I’ve never understood the appeal of Live Painting events, I mean from the artist’s perspective anyways… There is this performative aspect to it that just doesn’t sit well with me. My studio practice is personal and I protect it. If you happen to ever see me working on my art, it is because I invited you in. Live Painting events? No thank you. I am not a performing monkey… I will work at no one’s leisure but my own.
On My Own Work
2016 is going out with a bang. I was in a show a Fine Arts Celebration at Westside Cultural Arts Center, a benefit auction with a lot of great artists last week, and I will close out the year in two shows: Swan Coach House “Little Things Matter” and Kibbee Gallery’s “Holiday Show.” They are all big group shows, but I am looking at it with a sense of pride (to be included with so many great Atlanta artists) and optimism (more new eyes on my work).
2017 promises to be even better! I have a lot of irons in the fire. Next year is going to be my year for my art career. Bullet Proof Tiger on the rise! Stay tuned in.
These three works are included in the “Small Things Matter” at Swan Coach House.
When I create an artwork, especially when I create an artwork without a safety net, that is working without a plan, working through intuition, it is often only after the work is finished that I can discover any real meaning. My discovered meaning, then, holds about as much weight as any meaning discovered by my audience. This, to me, is the difference between creating an art object and a work of art that lives, breathes, and has a life of its own, beyond my intentions. This, perhaps, is where the possibility of creating something that might be greater than one's self may lay. How strange it is to look at these works, works that you yourself have created, with a sense of wonder. It is a mystery. What is the origin? Where does such work come from? What does it mean?
There is the quote by I do not remember whom... "The most personal is the most universal." The things we wish we could share with others close to us, the stuff that tends to scare people away, when expressed in a slower "media" that people can approach in their own time, without the "burden" of necessitating a response, this is the stuff that resonates. A stranger can look into an artwork of a stranger more comfortably, perhaps, because without a relationship to the artist, the artwork can only function in one direction: as a mirror. True art comes from a lonely place.
It is too easy to become jaded, numb, cynical, and mean. The world gives us ample opportunity, for damn sure. Nights full of tears, years of continued disappointments. And even when you taste success, love, friendship . . . nothing lasts forever. Sometimes you want to scream into the night, shake the stars for all they promised you. That is alright. But then when the morning comes, that is when the real struggle begins. You cannot give up hope, you cannot succumb to the easy temptation to become jaded, numb, cynical, and mean. I make dark cynical art sometimes, and that is fine for its honesty and catharsis - it serves a purpose, screaming into the night - but the best art might still be the triumphant art, the art that seeks the light of the Sun and the Moon and attempts to make peace with the stars, the art that explores and transcends the human condition, the beauty of being human. It is a worthy pursuit, anyways.
I am weary of the trap many seem to succumb to, that is fetishizing one's suffering, romanticizing it as an integral part of artistic production. Of course many in the art world today mock this notion to the point of denying that there is a connection between mental anguish and art at all - but there is sad documented truth in the cliché, that creative types do disproportionately suffer more mental health issues than those in the general population. But to attribute suffering as the root cause for art production, or the greatness of a work of art, even, is a fallacy I no longer support. I once accepted this idea, and it helped me get up in the morning and paint, but it got me nowhere and brought no peace. It is possible to heal, to seek help, and still be a great artist. The source of great art is the artist, not the suffering.
One year ago I wrote a blog post where I considered boycotting beauty in my art and wondered what would happen if all artists followed suit. It wasn't the best of times and the post, while smart, was full of venom and the snarls of a wolf backed into a corner. A few days later I followed up with a post where I concluded that in order for a boycott of beauty to work (to make people think about their complicity, either directly or through apathy, regarding hypocrisy and injustices) that they would have to be truly awful, nasty works of art. The art would have to be brutish, cruel, cold, violent, and depraved. They would have to be hateful, spiteful works. They would have no redeeming value whatsoever . . ." After some thought I decided that "I just don't think I have it in me to make that kind of art . . . I have too much heart in me." My worst fault has always been the volatile mix of impatience with anger (though I have have gotten better over the years), and while impatience/anger has the positive of providing a motivation for accomplishing great things, the process can be destructive. Fortunately this is not my preferred or even my natural state of mind. I've always preferred grace and beauty and my natural state is much more sanguine (humor, cheer, idealism). I wrote the boycott beauty posts one year ago, and when I look back and see how far I have come, I see now that these new paintings, this return to beauty, was inevitable. 2016 found me with a good work, the first in quite a long time (teaching at Kennesaw State University and publishing the occasional article for Burnaway), an upcoming exhibition in Poland, enjoying the mild comforts of spring amidst a flowering landscape, and the company of good friends to whom I am very grateful (the richest of all these new developments).
