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These words from Adolph Gottlieb, the late Abstract Expressionist painter, ring true for me. I believe that art should acknowledge the presence of powerful forces that guide our lives, good or bad. As he points out, it is this awareness that fueled the myths and symbology that have lived with us since time immemorial.

For me, it is displayed in the underlying darkness of much of my work which is evident in even my most optimistic works. This darkness gives the work, at least to my way of seeing it, a sense of tension, a counterbalance that keeps the work centered. The most optimistic work still has a wariness in this darkness that acknowledges the dangers ahead and the hardships endured in the past.

Triumph of any sort is seen as a transient emotion, one that is to be savored in the moment and recalled in the future but short-lived in the present. The darkness is always hovering nearby, presenting a potential threat or a challenge or even a dramatic change that comes with both the possibility of utter defeat or a new triumph. It is this mystery that makes the darkness so appealing and necessary.

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For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I have been humming this tune since sometime yesterday afternoon. Maybe if I look closer at the lyrics, I can figure it out.

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Pull the string and I’ll wink at you, I’m your puppet
I’ll do funny things if you want me to, I’m your puppet
I’m yours to have and to hold
Darling you’ve got full control of your puppet
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Pull another string and I’ll kiss your lips, I’m your puppet
Snap your finger and I’ll turn you some flips, I’m your puppet
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Listen, your every wish is my command
All you gotta do is wiggle your little hand
I’m your puppet, I’m your puppet
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I’m just a toy, just a funny boy
That makes you laugh when you’re blue
I’ll be wonderful, do just what I’m told
I’ll do anything for you
I’m your puppet, I’m your puppet
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Pull them little strings and I’ll sing you a song, I’m your puppet
Make me do right or make me do wrong, I’m your puppet
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Treat me good and I’ll do anything
I’m just a puppet and you hold my string, I’m your puppet
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Darling, darling, pull the strings, let me sing you a song any day
I’m your puppet baby, you can sing for me all night long
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Yeah, that kind of reminds me of something I saw recently.
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Of course, I am having a little fun. It’s all I can do to not go into a rage after watching yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki. It was one of those events that will resonate forward through history and not in a good way. As presidential historian Jon Meacham said this morning, we are in the middle of this now, not at the start nor the end, and there is another shoe yet to drop. Yesterday shows that we have long passed a tipping point and it the only thing protecting our future now is our own action.
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Be a real citizen and don’t just take up space– pay attention. Ask your congressmen and senators questions and let them know how you feel. Make sure you are registered to vote and hit the polls hard. Encourage others to do the same.
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Speak up at every opportunity because it may be your last chance. I seriously mean that.
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The song, of course, is I’m Your Puppet from James and Bobby Purify back in 1966 , written by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn.

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Wake Up

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When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail.

–Pearl S. Buck

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I am tired this morning. Really tired.

It’s a feeling of exhaustion that feels physical at the moment, most likely from having a few nights in a row of not enough sleep along with days with not enough physical activity due to circumstances beyond my control. But I know that part of this fatigue is emotional and anxiety based.

It’s an exhaustion I am sure many of us here in the US are suffering from at this point in time. We see an unraveling of what we believe is our national identity. We once saw our nation as being a welcoming and generous land that was strengthened by the diversity and energy of those who aspired to become citizens of this country. Our history is filled with the great accomplishments of those who were forced to flee their homelands and come to this land.

This was a country that stood against tyranny and oppression. We fought and died in wars against these evils. We united with other like minded nations to stand as a monolith against the dark actions of  the evils perpetrated by despots.

The inalienable rights of all humans were part of who we were.

Right was our might. The beacon that Lady Liberty holds high in NY Harbor held real meaning to the rest of the world. Our ideal was the world’s ideal and this country was a light of hope in an often dark world.

It is easy to argue that we didn’t always live up to the ideal image that we held. We often fell short. But so long as we maintained that ideal as a beacon to guide us, to move us somehow forward, we felt assured that goodness would somehow prevail.

