Wednesday, December 11, 2013

If first a whisper,

I've redesigned my website: most likely you've navigated here from said website, but thought it best to post here about it, too, in case you are coming in through the virtual back door:

first snow, 2013  acrylic, tape, ink on paper  15" x 12" 

Cost of Contemporary Art

Check out Ed Winkleman's November post concerning the art market and the auction results: posted on November 21st, titled The Cost of Crazy High Contemporary Art Prices.  Its a good read with additional references that I didn't know about.  Winkleman's blog is pretty engaging from my perspective, and he obviously has a different insight into the world as the owner of a gallery.  I think his matter of fact approach to common moans and complaints from artists are great, too, so that we all (artists, collectors, gallerists, patrons, the public) can have a bit more understanding of where each of us is coming from.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Regionalism, Commodification, and the Aesthetics of Use

Hello everyone--sorry for the infrequency of posts--I have no excuse other than exploring other pursuits (and successfully completing them).  Writing time is at a premium these days.  I did, however, participate in a really great conference and panel this weekend at the Society for Utopian Studies Annual Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.  I wanted to publish the transcript for everyone, and it follows.  The panel was called Utopia, Place, and Image and also included a talk by Dawn Roe of Rollins College and Erik Waterkotte of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and some really interesting questions and discussions came from the panel, even though we were, in some ways, the oddballs at the conference as visual artists.  In tandem with the panel, Erik oversaw and printed three different prints (each in an addition of 50) which were distributed to people attending the panel.  The prints, printed on old survey maps, incorporated text and images from the three of us, and turned out quite stunning!  I'm also including a video that Erik shot to document the narrative structure of the prints, down below the transcript.  I did also show examples of my work along with this presentation, but it was supplementary and I think the text is meaningful without the images--and, if you are looking at this--more than likely know how to navigate your web portal display to my website with infinitely more images--feel free to read this text on one web portal display and cycle through images from the website on another to recreate this affect.  

As a studio artist, I've thought a lot about Grant Wood’s 1935 book Revolt Against the City and developed some ideas that arise with contemporary art. After considering it in terms of my own studio practice, of which I'll show many different examples of through the presentation, Wood's idea of place has been an important aspect of my visual art making and research.  Imbedded within this is my relationship to the art market and art's usefulness to a larger part of society. 

I would not necessarily consider myself a Regionalist for a number of reasons, but it bears stating the concept of Regionalism in Wood's own words for the sake of this presentation.  And I quote:

"Let me state the basic idea of the regional movement.  Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, and psychology.  Thinking painters and writers who have passed their formative years in these regions, will, by care-taking analysis, work out and interpret in their productions these varying personalities.  When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow." (Wood)

I do see my own work as referencing the geographic, social, cultural, and cosmologic location as the subject matter for my work—be it rural culture in general, or more specifically Appalachia (where my father is from) or Midwestern culture.  Regionalism, as it has manifested in my education of the history of art, is somewhere oddly situated between an ideology of a group of artists working during the Great Depression and an aesthetic and formal tradition of realist painting of rural culture.  I see my work more in line with Wood's attention to his surroundings observing culture but do not take any visual reference from the romantic realist paintings of Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, or other Regionalists.    

Grant Wood’s book interested me, though, as its utopic hints at an alternative to what has now manifested as the art market.  Some of Wood’s ideas talk about an expansion of programs like the PWA and regional schools of art run by the government.  He saw the possibility with regionally developed art as making the nation a stronger cultural player, in the sense that when different regions have art programs they will likely compete with one another, and the success and product of each of those regional programs will continually grow and get better with competition.  In other sections of the book, Wood discusses the economic deterioration of the Depression as being an "opportunity" for demonstration of the "artistic possibilities" of the provincial Midwest. 

While there are community supported art programs, non-profits, and even charter schools specializing in arts education, the predominant popular view of art is dominated by the art market, separating those artists that are a part of it from the more localized agents of contemporary art and practicing artists.  It is not out of the question for a “local artist” to become famous and nationally or internationally recognized in some form, but the majority of your local artists are stuck between establishing meaningful representation on a local level and making the means to live as an artist.   

Just Wednesday Roberta Smith published an article in the New York Times about the record-setting sale of a Francis Bacon triptych from 1969 at auction for $142 million dollars, topping 2012’s auction record of $119 million for Munch’s The Scream.  How does one resolve this in terms of Wood’s call for the flourishing of local art practices?  I do not believe that it can be resolved.  And what has transpired since Wood's book seems even bleaker.  Smith states:

Auctions have become the leading indicator of ultra-conspicuous consumption, pieces of public, male-dominated theater in which collectors, art dealers and auction houses flex their monetary clout, mostly for one another. The spectacle of watching these privileged few (mostly hedge fund managers and investment-hungry consortiums, it seems) tossing around huge amounts of money has become a rarefied spectator sport. These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.

