Art Problems

The Gender of Paintings by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection , c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.  

The Postmodern Manifesto by Chris Hall

When Jacques Derrida (the father of deconstructionist theory) died in Paris in 2004, found among his effects, on a desk next to his deathbed, was an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Postmodern Manifesto.”  It was signed by two other Postmodern champions, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.  Below are the thirteen points of Derrida's “Manifesto,” with my response to each point in italics.  

1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.  This is not true.  If it were, the art of the past would not be so viciously attacked and deconstructed by Postmodernists.  If the art of the past (Modern Art is most often attacked) is false, then it could be safely ignored.  Modern Art, however, still has power and relevance today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.  Curators, philosophers, and intellectuals ignorant or able to ignore the past?!  Is the past that dangerous to the Postmodern vision?  There has always been strong historical parallels between world affairs and art affairs.  To purposefully ignore the past is to doom the world to a repetition of our mistakes! Purposeful ignorance on the part of curators, philosophers, and intellectuals has got to be THE MOST ASININE THING I'VE EVER READ.  And another thing:  Art is created by artists, not curators, philosophers, and intellectuals!  Since the dawn of time, Art has always come before philosophy, art has always been primary.  We can live without the critic, but we can not live without Art.  Nietzsche tells us that Art is most true when it is a raw expression of life's essence, when it bears the tension and tragedy of our predicament.  When art becomes too heady, when it becomes co-opted by curators, philosophers, and intellectuals, poetry takes a back seat – and the work loses power.  When curators, philosophers, and intellectuals take hold of art, they inevitably destroy it.  Not poets by nature, they make the art in their own image – with the result being too heady, too heavy in theory.  Here I am reminded of Oskar Kokoschka, when he said, “the enlightenment will come to a bad end – the head is much too heavy and the pelvis way too frivolous.”  And how do curators, philosophers, and intellectuals plan to take away what rightly belongs to artists?  See points 12 and 13 below.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.  Political art is necessary and great, but art needed always be political.  There is still a place for beauty and spirituality in art.  Marx and Freud were concerned with the surface of things, not depth and compassion.  For compassionate politics and psychology, I'll take the original Jesus (as portrayed in the Bible – not by neo-con preachers) and Jung (he added spiritual depth to Freud's work) over Marx and Freud any day.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.  Despite what some may think, Postmodernism is a cultural climate invented by Postmodernists, not a cultural climate which Postmodernists seek to mirror or subvert.  And I believe, for the most part, that Postmodernists are nihilists at heart, and are not concerned with humanity's best interests.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.  While it is allied to popular culture (and often the worst aspects of it) Postmodernism is NOT democratic.  Points 11 and 13 prove this. Postmodernism is actually a perfect mirror of our political state of affairs, in that it has the appearance of democracy (even mob rule at times), but in fact, it is an enterprise run by a few monied and elite power brokers behind the scenes, who are more concerned with themselves than with the interests of humanity.  Is it a nefarious conspiracy?  Possibly.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.  High Art is something noble, something an artist should aspire to.  We might not always get there, but we should at least try.  To deny the possibility of High Art is to settle for mediocrity, filth, and defeat.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.  Postmodernists are not content with shaping present and future culture trends, they also work hard at dismantling the past as well! Why?  Because they know High Art still has the power to challenge and inspire. As a result, Postmodernists feel they have to cheat and “sweep the leg” of their Modernist predecessors in order to put themselves in a better light.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.  I can support Debordian tactics of detournement.  It is a useful tool for combating institutions of power.  Guy Debord originally used detournement to subvert the French Government during their attempt at revolution in 1968.  It almost worked.   Perhaps angry at the failure of art to inspire and effect revolution, Postmodernists began using the tactic in a self-destructive way, to deconstruct and undermine Modern and High Art.  Perhaps today's artists should consider using this tactic to undermine those who currently hold power in academic institutions – the now aging Postmodernists themselves.  Alan Sokal used it to great effect in 1996 when his fake essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was published in an academic journal.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.  Like detournement, irony, paradox, parody, etc. are great tools for attacking institutions of power – but it has lead to a glut of “clever art.”  Today it is used primarily by artists who only want to take a shortcut to their 15 minutes of fame, and who are not concerned with humanity's best interests.  In this climate, art has become a youth cult for the cool, a quick fix, and a flavor of the week.  Slow and timeless art with depth is often ignored and sacrificed in favor of what is immediate and now.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.  Self-consciously shallow?  I insist on depth!  Why would any true artist want to aspire to shallowness, to vulgar cheapness?!  This is what you get when you purposefully pander to the lowest common denominator:  the popular culture waste product that is Reality TV!  I ask, is that a good thing?  Does the world need more of this?  I can see how attempting to appeal to the masses and using methods of mass production to make “repeatable” art are great tools when you want to effect societal and political change, but we need not be “shallow” about it.  And besides, most of what I see coming out of Postmodern practice seems nihilist and defeatist in nature – just how is this going to change anything?

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.  I've always said that for all its so called inclusive pluralism, Postmodernism is in fact VERY elitist.  This point is the proof!  And how does it protect its own elitism?  See point 13.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted.  Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.  It is perhaps true that art can not exist without a viewer – but it can live without the interpretation suggested by the Postmodernists, which is dissecting and deconstructionist in nature.  Good art can operate independently of text.  Bad art relies on text as a crutch to support it's thesis.  Postmodern point 12 is what curators and critics have used to bullishly elbow their way to the front of the line in the Art-World – at the expense of the artist.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!  And here it is – proof that Post-Modern International Art English critical jargon was purposefully invented not to clarify, but to beguile!  

Balance by Chris Hall

Anubis, weighing a heart against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Anubis, weighing a heart against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The bourgeois want art voluptuous and life ascetic; the reverse would be better.  Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory.

What is good art, and what should it do?  

Good art doesn't give the world what it wants – it gives the world what it needs.  Sometimes these wants and needs are not the same thing.  So what does the world need right now?  A spiritual respite?  A healing antidote to modern life ills?  Maybe the hard shock of reality (better the hard slap of truth than the soft kiss of a lie)?  Perhaps a taste of its own cruel medicine?  How about a celebratory carnival bacchanalia, to counter society's puritanical excessiveness?  

Though I have yet to come to a definite conclusion as to what the world needs, I do know that whatever it is, it must complement, be in equal measure, and in balance.

