Sunday, July 29, 2012


Take a painting like this:

Daniel Maidman, The Black and White War, 2011, oil on canvas, 60"x72"

Virtually the entire surface area of this painting required high-level mentation: constant analytic choices about how to represent both real things (the two versions of Alley) and imaginary things (the background). It was a wickedly large amount of work, and it took me months and months to do it.

You may remember that when I was working on that Damien Hirst painting, I endured (and duly bitched about to you) a kind of mind-numbing boredom, getting the edges of all those circles nearly inhumanly perfect.

The Alley painting was hi-mind. The Hirst procedure was lo-mind.

It is all very well to come up with some cool terms to describe things, but that doesn't take us so far as the meanings of these terms, or their significance, if any.

I have been reflecting on the lo-mind procedure a great deal lately, in the context of the one project I'm not telling you about yet, and in the context of the other one, the Inanna series.

I have undergone a large transformation in preparing Inanna #1. You will recall that the first inspiration for the series was this painting I wandered into a couple of years ago:

Daniel Maidman, La Mémoire, 2010, oil on canvas, 18"x14"

And you may further recall that, once I aimed for it,  I could not replicate the spontaneous integrity and energy of that scrubbed-on paint. Try as I might, all further efforts felt forced:

Daniel Maidman, Nursing, 2010, oil on canvas, 30"x24"

What happened was that I fell prey to a classic error with which actors particularly will be familiar: I was trying to reproduce the outward effect - rather than trying to reproduce the inward state which led, on its own, to that effect (this error is a massive bugaboo for Stanislavski).

Konstantin Stanislavski: I am large, I contain multitudes.

Once I recognized that problem, it dissolved. But I was left with a more difficult problem: how to reproduce, at will and on an ongoing basis, that initial state of mind. In this context, Stanislavsky prescribes the same thing the Buddhists are said to:

1. You begin by chopping wood and carrying water, instinctively; but you become alienated from this natural state.
2. You spend many years reasoning on the nature of things, and studying their forms, and devising and practicing various ways of chopping wood and carrying water.
3. One day, you simply resume chopping wood and carrying water. It appears as natural as it did in the beginning, but now it is a function, not of instinct, but of enlightenment.

Have I got that about right? I've never been entirely clear on it. If it's not right, let's just say it's the version I use, just as my version of Orpheus does not include any of the freaky sex stuff. It may not be the true myth, but it's the one I learned and I can reason on its meaning even so.

Orpheus: no freaky sex stuff

In this model of enlightenment, I would be aiming to reach step 3 by the time I put paint to Inanna, and to that end I need to get through step 2 before then. So what did I do, with my reasoning and studying and devising and practicing?

I reasoned the existence of lo-mind: of painting from a place of lack of intention, avowed indifference to goal, of pure physical connection between arm and - what? Not reasoning, not observation, not analysis.

This series of denials brought me to the edge of the precipice.

The next steps would be studying and devising. But you know me by now - I don't believe in studying, and my attitude toward devising is basically "measure once, cut twice" or, if possible, "measure never, cut three times." So I skipped the studying and devising and went straight to the practicing. I leapt over the precipice. Here's what I did:

I had ordered this huge fuck-off piece of gessoed Belgian linen canvas from Utrecht - a 7'x9' monstrosity. It showed up in this tube here:

After much negotiation with industrial staples, I pried the lid off, took out the canvas, and nailed it to the wall of my studio. Interesting observation: this linen smells like a goat.

note my ace stretching skills at work

Once I got it up there, I felt like the gesso they used was too dark, and too yellow. So, not thinking it over very clearly, I got out a big, half-used tube of Titanium White oil paint and just started painting it over the entire surface of the canvas. I ran out of the paint pretty fast, but I also realized that I was making the canvas too bright and bluish for my tastes anyway.

So I got out some of my rags:

oil painters - am I using the wrong kind of rags? put me some knowledge here

And I started wiping. This spread the uneven patches of dazzling, bluish-white Titanium White, and removed a lot of it. I just kept on wiping. It was a total wax-on, wax-off affair. I made circles. I worked that titanium white into the existing gesso over every square inch of the canvas. I produced a revised white of intermediate brightness and intermediate coldness. It took hours.

I let it take longer than it needed to take, because partway through, I noticed that I was practicing. I felt my mind draining out; I felt I was on the verge of finding out what the arm connects to, when it does not connect to reasoning, observation, or analysis. I made those nearly invisible white circles on a white surface, following an approximate most-efficient distribution of wipes, and my arm connected to these things:

- the shifting configuration of its own strength and fatigue
- my mood

That was all I could see about it. The point isn't even really to find out what the arm is connected to. The point is merely to do. And one does by practicing. I practiced, and I think I will be ready, when the time comes to paint, to paint.