More than ever, the glittery auction-house/blue-chip gallery sphere is spinning out of control far above the regular workaday sphere where artists, dealers and everyone else struggle to get by. It is a kind of fiction that has almost nothing to do with anything real — not new art, museums or historical importance. It is becoming almost as irrelevant as the work, reputation and market of the kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade” (Smith)

I want to state critically that Smith's writing reaffirms her own criticism simply by the vast majority of the work she chooses to write about:  there is art for its own sake, it just won’t be shown in commercial galleries, especially not in New York.  The largest part of Smith's writing involves contemporary art in museums and galleries in New York.  If there are these mythic lovers of art for its own sake it is incredibly hard to find amidst all of the grime of the art market.  Galleries are businesses, and relatively lucrative generators of revenue, and taste is determined by what they are profiting from.  Of course there are a few exceptions--predominantly, I would argue, within the non-profit organizations and smaller artist run spaces throughout the art world--but their budget relies on donations and is often emulating aspects of the artwork involved in the art market. 

Grant Wood, then, is not off base to write about the possibilities of visual art after financial ruin.  The art market saw its own burst in the late 80's--and I still constantly hear comments about how difficult the market is for my friends involved in galleries and other for-profit ventures.  Indeed in the New York Times article written by Smith about the Bacon painting quotes Christie's Auction House curator for postwar and contemporary art Brett Gorvy as saying "This isn't a bubble--it’s the beginning of something new," (Smith) inferring that auction prices are going to continue to rise (and the market is going to continue to be inflated).  After the record Bacon sale, I came upon a photo essay in the Wall Street Journal written by Geoff Foster comparing, dollar for dollar, an artwork sold at Christie's recent auction to a baseball player's multiyear contract for a professional baseball team.  Roughly 1% of the population has the money to participate in the skyrocketing art auctions or donate money to the museums to buy and exhibit artwork; few regions can see a use for art in its contemporary manifestation of an inflated market commodity.  And it is exactly a commodity--look at Detroit's bankruptcy and the rationale to sell DIA's collection.  I may be verging on territory here that I have little theoretical experience with; I’m no economist, but can only talk from my direct experiences with the market. 

To give some context with my situation, I’ve made around $5,000 from sales of artwork since 2001, approximately seven tenths of a percent of what the Bacon painting sold for.  I’m not asking for pity nor am I claiming starving artist status.  I am productive and have a healthy studio practice without monetary gain.  I bring all of this up because my view is that the art market, a hulking locomotive I can't help but try to understand, is simply unsustainable and benefits a microscopic portion of the population.  I don't anticipate the art market going away anytime soon, but I am building towards an idea that we need an alternative for the betterment of art in society, for artists and the public alike.     

Now there are little revolts everywhere, one that most people might be familiar with is the recent Residency on the Streets of New York by the “street artist” Banksy—but Banksy’s work is commodified as quickly as someone can put plexiglass on it.  What is happening with these revolts, though, in a profession so often interested in a false sense of the avante garde, is that galleries and the market are commodifying things beyond fine art.  I’m not trying to make a qualitative statement of Banksy, but simply state the fact that he (and Jeff Koons, Sherri Levine, Andy Warhol, and even Marcel Broodthaers before him) have attempted to discount and discredit the art market by exploiting it, but the machine keeps going and increasing their prices.  While Banksy is also making interesting statements about authorship, particularly with his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, he is still a part of the money generating segments of the art world.    

While this is neither my subject matter nor my object matter, the art market is an aspect of making contemporary art that is inescapable.  Smith would have us on a relentless search for art for its own sake—but this has traditionally been applied to works that only refer to other works of art, and have little to do with research—both visual and theoretical—and its application in a studio practice. 

As an artist I have started thinking about materials and how they fit into this commodification of artwork.  Part of my practice involves setting up situations that are then documented with a camera—in some ways, though, I don’t even consider these photographs, but pure documentation of something that was arranged in my studio and is now gone.  I occasionally use software to double the image, or create a visually abnormal image.  My materials are often basic building supplies, scraps of paper and wood, and plants harvested from my yard.  Most of my installations are for a specific location and only exist for a short period of time in reality, and then in photographed documentation.  Recent pieces have been as informal as painting on a downed branches and leaning them against a fence, arranging construction supplies on a log, or spray painting weeds that I pull from our garden--not many curators or collectors are willing to come to Iowa, let alone to see what some crazy guy is doing in his yard.   

I am trained as a painter and still hold dear the tradition of abstract painting—but the goal of my practice, to a certain extent, is to make paintings based in visual and theoretical research that is not determined by the art market.  This aim is a bit premature in the sense that I am just now, in my career, working with an art consultant and have never worked (or been offered to work with) a gallery; but part of the mission of my studio practice is to continue to make work that resists the commodification that the art market relies on so heavily to determine the value and use of art.  I am not exactly sure what my limits are or where I would draw the line, but my parameters are to prioritize working with individuals and organizations that have motives beyond monetary gain.    

This last year I was selected for two large-scale exhibitions that were also site-specific in the sense that they will probably never manifest themselves again in another venue.  The Soothsayer was my first exhibition in a building of artists studios called Box 13 in Houston, Texas.  I drove some of the materials down to Houston to install, but I also spent time around the gallery, in a lower Middle class neighborhood where the light rail will go through after its construction in 2016, collecting pieces, scraps, plants, and other objects within a few blocks radius to make these installations.  This amalgam of components from my yard and the area of Houston around the gallery created an interesting dialogue between two places.  In the end, I'm not sure that anyone could tell you exactly which parts where from where, adding to the complexity of common statements like "where I am from" and "where this is."    

