st. augustine

2019.23

            I read a biography of Edward Hopper about 20 years ago. It’s primarily based off of his wife, Jo Hopper’s journals. The book frames him as a jerk that treated her poorly, discouraged her career and refused to change to make their life more comfortable. I have no idea if this is true. I’ve seen some of Jo’s paintings. There wasn’t much to encourage. Edward and Jo left all of their work to the Whitney Museum. They chucked most of her stuff. Edward didn’t seem like a pleasant person, but he might have just been a hard-headed recluse.  He didn’t leave any written record of his side. What we get is Jo’s words. One side of an argument.  Jo seems exhausting. She writes a lot. A lot.

I think I’m turning into Jo. My texts are way too long. I’m usually sitting at a computer when I get them so it’s too easy to respond with a much too thorough answer. I assume that most of them don’t get read. When I lecture, I occasionally slip into some sort of manic speed of delivery. My students probably think I’m crazy. So, at least for this week, I’m trimming the fat and not going to write much.

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            I finished another still life, started another and worked a bit more some Surrealist-inspired stuff. That’s it unless you want a recap of me hauling brush to the street for pickup this week.

            Here’s a new Jay Som song. She’s playing the High Watt in November:

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Leningrad - Anna Reid

2019.22

            I started another still life drawing. I thought about a linocut. I bet I’ll be thinking about a linocut for a while until I finally get fed up with myself and go buy a linoleum panel. I have a really cheap Speedball press that I’ve never figured out. I should give myself a project in order to work out how to use the press. I have occasional visions of myself selling enough of one print to buy a better press and then just making linocuts and selling them online. Keep in mind, that I have never actually made a successful edition of linocuts, so currently there is no audience. I see other people doing it but then again, they know what people want- animals and flowers. I don’t know that there is much of a market for cubist-inspired vanitas linocuts.

            It has been a quiet week and I have enjoyed every bit of that quiet. Saturday was our now-annual trip to the Nashville National Cemetery to put flags on all of the tombstones with other local Scouts troops and packs. There are about 35,000 veterans buried in the cemetery, which always looks daunting, but someone how we get a flag at every marker in about an hour. I found a marker for a man that was born in 1901 but listed as a private for WW2. If he was an ordinary civilian that signed up, he’d have been over 40 years old when he enlisted. It’s hard to put myself in that headspace. I turn 45 this week. I’m not sure what would have to happen to get me on a boat headed for Europe or the Pacific right now.

            Other than that, I got a batch of books from the library for summer reading. None of them are “fun”. I am playing around with some Surrealist drawing techniques both for teaching and for myself. Hopefully, for me, it’ll lead to some collage work. We made cyanotypes at the house, but they faded quickly upon drying so I need to research the best kind of paper to use to see if we can get anything worthwhile to develop. I know they aren’t mean for permanent display or anything, but it’d be nice to keep them in a box.

entopic graphomania exercise

entopic graphomania exercise

            Times like this remind me of a studio visit 15 years ago when I said to someone, “I think I’d like to make a lot of works on paper and slowly pick at 10 paintings a year rather than feel like I have to make thousands of paintings to justify my existence as an artist.” Maybe that’s what this year is going to end up teaching me.

 

“Is forty-five the midpoint, the hinge point of a life? In the past I have gravitated toward transcendence. I’ve sought weightlessness, unboundedness, continuity, have followed the wish to be outside of time. I have wanted to escape or deny the body; I have loved art that defies limit, that reaches for a scale beyond the human.”

 Mark Doty- Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Leningrad - Anna Reid


2019.21

            Our internet has been unreliable for the past two days, which I would assume would make me happier considering how much dissatisfaction with the modern age that I ascribe to it, but I find myself irritated. I was re-watching Stranger Things to get ready for season 3. I was in a good work rhythm with that on in the background and nonstop 80s hits beamed into my house. The Boomers had “oldies” stations in their middle age years. For a while it was 50s and 60s. Then it was 60s and 70s. I waited patiently for an 80s radio station. Instead, we get “the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.” So, like nonrepresentational office art, everyone is equally dissatisfied rather than just irritating a portion of the audience. The internet was picking up the slack recently. I had plans to make playlists for each year of the 80s- each year’s list would have every song that cracked the top 40. Then I realized that could mean 10 playlists, each with 500 songs. Maybe I’ll just do the top 20. Or maybe I’ll just keep streaming the 80s station that I found. Some stuff slips through the cracks though. I’ve been listening for a couple of weeks and no one’s dialed up Timex Social Club’s “Rumors” yet. 

            The Nashville Symphony performed Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony this weekend. It was the first symphony performance that I have attended where they explained it from the stage before they performed it. It wasn’t necessary, but it was appreciated. You could always read about it in the program they give you, but it was nice to hear from the performers. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet had been able to seek advice about the symphony from Messiaen and his wife (pianist) Yvonne Loriod while he studied in Paris. He had Loriod’s marked score for the symphony in his collection. She was, in some ways, the inspiration for the piece so it felt like, at least for the piano, this was as close as someone could get to the source for a performance. Thibaudet’s comments on Friday were semi-off-the-cuff and touching. Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (please don’t ever leave Nashville, Giancarlo) talked about his hesitancy to take on such a complex piece and left you with the impression that, hey, you came for a live spectacle…who knows what’s getting ready to happen. It was great though. It’s a beast of a symphony. 10 movements. 75-80 minutes. 100-110 musicians onstage. Guerrero appeared to look to the Thibaudet right before the 10th movement with a look on his face that read, “I think we’re going to pull this off.”  

