Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In Memoriam

I just discovered that at the same time I finished the painting below, my aunt, Betty Speer Burke, whom I was on my way to visit this weekend, passed on. I believe her love, grace and energy contributed to the beauty of this painting. I will miss her.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


While waiting for the other one to dry enough so that I could finish it, I think I almost accidentally finished this one. Now I'm on my last tube of white, scraping the dregs of the wax medium, ditto the gesso can, almost out of yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red dark, payne's gray--all the expensive colors, in fact.

Now is the time when the hordes of adoring slaves who work for free descend upon me, wash my brushes, feed the cat, go to the grocery store, pay the bills, go to Pearl and pick up the paint, stretch the new canvases, cook my dinner, and give me a massage.

Okay? Slaves?

Maybe those fumes are affecting me worse than I realized...

I'm going to this, probably

Hey, I have access to a 25% discount to hear Laurie Anderson, Nellie McKay, Joan Osborne and Suzanne Vega sing with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM on Thursday, February 1. Does anyone else want to go? Email me ASAP if so.

Monday, January 29, 2007


I dunno, I think I'm kind of liking this one, despite some problems, and despite the fact that this is proving to be yet another color palette which is impossible to photograph.

What I'm not liking is the fact that whenever I get working at what I think should be my standard level of productivity, the fumes in my studio (due mainly to the Damar in the beeswax medium, since I use odorless mineral spirits for thinning) become rapidly overwhelming.

I am now sitting in my studio in the middle of winter in New York City, during a snowstorm, with the window open and a fan set to 'max extract.'

This would not be such a concern if I did not also sleep in my studio. It's not that the studio is in the bedroom, it's that the loft-bed is in the studio because there was nowhere else to put it.

And despite the fan, the central heating circulation, and the HEPA filter running 24/7, I don't think this is good for me. I'm waking up with a scratchy throat and going through the day with a headache.

Most younger artists, I have noticed, think that safety and health precautions are for wimps. They live in industrial neighborhoods, sand without a respirator, weld without protective clothing, and use the kind of paint thinner that, well, peels paint. Without gloves. I know, because I used to be one of these artists.

I'm not anymore, but at the moment, there's just no help for it. Life is about doing what you need to do, above all, and if that proves hazardous, then so be it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

For the time being

I do believe this one is done.

Now I think I'll turn it toward the wall and do the next three as fast as possible. Thinking too much may be counterproductive at the moment.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Many Rants

So I've been out and about a bit lately, going to art exhibits that don't involve Chelsea. Chris Rywalt and J.T. Kirkland have pretty much summed up the reasons I'm determinedly avoiding Chelsea at the moment, and possibly forever. I'll quote you some of the best bits:
What I found in the gallery, however, was three paintings and an installation consisting of a pile of cardboard boxes. In the corner of the boxes sat some unfortunate performer in too-tight shorts and a homemade papier-mâché Batman mask playing with an old kiddie electronic keyboard and occasionally singing along very badly....

As usual, Anthony fell into the fine artist trap of being unable to competently reproduce cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and SpongeBob, and ultimately his message was hopelessly shallow: Corporations use the same techniques to sell porn that they use to sell movies for kids! Sex sells! Won't someone think of the children?

I tried to give the show some slack, I really did. Then I noticed that there were three small LCD screens set crudely into some of the stacked boxes, and one of them was showing footage of the World Trade Center on September 11th. That did it for me: This show was not deserving of any goodwill. It simply sucked.

I've been visiting Chelsea almost every week day for the past 3 weeks during lunchtime. On each visit I get to see about 10 shows, sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on if anything catches my eye. Today's visit was the last straw though. Art sucks. Let me re-phrase, the contemporary art in Chelsea sucks. It all looks the same. It all looks bad.

...Last night an artist stopped by my show and we got to talking about artist statements and how he struggles with them. He told me about a gallery in Brooklyn that he was talking to and that they thought an artist statement was critical. They said that galleries use them to determine which packages should be looked at.

I told this artist that any gallery that looked at a statement before the images was not a gallery for me and I felt it shouldn't be for any other artist. If a gallery can't determine for itself if they want to look at the images, well, the art world is in more trouble than I thought.

And then, the mother of all art rants, courtesy of J.T., which I recommend that anyone who genuinely cares about the state of art in the world today go read:

...many will confuse the questions with conceptual sophistication or radical sentiment. It is only the former, if even that. Triple Candie's strategy is an attempt to purchase credibility using the tokens accepted as currency, in every sense, in the contemporary art world: the raising of questions. It's no more radical than a Kyoto office worker paying for his soba noodles with yen. To think otherwise indicates a kind of blindness that I find hard to explain except that careers are riding on it. I'm reminded of the Upton Sinclair quote that has become a favorite of Al Gore's: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

There you go.