Adorno seems to think that the people of the world need to live fuller, “voluptuous,” less repressed lives, and that art is best when it functions in a more spiritual role.   I can see how this might be a good thing.  But if the roles are currently reversed, who will budge first?  We can't all be crazy or all be ascetics.  There must be a balance, or the scale will completely tip over.

Perhaps it is not what the world needs, but what the community needs, or what each individual needs, at one particular place at one particular time, hence the diversity of art practices in the world today and also through out history.

On Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Lack of it in Conceptual Art. by Chris Hall

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art),  Fountaine , 1917

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art), Fountaine, 1917

“For more than four centuries, the idea of “making it beautiful” has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular - the lover's machine gun and the prisoner's joy – the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route, without a detour through church and state, from the image to the individual.  Now that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art – no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into vernacular memory, no longer welcome even to try.”  Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.

For many years, while in my youth, I denied the importance of beauty when making a work of art, slightly favoring content over form.  It was a mistake on my part, as I tended to conflate notions of conventional beauty (think 19th century academic art) with generalized aesthetics.  But I've since learned that beauty, even conventional beauty, can be a useful tool (like humor) to smuggle in controversial/problematic ideas to an audience who may not be willing to receive a "message" willingly.  Aesthetics puts the sugar in the cough syrup, essentially.  More than just a tool for art for art's sake beauty (which indeed, does serve a purpose – healing the wounded psyche, so often marred by modern life, is a noble use for beauty and for art), aesthetics is a useful communication tool; it is useful in that it can attract and advertise ideas (as opposed to products).  Aesthetics can attract a viewer toward an artwork, and if properly deployed, its nuances can help convey a message, a feeling, an idea – communicate.  If art could be said to have a prime directive, then it might be the need to effectively communicate to others.

Joseph Kosuth,  One and Three Chairs , 1965.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

Again, I am not limiting myself to just notions of conventional beauty (what I may find beautiful, others may not, and visa versa) , but to aesthetics as a whole.  Beauty is guided (though not governed) by aesthetics – the kinds of things you learn about in foundations classes (color, contrast, repetition, etc).  Aesthetics, when learned and used, can be an effective tool in communication.  Increasingly, however, art (most especially contemporary conceptual art) is divorcing itself all together from aesthetics.  Without aesthetics, however, there is nothing to draw a viewer in, and nothing to help clarify meaning and message.

Maurizio Bolognini,  Programmed Machines,  1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Maurizio Bolognini, Programmed Machines, 1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Perhaps we can partly forgive a conceptual work if the message or proposed idea is worth examining and to our benefit, but post-modern skepticism and pessimism often denies us this, giving us instead a smug, nihilist perspective, self-congratulatory stuff, and stuff too reliant on being cool and clever.  On a good day we might get art with a simple, pat, feel good message, but that kind of art will only get you so far.  Rarely do I see any contemporary conceptual art that actually challenges or inspires.   Instead we get theses and investigations.  All of this, of course, assumes that the conceptual art effectively communicates its message, and too often, it does not.  Too often these works rely on a supporting artist's or critic's text in order to explain the intent (and without the use of aesthetics to draw a person in, the viewer's curiosity to even want to investigate those texts is voided).  But let us suppose that viewer's curiosity is piqued, and they choose to seek out and read the supporting text – what might they expect to get in return?   They can expect to be rebuffed by a wall of vague, cryptic, elitist International Art English jargon.  The ability to effectively communicate in art is important if one hopes to have any kind positive effect on the world.  More often than not, though, contemporary conceptual art fails to meet even this very basic requirement.   Supporters of contemporary conceptual art practices tend to be academic elitist cognoscenti,  left brain types who distrust poetry, more statisticians than artists, they are those who can dispense with beauty, who choose to speak the puffed up jargon filled International Art English gibberish as a means to impress their peers rather than to clarify their argument, and they are not willing to condescend themselves to speak in a language everyone can understand, perhaps for fear that their argument might be exposed as a fraud.  Their world view is head heavy and lacks a visceral life body, and for all their pluralist rhetoric, they think nothing of openly mocking art that doesn't fit into their world view (no-no buzzwords include:  universal, heroic, individualism, catharsis, beauty, originality, self-discovery . . . incidentally, all things championed by Modernism).  It is an exclusive rather than an inclusive practice.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from  The Crap Show , 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from The Crap Show, 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

I realize I am being very judgmental here and making sweeping generalizations, so I would like to point out that unlike my many other conceptual art detractors (notably my Stuckist brothers and sisters), I am not completely anti-conceptual art (many Stuckists will go so far as to even condemn abstract painting).  I am, however, against the failure of art to properly communicate  – and the nihilist, skeptical, pessimistic (or pat) messages often contained within them.  Beauty and aesthetics are equally as important as content and message; ideally, good art must have a balance of head, heart, and body.  I do believe that it is possible for conceptual art (with the aid of aesthetics) to communicate more effectively to an audience beyond elitists in the know, and to do so with challenging and inspiring content.  Sadly, in my experience at least, those instances are few, and far in-between.

Time is Money, Bastard! by Chris Hall

Today I had one of those moments when I thought about all the things I want to paint and all the things I want to write about.  This is not an abstract concept . . . these are real ideas that I have in my head, noted down on paper, or on my computer, bare bones skeleton one or two sentence notes or quick sketches.  More preciously, I'm referencing the multiple sketchbooks that have piled up and the 46 pages of typed notes with over 100 topics I want to write about.  And when the ideas keep flooding in, I fear I will never catch up, never reach my full potential.  Damn poverty!  If I could only do what I love full-time . . . dare I say, all the great things I just might accomplish.  I've suffered from a lack of time and I've suffered from a lack of money, but this is the first time in a long while where I've suffered from a lack of both.

My ideal work day: breakfast, two hours reading, two hours writing, lunch, four plus hours painting, dinner, more painting, and then a little more reading or writing before bed.  If I had this schedule, I just might make small dent into making/writing everything that I have stuck in my head.  Time is such a luxury.

Museum Mausoleum by Chris Hall

Rembrandt van Rijn,  Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo , 1658.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, 1658.

The German word “museal” [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones.  It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying.  They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present.  Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association.  Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. - Theodor Adorno, "Valery Proust Museum" 

Art Museum:  (noun) Where good art goes to die, having served its purpose.  

