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It’s never too late

At 87 years old David Byrd gets his first showing. He studied under Cubist Amédée Ozenfant, grew up in terrible foster homes, worked at the VA hospital in the psych ward as an orderly and was discovered completely by accident. Very real events inform his work which is nothing short of time capsule depicting nearly 100 years and draw from multiple experiences.

For example:

His visions of the VA hospital contain a vast empathy under the visual austerity. His patients—he retired in 1988, but his mind and art clearly still live there—are rendered simply, outlined and shaded neatly, and their bent and rounded bodies communicate as much as their lined faces (in a style reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence’s individual-but-members-of-a-group figuration). They hurt. Their limbs sometimes shoot straight up in the air even while they sleep. One man compulsively lathers himself into a sudsy monster in the group showers, a cartoon containing a grain of horror and a grain of affection. The only symmetrical painting shows a lobotomized woman, a hollowed-out angel in a green gown who has been reduced to a tidy assembly of shapes. Byrd renders another lost soul as a frantic blur of Francis Bacon proportions.


Still other paintings are brilliant period pieces, cleverly composed narratives: a billboard seen through a tunnel like a Gatsby-era revelation; a salesman’s miniature sample casket being auctioned; a pregnant woman making up a bed where, in a heap of cumulonimbus sheets and pillows beneath a kitschy painting of Jesus in moonlight, a revolver rests ominously.

And on the pain of his childhood:

By contrast, paintings based in Byrd’s childhood experience in bad foster homes are nightmares. He depicts floating figures, sometimes appearing to be naked from the waist down, in varying, disorienting sizes.

Read more on his life and work here.

Although this article isn’t quite as informative as the first link. It does include more information as well as a slideshow well worth viewing.


Hearing voices

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.

—-Vincent Van Gogh

We’d all do well to follow Van Gogh’s advice whether we’re artists, authors, or in any number of fields. That voice within is universal and it keeps us from moving forward, doing what we love to do, and finally, from breaking free and reaching the summit. How much of our lives are wasted listening to the voice that shouts “You cannot_____, ?” Too much of my time has been wasted on that voice and I suspect too much of yours as well.

So let’s follow Vincent’s advice on this one and Paint [for] that voice will be silenced .”

Helen Frankenthaler 1928-2011

I would be remiss not to note the passing of color field innovator and former abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler. Her contributions to modern art cannot be understated not can I, or anyone else do her justice in a single blog entry or article, although Jerry Saltz does an outstanding job (which I highly recommending reading in full) in his write-up for New York Magazine.

Losing Helen isn’t just a matter of losing another artist — we also lost an innovator, and for women, a genuine trailblazer. Describing her importance as an innovator in modern Art, Saltz nails it. She was an artist that led the way forward:

For a long time — probably too long — not enough people have thought about the far-reaching accomplishments of Helen Frankenthaler, foremost inventor in the fifties of what is variously called American Color Field painting and post-painterly abstraction. Whatever you call this short-lived movement, Frankenthaler used it to throw up an artistic bridge allowing artists to cross the blood-and-thunder-encumbered cosmos of Abstract Expressionism into a new world of Minimalism. Painter Morris Louis called her “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” Minimalist painter Kenneth Noland wrote, “We were interested in Pollock but could gain no lead from him. He was too personal. Frankenthaler showed us a way … to think about, and use color.”

As Saltz points out, she was the first to escape the label “woman artist,” at least as it was known then but it wasn’t for lack of trying by her detractors and critics:

 …the laughably literal readings of her work, which said she was “about menstruation and the liquid world of the feminine.” Frankenthaler had to read dismissals of her work, often contrasting it with Pollock’s, like this: “Her work excites without quite satisfying…she can make a paint-mass spurt like a dike and yet control it till it laps the canvas like a spent wave.” Others fretted over the differences between ejaculation and menstruation. (Oy.)

All this despite the decided rebuttal by color field artists regarding the emotionalism inherent in abstract expressionist works. The logic, emphasis on color, even the invention of technique that are illustrative of her works did not save her from gender stereotypes that associated femininity with emotion, at least not for all in the art world.

Magic Carpet Ride by Helen Frankenthaler

While Saltz points out that she overcame all of this to become more than a ‘woman artist’ and gained a begrudging acceptance and regard, I can’t help but feel the lack of mention she’s received as a genuine revolutionary who changed the art world and art forever, the fact that she has as he says been ignored for too long despite tearing down the doors and forcing an acceptance when she was active, and the general lack of knowledge so many have regarding her and her work, highlights that there is yet much work to be done when it comes to the art world giving women their due, particularly as painters.