My most recent exhibition was at DEMO Project, one of two contemporary art spaces in Springfield, Illinois.  DEMO, as its name implies, is a small bungalow owned by the Springfield Art Association slated for destruction in three years so that the SAA can build a new building in a working class neighborhood just north of downtown. Run by young and energetic artists and recent graduates from University of Illinois at Springfield, the gallery is temporary but an incredible contribution to a community that has not prioritized contemporary art spaces.  I was happy to be offered the exhibition purely for the location of the house, history of the architecture (not unlike thousands of other bungalows built in the 40’s in the Midwest), and the foreseeable end to it as a structure.  Evensong 15 (caudex) took the form of a branching tree emanating from the fireplace and stretched throughout the entire gallery/room.  Though my work is rooted in abstraction, my research deals with our relationship to place and how this manifests itself in plants, building materials, and a connection to the physiography of my location, including how all of these relate to deterioration and the break down of materials.  The ephemeral nature of materials (and art galleries, in this sense) is incredibly important to my work and thinking.  

To conclude, I believe that to truly support the visual arts and contemporary art making practice we need to revisit it's usefulness in society.  What seems to be the most common answer to these problems (created in part by the art market) is buying work from local artists, and this is partially true.  Just like with food, buying locally has its advantages.  I believe there are ways to be advocates without having to spend money, too—for one, we can all actively participate in exhibitions, critically looking and thinking about the art that is presented.  Read press about contemporary art and take advantage of the vast networks of alternative art venues and publications--some of the most exciting things in contemporary art are insensitive and are born out of absence or necessity.  Dealing directly with artists is a good method of interaction with their studio practice and their research.  While some artists are less willing to talk about their work with any depth, most artists do have something to communicate about their work, whether they are comfortable with it or not.   

Grant Wood states, in regards to his proposed Government art schools throughout sections of the country, that:

"…Annual exhibits of the work of schools of this character would arouse general interest and greatly enlarge our American art public.  A local pride would be excited that might rival that which even hard-headed business men feel for home football teams and such enterprises.  There is nothing ridiculous about such support; it would be only a by-product of a form of public art education which, when extended over a long period of time would make us a great art-loving nation." (Wood)  

To think of contemporary art on equal footing as high school or collegiate football is pretty far fetched, but for the possibility of a broader acceptance of art in the United States, on a regional level, I believe we need as dramatic of a shift away from the art market as possible towards a more sustainable relationship between artists and society, prioritizing thinking and making over the commodification of its product.      

Grant Wood, Revolt Agains the City, Clio Press, Iowa City, Iowa.  1935
Roberta Smith, "Art is Hard to See Through the Clutter of Drawing Signs" New York Times, 11/13/2013

Click Here to see the video of the prints via Facebook.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Revolt against the city

As promised, I've been working through some concepts for my panel discussion at the Society for Utopian Studies conference in Charleston in November 2013.  The panel is called "Utopian Place and Image" and will also feature presentations by Dawn Roe (Rollins College) and Erik Waterkotte (UNC Charlotte).

What I'm formulating is based off of Grant Wood's 1936 text called Revolt Against the City, published by a small press in Iowa City, where wood taught for many years.  As one of the painters of the Regionalist movement in the 1930's, Wood advocated for living outside of the city and that the "country" was an ideal place to make artwork.

[An issue, right off the bat, is that Regionalism is a term and distinction of art history; though I think Benton, Wood, and others made work within this ideology, I do believe that the term was assigned to them.]

As someone interested in rural culture, I find the notion of Regionalism and its contemporary possibilities incredibly interesting.  I think the quick responses to the possibility of contemporary Regionalism are "yes, of course it exists" and "it can't exist because of the internet".  I propose that this issue is complicated, and thinking about aesthetics and geographic regions provides an insight into the art market, commodification and value of art, and how these two issues intersect in contemporary art practices.

To be blunt, I'm not so interested in the images of Regionalism; they provided a sort of social moral boost during the Depression and obviously have their historical and cultural significance because of that, but I'm more interested in the ideology of making art outside of the cultural capitols of the world--framed by Benton and Wood in their paintings and spoken of by Wood in Revolt... but recontextualized in the contemporary art world that is constantly looking for the new, international avant-garde and pool of young artists.

I'll post more of my research and process as it develops; I'm excited to start thinking about this notion that I've worked with for some time now.  It will also involve an idea of use aesthetics that has also been in the making (and thinking) for some years now.  As a side note, I'm talking about the theory of use aesthetics at a Random Night Dinner through the Honors Program here at Drake on Thursday, October 17th.  The Random Night Dinners ask professors to plan a menu and give a brief talk regarding some of their research--I, of course, cannot help but cook and prepare some of the food myself; we'll be having meze and I'll be baking pita, and showing off some of my Mideastern cooking skills along with a presentation on use aesthetics.


Monday, September 23, 2013


Sorry for the long absence, but just a quick note to say that I am still trodding.  I plan to post some notes for an upcoming presentation at the Society for Utopian Studies conference 2013 in Charleston, South Carolina soon.  I organized a panel called "Utopia, Place, and Image" with Dawn Roe and Erik Waterkotte.  My presentation is titled "Regionalism, Commodification, and Use Aesthetics" which will be the first public presentation attempting to outline a theory that I have been developing for a little over a year related to how we find use in things in a world of total and utter abstraction.  For now, I've been working on a few of these "photographs" using scanners to image dead and drying plants.  This one is titled 'black eyed susan', and is about 12" x 16" when fully printed.

More soon!  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

the soothsayer

Some thoughts on The Soothsayer, opening at Box 13 tonight in Houston, Texas:

A question that I have mulled over the past two weeks is "Who is The Soothsayer?"  I know that it is not me, or at least not me alone.  I don't see myself as a Diviner; I think of myself as someone invested in folk traditions and their historical and cultural reasons for existence.  

Art, as it has been in the past, is mostly not a folk tradition; it is a tradition of production for a religion or the Wealthy.  Folk traditions do make their way into museums and galleries via antiquities, objects, and crafts, but almost everything I see in Museums is aimed at things that will stand the test of time, with some care and conservation.  In my own experience this is wholly unrealistic.  Permanence is a prideful misconception.   Things fall apart.  This overlaps with spiritual thinking and teaching of impermanence.  

I want the Soothsayer to illicit a nuanced view of divination and how we, as people, access a potential structure of being.  I do not believe in the divine as a truth, or a Truth.  I do think that the divine has more to do with states of being--from emotions to other things that we don't normally comprehend as "real".  This work is not a road map to finding answers about experience but rather some vague hints at clues written on a wet bar napkin, text bleeding and reforming into new words with different meanings.  There is no dogma, unless it is the multifaceted nature of most parts of our experience.  

I think manipulating a space is new and profound.  Before things may have been adornment; now, I feel, I have been given access to a broader approach to perception and how our bodies relate to a perceptual image.  

I do not think of anything in the exhibition (or in my studio) as junk or debris.  All things are a testament to working and thinking in the studio or on the farm.  Part of the arranging is elevating materials to a point where they reflect and represent this process of living.  

[I am hoping to put together a small exhibition catalogue for The Soothsayer in the coming weeks; it will be available for free here and on my website.  Check back soon for more on this exhibition and the catalogue]

installation view | The Soothsayer | Box 13 Art Space | July 13, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

More writing soon, but I wanted to share James MacAnally's recent piece in the Temporary Art Review, as I think it is incredibly interesting (with more practical analysis about the station of the artist as a profession; my writings have focused primarily on my own, and in some ways singular, experience).  It is really an interesting article, as is everything I've read in the last few weeks from the Temporary Art Review:

Art Plus Time

and a recent studio manifestation, effigy in threes.  It has been in the works for some time now:

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

palinode and paradox

I think technically a palinode is a retracted sentiment, or sentiment that is retracted by the palinode-- I don't want to portray that I am retracting or apologizing for anything in the last post; but, as always and as true as anything gets in the world of thinking, I have continued working with the ideas of permanence, folk life (thug life reference intended, of course), and how we can exist in a culture that takes creative production and turns it into something that is collected, sold, and has monetary and market-based value.  I'm not sure how much I can add to the discussion or how much of this will change what I've already said, but I do think I've come to realize that there is, at one level, a paradox involved in all of this; and on another level, justification for the noncommodification of artwork.

The paradox I discovered is well known, and I think it is extremely obvious; with this idea of folk art I am trying to get to a form of the expression of creativity through making something that is pre-commodification, or at the very least does not rely on commodification for its existence and for the maker to continue making things.  I have thought before that this expression is irrevocably linked to the society and culture that the maker works within (in the sense that anyone living is implicated in society and culture, whether we like it or not).  The paradox, then, becomes what Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons promote as their sole reason for making; the art world is a reflection of Western society inasmuch that it is only fulfilling the commodification of everything else around us.  If folk art is to represent the creative expression and cultural production of an individual irrevocably linked to society, then that individual would live the life of a commodificationist.

Though I do think this paradox exists (and is evident in things like the 80's obsession with graffiti in the gallery, skate board artists, etc) but I think it is too simplistic and assumes that everyone in society believes in commodification.  Though it is omnipresent, even the most average people get pissed in Chicago when someone calls the Sears tower (commodification of architecture and urban space) the Willis tower (a different company commodifying the same architecture and space).  Century Link Field used to be called Qwest Field(2004-2011) and before that was Seahawks Stadium(2002-2004); people are conscious of the stadium being subsidized by a company though they connect it with the football team that plays there.  Wrigley Field, on the other hand, has been named after the chewing gum guru in 1926.  I could go on and on--but this is an obvious link and easy to recognize to most everyone as ways that companies are working their ways into our lives through sponsorship, cost, and value.

What I am attempting to illustrate is that though it is the predominant mode of existence in the United States, it is far from the only way of life, and even the most capitalistic of us still have reservations about things being commodified.  This changes the paradox into a art historical notation, in my mind.  There are artists who work with the idea of commodification as a representation of the whole of society, or at least of the United States.  There are also artists, though, that choose not to participate in this as a representation of society.

Another false assumption of this paradox is that Western society is the only society concerned with cultural production, which we all know is false.  Western society might be heavily involved in the commodification of art making (reeling in artists from China, the Middle East, and other world regions now) but artwork is produced and is a phenomenon of human existence.  

Perhaps I see it not as a representation of the United States but as a result of the way that society conducts itself.  I choose not to conduct myself that way; I choose to be as self-sufficient as possible, choose to rationally decide the difference between a need and a want, and to exist within my community (both geographically and professionally).  What, then, becomes the representation of society?  This will undoubtedly continue; I think I'm on a thread that is worthwhile and worth continuing in pursuit by thinking (and, of course, working in the studio).  Thanks for the positive feedback, too, on this line of thought, it is great to hear that there are people that are interested in these ideas as well.

Addendum:  there is a great, relevant article by Evan Kindley in n+1:
Chiquita Banana Jingle

Thursday, April 25, 2013


I was fortunate enough to have two good friends as visiting artists for a few days here in the middle of the great expanse; nights where spent with students in critiques while the day was spent in our own conversation.  We talked quite a bit about permanence and art and the practicalities (or lack thereof) of making work that does not last nor stand the test of time.  As both Bob and Bill both have experience in making things that are less than permanent (and often times heavily involved with the idea of deterioration and being a part of what I'll call the noncommodificationists) I have not stopped reeling in our conversations.  I'd like to try to portray some of my sentiments in this entry, but know that what I am saying is heavily influenced by both Bob and Bill as well as their work and their experiences with art handling and working with and at galleries.

For some time now I've thought about my connection to folk traditions and their antithetical existence to the art market.  Why they can never be compatible, in my mind, is due to the commodification of culture and how it changes the purpose and reasons one (or many) would make something.  The change comes from a number of avenues; something made for the sake of making is innocent of things like the gallerist that sells it and her or his need to make money to keep a space active, the whims of the art market and its fascinations with certain things at certain moments, the managers of private collections, the curators, etc.  All of this, in my mind, influences us in the studio, whether we like to admit it or not.  At times it can be an outright rejection of it and we make work stubbornly that does not consider the market or even the history of art, which is equally as bad.  Certainly, too, I am being fairly liberal in my transition from folk traditions into talking about art; but I think art is a certain facet of the cultural umbrella of folk traditions.  For the sake of this entry, I am going to posit (and revisit later in more detail) that what I am intending to call folk art is an aspect of cultural production that is not sponsored by the state*.

The issue of permanence is incredibly complex and difficult to focus on without bringing up these contextual issues.  I'm having a hard time getting to the point here; so I'll attempt to solidify what I'm wanting to say.  These ideas started in my studio practice in undergrad because I would use house paint as a cheaper alternative to artist's paints, I used Aquanet that could be purchased for $1.00 at a Walgreens instead of spray fix which could be as much as $10 a can.  All of these choices made for the deterioration of the art made at that time.  Impermanence to me, now,  is integral to my art making and the way that I think about things in the studio: my interest and research into ontology is inextricably linked to time and its passing (along with ideas of the beginning and ending).  Ontology's link to folk traditions for me is attempting to capture what is inherently impermenent: a song, a gesture, a creative act like a sign that needed to be made--and the meaning imbedded in the act by its impermanence.  I will undoubtedly have to spend more time writing about this as well, because these thoughts are incomplete at best.  I also know that I find more meaning in the materials that I use--plants and their ephemeral character are used by their meaning and what ideas they represent; Aquanet was used because it could do the same job of holding charcoal to a piece of paper as its more expensive counterpart (though the long term affects, perhaps, where more costly).  

Choosing to make impermanent work, though, is a sort of stance against the art market.  Undoubtedly curators and collectors would not purchase something that will need to be repaired within a year (in my case, a lot of the leaves, flowers, and branches are completely unstable and 'shed' automatically).  What my conversations with Bob and Bill led me to think about most importantly, though, is that the act of making this work is the act of removing art from the realm of commodity.  If I make a work out of simple flour dough, it absolutely will fall apart, even if it is sealed.  Works are crumbling in my house as I type this, and that energy of decay is important to my studio practice.  Without the commodification of art (or it being difficult to sell some pieces as commodities because of their impermanence, or, in Bill Conger's case, they reject commodification because of their existence as commodity already--torn magazine scraps, towel warmers, etc are all ready commodities) our making becomes closer to this ill-refined concept of a folk tradition or at least a meaningful contribution to a culture that does not participate in its emphasis on consumerism, capitalism, monetary gain, and justifies the worth of everything in terms of money.  To be a noncommodificationist, then, is to say that the worth and meaning of art making far exceeds what its commodification can bring, and acknowledges that a work's commodification changes its meaning.  It is an open group and anyone is free to join: make work that cannot be a commodity!

I do firmly believe, however, that there is a way for us, the noncommodificationists, to work within the market.  I am interested in attempting to work within the system and see how an artist can function within the market while still holding these beliefs, because I do believe it can be done.  This is not a stance against galleries, curators, and collectors; it is a stance for a change in the meaning and implications of art making in our society; one that has been embraced before in the history of Arte Povera, Anselm Kiefer, and even in true folk traditions like Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo medicine wheels.  Meaning is in the work made, not in how much it costs or what it can be sold for.

*Here I am referring to a division within culture. If Culture is a division of human existence that tends to encompass the imaginative, semiotic, and creative side of experience within a specific context, I might propose that folk, then, is a subdivision of culture that is inextricably linked to an individual or small group of individuals not acting on behalf of the state or government.  Museums, then, are linked to the state in the sense that they are non-profit organizations, which is an affiliation within the state.  Galleries, too, are involved with tax and the market in the context of the state.  This is extremely problematic, and I will need to revisit this (not to mention finish reading Althusser and other theorists, but I'm going to leave it as an incomplete thought for now.  I do realize that I am creating a definition of folk by apophasis which is not productive in the long run.  I do, however, feel that the noncommodificationist label above might more closely represent some of the thinking here.  

eye of mercy, 2012

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

the last statement

What may be most important to me as an ideological framework is expressing as many ideas as I can through making something (regardless of who sees it); generating lots of ideas through thinking, deliberation, dialogue, and reading; and continuing to make things regardless of all other circumstances (upon death I will make dirt).

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

painting, meaning, and dogma

I re-watched and considered a documentary called Examined Life the other day and, as I was in the studio, I contemplated something that Avital Ronell considers in her segment of the film.  In walking, Ronell talks about our desperate search for meaning and the resulting gravitation towards ideologies as a quick fix to the absence of meaning; which also provides a fast frame of reference for how one should act.  Near the end of her interview she even equates junk food and junk thinking, insinuating that to rely on these quick fixes when it comes to finding meaning is similar to eating a candy bar for dinner--it provides calories, but very little nutritional value in those calories.  I'm asserting my interpretation a bit here, but it lead me to consider (or re-consider, as I feel like I come to this in my studio practice fairly regularly) the idea of meaning in painting, especially in terms of a "search" for meaning.

I think this search for meaning is an integral part of painting (and, ideally, art making in general: though I am a novice photographer I feel that taking photographs can serve the same function as painting does in this regard) as it provides me with a medium to eradicate ideology and dogma.  One could argue, I suppose, that abstraction is its own dogma; but in my own studio abstraction is the path that I often choose (though I do make things, objects, take photographs, etc) without any real reason; none of my paintings necessitate abstraction nor do I have to make abstract paintings (which would signify dogma, I think) in order to use paint.

I've tried a number of times to watch Gerhard Richter Painting and I have to say that it has not happened, for various reasons.  I think there is part of the celebrity of Richter that bums me out a bit.  I have also read parts of The Daily Practice of Painting by Richter, so I thought I would consult the book in terms of these thoughts to see what Richter, who a lot of painters idolize, would have to say.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Richter, but he has not been someone that I have readily connected with  I found these, at first opening of the book:

"23 July 1989.  However ineptly--desperately ineptly--I set about it, my will, my endeavor, my effort--what drives me--is the quest for enlightenment (apprehension of 'truth', and of the interconnections; coming closer to a meaning; so all my pessimistic, nihilistic actions and assertions have the sole aim of creating or discovering hope).

25 July 1989.  My denunciation of ideology: I lack the means to investigate this.  Without a doubt, ideologies are harmful, and we must therefore take them very seriously: as my behavior, and not for their content (in content, they are all equally false).
Ideology as the rationalization of faith; as the 'material' that credulity puts into words and makes communicable.  Faith, and here I repeat myself, is the awareness of things to come; it therefore equals hope, it equals illusion, and is quintessentially human (I cannot imagine how animals get along without such an awareness); because, without the mental image of 'tomorrow', we are incapable of life. "
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting

I think Richter is hinting at something in these studio notes that I've been working to refine in my own thinking---painting and art making connect me to a type of thinking that the action of painting is rooted in searching and developing the answer, which is inherently anti-dogmatic.  Every surface, then, becomes a new platform for the search, the pushing of materials, the search for idea and meaning.

Though this can be seen as a throwback mentality, I think that it pertains to a culture of contemporary abstract painting that is favoring process-less work, 'bad' abstract painting, and repetition of a shtick.  Is there value in abstract painting beyond this search?  How do we categorize good or bad abstraction, how does the search become visible to the audience?  My instinct is to say that the process-less and repetitive motif/shtick paintings are direct responses and reactions to the history of abstract painting, but maybe I am unaware of my own ideology.

What I can assure you is that I am committed to the exploration in my studio practice, unhindered (at least to an extent) by what is expected of me or how I need to maintain my body of work in its similarity.  I think that this is, at least to an extent, a luxury of the Academy--I am required to be professionally active but do not rely on selling my work for livelihood.  I am, as much as I'm able, going to continue in working this way.

Some recent studio work and photographs via the Instagram link; I hope to add more to the website and Facebook soon.
Instagram Page

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

storytelling: said three times

One idea that has resurfaced in my studies and studio work is a bit harder for me to define; attempting to explicate it might flush out the ideas a bit more.  In the very least, I'll be able to portray the notion with some examples and help outline the area in which I speak:

I originally started reading sources about spirituality and mysticism after finding (rather mysteriously, I might add) the book Pow Wow or Long Lost Friends in my basement, among other books.  The book is a hexmeister's guide (a healer from the Pennsylvania Dutch community)--one of the few published that I know of.  To see all of the cures, suggestions, superstitions, and instructions on dealing with every day issues is quite astounding.  Somewhere and somewhen close to the time of that discovery, I also read a quote from a book that more or less explained the reason for things said in threes as that whatever is stated three times becomes real.  Obviously, this reality is ambiguous, and multi-faceted, but I'm not going to put that "real" in quotes above because that is the heart of my interest and what I'm trying to describe as an integral part of my research.

I have just come to it again, in a reading for a class, by the author Trin Minh-Ha, in her essay 'Grandma's Story.'  Part of the implications in this essay are that the telling of the story brings life, and, inversely, our collective living is necessary for the telling of the story.  The ontological part of this is profound and simple; the way we think about something being said becoming a reality (or, at least, a history) is interesting.

As plainly as I can speak of it; my interest is in how words--a simple and integral symbol belonging to our structure of communication--can invoke a sort of or sense of reality.  Reality, here, is linked to being.  Being, too, is linked to our perceptual experience (I was asked the other day by a friend if I still considered myself a phenomenologist; I do, without a doubt, but I think that I am trying to redraw those parameters in my thinking.  I think my ideology is a sort of phenomenology that runs parallel to ontology; often overlapping).

I also think of a clip of Errol Morris's Vernon, Florida with a man sitting on a bench and saying something similar to "Reality, is that what you call this?"  I think this removes my ideas a bit from their original context in the sense that I am not solely concerned with the nature of reality or its interpretation.  Somehow this seems to be an oversimplified way of stating it.  I do think it is part of it, though--perhaps what I am thinking about is how symbols interface with our interpretations of reality.


I've got a lot going on outside of the studio this year--it has been nice to see a lot of people and meet new friends through my travels.  Here is a list of the exhibitions, including some additional material to follow up on:

House of the Seven Gables at University Galleries, Normal, Illinois
February 23 - April 7, 2013.
Its a great exhibition--please go see it if you are able!  Lots of great artists involved.
Interview with Kendra Paitz on StudioBreak, concerning the ideas and the exhibition:

Two person exhibition with Diana Gabriel, curated by Angela Bryant.
Design Cloud Art Gallery, Chicago, IL
Opening reception March 15, 6pm  Including a panel discussion with Diana Gabriel and I.

coming up this year:
Solo exhibition, The Soothsayer, at Box13 in Houston,Texas--July 2013
Solo exhibition, Jan Brandt Gallery, Bloomington, Illinois--October 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013



[I'm writing again, and it feels damn good--
a few new poems also up on the website.
copyright 2013 Benjamin Gardner]

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


"...Diogenes Laertius, author of the hugely influential Lives of Eminent Philosophers from the third century AD, tells a fascinating story of Thales, usually considered to be the first philosopher.

     He held that there was no difference between life and death.  'Why then,' said one, 'do you not die?'
     'Because,' said he, 'there is no difference.'

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to being to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death.  As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is one of 'the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.'  Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks."

Simon Critchley,  The Book of Dead Philosophers

As an artist I am constantly searching for books that encourage my work; this might be in the sense of simply encouraging me to work through an idea in the studio, directly on paper or in 3-D; or it might be something that inspires thinking, processing, and observation of my surroundings in a new way.  Though there are glimpses of this in art writing--and good writing is certainly more prevalent with more access to art writing through blogs and social networking--I am typically left uninspired by art-specific texts.  I feel guilty saying it, but we need more and better writing concerning art and the ideas associated with it--beyond criticism and history, we need more solid and understandable theoretical writings about art that provide a structure for studio artists.

I can vividly recall meeting the painter Derrick Buisch during undergraduate studies and looking for any sort of recommendations in terms of texts.  I worked in the library and had access to copies of texts that my painting professor had on reserve at the library all of the time.  I think I explicitly asked Derrick him what art books he was reading--and he told me that he didn't really read art books.  He preferred books like Italo Calvino's  Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.  Since that point in 1999 or so, my outlook on what texts support my studio practice drastically changed.  It had opened up to a daunting range of texts and ideas that was fueled by graduate school.  I am admittedly not a good reader, but I need to have access to books and their ideas and at least have an understanding of what a book could contribute to, and books and texts are at the absolute foundation of my studio practice.  Nothing would get done without them.

I still find books outside of the spectrum of art books to be incredibly interesting.  One reason for fewer theoretical/metaphysical books on contemporary art might be because of our reliance, as a profession, on interdisciplinary studies--making it difficult to produce books that are simultaneously narrow in focus and applicable to many different people's studio practice.

My newest book discovery is The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley.  It is a book entirely posed as recounting the deaths of famous philosophers which is oddly humorous, witty, and intelligent. What is perhaps most important about this book to my studio practice are the ideas of how we deal with death, both in society, as an idea, and what is a result of these dealings.  It led me to three simply stated questions that relate to other ideas presented in this blog, translating what I've read so far from the book into an art-based line of questioning:

1)  As an act of contribution to culture, does art making memorialize the artist?
2)  Is art making, then, an act of defying death?  (I'm thinking here of Joyce, who reportedly wanted to write a book so complex it would take many lifetimes for it to be 'solved', giving him a sort of immortality.)
3)  Can this give meaning to art making that transcends the commodification of it?

Certainly all culture and its contributions can be commodified, but I am wondering if its supreme purpose might exceed any meaning given to it because of its commodification.  I.e. is an artwork as a memorial of an artist its most important trait, and commodification (or its value, or its place in museums) purely coincidence?