Art museums are a kind of Valhalla for art, where the dead and dying warriors of art, those works deemed worthy of remembrance, hope to find a kind of immortality.  We display these works, cordoned off by velvet ropes in solemn chambers, like one would display a corpse at a funeral party.  And if you think the metaphor a bit ridiculous, I point you toward the tourist attraction that is Lenin's corpse.  And this is if the art is lucky.  Many a good work will find itself buried in the back, like the artifacts in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  

Museums, as an institution of power, lends to the work it displays a kind of legitimacy, seriousness, authority, and finality, making the art, in a way, beyond reproach, beyond critique.  A living, breathing art, however, provokes and challenges; it fosters dialogue and invites critique.  A museum, with its death pallor, can be suffocating to this dialog and the power of the art becomes neutralized.  And who views the art at the museum?  The cultural and intellectual elite – coming to pick over the relic bones of the saints.  And can the dead speak?   If the art is displayed in a museum, does it still have the power to convert?  If the art is historic, perhaps the art's message is no longer relevant.  If the art is contemporary, there is a good chance the dialogue will stop, as the art is essentially preaching to the choir.  The conversation may also stop because people may not be willing to challenge the legitimizing air of the museum.   Don't misunderstand me, I love museums, particularly when I am in a reverent mood and feel like I want to worship at the alter of my fore-bearers.  When I am in that mood, a trip to the museum can be a refreshing, even holy experience.    But if I want see art interact with real society, the dirty, democratic, open to debate over a beer society, I have to go elsewhere.

Yes, a museum show signifies to the world that you have arrived, but it also comes with a cost.  There is something to be said about the living, breathing, street scrapping art, fighting it out in galleries and on city walls.  Art is for the living and it must invite dialogue and critique, from those within the art world, but also those outside of it.  It is necessary for art to escape the narrow corridors of the art institutions, and to breathe the fresh air of the real world, if the art is to live free.  Sure, it is a dangerous world for art, outside the legitimizing protection of the museum, but as Dave Hickey writes in The Invisible Dragon, “Art is either a democratic political instrument, or it is not.”

A Boycott of Beauty Part Two by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  I Feel Pretty , 2007

Christopher Hall, I Feel Pretty, 2007

Illegitimi non carborundum (Don't let the bastards grind you down).

Per aspera ad astra (Through hardship, to the stars).

When I wrote the blog “A Boycott of Beauty” a few days ago, I was wondering what would happen to the world if all artists decided to make only Bad and Ugly Art.  I had thought that if artists were to fill the world with works such as Mana Lisa (a recent acquisition to Boston's Museum of Bad Art, by anonymous), the world would capitulate, beg for mercy, and treat artists with more respect.  But even works such as Mana Lisa provoke pleasure, as they are humorous.  For a "Boycott of Beauty" to really work, artists would have to make 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 . . . and I just don't think I have it in me to make that kind of art . . . I have too much heart in me.  

It is true that I do make a kind of Bad Art, particularly in my drawing practice.  But I temper the Badness with humor.  I have to do this for myself, first and foremost.  Humor is how I make sense of the world.  Humor helps me digest life's injustices and ugliness.  Humor helps with the pain.  And, if my art is meant to be critical, to educate and enlighten, humor helps the world digest its medicine, too.

A Boycott of Beauty by Chris Hall

Sisyphus with his boulder.

Sisyphus with his boulder.

"His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”  Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  Those words were written by the Romantic poet John Keats.  I used to be a Romantic.  Today I am not.  Today I am feeling decidedly like a Punk Anarchist.  Fuck Beauty.  I've tried Beauty and it betrayed me.  I do not recommend it.  Beauty is a lie.  At times I want to strangle the stars for all they've promised me.  If truth is reality and reality is ugliness, it would follow, then, that truth is ugliness.  There are times when I want to be ugly in return, to exact revenge, to give back what has been given to me, only amplified.  Feedback fed back.  Today I feel the angst in me like I haven't felt since 1994.  Teenaged angst at 39, how strange is that?!  

Why?  I found out recently the real reason why I am being paid $? dollars an hour at my job.  I was told by my unnamed employer (unnamed because even in these circumstances I value my job) that the reason I am being paid $? dollars an hour selling art supplies is because it is essentially easy to find artists who would work for that wage.  So the teen angst is fitting, maybe, in that I am being paid like a teenager.  To put this in perspective, consider the following.  At my work we also sell other products, like furniture.  Furniture people make more an hour because it is harder to find people who will/can sell furniture.  What the Hell kind of economics is that?!  $? an hour!  We do the same job, but sell different products.  And I perform skilled labor.  I use the knowledge that I acquired in six years of college everyday.  Some might say not to take that sort of thing personal, that it is just business, supply and demand (of people, no less), but to the people whom it effects, it is really hard not to take that sort of thing personal.  People are not a commodity.  To put it bluntly, I work for an art supply store that discriminates against artists.  And this is but one more instance of the world discriminating against artists, as if artists don't have enough trouble surviving in society.  But just because this is “business as usual,” it doesn't mean that it is right, that I have to accept it and internalize it as inevitable.

We artists are shit upon so frequently by society, is it any wonder that we are so radical?  That we sometimes produce works that many in bourgeois society would consider ugly?  Yes, today I want to be ugly.  I wonder what would happen if all artists would unilaterally decide to boycott beauty, to produce only ugly works of art.  What, then, would become of society?  Would it rot and fall apart at the seams?  Every generation gets the art it deserves, and this generation is no exception.  We need more ugly art, not just art devoid of aesthetics (that might be considered coolly conceptual), but genuinely ugly art, and lots of it fast.  We need to bury this world in it, until they can't breathe anymore and they scream for mercy, rub its nose in it, like a bad dog who shits in the house, while yelling “you did this!”  We should do this until the world comes to its senses and realizes its mistakes.   

I get knocked down so many times, over and over again, and I still fight.  Sometimes, though, I get so tired of fighting and I wonder why I am still here.  It is a miracle, really.  I've thought about “it” a lot over the years . . . and maybe you know what I mean by “it.”  Art prejudice has effected all aspects of my life, from my income, to my health, to my love life.  Too often I am an angry pessimist, and when people tell me to cheer up and look at the bright side of life, I snarl like a wild wolf on the inside, wanting to lash out at them for their good fortune and their pampered sunshiny life.  I've worked so hard – and yet I'm told to be patient.  But when you are verging on middle age, it is really hard to be patient.  I feel like I have long since paid my dues.  It is so tempting to give up, to abandon art and find another trade.  But I can't; it is against my very nature.  It is who I am.  If the cycle continues, and it probably will, I will eventually find a new thread of optimism to hesitantly latch onto, and I will try again.  Like Sisyphus, I might be doomed to roll that boulder back up that Hell hill, to almost reach the top, and to be achingly hopeful, once again, of a final success . . .  I can not bring myself to write the words completing this myth . . . maybe one day I will find peace, I will find rest.  Maybe one day I will find all the answers to my questions, which usually start with . . . Why?  