            We took a 2-week trip to Utah 10 years ago to wind through the national parks in the southern end of the state. Our flight home was out of Las Vegas. It was a jarring re-entry into the world of people. I can’t call Las Vegas “civilization”. There are a lot of buildings and people. That’s as far as I want to take it. Being surrounded for two weeks by the variety and majesty of creation (coincidentally, the same area that inspired Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles) and then plopped down into the hellscape of Las Vegas was a reminder of just how awful people are when left to pursue whatever they want, free from restriction. Stepping out of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on a Friday night was a pocket-sized version of it. I went from Messiaenic grandeur to e-scooters, pedal taverns and bachelorettes in the span of 5 seconds. The reprieve was nice while it lasted, I suppose. Two symphony musicians were behind us on the way back to the parking garage. I was still trying to mull over what I’d just seen but that was colliding with the musicians talking about Hilton Head. It was a lot of gear-shifting for my brain to deal with in such a short amount of time. Ultimately though, I’m grateful. I never thought I’d get to see the Turangalîla performed and never expected to only have to travel 7 miles to do it.

            Other than that, I started a couple of new still life drawings. I feel like drawing for the summer and setting aside painting. I had a skull/vanitas theme in the most recent drawing so my first thought was that I shouldn’t put a skull in the next one. My second thought was that I should put a skull in ALL of them. If you’re miserably out of step with the market, keep dancing. I also started experimenting with cyanotypes. There is a lot of trial and error ahead.

            I tried to go to an art event, but parking was in serious overflow mode, so I had to go home. That’s a good problem to have for an art show.

            I started re-reading some Mark Sayers books in anticipation of his new book coming out in the late summer/early fall. Between re-reading those and re-watching Stranger Things, I guess I’m setting myself up for a letdown. Not really. I’m almost 45 years old. I don’t set my clock by album, book or movie releases like I did when I was 14...or 20. Ugh. I still remember going to a midnight madness sale for R.E.M.’s Monster album, getting back to my dorm room at 1AM, putting on the disc, listening and thinking, “All of that for this?” That might have been my last midnight sale.

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

Facing Leviathan- Mark Sayers

Quote for the week:

“All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do -- remember that -- and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

2019.20

            Most colleges have held their graduation ceremonies within the past week so I guess that I will say, as of now, I have been a professional artist for 20 years. I graduated in 1999. Getting an MFA is probably not like getting a lot of other advanced degrees. Or maybe it is and all college, aside from medical school, is a sham. To be honest, I was given a degree that I do not think I deserved at the time. I was an artist in name only. I didn’t know much and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I worked really hard in school and got a nice participation award. My philosophy in art school (and for about 10 years after that) was that most people are lazy, and I can work more than they can. Granted what I meant by “lazy” was really that people had a balance in their lives, and I didn’t. The majority of the nights of graduate school I painted until 2:00-3:00AM. My wife (fiancé at the time) would call me long distance almost every morning and wake me up. I had a TV in my studio to keep me company. If you didn’t know, in the late ‘90s, the Tonight Show was rebroadcast at 2:00AM. I know this because I just turned on NBC and left it there in the background and heard the Tonight Show twice a night. I had movies on audio cassette. I taped them from my VCR onto a tape deck. Rear Window has been my favorite movie since I was 10 years old. It is a jewel of sound even without the picture. I only remember taking one night off during those two years. I sat down on my couch, I think to watch the final episode of Seinfeld, and for some reason, the plaster ceiling in the dining area of my apartment spontaneously crashed to the ground. No warning whatsoever. It didn’t seem like a good idea to take nights off after that.

            Art school was too focused on talking about the process of making art, which is a nice way of saying that it was about being an art student, not learning how to be an artist. It was camp, divorced from reality that one day you were going to graduate and leave and have to make your way in the world. I had to sit through endless hours of critiques debating what the word “painting” meant. If you’re reading this, thinking, “I know what a painting is”, let me tell you, you do. That it’s debated and never settled at the tune of $60k in debt is pathetic. You’d have a better chance finding 10 theologians that agree on what “selah” means than finding 10 MFA candidates agreeing on what a “painting” is. When you graduate, poof, it’s gone. All of the sudden, no one needs to have that conversation anymore. You’re an artist, making work. Making terrible work. And who cares what a “painting” is? You’re more concerned with the fact you are absolutely terrible at this thing of which you are presumably a “master”.  

            Despite the bitter taste I have in my mouth of art school, I am still very grateful to have received the scholarships that I got so I didn’t carry any debt out the door with me. My advice to all students with a fresh BFA is the same advice I have offered for 15 years: go get a job and make art. If you want a masters, wait. Get a full ride somewhere after you’ve spent some time teaching yourself how to be an artist or go low-residency. This is not worth a lifetime of debt. Your favorite artists probably do not have a masters. I wish I could remember who said something like, “It pains me to think of Herman Melville sitting in an MFA class.” I guess Flannery O’Connor sat in a master class. But did she need it? Not really. She needed a gang. She needed feedback from other writers. Do you need to take a class for that? No. You need a bar.

graphitestilllife.jpg

            I finished a legitimate drawing this week. If I were in school and said that I finished a “legitimate” drawing, there would have been a 30-minute discussion about that. I put the pencils down for a long time to not have to be that guy anymore. I was going to die sitting at a drawing table. Now, maybe I’ll get to die sitting in front of an easel. It’s a coin toss. The drawing was, dare I say, an enjoyable experience to make. I’m going to keep going for a few more drawings before trying to build a painting language out of it. Making graphite drawings is holding my attention more than it used to. Not having a deadline removes the arbitrary pressure from the situation.

            Thanks to an email exchange with another artist, I got Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon from the library. It’s a memoir built on the idea of objects and their importance to memory and sense of self, etc. It’s about still life paintings and nostalgia. That’s me in a sentence right now. That and listening to almost nothing but 80s pop.

