Formation v. Migration. “What is it?”

Formation v. Migration. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Formation v. Migraation. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Finally turned a corner on this abstract piece yesterday. I’m feeling more comfortable with abstraction and developing confidence with unique ways of working. A common response to abstract art from my circles: “What is it?” Rather than stumble through a rote interpretation of what’s going on here, I thought I would post my working notes below:

Traction in Abstraction. Painting Abstract Aerial Lake. The Shape of Life. Geology. Depth study. Geese flying, goose guide. Bold, vibrant color.

Difficulty > (what am I doing? non-representational, no reference > endless options) (What do I do next? > endless options, breakthroughs, leave and come back > allow brain to breathe) (Where does my mind go? > [Solve creative “problem” > aesthetic “problem”] How to balance > How to disrupt?)

Geese in flight or chromosomes bending in suspension OR analogous geometric/genetic experiences in biology
Pure abstraction? Figuration with goose? Content – why pure abstraction? Abstract totem, invokes what I cannot avoid saying.
Land matters. Depth matters. space matters. Sub-paintings in space > figural totem, geese flying, Icarus, chromosomes, experimental spaces

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait)

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36" x 48"
Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36″ x 48″

Incubation. Gestation. Uterus/Heart. Growth & Development. Ripening. Maturation. Evolution. Vessels & Hollow Organs. Heart/Uterus. Impulse. Creative Stream. Universal Generativity. Revival. Resurrection. Resuscitation. These are a few of my favorite things! And/or the wayfinding words I was jotting down in my project book/journal as I set out to rework a ten-year-old self portrait that just needed something more.

The former painting, a half-baked figure drawing of myself lying in semi fetal position, came from the tail end of my art school years when I was working on expressive figure sketches, mostly in rote, frothy charcoal and muddled with bright, concentrated color (see “Imaginary Figures”). Working through how to transform this piece into something I could be proud of was an interesting process. In many ways, I felt like I was having a conversation with my younger self, recognizing what I was trying to do 10 years ago, and letting that dialog with today’s sensibilities, changed as they are. I found that several of my old tricks and practices have endured and perhaps matured over the years. The same joy in speed and gestural energy is there in the old and the new way of working. I have a better grasp on color and inventive palettes now, something I really missed ten years ago.

As I worked through this painting I began thinking more deeply about what it means symbolically to come full circle on a self-portrait. I came across my desire to reinvent without fully destroying this object that my 22-year old self made. I’m reading a biography about artist Jasper Johns, and I was intrigued at a part of Johns’ career where he systematically destroyed his older work after he found his creative niche, erasing the traces of his incremental growth. I have certainly had the impulse to obliterate old paintings, but I so value the idea of ritual transformation that I find inspiration and meaning in the process, the traces leading up to a certain point in time. I like to see the arc of things. Perhaps I really am a “big picture” thinker – my partner mentions it frequently. I remember how lost I felt at 22, facing graduation and the bleak world outside art school, and I wonder if that uncertainty contributed to the savage, transitional quality of the original image. I wish then I could have seen the long view and trusted it. It sounds so sentimental…I tried to have a little overdue self-compassion as I helped this old portrait find a way out of confusion. The result is a somewhat spiritual (if not a little corny), surrealist affirmation of our constant state of change and transformation, a theme that is ever more important in my art practice and my perspective in general.

“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.” – Jasper Johns

Vessel Work or “Paint, Do What You Will!”

Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 36"
Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 36″

A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.

In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.

With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.

Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio)

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12" x 16"
Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12″ x 16″

“Coagulation Studies” is an ongoing series of abstract work utilizing old paint and automatic ways of working. Salvage and collage of old materials such as paint chips, solidified or “coagulated” media, and remnants of product labels addresses the concept of time by juxtaposing media at different stages of transformation or life cycle. Formal aesthetic decision-making is minimized by using archetypal, automatic compositions and a palette limited to the leftover paint from other projects. Additional themes explored in “Coagulation Studies” include the nature of various media, physiological processes and shapes, interconnectedness and complexity, and creative systems.