More to come...stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Sleeping Ghosts

Though I've wanted to keep school out of the content of this blog as much as possible, undoubtedly things are going to sneak in; I've forgotten how much teaching permeates one's ideas and thinking during the semester (that is, until one has to rebel against it for the sake of sanity).  Most of these ideas will be cloaked in studio practice but they undoubtedly have origins or links to the classroom.

I've revisited Locke's Memory Theory of personal identity and it has some interesting implications on studio practice.  I actually am reading it anew, I think, as I was introduced to it by a philosopher named John Perry.  Locke's theory can be written out as the following:

A is the same person as B if and only if A can remember having an experience of B's.

As simple as that sounds, and as most of us would agree with it in the sense that personal identity is difficult to define and claim having without the aid of memory, it still offers complex insight into being an artist and making work over time.  We often consider that artists work with the concept of identity; but I'd like to call attention to the fact that it is a crutch of poorly expressed ideas in art.  Philosophy has puzzled over how to define the A/B of Locke's theory, and as far as contemporary art is concerned, I would assert that we can take it as a representation of the artist.

Now, I am in no way thinking that this solves the conundrum of personal identity in a philosophical sense, but artists as makers have the benefit of physical remnants of their memories; not in totality, but in the sense that I do not remember making work in undergraduate studies but that artwork still exists and poses my identity in some form.  Surely non-artists have physical remnants--an individual purchases a car, for example, and wakes up the next morning remembering that he purchased the car and thereby establishing his identity in a philosophical sense--but as artists most of us have work built up from years of work.  I have a room in my basement that is full of this identity establishing objects that have built up over the last 10 years of making things and paintings.  All in one place it is quite profound--even to me, alone, with no one else looking.

I remember reading an article by Morton Feldman talking about a studio visit with Philip Guston, and describing the paintings, as they walked out of the room, as sleeping giants.  I think I understand what I Feldman was getting at, but when I go into the basement to add more work to the room of past acts I think of them as sleeping ghosts; they exist in my mind, phenomenally, and establish my past and my identity without being on view or exhibited.  Stacked, they have a collective power that demands that I continue to feed it with more and more work!

Identity is the totality of the art world; even artists that work to remove evidence of the hand are still exerting their identity into their work.  Different artists may use parts of the concept of identity in their work which is different from others, and maybe certain artists emphasize a specific part of identity in a way that they should talk about the work as involving identity, but in truthfulness, identity is the structure for everything that an artist does.  Using it is also as nefarious as stating that your work is about nature; but identity should be the given that we all rely on.

I think I may switch paths to more creative writing for the next post...more to come.
Current reading, listening, and watching has involved:
From A to X by John Berger
Dark Holler, Smithsonian Folkways
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
new studio work also posted on the website.  More always on its way.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Thank you, Fog; or the last of things

The sense of one's last works before death is absolutely filled with portent (the inevitability of our own end), poetics, and beauty; though all of us that make things understand that it is not quite as simple as working up to our last work, the last of things is haunting and sad.  Auden's last poems (Thank You, Fog), collected and published posthumously, are far from the most interesting things he has written; when I read them, they even verge on being trite and lack his expected bite and observation.  There is a phenomenological symbolism to them, though, that transcends the nature of the poetry to take on a new meaning as a collection, as a piece of history published.

The fog is a strong presence outside today, and undoubtedly it reminds me of the symbol of Auden's last works.  The fog is not only an element of weather that creates a different sense of space and feeling of being outside (moisture hanging heavy in the air) but it is also an element of ambiguity, an obscurer, the thing that erases edges that are a distance away.  Its density is at once tangible and soft, and I actually find it quite comforting, even in the winter months.

Is there a visual reminder connected to fog?  To a sort of passage that could be connected to what is after life?  Not 'the afterlife', mind you, which is a concept wrought with pre-determined images.  I might argue that fog creates a spatial complexity that leads to our typically path-oriented minds to be less sure of the direction in which one should travel, in a metaphoric and metaphysic sense.  It is not that we don't know where we are going, but the space that we typically understand as being a part of the journey is less clear than normal.

Posthumous works of art and literature support this idea, I believe.  One of the most astounding things I've seen at the Art Institute was a series (a progression) of Ivan Albright's self portraits, two of which are below.  The last portrait he did before his death (1983) is shocking.  Though it may sound obvious, his head takes up less and less space in each composition.  The portraits seem fuller of questions at the end, not finality or decisiveness that would point towards an artist at their peak.  This is not to assert that artists make their best work at some other time and then slowly fall downhill until death; rather, it is to say, that death is a progression that is unavoidable, but it is not related to making.  I would also argue that it is hard for any maker to live up to the pressure of last works and posthumous work; the symbol that they stand for themselves is enough.

I remember being curious about Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portrait of George Washington in my art history texts--wondering why it was important in terms of art history.  I think of it as an amazingingly important work to my own understanding of the phenomenological power of an image and a painting; but I don't think that is often the topic of art history books.  

Other posthumous works that I have been interested in are Wei Wu Wei's Posthumous Pieces (which was printed in Hong Kong many years before Wei's death, but is still interesting in this context, as it deals with the death of a sense of individuality or identity in some respects) and Roberto Bolano's 2666.  There is a wiki list of works published posthumously, found here:

Ivan Albright, Self Portrait 1980         Ivan Albright, Self Portrait, 1983

Gilbert Stuart, 1796

January 28, 2013  Des Moines, Iowa