Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Most Fundamental Form of Passion

Charles Burchfield
"November Sun Emerging"
Watercolor on paper
37 3/4 x 31 7/8 inches
"[How] can we account for that irresistible instinct in our hearts which leads us towards unity whenever and in whatever direction our passions are stirred? A sense of the universe, a sense of the all, the nostalgia which seizes us when confronted by nature, beauty, music - these seem to be an expectation and awareness of a Great Presence. [...] Resonance to the All - the keynote of pure poetry and pure religion. Once again: what does this phenomenon, which is born with thought and grows with it, reveal if not a deep accord between two realities which seek each other; the severed particle which trembles at the approach of 'the rest'?

We are often inclined to think that we have exhausted the various natural forms of love with a man's love for his wife, his children, his friends and to a certain extent for his country. Yet precisely the most fundamental form of passion is missing from this list, the one which, under the pressure of an involuting universe, precipitates the elements one upon the other in the Whole cosmic affinity and hence cosmic sense. A universal love is not only psychologically possible; it is the only complete and final way in which we are able to love."

- excerpt from The Phenomenon of Man, by paleontologist, geologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Image credit:Burchfield image ripped from Mark Harden's Artchive

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Practice of Naming

Christopher van Donkelaar
"Adam Naming the Animals"
Handmade pigments and mixed media
"Praise to the first man who wrote down this joy clearly, for we cannot remain in love with what we cannot name."

- Robert Bly
A lover of etymology and taxonomy, one of my most cherished reference books is Arthur Frederick Gotch's Latin Names Explained: A Guide to the Scientific Classification of Reptiles, Birds and Mammals. In it, Gotch catalogs and dissects the scientific names of some 4,000 animal species. That number appears relatively insignificant when we consider that biologists estimate 25,000 species of bird, mammal, and reptile currently exist on Earth, but Gotch's record is so far unparalleled. Each entry provides the animal's common and scientific names, followed by an explication of the Latin and Greek and, sometimes, a blurb about the species' range and habitat.

For example, consider Gotch's entry on one of my very favorite North American snake species:
Copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix
agkistrodon (Gr) a fish-hook; odon (Gr) a tooth; a reference to the curved fangs, though of course they are not barbed; contorqueo (L) I twist, turn; contortus (L) full of turns, twisted; contortrix (L) one that is able to turn, twist. Inhabiting the south-eastern part of the USA including Florida. The top of the head is reddish brown.
Although the range information suggests that the copperhead is more confined to the southeastern United States than the species and subspecies actually are - they thrive in New York State, for example - Gotch's entry informs readers that the snake commonly called a copperhead is universally and technically named Fish-hook shaped tooth twister or, if you prefer, The Twisting One With Hook Shaped Teeth. Knowledge of this name allows me to appreciate the beautiful reptile from another angle.

But what's in a name, really?

Although I'm generally baffled by Biblical literalism, I appreciate the Genesis accounts of creation for their gratifying metaphor. In particular, I'm drawn to rabbinic and Jewish mystics' interpretations of the conjoined, aboriginal narratives. More so than their Christian counterparts, Jewish theologians and mystics endow language and names with ontological significance. The Hebrew alphabet is understood as a powerful code: the written word is creative potential, and the spoken word, procreative. The god of Genesis 1 creates neither with a wave of the hand nor by shaping raw material, but by speaking the world into being; annunciation and incantation are the means of creation. Because of the vocative nature of naming, observant Jews place great value on words and speech. (They are even prohibited utterance of the tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew name of God, transliterated as Yahweh. Appropriately enough, the colloquial name for God is Hashem, or "the word.")

In Genesis 2, the creator god is anthropomorphized and physically involved with creation, shaping man and the other animals from earth. Yet the power of language and names remains significant in this account. God asks Adam, the first naked ape, to name all of the other animal species. That's no mean task, and apparently Adam died before he finished the job. His descendants, at least the taxonomists among them, are still working at the task of naming.

But even those individuals who do not share my affection for taxonomy will find value in a practice of observation and naming. As Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes in her recent New York Times paean to taxonomy, "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World,"
"Even when scads of insistent wildlife appear with a flourish right in front of us, and there is such life always — hawks migrating over the parking lot, great colorful moths banging up against the window at night — we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. Give a nod to Professor Franclemont and meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you."
Beautiful. Let's name something.

See also "The Plant Whisperer," another brief HH essay considering similar ideas.

Image credit: van Donkelaar painting ripped from the Nurturing Faith website

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lowbrow Meets Highbrow

Issue of Juxtapoz Magazine
Cover art by Shepard Fairy
"A frog is either lowbrow or highbrow.

