Portrait Project - it begins!
My first official commission for the portrait project has been ordered.

Jeriah Hildwine has been painting and drawing me for over a year in classroom settings. He also gave me the first painting I have of myself: an 8x10 painting he did the first time we met, at a painting class at the Hyde Park Art Center. Because the painting was for a class, it's small and the background was the last concern, so it looks somewhat unfinished compared to a painting done over the course of weeks and not hours.

That small painting started my brain churning about this portrait project, but it is not the first portrait I have of myself, chronologically. I also have a drawing of myself given to me by Lee Shippey, who teaches figure drawing at Ripon College. I began my modeling career there in the art department, and when I graduated in 2008, I asked her to choose a piece to give to me. I told her it should be a piece that shows me as she sees me. She had hundreds of drawings of me at that point, I'm sure. The one that she chose, though, I never wanted to display until recently. I thought it was too angular. It didn't depict me as I saw myself, and I didn't want to accept that. I guess I can say it now: I'm a bit bony at times, in places. Ok. There. But that's what this project is about: not everyone (and probably, hardly anyone) sees me as I see myself. This project is an exploration of other people's signatures on my personality.

There are also two earlier paintings of me in existence, although I do not own them yet. The summer after graduation, I modeled for a portrait painting session. Lee Shippey and Rafael Salas, a professor in the art department, hired me to sit for them while they practiced painting a portrait. These portraits are interesting to me because they show the exact same pose, painted in the same week, by two different artists, who finished their work in a similar amount of time. They are absolutely not the same portrait.

I remember one evening that I went to model for them, there was a storm. It was blustery on the way down, and when I got to the building, there was also a concert. There were quite a few people mingling in the lobby. Perhaps neither of them showed up because of the weather, or perhaps we finished our session (I can't recall), but as I was leaving, the weather had worsened. The lobby had cleared out. No one was left. It was dark and windy, and rain was absolutely pouring. I was wearing corduroy pants, and they were soaked through within feet of exiting the building. As I walked up the path to the upper campus, there was a gigantic tree that had fallen across the path. The path winds between a cemetery and its tall chain link fence, to the left, and a nearly vertical, wooded hill to the right. In any kind of weather, but especially this kind, I was loathe to go all the way around to the nearest street. So I climbed over the tree, umbrella in one hand, various handholds in the other, and continued on my walk - perhaps a mile more. When I returned home to the house I was house-sitting for the summer, my pants were so wet they would not bend with my legs. My shoes were squelchy. And there was a sound of drip . . . drip . . . drip emanating from somewhere in the kitchen.

I'll be collecting these two portraits later this summer, but right now, my first commission is being created out of one of my favorite of Jeriah's larger classroom studies of me. Last I saw it (this painting was begun probably about a year ago), the study was a fairly complete figure painting with almost no background work completed.

What I love about Jeriah's commission painting is my expression. Most of the time, I model for classes of student or beginners. I have only recently begun to model for open drawing sessions and other types of sessions that have more seasoned artists as the main attendees. Students and beginners who are trying to paint the figure need as little distraction as possible, so I usually remove my glasses. Painting is a time-consuming process, so I also tend to slide back to a "blank" face over the course of the session; in my case, "blank" comes off as rather melancholy: serious at best, and really crotchety at worst. For this sitting, Jeriah left my glasses on. Instead of a blank gaze, my eyes show my expression, the one I see when I look at myself. I obviously don't look like that; after sitting for 2 hours in the same position, I expect I'm going to look rather dazed, as would anyone. But he looked into my face and saw my personality there, and painted it. At the time, we'd met each other twice.

Jeriah intends to fix up the figure a bit: he will touch up places that obviously need work, but I won't sit for it again. My hair has completely changed, and because I love the expression, I don't want him to do much work on the face. So most of the new work will be in the background; I asked him to place me in a lush, leafy place.

I am very excited to see his work.

Tom Torluemke at Hyde Park Art Center - "Think responsibly and act collectively."
Last week I was wandering around the Hyde Park Art Center and decided to spend some time on the second floor looking at the current exhibits. I didn't know which exhibits were on display; I just walked up and went in. When I approached the southern end of the hall, I saw that Tom Torluemke's work Fearsome Fable -- Tolerable Truth was being exhibited. I got really pumped, right there in the hallway. It's so exciting to see an exhibit by an artist you're familiar with, and Tom is a very interesting artist for me. I've seen his work in several places and talked to him at some openings, and I like his technique and his style of portraying his subjects. Every time I prepare myself to see his work, I feel like I'm going to love it. I walked into this room really expecting to like what I saw. And, as usual with Tom's work, this exhibit totally suckerpunched me.

