Sunday, March 30, 2008

An Open Letter to CBS Sunday Morning

I just sent this note to CBS Sunday Morning:

I’ve been a regular watcher of Sunday Morning for many years now. I’m a big fan of your slower-paced examination of all sorts of interesting things. As a visual artist, though, I’m not quite so happy with your treatment of visual art. This morning’s story on the Armory Show is no exception.

I’ve noticed that your stories on visual art usually fall into one of three categories:
- The retrospective. In this one, you examine a recognized master, who is always either dead or really old.
- The gimmick. This one looks at an artist who has a cute trick that sells well but is really meaningless. An example is the artist who created “paintings” out of old license plates.
- The “what the hell is that?” piece. Today’s Armory show falls into that category. It talks about how strange some artwork is (ie, “does that really go in somebody’s living room?”) and how much it costs (“somebody’s going to pay $42,000 for that?”), while simultaneously showing weirdly-decked-out art freaks (the two with shaved heads and heavy mascara, or the guy in the mask).

What I don’t see on your show are the stories that delve thoughtfully, and with respect, into some aspect of contemporary art that may seem strange to Middle America at first, but with a little attention, may become deeply moving pieces. There are a lot of artists who are working as hard as they can to create things that express something very personal and profound to them. Sometimes their methods are readily accessible to the average American. Sometimes they’re not at first, but with a little attention, and respectful listening, they can be.

I know this first-hand. I’m a painter and work in a very representational manner that is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But my primary subject matter is war, so I often get asked by casual visitors whether I actually make a living at it, why I do it, and who buys stuff like that. The answer, of course, is that I do these works because I have to, regardless of whether they sell. I need to put my thoughts and feelings down in a way that means something to me. My messages are easily understood by the average Joe, but since they can’t imagine my paintings on their living-room wall, they still generate confusion.

This confusion is nothing compared to the confusion about artworks that are more challenging. Yet these are probably the ones that most need your quiet, thoughtful approach. Take, for example, Marc Quinn’s sculpture entitled “Self”. This appears at first glance to be a straightforward lifesize bust of the artist. However, it’s made of his own frozen blood, maintained in a beautifully-crafted cryogenic container. In a very real sense, it’s not just an image of him, it is him, while its required refrigeration equipment makes a strong statement about contemporary reliance on technology. If the equipment fails, the sculpture (literally) dies. A work like this can be repulsive at first, but very meaningful once you contemplate it for a while.

And please don’t talk about the “red-hot art market”. I keep reading about it and can tell you that it doesn’t exist except in the most elite part of the art world. It’s like talking about the “red-hot automobile market” because they’re setting records at the Barrett-Jackson automobile auctions, while in the real world, car manufacturers are facing huge losses. Something like 95-99% of artists don’t make a living at their art, even the extraordinarily gifted ones, and even in normal economic times. We do it because we need to, not because of ridiculous prices.

So please, add a fourth category to your repertoire of art stories. Add the “thoughtful look at some kind of challenging art or artist”. Don’t treat us like freaks; instead, assume that we have a good reason for doing what we do. Respect the artists, respect the works, and use your soapbox to shed a little light on something different from the Middle American norm.

Skip Rohde

Thursday, March 27, 2008

4,000 Dead in Iraq - A Powerful, Personal Link

One of my links on the right is to the "Army of Dude" blog. The writer, Alex, returned from a tour in Iraq earlier this year, safe, but changed. During his time in Iraq, and subsequently, he has maintained an extremely well-written blog about his first-person perspective on the war.

A couple of days ago we passed the 4,000 dead milestone. The mainstream media has had a lot to say about this milestone. Very few of the commentators even knew any of the 4,000 - for most of us, these soldiers are just numbers, or maybe names in your local newspaper. For Alex, too many of them were friends. He has written a powerful and moving entry about them on his blog. Go take a look.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Canine Crisis, Part 2

In yesterday's entry, I wrote about how my dog, Indy, had Addison's disease, which is a failure of the adrenal gland to produce the right chemicals. Today she seems to be a tiny bit better than yesterday: she's more interested in things, wants to play more, and even chased her sister around the churchyard during our afternoon walk.

