freedom

Painting scenery

My University of Washington Drama students and I went on a little drawing excursion this month to a train station that isn’t really a train station, with stone walls that aren’t really stone. No passengers have embarked upon their adventures from Seattle’s Union Station since 1971 when the last train stopped here. This 1911 beauty had stood vacant and unloved for thirty years until a local developer restored it to its former glory. But you still can’t get on a train; you have to walk across the street to King Street Station to do that. I brought along a suitcase anyway, for our model to use as a prop.

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On previous drawing visits, I had struggled a bit with the color of the stone walls in the Great Hall. They were kind of creamy, kind of yellowy, not quite sandstone; and several different variations of this non-color in a random pattern of big blocks. As it turns out, I might have just consulted Sherwin-Williams for the color numbers.

On this day, a tall scissor lift was set up in the corner, with a couple of men doing some kind of work on the walls. I assumed they were masons making repairs to the stone.

scissorlift

When I got closer, I saw that they were actually just painting.

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Well then. I touched the lower part of the wall and finally figured out that the large blocks stone were actually textured plaster. The “grout” lines between the blocks had been carefully taped off, rendered smooth, and painted yet another shade of off-white.

I’ve done some faux painting in my time and this looked like the job from hell: a boring palette, a labor-intensive-yet-subtle finish that barely registers to the casual observer, a confusing rotation of annoyingly similar colors, ceilings and arches guaranteed to permanently disable one’s neck, and, of course, the absurd sisyphean nature of the task.

panorama

The irony that I had taken a bunch of scenic and costume designers to draw a giant room full of scenery was lost on no one.

measuringOur next drawing destination of the day was a little-known historical site neither ironic nor fake. Yes, I’m talking about the Birthplace of United Parcel Service. The 1967 plaque on the sidewalk outside is delightfully cold-warry and totally unironic:

In August 1907, in a 6 by 17 foot office under the original sidewalk here, a few messenger boys began the business which their many thousand successors extended throughout the vast regions of our country covered by United Parcel Service today. Exemplifying the opportunities open to private citizens under the Constitution of the United States of America, this plaque was placed in January 1967, with the cooperation and appreciation of the Seattle Historical Society.

Take that, Commies, with your inferior state-run parcel services. As if you could order any stuff in the first place.

Inside the imposing gate is a lovely and very loud courtyard enclosure, a private park open to the workers during workdays, filled with blooming plants, waterfalls, and, on this day, a horde of children who, like us, were out on a field trip.

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Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

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The Demonstration Painting

I have a myriad of strange, unloved paintings shoved into various corners my studio that I’ll never actually exhibit but I can’t bring myself to throw out, either. They are all the paintings I made in front of classes I was teaching, in order to demonstrate a particular technique, to participate in whatever sadistic exercise I’d dreamed up for them to do, or just to pass the time while the students worked things out on their own. One of the many things I love about teaching art is that I get to draw and paint for the sake of modelling a process, with no requirement that the end result qualify as capital-A Art. That is a luxury, maybe even a necessity, for a professional artist with an established body of work and style and market. The pressures to produce more capital-A art can sometimes hinder my experimentation and risk. I get paid to teach, and so if teaching requires me to make quick decisions and wacky compositions, I can harness that relentless work ethic in the service of making pointless, but totally necessary, quick and dirty and weird paintings.

The images above and below are results of an exercise in which I require students to choose two disparate images, then divide their picture plane in half unequally, and compose the two into some kind of coherent whole. The source material for the one above was stolen from art history: Van Gogh’s boots crowding out Vermeer’s Music Lesson as if in a cinematic “wipe.” I found a common formal element in the tile floors and ran with it. Limiting my palette to the same three primaries on both sides helps tie it together as well. It is also acrylic, which I don’t own very much of, and which dries quickly and fosters immediacy.

airplanepears

The second one is a bit odder, possibly because it’s source material is more random. Many years ago I found a set of a couple of hundred photo cards, called the “All Purpose Photo Library,” in a thrift store. The box sat around for a long time and survived several studio moves before I finally found a purpose for it. Its original function appears to have been as some sort of elementary-school learning tool; holding up the pictures would apparently provoke meaningful discussions amongst the youngsters about communities, homes, transportation, professions, musical instruments, extension cords, plastic containers of generic cottage cheese, and the like. The set is divided with little index tabs into categories such as “food,” “inside home,” “outside home,” “land animals,” “insects” –  which pretty much covers the known universe. The photos are seriously low-budget affairs dating from the late 1970’s. It looks as though on certain days a professional seamless backdrop was scored for the shoot; other days they had to make due with posing a lemon on a paper Chinet plate. In other words they are pretty much perfect, just have the students blindly choose two of them and then make a painting out of it. Ego investment, overthinking, preconceived notions about high versus low – poof! GONE!