The paintings of Tom's that I've seen before have been done in a very colorful style with lots of collage-type composition and action going on (he also works with collaged materials, like contact paper, as a medium). There are often dozens of subjects, vignettes, and scenes in a single work, and from a distance, the canvas usually seems busy and sociable. Gregarious. Viewed up close, the vignettes aren't always so simple. Some are violent. Some are way too friendly, if you know what I mean. The small scenes that make up the larger world of the works can be unpleasantly graphic and explore aspects of our natural human inclinations that we might not normally practice in public (as the subjects in the paintings I'm thinking of do).

This exhibit had a similar emotional impact, although the content was very different from the works I've seen before. This work has more of a social-political critique feel, and it was a harsh one. The 40-panel mural (one of the very art forms that political propagandists like to use...hmm...) is set up in the round, so that it completely encircles the viewer, with black sculptures scattered and hanging in the middle of the space. The whole experience was really depressing and scary from the moment I was able to focus on a specific scene (and the title of the exhibit is disgustingly appropriate). What makes the exhibit even more poignant is that Tom mentions in his artist statement that each (that is, every single one) of the scenes are drawn from his life experiences or the current state of the world.

"...For example, the hung businessman is based on Torluemke's neighbor who lost his job and committed suicide next to the artist's childhood home . . . the simple architecture of dilapidated houses in the artist's current hometown. . .an over crowded metropolis. . ."

Luckily, just as in real life, there is more than one way to look at everything (including everything as a whole), and Tom painted a totally different set of murals on the back of this one. I was looking at the world as a wasteland, but he also painted this landscape as a wonderland. Each panel of the mural can be flipped to show another perspective, the "possible outcome if we change current destructive behaviors...".

You can watch if you want, as they flip the panels next weekend, on Sunday, March 10 from 1-4pm.

Square dancing ain't dead
For Valentine's Day, I decided to try square dancing. One of my favorite local bands, Can I Get an Amen!, hosted a free Valentine's Day square dance event held in the Echoes of Chicago studio space, a converted-warehouse-y building near the United Center. If your first and last experience with square dancing was during a middle school gym class (an awkward situation no matter what new activity you're trying), let this post serve as your official invitation to give it another shot.

The square dance is not originally an American invention, but here in the states, there are two broad categories of square dance: the modern Western, and the traditional square dance (in general, anything that isn't modern Western is grouped under "traditional"). The traditional square dance category is characterized by the use of live music, a limited number of calls (or movements) for the caller to choose from, and the use of dance figures, where a certain set of basic movements are always called in the same order to form a "dance figure" that dancers repeat at intervals throughout the dance.

The dance was very well attended. There were probably 50 people there, mostly very stylish, energetic people in their 20s and 30s. The atmostphere was very friendly, open, and lively.

Dancing was easy. The caller (the man who directs the dancers to their next move) explained each dance before beginning and gave us dancers a chance to try out some of the figures before beginning a dance for real. That was important, because each dance lasted between 15 and 30 minutes. If you get lost in that, you're going to be lost for a while. But because everyone's learning and then acting at the behest of the caller, you're not likely to get lost at all. There will always be a friendly neighbor to put you back on track if you really get crazy.

It was easy to find a partner. With 50-odd people in attendance, there are plenty of competent, attractive, smiling people who'd be willing to dance with you (yes, even you). And, you'll get to dance with a lot of different people for short periods of time. Actually, that's kind of the whole advantage of square dancing. You'll likely change partners throughout the dance, so the person you start out with doesn't necessarily stick around the whole dance. The dance is also a lot less up-close-and-personal (toe-crushing neighbors aside) than shaking it in a nightclub (even a really lame nightclub. Really. You hardly have to touch your partner if you don't want to) and it's even better exercise. If you're not sweating through your shirt, you're not doing it right. Square dancing is very physical and lets the dancers form part of the music by using their bodies (clapping, stomping, etc) to form a gigantic rhythm section. The band plays like crazed weasels, and everybody dances at the direction of the caller. This guy has some real skill too, knowing lots of different motions for the dancers to take, knowing the progression of each dance, keeping a rowdy room full of dancer under control for the insturction of new dances, and stopping the music at exactly the right times (like exactly when you make it back to your original partner, for example).

