Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Circle of Artists: Mission School

I missed the first showing at San Francisco Art Institute last fall, but was coincidentally able to catch Energy That Is All Around: Mission School during its second showing, this one held at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University. The show featured work from Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson, two artists whose work inspires me, plus Barry McGee, whose work interests me in a different way, Ruby Neri, who I heard taught a painting class at CCA last semester, and Alicia McCarthy, whose work I didn't know at all. All but Kilgallen were students at The San Francisco Art Institute in the 1990s, but they all shared space, walls, the city, the Mission district (such as Clarion Alley that I've written about), and friendship.

McGee, Kilgallen, Neri
1994, 2000, 1995

The work, although presented well, was surprisingly disappointing to me, and I have generally been a fan. Johanson's early work that is shown, for example, is monochromatic. His current work is full of bright colors, texts and images and thought balloons all distinctive, which is as much a part of the appeal as well as the thoughtful and humorous content, which has remained constant. You can see all of the artists'  skills and visions being developed, some not yet fully formed, some more technically advanced.

It is the friendship that comes to the foreground in this exhibit,  the community that is the most interesting part of the show. In one vitrine there are two separate letters from the administration at SFAI, one to Alicia and one to Ruby, that tell them of complaints by neighbors about noise and graffiti (vandalism) in the studio and in the neighborhood, and warn them if they don't shape up they will be shipped out. The letters are displayed side by side, sharing both ideology and space, showing how the artists themselves were working side by side.

According to the exhibit notes, the work was arranged in the vitrines collaboratively by the artists themselves. The walls are mixed groupings, not separated by artist. The artists also included announcements for group shows and other ephemera. It would have been nice to have the focus of the show underscored a bit better, whether by artist, chronology, or subject, and perhaps honed even further. Sometimes missing in group shows is the narrative in identifiable terms: the story of how they met, why they gravitated toward each other, what their friendships meant to them, where they are now.

(If you go, pick up a copy of those notes if you want to identify who did what when and what the titles are. There is quite a lot to absorb.)

McCarthy, Johanson This Conceptual Art Is An Energy Explosion About Positive Energy (detail)
2009, 2002

Although many of the works by the different artists are hung together, each artist had a unique style. McGee's has sad sack characters, Kilgallen's drew from pioneering women in unusual fields (surfing, banjo playing, etc.) and letterforms, Neri did horses and figures and ceramics, McCarthy created colorful abstracts (called "urban rustic" by this website), and Johanson's are crowded with figures and writing. They shared certain social concerns, but I didn't  see much influence, one to the other artistically, like I saw in the Robert Duncan and Jess show and their circle of friends. In the Duncan and Jess exhibit, it was obvious that the couple opened their home to artists, writers, and visitors, and the viewers felt invited in as well. Unlike that show, the romantic world of the Mission School felt closed to outsiders. But it definitely felt romantic. And a bit wistful. Not as edgy or as hard hitting as it was originally meant to be.

The text for the exhibit says "It focuses on rarely seen early work," which may or may not be a good thing. And I had to remember that this—with the exception of a dozen or couple dozen pieces—was student work. It makes sense that it is being shown in the gallery of a school. The work is accessible as early art can be; students may feel it is within their grasp to work like this, or perhaps better. This is a show that documents a time, a group of friends, and a creative process. And it is interesting for those documentary reasons. From an art standpoint you can see some strong pieces, but they are diluted by the quantity overall.

Later in the day, we were also able to get to MOMA, and in addition to the Gauguin showing of woodcuts and monotypes, we saw work from 1963-2010 by German artist Sigmar Polke, a contemporary of Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth. We were struck by how similar his sensibilities were to the Mission School artists regarding materialism, social commentary, and "human concerns," but how it contained many more layers of both material and culture from the past as well as what was happening at the time. Edgy done well, but it was also more mature work. Some of the outstanding pieces were printed cloth attached to the canvas, then painted over and stained, with popular comic characters painted over all. Most hilarious was seeing this work with commercial cloth made of a repeating Gauguin motif. High, low, irreverent, and funny.