The new series is comprised of seven paintings, six of which are finished (the seventh will be completed in Poland). They are flower paintings. The last time I painted flowers to this degree was in 2001. The circumstances were similar (new job, an exhibition, spring beauty, and a new relationship - all following a dark period). It is as if the stars are aligned in the sky in the same configuration as before, as I have found myself in love with life again (imperfect as it may be, still). These flowers, as before in 2001, are about healing, resurgence, and in the end, celebration.
What does one do with flowers? Of course we keep them around solely for the sake of beauty, but there is more to it than that. Flowers (like all things beautiful) heal the spirit. We give flowers to sick people in hospitals for this reason, and at funerals. We keep flowers about us in our life to help ease life's troubles. In the end beauty and grace are triumphant, conquering the ugliness in the world, which is why we also keep flowers around for celebratory scenes, such as holidays, weddings, parties, etc.
The healing power of flowers was what got me motivated to start this series. After a rough night I woke to find a texted photograph of flowers on my phone, from a friend, with only one word attached to it: happiness. I knew what I had to do after that. One month later I finished six new works . . .
I started each canvas by pasting a layer of collaged pain assessment charts that one would get in an emergency room. I didn't like how the faces (read from left to right) transitioned from happiness to pain, so I reversed them. These were to be healing flowers. However after the first canvas was laid out I saw that the final face on the far right returned to pain. It was at this time that I decided to embrace the new works as a kind of narrative, from one painting to the next. This is also evident in how the red and yellow bands on the top of each canvas alternate and how the black band on the bottom parts of the canvases seem to meet if the six paintings are read as two triptychs. Other elements that demonstrate that these are healing flowers are, of course, the repeated first aid symbol and the collaged ink drawings referencing pain and healing. Finally, each canvas has a series of alchemy symbols as part of the composition. Jung long ago made the connection between alchemical processes and healing. Keeping this in mind I used only the symbols of alchemical processes, and not the symbols referencing any physical material, the suggested material being the human spirit. The process of healing as described by these alchemy symbols furthers my concept of these paintings being a narrative. Finally, we see that even in the sixth painting, the right side of the painting returns with the painful face (the emergency room pain assessment chart). For the seventh and final painting I intend to make sure that the far right of the painting ends with happiness and that the cycle of recurring pain (the human condition) will end. The concept of eternal recurrence symbolized in the form of the ouroboros (the snake swallowing its tail) will be shown as broken apart, grace and beauty triumphant.
I cannot predict the future and I do not know how this all will end, but despite my sometimes dark nature, my natural tendency is toward light. I am an idealist. These works have been helpful to me and I hope they may be helpful to others as well, and I suspect they will be. Even if they do not grasp the levels of meaning within the works, there are always the flowers, and by themselves they have enough magic within them to carry the day and do what they do best: happiness.
What a great time this is in my life. I recently finished six new works over the past month, taking my work in a completely new direction. I honestly think this is the best work I've done in years. These new works are going to be exhibited at the District Museum in Torun, Poland, my first museum show, as part of the 8th International Painting Symposium held there. As part of the exhibition I will be giving a talk on my work (history, key works, and process), leading a painting workshop, and completing a new work on site for their permanent collection! Needless to say I am really excited about this. Details on the new work (concept and process) will follow in a future post, but for now I will simply share images below.
Although I haven’t posted in this blog very much lately, it hasn’t been for a lack of want. I am always thinking and writing on art. Here are some fractured thoughts from my notebook and various Facebook postings…
1. On attending Flux night in Atlanta: So, I enjoyed going to Flux night yesterday. I enjoyed the Fast Food Mascot Fight, the Disarm sound work made of old weapons, the Spelman College Choir, and the large drawing of Civil Rights Activists. I was a bit disappointed by Yoko Ono's work. Too frequently she relies on the good intentions of others to complete her work. I love and respect her idealism, but sometimes it comes across as hopelessly naive. I saw this in the way many people were butchering the spirit of her work by smearing the ink and drawing inappropriate things on it. I respect her never failing optimistic take on life - but it is a place I cannot go to and settle in for any length of time. But Yoko Ono is a sacred cow in the art world - and I doubt anyone would criticize her art in print. And maybe I'm fine with that. Although I cannot make an art that is so blindly optimistic, I am glad someone is. We definitely need more of that.
