I know that this has been the case for myself.  I have often felt insignificant throughout my life in this world, unseen and unheard.  But it seemed to me that my life, like all others, had to have meaning of some sort and that my feelings and thoughts mattered as much as any other being’s.  If I was here and thinking, I mattered.

Cogito ergo sum.

 Until I fell into painting I never found a way to affirm this existence, an avenue to allow my voice to be finally heard.  But having found a method of expression, the question becomes: What part does ego play in this?  Where is  that line that separates the need for self-expression from base self-glorification?

This has always bothered me.  Even though I want to express myself and want my work to hopefully affect others, this constant self-promotion puts one at least on or near this dividing line.  For me, that’s an uncomfortable position.  Don’t get me wrong.  When it comes to my work, I certainly have the confidence of ego.  It may be the only part of my world where I have supreme confidence and on many days even that is shaky.

But on days like today, when I have to talk about me, me, me, I always get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach both before and afterwards.  Before because of the dread of exposing myself as a fool and afterwards from the fear that I did just that. 

Oh, well.  All just part of the job…

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Just a quick reminder to anyone out there that will be in the Corning area tomorrow, Thursday:  I will be giving a gallery talk at the West End Gallery beginning at noon.  The talk usually lasts between 45 minutes to an hour and is, as its name implies, simply a talk between the audience and myself.  The conversation that results from questions asked by the audience normally produce the best parts of these talks and always give me something to think about. 

So, if you would like to take part in the conversation or just listen in, please stop in at the West End tomorrow at noon.  Hope to see you there.

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Goya’s Miniatures

I have written here about a series of small dark pieces that I painted a few years back which I called my Outlaws series, pieces that were of shadowy figures often holding pistols next to windows.  They had been greatly influenced by a number of later silent films of the 1920’s which featured haunting dark imagery as well as a group of small late paintings by Spanish master Francisco Goya that I had seen at the Frick Collection in NYC, along with other works from near the end of his life. 

The Goyas were were painted on small squares of ivory around 4 inches square  that had been coated with a ground of black carbon on which he dripped water which removed the carbon to reveal the shadow of white ivory below.  He would then look into this wetness and manipulate it to produce the images that he saw emerging from it.  The result was a series of small but powerful pieces that really resonated with me, especially in that I easily identified with his process in producing these plates, one that was very similar to the method of painting I first adopted in my earliest forays.

Here is a clip from the introduction to the Frick exhibition that describes his process:

Goya departed from the traditional miniature technique of stippling — applying tiny touches of color with a fine-pointed brush until they coalesce into the desired images — for a broader means of execution. His improvisational process is described by a young painter friend, Antonio de Brugada, who witnessed Goya at work:

His miniatures bore no resemblance to fine Italian miniatures nor even those of [Jean Baptiste] Isabey. . . . Goya had never been able to imitate anyone, and he was too old to begin. He blackened the ivory plaque and let fall on it a drop of water which removed part of the black ground as it spread out, tracing random light areas. Goya took advantage of these traces and always turned them into something original and unexpected.

In transforming the stains of water into recognizable forms, Goya added accents by scratching the surface with a sharp pointed instrument; touches of watercolor were deftly applied; outlines were reinforced in black; and small patches of the surface were wiped to produce a range of shadows and highlights.

It’s an interesting little group of pieces from Goya, one that I’m glad to have stumbled across.  I had looked often at his work and had admired much in it but this was the first work from this master that really hit me, sparking me in my own work.  You can see the rest of these images here.

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I have always regarded manual labour as creative and looked with respect – and, yes, wonder – at people who work with their hands. It seems to me that their creativity is no less than that of a violinist or painter.

-Pablo Casals


I came across this shot of working hands and it made me think of how I’ve viewed hands through my life.  I’ve always looked at people’s hands since I was a child.  The liver spotted hands of my grandmother had thin ivory fingers, for instance. 

 The hands of Art, the landlord of an early home and a farmer, were thick and strong and missing at least one digit down to the knuckle, the result of an impatient personality and old farm machinery.  Not a great match.  I saw quite a few farmers with missing fingers.