It seems so strange to me, that those who most pursue life with passion - that is artists - are the ones most likely to be punished by it.

For Part Two of this blog, click here:  A Boycott of Beauty Part Two

Plato and Aristotle on Art by Chris Hall

Raphael da Urbino,  The School of Athens  (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Raphael da Urbino, The School of Athens (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Plato is not a big fan of art, and his works, particularly The Republic, are rife with complaints against it.  Plato thought all art was an imperfect imitation of nature, and that our perceptions of nature (remember that we are in Plato's cave, viewing the shadows of what is real on the wall) was already skewed and imperfect.  This makes art twice removed from perfection.  He did respect, however, the power art has in shaping people's thoughts and feelings, but he takes this respect to a dark place when he suggests that art should be regulated and censored by the wisest members of society, a ruling class of Philosopher Kings.  And what if these “wisest members of society” become corrupt?  And who decides who is the “wisest.”  Plato is in dangerous territory, and I can not follow him there.  I may distrust the masses, but I distrust the government and authority figures even more.  

Now, let's contrast Plato's perception of art with that of his student, the liberal Aristotle.  Aristotle thought art had the power to improve upon nature.  Aristotle also admired art's ability to persuade.  He thinks that art has the ability to convey universal truths, and that it can help us better understand our purpose and predicament.  If performed masterfully, Aristotle thought art could be a tool useful for inspiring people, for enlightening them on the consequences of foolish behavior, and that it could foster moral growth and the improvement of society.   No where in his writings does Aristotle promote censorship. 

Like Plato, I do believe that the wrong kind of art can be harmful for society, just as good art can be a benefit.   Because of the fallibility and subjectivity of human nature and aesthetic tastes, however, I can not ever support censorship.  And when used by the state, censorship can be an abusive tool for repression of political and personal freedom.  For these reasons, I will follow Aristotle's approach.

Expensive Art Materials and Creative Blocks by Chris Hall

Sometimes using high quality materials can produce a creative block.  Too much reverence for your art materials can cause you to hesitate.  You may pause for fear of fucking up and wasting money.  Maybe it is just as well, then, that I can't afford the 50 dollar 37 ml tube of Cobalt Violet Light Williamsburg oil paint.  But then again, if I had that paint, I just might paint the hell out that painting.

On Celebrity Pop-Culture Fan Tribute Art by Chris Hall

I've seen variations of this image copied by a number of artists.  Very Unoriginal.

I've seen variations of this image copied by a number of artists.  Very Unoriginal.

"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"  Zen Master Linji.

Yeah, I might hurt some feelings on this blog, but it has got to be said.

I drew baseball players and rock stars once . . . when I was twelve!  Grow Up!  I am tired of seeing celebrity fan tribute art.  I see it everywhere and it is an eye pollutant.  I swear, if I see one more Batman, Joker “why so serious?,” Bane drawing, I think I just might vomit.  Same goes for Walking Dead and Breaking Bad art.  Pop culture drivel has very little place in art, even when it has an ironic message.  Life is serious business.  What you watch on TV is not.  Art deserves more.  What message is there in fan art?  There is none.  What is the critique?  There is none.  Can you come up with an original idea of your own?  I challenge you.  Fan art is everywhere.  The Deviantart website is full of it.  At least they have it in a category of its own, so you can separate the chaff from the wheat.

The same critique above also applies to Manga illustration.  I'm not anti-cartoon by any stretch.  There are a lot of really good cartoonists out there who produce high quality art and who have their own vision.  But for the most part, I find Manga style animation to be childish, uninspired, and unoriginal.  Grow the fuck up.  Find out what kind of art you might make, not what other people make.  Know Yourself.  Kill your idols.  

Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

Sunshine and Farts by Chris Hall

Martin Creed,  Work No. 203:  Everything is Going to be Alright , 1999

Martin Creed, Work No. 203:  Everything is Going to be Alright, 1999

To Hell with “Everything is Gonna Be Alright,” trite, “Don't Worry Be Happy” Bobby McFerrin Bullshit, and Fuck You and your Artwork made from Sunshine and Farts.  I tire of seeing Glitter-Dolphins, Rainbows, Kittens, Cupcakes, and Hearts.  Blind, naïve, sugar sweet optimism, without any kind of criticality, is hard for me to swallow.  It is softball art, and it is sickening to me.  As much as I usually dislike Martin Creed's work, his Work No. 203:  Everything is Going to be Alright might actually be a success to me.  Creed's work usually oozes pessimism.  He is an expert a taking what may a simple phrase or gesture and turning it into something complex, and Work No. 203:  Everything is Going to be Alright is no different.  Despite the obvious message found in the text, the use of a cold neon sign above a rich institution makes me question the sincerity of his sentiment.  Now the simple message becomes complex and questions are raised.  Are the words meant to be coming out of the institutions of power?  Is it a reassuring lie, meant to put us asleep?  Can we trust them?  Is Creed being ironic?  Is he being sincere?  If being sincere, how did he arrive at that thought, when he is generally known for his pessimism?  The complexity of interpretation available to us is what makes this work interesting to me.  

Technicians of Ecstasy - Shamanism and the Modern Artist by Chris Hall

I recently finished reading Technicians of Ecstasy – Shamanism and the Modern Artist, by Mark Levy.  In it he profiles 27 artists in three different categories, Seeing, Dreaming, and Performing, and gives details about various Shamanic techniques that contemporary artists can use to advance their own work.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and my copy is now marked up with underlined passages, asterisks, margin notes, and tea stains (I spilled tea on it on the day I finished reading it and had to dry out the pages).  I can not recommend this book enough to anyone who might be interested in the areas where spirituality, psychology, and fine art intersect.  In the final pages of the book, Levy advocates a return to spiritual values in art, and gives us a kind of call to arms.  The following quotes are culled from the Conclusion of Mark Levy's book.  I thought they might bear repeating here. 