If you catch it, it's low. If you order it in a French restaurant, it's high."

-Unidentified chef, from Burkhard Bilger's Noodling for Flatheads
In 2007, commenting on the blog PaintersNYC, artist Kelli Williams observed that it's hard to be a Juxtapoz artist "in an ArtForum world." Juxtapoz is a popular magazine dedicated to showcasing contemporary "lowbrow art." It was founded by the artist Robert Williams in 1994. The "ArtForum world" of Kelli William's statement references the magazine of that name, but also the "high art" scene it covers, of which New York City, for the time being, remains an - if not the - epicenter. Until recently, the artwork featured in ArtForum was very different from that seen in the pages of Juxtapoz. Juxtapoz is representative of the Los Angeles art scene, and the U.S. west coast scene more generally, where the aesthetics of pop surrealism, folk art, post-graffiti, or street art are wholly embraced.

But artwork infused by Juxtapoz's colorful spirit is no longer uncommon in New York galleries. Andrew Schoultz, Tim Biskup, and Jeff Soto, talented west coast artists regularly lauded in the pages of Juxtapoz, today exhibit with the Morgan Lehman and Jonathan Levine galleries, and influential post-graffiti artist Barry "Twist" McGee is represented by the renowned Deitch Projects. Jonathan Levine makes plain his dedication to the post-graffiti aesthetic; his gallery's website states that its mission is to exhibit "work influenced by illustration, comic books, graffiti art and pop imagery." Perhaps it's no longer so hard, then, to be a Juxtapoz artist "in an ArtForum world"?

But, more importantly, does lowbrow art require the affirmation of the "high art" world - for easy contrast, let's call it highbrow art - in order to be considered mainstream or legitimate? If so, what exactly is the cultural significance of highbrow art to the world at large?

Jeff Soto
"Purple Heart"
Acrylic on wood
12 x 12 inches

The commercial success of books like Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture and Wall and Piece, the latest offering from the infamous British artist, Banksy, suggest that pop surrealism, post-graffiti, and street art succeed in connecting with the multitudes. On the other hand, it's an uncontroversial fact that highbrow art generally doesn't move the masses (with the exception of its remarkable ability to offend the religious sensibilities of the Christian Right and certain mayors). But highbrow art doesn't simply fail to connect with the general population; the fact is, most folks sneer at, mistrust, or resent ArtForum's world.

Perhaps because they feel beleaguered by popular tastes, many players in the world of highbrow art - artists, gallerists, critics, and curators alike - reject the influx of pop surrealism and post-graffiti flavor. But their objections will inevitably prove inconsequential; as the Borg of "Star Trek" put it, "resistance is futile." Even if some of the more esoteric subcultures of the Juxtapoz arena - Tiki culture, for example - are unlikely to find a toehold in the world of "high art," the graphic influences common to post-graffiti work already inform the paintings of contemporary art world darlings like Dana Schutz, Marcel Dzama, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ryan McGuinness, Lisa Yuskavage, Yoshitomo Nara, and Jules de Balincourt. (In fact, Dzama and McGuinness have been featured in Juxtapoz; it won't be long before other celebrated highbrow artists are, too. One wonders if the lowbrow label will be applicable for much longer.) And then there are artists like Judith Schaechter, whose stained glass works were lauded in the pages of Juxtapoz years before her work hung in the Whitney Museum or before she received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.

Judith Schaechter
"Hyena Snake Comet"
Stained glass
30 x 33 inches

Much of the highbrow resistance to pop surrealism and post-graffiti is rooted in the self-identified elites' distrust of populism. Comic books and strips are intended for mass consumption, but graffiti is unquestionably the most populist of the lowbrow tributaries. No art form has fewer barriers to entry; all you need is a can of spray paint and a little chutzpah. Ask someone knowledgeable about the subject to relate the history of modern graffiti, and you'll likely hear an abridged version, one that begins in the 1970s, in and around New York City's Bronx River Houses, and runs parallel to the development of hip hop. City funding for arts and culture programs was pitifully low at the time, and enterprising teens looked for new ways to entertain and express themselves. As Lady Pink, an influential graffiti artist of the late 1970s and 1980s, explains, graffiti was the most available "forum for free speech."