Back outside the gallery on the NYU campus, adding to the energy, was this.

It was certainly in keeping with the idea of street art for everyday folk.

Energy That Is All Around is on view at the Grey Art Gallery until July 12, 2014.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Visual Poet: Good App for Traveling

On our latest adventure to the East coast, I brought my new journal with me, my airplane journal and my iPad mini with its apps. I have written before about Address Booklet & Cards and Brushes (the app made popular by David Hockney), but I don't think I have mentioned a free one I enjoy called Visual Poet by David Summerhays McNally. When I checked the App Store I saw it is still available, and although many people have complained that it crashes (most of them were using it on iPhone), I have not had any problems with it. Again, it is free, so there is certainly no risk.

It is fun to play with and quite simple to use. If, on your trip, you have either imported photos from a camera via cables and adapter, taken them with the iPad itself, or tend to upload them from somewhere else, you can create unique individual work. You can also select from Tumblr, Flickr and Google images. See a pile of examples of finished pieces tagged #visualpoet on Tumblr.

To let you focus on organizing your content without the distractions that are common, the app has a number of constraints.

1. The orientation is in three panels, which are always laid out vertically. 

2. The pictures in each panel are square, but you can decide which part of your original image you would like this square to be. And you can change the size of the square with the standard two-finger pinch.

3. The text font is always American Typewriter, but you can tap it larger or smaller to vary the look.

Other things of note: You can add lots of text as separate strips, or add no text at all. On the Create page there is a place to document a Title, the credits/source of the image or images (if you tap Auto it will put wherever you got it from), and any other notes you would like to add.

After you tap Create, your workspace looks like this

After you tap a panel, then tap Get A New Image, it looks like this.

One drawback is that it is only meant to be viewed on screen: the piece is low resolution so you cannot print it out. And I found it a bit frustrating that the X to delete a text box was so tiny that when I missed it, I created another text box, ad infinitum (and the two-finger pinch won't work to make it a manageable size, either). An aside: it might be nice to be able to work horizontally as well. Otherwise, I think it is pretty sweet and the aesthetic appeals to me. Because the look is visually pleasing, it makes me want to keep working with it.

Working on one in Boston:

This one made in NY:

While we were away I also made a birthday card for a family member from Visual Poet, took a screen shot (hold down power and hold buttons on iPad), cropped it (in photos) and emailed it. I made a few more on the plane home, too tired to draw myself. 

Even easier: you can email the poem directly from the app by tapping on Publish and it will change to "email this poem." The emailed version is approximately 4 x 13 inches, 72 ppi, and will use your title as the file name.

Another from NY:

Tap Browse and you see all the ones you've begun.
Go back to revisit and revise, if you like.

What appeals to me is that you can do a quick little piece while traveling, a kind of creative snapshot.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Artist Will Rogan and His Things

In the Matrix Gallery at the Berkeley Art Museum until June 9, 2014 is an exhibition of time-based works by Will Rogan, a local artist (so local he lives in my one-square-mile city of Albany). Just reading about a film he made, shot at 6,900 frames per second (which renders it in highly detailed slow motion) in which a hearse is blown up was enough to get me curious. What would five seconds look like in eight minutes? We visited the show on May 4.

As we sat in the large, high-ceilinged gallery room in the dark, we were transfixed watching the screen. Knowing that the film, titled "Eraser"(according to the exhibition pamphlet, although mentioned as "Erase" in this article) was only 5:45 minutes long made the slowness bearable and even delightful. Although we arrived in the middle, it was on a loop, so we could see the entire process, albeit out of order. That's a strange experience in itself: begin with a mass of smoke and particles moving as if in water that burst like fireworks and glitter, eventually watch as a hubcap gradually pulls away from the chaos and rolls toward the viewer, then come around to a still image of a white hearse in a field. Explosions, we discover, are lightning fast, even in slow motion. But the fallout is much slower. Overall, the film is a blast…(I hear a groan.)