This event was a blast, and I'd definitely try square dancing again. There are several dances going on at any given time in Chicago and the suburbs. One resource (courtesy of our caller) for finding a dance in your area can be found below:


Laurel Sache Garret - Plants as Art
Last night, I attended the monthly 2nd Fridays event in the Podmajersky Building, which houses artist's studios. Painter Anna Todaro has a studio there (more on her later!) and held an event with a guest artist, Laurel Sache Garret. The event, titled: Love is Stronger than Death, featured lots of art by both artists, delicious raw appetizers and snacks, and live relaxing music by Matteo Voltaire and his friend Lev as Nag Mani.

Sache had several different kinds of art and artifacts to display. She had several paintings done on silk and stretched over circular frames and adorned with air plants. She also brought an entire collection of Moroccan and Middle Eastern jewelry, which she had collected over several years while living in Morocco.

Sache's silk paintings

My favorite pieces of Sache's art were the pieces designed as homes for air plants. Air plants are fairly easy-to-care-for plant species that gather their nutrients from the air, rather than from water or soil. The plants just need an occasional misting or a good soak, and lots of air circulation around their homes. They don't need soil to grow, and so they can be displayed in unique ways.

Sache worked with pottery to construct vases and pots without bottoms to allow for better air circulation. Some of the pottery pieces look like "regular" plant pots in that they have similar exterior shapes as any old pot, but they are specifically designed to hold an air plant. And, unlike any old pots you usually put your plants into, these were decorated with Sache's particular artistic style, including spirals, coils, and glazing.

If you're not into standard-shaped pots, that's ok, too, because air plants don't need regular looking pots to thrive. That's kind of the best part. Some of Sache's "vases" are actually pottery plaques with loops to hold the stem of an air plant. Others are painted glass terrarium globes, with a large hole in one side of the bulb in which to perch an air plant. The paint on the globes serves a decorative function, but also protects certain varieties of air plants from direct sunlight, which can be a bit much for their delicate plant-sensibilities when the plants are hung directly in a window.

Air plant globe Air plant globe.

I liked the focus on plants and their unusual display as art because it seemed to be a good mirror for Sache's other calling, as an aromatherapist and healer at the practice she owns, Sage Integrated Healing Arts. Her overall message is about healing, growing, sustaining, and making things beautiful, and it is a very positive message.

Paul D'Amato
I had a very personal reaction to our guest this week, Paul D'Amato. D'Amato is a photographer who attended Reed College and Yale. He is former recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pollack-Krasner Grant. He lives in Chicago now, and is a professor at Columbia College. More information and his work can be found on his website: http://pauldamato.com/

I have never been really crazy about photography as fine art. I understand the mechanics of photography. My dad is a photographer (portraits, weddings, and that), and I know how to tell when the lighting is appropriate, what makes a good composition for a group photo, what kind of materials and lighting can be manipulated for backgrounds, and stuff like that. I can tell a nice family portrait from a junky one. But I have not had much natural excitement for photography as fine art. I can appreciate good photos, but it's usually more of an intellectual exercise for me, or a mild interest-curiosity, rather than a jaw-dropping whack in the aesthetic face.

There were two characteristics about D'Amato's work that really shook me up. One was that his technique is astounding. He makes really REALLY good photos. The expressions he captures, the poses, the lighting, the backgrounds, the details that are so perfect you'd think they were staged but they aren't, are all fabulous.

The second aspect of the work that really made me excited is his project Barrio, from which he has published a book by the same title. This project is a collection of photographs he made over years and years of returning to Chicago during his summer teaching hiatus and photographing Mexican culture in the Pilsen neighborhood.

I feel a little like this project is a parallel to my life when I first moved to Chicago. When I was studying anthropology in college in Wisconsin, everyone wanted me to go on to graduate school. But I had had a rude awakening as to how much I hated the in-fighting, position-jockeying, reputation-over-science atmosphere of academia, and I decided I would rather do anything else than stay in school. So when I got laid off from my first job out of school and couldn't find another, I moved to Chicago and took a job in a factory. There was one other white guy on my shift, and most of the workers were Hispanic immigrants who didn't speak English. I learned Spanish in a hurry to be able to communicate with them, and because I didn't know anyone else in the city, I ended up spending a lot of time with them. I went to their houses, birthday parties, and baby showers. I learned how to dance at the nightclubs they frequented and learned how to cook from them (I hadn't had much of a cooking repertoire up until that point, but it's better now). I listened to Spanish-language radio stations in the car, at work, at home. I dated Mexican guys. I spent my time in Cicero, Pilsen, Waukegan. I thought to myself that this was better than studying anthropology; this was living it.