Three Gold Figures (Essay in Cubism)

Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 " x 30"
Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 ” x 30″

Coming in the midst of a furious week of art production, here is the formal result of my recent research into cubism! This commissioned piece moderately deconstructs three poses (one model – unharmed in the production process) and the studio space around them. I treated this subject with all of the cubist sensibility I was able to scrape together from online searches, a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and biographies of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. My final composition borrows heavily from Picasso’s bold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and samples the palette of Picasso’s blue period, Braque’s somber spectrum, and adds an iridescent gold flare because decorative art!

This being my first relatively abstract, non-photographic commission piece, the ideas and prototypes came together through consultation. Trading pictures of murals, famous paintings, and devising color schemes, we carved out a shared mental model of the painting to come.

I began working on this piece by reading and observing. I was curious to find out what my giant art history textbooks, the internet, and our local free museum had to say about cubism. I was surprised to find that certain aspects of cubism were similar to what I was trying to do with “time-lapse” figure painting in the latter half of my art school years, so picking up that line of work felt a bit like coming home. Read more on what I found out about cubism’s “greater context” here. Once I had determined how cubist sensibilities could fit into my style, I invited over a friend to model for some gestural sketches. These loose and expressive sketches helped me form the basis for the figures and I built up the geometric environment around them. From there, the challenge became walking a thin line between decorative, calculated abstraction and representational figure painting, my client preferring something in the middle. See process snapshots below.

I could go many directions from here in order to fully invest in this way of working. Some cubists section off the surface in such a way that objects and bodies are barely recognizable, obscured by geometry and the conceptual/perceptual notions of cubism. Which to me is less interesting as I am still in love with drawing and painting the human body. Another idea is to fully push the idea of poses changing through time. I recently attended a figure drawing cooperative at a local art academy, and wondered how I could incorporate all the 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses over four hours into the same composition. The final result would probably be something quite abstract but also quite recognizably human. Overall, I have befriended cubism and feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist after examining and producing in this way. I’m eager to get deeper into the water.

Figure Study: Spacing, Tracing, Placing, Human Face-ing

Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18" x 24"
Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Returning to figure work with this study of a certain live model in my partially re-packed apartment a few weeks prior to moving. It is beyond exciting to come back to the classic and familiar gestural sketch of art school, and then combine that sensibility with my slow but eager, semi-abstract exploration of figure in relation to space and place. I’m trying hard to transmit how the sunlight filtered by the tree outside my window washes into and fills up my living room, now rendered a “transitional” space as recognizable domestic shapes are packed up and stacked in boxes and piles to the right. Transition or “interval” is central to my exploration of the time inherent in painting. This piece reminds me of an older figure study, but my risk-taking with color has certainly evolved. A time of change is ripe fruit to crack open, let the creative juice flow.

Coagulation Studies: Blob Job

Coagulation Study 2. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 8" x 10"
Coagulation Study 2. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 8″ x 10″

A few new acrylic blobs for you this week! Thinking about cells, fragment poetry, cascades, automatic art, classification and taxonomy, time and transformation, decoupage, the border between painting and sculpture, bug collections, miniature paintings, sedimentation, among other things.

Traction in Abstraction and the Budding Shape of Life

Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Making abstract art is difficult. Trained mostly as a representational painter, I have always found navigating the ambiguity of abstraction a murky, sometimes arbitrary task. However, that foggy negotiable space is crucial to what I admire in painting, and factors into the creative process I’m developing. I’m often seeking a particular balance between real and unreal, objective and subjective, visual equivalents of prose and poetry. Thus these days I have committed myself to explore terra incognita and foray into non-representational pursuits when I’m not painting a cute doggie.

Why is abstract painting so challenging? [Start stream of consciousness on the subject of abstraction.] Without a reference, there are endless options, and I’m repeatedly puzzling over the questions: what am I doing? Why am I doing that? How does this relate to the concept I am trying to convey? Should I even be thinking about this so hard? What is life? What the f*ck? Mostly, I end up sort of making progress on a general concept, and then find myself working through several aesthetic “problems” that I try to address using my creative process. The biggest question here is “what do I do next?” When I’ve hit a rut and I’m thoroughly in the weeds, I’m usually trying to find an interesting way to create visual balance or break through that particular point in the painting’s creation. The tricky thing is finding a solution that makes sense with the original concept and so forth, which may in turn create another aesthetic “problem” to be solved. The second tricky thing is going through these cycles in a way that is not something trite or [insert distasteful word here]. Maybe I’m not sure how to describe what I’m specifically avoiding. Probably kitsch. There are more unmentioned tricky things.