“In the beginning, in prehistoric times, the roles of artist and shaman were not separated.  Shamans were, in fact, the most gifted artists in their community.”  

“Currently, in post-modern art where, in the words of Nietzsche “nothing is true and everything is permitted,” the task of re-valuing the world with spiritual meaning becomes especially urgent.”  

“I believe the role of the artist as shaman will become increasingly attractive for artists who are seeking to go beyond the idiosyncratic selfishness, commodity fetishism, adherence to fashion, and sterile appropriation that informs much of contemporary art.  Many contemporary artists simply borrow spiritual contents by appropriating images and styles from a wide range of cultures, including tribal art.  The result is a simulacrum of meaning which lacks depth.  Art that uncovers authentic truth requires difficult and sometimes dangerous journeys.”

“Shamanic techniques, when used properly, offer essentially non-destructive means for artists to invite visions and gain knowledge about themselves.  Works of art evolving from these visions continue to nourish their audiences.  The opportunity for artists to make positive contributions to their communities also eliminates their own feelings of alienation and exclusion.”

“In shifting attention from common sense or “consensus reality,” artists as shamans succeed in expanding their consciousness and the consciousness of their communities and offer blueprints for spiritual development.”  

On Framing and Displaying Paintings by Chris Hall

Francois Joseph Heim,  Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824 , 1824, showing paintings displayed in the salon style.

Francois Joseph Heim, Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824, 1824, showing paintings displayed in the salon style.

Sometimes stuffing a painting into a picture frame can be as confining as a tuxedo, or a straight jacket.  A century ago and before, art could fit more comfortably in a frame.  Paintings were hung salon style, side by side, clustered together, and in close proximity to each other.  The elaborate and ornate gold frames acted as a visual stop, closing the painting off and keeping it from interfering with the neighboring paintings.  But these framing devices worked well with the paintings of the time, which were all created with formal academic techniques such as perspective, giving them the illusion of depth.  The frame acted as a kind of open window through which people would view the painted tableau within.  Modern Art, which favored the pursuit of truth and reality over artifice, destroyed this illusion.  

As painting grew more and more abstract and  perspective fell into disuse, the works became progressively flatter.  Impasto techniques and abstract over-all composition also meant that the paintings began to have aspirations of expanding outside of the frame.  This trend culminated in the epic scale works of the Abstract Expressionists.  These demanding works had territorial ambitions and  sought to overwhelm to the viewer.  The abstract compositions were now active participants in a gallery space, where before, the works of art were objects of passive reflection.  Modern Art paintings do not always play nice with their neighbors, and so galleries and museums began to drop the confined and cramped salon style installation of art, in favor of giving art more breathing room.  Part of giving Modern Art paintings more breathing room meant getting rid of the stuffy and confining ornate gold frames of old.  Instead, the new paintings were given thin, minimal frames, if they were framed at all.  The visual stop of the framing device was just too much for works of art that aspired to be wild and free, and to go on forever into space, expanding out into the world.  

Oddly enough, while the elaborate gold frames of yester-year may seem a bit too stuffy and formal for Modern Art paintings, the evolution of art installation from the salon style to giving works of art breathing room has unintentionally created a new formality:  cold-white, uninviting, and empty gallery spaces.  There is a new trend in art, however, to show small scale works, such as drawings and prints, once again in the salon style.  I believe the informality of salon style installation is suitable for the humble and democratic nature of drawing and printmaking, and the intimacy of salon style installation can also make a gallery space more inviting.  Salon style installation, where everything is displayed from floor to ceiling, is also good way to convey the idea that Art should be organic, without hierarchy, and without excessive pruning from an overly brutal gardener.  


Acrylic vs Oil Paint by Chris Hall

Oil paint is kind of sacred and holy; it is something you love and have a relationship with, something you spend time with.  You get to know the smells and moody characteristics of Oil paint in an intimate, familiar way, and the color is richer, deeper.

Acrylic is for fast and cheap thrills.  Like a whore, it is something you can use and abuse, as the medium is very forgiving.  Acrylic is made of plastic and so it can be a bit superficial.  Yes, she'll do things that oil paint won't do, but the color is less vibrant, less saturated, and not as luminous.  

I guess what paint you choose really depends on what kind of relationship you want to have with your paint, who you would rather have in the sack, so to speak.  We all know that making art is kind of like sex.  I'm just extending the metaphor.  Since 2006, I've spent most of my time with Acrylic paint.  Lately, though, I've been missing the intimacy, the color, and the smell of Oils.  It is an investment of time, but I think I'll revisit Oils as soon as I have a studio to paint in again.  

Collateral Damage by Chris Hall

Michael Asher,  Untitled  (1991).

Michael Asher, Untitled (1991).

In recent art news, Hyperallergic wrote that Michael Asher's piece, Untitled (1991), which was installed on the University of California San Diego campus, was destroyed by a masked vandal with a sledge hammer.  The vandal also destroyed eight surveillance cameras surrounding the campus’ performing arts center.

Asher's Untitled (1991) is nothing more than a generic indoor water fountain installed outside.  Vic Viana, author of the Hyperallergic article, writes that Untitled (1991) “subverted the conventions of outdoor fountain design while also serving a practical function for thirsty students.”  So the piece is subversive, how hilarious is that?!  Mary Beebe,  director of the university's Stuart Collection of site-specific art, informs us in a video link in the article that, “Many people have a drink out of this fountain without realizing it’s art.” 

It is sad to see any work of art destroyed, even the work we don't like (in a democracy we have to be open to the opinions of others), but I have to go on record as saying this work was really, really bad.  It reminds me of Damien Hirst's cigarette butt filled ash tray that was left in a gallery and accidentally thrown out.  If you make art celebrating the mundane, indistinguishable from everyday life, you shouldn't expect the world to treat that object with any reverence or respect.  I wonder how many people have let their dogs piss on it, or how many people have stuck their chewing gum on this piece over the years?  As for my own taste in things, I believe art should aspire to transform its audience in some way.  Untitled (1991) piece purposefully blended into the background.  It didn't function as art, it functioned as a water fountain, and no amount of intellectual gymnastics will ever change that.  I would like to think the sledgehammer attacker was a conceptual art iconoclast, but no, the reality is the wrecked water fountain is nothing more than the collateral damage.  

