Thursday, November 22, 2007

Art Mutterings

I had all kinds of things I was going to write about today, but all of them were political rants and, y'know, I just don't want to spend Thanksgiving bitching about Bush again. So, instead, I'll share some thoughts on art and artists. Much more enjoyable to everybody who cares ... all two of you ...

When I get my new issue of Art in America magazine in the mail each month, I'll go through it and flag pages that show something worth taking a look at. Most are gallery ads, occasionally there might be an article. Actually, their articles are usually blather about installations in Shanghai or the tone of ArtBasel Miami or other such things that have absolutely no connection to me or my work, so I rarely read much. No, in the current issue, I have a total of ten pages flagged, out of 240. Here's what grabbed my attention.

Ben Brown Fine Arts, in London, has an interesting painting by Martin Mull. A quick Google check revealed that he's also the actor/comic who's been on TV and in the movies for several decades. Normally I'd be quick to dismiss anybody who's famous in one field for thinking they can produce quality work in a completely different one. But Martin actually does good work. You can see his "The Pursuit of Happiness" show here. He takes a photorealist's approach to painting: even in the low-quality jpegs, you can almost see the grain of the original photograph, even though it's in oil on linen. But the photos are juxtaposed in startling, disturbing, ironic, and funny ways. Going through the online images made me think of how I can use some of that creative combination in my own work. Yes, I've done it before (like in Pleasantville and the rest of the Bush League series), but mine are about as subtle as a sledge hammer. Mull's have more ambiguity that give you a lot to think about. This show is one I'll go back and spend some time with.

Next up: Kim Jones at Zeno-X Gallery in Belgium. Another Google search showed that he's active in a lot of different types of art, including performance work. This show, though, is 2-D. There are a lot of drawings on paper or photos. This one is Untitled (War Drawing) in acrylic and ink on canvas. The image on the web site is much clearer, and in person I bet I could stand there for ages, soaking it all in. These works are like maps with the insides of buildings and mazes shown. This one has what looks like depictions of firefights, with troops moving around and places getting destroyed. Reminds me of some of the drawings I used to do in about third grade: I'd draw cutaways of multistory underground bunkers with stick figures charging around shooting at each other ... then I'd erase parts of it and move the action on to another area, then erase that part and keep going until the whole bunker was destroyed and everybody was dead. So that's probably why I like this work, too. Actually, it reminds me a bit of Cy Twombly's work. I'd always thought his scribbles were crap until I saw an exhibition in Italy that just knocked me out. This work looks to be on the same level. What can I take out of this for my own paintings? Probably nothing. But I think it's cool, just the same.

A few pages later is an ad for Ann Strassman at Kidder Smith Gallery in Boston. This image of Abe Lincoln caught my eye - it reminds me of Larry Rivers' work. So I looked at the web site, and it was composed of a bunch of oversize portraits of iconic faces (Jack Nicholson, Dick Cheney, George Washington, Muhammed Ali, and so on), most of which are painted on used, flattened cardboard boxes. The boxes still have their labels for whatever was shipped in them (like refrigerators), plus old shipping labels. Strassman has a bravura style of painting: very loose, with slashing paint strokes that give a lot of vitality. But the more I looked, the more the whole thing bothered me. For one thing, her use of famous faces ... Andy Warhol used Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, but he was making a statement about their commodification. Strassman's not doing that. Her use of familiar faces reminds me more of sidewalk portrait artists who post Sly Stallone pictures to show what they can do. And while the collage work underneath the Lincoln portrait was interesting, it wasn't repeated anywhere else. After about the third painting on old cardboard boxes, it seemed like she found herself a gimmick rather than something that added meaning to the works. So to me, the famous faces said nothing, the use of cardboard said nothing, and all I was left with was an impression that she can paint pretty well. All in all, a disappointment.

On page 64, an ad for Leonard Dufresne at OK Harris caught my eye. There were only a few paintings on the website, but they're jewels. He struck me as a cross between Wallace & Gromit and Edward Hopper: suburban scenes with an unaccountable tension, done in a kind of claymation appearance. And they're small: 11"x14" or so, with some studies on the 4x5 inch range. I mean, the image on my screen was bigger than the original painting! The guy must use a magnifying glass and a brush with only one hair. I really like his work. Edward Hopper was one of my big influences, and Dufresne has certainly caught something of Hopper's themes of isolation and sexual tension here. And I think the small size adds a lot: it's like whispering, which makes people lean in and listen.

One more artist and then I'll stop. On page 92, there was an image of a painting by Hassan Musa, a Sudanese artist who now lives in France. It's great to see some brilliant satire get some recognition. Musa took a provocative figure from a Francois Boucher painting (which was really just a soft-core porn image for the French aristocracy in the 18th century) and combined it with the head of Osama bin Laden. The flag image comes from any number of flag paintings (Jasper Johns, for example). And the title comes from a Tom Wesselman painting. I love this work. Often, I'll use an old (or new) master painting as a jumping-off point ... for example, my Pachydermian Portrait of King George II, Pope Karl, and Lord Cheney had its origins in An Equestrian Portrait of King Philip by Velasquez. I find that it often adds a lot of depth to the piece, or a certain twist. Musa did a great job with this one: it's funny, biting, and extremely well done.