As you can see, I still have not fully jumped off the cliff. The “abstraction” above involves some very recognizable shapes: craggy peaks, a glacial lake from high above, water reflecting the sky, some distant road networks. The chevron-esque shapes invoke migrating birds, hang gliders, proteins folding into themselves, or chromosomes. This unfinished piece is somewhat related to a concept I have been working on called the “shape of life,” or critical, redundant shapes and patterns in nature that iterate at microscopic and macroscopic levels and carry meaning. More to come on this at a later time.

Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds

Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds. Acrylic, charcoal, ink on canvas. 40" x 40"
Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds. Acrylic, charcoal, ink on canvas. 40″ x 40″

I finally “finished” this painting after tabling it 2+ years ago. Sometimes, it takes a long time of living with artwork on your walls, glancing at it every day, before it becomes clear what to do with it next. Now I’m looking back at what I wrote about the work in 2014:

Why “dynamo?” Strictly speaking, “dynamo” indicates a generator of some sort, which converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. I once came across this word in a short story, used to describe a dark forest ravine. I never got away from the imagery of the ravine filled with the energy of frog croaks, insect whirrrs, leaves rustling, water flowing etc. Earth/Nature as limitless battery, endless potential for conversion, transformation and sadly, exploitation … It’s fascinating to observe the world this way and to recreate the exchange of energy in the act of painting, which is itself a form of exchange and re-genesis.

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Returns

Base painting for Returns
Base painting for Returns

Another semester of nursing school is slowing down, which means I’m finding oodles of time to catch up on my oft-neglected creative projects! I’m celebrating my return to art with some abstract work in this playful piece.

This is a re-worked old abstract piece that I got sick of (see left), looking at it for a few years hanging in my bathroom. The colors were too muted, the paint accumulation too thin. In the end, I let remnants of the old piece peek through the new one.

Untitled (Absence Study)

Untitled (Absence Study). Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 16" x 20"
Untitled (Absence Study). Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 16″ x 20″

After all these years
Does the ocean seem any wider?
Can your thoughts go back that far
Across the tracks and shorelines?

And all the times you crossed
Did you make the crossing for me? Was it real?
I guess there is no difference now, where the water’s so deep, and
Your feet can’t touch the sunken sand

“Wild Things” to “Lisa Frank-enstein” – Dynamo II: The Epic Journey

Dynamo II. Acrylic, charcoal, aquarelle, collage on canvas. 36" x 60"
Dynamo II. Acrylic, charcoal, aquarelle, collage on canvas. 36″ x 60″

Migration, exchange, transformation, and natural cycles all take central roles in this new large piece I just finished. I’m feeling good about the final composition/content, which seems to be a sort of “Lisa Frank-enstein” multi-phased inner tube journey through dream territory, symbolism, and imagination. The loon and the salmon both make epic journeys during their lifetimes, interacting in a larger wheel that mills out change, promotes adaptation and learning.

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Schematix / Studio Nights

Dynamo II Schematic. Ink, colored pencil, mechanical pencil and embellishments on copy paper. 8.5" x 11"
Dynamo II Schematic. Ink, colored pencil, mechanical pencil and embellishments on copy paper. 8.5″ x 11″

My treatment of this migrating bird palm tree schematic draft is a hybrid of planning, playing, experimenting with shapes and colors, and journal entry. The thoughts and feelings I have about the work are sort of just poured onto this little sheet of paper and I decide how to use them on the larger piece as I go. It’s another kind of painting palette, maybe, but sans le paint.

Sometimes I have to make a rough draft. Or anyway find a visual means to process the themes in a miniature format before tackling a big working space in the confines of a small studio. This particular piece will eventually be projected onto a 5 x 3 foot canvas so I’ve been playing with this small copy paper version as a way to organize the elements. Honestly at times this feels counter-intuitive, because an energizing part of my work is the reactionary process with changes and transitions. Part of this, though, is that this is a previous painting I’m reworking (see my much earlier post about Shadow Palm, which will essentially be the under-painting). As with any rough draft, though, I can count on the final composition to look and feel much different from the initial, procedural steps.