While I would not like to go so far as to say vandalism is art, I do think the vandal's statement, knocking out the security cameras, could be interpreted as a clumsy critique on the growing acceptance of “big brother” surveillance and intrusion into our daily activities.  And, if that was indeed the intent of the campus vandal, then I would like to be the first to say that the campus vandalism was a much more subversive act than anything Michael Asher's Untitled (1991) pretended to be.  

Some Notes on the History of Paint by Chris Hall

Paint is composed of two elements, a pigment and a binder.  The pigment, a ground up granular like powder, gives the paint its color, while the binder acts as a glue to bind the pigment to a surface, whether that be a cave wall, a canvas, or a piece of paper.  

In 2011, the earliest example of paint was found in South Africa.  It dates back 100,000 years.  The first paints were composed of pigments derived from the earth, such as clays and sand, and animal derivatives, such as charred animal bones.  The first artists used spit and animal fat as a binder.  Later, as our ancestors developed a taste for honey, eggs, and milk, egg white, egg yolk, bee’s wax, and milk was used as a binder.  

In search of a more permanent and harder solution, binders derived from plants developed, such as linseed oil (used in oil painting) and gum Arabic (used in watercolor).  When linseed oil became a scarce commodity during the Second World War, synthetic binders made from artificial resins emerged and Acrylic paint was born.

The history of pigment development is one of a search for new colors, permanence (fade resistance), affordability, and less toxicity.  In this regard, the general trend has been to move away from organic and earth derived pigments, and toward synthetic pigments.  

Some interesting examples of obsolete pigments include:

Indian Yellow

Indian Yellow 2.jpg

Indian Yellow was made from the urine collected from cows that were force feed a diet of mango leaves.  The urine was collected and dried, producing small foul-smelling balls of raw pigment called “purree.”  Cows do not digest mango leaves very efficiently as the leaves contain a toxin similar to poison ivy.  Consequently, the cows were often thin and malnourished.  Apparently, even though the cow was/is considered sacred by many in India, they did not think anything about profiting from the starvation of cows.  The practice of producing Indian Yellow was declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908.

Mummy Brown

The use of Mummy Brown as a pigment dates from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Like the name implies, it was derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.  The pigment, falling between burnt umber and raw umber in color, was good for producing transparent effects in glazing, shadows, and flesh tones, and was a favorite color in the palette of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  The pigment quickly lost its popularity once the secret to its composition became generally known to artists.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins.  By this time, however, the supply of available mummies had become exhausted, and with the birth of modern Egyptology, new mummies were no longer forthcoming.  Sometimes this pigment was alternatively named Caput Mortuum (latin for “Dead Head” or “Worthless Remains”).  Caput Mortuum is also an Alchemical term for the useless residue left over from processes such as Sublimation and is symbolic of decay and decline.  Alchemists represented Caput Mortuum in their art and texts by using a stylized Death's Head  symbol.


Ultramarine Blue

Ultramarine 4.jpg

The name Ultramarine is from Latin meaning “beyond the sea,” referring to the distance one had to travel in order to obtain it.  Ultramarine Blue is an expensive pigment sourced from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan.  Lapis Lazuli was also extremely difficult to grind-down, filter, and refine into a high quality pigment.  In Renaissance times, wealthy patrons would commission works using Ultramarine Blue as a status symbol (stipulating its use in their contracts), as the pigment was worth its weight in gold.  Its brilliance was also desired by painters.  The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his handbook for painters: "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."  Synthesized in 1826, Ultramarine went from being one of the most expensive pigments produce to now being one of the most cheapest.  Real Ultramarine is still manufactured (it is both non-toxic and permanent), but remains extremely cost prohibitive.  During the darkest days in the recent wars in Afghanistan, a tiny tube of paint could cost $500.

Tyrian Purple  

Tyrian Purple is technically a dye (smaller colored particles diluted in liquid rather than suspended) and not a pigment, but it's history is also worth discussing.  Tyrian Purple (also known as Imperial Purple) had a reddish purple tint and was extremely light-fast (rare among the early colors).  It was also expensive to produce, as it was derived from the collected mucus of the Muricidae family of predatory sea snails.  Discovered by the Phoenicians as early as 1570 BCE, the pigment was used almost exclusively by royalty because of its cost, which was reported to be worth its weight in silver.  In fact, in some places, sumptuary laws were put into place restricting its use those of “noble birth.”  In Byzantium, where such sumptuary laws were practiced, a child born of a reigning Emperor was said to be “born into the purple.”  Byzantine production of Tyrian Purple came to abrupt stop after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  Soon the color fell out of favor (replaced by Vermillion and Crimson) as no one in the West could gather the financial resources to restart production.  Incidently, Tyrian Purple was also produced in Pre-Columbian Mexico, from the same sea snails, where it was valued more than gold and also used denote those of “noble birth.”  For all its Royal implications, cloth dyed in Tyrian Purple tended to retain its fishy odor.  So pervasive was this stench that the Talmud actually granted women the right to divorce their husband if they became a dyer after marrying.

Sepia

The word Sepia comes from the Greek, meaning “cuttlefish,” and that is exactly from where the red-brown pigment comes from, more specifically, the cuttlefish ink sac.  Sepia ink was first commonly used in the Greco-Roman world, as a writing ink.  Artists used it as a drawing medium starting in the Renaissance, with the practice continuing up through the 19th century.  In the late 18th century, Jacob Seydelmann found a way to concentrate Sepia so that it could be used as a watercolor and oil paint.  Because Sepia is not very light-fast, it is difficult today to find real Sepia pigment.  Fortunately, however, Sepia has now been successfully synthesized and a hue is available.

Carmine

A New World pigment derived from crushed shells of the female Cochineal insect.  Replaced Crimson in Europe, which was derived from the Kermes insect.  Although comparable in color quality and intensity, it required 12 times as much Kermes insects to produce the same amount of color from the Cochineal insect.  Consequently, Carmine pigment became one of the first export goods from the New World after Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico, the second most valuable, after silver.  Such was its value as a raw product, that its price was regularly quoted in the London and Amsterdam Commodities Exchanges.  The Mexican monopoly on Carmine came to an end during the Mexican War of Independence (1810- 1821), with production centers starting in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and Spain, though as an artist pigment, Carmine was soon replaced by its synthesized version, Alizarin Crimson.  Carmine survives today as a pigment used to color food products and cosmetics.