In a related exercise, I had everyone bring in a bunch of magazines, from which we made collages, which then became the basis for paintings. I’ve since lost the collage for this one, but I appear to have made a handy unisex bathroom sign should the need for one arise.

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I also have a fondness for simple still lives, which I would never take the time for in “real life”. But it’s really great to just PAINT sometimes, not worrying about the “Art” part of it; I remember why I do it in the first place. These are from “Color Boot Camp” demonstrations of limited palettes. The first was from a Saturday afternoon quick demo at the Bellevue Art Museum years ago. Space and time were both limited, so I grabbed a bone from my bone collection and four tubes of paint, showed up, and painted it in front of a group of random strangers, making up the blue background on the spot.

boneHere a lime and a paper bag were the props on hand. (It’s harder than you’d think to match the color of a paper bag.)

lime

My favorite demonstration paintings, however, are the ones that end up reflecting and distilling the true concerns of my real work, anyway. I paint people all the time – slowly and from photographic sources and in great detail, sometimes hiring a model for a missing part of the pose, and working carefully around the edges of the fabrics I paint on – but when I’m teaching a figure painting class I can work loosely and quickly, making fast decisions about color and composition and not worrying about the edges.

I borrowed a gumball machine from one of my studio neighbors, hung up a striped sheet, added some furniture, a mirror,  and a telephone, hired Ruth, and asked my class to make a narrative out of it. Or not.

gumballmachine

At Pratt many years ago I taught a class called Pattern, Rhythm, and Pictorial Space. This painting I did of Megan in their sun-filled classroom – a former Wonder Bread factory outlet store – is one I like to pull out and look at for inspiration sometimes.

pattern2Most of the fabrics I used in the set-up have since disappeared into paintings.

In the same class, I organized a “still-life potluck”, in which everyone brought patterned objects from home, all of which I arranged into a cacophonous still life. Always thrifty about the materials for these throwaway paintings (which never seem to get thrown away), I painted this on an old piece of mdf that was once part of a floor in a play at ACT Theatre.

pattern

A Poodle Grayscale, a Fake Historical Site and Other Treasures of the High Desert

In Southern California for my show this winter, we took a little detour to the gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park, known for its fabulous boulders and breathtaking scenery, but also for the oddball collection of artists who have made the area around it home. Looking up into the hills, you might spy a little compound  – an old Airstream, say, a few broken-down trucks and toilets scattered about, a collection of dwellings made of corrugated metal or tires – and you think to yourself, who’s living up there? Artists or rednecks? It’s really hard to tell, and just as likely to be the one as the other. Welcome to Joshua Tree!

Up in the rocks here you can see a little glowing obelisk from the highway.

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It’s a untitled piece by Sarah Vanderlip, made from welded truck bumpers. It’s glowing because the sky and the light of the desert are reflected in its smooth surface.  The whole ten-acre parcel is called Behind the Bail Bonds (which was helpful in locating it) and features some rotating projects as well.

obelisk

Onward to Krblin Jihn Cabin, the promised fake historical site, complete with official-looking plaque and backstory involving a made-up religion (isn’t that redundant?) and made-up religious civil war. It’s an old miner’s cabin, of which the area boasts many, retrofitted for an imagined past. The actual history of the American West is so full of cults, revelations, weirdos, and skirmishes over promised lands that this fake version, with its taboos against certain vowels and nine-pointed compass, really doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

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This cabin is the work of artist Eames Demetrios. For his whole constellation of fake history sites scattered around the globe, you can check out kymerica.com.

For some actual history, we proceeded to Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, the artist’s home and studio that have been preserved pretty much as he left it at his death in 2004. Mr. Purifoy was instrumental in recognizing and preserving the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and himself later created sculpture from the burned remains of the Watts riots in the 1960’s. He decamped to the desert in the late 1980’s and spent the next fifteen years creating the large-scale found object constructions that fill the ten acre parcel. His neatly sorted bins of scavenged objects are preserved there, too, awaiting the next project.

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

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An homage to Frank Gehry

An homage to Frank Gehry

Some of the art you could walk right into. . .