On the flip side, she hasn't regained her weight yet. I gave her a bath today and told her she was a bag o'bones. She just gave me a look of "yeah, whatever". The poor girl still has very little stamina. She tires very easily, which is really sad to watch because until last week, she was a tomboy, always running and getting into things. On our walks, she always took point, going out as far as her leash would allow, nose out front, on a mission, by God. Now she trots along beside or behind me. And after any kind of exertion, like after a walk or even a playtime, she needs a nap. The lack of energy is noticeable even when she's just lying there ... before, there was an alertness to everything; now, she seems more tired or almost depressed.

The doc has us giving her a small Prednisone tablet every day. We think the dosage may be a bit too high, as her water intake and (especially) outflow are much higher than before. Indy and Soozee have always been picky eaters ... to the point where we put their bowls down and almost have to beg them to "pleeeeze eat your dinner" while they sit back (way back) and try to decide if the food smells like it's suitable for royal princesses. But now Indy seems to have a bit less apetite, too, which makes trying to get her to bulk up even more difficult.

But she's still with us. And she's getting better, slowly. I don't know if she'll ever get back to full Indy-ness, but she's still here. And I thank God for that every five minutes.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Canine Crisis

We had a rough week. Indy, one of our two Shih Tzu's, had a health crisis that came out of the blue. She was fine Tuesday, but then overnight began acting a bit unusually. On Wednesday she was dragging a little bit and wouldn't eat. On Thursday, she had no energy, wouldn't eat, couldn't walk far without tiring, and late in the afternoon started shivering. I made an appointment with the vet for Friday.
Overnight I got one of the scariest moments of my life. In the middle of the night, she wanted to go out ... that's normal, but she went out and around the corner of the house and disappeared. And didn't come back. I got dressed and went out to find her. She was lying at the edge of the woods, looking out into forest, and didn't want to move. If you know animals, you know that sign: it's what they do when they know they're about to die. It was like a cold ice pick to my stomach. I picked her up, carried her back into the house, and put her on the bed. She went back to sleep, but I didn't - I kept checking her every few minutes just to make sure my little sweetheart was still breathing.
So Friday we got her into the vet. She was down to 12.5 pounds, from her previous 13.7 - a serious weight loss. They said she was severely dehydrated, so they hooked her up to an IV, ran some blood tests, and kept her overnight. The diagnosis: she has Addison's disease, which is a failure of the adrenal gland to produce all the right things it's supposed to produce. People get it, too: JFK, for one, so she's in illustrious company. Addison's is not curable, but it is treatable, so for the rest of her life she'll have to have a shot once a month and take a pill every day to restore the chemical balance that her adrenal gland isn't doing anymore.
On Saturday when we went to pick her up, she was much better - still a bit tired, but more active and interested in the world. Today was even better. Her appetite is still not up to speed, and her normally bouncy personality is a bit subdued. It's like she knows she had a close call and is still coming to grips with it. But she's playing with her ball, and this morning she found a bone on our walk and snuck it home when I wasn't looking. The picture above was taken on Saturday afternoon and you can see the purple Ace bandage on her front leg where the IV was.
I've often said that if anything ever happened to one of our dogs, they were gonna have to put me down as well. It's scary to come so close to losing one of your children, you know?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Today's News

Barack Obama has been under fire for some incendiary speeches given by the pastor of his church. Today Obama answered his critics with a speech that is incredibly moving, powerful, energizing, hopeful, and applicable to all of us. For way too long, we've had politicians who bore the stew out of us. Obama, though, is a man who can put words together. Clinton has derided him has just a fancy speech-maker, but that's like saying Rembrandt was just a paint-slinger. This is a powerful speech. You can see the video or read the transcript here.

George Bush has also been speaking over the past few days. He thinks things are going great in Iraq and that invading the country was a perfectly fine idea. And although the Fed is in panic mode, slashing interest rates to their lowest levels in years and forcing bank mergers to keep them afloat, George Bush thinks the fundamentals of the economy are strong. Oh, and George Bush believes in the Easter Bunny.