            Game of Thrones ends this week? I have never seen it before and have no plans to see it once it’s finished. I feel like that guy that everyone knows that hates sports and says “Happy Sportball Day!” to everyone on Super Bowl Sunday. I don’t want to be that guy. If you watch GoT, enjoy the finale. It has to be better than the last Seinfeld. But I guess not every show can end as well as Newhart or Justified.

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware



2019.19

            School’s out for summer. School is definitely not out forever. Grades are submitted. Contract is expired. See you in August. I’m currently slated to teach 2D Design in the fall. I haven’t taught that class in at least 12 years, maybe more. I wasn’t particularly good at it when I taught it, but I plan on prepping steadily throughout the summer, so I’ll be ready to go. My own art-making methodology has changed a lot over the years, so my brain is better prepared for talking about this stuff on a regular basis. I’m limiting the amount of collage I use in the studio these days after a few years of focusing on it, so it’ll be nice to keep active with that somehow. Something as simple as a piece like this Ellsworth Kelly always makes for rewarding experiments with spontaneity.

Ellsworth Kelly- Brushstrokes Cut into Forty-Nine Squares and Arranged by Chance, 1951, MoMA

Ellsworth Kelly- Brushstrokes Cut into Forty-Nine Squares and Arranged by Chance, 1951, MoMA

Other than continuing to make a series of still life pieces, I plan on using the summer light to work on cyanotypes. I’ve never done them before, but it looks ridiculously easy. Sometimes a person just needs a hobby.

            I’m rounding toward home on another skull painting. After that I need to be more intentional about a legitimate composition and use of color. It’s nice to be deliberate and mechanical and straightforward sometimes but it can’t last forever.

            My family and I moved back to Nashville six years ago as of this month. I’ve had six solo shows since then. I wish I had realized that a few months ago when I was jaded. I’d have been more grateful or at least more aware of why I was tired of the idea of exhibiting. I did not know what to expect in regards to my art when we moved here. I knew the “scene” was growing but there were no guarantees that there would be a place for me here. I’m grateful for the way the art world has invited me in here. I should get out more, be more proactive, mingle, whatever. Maybe I’ll be recharged by the fall and ready to go. Right now, I rarely leave the house. I went to a coffee shop last week and ran into four people that I know. I forgot that was possible. 

            Right now, I really need to paint more than sitting here, writing. I was reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly but I found the audiobook of it read by Paul Giamatti. His reading of it is a lot better than the voice in my head so I’m going to roll with that for 8 hours instead of doing it myself.

            Quite possibly the most glorious comeback in the history of Liverpool happened yesterday. They overcame a 3-0 aggregate deficit and beat Barcelona 4-0. On to the Champions League final. You’ll never walk alone. Something like that.

 

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

2019.18

            If you are reading this from somewhere other than Nashville, take comfort in knowing that we have survived. The NFL Draft landed on us last weekend, as did the marathon…as did a viral marketing campaign for a new Taylor Swift song. There was also a mosaic tile convention at a hotel near the airport that I found out about by way of two attendees eating tacos in my neighborhood, kind of stunned that the town had been overrun by grown men in football jerseys. Bachelorette parties that didn’t do their research either had to embrace the chaos or spend the entire weekend upset that they weren’t going to be the ones making the most annoying dent in the city’s nightlife.

            The Swift song is called “Me!” which might be the most perfectly calculated name and concept for a song for this time in which we find ourselves. That’s not a compliment. It’s like boy bands singing songs about how girls don’t know that they’re pretty, but darn it, they are, and that boy band sees it. The boys you go to school with don’t see it, but they do. That is some low hanging fruit. Strangely, it is the first Swift song that I have heard in its entirety. I watched the video out of curiosity. It looks like Baz Luhrmann and the ad agency that handles Target hosed down Paris with unicorn pastels. Like I said, it’s “perfect”. I’d say more but I don’t want a bunch of Swifties emailing me death threats.

            The overwhelming weekend invasion is probably best summed up by a segment of an article from the Nashville Scene:

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            What is it that we are really doing in this town right now? And why can’t any of you drunkards buy some art? For a town that floats on an ocean of beer and whiskey, you’d think someone might accidentally buy some art. They accidentally do everything else. I saw a crew of 10 people today with matching “I’m Just Here To Party” t-shirts. That’s fine. Just don’t pee in the fountain at the symphony hall. I feel like we’re turning into an old Mardi Gras episode of COPS where the officers would say stuff like, “Can you have sex on a sidewalk in your town? Well, why do you think you can do it here?” Am I the only one that thinks a downtown casino is an inevitability? Might be 5 years. Might be 20 but it’s coming, right? Am I too cynical?

            I was at the bank this week and a woman walked in the door about 20 feet from me, looked at me and loudly said, “Oh! *giggles* Oh!” She walked over and said, “Who do people tell you that you look like?” I said, “Well when I was younger and didn’t have a beard, people said I looked like Egon from Ghosbusters.” I also had a Rob Morrow phase but that didn’t last long, and I think it was because of a Yankees hat that I wore. She said, “Do people tell you that you look like Mo Rocca?” Yes. Once or twice. Yes. She then didn’t let it drop. It went on for so long that she really might have thought I was Rocca and she was going to ride the conversation a bit further to see if I would eventually cop to it. It was uncomfortable.

            I lifted my Instagram account suspension. That’s a not-so-clever way of saying that I am back on there in some limited fashion. I don’t have anything to post though. I finished a painting of skull. It’s on there if you want to see it. As with most things that I start, I tried to give myself some rules about the whole thing to keep from being swallowed by it. The 5 months I was away from it were great for clear thinking and powering through some studio/life issues.  