 Fat Jack, who I wrote about here a ways back, had hands whose nails were longer than you might expect and permanently rimmed with the black from the oil and grease of the machines on which he was always working.  His hands were round and plump, like Jack himself, but surprisingly soft and nimble, good for manipulating the small nuts and bolts of his world.

There was a manager when I was in the world of automobiles who was a great guy but had extremely soft and damp hands.  It was like handling a cool dead fish when you shook hands.  A mushy, damp, boneless fish.

I admired working hands.  They reflected their use so perfectly, the scars and callouses  serving as badges of honor and the thick muscularity of the fingers attesting to the time spent at labor.  They seemed honest with nothing to hide.  They were direct indicators of that person’s life and world.

My own hands have changed over the years.  They were once more like working hands, calloused and thickening from many hours spent with a shovel.  There are a number of small scars from screwdrivers that jumped from the screwhead and into the flesh time and time again and another on the end of my middle finger from when I cut the very end of it off while trying to cut a leather strap with a hunting knife.  Not a great idea. 

I always felt confident when my hands were harder and stronger.  Now, I have lost some of that thickness of strength and the fingers are thinner and a bit softer from doing less manual labor.  I look at them now and wonder how I would have judged them when I was younger, when I measured a man by his hands, something that  I don’t do  now.  I now know there are better ways to measure a life, that the work of the mind is now a possibility– something that seemed a million miles away then.  But when I come across working hands, strong and hard, I find myself admiring them still.


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With all the heat lately, I’ve been seeking at least an imagined respite by looking at the work of Canadian printmaker David Blackwood, whose work I highlighted here a couple of years back.  Set in the Canadian North Atlantic provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland,  Blackwood weaves a black and white (sometimes with a bit of color) tapestry that is filled with the myth and mysticism of people who somehow survive in a cold and harsh landscape.  If you know of the book or movie  The Shipping News from Annie Proulx, you’ll be somewhat familiar with some of the tales that shaped Blackwood’s world.

I am always engrossed by both the sheer beauty of his images as well as this world he seeks to both document and create.  The stories have their own narrative but there is a quality to them that seems beyond the local flavor of it, as though they are telling some primal tales that are part of our collective memory, pieces of a whole that we don’t even realize we are part of or that even exists.  Maybe the stark desolation of this world makes this struggle for survival seem more evident, more contrasting.  Whatever the case, I find them beautiful to see and stimulating to the mind.  And they never look like 100 degrees in the shade.

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Here in my part of the world we’re trapped in that same heat bubble that is covering a huge chunk of the country.  Yesterday we broke local records with a temperature of 104 degrees and the old thermometer on the side of my garage here at the studio was showing 114 at one point- in the shade.  In some places you expecty this heat- the deep south and southwest, for example. 

 But we’re not used to it here.  At least, I’m not.  This morning at 5:30 the temps are already over 80 with signs of another scorcher on the way.  I will probably spend my day in the basement — my studio is not air-conditioned which under normal circumstances is no problem– where it is cooler, stretching and prepping some large canvasses.  At least, I will feel as though the day is somewhat productive.  It seems a far cry from when I used to spend my summers working all day in the sun, shovelling and wheelbarrowing in the extreme heat.  Or even when I worked as a candy cook at the A&P plant,  when the temperatures in our cooking areas would approach 130 degrees in the summer.  I don’t think I could do those things for even a short time now and when I think of the roofers and pavers out there, I realize how easy I have it now.

But enough about the weather.  Here’s a nice version of  Heatwave, the old Martha Reeves and the Vandellas classic.  This one is from Joan Osborne from the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown which tells of the great Funk Brothers band, playing on this track,  which backed most of those Motown hits that became our soundtrack for the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Joan Osborne became famous for her song One of Us   (What if God was one of us? / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on the bus / Tryin’ to make his way home?) which was played into the ground.  I never paid much attention to her until I saw her in a show with the Chieftains at Carnegie Hall on St. Patrick’s Day a number of years back and was really impressed by her voice.  She does this classic number justice.