The study of art, I believe, is a lot like the study of ethics. Something that is clear to people with a cohesive set of spiritual beliefs, and utterly unclear to those without, is that you cannot have an internally consistent set of ethics without a conceptual grounding in something transcendent--i.e. a belief in God, Spirit, or some other over-arching, non-relative force.

The current art world is lacking this transcendent standard, in a big way. The standard has become, simply, egotism. It's all about how well you can leverage and amplify your tics, strangenesses, stupid ideas, arcane rhetoric, Sisyphean processes, and personal connections into some monstrosity that approximates a theory in form, but is utterly hollow at the core. To quote my friends above, it sucks.

For me, the question "what is Great Art?" is easy to answer. Great art is charged. As in, a charged particle or a field, a cohesive interactive force which influences and reacts with the space around it. Bad art is inert. It's as simple as that.

Look, HERE:

This, obviously, is "The Milkmaid," by Jan Vermeer.

I'd like you, just for a moment, to forget this is a wickedly well-drafted painting of a woman pouring milk. I'd like you to forget that it was painted by a then-obscure, now-famous Dutchman in the seventeenth century. I'd like you to forget that this painting is so famous that it's now a cliché. Those things are NOT IMPORTANT.

What I'd like you to do is observe the WALL behind her head.

Let me help you.

Is this 'empty space'? Is it even 'negative space'? Is it a depiction of a white wall? Is it a bunch of dirty, oily stuff, stuck to an ancient piece of cloth?

Is it just sitting there, or is it DOING SOMETHING?

From my perspective, and from the perspective of the vast canon of art historians who have finally agreed that this painting is Great, it is not just sitting there. It is blowing you ACROSS THE ROOM. The contrasts are simultaneously subtle and dramatic, the forms are familiar and strange, the tension is both frictive and harmonious. It is not just the depiction of light, of form, of space, it is the energetic whammification of the EXISTENCE of light, form, and space.

I don't know how to be any clearer than that.

Here, we have what may be my favorite painting of all time. I sat in front of it in Mexico City for about twenty minutes, despite the fact that I only had one day to see the whole of Mexico City, due to the fact that Mexico City is mind-bogglingly unsafe, and my host was a lunatic.

This is "La gran galaxia," by Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo is a painter who barely registers on the radar in the enlightened old art world in Europe and the USA, but the Mexicans in their superior taste and wisdom have devoted a major museum entirely to him.

This painting, like the Vermeer, is not about a figure of a person in a landscape. That's only the excuse. The painting is about the fact that being a human in an awesome mysterious universe is, well, mysterious and awesome.

It also packs an energetic punch that leaves you gasping on the floor.

Stars. Blue. Black. Whack.



This is where I'm coming from. These are the principles which inform the work I do. Not idle, made-up 'questions,' not precious, pretentious references, not the desire to be Special and Different and Strange. My work comes from the deep spiritual need to create an intensely, strangely, deeply, darkly beautiful object which is simultaneously simple and complex, evocative and mysterious, resonant and ambiguous, which knocks you across the room.

This is not quite done:

From my perspective, it's now falling apart mostly at the mid-to-lower left quadrant, in the background. It's too fiddly, too chaotic. It needs to be simpler, more direct, more assertive.

But by and large, it's not half bad. You should see it in person.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Thinking and feeling

Sayeth Chris:
I feel torn between these two ends. Painting from feeling and painting from thinking.

Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. Are they? Are they for me?
Replyeth Dandy:
I'm finding that in addition to the "ass in studio", brush-in-hand work, I also have mental visions that, damn it, really ARE the thing, too! In times past I would have dismissed them, not given them credance as "the real stuff", because they seem to come from my brain instead of my hand. But you know what? I think I've actually just gotten a shorter route from my creative center to my awareness such that sometimes my hand can be left out of the circuit, at least for a moment.

What I find is that it's a constant process of bouncing back and forth between the two, and bootstrapping myself along, basing each new piece on everything I've learned before.

Because let's face it, if you attack a canvas with sheer emotion and no skill, you're going to get a mud pie. A deeply felt mud pie, but a mud pie nonetheless.

However, if you approach painting from a purely cerebral place, the results will be academic and lifeless; they also won't push the boundaries of painting, whether that painting be good, bad or indifferent. A purely academic painting, in this day and age, in my humble opinion, isn't 'art' at all. It's a technical exercise.