There is a base level that I have been trying to get back to with art. After 20 years, it’s taken so many turns and has been growing larger one little layer at a time. It’s like when I moved into a rental house in college and my roommate and I ripped out 6 layers of linoleum flooring from the bathroom. Every layer had water trapped in it. Each layer had the best of intentions but piled on top of one another had caused an increasingly messy situation. I’ve spent the past 5-6 months stripping my art down to the studs to see what I valued most and what would adhere to new career goals less interested in “me” or individualism, period. Things are clicking. I am re-reading an essay about still life and its denial of the body, etc and I spend the entire time nodding my head and highlighting passages. The rest of the year will be spent making work and establishing limitations. I allowed “everything” into my studio and now it is time to kick most of it out. I work best with established restrictions. For the first time in months, I feel like I have a specific goal. I tend to feel passionately about revelations like this and then crash and burn 48 hours later but this seems to be sticking. Fingers crossed.

 

Lyric for the week:

“So I'm back, to the velvet underground. Back to the floor, that I love.”

            “Gypsy”- Fleetwood Mac

 

Quote for the week:

“Still life pitches itself at a level of material existence where nothing exceptional occurs: there is a wholesale eviction of the Event”- Rhopography, by Norman Bryson

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

temporarily suspended:

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis

2019.17

Some weeks you just have to punt. This is one of those weeks.

I have a ruled composition book to jot down bullet points for a weekly post. There is a page that has “April 24:” written and underscored on it. There is nothing written underneath it. I have a folder in my notes on my phone for “Writing”. There’s not much in there either.

            Easter was a mixed bag of emotions for every Christian around the world. The holiest day, celebrating the greatest sacrifice and victory, tempered with news of over 350 people being killed, some of whom were targeted for the very thing we all were celebrating. I woke up to news of the Sri Lankan bombing. Others experienced it in real time. Even more probably had their morning services out of the way before it happened. This is the part of our calling that on most days Western Christians have the luxury to push to the margins. That comfort is a double-edge sword that simultaneously allows us to sleep but also threatens our faith. Our security makes our faith soft, like a person that needs medication for mental health that stops taking it because they feel good, all the while forgetting that it’s the medication that makes them feel that way. I rarely think someone might shoot up my church. There was a church shooting in Nashville less than 2 years ago and I know a family that was in it and had to provide medical aid to the wounded but even that doesn’t make me fear for much. That said, we have to live with the knowledge that the profession of our faith puts a target on us. It’s not unique to Christianity. Anyone that declares themselves anything risks attack.

            Currently I am reading St. Augustine’s City of God and a history of the Orthodox Church. Couple that with a daily reading of anything in the New Testament and that fear of not being loved by the world around you turns to vapor. None of this is new. It is a faith born into one of the most decadent, hedonistic empires the world has known. It spreads underground where it is made illegal by dictatorial atheistic governments. It was overrun by competing ideologies and survived. Whether threatened by violence or the recent Western weaponization of public shaming, we can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone. That contemporaneity that allows Easter of the year 50 to feel closer to us than Groundhog Day of 2015 not only allows us to share in a message of eternal love but also strengthens us to share our anxiety related to exterior forces across time as well. Long story short, it’ll be ok:

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Quote for the week:

“You deserve less”- Trenton Doyle Hancock

Lyric for the week:

“These prayers are a constant road across the wilderness” - Paul Simon “Cool Cool River”

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

1 John

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis

2019.16

            I watched a documentary on 8-year-old golfers called The Short Game. I can relate to the French kid:

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             It’s Holy Week. I listened to nothing but Arvo Pärt for 3 days. I’ll get back to him today and ride out the rest of the week that way. There was a temporary detour yesterday afternoon to listen to Todd Rundgren’s “Wolfman Jack” about 5 times in a row during my afternoon exercise.

            I walked to Pärt’s “Litany” one day, which is a musical composition he made for the 24, hourly prayers of St. John Chrysostom. It is a head trip of walking music to wind through your neighborhood while a choir either barely breathes or powerfully pounds out prayers like “O Lord, free me from all ignorance and forgetfulness, from despondency and stony insensibility.” That ain’t “Wolfman Jack”.

            I read a quote by him recently: “Music is my friend. Understanding, empathic. Forgiving, comforter. A towel to dry tears of sadness. A source of tears for happiness. Liberation and flight. But also, a painful thorn. In flesh and soul.” That is the artist’s paradox. It’s felt more like the thorn than the towel for me lately but lately I have begun to feel confident that I am carving out a simplified version of what I want to do and that simplicity should bring liberation and flight back into the studio.

            This time of year reminds me of an excerpt from a book I read a couple of years ago: How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith. It’s a summary of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I will read one day. It’s a big, dense book. There is a section in the Smith book that examines secular time versus “higher” time. I keep a photo of this quote in the book on my phone as a reminder of where my head should be: 

In the premodern understanding, because “mundane” or secular time is transcended by “higher: time, there is an accounting of time that is not merely linear or chronological. Higher time “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked”. This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion that mid-summer’s day 1997.”

            There’s a disconnect between the way the Notre Dame fire has been framed and the faithful have responded. We want to talk about a building because it’s 850 years old and it’s the heart of a city and a country. That’s the secular response. A BBC reporter I listened to said something like, “It’s not like that many of us are really religious anymore but…” and then continued to explain why people should care that a church caught on fire in very secular terms, almost feeling like he had to explain to the 21st c. West why you’re supposed to care about the past? It was so discouraging. A significant landmark has been significantly damaged. But for those Parisian Catholics, kneeling and singing “Ave Maria” while the church burned, sure it was a threatened landmark but, for some of them, it’s as much the approach of Passover in 1st century Palestine as much as it is Holy Week in 2019. We’re not supposed to be completely present right now. Some people just want to focus on the age as an abstract number. Others watch it burn and simultaneously see the cornerstone be placed into position.