D'Amato did the same thing in Pilsen with his photographs. He made friends with the people he photographed over the numerous summers he spent there. He went to every event he thought he could get into; he stopped random people to make their photograph and ended up getting to know their families. He joined a gang. He lived this photography project, and the photographs he got out of it are really amazing.

I don't know if it's just because I have this personal history with this neighborhood, or because his is a really talented photographer, but this work is something else.

Erin McGuire and Abstract Art Appreciation
This week we took a look at Erin McGuire's work. She studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now produces abstract, form-based work. In addition to the photos on her website, she brought three paintings and a collection of abstract drawings for us to view. She says in her artist statement that her works are social paintings for social creatures. Her paintings are a way to communicate social interactions by using forms as stand-ins for things that can't be represented in the "traditional" way because they aren't physical objects.

Mylar Books on Light Box - Book 2

Erin's entire artist statement (read it! It's really interesting.) and pictures of her work can be found on her website: http://erinmcguirestudio.com/home.html She also has an Abstract Manifesto (http://studioerinland.tumblr.com/post/41248910562).

Most of Erin's works right now, including the three she brought for us to see, are medium-sized stretched canvases (around 30" x 30"). She uses a very vibrant color palette that is bright without creating too much tension between the forms. Rather than clashing, they interact. The texture of Erin's work is fairly chunky, but generally without extreme peaks or valleys in the topography. I liked the works she brought along especially because they were energetic and alive without stressing me out or creating a lot of ungrounded visual energy. Her paintings seemed almost friendly without being over-simplified. I found them to be complex but optimistic.

Erin's mission in art is just to get people to appreciate abstract art. She has enjoyed abstract work since she was very young, but knows that not everyone has an innate appreciation for the abstract. When abstract painting made its push for a place in art history, it asked the audience to take something seriously that could easily be taken as cheap or without merit. It pushed the boundaries of what is art. We still struggle to provide the average audience with a means of assessing the relative quality of abstract paintings. Abstract work can be a difficult subject for people; it's hard to discuss and there isn't a ton (relative to representational art) of cultural history coming along behind it providing the vocabulary and a basis for opinion. How do we bridge the social gap between our language and the images that aren't really images? How can it be accessible? Jeriah is of the opinion that anybody can appreciate anything as long as they know it's ok to do so, and I think that that is a very good starting place for this discussion.

People can appreciate anything as long as they know it's ok. Without that assurance, they are forced to take a risk by voicing their opinion on a piece of art. Because most of the art I'm discussing here isn't "funcional" - that is, it doesn't serve another purpose in someone's daily activities other than being art - that takes away one type of objective justification for appreciation (Does it work? With functional objects, people know what they are supposed to do, and then they do that, that's enough to warrant liking it). Abstract works also take away the representational subject, which leaves very little universally understood, objective criteria by which to judge the work. With abstract painting, people don't know whether it's ok because they don't have the art history education or vocabulary to defend their opinions, and so there can be an awkward silence. If they can't say why it's good or bad, it's hard to voice an opinion they're sure of (and they undertake the risk of being disagreed with). Representational subjects are easier: if it looks like the thing it is, there is some basic level of skill of reproduction involved that everyone see/understands and - this is important - that everyone knows that everyone else sees, too.

The next level is artwork that says something new (or something additional) by not being exactly representational, but still being recognizable as translations of things in the world (think impressionism). Rather than simply stating, "These are flowers," that kind of work goes out of its way to make an extra statement: "Flowers are about color," for instance. Most people don't have a hard time digesting that as kind of a meta-statement, but some extra information (perhaps, the title of the piece) may be necessary to get the message.

The next leap is abstraction. But how does a person tell a good abstract from a drunken scribble? It has to do with intent, and artistic intent is very difficult to parse out without education or training. Without knowledge of proportion/composition/color systems etc., all the deliberate choices of the artist appear random or accidental. Education is essential because people want to know that their opinion has a valid basis. They don't want to be the person with the wool pulled over their eyes, imagining that a child's drawing is the next great masterpiece. They want to know they are not being fooled into discussing something as higher than it is. The only way to give that assurance is to discuss process and technique (artist's choices) with the viewer.