Of course, the human urge to make marks predates the Bronx River Houses by millennia. Our ancestors depicted their quarry on cave walls and, more recently, citizens of ancient Rome scribbled their political opinions on market stalls (hence the word's etymology, from the Italian graffiare, meaning "to scratch or scribble.") But during the early days of modern graffiti's ascendancy, practitioners prioritized ego over observation or socio-political commentary. The pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s graffiti scenes in New York City and Philadelphia - Taki 183, StayHigh 149, Cat 161, and Cornbread, among others - were primarily known for their "tags," stylized monikers spray painted on walls and subway cars. They vied for renown by tagging as many surfaces as they could, and walls that were difficult to access had a special cache. The competitive behavior of these early graffiti "artists" might be best described as base scent marking, activity essentially indistinguishable from the industry of the bored high school student who scratches "(x) was here" on the wall of the bathroom stall. Fortunately, as more artists entered the nascent graffiti scene, such adolescent "battling" became insufficient impetus; soon, the egotistical tag evolved into something more colorful and complex. Artists added characters, often comic in nature, a result of their limited palettes and time frame, and, before long, these characters evolved into "pieces" (short for masterpieces). The best graffiti artists came to value style and artistry as much as placement.

The conceptual and social strengths of graffiti and street art are rooted in the artists' acceptance of temporality and his or her desire to engage the environment and citizenry directly. As Simon Hattenstone, a features writer for The Manchester Guardian, writes, "Since spotting my first few Banksies I have been desperately seeking out more. They make me smile and feel optimistic about the possibilities of shared dreams and common ownership." Insofar as it is truly democratic, the street artist's approach is fundamentally distinct from that of those who aspire to "high art" success. "Fine artists" are essentially aristocratic in inclination. They are the elites who operate within the context of "high art" institutions; their work is most often viewed in semi-sacred, unlived in spaces, by people who talk about the work in reverent whispers. Street art, by contrast, is viewed by everybody who happens past the artwork. But, today, as the post-graffiti movement sees many of its more celebrated artists entering the "high art" sphere, the populist flavoring of the culture is eroding.

Artwork on West Bank barrier between Israel and the West Bank

Is the aesthetic melting pot a bad thing? The answer depends on your perspective, of course; personally, I'm all for it. Like many contemporary artists, I'm not alone in feeling that my artwork and aesthetic inclinations plant a standard somewhere between the poles of Juxtapoz and ArtForum. Just as I feel torn between my rural roots and the creative community and energy of city life, so too am I drawn to elements of both art orbits, east and west, highbrow and lowbrow. I live and work in New York, so I've cultivated an appreciation for the importance of conceptual heft. But I'm also an erstwhile subscriber to Juxtapoz who, in my youth, eagerly thumbed through the pages of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, read fantasy novels and comic books, and honed my drawing chops by copying from comic strips. Perhaps I'm biased, then, but it seems that aesthetic commingling introduces hybrid vigor into otherwise "inbred" scenes.

Too many circles of the "high art" world are poisoned by intellectual pretension, obscurantism, and exclusivity. The ArtForum world is principally concerned with auction results and art historical significance. In east coast MFA programs, the mills of the contemporary "high art" world, a common question asked of students is, "Where does your work fit in the historical trajectory?" Indeed, at great cost to social legitimacy, the "high art" world has prioritized originality and artistic genealogy.

Much of the "lowbrow" scene, by contrast, is blighted by the artists' focus on disposable pop culture, their willingness to cozy up to the marketing machine, and their populist posturing. In an interview with Juxtapoz, one young artist said,
"When it comes right down to it, I draw the stuff I like, and people can take it all for whatever they want. I would say that 95 percent is liking big boobs and butts, the other five percent is brain farts that end up in a sketchbook that later ends up as a painting or whatever."
Although I wrote down this quotation without recording the artist's name, I do recall appreciating some of his graphic skill. Still, when I'm confronted with such a thoughtless statement, I can appreciate the animus that brooding, theory-oriented types have for lowbrow art. Where is the evidence of this young artist's vocational mindfulness, his rigorous passion, his poetic sensibility? Of course, his defenders would likely praise his candor, but, in truth, he's posturing as much as the bespectacled, black-clad fellow who insists in his jargon-laden artist statement that Jacques Derrida informs all of his output.

Marcel Dzama
Watercolor on paper
14 x 11 inches

Despite haughty sneers from individuals on both sides, it seems to me that the transition that so many post-graffiti artists are making, from the streets to the galleries, could (and should) help create a less sectarian art world. The selfish pretensions of the highbrow art world could be tempered by an influx of no-nonsense, illustrative exuberance, and the lowbrow art world could jettison some of their conceptual superficiality by taking the philosophical and moral obligations of their vocation more seriously. That is, in any case, my hope.