            Hopefully there is a Maundy Thursday service in my near future. Hopefully there is a joyous Easter service on Sunday where I get to hear the phrase “He is risen” repeatedly spoken by people that believe it fully. Hopefully anyone reading this gets to go and do the same. 

            Happy Easter.

 

Quote for the week:

“In this world/we walk on the roof of Hell/gazing at flames” – Kobayashi Issa

 

I haven’t been reading a lot lately. Get used to seeing this list. I’m reading too many things right now and need to scale back down once I finish the Ware and Lewis books.

 

Currently reading:

The Book of Luke

2 Peter

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware

The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis

2019.13

         There was a moment last Wednesday, while drawing, where I felt like I had powered through the recent frustrations and lack of direction. Returning to basics, just drawing, strips it all down and allows you to focus on the core of what you want to do with your hand. I made 10 ink drawings in an hour and it set up a visual language that looked like the beginning of something substantial. The drawings weren’t the solution. They were what looked to be the first step forward- the bottom layer of a structure for future parts to rest. The problem is that I made the drawings and then immediately had to leave the studio and take care of the rest of my life, then go teach and then leave on a trip. So here I sit, 5 days later where I should have been 4 days ago. Fortunately, the work still looks like how it felt last week. I want to make 10 more. Once I have a critical mass, I will probably know what comes next. So much of the creative process is building something up just so you can tear it down again at a later date. I think about singer-songwriters in that way. I get committed to a recording. Bob Dylan should only play “Tangled Up In Blue” the one way it exists on Blood on the Tracks. Bob would tell me to shut up. It’s his song. He can play it however he wants. He hasn’t listened to Blood on the Tracks since 1975 and that’s only because he had band practice for a tour and forgot something in a verse. He’ll tear that song down and build it up a different way, thank you very much. I’m the same way with my work and I forget to extend that courtesy to other artists sometimes.

         My desk area is littered with notecards of ideas, etc. I think Pinterest people call these “vision boards” or something. Sometime in January, I wrote down “develop a drawing language for painting, a new form of abstraction (for me). Consider Byzantine and medieval ideas.” I wanted something divorced from the somewhat untrained version of academic language that I use in drawing: the endless hatching, cross-hatching, stippling that, in reality, anyone that ever cared about what I did would rather that I still be doing. Looking at work spanning the “Middle Ages” is way of divorcing ego from the process. Making work in service of something greater with no concern whether or not your name is registered. Creating work for the purposes of edification and joy. Whatever I did last week is that step on the notecard. There are 10 other notecards that have to get addressed now. Once all of those cards are either conquered or dismissed, then I’ll probably be back up to speed. All of that said, I have a lot that will keep me busy this week so I will not make much progress.

         I went to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville this weekend. If memory serves me correctly, this is my 5th time. I don’t know that I go hoping for inspiration more than I go to get out of my own head for a few days. It is the perfect music festival for middle-aged people like me because you get to sit down for a lot of it, you don’t have to camp, and it’s contained in the heart of a city that I do really love. You can take a trolley from one event to another, but I walked the whole time, which was also good for me. According to my watch, I walked 10 miles a day. The festival focuses on contemporary composition, be it jazz, ambient, atonal, drone, dance, etc. This year featured a focus on Harold Budd and, separately, the ECM record label and their 50th anniversary. I didn’t get within 400 yards of Harold Budd. The crowds were too big for his events, so I always had to opt for a different performance. Some acts are deeply committed to their craft. Their joy is not obvious, but I assume under that sober veneer is someone dedicated and happy. Others are all in and want you to know that they are still up onstage for the reason they started piano or saxophone lessons 20 years ago or bought a copy of Ableton. Jlin performs like she hit the lottery. So gracious. So happy to not be working whatever factory job she had.

Nils Frahm dances around his equipment and when he speaks. It is casual and inviting. He feels no obligation to set the tone. You like it? Like it for why you like it. You don’t have to meet him in his place. No explanation required. Others? Man, they want you to know what was happening during the gestation of the piece. They need the story. I get that. If you have any doubts about that, check my last show. That’s the stuff I’m trying to burn out of my work now. It puts too much on the audience to almost demand that they come to it on your terms. You’re not George Lucas in 1977 at that point. You’re George Lucas tweaking Star Wars in 1997, demanding you accept his vision.

         I know I’m old(er) but what the weekend reinforced for me is a bias I hold towards my generation and the two that follow me. Vulnerability, now, is saying a lot of words that came out of a diary entry. It’s a digital post-blog world. Putting yourself out there with the safety of a screen. Post a photo and type how you feel. Younger people’s vulnerability is words. People have been taught to type out, “I really need some love right now” and try to survive on the random thumbs-up and “You can do it!”s that come back in return. No one has risked anything. Not the person seeking help and not the person thinking that they provided any comfort. You gave someone a dopamine fix and that’s it.

         I get that this is the new emotional currency, but it is safe and, to me, relatively risk-free. You have to be willing to physically embarrass yourself in a performance in some ways. The first time I got “onstage” to perform music, I had a simultaneously crippling and liberating thought: “I am here for an hour no matter what happens.” It would either be a personal disaster or a chance to grow. I had a student last semester say, “I hope I can teach in a way like you one day.” My response was, “You have to be willing to make a total jackass of yourself, everyday, in front of 30 people.” Jlin flat out said she felt like she was giving something to the crowd because she was throwing stuff in her mix that she had never done before because she wanted to know what would happen. It could have tanked but she put it out there. Some of these other people probably aced their Tutorial on the Postmodern Condition class in college. They had taken something born out of risk and failure 60-70 years ago and reduced it to a calculated event where nothing could go wrong unless the power got cut to the club. Vulnerability is of the body as much as it is of the mind. Nirvana’s songs still seem to have an audience with teenagers. It’s not just the words. It’s the scream. That survives. When we were younger, it was the scream, but it was Cobain diving into the drum set or even Krist Novoselic throwing his bass up in the air and accidentally having it hit him in the face. I say this, but I never listen to them anymore. I listen to Big Star’s “Thirteen” and think, “I would never have let myself write that song because I would have thought it was corny, but I am so glad he had the courage to write it and sing and play it so purely.” The reduction of teenage love to something that sweet only makes sense to me now. Chilton was on another plane to write that in his 20s.

         That risk has to be there, but it has to be backed up. I saw one act that was nothing but emotion, and it was as wrong as anything clinical that I witnessed. She might as well have banged on a gong for 45 minutes and yelled the same sentence over and over again because that’s how hit felt. She had one thing to say, at one volume for 45 minutes. It was like reading the same sentence in a novel for an hour if the sentence was written in all caps. There was no fear but there was little art as well. It was just anger and at the end of it, she just screamed her diary at me while something that sounded like a track Trent Reznor put out in the trash hammered away in the background.

 

         Onward towards joy. Up in the air with your bass:



Quote for the week: 

“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

 

Lyric for the week:

“Scientists and engineers will only amplify your fears”

Chris Stamey “Geometry”

 

Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Mark

Hebrews

2019.12

I have no idea what happened to the last week of my life. Spring sprung? It’s easy to get distracted when the weather is nice. I made more collages but what I really need to do now is draw more in order to have more material for collages. I photographed a lot of oil stains on the road that I walk for exercise. Creating interesting organic shapes is not my strength so I try to find them instead. For a while I used Google Earth to fly over golf courses and borrow sand trap shapes. It’s oil stains for the foreseeable future. 

I fell down a hole into a bunch of art conservation videos. This one was my favorite. Every step of this looks satisfying:

At some point I have to do something substantial. Saturdays have been a studio day for the past 20 years. Rare occasions keep me from it. I look at my watch a lot when circumstances delay me. This weekend was not like that. I had something keep me away for about 4 hours and my reaction was, “Who cares? Ain’t nothing going on in there anyway.” That’s the spirit, champ.

I lost momentum somewhere, and momentum is everything. Momentum keeps you hooked on social media, but it also keeps meaningful pursuits in gear. I’ve conceded defeat on this front for another two weeks. It’ll swing back around. I was this way about 18 months ago and I got over it. It is difficult for me to get use to this pattern because I had about 15 years of uninterrupted productivity and then I jerked the carpet out from under my feet. Many days, I sit in the studio with a vision in my head and as I stand up to act on it, it vanishes, never to return. At that point, I sit down and think of this part of Raiders of the Lost Ark:

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I found this comment on a YouTube video. I forgot what video I was watching, not the art conservation one though. You’re right, Sam. If you need help, you let me know. You seem to think you missed something, and you know what? You did:

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Quote for the week:

“God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image…”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Mark

Hebrews

2019.11

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           I spent most of last week working on the large piece that occupies all of my available wall space. After five days, I achieved what I think is the base layer for this piece.

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             To celebrate, I immediately covered it up with dropcloths and I am not going to think about it for a while. A number of precedents run through my mind when I am working on it, particularly the bathers painting of Matisse’s that the Art Institute of Chicago owns.

Henri Matisse: Bathers by a River, oil on canvas, 1909/1910, 1913, 1917

Henri Matisse: Bathers by a River, oil on canvas, 1909/1910, 1913, 1917

There is a great book (catalog?) built around that painting called Matisse: Radical Reinvention 1913-1917 by Stephanie D’Alessandro and John Elderfield that uses it and a few other pieces as a way to map out Matisse’s reworking of paintings and return to themes and compositions. (Get a used copy). It is encouraging to see someone like Matisse pick at a piece like that, off and on, for 7 years. Not to say that he could not scale up quickly. The Dance and Music pieces are probably not the result of someone that lost sleep trying to make them. That is not a criticism. They are paintings that look like Beatles records: never stale. Forever youthful. More than anything, I like that Matisse took a rejected painting from what was a simplified body of work and used it as a laboratory for new ideas in a period of his career filled with experimentation. And then, in the way that only Matisse and handful of others can manage, one day, he just decided it was finished. There is little about it that feels more resolved than it might have looked a month before he called it. He could have said it was finished a year prior or he could have worked on it another 10 years.

            Anyway, I am taking a break from the big work. When I figure out another way to play around with it, I will remove the dropcloths and dive back in.

            Instead of the behemoth, I have started collaging heads again. Both of these projects gave me the opportunity to think with my hands in a way that traditional drawing and painting do not. It is more interesting, less repetitive and calculating. I push pieces around, cut them, add, remove, etc. I can cycle through a lot of ideas quickly and not waste anything. Hopefully the heads will lead to new paintings or constructions of some sort. After I glued 20 years of scrap drawings onto the large piece, I started looking around to see what else was piling up in the studio that could be repurposed. I have a lot of scrap wood that could be used for future projects- reliefs or sculptures.

            Spring may have arrived in Middle Tennessee which means I have returned to my daily walks. I stuck with the previously-discussed Rhythm of the Saints pacing for a bit but that gave way to Steve Reich today. That sentence makes me wonder if Paul Simon and Reich ever hung out. It seems like too natural of a fit to have never happened. If “You Can Call Me Al” can come from Paul being at a dinner with Pierre Boulez, then I would hope that Paul and Steve have had some talks over the years. 