Dragon's Blood

From the time of the Romans up through the Medieval times, Dragon's Blood pigment was literally thought to have derived from the congealed blood of Dragons and Elephants, mixed together as they fought in mortal combat.  The truth to its production was kept secret for over a thousand years.  Dragon's Blood pigment was produced from the sapped gum of a South East Asian tree and the story was most likely invented as a marketing device.  Dragon's Blood was used in the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.  The pigment is known to be extremely fugitive (it fades rapidly).  Inhis handbook for painters, the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini writes concerning Dragon's Blood, “leave it alone and do not have much respect for it..."


Indigo

Indigo is a dye extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera, native to the tropic regions of the world.  Indigo is dark blue in color.  Indigo dye is one of the world's oldest and best known colors, being produced in the ancient times in India, China, Japan, and South East Asia, as well as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.  Because blue pigment is rare in nature and is difficult to produce, trade in Indigo dye became very lucrative.  In some circles, Indigo dye was referred to as “Blue Gold.”  Indigo was a major export crop supported by plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century, second only to rice production (cotton was not profitable until after the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793).  Later, peasants in Bengal revolted against unfair treatment by the East India Company traders/planters in what became known as the Indigo Revolt in 1859, during the British Raj  government of India.  

Maya Blue

The secret to Maya Blue production has long been lost to history, but scientists in recent years are finally putting an end to the mystery.  Unlike Indigo, Maya Blue is extremely permanent and light-fast.  Scientists have now discovered that Maya Blue is a combination of Indigo dyes and palygorskite, a clay found in the state of Georgia, in the Southeastern United States.  Besides being used in their art (murals, sculpture, textiles, and illuminated codices) Mayan Blue also held a particular religious significance in Mesoamerican culture, as Human sacrificial victims were frequently daubed with the blue pigmentation.  

Prussian Blue

In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel discovered the world's first modern synthetic pigment, by accident.  He was trying to produce a red pigment, but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue), known for its deep, blue-black color.  Dippel was a controversial figure, a mad scientist type who dabbled in alchemy and illegal anatomy studies in his laboratory in Castle Frankenstein.  In the course of one of his experiments, Dippel is said to have accidentally blown up one of the castle's towers.  It is also said that he tried to re-animate the dead, worked at transferring the soul of one cadaver to another, and boiled and distilled human body parts while seeking to create the Elixir of Life.  It should come as no surprise that Dippel was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Victor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein.  Prussian Blue is highly toxic, being derived from Cyanide.  Despite being toxic, Prussian Blue pigment was also used as an orally administered medicine, an antidote to heavy metal poisoning.  Dippel himself was reported to have regularly taken doses of the pigment, which, ironically, may have slowly poisoned him.  The skin of his body was said to have been the color of Prussian Blue when he died.  Prussian Blue would go on to have an even more grisly history.  The poisonous gas Zyklon B, used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, was also derived from Cyanide.  Consequently, the walls of the Gas Chambers are stained Prussian Blue.  It is still possible to obtain Prussian Blue today, but for the most part, the color has been replaced on artist's palettes by the less toxic Phthalo Blue.

In case you thought the history of Prussian Blue pigment is all grissly, allow me a chance to redeem it.  A good many beautiful works of art were created with Prussian Blue pigment, including Hokusai's The Great Wave (1832) and Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889).  There is a potentially interesting connection between the two works.  Prussian Blue did not became popular in the European pallet until sometime in the mid to late 1800's.  Meanwhile, when the color was first imported in 1829 to Japan, works created with Prussian Blue were in great demand.  When Japanese prints made with Prussian Blue pigment found their way back to Europe, they named the exotic color “Hiroshige Blue,” after the Japanese printmaker who used the color extensively.  It seems the people in the West had forgotten that the source of the pigment was actually Germany!  Van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints and who was inspired by their beauty, color, and other formal qualities, perhaps began using Prussian Blue as a result.  

Flake White

Developed in Ancient Greek times, Flake White pigment is derived from White Lead Carbonate.  For centuries, Flake White was considered the perfect pigment, being permanent, fast to  dry, and producing flexible oil films.  There was only one problem:  Flake White is extremely poisonous.  It is thought that it may have contributed to bad physical and mental health, and even death of many artists over the years, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.  Nevertheless, Flake White was still used by many artists up until after World War II, when it started to lose ground to Titanium White.  By the 1990's only a few manufacturers were offering the color, and it is still possible to buy the pigment today.

Emerald Green

Green pigment (along with blue) has always been the rarest and hardest to produce of the pigment colors, a bit ironic when you consider we live on planet dominated by the colors green and blue.  One of the most beautiful green pigments to have ever been produced is Emerald Green (also known as Scheele's Green), but it is also the most poisonous. It is so poisonous it was sold under the trade name Paris Green as an insecticide and was used to kill the rats in the Parisian sewer system.  Emerald Green was also popular as a wallpaper pigment and would degrade, with moisture and molds, to arsine, a poisonous gas related to arsenic.  The pigment was also used in wax candles, textiles, and children's toys.  Aside from being toxic and exuding toxic gas, Emerald Green was also highly carcinogenic.  It is impossible to figure how many people may have died as a result of the use of the Emerald Green pigment, but we know it may have contributed to the death of Napoleon, who surrounded himself with the color (his favorite) in the damp climate of his exile home on St. Helena.  Analysis of hair samples taken after his death reveal there was a significant amount of arsenic in his body.  Emerald Green was an extremely fugitive color, as it could both fade in sunlight and darken as it tended to chemically react with other colors.  Today there is a safer, synthetic version of the color available.

Woad

The use of Woad as a dye dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it to color the cloth wrappings of mummies.  It is blue in color dye derived from a flowering plant of the same name.  Woad is most popularly known, thanks to the movie Braveheart, as the dark blue face paint used by the Scots when preparing for battle.  The tradition of using Woad as a body paint dates back to ancient Britain, to the northern Picts (from the Latin Picti, meaning “Painted Ones”), who were recorded by Julius Caesar as having extensively tattooed bodies and covered in designs applied with blue Woad paint.  Woad was in direct competition with Indigo and Logwood, a dye derived from a South American tree, exported by Spain to Europe.  In England, laws were passed preventing the importation of both Indigo and Logwood in order to protect the local Woad industry, and sea battles were fought with Spain over the trade.  As it became clear that Indigo and Logwood were superior pigments, producing stronger dyes with more permanence, the ban was lifted in 1661.  The Woad industry slowly died out, with the last large scale commercial harvest happening in 1932.