So, what is Erin's method? What can we learn about how she makes her paintings that will change our perception of them as art objects? We didn't get particularly detailed in this area, and all artists approach their own work in their own way, but here is what we learned:

To finish a painting can take anywhere from several hours to several painting sessions in length. This relatively short working time means that Erin has a great opportunity to experiment. The more work she does, the more she will be able to decide why it is that she likes a certain color palette, or a certain interaction of forms. By making a large body of work, she will be able to see what attracts her, what naturally appears over and over again, and apply these concepts towards making pieces that truly reflects her artistic intent. That doesn't mean that all of her pieces will look the same or that she'll never evolve to a new style. Certain proportions, color combinations, form interactions, materials, tools, shapes, and lines will communicate her message better than others (and better at different times or for different messages), and these are things that she can consciously choose before beginning a piece, during its construction, and when deciding that it is finished. An artist who could do abstract work entirely randomly all the time, without thought or knowledge of what is going to come out on the canvas, would have to be some sort of computer, because people are drawn to what they're drawn to. That's what creates an artistic style. That's why people can tell Erin's work apart from Jackson Pollock's. They make different choices as artists.

A painting is "finished" when there is nothing left to do. There should be nothing "wrong" (out of place, unbalanced) with the painting, but it should still be interesting enough to keep the viewer (in this case, the artist herself is the viewer) visually engaged. This is perhaps one of the most important distinctions between photorealistic painting and abstract paintings. A photorealistic painting is done when it looks like what it is, and in sufficient detail. An abstract painting is done when the artist decides that it looks like itself. A representational painting is done when it can't look any more like the thing, or when changes start to lessen the likeness of the painting to its subject, or when additional work doesn't seem to be adding anything to the perception of the subject, but an abstract work doesn't have an objective guide. The point of completion is entirely the artist's prerogative, and is a very deliberate choice, perhaps more so than in a process when the work is being compared to an outside standard.


Erin tends to choose her tools in proportion to the size of her canvas. She likes a certain proportion of "brush" stroke (she does not use brushes to make her paintings, but there are still strokes. I'll call them "swipes".) in her works. She is so attracted to this set of proportions that on a smaller canvas, she tends to use smaller tools to achieve the same effect, and on larger canvases, bigger tools. In order to explore this possibly subconscious decision, it would be possible to reproduce a painting on several differently-sized canvases and with several differently-sized tool sets. Because the forms formed by the swipes of paint are the subject, it is not just a choice about choosing what style (thick brushstrokes vs. tiny ones, dry brush vs. wet) in which to render a particular subject. That merely changes the flavor of the same meal. In this case, the size of tools will totally change the subject being painted and make it into a different "image". The size and style of the tools chosen can totally change the painting. It's not a stylistic choice so much as a compositional one.

I really like the idea of using forms to stand in for non-physical types of nouns as artistic subjects. There needs to be a way to communicate about how people interact without using the traditional stereotyped objects that we normally use. A heart shape has nothing to do with love, and if an artist really used steam coming out of someone's ears to indicate an angry interaction, it would come with so much sociocultural baggage that it would be impossible to take it at its face value or separate it from cartoons we saw when we were five. A picture taken with a heat-sensing camera shows a totally different scene than one taken with regular film. That picture captures a different set of interactions between subjects by analyzing a different set of criteria for what is important (not color but temperature is the focus). I feel like abstract work does the same sort of thing. It takes a similar broad subject (like, "people interacting") and puts the subject through a different filter to talk about something that can't be seen.

Erin also brought a collection of drawings for us to view. A really interesting discussion opened up about the drawings because they seemed to be even further from traditional "fine" art than the paintings. The drawings were made on heavy paper and drawn with marker or highlighter, depicting forms of various sizes, colors, and configurations, but never filling the entire page and usually not centered on the page. They seem like thoughts that can be put together to form a larger idea, and the group was very excited to view the drawings laid out next to each other as opposed to singly, page by page. The abstract drawings talk about art history (the use color, form, and all those things that paintings use) while removing a lot of art history stylistic preconceptions - there are no brush strokes, for instance. Erin's drawings push the envelope today the same way that abstract painting itself pushed it in the middle of the last century: she's saying "take this seriously" when it's something that could easily be taken as cheap or unskilled. The drawings push the boundaries of what is "art" - and because they foster this kind of discussion, that makes them important to pay attention to.