It made me think about pacing. In this case, the medium of film is perfect. This would not work as a flip book. You would have no sense of the pace change. And paging through all the frames, one-by-one, would become tedious. But you could vary the pace of a book-like version by picking out a certain number of images for each section: in the beginning the change at each page turn would be rapid, perhaps only three images, chosen many frames apart, then it would settle slowly, less and less change until the last two or three pages, which would have minuscule variations. Could be done as a woodcut or linoleum cut, even. Slowing down time seems a good antidote to multitasking. (An excellent resource on pacing in books is Chapter 2: Picture Sequence in Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books by Uri Shulevitz.)

The notes on the BAM website mention the content "transforms the destruction of a universal symbol of death into a transcendental imagistic effect."  The explosion looks cool: destruction is transformed into beauty. Now, consider how you might feel if the hearse had been: a fighter plane, a tricycle, a golf cart, a little red wagon, a Mercedes, a Jaguar, an ambulance, a pickup truck, or a milk truck. How do your emotions change as you try out each of the alternative vehicles? In most works of art, the choices are important: different choices can create different meanings.

Rogan had an artist book in his exhibition as well. Called Broken Wands, it is a facsimile collection of obituaries of magicians culled from magician's trade magazines dating from 1962-1980. The ones he chose often mention timepieces ("He was an expert watchmaker") and if the magician died during or shortly after performing. One beloved magician created and became an expert in performing magic tricks for blind children. The Zyzzyva review by James H. Miller points out that these deaths are the magicians' final vanishing acts.

When I visited, the book was available in the art museum's gift shop for $10. It came with a belly band that said its ISBN was 978-0-9849150-3-3, Manufactured in Canada. "Produced on the occasion of the exhibition Will Rogan/Matrix 253 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum with the help of Laurel Gitlen Gallery and Altman Siegel Gallery." You can read the exhibition brochure here.

Rogen is also a co-producer with John Herschend for the object-based subscription series called The Thing Quarterly. For $240 you get four mostly word-based or conceptual objects designed by four different artists per year. $60 each for a limited edition artwork. Issue 22, for example, is a set of pillowcases designed by John Baldessari: screen printed from a still from a movie in which a woman clutches a pillow. Outside of the subscription, it sells for $90. Subscription 23-26 begins with Spring 2014. From what I can tell, you don't know what the art will be until you receive it. There is a lively sense of playfulness about the objects that makes you feel good just looking at the pictures.

Here is a cool video from a couple of years ago, where he talks about meaning in everyday objects. "[We all experience] these large, meaningful moments through these small, personal things."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Vanishing Photographs, a Book, and a Box

In February, I wrote to someone who had been a graduate student at SFAI, someone I had met at a gathering of students and educators at the Book Club of California in the Spring of 2013. I remembered the book he had presented a little hazily: I knew that the photographs, that he had taken and developed on gelatin silver paper, were unfixed, and that they would disappear over time, that the book was about memory and loss. Since I often have photography students in my CCA class, I thought I might inquire and perhaps purchase or trade for the book. I did remember it as powerful and conceptually interesting, the sort of thing that would appeal to anyone, really.

The book's creator is John Steck Jr. The book is called Lament. It is hardcover, a kind of drum leaf binding with digitally printed text. He made it in 2012 and there are five copies. Each has twelve photographs, including the cover image.

He sent it in a box, formerly used to house photo paper, and wrapped in bubble wrap.

With a loose paper to shield the cover image.

It begins: "All of these memories must leave me"

An inside page: "Shadow of a window, vase of flowers in the distance"

Very simple, understated, yet somehow powerful and not sentimental because of its straightforward description. The mystery lies in the hidden emotion, which is clearly there with words like "no longer there" and "Willow tree in the rain" and "my Ireland."

Last December, before I bought the book, I asked him a few questions, which he was happy to answer. After some  "extreme changes" in his life he found that he had bad associations with a series of photographs he had taken. Struck by how powerful those images had become, he thought he might be able to rid himself of those unpleasant feelings if he watched the images fade away. Ultimately, the more he worked with the images, the more neutral they became. He still felt connected to the images, but they did not cause him further anxiety. Conceptually, the book mimics our experience of memory; we hold onto images and they begin to change and fade gradually over time. As he pointed out, the words of the titles will remain, and even after the images are gone or become ghostly silhouettes, the words can spark the viewer's own imagination. In this way, the viewer will become a more active participant over time.