Some Notes on Shame by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  We are Embar(r)assed By You , c 2012

Christopher Hall, We are Embar(r)assed By You, c 2012

Today I am showing some of my drawings in a show at The Arts Exchange in Atlanta.  I do not have the unwavering support of all of my family.  Thinking on this, I wrote a few notes this morning clarifying my stance on my art, which is so much a part of who I am.  I feel a need to justify myself (how sad is that!).  Because the art I am presenting is just a small sample of what I am about,  I also want to have a clear goal in mind with what I am presenting:

The goal of this presentation is not to shock, but to encourage discussion of notions of what deserves to be public and what should be kept in private.  Shame is a destructive force that can lead to self-hate.   At times I think privacy is a sphere of shame that needs to be broken if we are to celebrate who we truly are, and as we celebrate louder, the voices of judgment begin to be silenced.   If offense still persists in the viewer, then perhaps it is important to realize that this attitude actually says a lot more about the viewer than it does the art or even the artist.  The art is just a piece of paper open to interpretation, and the viewer's thoughts and impressions are much more real.  It is also important to realize that these drawings are not a catalog of my wishes and desires.  I'm actually critical of some of the things I depict in my art.  But I also believe in celebrating our flaws instead of pretending they do not exist.  By celebrating our flaws, perhaps one day we can grow beyond them.  

Preamble To My Exhibition At The Arts Exchange by Chris Hall

My second grade class was held in a trailer, and on the first day of class I did not understand that we were allowed to leave and go to the main building, should we have to go to the bathroom.  Consequently, I shit my pants.  An artist takes risks, they seek to inspire, change, and transform.  They seek deeper truths (about both themselves and the world) and then they seek to share these truths (which may not always be pleasant) with others in the world at large.  Self censorship is never part of the equation.  The notion of creating artwork, of tailoring a show to an audience's tastes, beholden to them as in a client-patron relationship, is sickening to me.  That kind of compromise of vision is the domain of the professional interior decorator, and I am not a performing monkey.  So tonight I will maintain my integrity and the nobility of both my mission and craft by presenting to you the contents of my work, pure and undiluted.  Tonight I choose to confront the audience with the absurdities I've observed and imagined possible in this world, the world we now live in.  To do this properly, it might be necessary to ruffle a few feathers and to make a few people uncomfortable, to confront them and their small hypocrisies, namely by assaulting their “good  tastes,” by exposing them to an artwork with a more scatological or sexual bent then they may be accustomed to.  But the work is meant to be playful, meant to be humorous, and is meant to draw people in, not to repel.  I want to invite people into this strange world that I see, the world which we share together.  So, please, if you find yourself offended, I ask that you reconsider, to not be so uptight, and to "keep calm . . . during anal leakage."  Remember, God created the grotesqueness of the platypus, and the lustfulness of the goat with as much love as he created the classical beauty and gracefulness of the swan.  So, with all things being equal, I invite you to come inside and to join me in my laughter.  Let us celebrate together!  


Christopher Hall

The Case for the Artist as Pharmakos by Chris Hall

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Pharmakon:  Ancient Greek word meaning drug (both poison and cure), remedy, medicine, charm, spell, artificial color, and paint.  

It is interesting to me that painted color can be equated with drugs and losing control, with spells, charms, and magic.  It is an extended analogy, but one I can definitely get into, and one I think the Greeks might have have recognized as well.  The Greeks loved color.  Their temples and statues were painted in all sorts of garish colors, but all of it has washed away and faded with time, and we are only left with the white marble work underneath.  Today, when we look at a good painting, we can be intoxicated by its color and become lost in it, mesmerized, as if in a spell.  Despite our attempts at color theory and chemical analysis (we can codify color relationships and understand pigment composition), the effects of color remains something of a mystery, an irrational science.  Like a drug, colors can stimulate and they can arouse.  Colors can also be a healing tool and good medicine. Color can even be poisonous and used as a weapon.  I've heard of a library in Seattle that purposefully painted their restrooms a nasty pharmaceutical green to discourage vagrants from loitering.  

Derived from the same etymological root, the Ancient Greek word Pharmakos (later Pharmakeus) translates as druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer.  The Ancient Greeks had no proper word for “artist” and some have suggested that the closest word to approximate the concept of “art” might be the word “techne,” meaning “mastery of any art or craft.”  (By the way, it is from the Latin word “tecnicus” that we derive English words like technique, technology, and technical).  I do not think this does the concept of “art” and “artist” justice, as it strips it of its shamanistic, sorcerer roots, leaving in its place the idea that an artist is merely an accomplished craftsman, and not someone who seeks out deeper truths.  This is why I nominate the word Pharmakos (druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer) as a proper substitute, and considering Pharmakos already has etymological connections with Pharmakon (drug, medicine, poison, remedy, charm, spell, painted color), you can see how I might think the connection to be appropriate.  

Interestingly enough, Phamakos also refers to a sacrificial ritual, where a city-state would purge evil by exiling (after being beaten and stoned), or by killing (either thrown from a cliff or burned) a Pharmakos, which in this case would be a human scapegoat and community outsider (usually a slave, a cripple, or a criminal).  The ritual was done during times of great stress, such as a famine, invasion, or plague, in hopes that the fortunes of the city would make a turn for the better, or during times of calendrical crisis, where the object was to restore a sense of balance.  But in times of great stress today, is it not the art and artists who are first on the chopping block?  Are not artists today generally thought of as outsiders in the community, at best barely tolerated by society?  Sure, a select few artists might become famous and afforded celebrity status, but for the vast majority of us, we are indeed outsiders, outcasts, and social pariahs.  I suspect quite a few creative types back in the days of Ancient Greece might have become a Pharmakos in the dual sense of the word, being both an artist and human scapegoat/sacrifice.  And the analogy goes further still.  The Pharmakos ritual wasn't just a community catharsis, it was also viewed as a sacrifice.  After the Pharmakos was killed, they would cremate the body and the ashes would be scattered to the ocean.  Vincent Van Gogh, the man who Antonin Artuad writes was “suicided by society,” was a Phamakos of sorts, in that he was shunned by the community during his life, but almost immediately following his death, his work began to be honored and appreciated.  It is a recurring pattern, one that I think is still true and relevant today.