Anyway, enjoy and stay cool!

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Changing Perspective

Yesterday, I wrote about paintings that are returned from a gallery and how my view of them has changed over the years.  In the comments, Clint, a staff member at the Principle Gallery (and a great guy ), wrote about he is often surprised by certain pieces that don’t sell at a show, pieces that seem to really strike a lot of people.  I, too, think it’s interesting to see what paintings don’t find a home despite much interest.

Sometimes it’s  just a matter of size when the painting starts to take on larger dimensions, such as paintings that are 30″ by40″ or larger.  The size naturally eliminates many collectors who simply don’t have the space.  The size also means that the pieces are more expensive which is also limiting.

But sometimes it’s not size or price.  Sometimes, like with the painting above, Defining Moment, it’s just not the right time or place.  It’s still a surprise although not as much as earlier in my career.  Then, I seemed to be able to tell when a painting was finished if it would leave the gallery quickly and was generally correct.   I could often tell that a painting would go quickly, often within hours of hitting the gallery.  But over the years I have seen this ability diminished and the paintings that I think will go quickly now seem to be the ones that linger, that don’t leap off the wall into the arms of a new owner.

I don’t know what has changed but think it may be that my eye has changed over this time.   Early on, I wasn’t far removed from my days where I worked at other jobs where I was serving and reading other people on a daily basis.  My eye was used to looking at things from someone else’s vantage point, a useful quality in any job where you are trying to satisfy other people, and I really think this allowed me to see my early work as others might.

  But over the years I have become more isolated in my studio, less attuned to reading other people.   My perspective now is only what I see in the piece, not what other’s eyes might see.  I suppose this is as it should be.  But it was pretty exciting when I felt like I was looking through other eyes and the work felt like it was someone else’s.  Now I solely judge a painting by what it does for me, knowing that it is my work.  Sometimes those pieces which most excite me take a bit longer to find someone whose reading of it matches mine.   

But they usually do find a like mind.  This I’ve learned.  So, even though they may not find a home quickly, I am patient in knowing they will eventually.

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The Returning

I went to the Kada Gallery yesterday to drop off some new work and to also retrieve some pieces that had been with them for a while, unsold.  It’s just part of this and almost every business, this  exchanging of new product  for older.  Of course, most artists try to dissassociate themselves from the concept of their work as a product but in the long run that is what it amounts to, in the business sense.  I know my work is a product when I deal with galleries as far as inventory andsales and such but also try to keep an equal footing with them in maintaining the artistic merits of my work.  It can be a fine line.

When I first started in this business, I viewed the return of work to me from a gallery as a failure of sorts.  My work had failed to spark the interest of any potential collector so there must be something amiss in the work was how I viewed it.  I mistakenly attached a shelf life to the work early on as a result.  But time passed and I soon realized that each locale had different tastes and preferences and that each gallery had their own way of presenting the work which affected how the different paintings were viewed.   After a time, I realized that the work was soon gone away to the homes of collectors, often after having been at one or more galleries previously.  It wasn’t a failure of the work when work was returned, it was simply not the time or place for those pieces that found their way back to me.  In almost every case, they found homes somewhere.

The sense of failure I experienced early on when work was returned also made me question the validity of my work.  I’ve often said that when you’re first showing your work, you want to sell every piece because every sale is a form of validation, a bolstering of your confidence in your own work.  So when work didn’t sell, it made me wuestion the value of the work.  But over time,  I recognized the error in thinking this way and actually began to hope that certain paintings didn’t sell, that I could somehow hold onto them a bit longer, as if holding onto a piece of myself that I had let go too soon.

So yesterday, when I picked up several paintings, including the one above,  I wasn’t disappointed.  Instead I was almost excited to see these paintings, to have them in my hands again.  Even now, as I glance over them scattered around the studio, I get a great sense of pleasure and fullness of self in having them there even though I know that eventually most will be gone.  Some I take great pride in and some have some sort of  personal bond.  But all feel like parts of me and, for the moment, it’s good to have these parts of myself back.

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