It is interesting that John confronted his emotions by delving deeper into the material instead of running away from it and how that confrontation (transformation through art) actually released him.

I didn't really want to leave the book in the mailing box with the bubble wrap, so this past week I made a box for it, a clamshell that echoes its colors. Black seemed a natural choice, but the book is a warm black, more brown, and I generally hate all-black boxes anyway. Luckily, I was able to rustle up some scraps of maroon, plus some painted paper pieces that seemed to match.

The box is slightly too large. In calculating the size of the box, I had added an inch to the book's width and height. Three-quarters of an inch probably would have been better. But I'm thinking about wrapping the book in plain muslin cloth, shroud-like, or in black velvet, photographer-style. That will pad it, protect it, and give a clue to its delicate nature, I think.

I will keep it in darkness. But I won't be afraid to look.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Paintings as Pages: Front and Back of Nature

When I went to see my former student Lucy Dill's senior show at CCA, I found myself in a gallery on the San Francisco campus with three other students' works as well. In her exhibition titled, Lost and Found, Tina Curiel's paintings caught my attention: she painted natural scenes, like trees or plants, painted on natural canvas (with little specks showing in unpainted areas), and with birds and animals that looked like they were overpainted with white, almost jacquard-like.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that the fauna were painted in full detail on the backs of the canvases. She lit them from behind to make them look like they were ghosts. One canvas even had a tiny hidden canvas bag in back that held a recording of a bird. Some paintings had fragments of mirrors included.

Her statement and website include the following quote:
We no longer destroy great works of art. They are treasured, and regarded as of priceless value; but we have yet to attain the state of civilization where the destruction of a glorious work of Nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird, is regarded with equal abhorrence
Henry Fairfield Osborn
Her concerns are with extinction and loss and how we see the world. In another project she hopes to paint 1000 pigeons as a healing gesture of "protection for endangered species and their habitats" and in memory of Martha, the last passenger pigeon: the centennial of her death was this year. She's making this a community project. You can find out more at the link.

Here is a painter who is using her canvases like pages: front and back. Even though I was quite happy with the art as it was, I immediately thought that this concept would lend itself naturally to book form. I love all kinds of art, but I'm also interested in how it can be translated into a book. In this case, birds could be hidden in the book. Pages could be make of thin paper or cloth and let the birds show through. The book could have pockets that house the birds. Wing-shaped pages, shaped pages that seem fragmented, but that turn and layer into a complete picture or progress from whole to fragments, volvelles with windows for a variety of information, quotes, and images—all of these are possibilities that would address the theme.

But that is not my work. That is Tina's. My work (for the short moment) is getting my yard in order. I have a large parsley patch that I had hoped would attract swallowtail butterflies (which after the first year, years ago, has not). Time to move on. Instead of business cards, Tina made up small envelopes of flower seeds. I think I will clear part of the parsley and plant the flowers that she gave away. And then I'll paint them. But first, I'll have to make another journal…

Note: While Osborn's quote regarding nature and art is lovely and interesting , sadly, when I looked him up, I found that Osborn was also a eugenist and held racist views. But the conflict between finding something exemplary in someone's writing or art and discovering something lacking in their morals is best saved for another post.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Plays with Art Supplies: Another Journal

At the Compound Gallery in Oakland, I recently became absorbed in the work of David Fullarton. He calls what he makes "Pictures with Words on Them," and I felt that they were kinfolk to works by Maira Kalman, Henrik Drescher, and Chris Johanson, but very much his own. I know the work is good because I began itching to make some art myself. I thought I'd start a new journal inspired by Fullarton's art, but of course did not have the "right" one among my dozens of models and blank books, so I had to bind one anew. Had to.

Here is the process I went through as I played with art supplies.