I dare you to read Obama's speech and imagine George Bush speaking those words.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Admiral Fallon for Secretary of Defense or State

In a post last week, I talked about Admiral William Fallon, who just resigned as Commander, Central Command. The thing that triggered his resignation was an article in Esquire magazine. After reading the article, it's clear to me that Admiral Fallon has a fabulous strategic vision. When Barack Obama is elected President, he would do well to have Admiral Fallon as his Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. We need smart thinking like that to correct the past seven years of massive stupidity in the Executive Branch.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Micah Wright

I just discovered Micah Wright, an artist who lives in San Diego and has done a fabulous series of satirical posters. He uses old propaganda stuff from the first half of the 20th century and turns them into something new. He's got literally hundreds of them. I've been doing smarmy takeoffs on old ads, but Micah's been doing much the same thing, longer. I'm in awe. Go take a look at his web site!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Old Times" exhibition and unrelated stuff

Many-Me, oil on canvas, 36"x48"

My "Old Times" series of paintings is on exhibit in Knoxville at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Okay, so this is a shameless plug. Hey, it's my show, and this is my blog! Actually, there are two solo exhibitions there: mine and one featuring original prints by Susan Jenkins. Yesterday (Friday) there was a reception for the two shows. Had a good turnout and met a lot of interesting people. They asked us to do a brief artist talk, which is always fun for me to do. This coming from a guy who absolutely hates to be the center of attention! However, one of the things I learned in the Navy was that a lot of things in life depend on stagecraft, so I learned a bit about how to talk to groups of people, and have gotten to the point where it can be fun. Which it was last night.

Yesterday I also got to meet up with an old friend from my Tennessee Tech days (mid-1970's): Gifford Walker, who now lives in Knoxville. We made arrangements to get together for a couple of hours before the reception and catch up. I last saw Gif maybe five years ago. Yesterday, when I first saw him, I looked straight at him from maybe five feet away and DIDN'T RECOGNIZE HIM. How embarrassing. In my own defense, Gif shaved off the beard he had for about 30 years, so here I was looking for a guy with a full black beard, and instead saw a clean-shaven guy, so I went right back to doing what I was doing until he said something. I think I made a nice recovery ... Gif at least has a great sense of humor. We sat and talked for two hours and had a great time.

Today I made a neat discovery on the 'net. I heard somebody on NPR talking about a web site called "Pandora" and how it was such a great thing for music. So I looked it up. What a cool site! Finding good new music, for me, has been very difficult. Radio plays the same crap over and over again, so does MTV and its clones, and it's difficult to find stuff I like. Well, Pandora has a way to do that. You plug in the name of a musician or group you like, and Pandora will stream music like that straight to you. They call it the "music genome project" - each song has a unique fingerprint, and their system will give you other songs and artists with similar fingerprints. It's free, it just requires registration. Cool stuff. I've already found some good artists, some I'd heard of, just never heard, and others that are completely new to me. Check it out!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jackson O'Hunkamunka

Three brand-new pictures of our grandson, Jackson, were in our in-box this evening. The whole world should take notice. Which is why they're here ... not that many people will ever notice, just you lucky ones!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New Painting

American Style, oil on canvas, 18"x24"

Here's the newest addition to my series on war. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Admiral William Fallon Resigns

Today the news came out that Admiral William Fallon, who is (or was) Conmmander in Chief of Central Command (CINCENT, which for all you civilians, is pronounced "sink cent"), has resigned. CINCENT is the guy who's in overall charge of all operations in the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. He's General Petraeus's direct boss. In other words, it's a pretty potent position. And the news that he has suddenly resigned is very disturbing. Most of the civilian talking heads that I've heard today don't really understand what it might mean, and they're focusing on things that really aren't that important. So, as an ex-military guy, here's my take.

ADM Fallon is quite an accomplished military officer. He was a naval flight officer (NFO) and flew combat missions in Vietnam. He's commanded a jet squadron, a carrier air wing, a carrier battle group (meaning an aircraft carrier, all its planes, and all its associated ships), and served as Commander Second Fleet, Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet, Vice Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, Pacific. In other words, he rocks.

He's also, by some accounts, a bit arrogant and abrasive. Hey, he's a naval aviator, what the hell did you expect? But he's also a strategic thinker who knows how the international game is played. I'd put his real knowledge of international relations at several levels above that of Condoleeza Rice. While she was polishing her doctorate in a university, he was learning by doing. And, most critical to this particular story, he speaks his mind. No bullshit here: what he says is what he thinks. Old-school Navy.

Which is what got him in trouble. While our idiot President has kept trying to drum up another war, this time with Iran, ADM Fallon let his thoughts become public knowledge. And his thoughts weren't in line with Bush's. ADM Fallon thought, for example, that it was a good idea to talk with the Iranians, to negotiate with them, rather than attack them. Heresy! Now you and I can say this all we want, and nobody gives a rat's ass. But ADM Fallon is a heavyweight in international relations, especially in the most volatile part of the world, and what he says carries the weight of US official policy. So when the most recent Esquire magazine carried an article that claimed that ADM Fallon is the only one standing between Bush and a war with Iran, that was the kiss of death.

