Monthly Archives: December 2012

Q: Do you listen to music while you work?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  I always have the stereo on when I work in my studio, either tuned in to WBGO (the Newark-based jazz station), WNYC (for news and talk radio; Leonard Lopate, Fresh Air, etc.), WFMU (Fordham University’s radio station, to learn what college kids are listening to) and other local radio stations.  I still listen to cd’s, I read the lyrics and the liner notes, and I prefer to listen to music the way artists intended it, meaning that I listen to entire albums from start to finish instead of jumping around between single tracks by different artists.  When it comes to music, I’m interested in everything:  jazz (especially classic jazz artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakely, etc.), blues, classical, pop, rock, world music (especially artists from Brazil, Cuba, and any country in Africa), electronic, indy, experimental, ancient music, etc.  You name it, I probably listen to it, and if I don’t, I’m eager to learn all about it.  When I’m working, certain artists are better to listen to at particular points in a painting.  For example, one of my favorite artists to start a new painting with is Lady Gaga.  The beat, her energy, and sheer exuberance are perfect when I’m standing in  front of my easel with a blank piece of sandpaper in front of me.  Gaga’s music gets me moving and working fast, putting down colors instinctively without thinking about them, just feeling everything.   

It’s a different story when I am at my apartment and am shooting a photo setup.  Then I might or might not listen to music. Lately it’s more about working fast (I shoot 24 images in about 15 minutes), choosing a variety of interesting vantage points, getting surprising effects, etc.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists * # 20

"The Magical Other," soft pastel on sandpaper, 1993, 48" x 38"

“The Magical Other,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 1993, 48″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

If, indeed, for any given time only  a certain sort of work resonates with life, then that is the work you need to be doing in that moment.  If you try to do some other work, you will miss your moment.  Indeed, our own work is so inextricably tied to time and place that we cannot recapture even our own aesthetic ground of past times.  Try, if you can, to reoccupy your own aesthetic space of a few years back, or even a few months.  There is no way.  You can only plunge ahead, even when that carries with it the bittersweet realization that you have already done your best work. 

This heightened self-consciousness was rarely an issue in earlier times when it seemed self-evident that the artist (and everyone else, for that matter) had roots deeply intertwining their culture.  Meanings and distinctions embodied within artworks were part of the fabric of everyday life, and the distance from art issues to all other issues was small.  The whole population counted as audience when artists’ work encompassed everything from icons for the Church to utensils for the home.  In the Greek amphitheater twenty-two hundred years ago, the plays of Euripides were performed as contemporary theater before an audience of fourteen thousand.  Not so today.

Today art issues  have for the most part become solely the concern of artists, divorced from – and ignored by – the larger community.  Today artists often back away from engaging the times and places of their life, choosing instead the largely intellectual challenge of engaging the times and places of Art.  But it’s an artificial construct that begins and ends at the gallery door.  Apart from the readership of Artforum, remarkably few people lose sleep trying to incorporate gender-neutral biomorphic deconstructivism into their personal lives.  As Adam Gopnik remarked in The New Yorker, “Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art.”

David Bayles & Ted Orland,  Art & Fear:  Observations on the Perils (and Rewards)of Artmaking

Comments are welcome!     

Q: When you set up your figures to photograph, do you create a story?

"He Just Stood There Grinning," soft pastel on sandpaper, " 58" x 38"

“He Just Stood There Grinning,” soft pastel on sandpaper, ” 58″ x 38″

A:  I always did so with my “Domestic Threats” paintings, but not with my current work.  As I set up a group of figures to photograph, I would make up a story about what was happening between them:  what the Day of the Dead skeleton I bought in Mexico City was saying to the frog/fish/human mask from Guerrero, for example.  I was a big kid playing with my favorite toys!  The stories were the spark to get me started on a new project, but I usually forgot about them afterwards.  They were necessary, yet incidental to my creative process, which is probably why I have never written them down.

Years ago I had the experience of being at one of my solo shows when a group of elementary school children came along with their teacher.  The teacher asked them to act out one of the stories in a particular painting.  Ever curious about how people relate to my work, I didn’t introduce myself as the creator of the pieces hanging on the walls.  I no longer remember the details, but their interpretations soon had me laughing.  It is a constant surprise to hear from people encountering my work for the first time what they see in it, especially when those people are young kids with wild imaginations!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists # 19

View from the balcony

View from the balcony

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

What  one writes at twenty-one is a cry, does one think of a cry that it ought to have been cried differently?  The language is still so thin about one in these years, the cry pierces through and just takes along what is left clinging to it.  The development will always be this, that one makes one’s language fuller, thicker, firmer (heavier), and of course there is sense in that only for one who is sure that the the cry too is growing in him ceaselessly, irresistibly, so that later, under the pressure of countless atmospheres, it will issue evenly from every pore of the almost impenetrable medium…

Talent, you understand, scarcely has significance any more in our day, since a certain dexterity of expression has become general, where is it not?  Hence succeeding still means something only where the highest, utmost is achieved, and then one is again liable to think that just this unsurpassable something, once it appears in person, is in itself successful.

And so there is no real ground for concern, only that we want never to remain behind our heart and never to be in advance of it:  that is probably needful.  Thus we arrive at everything, each at what is his. 

Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton editors, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1910 – 1926

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you name your characters?

Lola in "He Urged Her to Abdicate," soft pastel on sandpaper

Lola in “He Urged Her to Abdicate,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  No, normally I don’t, but there is one notable exception.  Lola – I could hardly call her any other name – is a red-dressed, cigarette-smoking, black-stocking cloth doll made by an artist in Mexico City.  I never met her creator, but years ago a man came into my Alexandria, Virginia studio (where I had a studio at the Torpedo Factory, an art center that is open to the public), and announced that he knew Lola’s maker and he, the maker, would be extremely pleased with what I’d done with her – made her the star of several of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings.  Many years later Lola continues to be one of my favorite characters and “He Urged Her to Abdicate,” set in the bathroom of a six floor walk-up I rented when I first moved to New York, is my favorite Lola painting. 

To learn more about this painting, please read the essay by Britta Konau on page 10 at:

http://www.barbararachko.com/PDF/DomesticThreats.pdf

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 18

West Village

West Village

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Those who would make art might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them:  most who began, quit.  It’s a genuine tragedy.  Worse yet, it’s an unnecessary tragedy.  After all, artists who continue and artists who quit share an immense field of common emotional ground.  (Viewed from the outside, in fact, they’re indistinguishable).  We’re all subject to a familiar and universal progression of human troubles – troubles we routinely survive, but which are (oddly enough) routinely fatal to the art-making process.  To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles.  Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

But curiously, while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit.  Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail.  And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work – for the place their work belongs.

Virtually all artists encounter such moments.  Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring, and generally healthy part of the art-making cycle.  It happens all the time:  you focus on some new idea in your work, you try it out, run with it for awhile, reach a point of diminishing returns, and eventually decide it’s not worth pursuing further.  Writers even have a phrase for it – “the pen has run dry” – but all media have their equivalents.  In the normal artistic cycle this just tells you that you’ve come full circle, back to that point where you need to begin cultivating the next new idea.  But in artistic death it marks the last thing that happens:  you play out an idea, it stops working, you put the brush down… and thirty years later you confide to someone over coffee that, well, yes, you had wanted to paint when you were much younger.  Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping.  The latter happens all the time.  Quitting happens once.  Quitting means not starting again – and art is all about starting again.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Why do you work in series?

The studio recently

The studio recently

A:  I don’t really have any choice in the matter.  It’s more or less the way I have always worked so it feels natural.  Art-making comes from a deep place.  In keeping with the aphorism ars longa, vita brevis, it’s a way of making one’s time on earth matter.  Working in series mimics the more or less gradual way that our lives unfold, the way we slowly evolve and change over the years.  Life-altering events happen, surely, but seldom do we wake up drastically different – in thinking, in behavior, etc. – from what we were the day before.  Working in series feels authentic.  It helps me eke out every lesson my paintings have to teach.  With each completed piece, my ideas progress a step or two further. 

Last week I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see an exhibition called, “Matisse:  In Search of True Painting.”  It demonstrates how Matisse worked in series, examining a subject over time and producing multiple paintings of it.  Matisse is my favorite artist of any period in history.  I never tire of seeing his work and this particular exhibition is very enlightening.  In fact, it’s a must-see and I plan to return, something I rarely do because there is always so much to see and do in New York.  As I studied the masterpieces on the wall, I recognized a kindred spirit and thought, “Obviously, working in series was good enough for Matisse!”    

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 17

Boat hull

Boat hull

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The better you know yourself, the more you will know when you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out.  Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.

… Another thing about knowing who you are is that you know what you should not be doing, which can save you a lot of heartaches and false starts if you catch it early on.

I was giving a lecture to students at Vassar not long ago.  Working with the students’ autobiographies, I invited a dance student, a music student who brought his saxophone, and an art student to join me on stage.  I asked the dancer to improvise some movement from a tuck position on the floor.  I asked the saxophone player to accompany the dancer.  And I asked the art student to assign colors to what they were doing.  I admit I was constructing a three-ring circus in the lecture hall.  But my goal was to bring the three students together by forcing them to work off the same page, and also to free them to discover how far they could go improvising on this simple assignment.

When I asked the art student to read out loud his color impressions, everyone in the hall was taken aback. He droned on and on about himself, feelings he’d had, stories about friends.  Not a word about color.  Finally I heard “limpid blue” come out of his mouth.  I waved my arms, signaling him to stop reading.

“Do you realize,” I said, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words  in an assignment about color?  You’ve covered everything under the sun, and ‘limpid blue’ is the first time you’ve mentioned a color.  I’m not convinced you want to be a painter.”

As far as I was concerned, this young man was in “DNA denial.”  I gave him a painterly exercise and he gave me a text heavy response.  A young man with painting in his genes would be rattling off colors immediately.  Instead, his vivid use of language – limpid blue does not come in tubes – suggested that he really ought to be a writer.

It would be presumptious of me to think I had him pegged for a writer, not a painter, after that brief encounter.  But if I got him to reexamine what he’s built for, then he was a step or two ahead of most people.  

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit:  Learn it and Use it for Life

Comments are welcome.

Q: What are you working on now?

“The Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I finally put finishing touches on “The Epiphany” and will drop it off at Underground, my framer in Virginia, next week.

Comments are welcome!