2. I think I make more interesting work than great work, and by great I mean sublime and profound. I want to make more great work. More often I make an art for the now, though sometimes I want to make an art for a forever.
3. Last night I wanted to be wild. I knew I wanted to be wild. No one would join me so I went out alone. It paid off. I had a drunken epiphany as to why my current painting isn’t working. I can’t wait to work in a bit. Didn’t Hemingway once say, “Compose drunk, but edit sober?”
4. In response to the stabbing at the recent Art Basel Miami: Hello art world, please think about this sentence pulled from the attached article: Some patrons thought the stabbing was a performance art presentation. Others believed the police tape cordoning off an area of the convention center was part of an art installation. ------ this statement speaks to - 1. the current over conflation of art and life in contemporary art - and 2. a kind of jaded attitude where nothing is genuine or sincere and everything is suspect or a performance or a facade of some kind.... time to wake up my friends, and learn some sincerity, some trust, some wonder, some belief . . . some empathy.
5. I am king of the night! Now, if I can only master the day. Good night everyone!
6. So, this is 40: a good a time as any to take stock of one’s life, I guess. For those of you who know me well, you must know that my life so far has been . . . challenging. But despite these challenges, I have zero regrets. I’ve always done what compels my heart, I’ve always done what needed to be done, and I’ve always tried to do the right thing. Perhaps it is because of these things that my life has been so full of challenges. I can honestly say without any exaggeration that I would not be here without you, my fantastic friends and family, who have given me support during the many, many, and many less than ideal times in my life. . . But the lesson here is not how many bad times there have been, but how many times you all have come to help me out! And remembering these times, these are sweet, rich memories! I will never forget this, and I am eternally grateful to you all! Thank you!
7. I recently sold an old favorite of mine to a good friend and collector. The work? Ahab (1998). Obviously it is referencing Moby Dick, one of my favorite books. Looking at this painting I remember a line from a poem popular with 19th century American whalers... "Death to the living, long life to the killers." How metal is that! This painting used to hang in my parent's house where it would scare the neighbor's kids. I picked it up tonight and am giving this old friend a good bye. It will be in good company with two other Moby Dick themed paintings.
8. I use a lot humor in my work and it pleases me to make people laugh, but I also want to make art to move people spiritually with beauty, and also to challenge people to think. Art is such a strange thing. There are still other reasons why I make art, and some more altruistic than others. Selfishly, I use art as a catharsis to help with assimilating pain, but also to confront my shadow side, the potential madman, killer, chauvinist, dictator in me. I often manifest my darker self in my art so that it doesn’t manifest itself as much in my life. I know that I can never be perfect. It is silly to try. But if I confront the darker aspects of myself and acknowledge it in my art, I can at least attempt to be whole.
9. I’ve been working a lot on some older works lately, the earliest dating back to 1999. I honestly thought this might be harder than it is. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do this out of sense of respect or sacredness to a moment long past. I am finding destruction can be just as integral to the process of making art as creation. I feel as though I am taking some great risks here.
10. Work on the dictator series continues, but I am already planning ahead for a future body of work, strangely enough on Art and Art Making. I am pretty excited about this. Of course there are other sketches for works that don’t quite fit into this plan – I hope I can find time to actualize a few of them. And then there is the backlog of over 100 topics I’d like to write about for this blog, reworking my book, etc… Time is a bastard-bitch.
"We must go forth and oscillate." from the Metamodernist Manifesto.
It is always best to be true to yourself, to follow the beat of your own drum. But it can be a lonely path, sometimes, hence my search to find world views and philosophies similar to my own. It is good to have a sense of community, to maybe have a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself. And when you have ambitions to Change the World, it is also good to have a team for validation and mutual support.
I've looked into Altermodernism and Hypermodernism as Postmodern replacements. They are too close to Postmodernism. Neomodernism and Remodernism (while attractive) might be too obsessed with the past and nostalgia... (The Stuckists embrace being "stuck."), even to the point of rejecting all abstract art.
Just recently I came across an article in Hyperallergic which proposed yet another replacement for Postmodernism. It is called Metamodernism...
The article quotes liberally from Timotheus Vermeulen's and Robin van den Akker's essay, Notes on Metamodernism, that was originally published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture in 2010. The essay describes Metamodernism in terms of a generational shift:
Indeed, if, simplistically put, the modern outlook vis-à-vis idealism and ideals could be characterized as fanatic and/or naive, and the postmodern mindset as apathetic and/or skeptic, the current generation’s attitude — for it is, and very much so, an attitude tied to a generation —can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.
