Saturday, October 24, 2009

an email

coming soon to a studio near you...

Stephen Pat Brown

The above portrait was done by a former classmate of mine at the Hartford Art School, Mary Anne McCarthy. The drawing is of Stephen Brown, a painting professor at HAS. Stephen passed away a few days ago.

I owe this man a lot. I never even had a formal class with him, but he was the person who originally reviewed my portfolio for admission, and accepted me into the school, effectively changing the entire course of my life. Ever since that, we had a very friendly, fulfilling, sarcastic, snarky relationship. Stopping to speak in the halls, dropping into his classes, fielding his prank calls at the front art office. I signed up for a class with him at one point, and he was unfortunately unable to teach that semester because of his illness.The next time I saw him back at school after that, he came over and hugged me. We sat in his office and talked for a long time about his recent incidents of cheating death. He could switch from a cocky "Do you know who I AM?" to completely tender and thoughtful at the drop of a hat, and I loved that about him.

I remember that portfolio review vividly. I had never received much helpful or constructive criticism before. I went in there, opened up the portfolio, and watched in horror as this towering man in a Red Sox hat flipped through my drawings one by one, telling me what was wrong with each of them. I wondered why he insisted on going through the whole stack, given that it was obvious, I thought, that he hated them and that I was going to be rejected. At the end, he stopped, and looked me right in the eye and said "Two weeks in a class with me and all of that will be fixed". He told me that I had talent, and he told me I was accepted into the school. I nearly fell over. I was still reeling as he talked to my mother about my issues with value scale and composition as she intimidatedly nodded along as if she knew what any of that meant.

Stephen is one of the people that inspires me to someday teach. In the days since the news of his death has spread, I am seeing an epic outpouring of love, anecdotes, and time and time again hearing the phrase "He changed my life" and the thing is, I believe it. I really do. I am so sad that I can't be back east for his services.

Stephen's work is nothing like mine. But his passion for what he did was contagious and he knew how to spread that in a very universal way. When I teach someday, I hope I can have even half the effect that Stephen had on those that passed through his studios.

I also really wish I got to be in one of those classes that he brought outside to play kickball and piss off all the students still stuck inside painting.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

can you see me, deer?

I recently had an idea to work with a scientifically developed camouflage that was specifically designed after extensive vision testing on deer. Supposedly the design is nearly undetecable to their eyes (which are actually poorer than ours, I've learned), to give hunters an edge. In my reading, I found some interesting asides, such as the prediction that hunters would snub this new camo based on the FASHION of hunting gear, and their traditionalist sensibilities, despite it perhaps being more practical.

Anyway, this was a New York Times article, and so of course there were about 8 pages of comments that I KNEW would unravel into a moral war about hunting, rather than much discussion on the actual topic. Call me masochistic, but I couldn't resist reading them, even though typically internet comments and feuds make me furious.

What I concluded about 6 pages into the comments was that I actually do not know enough about hunting to even dare to make any artistically depicted judgements on it. The pissed off conservatives were right about that. My plan was not necessarily to comdemn hunting anyway, but more to highlight the absurd interference of technology on nature. But it's a very loaded subject, and a slippery slope. I think I'll let it stew for longer before I do anything with it.

Here is the article, if anyone is interested. It truly is bizarre to me. And here is the accompanying NYT Blog entry that inspired the pages and pages of arguments.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Line Economy, and Leonie Guyer

I've been thinking a lot about image making lately. Being in this program at PSU where half the students are working under the umbrella of Social Practice, where the other half are in Studio Practice, I have wondered a lot about the line that divides one from the other. One of the MOST refreshing things about the program is that the line is not given a tremendous amount of importance, and students from both sides seem to take on elements of both.

But long before I entered into this program, I wondered about my role as an artist that produces "things". Some artists perform, some make digital work that can be contained in a tiny chip, etc. But I continue to feel compelled to make actual objects. I wouldn't say I do so completely confidently, but I have, over the past 2 years, started to find ways to reconcile this insecurity in a world, and a personal sphere, that has plenty of stuff in it as it is. I have begun drawing on paper. I have begun to be super economical with my picture plane and my mark making. Less is more. This feels like a more natural way of working for me.

This past Monday, Leonie Guyer was our visiting artist, and she did address some of these issues in her lecture, and during our post-lecture visit with her. Leonie does mostly installation/site responsive drawings these days. Her forms are abstract, and I would say that one of her most powerful tools is negative space. These tiny little forms that she draws on vast white walls are sometimes indiscernible upon first glance.  She spoke of working reductively as being a panic attack of constantly asking herself "Is this enough?". She sees this as a response to living in a culture in which things of value are always BIGGER and MORE. As she put it, "It takes courage to do less".