Inkjet cutouts. T'ai chi poses.
Inkjet cutouts. T’ai chi poses.

Finding enough – time – to work on art is the biggest barrier to my practice. Between work, increasing need for sleep, all the personal relationships, worries about school, the daily grind of household and general life/hygienic upkeep, art somehow tends to fall down the priorities ladder to my unending guilt. I know someday I will have more time for art, but it is not an excuse to put it on the back-burner now. Despite this priorities pattern, I’ve been dedicating at least every Wednesday evening, without too many expectations. Last night for instance, I didn’t get much real “painting” in, but I did cut out a lot of cool inkjet prints of myself in various t’ai chi poses for collage elements, as well as work up the above schematic – in which some epic migrating waterfowl are centrally featured!

Snapshot of cutouts collés. Inkjet print on canvas with Liquitex heavy gel medium.
Snapshot of cutouts collés. Inkjet print on canvas with Liquitex heavy gel medium.

At times, when feeling guilty about not doing it, art-making becomes a chore. To get past that, I try to just allow myself the “studio time” to do whatever I want with (like cut out nearly nude pics of myself), as long as it is in some way art-related. It’s kind of like stretching; it’s not a full workout, but it’s getting ready for the real stuff. Every artist needs time to reflect, to spread out their tools and their inspirations, and just do what feels fun or productive for that particular mood or moment. Art should never feel like a chore, and when it does, I can’t see how creativity can thrive.

Cellular Respiration System

Cellular Respiration. Highlighter, colored pencil, ballpoint pen on cardstock. 5.5" x
Cellular Respiration. Highlighter, colored pencil, ballpoint pen on cardstock. 5.5″ x 4.25″

Cellular Respiration: “The series of metabolic processes by which living cells produce energy through the oxidation of organic substances.” – American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary

Dynamo Closeups

Just a couple quick photos from painting session a few nights ago. The sheen from my acrylic extending medium gives some unexpectedly rad effects on collaged cutout embellishments … Qué rico … Publishing from phone for first time … XD

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Time Warp! / Looking Back

Early figure work, approximately 2008. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 48" x 36"
Early figure work, approximately 2008. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 48″ x 36″

And now for a post about art from the (not so) distant past … Six years ago, I was in art school stretching my own humongous canvases, spending hours and hours pondering and journaling on the perilous possibilities of form, content, and the place of painting. This is a piece I’ve been living with ever since. I think I’ve shown it maybe three times, but for the last several years it has occupied a lonely place in my bedroom. I recently re-hung it on a wall, where paintings belong.

Reconsidering this painting now, having lived with it for so long and having hauled it through at least four different apartments, I have a very physical connection with it. When I was making it, I was really focused on the process, and color/composition work often were placed on the back burner. I was muddling through this sort of “constant revision” approach where I would begin something but refuse to become committed, obscure it, and start again, with the result being a sort of time warp where you can see the flux of several different sketches without a necessarily recognizable “finished” product. Adding to this, I think this particular piece was based on live models, but every 120 seconds or so they would change position, adding to the time lapse effect. This way of working I think was a precursor to my concept of “progression” or “progressive” painting, wherein the process is paramount and the “end” of the work is slippery.

However “unfinished” it was at the time, I haven’t touched it in several years and I think I can say that I probably will not return to anything on this particular canvas … So be it … Let’s call it done!

Manual to Waking Life

10 Juillet.

1. Allez le soir avec ton père dans un lac profond. Faites certain de vous habiller bien. Il vous faudra savoir nager. N’oubliez pas vos gants hivernaux.

2. S’il pleut, repérez le mât. Montez-le. Vous pourrez vous en servir d’une roquette en boîte. Montez à fin de toucher la source de la pluie. Regardez fréquemment en bas.

3. A l’apogée, reconnaissez votre propre père.

Lac

Des couleurs, des corbeaux

Color and form progression
Color and form progression

In my relationship to color, I have never been careful.