Okay, that's enough for now. This is pretty much how I go thru my art magazines and discover new (to me) artists. I just wish I could find more than ten per issue.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Change of Plans?

I've got some big irons in the fire right now. I've applied for several positions with the State Department for one-year tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably think I've lost my marbles ... hell, even if this is your first time here, you probably think I've lost my marbles. But I don't think so.

This wild hair got its start about three weeks ago, when the news was filled with stories about State Department employees nearly rioting over possibly being ordered to posts in Iraq. I didn't have any sympathy with them whatsoever. They're in the frickin' foreign service, for cryin' out loud ... do they think they're going to get stationed in London or Paris all the time? Just like in the military, sometimes you gotta go where they need you, regardless of whether you want to or not. If I was still in the service, I'd be over there, even though invading Iraq is the stupidest blunder this country has ever made.

And when I had that last thought, a light bulb went off over my head. (It's a dim bulb, maybe one for a night light, but a light bulb nonetheless.) I did some quick searches online and found where the State Department has their Iraq job vacancies posted. I found several that I think I qualify for, so they've got my applications now. And there are other organizations that may have possibilities: the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US Institute of Peace, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few.

I'm not at all interested in the contractors. Yes, they probably pay more, but I don't trust a contractor in Iraq any further than I can throw an IED.

So why am I doing this? Three reasons, really. One is that they need people, I have a skill set that can be put to use, and it's in a position that makes a difference. These jobs are all oriented toward rebuilding Iraq, and I have thought for a long time that this is where our attention needs to be focused. Another reason is that my series of paintings based on Bosnia has pretty much reached a dead end. I've been basing these paintings on experiences and memories from eleven years ago. Going to Iraq would provide a huge reservoir of experiences, especially if I go there with the idea of finding inspirations for future artworks. A third reason is financial: these jobs pay pretty well, and I could pay off my bills and build up my savings again.

It appears now that things are beginning to calm down in Iraq. The Sunni and Shi'a leaders are finally sitting down together and starting to bring the violence under control. I don't believe the American military surge is the reason, although Bush will certainly say so. No, the Iraqis are finally starting to take control of their own country on a very local level. That, to me, is a sign that they've turned a corner and are ready to start rebuilding. And rebuilding Iraq, regardless of your politics, is a "must do". So I'm ready to go.

Life around the home front was pretty interesting when I first talked about this with Janis. At first, she thought it was dumb. Then she liked it. Then she didn't like it again (this after I already had a couple of applications in.) And finally, she's come around to liking it again.

Personnel offices, especially government ones, are the very definition of "black holes". You send something in and it disappears, with no indication of anything. Then you might get a reject notice (already got one of those) or a phone call late one afternoon asking if you can be there first thing in the morning ("umm, I'm 500 miles from there ..."). You'll read about my further misadventures right here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Catching Up Again

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Every time I sit down at the computer to get caught up, I realize that I gotta write a humongous entry ... which I don't do, so then a few days later, there's even more to write about. So screw it. I'll just start putting in a few things this time and gradually catch up. Or not.

We had our fall Studio Stroll last weekend. Almost all my new work is in the show at Tennessee Tech, so I dug out a buncha older ones. Not that it really made any difference: as usual, my sales were almost nothing. I got used to that a long time ago and just view these events as a form of advertising or community outreach. Things do come out of these Strolls, just not during the weekend - I've had things come through months or even years later. So while it's a bit frustrating to talk to other artists later and hear about the thousands of dollars they made at the event, I know that things will work out for me in a different way sometime later. Usually when I least expect it.

This week I finally got back in the studio and spent some time trying to get started making art again. It had been over three weeks since I'd done anything - no drawing, no painting, just all the other things. Prepped the show for Tennessee Tech, took it out there, hung it, did the gallery presentation, did a bunch of house projects that had been on hold, did the Studio Stroll, did a two-day road trip to DC, and lotsa other nitnoid things. Man, I was rusty. It'll probably be sometime next week before I get back up to speed again.

The pictures of the grandson have slowed down a bit, but here's one from sometime within the past couple of days:

And that'll do for tonight.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


The news this morning from Pakistan is that Musharraf has declared a "state of emergency", meaning martial law. This is very bad news. For years, I've felt that Pakistan was the biggest problem in that part of the world, and we might be seeing it spiral out of control right now.

Pakistan has had a big problem with its leadership. Either the rulers have been fairly corrupt and highly repressive military leaders, like Musharraf, or they've been extremely corrupt elected officials, like Bhutto. The two have alternated in power, and both have left the vast majority of the population frustrated and angry. This has led to the rise of Islamic fanaticism, particularly in the lawless border region with Afghanistan. People are looking for a new type of leader, and since neither of the traditional sides is providing it, they're turning to extremism. Which is extremely dangerous since Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Nero is fiddling while Rome burns. Bush/Cheney are trying to hype the "Iran" threat. Now, really, guys: Iran is a problem, but they're in a big downward economic spiral, Ahmadinajad is barely tolerated by the mullahs (primarily since he's deflecting attention from them), and they won't have a nuclear capability for years at the earliest. Meanwhile, Pakistan is the petrie dish that created Islamic fascism, they could easily descend into civil war, and THEY ALREADY HAVE THE BOMB! Bin Laden won't ever get a nuke weapon from Iraq or Iran, but he very easily could get one from Pakistan in the near future.

So which one do you think is the real problem?