Indianapolis Museum of Art
Last weekend I took a visit to the (free!) Indianapolis Museum of Art with friends. We spent all our time in the modern collection, and that was fine by me. My favorite exhibits from this trip:

James Turrell, American (1941-)
Materials: tungsten lights in specially designed room
Creation date: 1976

When we walked into this room, John was in the middle of saying how this was one of his favorite exhibits in the whole museum, and I was busy thinking how it would be so like him (as in, exactly not what I expected and yet strangely appropriate) to like a Rothko-style painting best. Thank you, Mark Rothko, for providing the appropriate stylistic conditioning for this exhibit to totally fool me 100%. It wasn't until I walked to the side to see how thick it was that I realized what the exhibit actually was. I won't say anything more, in case you go to see this work. You'll thank me later.

Two White Dots in the Air
Alexander Calder, American (1898-1976)
Materials: painted metal and steel wire
Creation date: 1958

I love the balance in his pieces, the focus on weight, and the gentle interaction with the environment that the moving shadows provide below the mobile.

Catherine Lee, American (1950-)
Materials: ink and acrylic on canvas with grommets
Creation date: 1977

This piece consisted of a large piece of canvas covered with squares drawn into a grid. Inside each square (about 0.5" x 0.5") was written a characer. The characters' identities were very ambiguous. They could have been 4's, h's, y's, a's, not even English letters, who knows? I really liked the meditative quality of this work, both looking at it and imagining how it must have been to make it. I could visualize writing that character over and over again in a trance. In what order did she write them? Did she do it all in one sitting? Did she get bored? Did she get hand cramps? Is there a hidden pattern unintentionally created by the orientation of her hand as she continued to fill in the squares? For some reason, this piece really made me think.

Möbius Ship
Tim Hawkinson, American (1960-)
Materials: wood, plastic, Plexiglas, rope, staples, string, twist ties, glue
Creation date: 2006

Totally hilarious title, if you're into puns (of course you are). Also, an amazingly complex sculpture that hangs from the air and has no front, top, or bottom, exactly. It would be hard to more accurately depict the motion of a ship at sea.

Robert Barry, American (1936-)
Materials: acrylic on paper

This piece really threw us for a loop. There are words scattered on the red background, but their values and hues were so close to that of the background that some of them were very difficult to notice at first. For Brian and I, that meant that whenever we weren't looking at a word and concentrating on it, it disappeared. When we looked back, it reappeared. He searched the work for lights/screens but it was entirely acrylic on paper. Very cool. The words were also very appropriately chosen ("doubt", "happened", etc).

Looking at Robert Barry

Portrait Project
I am about to begin a project with a lot of personal significance for me. It will be an ongoing project (think years), so stay posted for updates on how it's going!

Self Portrait

The background:

I read an article a couple months ago about an artist who did a lot of different drugs and drew self portraits after being affected by each substance. The article, with pictures, can be found here:

This article and the concept totally fascinated me and I wanted to replicate it. Unfortunately, although I'm ok at drawing, a self portrait would probably cause me more stress than enlightenment in those states and not be very informative after the fact. There's also the holes-in-my-brain concern. So I didn't do anything.

The project:

Yesterday, I had an idea about how to replicate this kind of experiment, only better suited to my abilities (and with fewer brain-holes). The idea is that it would sort of be like collecting autographs, except a lot more personal. I would like to reach out to all of the artists I know, the ones I meet in the future, and the ones I buy paintings from, etc. over a long period of time and commission them to do a portrait of me. The point would be that each portrait epitomizes the artist's style at the time of the commission (they shouldn't try to do a photorealistic portrait if that isn't their thing), but each work would depict myself as the subject, in any context/costume/composition/scene/medium/style that the artist feels is appropriate. The artist can put their artistic personality into the work. If they do abstract work, they should abstract me. If they paint animals, they should get that in there somehow. Whatever they do. It's not narcissism, I promise. It's just that the common subject would be totally interesting when rendered by a lot of different artists, and the project would also serve as an interesting (to me) record of how artists view me as a person, because that kind of comes out in portraits. Sometimes artists change their aesthetic or preferred medium over time, and I could document that change too, if I still keep up with their work in later years and have a second piece done. That would be cool, especially if it came out totally different or if my personal style changed significantly also in the period between pieces.

The reason that this is better than autographs is that it shows a record of a significant interaction between two people. Autographs can be given in a second and sold again and again and their meaning diluted. Plus, you don't really get to know people whose autograph you get. There would be (ideally) some artists whose work I own that I could get portraits from even though they don't know me personally, but most of the portraits would be from local Chicago artists who know me as a person at least a little. They'll be able to use that extra information to inform their work.

