Monday, February 21, 2011

Updates and ArtPoems 2011

Dear Friends,

there's been a long silence since my last entry.
I suppose the main reason for that is that, after the show in October, which was obviously a bit of a mile-stone for me personally, I naturally lost some momentum in my art-making. I had said something that was very important to me, and I did it in a very public and rewarding way, and after that I sent my mind on a little vacation. That usually happens with me - I can't just press on, but rather retreat, don't think much about art for about a month, cultivate other interests, then gradually come back to take a look at where I'm at with my work and take it from there.
There were also some other projects which kept me busy in November/December, most importantly a Christmas variety show put on by the FGCU theater department, in which my girlfriend and I performed two songs in front of a small audience, something that could become a bigger part in our lives soon. I also wrote a comedy skit for the show (about a narcissistic yet self-loathing gingerbread man) and was generally pretty involved in the planning for the event.
Now it is 2011, and there are a number of art events in my calendar for which I started preparing for. Some I can't really talk about too much because they're in vague planning stages and might or might not happen, but what I can definitely proudly announce is my solo show at Arts for ACT in downtown Fort Myers upcoming September.

There is also a nice event taking place later this week which I had been invited to take part in: "ArtPoems," a locally established collaboration event between artists and poets:

As you can imagine, an interdisciplinary event like that was the perfect way to make me get back to work. I love being given parameters and even constraints, because they're offering me a chance to give away control, which generally frees a lot of creativity. And, as Lorraine pointed out towards the end of the video, it helped me do something I wouldn't have normally done, a departure from my usual process.
When it came to drawing the collaborative poet's name out of a plastic bag, fate made me draw my girlfriend, Brittney Brady! How nice. Some protested, bemoaning the fact that we "know each other" (as if that's a game-changer) but the point of chance operations is not to just repeat them until the result is to one's liking. You don't cheat reality.
This is the poem I ended up working with for ArtPoems 2011:

Traces   by Brittney Brady

Lovers leave traces of where they have been.
sockeye salmon swim up Brooks Falls
to Naknek Lake. Brown Bears follow white

scars in their flesh. Cherokee Roses bloom
as far as Oklahoma - where they walked;
Lovers leave traces of where they have been.

Oklahoma, Alaska: names that sing
of unuttered storms in the wilderness,
the kind of silence only brown bears can hear,
the kind of silence that lives in the
black expanses between stars and wails;
Lovers leave traces of where they have been.

Necessary journeys become ritual
enshrined, holy, practiced, repeated and
the brown bears wait at the top of the falls.

Now, lookouts and signs adorn the hallowed
trails of beaten red clay and of white water.
Lovers leave traces of where they have been
And the brown bears wait at the top of the falls.

This is my finished painting "Cherokee Roses"

I baffled myself with this. It is very different from my usual work, and it literally comes directly from the poem. I find it a good example of what I tried to touch on in the post below, yet carried out in an actual painting. The one-off character of ArtPoems gave me a nice excuse to take off and experiment. I'd like to take anyone who is interested through the creation process of the painting step by step, since it's such a stand-alone piece. 

Around the time of receiving Brittney's poem, I was still into the idea of reducing writing to pure physical appearance. I picked a very large canvas which had minor, organic markings on it (as a result of paint which bled through the then unprimed canvas - I had taken it off the frame and stretched it again with the back turned towards the front). 

Of course I didn't want to do the obvious and paint brown bears and salmon, or even a kissing couple leaving footprints. This was about trying to tap into a certain essence of the text, an inherent quality, whatever that would be, and translate it into the visual, 2D realm.

You have to do something to start out, so I, rather hypnotically and with my face close to the surface (to avoid "composition"), wrote out the poem's complete text on the canvas with conte-crayons, over and over again, instinctively, at random places on the surface - dictated by the moment and my subconsciousness - and then again, on top of each other and then again - and then again. And then somewhere else, and again....
The goal was never for it to be legible in any way - the hand movements very much happened out of the state of mind I described in my post below, and any body of "text" that was recognizable as such I blurred with a chamois before writing on top of it again.
As you might imagine, the surface started filling up with loose forms, body-less, vague, cloudy. As I went through later stages of writing, I suddenly had shapes to use as orientation points which I hadn't had in the beginning. That of course changed the outcome of the later stages (In all my art, I always follow the holy rule: The Circumstances Dictate The Outcome!). You basically keep circling an unknown center, tightening the circles until you get a better and better idea of where the center might be. Like deciphering an ancient code.
Eventually, I stepped back and looked at the forms for a long time, reading the beautiful poem over and over again, and what did I see? 
A map.

An epiphany in the studio is a wonderful to happen. It's what you're always waiting for. It is the reward for the humbleness before, the laying low, the not trying to have a master plan. 
In this case my epiphany revealed to me the connection between the poem and the canvas, the identity I would now be able to hold on to.
There is a strong notion of space and traveling in the poem - lovers leaving traces, salmon traveling upstream, bears following them, Cherokee Roses blooming "as far as Oklahoma - where they walked," there is talk of "necessary journeys" and a general sense of vastness, empty land, natural grace and indifference. 
Brittney brilliantly ties together this vast disconnectedness of geographic scale with the delicate little Cherokee Roses who you have to get on your knees for if you want to see them up close. The dimensions of love, essentially.
My painting was now the map of these dimensions, of nordic lands, with ragged cliffy coastlines - the map of where the lovers from the poem walked, and left their traces.

Here, I let the painting rest for a while. It's so easy to overwork something if you're too close to it. If I have the time, I usually abandon an artwork for some time, sometimes months. In the case of ArtPoems, we luckily had time from November to February to get it done. I put the painting away and left for Germany for a month.

When I came back, I knew what to do next: Add another layer. I like my paintings to be multi-layered, both physically and in terms of meaning. Even if you cover something up, it's still there. The viewer might not see it, but I think that we can somehow sense the presence of hidden layers in life and art, and the painting will be more meaningful then one without an inherent "history."
I decided to add the Cherokee Roses, wondering where they would grow on my map (showing where the brown bears walked). I laid the canvas down horizontally, as straight as possible, and poured liquid white paint here and there onto the parts of the map which represented "land." Wherever it spread, the Roses are now growing. 

That's really all there is to say about it. It's a completely un-composed painting, and some people told me that they think it looks unfinished and odd, compared with my other work. But that's simply not its point, as you know now. This might be the most John-Cagean I've ever gotten, and I'm proud of that.


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