The metamodern, therefore, “oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”
The Hyperallergic article goes on to say that, "We are too far removed from the early 20th century’s wars and revolutions to believe that art can truly be an agent of change, but we also recognize that it must be something more than hollow commentary. To paraphrase one of the essay’s subtitles, the metamodern is art after the death of art."
For years I've been disgusted by the ideas presented by Postmodernism (though my art aesthetics may reflect it at times). I've always preferred to champion my Modernist heroes, who believed (perhaps naively) that Art Can Change The World. And I want to believe this, too! To me, the Postmodernists were/are cynical/jaded/apolitical artists reflecting the Aesthetics of Surrender, embracing the Nihilist position that nothing matters, that everything is meaningless. I can not stand by this. It is hard to believe that there is a meaning to it all, that Art Matters, but I try to hold on to this belief.
The Modernists were Fanatic Hot-Blooded Creatures of Revolution. I, too, am a Fanatic Hot-Blooded Creature of Revolution. Still, I understand melancholy, disappointment, doubt, and skepticism. I understand the concept of Weltschmerz (world pain). I just can not wallow in it... I go there, but I refuse to stay there.... I always fight my way out of it. Like the X-Files poster says, "I Want to Believe," but I also want to do so with sense of caution, with pragmatism.
Am I alone in this? Who else is with me? I look forward to reading Timotheus Vermeulen's and Robin van den Akker's essay, Notes on Metamodernism and to investigating this new rabbit hole a bit further.
"We must go forth and oscillate." Finally, an art movement that embraces my bi-polar tendencies.
There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die. Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
This weekend I was featured by Roger Krava Art at the famous Slotin Folk Fest here in Atlanta. It was an honor to be shown. This occasion, however, has got me to thinking about my place in the art world.
I've always been interested in Folk aka Outsider aka Naive Art. I first came across the concept way back, probably in 1995, when someone told me my work looked Naive. I was at first a bit insulted, until she clarified to me exactly what she meant. As the word "naive" still connotes ignorance and "folk" as something a bit simple, plain, or rooted in tradition, I generally prefer to use the term Outsider Art, but it is pretty much the same thing and the words are interchangeable when used to describe a particular approach toward art making. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but all of it exhibits the artist's heart, their individual quirkiness and such. To me this is a much better thing than the crisp, cold, overly intellectual investigations that much of contemporary art favors these days.
When I was in grad school everyone knew that I came in heavily influenced by Outsider Art. A professor warned me that after grad school, I could no longer call myself an Outsider artist. During the last months before graduation I made a piece in secret which I planned to reveal as part of my thesis show. It was not an overt act of rebellion, just what I thought might be a pleasant surprise. Upon seeing it, another professor told me, "I thought we beat the Outsider artist out of you!" It was the assemblage entitled Appalachia Girl (2008).
Readers of my blog may be aware of my stance on a lot of the cold and conceptual art investigations that dominate contemporary art, "sophisticated" art that champions the idea over process, sometimes sacrificing any sense of beauty or aesthetic sense. I would prefer a balance, a balance of concept (mind), aesthetics and beauty (body), and spirit (heart, soul, personality). I may not always create art that lives up to this standard, but I think it is a worthy aspiration. Perhaps my critical stance on art then, makes me (despite my education) an Outsider Artist? I don't know. Maybe. At the same time, however, it seems most Outsider Art is done from a joyful place, a place I do not visit too often. I am too critical of things, rarely satisfied . . .
I've tried here to consider what it is that distinguishes an Outsider artist from an "Insider" artist. What I haven't considered is my MFA degree. To some that would be the nail in the coffin that would keep me as being an Outsider artist. Strange. A piece of paper.
But here I am . . .
Too critical for Outsider Art, yet too "outsider" for contemporary "Insider" Art . . . I wonder where I fit in exactly?
Perhaps I am one of those rare Neo-Expressionists I keep hearing about: dinosaurs, lumbering about in the contemporary art world, left over from the early 1980's. I hear they may be going extinct. I hope not. But if that were the case, then at least I would be an interesting study. Maybe people should write books about me.
The Last Beast in the Sky.
Maybe the next book in my life should be called Phoenix Rising, or better yet: Fire Chicken!
How appropriate then, that all the good things that are happening in my life of late are taking place in Atlanta, whose motto is Resurgens and whose symbol is the Phoenix.
This story should have a much happier ending.
It seems so strange that I am sharing this bit of news after my last blog post, where I mention being rejected by Atlanta Metropolitan College. It seems I will be teaching three courses at Kennesaw State University in a couple of weeks. A Design and Color Theory class, an Art in Society class, and a class on Creativity and Conceptual thought. I am heavily invested in each of these subjects, so I am really looking forward to this. After 22 years of struggle, I finally have a breakthrough. There will still be some difficulty, but I believe the dark years might finally be coming to an end.