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. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

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Toilets, presumably also military surplus, figure into many of the pieces. Simultaneously creepy and banal, there is something really disconcerting about encountering something so private in such an exposed space.

toilets

Another site, Andy’s Gamma Gulch Parcel, rotates site-specific art projects. We hiked out to, and climbed into, Gradually/We Became Aware/Of a Hum in the Room, a triangular structure with circular holes cut into the walls, framing the desert. The interior is painted with colors that reverse the colors of the sunset, according to the artist’s statement. I can’t assess whether or not they were successful in that intention, as I was there in the middle of the day…

hole hole2

..but the effect of the winter light projected through the circular cutouts onto the painted walls was striking it its own right.doghole

In the town of Joshua Tree itself, we visited Art Queen, the studio and gallery of the lovely and welcoming artist Shari Elf. Shari curates the World-Famous Crochet Museum, a Fotomat-like pod painted lime green and stuffed full of some spectacularly ill-advised craft projects, all crocheted, as the name implies.

crochet

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain’t the turkey. Unless the pink pony or Mother Goose gets to those tasty pilgrims first.

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain't the turkey. Unless the pink pony gets them first.

Here is the rest of the poodle grayscale:

poodlepano

And I am wondering how I managed to get through this much of life without having previously encountered a crocheted taco. Genius.

crochettaco

Speaking of tacos, perhaps the most memorable art emporium of all wasn’t in the Joshua Tree area at all but in the middle of Riverside, on the way back to Los Angeles. Tio’s Tacos is both a tasty lunch stop and a city-block-sized art project, the work of artist and restauranteur Martin Sanchez, who immigrated from Mexico in 1984 and proceeded to build this visionary dream house.

Take a stroll on found-pottery-mosaic colored paths and into small chapel-sized buildings made of stacked and cemented bottles.

tiosbottlehouse tiosbottles

Entire palm trees have been made into benign giants who stand guard over all this abundance. These lovely ladies are made of rusty #10 cans: whole ones encased in chicken wire form their torsos, and overlapping flattened ones wrapped into cylinders are their legs. Their hair is made from fishing nets.

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Even the lights are anthropomorphic (more can-people) and the palm-tree creature on the left is partly constructed of plastic bottles. I am partial to the cowboy-boot-shod lineman. And of course, Santa-on-a-bike.

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The whole desert art tour embodied for me something quintessentially American: Visionaries light out for the wide-open spaces, where they build unexpected paradises of weirdness out of quite ordinary detritus of our throwaway culture, redeeming it, and maybe us a bit, in the process.

Lose the Christian Theme Park!

In the Making Your Own Work class, while we’re looking at people’s work in progress, we continually come back to the question: How much stuff should there be in a painting? Usually the answer is something along the lines of “less than what you have.” Anne likened it to Coco Chanel’s directive to remove one accessory before one leaves the house.

And sometimes the thing you have to remove is your favorite: the one you thought was so utterly brilliant and clever. But it just doesn’t serve the painting, and it needs to be the piece of jewelry you leave on the hall table before you dash out the door.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, Michael Barrish, went on a long bicycle trip intending to visit every town named Freedom, Justice, and Liberty in the contiguous United States. That, while interesting, really has nothing to do with my point. Along the way he visited many old friends, and brought news of them to the subsequently visited friends. (You see, kids, in the old days, people didn’t broadcast their every activity on the internet, so we had to wait for messengers to bicycle between towns delivering news. It was slow but it made for better stories.) When Michael stopped here in Seattle, he told of some old college buddies who had moved to LA, trying to break into screenwriting. They had made a big pitch to a Hollywood producer for a goofy John Candy/John Goodman vehicle called “Fat Chance”. The premise, which seemed kind of thin, was that they were fat jewel thieves; hijinx ensued. The hijinx culminated in a chase scene through a Christian Theme Park. The thieves at one point get swallowed up, or perhaps chased, by a giant mechanical whale loudly intoning “JO-NAH! JO-NAH!” as it pursues them through the park.

The producer, who in my mind is a guy out of a 1940s movie chomping on a cigar, had five words for the would-be screenwriters: “Lose the Christian Theme Park!” The image, which I made up, of this short guy with the Brooklyn accent pounding on his desk is permanently etched in my mind.  However, I was a little mystified by his advice.  It seemed to me that without that bit of weirdness, the purported movie would have nothing left to recommend it.

One day in the studio it occurred to me what he meant. It was late and I was on a deadline finishing paintings for a show. One painting in particular was giving me a lot of trouble. The parts weren’t adding up. Deep down I knew what had to go: it was a checkerboard tile floor that I’d spent hours working on, thought was brilliant, and had grown way too attached to, but it just didn’t serve the painting.  I heard shouting inside my head. What could it be? Why, it was my inner cigar-chomping studio exec yelling for me to LOSE THE CHRISTIAN THEME PARK!

If the bones of the painting are no good, all the Christian-Theme-Park chase scenes in the world will never save it.

Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly delights, detail; Above, Bosch, The Last Judgement, detail. The original and best Christian Theme Park paintings!

Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly delights, detail; Above, Bosch, The Last Judgement, detail. The original and best Christian Theme Park paintings!