How this project makes me feel:

When I was in college, I started modeling for fine art classes because I needed 30 bucks really quick. Of all of the jobs I have ever held, this is the one that I've done the longest, gained the most enjoyment from, and feel the best about as a product I'm offering to the world. It's meditative and helps me in the same way that yoga helps some people. The people I have met while modeling are incredibly important in my life and fine art modeling has been one of the things that has totally shaped who I am, where I go, how I view myself, and who I want to get to know. I wouldn't be involved in the art world if it weren't for that influence. It's really important to me. It would be SO COOL to sit for these projects.

Adam Scott, bad-ass painter
Our discussion group speaker this week was Adam Scott, rightly described as a bad-ass painter. He moved to Chicago from California after undergrad to go to grad school at the Art Institute, and for four years after school he ran a sort of impromptu art gallery with his friends (the DIY kind, not in it to make a profit) and taught at area art schools. He now teaches at the Art Institute and paints. He says he is exploring the question of what it means to be American. He does this through iconic (although ubiquitous and therefore generic) architecture, common pseduo-utopian landscapes (such as those on postcards), and anonymous but historically/stylistically recognizable visual elements. American-ness is a preoccupation, but not an overly loud one in his subject matter (at least for me), unless your ear is very attuned to architectural styles and their origins. It's neither overtly propagandist nor unrelentingly critical, I'll put it that way.

Let's back up. I thought for a while after I graduated that I would go to grad school for composition. I even visited a place (UT, while I was down visiting Tom). I knew I wasn't a genius at composition, but I showed my work to a professor and told him about a quintet I was planning with some unusual instrumentation. Experimental stuff, you know. His response was that I should really stick to the more conventional forms; lots of string quartets exist already, so if you write for string quartets, your work will more likely be played because musicians won't have to form a special group to perform your work (not sure if I agree totally; there is such a body of work for string quartets that your work could be easily overlooked). This is, in general, advice that composers have to hear. It's worth considering. But what I heard at that time was: don't experiment, don't make art. Sell the people what they think they want. Conform and perhaps succeed. And I didn't visit any more schools or consider that a career option ever again.

Adam Scott told us that when he was just starting out, he we really eclectic. All over the place. Films, paintings, installations, performance work. He said he did something different every semester and his professors were like, "What?" Sound familiar? But he's at art school, so it goes over a little better there I guess. He was struggling to find a style, and the main source of his discomfort came from the fact that, knowing so much about art history, all of his work looked referential rather than original or personal. It's not that it has to be totally new or revolutionary, but when he looks at his brush strokes and sees only emulation there, it's discouraging to think that one has nothing to offer to art that hasn't been done before. I definitely felt that way about my composition work. I emulated everyone, especially experimental compose-by-formulas modernists, but it wasn't my ideas or formulas. Even though they've never been composed before, I can cite sources for every piece I wrote.

Adam's particular pet peeve was with brush strokes, so he solved his problem by no longer using brushes. He called up Golden Paints, asked about creating a clear flowable custom polymer (similar in viscosity to honey). They made him this custom material (apparently they are a breeze to work with; props), which he mixed with acrylics, and began pouring his paintings. He spends a couple months researching, doing digital collages, preparing a design. Then he draws out his design on the canvas and pours the colors into their respective areas (reminiscent of, but totally different from, paint-by-numbers, another totally American creation), letting them flow until they meet. The colors don't blend when they meet, giving crisp lines (wavy, but not muddy). The entire painting (all of his paintings are "as big as he is" because that's just what he likes) is done in one session (approx. 15 hours) so that the thickness is more or less uniform and all of the color intersections are wet when they meet. He doesn't revisit the painting.