And in other news:
1. I having my art shown at the Slotin Folk/Outsider Art Festival August 15 and 16th!
2, There is a strong chance I will be exhibiting in Poland next year, too.
3. I've also been communicating with a few galleries, no promises yet, but at least the lines of communication are open.
4. My next article for Burnaway.org should be posted soon as well. It is an article on Anselm Kiefer's painting, Draco, so look out for that.
All of these are very recent developments. I am amazed about how much good fortune has come at once. Quite frankly, I am in awe, stunned by all of these new developments. I hope this momentum carries!
Illegitimi Non Carborundum - Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
Per Aspera Ad Astra - Through Difficulty to the Stars.
When I was a younger artist, some 20 or so years ago, I use to dream more. By dream I mean both literally and figuratively. I used to dream of accomplishing great things during the day (I had wild ambitions!), and at night I would dream of visiting unusual places and "catching tigers in red weather." Sometimes these dreams were terrifying. These were Shamanic Initiation dreams. These dreams fueled my art, which is why a lot of my earliest art can sometimes seem a bit dark and otherworldly.
I don't dream anymore. Really, I don't. At night I close my eyes, black out, and then I wake up in the morning. I'm almost embarrassed to admit it: an artist who doesn't dream. It seems I have to fight more these days. These days I feel as if have been backed into a corner by society, by my difficult life. I don't have time to dream anymore. I've become a brute animal, a crocodile caught in a net. All I do is constantly fight, constantly fighting not to get ahead, but just to stand my ground and not let the world run over me. And my art reflects all this fighting. It comes out as being clever, critical, satirical, humorous, black, ugly, perhaps challenging, maybe even sharp and dangerous - but there is less discovery, and it feels less inspired, less transcendent. Fighting, dreaming - both have a great tradition in art, but I confess, I do miss the dreaming.
I wonder, am I on the right path? Have I lost my way? Can I go back? Is it too late?
As long as I am forced to fight, however, and for table scraps, I fear I will have to continue on this path. Art is a responsibility to me. I am on a mission. What kind of art does the world need? Beauty or a satirical message? But I am also concerned about my own welfare. What kind of art is best for the expression of my soul? The authenticity of my anger or a sweet song of peace?
How I long for peace.
One of the advantages of working in an art supply store is that I get to know my art materials intimately, even the stuff that I don't ordinarily work with. I don't normally write about art materials here in this blog, but today I want to share some of my knowledge on paintbrushes. In the past I really abused my brushes. I'd jam them into my canvas or panel like a knife into the gut of my adversary, I'd let the paint dry on them or let them soak over night in paint thinner until the bristles would be eaten away. Now that I take better care of my brushes and respect my materials a bit, I've gotten to know a little more about what kind of brush to use in a particular situation.
Brush Sizes and Shapes:
Concerning brush sizes: Shorter handles are best for when you are working close up and if you are working with a table top easel. Long handle brushes are best for when you are working standing up. I prefer to paint standing up. I enjoy the dynamic, physical energy I feel when I work in front of a tall easel. As far as the size of the brush fibers, that is pretty much common sense. Larger brushes are best for working with larger canvases and smaller brushes are best with smaller canvases.
There are a lot of brush shapes, but I primarily use only three brush types: flats, rounds, and filberts.
Flats: flats are great for covering a large area fast. The longer the bristles, the more paint it can hold, which means the stroke can be longer before having to go back to the palette. The wider the brush, the more ground you can cover, meaning less work. A large flat is essential. Flats are great for background work.
Rounds: rounds are tube shaped brushes which taper to a point. They are great for line work and the smallest of the rounds are useful for when details need to be picked out. Since I am a more linear artist, in that I love working with the line, rounds are essential to me.
Filberts: as I understand it, filberts were invented for Impressionist artists, probably after some guy named Filbert. Impressionists liked the brush as their technique allowed for loose handling of the paint, and a more improvisational look over a smooth and refined surface. A good filbert brush is really a flattened round brush, a hybrid between the flat and the round. Flats have a squared tip while filberts have tapered off edges. This makes for a more organic looking stroke. Sometimes I will use a filbert when I want a fatter line than my rounds can produce.