            I am about halfway through the audiobook for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I realized I had read or listened to about 1/3 of it a long time ago but never finished it.  

            Netflix has a documentary about Arshile Gorky streaming right now. It is a tough watch.

 

Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Mark

Hebrews

2019.10

I committed myself to a blog post each week this year and intend to honor that. I did not promise myself that every post was going to be a winner.  

I listened to the audiobook of Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler. You can get it through Hoopla if your city’s library system offers that service. Ohler examines the use of methamphetamines, cocaine, etc in the Nazi organization from the top down. From what I can tell, criticism was heaved at it by historians who thought it somehow tried to blame the Holocaust on Hitler’s drug addiction rather than the evil of a sober-minded Hitler. In fact, it does the exact opposite of that and Ohler makes it a point towards the end of the book to avoid that conclusion. I can only assume that the critics did not read the whole thing. Like any “expert” class, historians are not keen on new ideas. The book is another angle. It does not offer a defense. More than anything it shows how an outmatched army was able to wreak havoc on three continents for longer than should have been possible and how that success was unsustainable. The unanswered question for me is what becomes of an entire army of meth addicts after the war is over and their supply is cut off? That could not have ended well. 

Michelangelo- Doni Madonna, 1507, Uffizi Florence

Michelangelo- Doni Madonna, 1507, Uffizi Florence

When the Sistine Chapel was restored, historians argued that the restoration team removed too much dirt and also pigment because the color was so much more vibrant than they expected. The better part of 100 years of art history spun that Michelangelo was not much of a colorist and much better suited to sculpture as a result. The revelation that the Sistine ceiling was vibrant could not possibly jive with history so therefore the conservation team was at fault. It could not just be that historians had been staring at a dirty ceiling for 200 years, ignoring a vibrant painting of Michelangelo’s hanging right there in Florence. No. That would require the rewriting of too many books. It was easier to blame a team that spent years inches away from the surface instead. My experience working at a museum tells me that conservation teams are more cautious and less swayed by conventional wisdom than historians. Raphael was begrudgingly impressed by Michelangelo’s effort on the ceiling. You need little more indication than that as to color of the ceiling. If it were muddy, Raphael would have made sure everyone knew. Below is a short video of a conservation team at work, repairing a Rothko damaged by vandalism.

All that is to say is that Blitzed is an interesting read and sheds new light on something that has been poured over by historians for decades. It just took someone new to come along and look at the same information but choose to look at the bits that were otherwise ignored.

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I continue to work on the behemoth in the studio. I spent a few days going through 20 years of ink drawings and gluing them onto the panels. There is a drawing from May of 1999 embedded in the piece. I have since been blocking in large, black shapes that operate as abstracted trees. It is slowing moving because the paper gets 2-3 layers deep. I have some old linocut prints that I am cutting up and old scrap paper that I am printing or painting on to generate more black material. So far, the piece has sumi ink, water-soluble relief ink, mars black paint, black flashe paint and gouache on it. I am determined to go as far as I can into this thing without spending any more money. Just empty out the studio onto this piece. I am nowhere near the point where things have snapped together to reassure me that this is not going to be a complete bust. It looks like a giant failure right now, so I take comfort that it is at least fun to make. I will regain some confidence once the major shapes are in place. If nothing else, it is giving me ideas to pursue in other work. It is a bit like going to the moon so you can have Velcro and cellphones. Massive amounts of effort poured into one large goal that force you to come up with dozens of smaller solutions to make that possible. Those solutions will have other possibilities down the line.

I watched the documentary, Behind the Curve, on Netflix. It is about people that believe the earth is flat. It is more of a character study of the people in this group than anything. I was hoping to hear more about their justifications and rationale for it rather than learning about them. Their theory for it gets boiled down to a guy that used to make paintings for NASA and some Truman Show logic. I think moon landing and JFK conspiracy theorists are extended much more respect and grace than the people in this movie. It felt like they were pointing cameras at people that were damaged during childhood and only damaging them more. We could avoid so much of this if everyone were just decent to each other in high school.

This is not my best effort, but I am going to hit “Save and Publish” and get back to work. The new Solange album, When I Get Home, is the best thing I have heard in this very new year. The movie that accompanies it is solid as well. It opens in the Rothko Chapel, which apparently is an inspirational place for Solange. Any benefit the Chapel might have received from it has been upended because the Chapel just closed on Monday for the rest of the year for a major restoration.

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Quote for the week:

 “There can be no shadow of doubt that it is greater good fortune to have a good neighbor and make peace with him than to subdue a bad neighbor when he makes war.”

 St Augustine, City of God, Book 4 Ch 15

 

Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Matthew

Hebrews

2019.8

Nashville Visionaries received a very nice write-up in the Nashville Scene thanks to Laura Hutson Hunter. Congratulations to everyone at TSU and Carl Pope for putting this show together and thank you for letting me be a part of it. The show is up until April 1.

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I spent more time than necessary trying to count the number of guitar tracks on the Sundays’ “Goodbye”. For now, I am sticking with 4 but if you told me that there were 8 then I would believe you. If for some reason, you have stumbled upon this post and know how many guitars are on it, please let me know. I do not know how economical they tried to be, but it feels like a lot of ideas move in and out of the recording and it is paced to pop/rock perfection. Even if I am never right, I like trying to pick apart a studio recording more than a painting. It is all the same process, but it is easier to hear than see. It is an equally valuable learning experience in terms of considering how to create something. Map out the structure of a painting, a musical composition, a novel, a poem. The same principles are at work.

 There are a few of ways to think about it.