One of the things that distinguishes the United States from countries such as, for example, Pakistan or Panama, is that we have civilian control over the military. It's ground into our military officers from Day One. No upstart Admiral or General would even think of trying to take over leadership of the country while still on active duty. Civilians set the policy, the military carries it out. That's it. So while ADM Fallon wears the uniform and (especially) occupies the position of power, he has to do what the Prez says. Even if the Prez is a certified lunatic, such as our current one. If the Prez starts down a road that ADM Fallon (or any other officer) thinks is wrong, he has two choices: salute smartly and carry out his orders, or resign. Criticizing the orders in public is not an option.

Over the past few years, many civilians have wondered about the generals who served in Iraq or wherever, then retired and started bad-mouthing Bush. Why, they wonder, didn't the generals speak up when they were on active duty? Well, re-read the above paragraph. Military officers may or may not have an input to their orders. If so, it's behind closed doors. When the decision is made, we march off and do it. Or resign.

Which is why today's news is disturbing. Admiral Fallon is probably the most capable individual to serve in that critical position in recent memory. His track record of speaking his mind, and the Esquire article, might be the cause of his resignation, as both he and the Administration are saying. I doubt that's the full story. I haven't read the article yet (you can see it here), but the suddenness of his resignation indicates to me a high degree of possibility that Bush is moving ahead with his plans to attack Iran, and that Fallon took the honorable step of resigning rather than carry out insane orders.

All the TV pundits are talking about the Governor Spitzer sex scandal. They're missing the real and important story: Admiral Fallon's resignation and what might be going on in Iran. YOU should be concerned, too.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Painting

Ma Petit Femme, oil on canvas, 24"x18"

I just finished and signed this painting today. I'm going in a new direction with my paintings about war. The idea is, if we in the USA had to put up with the violence that's plaguing Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other places, what would it look like here? Well, being devout capitalists, we'd capitalize on it, of course! So here's what an ad for fine leather accessories might look like. (And for those who forgot their high-school French, "ma petit femme" means "my little woman" ... now, are you gonna say that to an elegant lady toting an automatic rifle? Me neither.)

The Democratic Race

I gotta say something about the way the Democrats are handling the presidential race. Now, granted, political races are not for the faint of heart, particularly the race for the very tip top dog. However, you gotta draw the line somewhere. Ronnie Reagan, as much as I don't like him, said something important. His "eleventh commandment" was "thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican". It got him into the White House twice. Evidently Hillary never heard that message. She's been slandering Obama as much as the Republicans have, if not more. And I think it's counterproductive. Okay, she's a fighter. Okay, she's pretty smart and tenacious. But getting into a slime match when there's still one race to go is not the answer. Save the slime for the Big One.

Her now-famous "3 a.m." ad is a loser. I mean, if you want somebody with lots of experience to answer the phone, it's John McCain. If you want somebody who knows what war is about, it's John McCain. If you want somebody who thinks for himself, it's John McCain. If you want a leader who can inspire people, it's Barack Obama. But if all you need is a fairly competent manager, well, it might be Hillary ... or lots of others. There are lots of managers on - pick one.

I'm still an Obama man. He really does represent a break from the past, which is sorely needed at this point. Both McCain and Clinton (actually, both Clintons) are responsible for the mess we're in, and I'm not talking about just Iraq. There's been sub-zero leadership from them on climate change, the deficit is unbelievable and getting worse, our relations with the rest of the world have tanked, the health care situation is approaching a crisis, nothing has been done to shore up Social Security, nothing real has been done to improve border security, our military troops are overtasked, their equipment is falling apart, and John McCain and the Clintons were three of the people most involved in creating the mess. Time for some new leadership. We know what Clinton and McCain have done; Obama can't screw up as bad as they have.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Whitney Biennial

The Whitney Biennial is widely celebrated as the Superbowl of the American art world. Only the best of the best are even considered for inclusion, or so they say, and of those, only the most elite of the elite get in. The current Biennial just opened yesterday and I took a look at the website a few minutes ago.

Pardon me if I'm not impressed. As with any group of "the elite of the elite", this exhibition seems to have little or no relation to reality. I saw a few artists whose work I might look at for a few minutes, but not one piece made me say "Wow". Actually, I'd be hard pressed to even come up with a "hmmm". I got the impression that the artists were all striving to outdo each other in making "ART" that was geared towards a small circle of those who were clued-in. And if you're at all baffled by any of it, you'd better not say anything, or else you'll be labeled a RUBE and banished forever from art society.

Odd Nerdrum, who as a Norwegian isn't eligible for the Whitney, labels his works "kitsch" ... by which he means that he wants his works to be looked at, understood, and appreciated by everyday people and not just the art establishment. I find that I agree with that idea more and more.

Years ago, when I was taking continuing-ed courses at Maryland Institute College of Art, I went to one of their big student exhibits. It was in the gallery located in what had been a train station, and the adjacent tracks are still in use. Anyway, I walked through the exhibit and didn't see anything that appealed to me. It was all arty, not real. Finally I left and headed off to class. Next to the art building was a diesel locomotive, idling away and almost invisible in the darkness. Its rumble echoed off the stone walls and was eerie, threatening, and reassuring all at the same time. It was real in a sense that nothing in the gallery was, it had a conceptual power that nothing in there had, and to me it was art.

What was true then is true today. Give me a common diesel locomotive over anything in the Whitney.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Stuff from the past week

Well, it's been a busy week here in Lake Woebegone ... ooops, that's somebody else's line ... I keep meaning to get this blog caught up but stuff keeps piling up and I don't, so it piles up higher, so I still don't, you get the picture.

Last week I hung my exhibit of the "Old Times" paintings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. The show looks pretty good. It's so nice to get these pieces off my racks and onto somebody else's wall where they can be seen. There will be a reception next week (Friday, March 14, 6-8 pm), along with an artist talk (also known as me blabbering incoherently about the works), so if you're in the Knoxville area next week, you're invited to stop in. In the meantime, you can see 'em on my web site. All the "Old Times" paintings are in Knoxville except three that have been sold, one that's in my Chapel Hill gallery, and one that was a bit too risque for a church.

I've been able to spend a good bit of time in the studio this past week, which is exhilarating. Got one painting that's close to being done, another that's about halfway there, and will start a third tomorrow. All of these are a bit different from most of my previous works. The underlying subject is still war, but not overtly so. My satirical side is coming out again, so these new works are along the lines of "Pleasantville": funny musings on what American life might be like if combat was as normal in this country as it is in, say, Baghdad. No, I don't have any photos of them yet, so I'll shut up for now and let you wonder what in the hell I'm talking about.

In my non-art world, this has been an eventful week. For the past three years, I've been doing a courier run for Sun Trust Bank here in Asheville. It's a pretty skate job: run bags around to our various clients, shmooze a bit, run the bags back to the branch. Took about an hour a day and it paid my studio rent and utilities in the months when my art income didn't ... which is about 10 months out of the year. But last Friday, I was told that Sun Trust corporate headquarters had decided to terminate the contract ... and since I'm just a sub-contractor, that was my last day. Bummer, but in the big scheme of things, not a big deal.

Then my truck started acting up. Kept getting a "chirp" noise from the engine compartment at medium to high engine speed. Thought it was the serpentine belt, which was worn so we replaced it, but then yesterday it did it again and then the "check engine" light came on and the truck started running rough. Uh-oh. So $700 later, the dealer had it fixed. Bummer again ... I had big plans for that $700, mostly involving lots of likker and wimmen ... yeah, right!

A couple of days ago, we had a big storm blow through here. Big winds, too ... enough to blow down a 40-foot maple tree right in front of our house. I mean RIGHT in front of our house. Fortunately, it fell sideways and didn't hit anything, not even a bush. Poor ol' tree, it's had a rough decade. When this house was built nine years ago, they dumped a lot of dirt over half the tree's root system. And if that wasn't bad enough, they gouged a big chunk out of the bark. So the tree's been struggling and frankly losing out a bit more each year, to the point where it might have died last fall. Well, it's certainly dead now. And the vultures are circling. We've got several neighbors hitting it with their chain saws and building up their stocks of firewood. They hauled off about a third of it today. Makes my cleanup job easier, that's for sure.

So if you're wondering why I haven't written in the past week, there ya go.