Image credits: Juxtapoz cover image ripped from Rotofugi.com;; Jeff Soto image ripped from the Jonathan Levine Gallery website; Judith Schaechter image ripped from the artist's website; Banksy image ripped from the Brian Sewell Art Directory; Marcel Dzama image ripped from David Zwirner website

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Castle Builder

This past December, a co-worker and fellow artist, Adam Ogilvie, turned me on to this terrific 5-minute video. Entitled "Bishop's Castle," the short is a well-edited introduction to Jim Bishop, an under-known contemporary artist.

Working alone on weekends (and four weekdays during the summer), the high school dropout and iron worker has constructed the eponymous Bishop's Castle in the Rocky Mountains, just outside the tiny, central Colorado town of Beulah. He began the project in 1969. At the time, he only intended to build a stone cabin, but, forty years later, that cabin has grown into an incongruous marvel.

In the first two minutes of the video, Jim Bishop seems the very picture of Outsider art heroism. Bishop works for ego and for "the glory of God." He characterizes his efforts as those of an honorable "peon," and his astonishing creation is, as he puts it, a "one-man project, donation box basis." The artist is justifiably proud of his remarkable accomplishment. Bishop's castle is not a funded public art project, yet it's far more impressive than Christo's Central Park "Gates" or Eliasson's "Waterfalls."

Not surprisingly, the castle's construction has been fraught with legal battles (over insurance, material use, and zoning) and even tragedy. In 1988, Bishop's four-year-old son, Roy, was killed at the castle site, apparently crushed by a tree that Bishop felled. One of the castle's towers is named after Roy, and Bishop says that he will inter his son's ashes there.

A rough-worn, charismatic man, Bishop tosses off memorable quips: "Engineering without money is ingenuity."; "I'm building this for myself. Basically, I'm an egotist." Early on in the short, his rugged individualist act is endearing but, as the video advances, a darker side of Bishop is revealed. He begins to rant about our nation's eroding morals and the assault on our civil liberties. Although his convictions are not entirely without merit, his attacks on big government seem increasingly irrational. Near the video's end, he shouts from one of the castle's towers, seemingly possessed by a God-given vitriol. "I'm about to pass out. I'm getting...I'm....I just gotta get the blood in the right place now. Get that camera rolling! I'm doing work! I benefit everybody!...I'm the anti-devil!" Come again?

Still, like Jean Dubuffet, I believe that (with the exception of Sunday painters) those artists wiling away in obscurity, whatever their reasons, are often producing exceptionally exciting work. Bishop is one such outsider, and his astonishing project deserves more attention.

Photo credit: ripped from Milewalker's Flickr photostream

(Note: A slightly different incarnation of this post originally appeared on the blog, Letters From the Inquisition.)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Announcing Les Seifer's FORTY

One month ago, I posted a write-up of artist Les Seifer's paintings on HH. After some tweaking and reshaping, the text of that post became the foreword of FORTY: Selected Works, 2001 - 2009, a newly available monograph of Seifer's work.

Find out more about the book on Seifer's redesigned website. (You can also preview and purchase FORTY here. It looks fantastic!)

Image credit: Cover image, courtesy the artist

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Endangered Species Print Project

Molly Schafer
"The Seychelles Sheath-tailed Bat"
Archival giclee print (Edition of 37)
8 x 10 inches

Chicago-based artists Jenny Kendler and Molly Schafer recently launched the Endangered Species Print Project. The ESPP offers limited edition prints of critically endangered species for sale to collectors, and ALL proceeds are donated to conservation programs working to perpetuate the featured species. For each print edition, the total number of prints corresponds to the featured animal's current population. For example, only 37 Seychelles Sheath-tailed bats remain in the wild, so for that edition, 37 prints will be produced.

The ESPP is already generating buzz. The Center for Biological Diversity and The Sierra Club are both promoting the project and have expressed interest in collaborating with Schafer and Kendler. I'm not surprised. The ESPP is a terrific undertaking, a fine example of the sort of environmentally and socially responsible efforts that I dearly wish more contemporary artists would involve themselves with.

As such, I'd promote ESPP even if I weren't planning to produce some prints for the project. I expect to produce two original drawings that will be turned into prints before the end of this year. My subjects will be the Javan, or Sunda, rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). Also, in 2010, I hope to produce prints featuring other endangered species, including some birds, reptiles, and plants.

Prints of the following species are already available: the Panamanian Golden frog (Atelopus zeteki); the Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis); the Seychelles Sheath-tailed bat (Coleura seychellensis); and the Indri lemur (Indri indri). Visit the ESPP site to learn more.