Patronage of the Arts and Religion

The holidays have me thinking about the vast amount of art that has been created because of religion in some way–particularly in prior centuries–and just how much the loss of patronage by religious minded patrons has impacted the art world, specifically the artist herself.

It’s no secret that commission by the Vatican (and other Christian denominations), individual churches, various clerics,  and private but religious minded patrons (or, for the skeptical, wealthy patrons who wished to curry favor with powerful Church officials and perhaps in their mind God), artists eager to earn favor and money through such works, as well as religious inspiration on the part of the artist resulted in an enormous amount/production of works of art.[¹]

The Christian imperative to inform believers (and non-believers) of the Gospel also made artwork that could and did educate a mostly illiterate society via a visual form absolutely essential. There’s little doubt that more than one master work wouldn’t exist were it not for one or more of these factors and it cannot be forgotten that much of this support was state sponsored coming as it were from state coffers entwined with religion.

Fresco Section From Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

Patronage in the form of support from secular supporters continued, perhaps out of habit, for quite some time after religious based patronage diminished and all but collapsed. But the question arises, what has been lost with the collapse of patronage? And just how do artists, particularly American artists who suffer an ever decreasing amount of grant money doled out to the most apolitical projects, survive without it? How many would be Picasso’s and Pollock’s are lost to commercial art and other non-art based jobs these due to the crushing financial requirements of merely existing in the modern world–one that doesn’t support artists?

Art has always been a rich man’s game in terms of buying and collecting but do we have to live in a world where artists can only try their hand if they happen to be the sons and daughters of the wealthy or upper middle class and what does it mean to live in such a world where merit is meaningless and personal wealth and/or family based assistance king?

A past so riddled with problems and religious hegemony is obviously not the way forward nor is the pursuit of individual wealthy patrons. Nonetheless there remains a financial black hole that sucks aspiring artists into oblivion (or if you prefer, the non-art world) before they ever get a real chance to ply their trade, to create, to make art that moves the soul. Can there be any real doubt that the end result of such a system is that we are all culturally poorer for it?

The art world in particular and society in general desperately needs to find a way to address the cultural poverty a lack of support in the modern world has created. There is a way forward–of that I have little doubt.


[¹] Lest we forget, the Greeks and Romans also commissioned works to portray their Gods/Goddesses and their influence on Western Art let alone productions by the ancient Egyptians, Buddhists, and Hindus inspired by religion to name only a few more familiar examples.

The Underbelly Project

Regardless of how you feel about street art this an outstanding article on “The Underbelly Project.” It has the added bonus of revealing a great deal about street art as well as what makes many street artists tick.

Why do an immense project few will ever see? That’s how legends are made — not to mention loads of money capitalizing on the event after the fact. I’m not certain street art has much staying power but they’ve certainly got the promotion bit down pat. What do you think?


Choosing Paints and Other Supplies

Since the Christmas season is upon us and many of us are asking Santa for various art supplies, I thought it would be a good time to ask what some of your favorite mediums and other supplies are. What brand do you think is the best in your medium? What brand do you think offers the most bang for the buck? What general supply have you found irreplaceable?

When it comes to acrylics I have a passion for both Van Gogh’s cheap line (great for basic colors) and Liquitex’s Artist paints. However, when it comes to oils I find choosing a paint more difficult, especially when picking paints that are good for coverage and even finer work up to completion that don’t require bank loans. And I’m of course quite skeptical of manufacturer’s claims and promises while being fully aware that paint does make a difference in many ways–just try a craft acrylic and the difference in quality is obvious.

But what to do about oils? I find it difficult to believe that there is such an enormous difference in quality that it justifies some of the price differences between brands of artist grade paints that are out there.

So what’s your favorite medium brand and why and what do you have on your artist’s wishlist this year?

Postmodernism is Dying: Now What?

I know I should be careful here as outside of certain sociology departments where postmodernism is often either shrugged off or laughed off (one of which I was a student) as an extremely outdated theory, it still seems all the rage in academic departments of all stripes as well as within a good portion of the art world. It’s often described as the hot ‘new’ thing but just how new can a theory that’s been around since 1870 as a theory and term that was first used to argue for moving beyond Impressionists really be? Why do we chain ourselves to this theory as the end all be all?

Don’t get me wrong, PoMo was and is important as it hammered home the point that the optimism, colonialism, reckless imperialism, and so many other -isms of modernity had come to a bitter and rightful end but its recent propensity toward deconstruction and toward a sense of meaningless has too often ended up promoting a hyper-individualism when combined with the oft misunderstood notions of cultural and moral relativism. The great irony here is that over the years PoMo has itself become a meta-theory–one of the major things it criticized regarding modernity.