This resonated with me, but had me wondering how the same sentiment might apply to working more representationally. Is it more forgivable for Leonie's abstract, unearthly shapes to be floating in vast space because as it is, they are not recognizable forms that our brain wants to put into a particular space anyway? What happens when I draw recognizable images that are in this vast space, where the viewer's brain DOES immediately have a place it wants to put the form, and yet the place is not all there?

I am working on some of my most stark work yet, perhaps as an experiment in this very question. [I am unable to post any of it here, Dear Reader, until I find the USB cord for my digitial camera. My apologies, as I know this would be much more interesting with visuals]. I am eager, if not a bit trepidatious, to hear how my classmates and professors respond to it. I have thought about the power of negative space, and my own economy of line for some years now, but perhaps it will not ever feel completely resolved. Perhaps there are just separate schools of thought, and I have to concede that you "can't please everybody". But if there is more work to be done to hone this sort of practice, I'm very willing to listen. 

Michelle Blade

Josh Keyes

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Artist as Student

I am very interested in the various philosophies and methods of teaching, and learning. I think it is important to include the "learning" part of that statement. When I read articles, or listen to lectures about the state of teaching in the contemporary world, that is how I apply it to myself. Someday I hope to teach, yes. But currently I am a student. Beyond this MFA program at PSU. I believe I will perpetually be a student of one thing or another.

I recently read the transcript of a speech entitled "Why Schools Don't Educate" given by John Taylor Gatto in 1989 when he won New York City's teacher of the year. Perhaps it speaks to Gatto's incredible insights and experience that I didn't realize until later that this speech was 20 years old, or perhaps it is sounding an alarm that not much seems to have changed. The reason the speech intrigued me so much was because of how universal the problems are that he spoke of (and to think this is even all BEFORE the phenomenon of the internet becoming what it is now!) They are by no means exclusive to the classroom. I think many of the issues he spoke of apply to our general interactions with one another, how we carry ourselves as people in the world, and definitely how we as artists balance learning from each other with staying loyal to who we are as individuals and cultivating that to the extent that it deserves to be cultivated.

I certainly don't agree with all of his arguments entirely, for instance I think some of his views on the influence of the nuclear family are a bit narrow for sure. Although I do think the idea of family is important, I also believe that it can be interpreted and constructed in any number of ways beyond what he seems to emphasize here. [I also don't think that "casual sex" is killing us as a nation, either. Oh brother]. But if you do read the article, dear blog reader, bear with him through those parts.

Since I know not everyone will endeavor to read this three page transcript, I will put some excerpts here that stood out to me. As I step back into this world of academia, this article is my most recent influence, and what has been echoing most in my head lately.

Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to an unprecedented degree; nobody talks to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the term “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.

What does it say that many of his arguments are specifically about early education, but that I find them as compelling reasons for why I decided to enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program? Hmm..

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with only people of exactly the same age and social class. The system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety. It cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present, much the same way television does.

Perhaps I am attending in part as a rebellion against my own childhood education? To begin now, as I believe it is never too late, to do what I should have been doing my whole life?

In centuries past, the time of a child or adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventure, and the real search for mentors who might teach what he or she really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community

The following quote is particularly frightening to think about NOW, considering how what he said here 20 years ago has only been exacerbated by online social networks, in my opinion. People are more terrified of face to face intimacy than ever before because of their reliance on this. I strive to not become a victim of this myself, but admittedly do not always succeed:

The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret self inside an outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television

We do WANT it, don't we? I mean, I am sitting in a coffee shop writing this, and a very little girl just walked in with her parents and is freely saying hello to everyone, and everyone is noticeably uplifted by the presence of this little girl. Everyone is glad to get a hello from her, and I think we all envy her lack in inhibition in communicating.

I particularly like all that this next quote implies, or can be applied to as an artist. It makes me think of the issues we spoke of in Dan Attoe's class, about going outside of your normal realm to make yourself a more rounded person, and thereby a better artist. Here, Gatto is speaking of a more ideal educational philosophy used in Europe for thousands of years:

Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements that place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of getting a horse to gallop or making it jump. But that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who has mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his or her ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is that of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customshouse.

So yes, after reading this, of COURSE I voted to go surfing for the first time in the Pacific Ocean in November.