I’ve just arrived at the end of my next session on this painting, and I can see some rudimentary color “themes” coming forward and some birdlike things happening with form. I began developing the color fields and establishing the noisy, frenetic lines of the tree branches – the painting has begun to take on a more significant weight. The experimentation with hue usually takes place right on the surface of the canvas, and if I don’t like what is happening, I treat it as a challenge that must somehow be incorporated or subordinated.
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About: Color

Initial color progressions
Initial color progressions

Starting a new painting is exciting. There are so many possibilities to consider, and watching where the piece begins to move, stepping back every twenty or so minutes, helps decide whether the formal decisions are beneficial or useless. The composition of this piece comes from a photograph I took in a friend’s backyard after I helped him dig a ditch for a French drain at his new house. I was exhausted and sweating, and looked up to see sun filtering through the changing leaves of Minnesota’s autumn. I snapped a quick picture and translated the tree forms onto this square canvas.

My formal goal with this piece is only to explore the possibilities of color, starting with stark fields in a slightly geometric formation, and build them slowly to maximize subtleties. I have a lot of ideas for how to proceed as the colors develop, but for now I’m enjoying the simple rapports between the hues and tones cutting up the white space.

White space can be intriguing in its absence (as I wrote in my last post) however when I start again with a solid idea, it’s a race to get rid of it, to fill up that void with something physical, workable, without destroying the potential of the surface. The image is taking form and life and breathing all that open, white air to begin its own progress towards something unique in its own. The artist is the image’s careful guide, in this case.

ABOUT:BLANK

About:Blank
About: Blank

One of the greatest and most valuable gifts of painting is the relative ease with which one can simply wipe the slate clean and start anew. Palette knife is the tool – I chop into the surface with rays of pure white gesso and efface all that was there before, smothering the old composition, which fades into a place of secondary importance, an array of thoughts now removed. With each bolt of new paint, the material matrix breathes again, and the islands of old charcoal and color shrink down until they are obscured by broad blinds of new paint.

The newly blank field is at once a chance to forget the old and begin with a fresh absence, a novel idea in a consciousness too often cluttered with useless nostalgia, hapless could-have-beens. When the blind patching is complete, there is a moment of satisfaction in nothingness, and an urge to stop just there, existing within the transitional space. This is the space of balance after withdrawal, and the measured breath just before the next effort. The ecstasy there is the elusive sense of endless opportunity within the walls of the canvas. It is often most difficult to begin again and fill the space with a new idea that will grow and learn and change, and perhaps become redundant.

I’m questioning every time if it is possible to prolong the sense of unknowing and suspended creative potential. Is it even plausible in panting, which produces an obligatory fixed image?

What a shock to make the first mark in that clearing and let the new imaginary shapes take life, physical form. And always, in my work, where the initial becomes an echo, the old redundancies may ascend again to inform the new.

The Raucous Group

The Raucous Group
The Raucous Group. Acrylic, charcoal on canvas. 18″ x 24″

In “The Raucous Group” I’m still exploring themes of human bodies in relation to space as in “Man with Drapes” and “Tuberculosis.” The figures find themselves in a somewhat neutral zone of abstraction, however in this piece their surroundings begin to take on a little more form.

While working on this painting I was trying to move away from these sort of amorphous, indefinite environments I was placing figures in. Realizing I was getting too comfortable with overworking the figures themselves and paying little attention to their physical “place in space,” I attempted to build the environment with as much intent and care as I constructed the figures. For me this was challenging – most of our structured human environments are rigid, geometrical, which doesn’t lend itself to the fluid energy-based stroke I was used to. I layered the interest in the background and foreground using a combination of color washes, “dredging” with charcoal and paint, and copious applications of medium with a palette knife.

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Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis. Acrylic & charcoal on canvas. 36" x 48"

Tuberculosis: an infectious disease that may affect almost any tissue of the body, especially the lungs, caused by the organism Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and characterized by tubercles. Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013

Where does the soul meet the body, and how does the body approach the soul? Does a human being have an internal flame? How is it affected by entropy? Where is it located in anatomy, in physiology, in pathology? Thoughts on: Kuriyama, Shigehisa. (1999). The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine