Thursday, May 31, 2007


We were watching the spelling bee finals on TV tonight and learned a new word. A young girl informed us that a "kakistocracy" is a government by the worst persons possible.

So that's what Bush has been running all this time!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day

In memory of all those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who never came home.

Friday, May 25, 2007

New Painting Revisited

Last month, I posted a picture of a new painting, called "The Soccer Game". I was a bit premature. (My wife says I'm premature in other things, too, but let's not go there). The picture was of five boys playing soccer in front of a war-torn building, and was in the April 17th post if you want to go take a look at it.

I went back and revised it. The reason was that the five boys competed for attention with the bullet-blasted wall, and there wasn't a single center of interest. It was like I couldn't make up my mind: which was more important pictorally, the wall or the kids? So I painted out four of the five boys. Now it feels in harmony. The wall is the dominant feature: it tells the real story of what happened there. The boy is in a supporting role, telling about how life is returning. Actually, the weeds are in a supporting role, too: they say that the fighting has been over for a while.

So here's the new version:

Monday, May 21, 2007

Stupid Criminals Department

I was talking with somebody today about, of all things, credit-card fraud. I don't have a clue how that got started. I was telling the young lady about how our American Express cards were compromised once. She told me that a friend of hers recently had her debit card information stolen. It didn't take the police long to figure out who did it, though: the guy used it to pay his income taxes!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Political Developments

It's been a while since I last posted, and since then there have been a number of interesting political developments that I just have to comment on.

Paul Wolfowitz finally resigned today. Hurray! Here's a guy who was one of the most important people in crafting our insanely stupid war with Iraq. He was rewarded for this unbelievable blunder with the post of President of the World Bank. And promptly showed his true colors by giving his girlfriend a hefty pay raise. So now he's out and whining about it. He ought to consider himself lucky that he's not on trial as a war criminal in the Hague.

Alberto Gonzalez is holding on to his job for the time being. George Bush is standing by his man in true Bush fashion: no matter how incompetent his appointee is, and how flagrant his abuses, George can't admit he chose the wrong guy for the job. "You're doing a heckuva job, Gonzo!" Bush is probably the only man in Washington more incompetent than Gonzalez at the moment. (Some would say Cheney is, but I think Cheney is criminally inept, not incompetent.) We need to keep the pressure on for Gonzo's resignation. He needs to become a civilian, just like the eight attorneys he fired for political reasons.

I just read where James Dobson is threatening to sit out the next election if Rudy Giuliani is the Republican nominee. That's wonderful news for the Democrats. Dobson is the founder and co-chair of the Focus on the Family right-wing religious group. He endorsed Bush in 2004, which helped Bush retain his throne. Given the fact that the Iraq war was already a major catastrophe by then, and that Bush was clearly a dweeb of the first order, that doesn't say a whole lot about Dobson, now, does it? So if the Republicans nominate a moderate, then Dobson will take his voters and go home. Great! Go!! Please, just go!! Now!!!

The Democrats and Republicans are still playing chicken with the Iraq funding bill. I suppose it had to come sometime, as Bush just cannot have a blank check forever. But the way this is playing out is a disaster. I saw this sort of thing happen before, and as a military guy who had to make do with inadequate funding while the elephants danced in Washington, I experienced the negative effect that these shenanigans have. Congress needs to provide all the support that General Petraeus (the guy in charge of the war) asks for. Petraeus is a straight shooter and will tell us if the surge is working or not.

I'm extremely worried about a possible war with Iran. Bush doesn't seem to know how to talk with people who aren't fully on his side - he's a divider, not a uniter - and Iran hasn't been fully on "our" side since George was doing heavy drugs. But now Bush has created all the elements of another Tonkin Gulf fiasco (this was the incident where the North Vietnamese were reported to have attacked a couple of our destroyers, causing us to go into a full-scale war there ... and the event never really happened). And all we need now is some trigger-happy Iranian border guard to fire a pistol at an American ship and we've got another stupid war on our hands. During the Cold War, neither the US nor the Soviet Union really wanted a war, so they set up hot lines and other means of communication to make sure one didn't happen. George has refused to do any of that. He seems to be itching for yet another war.

Not all of my rants are negative. I think that Robert Gates has been doing a great job as Secretary of Defense. Now, granted, the bar was set exceptionally low by his predecessor (some would say it was set in negative territory), but Gates has proven himself willing and able to make difficult decisions, move fast when necessary, and work well with the military leaders. General Petraeus has been great in probably the worst job in the military right now. And Admiral Fallon, the guy in charge of Central Command, is proving himself to be more than up to his impossible task. The fact that we're not at war with Iran (yet) is due more to Admiral Fallon than that idiot in the White House.

Awright, awright, I'll shut up now. Maybe next time I'll talk about something more positive than politics. This stuff just gets my dander up, that's all.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Artistic Influences

I'm gonna take a break from my political ranting and talk about some of my artistic influences instead (okay, I hear all that cheering, knock it off already). I was asked the other day about where my influences came from, and why I paint the kind of things I do.

My earliest influence was Norman Rockwell. As a kid, I thought he was the best artist who ever lived. He could tell a story that you would understand right away, and all the people and objects were depicted with such realism that you could almost feel them. I wanted to do that kind of painting when I grew up. But when I did grow up, I realized Rockwell's limitations. He was a sentimental illustrator - his images were sappy, idealized versions of a bygone America that never really existed. He almost never engaged in any subject with any meat to it, and even when he did, there wasn't much to it. For example, he did a painting about freedom of speech. An important topic and technically well done, but in his version, it just showed a guy standing up and talking, with other people respectfully listening. There's no emotional involvement by the viewer, no tension, no conflict. Pretty dull.

Another early influence was Edward Hopper. His paintings had a lonely feel to them. I think a lot of people can relate to that, particularly teenagers like me, who felt like nobody in the world understood them. (Now I know that's just a normal part of being a teenager, but then it was a major trauma). When I first saw this painting, Early Sunday Morning, it about blew me away. Here was a painting that had a palpable feel to it. It's about people, but there aren't any people visible - just the traces of things they touched. It's a narrative that isn't completely spelled out, that requires the viewer to fill in a lot of it. And each viewer will come up with a different story. Of course, as a teen, I went completely overboard, and thought Hopper was the greatest painter who ever lived. But later, when I really studied his paintings, I found out that he, too, had limitations. Hopper's paintings missed the mark more often than they hit it. Some paintings were unbelieveably strong, while others were just poorly done. Still, his work resonated with me.

Later, I discovered Thomas Hart Benton. Now Benton is often derided these days as little more than an illustrator or genre painter, but an artist can learn a lot from studying his paintings. Benton really knew how to construct a painting. This one is titled The Sources of Country Music. It's a very dynamic composition. Everything is tied into everything else. It swoops and swirls, and your eye moves around it easily in a smooth rhythm. If you imagine leaving a trail of paint behind your eye movement, you'll recognize the painting style of one of Benton's most famous students: Jackson Pollack. Benton told illustrative stories, Pollack worked with paint, but the structure and movement in both is very similar.

While a student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, I discovered two painters who had a big effect on me. One was Alice Neel, the other Lucien Freud. Both focus on the figure and both let the individuality of their subjects shine through.

Neel uses a very loose approach, starting with an underdrawing (often in ultramarine blue!) and then building up from that. She doesn't worry too much about fine finish: she's after the ephemera of personality and the moment. Neel's subjects are real people, not idealized or generic.

Lucien Freud's work is much more finished. Like Neel, you can see the results of the process: thick paint, brushstrokes, changes, decisions made and unmade. I get the feeling that Freud is more concerned about his own thoughts and feelings than he is about his subject's, but his subjects are still very real people. For a long time I consciously copied many aspects of his style; actually, I think that now I may be going back toward it again. For me, it's vital that a painting look like a painting, with brush strokes and paint in themselves being as important as the thing they depict. If you're going to hide the painting process and try for a photorealistic image, you may as well just take your photo to WalMart and blow it up.

A more contemporary artist who has had a significant influence on me is Jerome Witkin. He works with serious subjects: rape, the Holocaust, religion, the Kennedy assassination, and more. His paintings have all the structure of Benton's work, but in a more subtle yet solid manner. His people are normal people caught up in events outside their control. The paintings are stories that don't tell you everything. I really respond to Witkin's work on a gut level. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to spend three days working with him in his studio and learned a tremendous amount. He's a wonderful artist and a supremely kind and gracious individual.

Last, a problematic artist is Odd Nerdrum. His paintings have an "ohmigawd" element to them. Nerdrum paints like Rembrandt, but his subjects come from deep in the psyche. Lately I've been studying his paintings as closely as I can from a big thick brick of a book, looking at how he builds them up. Nerdrum uses layers on layers, dragging paint over the top, scraping it down, and eventually creates a deep image that's rich in texture. I've been trying to learn the technique, but it seems to bog me down - in focusing on surface texture, I'm losing the "moment" that Neel and Freud are so good at capturing. My paintings are starting to look static and almost overworked. For some of them, the "static" element is fine - these are the paintings of the destruction in Bosnia, which are quiet and contemplative, and which seem to suit this style. I can't seem to get it to work with figures. I don't know yet if I'll stay with this, or go back to the looser style.

This note has gone on long enough. I wanted to get this down before the thoughts left me, and now my brain is empty.