william dalrymple

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