But it seems to me, as I believe it does to many others, that this ideal is crumbling before our eyes.

Our might is no longer right.

We have replaced our generosity with a meanness of spirit that turns a blind eye to the suffering of the most vulnerable among us. Instead of fighting tyrants and despots, we now attack our most loyal allies while embracing our longtime adversaries, praising them, defending them and ever more employing their tactics to control our own people.

The use of misinformation, outright lies, fear and intimidation is on the rise. There is evidence of corruption that is on an epic scale. Regulations and rules meant to protect the majority of us have been stripped away to benefit the wealthiest, who have seemingly purchased outright control of our government.

The ideal that we once held seems like a distant memory. And that is exactly what is will be if we do not exercise the only power remaining with us, the power to vote. And even that is under assault.

Like I said, all of this makes me tired, makes me want to tune out and not pay attention. I hear this all the time from a lot of different people. And if you’re okay with a world without us maintaining that ideal image we once held, I guess that’s okay. But be warned that this a slippery slope and we are already losing our balance. What seems like a small thing today quickly becomes something consequential when you knock down the barriers that once hold them in check.

And when these now small things become bigger and more terrible in their scope, what will you say you did to stop it when there was still a chance? Will you say you were so tired of it all and opted to look the other way? That’s been done before. Take a look at the films of people who lived in Nazi-ruled countries, folks who lived near Death Camps and claimed they had no idea what was going on. It’s an ugly thing to behold.

Inaction and willful ignorance are enablers of all things evil.

So, I’m tired. You’re tired. We’re all tired.

Well, that’s too bad because unless we stay awake, stay involved and do all that we can do, that ideal we once held is doomed. Lady Liberty might as well be replaced by a statue of the current president holding both arms high above his head. Instead of holding a beacon of freedom, he will be giving us all the finger- one hand outward towards the rest of the world and the other inward towards us, the American people.

Believe me when I say I don’t want to write this. I’m an artist. I would rather write about art or movies or music or literature. Anything else. But I feel compelled to do what little I can to keep folks awake and involved.

Myself, included. So, please, wake up. Don’t tune out now. Don’t give in to fatigue.

There is still hope.

 

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You’re not going to hear any snarky comments from me on this even though the photo is obviously begging for one. There’s no context here so it’s a bit unfair to for me to shake my fist and yell for these kids to put down their telephoney-machines and get off my lawn.

Maybe they were asked to do some quick research by their teacher about Rembrandt and his masterpiece, The Night Watch, the painting shown in this photo from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I don’t really know.

But it does provide a stark example of how we often forget to experience the here and now, how we fail to calmly sit back and just take in our surroundings. Often, our present moment and place holds something remarkable and real.

I can’t say that we are better or worse off for being so tethered to technology. A case can definitely be made for either. But we should not lose our ability to look and listen, to engage and absorb the world directly around us. Without that ability there will be no more epic paintings made for future generations to ignore.

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I am sure there are plenty of artists who would argue this point made by Jackson Pollock. Like religion, many would most likely defend their chosen means of expression as the best.

But I think he is saying there is no one right way, no one technique that ranks above all others in issuing an artist’s statement. Each artist’s individual voice comes through their own chosen technique. Their statement–their statement of belief, if you will– arrives via that technique.

I know that’s been my experience. I am generally looking for a statement of some sort from an artist in their work, something that displays their own truth regardless of how it is expressed.

Something that makes me feel the need to look at it.

It can be in any style, stretching from the most refined painting created by a classically schooled artist down to an untrained folk artist who uses their local mud as their painting medium because that is all that is at hand. So long as each is earnestly created (and that is an important distinction) and provokes a true emotional response, any and all technique is valid.

To bring it back to the religious analogy, the earnest belief of the lone person sitting in a decrepit hut somewhere may be as valid as that of  a priest in the grandest cathedral.

Art, like religion, is diminished when we fail to see the validity of all other voices.

 

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There a new piece on the easel right now that is at a point in it’s progress that has me chomping at the bit to get to work this morning. I thought, in the name of expediency, I would share a post from a few years back about trusting yourself when it comes to something like art. I know a lot of people who won’t go into galleries or museums because they think they don’t know anything about art and feel intimidated. That’s a shame because you don’t need to know anything about art except how you react to it. Have a look:

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He knows all about art, but he doesn’t know what he likes.

–James Thurber

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James Thurber Cartoon Art CriticThis may not technically qualify as a quote but who cares?  The message in this cartoon from the great James Thurber is so simply put and true and that’s what I am looking for in a good quote.

 And art.

That’s what I like.

In the past I’ve talked about how many people are intimidated by the idea of art, feeling that they don’t know anything about art.  This leaves them not trusting their own eyes and their own reactions to any given piece of art.

And that is a pity because art is mainly about the reaction to it.  Art is a reactive agent, reaching out and stirring something in the viewer.  All of the knowledge in the world about a piece of art cannot make you like that piece of work if it doesn’t first strike that chord that raises some sort of emotional response within you.

And I think most of us know within a few moments whether a work of art speaks to us or leaves us cold.  The trick comes in recognizing this realization and feeling okay with it.

I’ll admit that there are many celebrated works of art out there that do absolutely nothing for me.  They may have historical importance or elements of beauty or great craftsmanship in them but they simply don’t raise any emotional response within me.

I might be able to appreciate them but the bottom line is that I don’t like them, plain and simple.  That doesn’t mean I’m right or wrong.  It just means I know what I like.

And I accept that criteria from anybody, even with my own work.  While it would be nice to think that it speaks to everyone, I know this is an impossibility.  I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t like my work– in polite and respectful terms, thankfully– and I’m okay with that.

They know what they like.  And that’s good enough for me.

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I don’t paint like a woman is supposed to paint. Thank God, art doesn’t bother about things like that.

Alice Neel

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Thursday was International Women’s Day and I saw an article on social media that asked if you could name five female artists. It wasn’t difficult for me but this is what I do so I am regularly scanning the work of others, past and present. I see a lot of work by women that is incredible and have been directly influenced by many of these women.

But I could imagine for the casual observer it might be a difficult thing to name five female artists. Any honest person that does a quick scan of the history of art can plainly see that this field has long been dominated by males. But this makes it like most other fields of endeavor and reflects a societal bias that has often long placed less importance on the accomplishments and the self-expression of women.

It is something that must and will change. It is changing before our eyes.  I say that because I have had the great fortune to be associated with a number of galleries that feature increasingly large rosters of female artists. This is not by design. It’s just that more and more interesting and wonderful work is being done by female artists who have finally realized that their voice, their expression, should be secondary to no one.

I have seen the numbers grow substantially over the years and am excited by it, mainly because the things that I see in the art that attracts me are usually perspective dependent, not gender dependent. Anything that broadens the field and gives a wider range of viewpoints and more options is a good thing in my opinion.  The gender, or race or nationality, of the artist should not play a role in our perception of their work unless that work deals directly with these subjects.

Hopefully, soon an artist will simply be an artist. Not a female artist or a black artist or a Latino artist or whatever subtitle people choose to attach before the word artist.

One of the artists that jumped to mind for me when I read the question about naming five female artists was Alice Neel (1900-1984) who was famed for her portraiture. She had a very distinct way of using color and always followed her personal muse, never adhering to any particular genre or school. She was a bold painter in a time when the female artist was still very much underappreciated. In the years since her death she has gained great recognition for he work. I urge you to take a closer look at her work and her life.

Alice Neel. Hartley. 1966. oil on canvas. 127 x 91,5cm. gift of Arthur M. Bullowa. National Gallery of Art Washington.

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