Natural vs Synthetic Brushes:
Knowing what kind of paintbrush to use, synthetic or natural, is also important to know. These days I mostly use synthetic brushes, which is fine, as in recent years I've painted in acrylics more than oil paints. I shudder at the thought of using sable and other fine brushes, not only for their cost, but also for animal cruelty issues. I don't have too much a problem with hog's bristle brushes (which are best used with oil paints) as they are a byproduct of food consumption. Sable, however, is a different story. I realize you have to accept a certain amount of hypocrisy in life just to survive, but you also have to draw a line sometimes, however arbitrarily.
Made from nylon, polyester, a blend of nylon and polyester, and “sponge.”)
1. Better to use with water based paints. Natural bristle brushes absorb water from the paint, which can then swell up and lose their shape.
2. More durable than natural bristle. Best to use synthetic on a rough surface.
3. Easier to clean than natural brushes (brush fibers lack scales).
4. Some synthetic brushes, notably those made with nylon, can soften, melt and dissolve if used with shellac, lacquer, contact cement, or paint remover. Polyester brushes would be recommended for use with these materials.
Natural Hair Brushes:
Made from hog’s hair bristle, badger, ox, sable, kervin/mongoose, squirrel, goat, pony, and “camel” (which is really a combination of goat, pony, ox – the more robust hairs).
1. Best used for oil painting.
2. A good quality natural hair brush will provide a smoother finish, desirable for use when varnishing.
3. Has flagging on the tips (split ends) – resulting in the brush being able to move more paint and providing a smoother finish, meaning less brush strokes. Note: Princeton's line of Catalyst Brushes are synthetic and have flagged tips (a first!).
4. Softer brushes (sable, kervin/mongoose, squirrel) are ideal for thin paint which spreads more easily and for detailed work as the brush will form a sharper tip.
5. Robust, hard brushes are ideal for pushing around thick paint and for creating brush marks in the paint.
Recently I had a conversation with an artist who I occasionally run into at my day job. He explained his art practice in such a way that made me feel very uncomfortable. To him, it seems, art is mostly a product, a commodity to be sold in a business. But art can, and perhaps should, aspire to so much more - the personal (universal), the spiritual, and the political! Art is more than just a consumer good, something to be plucked off a wall, put on a t-shirt, painted on a shoe, or incorporated into an interior design scheme, more than a product, whose sole point of existence is to sell itself in a vulgar economic scheme. Art should provoke, inspire, and transcend! It should provide solace, question authority, express emotion, demand change!
Money is very important. I've learned in my 22 years of struggle as a practicing adult artist, that when you don't have money, this can effect how and where you live (I've lost count of how many forced relocations I've had to endure), your relationships (many will not date a person with financial woes), and your health (both physical and mental). But despite this, there is still one thing that trumps money every time: artistic integrity.
Perhaps the artist I was conversing with will enjoy nicer clothing, better food, and the occasional cigar, all the trappings of bourgeois success, but I will be the richer in spirit at the end of the day.
Today was a long day spent behind the computer, applying for art opportunities. Most will say "No," but maybe, just maybe I will get one "Yes!" After having faced what must be thousands of "No! No! No!" in my life, suddenly I find myself inspired by a picture of Mussolini's headquarters in Rome, covered in "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Perhaps this desire for more "Yes!" in my life, the desire for a sense of autonomy and maybe absolute power, has provoked my interest in dictators. There is always this desire more control, more influence on the outcome of my life and my fate. I'm treading some gray areas here, examining my attraction for being a dictator, while maintaining a sense of criticality. Of course, all of this is encapsulated with a sense of humor. And there is always a lesson to be found.
Lately I've been fascinated by dictators, and for a variety of reasons. I'm interested in egocentric personalities, how absolute power corrupts absolutely, the tragedy's of their downfall and how they took many other unfortunate people with them, their eccentricities, the strange appeal of the military uniform fetish with all the garish medals, etc. My investigations have led me to some interesting facts. For example, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier of Haiti claimed to have killed JFK with a Voo-Doo curse, and when a political rival supposedly turned himself into a black dog in order to escape execution, Papa Doc had all the black dogs in Haiti killed. Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania had all film footage of him edited so that he never blinked and appointed his dog a Colonel in the Romanian Army. Muammar Gaddafi had an Amazonian body guard and designed a car called the Libyan Rocket. Their histories only get weirder from there. I am hoping that my project will reflect some of the craziness that seems to come part and parcel with being a dictator. While obviously satirical in nature, I also want to investigate some of my own sympathies and attraction toward the ideal of having absolute power. What would I do if I had absolute power? What would you do? Ideally, I would want my audience to walk away wondering the same thing. I want to approach this project a sense of humor, but also with some criticality and a perspective of distance with respect for the people who they oppressed. I want to entertain with my series, but I also want to pose some difficult questions and see if a lesson might be found somewhere in this. Clearly nothing is black and white. In this world there is plenty of gray to consider. I want the art in this series, and the investigations leading up to them, to navigate some of this extremely gray area. It is too easy to demonize someone and paint them as a monster. These were human beings. By recognizing that these dictators were people just like us, they can serve as a warning and a reminder that if we are not careful, we, too, could end up behaving in much the same way.