I pawed through my scraps, looked at the clump of cloth from my last official book project, then used heavy gel medium to affix a piece of muslin to the front of an old piece of text weight painted paper. This isn't the normal way I make book cloth, but I wanted to see if it would work (I say yes for painterly effect but not for precise or traditional work). I smoothed it out as best I could. It did wrinkle a bit, but when it dried I gave it a good talking to with a bone folder. Because I didn't really want the printing to show, I painted over the cloth with watercolor ground, a lovely buff color from Daniel Smith, Inc., and scribbled in it with a skewer as well. 

The watercolor ground is very cool (I've mentioned it before here and here): I could now draw and paint on the cloth as if it were nice paper. I began with Inktense pencils. They are like regular watercolor pencils, except that when they dry they are supposed to be permanent, like the acrylic inks I like. While I wasn't all that happy with the lettering I did, I used a Niji water brush to move the color around, let the cover dry, then drew over the wash with a uni-ball gel pen.

How I ended up using a traditional binding, I do not know. It is a basic casebound book with a hard flat spine, but I realized the spine needed to be the depth of the book block plus two board thicknesses, which I had neglected to add. 

The first and last signatures each employ a small piece of book cloth, glued in face up, like little wings (the technical term is "hinges," I believe) that wrap a little around those first and last signatures before sewing and are then adhered to the case as well. This binding, with the pieces of book cloth hinges, is also referred to as Bradel binding. A very fine tutorial for a single signature is here. This is a very sturdy structure. In this photo, you can see the blue book cloth hinge in the inner spine. The endpapers are glued on top.

Here, you can see how the blue hinges wrap around the first and last signatures
and are sewn in with them.

It was hard to wait for it to dry, since making a new journal was not my goal, but drawing was. When I finally got to draw, I used a 4B pencil, which felt lovely on the textured Arches Cover (cream), and Caran d'Ache Supracolor watercolor pencils and the water brush again. My first page was based on an image from the newspaper, but altered a bit…

This may prove a better creative arts challenge for me than the last one, which, I'm sorry to say, ended after a week. I've only ever successfully filled one book (crossed-structure binding, 2009), inspired by paintings by David Johnson (He illustrates "Produce Picks" for the Bay Area News Group and collaborates on an annual Farmer's Market Calendar, as well as doing lovely work of his own. Plus, he is really nice). Perhaps, for me, it takes a desire to learn or attempt to master something to keep going.

We'll be traveling soon, so I think I'll take this new challenge and this new journal along.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

New Letterpress Artist Book: In the Wake of the Dream

One never knows when a project will demand to be born. I woke up the morning of March 31 remembering five consecutive dreams and quickly wrote them down. I read them over. They seemed nearly complete to me. But if I had just written them from my imagination, how could I revisit them, how would I revise them, make them more satisfying as stories? Both dreaming and waking can produce creative work and I wanted to address that concept as well. The word "wake" had several connotations to me, and I liked that I could get a visual if I turned to boats. Upon researching the wakes of boats, I found a diagram that included a term: transverse, the wave movement across the wake. How excellent was that? I was ready to start production. I set metal type. Then began to print.

Using muslin gave the book a soft feel, like bedsheets. I discovered that when you turn the pages they are absolutely silent. Over time the edges will continue to fray, like our memories do. I didn't want it to look new and remembered I had some discarded book covers that Lisa Kokin had given me after she had used the insides of the books for other artworks (like her pulped self-help rocks). This means that the book covers are several different colors. I tried to vary front and back colors as well, altering them the way I altered my own text.

I wanted to make some prints and an envelope: the dreams allude to them. Suddenly I had many pieces that needed to be kept together. I thought maybe I'd add a tie on the outside for a closure, but I didn't like the look, it was too fussy, and it didn't really do much. My spouse, who has been hearing me talk about books for decades, suggested a slipcase. Yes. Of course. (He was the one who developed the slot and tab book structure that I used to bind the muslin. It is the perfect structure for cloth. Very helpful to have a brain extension so close by…)

So, here it is. In the Wake of the Dream. Also posted on my website.