One is the live recording of a notated piece of music. From a novice perspective, it is all there. Account for tempo and volume in relation to the microphones and everyone else and make it work. You are less practicing for a recording than you are for a performance that just happens to be recorded. This is not using the studio as an instrument or a tool beyond documentation.

Then there is the one-shot approach to making a non-notated recording. If everyone is playing, then you are doing version after version of it until everyone locks in and you have what you want. You change your mind as ideas develop and keep doing takes. Work it. Listen to it. Rework it. At some point, the people out of step get in step and the people that have been in step all afternoon start to get irritated and the take that gets printed is usually an angsty mix of competency and frustration. The best example of this for me is Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. I do not know how many takes of “Hound Dog” were recorded but take number 28 is reportedly the one used for the single. Scotty Moore thinks they did more than 40 takes in a day. In that recording you hear that mix of “let’s keep trying”, “I am barely hanging on” and “I am so over this.” Moore’s first guitar solo is dutiful. He stays within the margins. I am sure after the first 27 takes, he was just hoping to make it more than halfway through the song so people would not stop them halfway into a take. The second solo is a beautiful mess. As Keith Richards said, it is like he dropped his guitar and it made a sound that worked. My favorite stat about all of this is that the end of the first solo and the beginning of the second solo are only 15 seconds apart from one another. That is such a quick mental shift from “Let’s just get through this” to “I am going to wreck this car…on purpose.” That solo cannot exist outside of the song. It makes no sense. But the song cannot exist without it. It is a mixture of disparate, ugly elements that form something solid when put together. You hear this a lot in live recordings. Something out of tune that defines a recording. Intentionally sick harmonies that create a vibe.

The Sundays’ “Goodbye” is a different animal. It is what producers and engineers get paid substantial chunks of money to construct. In this case it is more than likely a construction of the guitarist’s making. If you are not obsessed with guitar gear (and I am not) then you can never know how much work one guitar can do. You can watch The Edge in the It Might Get Loud documentary to see how much he can strangle out of one chord but placed into a song, it might be harder to figure out what is going on. This is not a live recording that is rehearsed and practiced and attempted over and over until everyone gets it right. It is built. There is a bed of picked rhythm guitars laid down to let the other guitars float on top of it. They float in and out, send shards skimming over the surface until all of them come together for the final minute, simultaneously floating, ascending and pushing towards the end. It keeps what is an almost 5-minute song built on one riff ever-shifting, especially once the layers of vocals and bits of keyboard get set down on top of a steady rhythm section that ascends when necessary but otherwise understands that it is there to plug the hole and keep the ship going in a straight line.

Painting sometimes works similarly. There is the “spontaneous” piece made in one sitting: revised, painted out, painted over and hacked to death. It is something that can only exist in its finished form if you spent 75% of the creation of that painting in complete frustration and desperation. Stars align. Mistakes join forces to become a solid form that you could not have planned. You can work this way if you are capable of processing that failure quickly.

Some artists live in that space. In a cynical summary, it is a quantity versus quality methodology. If I make 60 paintings, then 20 of them will be good. The other 40 can be painted out. If you can mentally sustain yourself, then go for it. I think of that approach as phase one. Songwriters probably need 40 songs to whittle down to 12 for an album. The life you breathe into those songs in the studio is the “Goodbye” step in the process. Sometimes the demo surpasses the studio creation. Know your strengths. Also if anyone can get me Jane Wiedlin’s demo of “Our Lips Are Sealed” please contact me. It was in a documentary I saw on VH1 and I have not heard it since. There are acoustic versions of it but not her original cassette version.

Miraculous 4-track demos aside, the majority of this approach is research and development. I am firmly planted in research and development right now.

If I had to guess, I think I made 8 paintings this week. This means I also painted over 8 paintings. Two of those pieces were good but I did not want to settle for “good” and my attempts to make them “great” ended in misery. As it stands, I have three canvases with interesting grounds on them that will make for better work one day. The benefit of doing this for over 20 years is that you know to leave mistakes lying around because they will find their place and you will end up making something that could have only happened by living with failure for an extended period of time until it is redeemed.

I wrote instructions for myself at the beginning of January as to how to proceed in the studio. Make a lot of ink drawings. Develop a new visual language for myself. That will build towards a new painterly language. I did nothing of the sort. I began to paint. It was not the worst thing to ignore my direct orders. I ended up making a handful of paintings that I like. I’m batting .300 with the paintings which does not sound great but .300 will get you in the Hall of Fame. That said, a week of failure was enough to convince me that I possibly had beginner’s luck and I should get back to the plan. I have returned to brush-and-ink drawings. I had stepped away from ink for a couple of years. It is good to be back with it. It is so direct and unforgiving. If you make a bad mark with a pencil, you can save it. One bad mark with an ink-loaded brush can cause you to adjust the entire drawing to accommodate that one mark.

There is no conceptual agenda. That sounded liberating to me at first, but it is just a different kind of frustration. You can draw anything. So, what do you draw? Today I drew a Bond villain, an Iraqi priest that I have painted a number of times, my son and a landscape. That emptied the tank. Now I have to go find more random subjects. Sadly, we live in a world where the Bond villains would get me more attention than anything else. Maybe I will revisit some old subjects. Matisse spent a career doing that. Done well, it is interesting. Executed improperly and you might as well be the old rock star that has decided to record symphonic versions of the hits.

When I type it all out, that was not much of a week. I finished painting the den.

It is going to rain 6 more inches this week.

Spring training games start on Friday. I am ready for baseball. They usually do not play baseball games in the rain so at least I can watch a game and remind myself that the sun does exist.

Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Matthew

2 Timothy

Quote for the week:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

CS Lewis- Mere Christianity