My project is entitled Benny and Friends (after Benito Mussolini) and is my investigation into 27 20th century dictators. The project will encompass over 30 works, mostly paintings, but also some drawings and a lino cut printed in a limited edition. I also plan to make a limited edition book, a catalog of the works in the series. The book will also detail my research, telling a brief history of each of the dictators in the project, focusing on their eccentricities and excesses. Finally, I will compose a sound art piece to accompany the potential exhibition. This sound collage will be made up of original music and samples of such things as speeches made by dictators, the sounds of marching boots, explosions, military marches, etc., all sounds that a dictator might approve of.
I admit, I can be a bit thorny concerning my art, but for good reason. And for all my life's difficulties, I can honestly say that because I've never compromised, I have absolutely no regrets to speak of.
Lately I have been asked quite a bit about compromising my art. I can not compromise. Today I saw an artist with a commissioned piece, completed for the owner of the PetSmart company. It was an airbrushed piece on canvas of the PetSmart owner's fancy vintage car in front of a picturesque theater with a marquee that read, “It's a Wonderful Life.” Total Hollywood glam. Perhaps it is a “Wonderful Life” for the PetSmart owner, but if a “Wonderful Life” is defined by how many fancy vintage cars you can own and have portraits of, this is beyond many people's reach. The artwork, while high quality and technically proficient, was a failure in my estimation. It may have successfully stoked the ego of the PetSmart owner, but it has no real application beyond that. When it comes to my art, I have no interest in giving people what they want. People already get too much of what they want. My concern in my art is for providing the world with what it needs. Granted, sometimes the two overlap, but often times it does not.
Of course it would be nice for me to make a living from my art, but not ever at the cost of my integrity or my soul. Some have suggested to me that I should hide away my more provocative works from potential buyers who may be too sensitive to appreciate what I am trying to do . . . as if my work is something to be embarrassed about. If someone is embarrassed by my work, that speaks more to their state of mind, their Puritan prejudices, than to my perceived depravity. In this case, art is an illustration, not an act. Drawing a crime is one thing. Committing a crime is another. There is a profound difference. And besides, many of the things that I illustrate that may be considered a crime by the morality police, I argue in the contrary anyways. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I refuse to be made to feel embarrassed by my own work. Perhaps they should spend more time looking at my work and learn . . . what I offer is nothing to be embarrassed about.
But the world's needs are one thing; I also have my own needs, which are satisfied by making art. Art is a guilty pleasure sometimes. It can be a drug with withdrawal symptoms. It is something necessary for me. If I did not have art, live, breathe, think about art constantly, I suspect I would be an arsonist, a radical terrorist maybe. Everyone benefits, whether they know it or not, whether they like my art or not, by my art practice.
At the time I did not think much of it, it was just a gut based decision, following my own instincts. I had no idea that my decision would align me with an ideology that would be opposed to conceptual art. Sometime about 20 years ago, while studying art at the University of Georgia, my drawing class was given a list of phobias. Each one of us was to pick a phobia and illustrate it. I picked the fear of visual art, or sportaldislexicartaphobia. To illustrate this phobia, I made a quick, half-ass drawing on a piece of paper, punctured it with a pencil, and tore the drawing out from the inside, leaving the outside edges of the drawing intact. I had planned on returning to class with my clever “illustration,” my creative take on the assignment. But something happened and I had a change of heart. I decided that I loved making art more than I loved being a smart-ass. I remade my drawing, spending more time with it. The result was nothing too spectacular, but it would become a fork in the road, a change of direction on to the path that would lead me to where I am today.