I spent a lot of years doing paintings which I now consider to have been technical exercises. One of my primary concerns was painting light; it was important to me that I not merely depict luminosity, but that the actual object have a presence that was as close to radiance as possible.

'Paris Bridge,' oil on panel, 1998

I got that down. People started buying the paintings. I could probably have landed myself a decent dealer at that point, if I had stayed in San Francisco and continued cranking them out in the same vein.

So what did I do but move to Mexico and commence making mud pies. I didn't know at all where I was going with them; something in me just needed to push the envelope.

What I found, eventually, after generating a huge pile of bulky, problematic, strange paintings, was that all that technical work informed my ability to express myself more abstractly. I understood the principles of form, composition, color, medium and brushwork (or palette-knife-and-handwork; some days I never even pick up an actual brush) well enough to create an abstract painting which contained those same qualities of radiance and organic movement which the realistic ones depicted.

Also, I find that now when I get a mental vision of something abstract, I have the technical chops to manifest it effectively. This is still not easy and sometimes takes months of scraping down and re-working. But the technical principles remain the same, and there is still no compromising.

For example, with this one I'm working on now--part of what I'm doing is creating a tension of color, energy and texture between the intricate mandala form in the center, and the ferocious energy of the rest of the painting, as though they were coming from two different levels of reality. One of the most important things is not to paint the 'smooth' part in a flat, predictable way; I have to keep the brushwork interesting, and the color built up by layers of glazes so that it has depth, as though you were looking into a pool.

Using beeswax medium and a palette knife for the background, and stand-oil medium and brushes for the mandala further emphasizes the contrast.

As you can see, this one still has quite a ways to go. Just because something is abstract, doesn't mean it's random; I am constantly making decisions about balance, hue, contrast and color, so that the whole thing eventually projects the vibration that I'm experiencing.

The good news is that the break seems to have made a New Artist of me. I'm having no problem motivating myself to spend the vast majority of every day in the studio. Let's just hope the money holds out.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ahhh. Fumes.

Eight hours into the first and second and, in some places, third layers of paint on the Stravinsky painting.

Funny thing--I listened to "Apollon Musagete" once through while working, then turned the music off and talked with my sister for about four hours, with the music playing in my head. Then, about 11 PM, WQXR started playing the piece that had been running in my head for eight hours. Nice recording, with the Amsterdam Symphony. Not something that WQXR usually plays, either.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Picking up the pieces

For the last six months, I've had a primed, stained, compositionally-drawn canvas depicting a falling dragon, leaning against the wall. I have not been able to bring myself to finish the painting; the more I took it out and looked at it, the more I didn't want to paint that painting anymore. It seemed illustrative, redundant, too much like a painting I've already painted and don't have an interest in doing again.

So it sat there.

Also sitting there were some mandalas based on a moth which was obligingly posing on the door in Maine.

Also, in my head there started growing this image, in shades of yellow, gold, rose and ochre, which seemed to be based on Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete.

I've wanted to do something with 'Apollon Musagete' ever since seeing a film of Edward Villella dancing Balanchine's Apollo, back in high school, when I was still doing ballet training six days a week, despite the growing suspicion that it was literally, physically impossible for people with feet like mine to become professional ballet dancers. I've since looked everywhere a librarian can think to look, for a copy of that film; I believe it is mouldering away in a closet somewhere, on a black and white 16mm reel. I've resigned myself to never seeing it again.

Edward Villella actually is a god. I can't describe the film any better than that.

I took a master class from Edward Villella, once. Despite the fact that it IS literally, physically impossible for people with feet like mine to become professional ballet dancers, Edward Villella did not completely ignore my presence in his classroom. He came up to me, looked into my eyes, held out his arm, and said, "Circles."

While in art school, I seriously considered building a huge machine that whirled circular stained-glass windows around, in order to capture the brilliance, the movement of that music. My sculpture professor at the time completely failed to understand why I'd want to bother with that. Now I understand that either you're kinesthetic, or you're not, and people who aren't don't even perceive the energy of movement as a potential for expression.

But it's a lot simpler to simply create lines which imply movement, and colors which contain the brilliance.

So here I am, in the new year, branching out into near-total abstraction. I've been futzing around, of course--cleaning the studio, de-cluttering the top of the microwave, ordering stretcher bars, replacing all the light bulbs, going to yoga classes, attending science lectures and literary readings and live music performances, working on clients, making financial plans, but eventually I'm going to have to put some paint down.

You know how it is, after you've taken a break for awhile; the first stroke is always the hardest.