Wow. He just totally took his insecurity about seeing his work as entirely imitative and crushed it. Don't like the way your brush strokes remind you of something? Get rid of the brushes. His ideology is as clean and crisp as his paintings. He says he wants his painting to hit the viewer over the head, like standing in front of a five foot amplifier and turning it on with the volume all the way up. His paintings do that. They're unbelievably bright. They're very primary and direct. They are not subtle. They are stark. They are big. They are loud. (Yes, they are very male.)
I think he would be flattered to know that his ideology struck me in my mind the same way his paintings are supposed to strike the viewer in the eyes. It's so simple. Don't like it? Get rid of it. Need something? Custom order it. See something you like on the street or on the cover of a book? Take it home and use it. Bend it until it fits. It's such a direct approach to artistic philosophy.
I'm not saying there isn't any subtle, underlying, thoughtful shit in his art. The meaning behind each work isn't immediately obvious in its entirety. As I mentioned in the beginning, he isn't crude about answering the questions he's investigating (e.g. What does it mean to be American?) It's not like his paintings alternate eagles with flags for wings and fat dudes drinking Pepsi and packing heat. That kind of adulation/criticism is an outspoken statement, not an investigation. He can be very subtle with subject matter. I still don't understand the story of most of the paintings, but at least now I have an idea where he's coming from and can draw some hypotheses. I'm not trying to make it sound totally simplistic. What is not subtle, however, is the visual effect on the viewer. The effect is there, affecting you before you have time to think about these higher-level philosophical things. In a lot of modern art, those philosophical things are the main focus of works, to the extent that you will need to understand those philosophical platforms before you will be able to appreciate/be affected emotionally by what you are seeing. Not always, but in many cases, it is after thinking about works and learning about them that their significance hits you over the head and you "get it" - but - here's the rub - the new understanding you have for the work entirely changes whether or not you were affected by the visual elements involved. After you "get it," the art you're seeing is a totally different visual experience. Sometimes this "getting it" takes a while to manifest. Sometimes you need to go home and have a good think before you can even decide if the work was interesting or important. Sometimes the meaning does sneak up on you later and you realize how awesome something was after the fact. That's great, because now later-you knows that what you saw was significant. In this case, you know it affects you immediately. The "why" might come and sneak up on you later, but you have something to grab on to NOW - so that you remember to consider it later.

There was also a brief foray into the question of why painting is still relevant in our digital world (can a question be both totally cliche and totally relevant?) What I like about this art in the context of this question is that he's using digial media's own strategy to do something totally analog. He uses photoshop and collages to put together a composition usually entirely comprised of images he found on print media, and the more ubiquitous the media (postcards, paperback novel covers, etc), the better. Then, he goes ahead and uses the same sort of colors we are now accustomed to seeing in TV (bright, primary, in-your-face) to represent his color fields. Then, he makes it huge (IMAX style). People don't spend a ton of time viewing anymore. He has moments to make a connection, not minutes. Our attention spans have been reduced to split seconds. We do not go in depth on everything (which is why it is hard to grasp a philosophical concept while we are still viewing the work; we need more time, and a really good excuse to do the legwork). Adam Scott's work gives the fine art viewer the instant gratification they are accustomed to receiving from their media. Whether this is a betrayal of painting or an ingenius tables-have-turned kind of thing is a subjective opinion. I think it's great. He takes the potential limitations of the audience and works with it, gives them something to chew on, draws them in so that they can't ignore what he's got to say. Even if they don't come back and understand it fully, they still heard something. It would be impossible to walk through a room with his work in it and not notice it.
I'm not trying to say that there is no value to a subtle visual approach. Intricacies are important, too. But modern viewers of media have a lot of data to sift though, and to help them deal with these massive quantities of (visual) input, they stereotype and dismiss. People couldn't function without categorizing, but it also means that it is easy for viewers to ignore something, especially if they are certain they've heard it before. He's taking a philosophical platform that is easy to pigeonhole (he's not Norman Rockwell, but let the words "Americana" escape my lips and I'll bet you a dollar you're thinking in that genre). Adam's approach attempts to override the stereotypes and demonstrate, before the viewer can dismiss it, that there is something important being said here. The question of what it actually means to be American is as relevant as ever, but this topic has been saturated with mindless, extremist stuff that few (especially not younger, liberal, cynical people) want to hear anymore. (In the first few minutes of his talk, when he said he was interested in American-ness, I immediately tuned out. After I saw his work, I wrote this piece). His approach simply allows him to speak to a different audience than he might otherwise have been able to reach. And it's not that there is no mental effort involved or that you don't have to think about his work at all; his message is loud but complex. As with every artwork, you'll have to spend some time trying to figure out what it's about. It's just easier for someone to understand what you're saying when they're looking at you, especially if you're speaking slightly different languages.

It's all about finding out a way to convey your message.

Kavi Gupta Gallery showed his older work (http://kavigupta.com/artist/adamscott), but he recently reinvented his aesthetic, so he's not with that gallery anymore (I discussed his old art above; in his new work, he puts printed collage material directly under a layer of clear polymer, and in some works he uses mica and silica dust to create the sort of visual color-shifting effect seen on cars - he learned it from a friend's dad who does sports car detail work. Interestingly, he has noticed that this work attracts a whole different audience: younger, rougher around the edges. He's found a whole new way to convey his message and is reaching a whole new crowd with it).


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