For years I've held a secret fascination with dictators, perhaps ever since I first read Muammar Gaddafi's book of essays and short stories, Escape to Hell in 1998. As someone who has always struggled to get by, struggled to be accepted, struggled with notions of autonomy, as someone who has always played the underdog, who has always been a big dreamer, but who has repeatedly had their dreams dashed and put down, learning about these dictators – many of whom have also come from a similar, humble background – has been something of escape for me. Yet historically, most dictators have had a repulsive ideology and some have been outright criminals and monsters. I also readily admit that even the very idea of a dictatorship government, even a benevolent one, such as Plato's idea of a Philosopher King, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But still this fascination persists. That someone can project their will over their environment with such ease, that the world can bend and have historical consequences based on their own volition, that kind of superhuman and god-like power is incredible to me. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had that kind of power, how I would use it for good instead of evil. But then I realize that the world and the environment with which I would have my sway, is comprised of human beings, human beings who may have contrary and dissenting opinions. I have no desire to make other people suffer, but for once it might be fun to not be one who is suffering instead. Adolf Hitler was an artist, not a very good one, but an artist nonetheless. Napoleon Bonaparte was a writer of fiction, not a very good one, but a writer, still. Both came from humble origins – Hitler was even homeless in Vienna for a time. Perhaps if we treated our creative types with more dignity and respect, they wouldn't turn out to be such dicks.
Lately I've been sketching various dictators in my pocket notebook, in ink and marker, with the idea being that once I get a studio going, I may commit some of them to canvas. In this way I continue my long tradition of exposing my darker side, taking a risk and telling my secrets, as it were. I am no apologist for dictators and their deeds, but I do admit that this fascination exists for me. It is a taboo subject for some, but still a subject worth investigating. Sir John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." How could that not be a good story, in the tragic vein. Napoleon, as a liberal revolutionary, was a hero, but slowly became corrupted to the point of becoming a paranoid, blood thirsty tyrant. And as for comedy, who could not get a good laugh out such eccentricities as Muammar Gaddafi keeping an army of Amazon body guards trained in Kung Fu, or Hitler's habit of whistling the Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," or the ubiquitousness of all those ridiculous military uniforms covered with vanity medals. This is rich territory to explore. I hope people will have an open mind should I present a series of these works in a show, which, if it happens, I would like to call “Benny and Friends,” after Benito Mussolini. Of them all, I think Mussolini is perhaps the most comical of the bunch, a bumbling over-reacher prone to exaggerated gestures when speaking, and like Vladimir Putin, has a penchant for having his picture taken without a shirt on.
Recently, in conversation with another artist, it was brought to my attention that I use a Postmodernist aesthetic in my artwork, most notably in my use of text in art, which did not really start to happen until the 1960's. I was, admittedly, taken aback, but I had to agree with the facts. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic. Postmodernism does not believe in originality; instead it champions pastiche and cultural sampling . . . and Postmodernism has actively mined Modernist art for inspiration. Using Post-modern pastiche techniques can make for interesting results, but I stand firm in my belief, the Modernist belief, that originality is possible. In this regard, and in many others, I mostly subscribe to the Modernist philosophy. But I wonder, am I making a mistake?
Often, I am too much of a dinosaur, philosophically, to be accepted by Postmodernists, but too Postmodern in my aesthetic to be accepted by certain Re-modernists. Just like many other aspects of my life, I find myself without a home, left roaming the swamps like a monster on the outskirts of civilization. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we learn that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created his monster by merging the rational Enlightenment science of his day with the ancient, more mystical based science of the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and others. His creation was deemed to be a monster and he was doomed to live a life of lonely exile, unloved by all. But Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster (abandoned at birth, he was never given a name) was not born a monster, he was made out to be a monster the society that shunned him. The monster tried hard to be accepted by others, but after repeated rebuttals, ended up embracing his role as a scourge to mankind. I wonder, is this to be the fate of my work? When I attempt to make an artwork combining Modernist philosophy with Postmodern aesthetics, am I producing monsters? Because I love my work, what I do, does this make me a monster, too? Am I doomed to be forever an outcast? While I might revel in the thought of making monstrous artwork that might become a holy terror among the polite circles of the bourgeois and intelligentsia, I do not revel in the lonely existence it has thus far given me.
“Artists are fiery, they do not weep!” - Ludwig van Beethoven
"What is to give light must endure burning" — Viktor E. Frankl
Life can be hard for artists, especially artists with an uncompromising vision. But just remember who you are. You are a force of nature, an artist! Unlike others, you had the strength, the balls to pursue your artistic vision, irregardless of what other people think. Many people wish they had your life, but they were cowards, and they followed other pursuits. You dared to live, dared to fail! Remember the poem “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence:
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
You are that wild thing. You are that rare bird who delights in singing songs in the dead of winter. Keep making art, no matter what happens. Art is your weapon against death in life. Always remember why you make art. As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Finally, take comfort in Charles Bukowski's poem, “The Laughing Heart”:
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
Now get up, and get back to making more art!