“La Loge (The Theater Box)” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Put simply, it left us all wondering what the point of anything was and left us in a void of meaning and all without bothering to offer much other than a method of criticizing the world around us. Is it really a good idea to take a methodology that aspires to criticizing the worst of modernity and promote it to the status of a world view–one so well embraced that we’re left with little incentive to even think beyond it; to question it?

And what does this do to our ability to innovate–to produce social commentary that does stake out a stand? To move beyond great artists like Rothko or Pollock in terms of developing new schools? Would the initial rebellions against the academe and the subsequent invention and embrace of modern art ever have happened if those early artists had been so constrained by such a theory?

Can innovation truly happen if we don’t believe that what we do matters?

Prior generations of artists produced school after school within the same generation but it would appear this is sorely lacking nowadays. Isn’t the whole point of what Impressionists and so many of those who followed fought for and indeed much of what is PoMO promotes itself about artistic freedom?

It’s time to break free once again.

The Kiss of the Muse (What Inspires You to Create?)

It should be a simple question, right? And in some ways it is. What I mean by that is that I think we can all give an answer to this question to some degree but if we’re to fully analyze it all, take a deeper look to answer that ever present question that always seems to be on the lips of fans, buyers/collectors, galleries critics, friends and family members, things can get a great deal more complicated. It can feel like any answer is an incomplete one–one that doesn’t do justice to the whole truth with a capital “T.”

Nonetheless, I feel all of us can answer the question, especially if we understand and accept that answers such as these can never be explained fully and force ourselves to think and put to words some explanation as to why. Answering these “whys” tell us a lot about ourselves and help us figure out how we can inspire ourselves even when we don’t feel like making art. In general, it also forces us to think about our work and why we’re doing it. Since the purpose of so much art is to move people, challenge people, even inform people, the exercise can help us confront what’s behind our work and help us improve what we’re doing.

The Kiss of The Muse by Paul Cézanne

The Kiss of The Muse

For me, inspiration comes from many places, including the desire to make people feel (and this runs the entire gambit of human emotions) or address a social movement. I find that ideas that appear to come from “nowhere”–when I’m not exploring a technical aspect or technique–often don’t and that such ideas for works are based on one of those two goals, and sometimes both, whether I at first realize it or not. Sometimes I create as a way of escaping the world as we know it and intend those creations to help viewers do the same. I also love challenging viewers’ preconceived notions about all sorts of things, juxtaposing ideas, techniques, and colors that at first look to be at odds, even hard or impossible to reconcile.

To further reveal the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the whys and whats, great artistic works by fellow artists, music, wondrous natural and man made scenes and landscapes, conversations with friends about various topics, and sunny days and extreme weather also help inspire.

And of course, there’s that drive–that overwhelming almost ever present urge to create that I think that can make the act of creating an almost compulsive–must do–directive that refuses to let me rest until a work of some sort is achieved.

So whether it be literature, the performing arts, or the visual arts, what are some of the things that inspire you, or rather move you, to create or perform? What drives you to paint?

And Another Child is Bullied to Death…

It’s been several hours since I read about the suicide of Jacob Rogers, another gay teen who tragically decided to end his life rather than continue living the hell other teens created for him, and the story just won’t leave my thoughts.

The emotional isolation, the hopelessness, the pure melancholy that can take over your life in such an emotionally charged time, the feeling that your time in hell will never come to an end, the struggle to define who you are and who you want to be, the battles everyone the slightest bit different, regardless of sexuality, go through just to survive in an environment where every word, hairstyle, article of clothing or accessory can make you a laughingstock –even endanger you physically– all add up.

High School is one of the most unforgiving environments a person can be placed in and you’re expected to go there when even the strongest teens are at their most fragile. Someone who doesn’t keep his or her head down and conform, and even those who do, very often get eaten alive by the very culture we’ve allowed to develop within them. And once a toxic culture sets in it’s very difficult to change it.

When a kid is targeted or assigned a role, it’s virtually impossible to change that as long he or she is still in that school. Think about that for moment: one decision, one article of clothing,  etc. can put you in a caste you can’t escape from.

How many deaths, school shootings, beatings, rapes, and suicides are we going to allow before we, as a nation, get serious about changing things?

Diego Rivera

Happy Birthday, Diego Rivera!

“An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”

Considered the greatest Mexican painter of the twentieth century, Diego Rivera had a profound effect on the international art world. Among his many contributions, Rivera is credited with the reintroduction of fresco painting into modern art and architecture. His radical political views and tempestuous romance with the painter Frieda Kahlo were then, and remain today, a source of public intrigue. In a series of visits to America, from 1930 to 1940, Rivera brought his unique vision to public spaces and galleries, enlightening and inspiring artists and laymen alike.

via Diego Rivera – About the Artist | American Masters | PBS.

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