Now, I am describing here a physical phenomenon, and it is very difficult to establish a direct correspondence between a verbal description, and a physical phenomenon. But it is not so hard to establish a correspondence between a verbal description and a logical sequence. And I had the good fortune, a couple nights ago, to watch the PBS show art:21, season 6, episode 2 ("Boundaries"), which featured David Altmejd, a fascinating youngish sculptor (I have a vested interest in calling him youngish, because he's a year older than me, and I'd prefer not to be oldish).

Apart from the work itself, Altmejd has a very engaging mode of wandering reasoning. He had this to say about his procedure for making his work:

95% of the relationship i have to my work
is through process
it's not as a distant object
it's a made object
i like the idea of trusting the work
trusting the material
and trusting that every little step is
gonna dictate the next one

This is very interesting, especially the last two lines. Because it is quite a clear description of what, in mathematics, you would call an iterative function. An iterative function is a function which is repeated, and which uses its own most recent output as the input for each successive step.

Iterative functions are used to describe many different types of systems (here is where I start to tread deeply in the bog of ignorance - math people, feel free to scornfully correct me). Among the systems described by iterative functions are linear dynamical systems and non-linear dynamical systems.

Linear and non-linear dynamical systems are distinguished in a way that is very important to us as artists.

The state of a linear system may be predicted by knowing:
a. what time it is in the system, and
b. performing a single computation.
The location of a planet in its orbit displays more or less linear dynamical properties. I give you the date, you tell me where to aim my spaceship.

Non-linear dynamical systems lack this property. Their iterative nature comes to the fore. They are deterministic, like linear dynamical systems, but you can't predict their state at any given time except by performing the iterative function that defines them, for each moment from the start to the specific time of the prediction. The weather, and most likely any other chaotic bullshit you can think of, is a non-linear dynamical system.

Altmejd makes very interesting sculptures. They have a kind of wistful majesty to them:

David Altmejd, The Swarm, 2011, plexiglass and whatnot

His description of his method stops at iteration, but I think what he's getting at is the concept of non-linear dynamics: he cannot predict the outcome of step 64 of his system without executing steps 1-63. His work takes on an orderliness which, in hindsight, looks like predictability. But in the process of making it, he cannot leap forward; he must walk each step.

David Altmejd, The Vessel, 2011, plexiglass and what-have-you

This struck me as a tremendously important revelation in respect to this elusive question of lo-mind.

Hi-mind is Newtonian; it is designed to integrate the manifold and various into the simple and true. It is adept at grasping the predictable qualities of linear dynamical systems, at planning an artwork from a bird's-eye view. A huge amount of analysis went into The Black and White War, but it was path-independent: I could think about, and solve, any part of it at any time, independent of other parts.

Lo-mind is down in the mud with the media themselves. It crawls along, seeing only the blades of grass and columns of ants in front of it, trusting that it will reach to its goal if only each step is faithfully executed. It is not aiming at a goal, it is aiming at each step. The goal executes itself in the context of each step being taken - or not. To truly embrace lo-mind is to give up on certainty of the nature of the goal, or of reaching it, or of its existence. It also requires a heightened immediate sensitivity of the arm: the arm must respond to what has already been made - it must respond truthfully - in order to take the next step; every single time, it must do this.


All of this is a very fancy way of describing the difference between product-oriented and process-oriented people. I have tended more toward product orientation. And I am not abandoning that. But I also find it insufficient for the nature of some of what I want to do. So I'm teaching myself to be process-oriented as well.

Rilke, a poet I know likes to remind me, wrote, at the end of Archaic Torso of Apollo, "You must change your life." Yes, yes, yes - we will not go on being what we were before.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It was so strange I could scarcely credit the truth of it.

So - it turns out my drawing is different without nicotine in my system. In hindsight, I suppose it should have been obvious. Drugs change how you think; the continuous presence of a drug encysts your personality and cognitive machinery, preventing some or all changes from taking root in the dormant, non-drugged core.

For instance, when did I start smoking? January, 1997. When my nicotine concentration dropped, my personality immediately reverted to its state in early 1997: freshly post-Texas. It could be reasonably argued that if you met me after 1997, you've never met me at all. This argument isn't actually correct, but it's reasonable.

Thank fucking christ my drawing skills didn't revert to what they were like in 1997 as well. They could have - I started life-drawing seriously in 1998. I could have found my entire drawing apparatus detaching from me. I could have had to start from the beginning.

This is 2001, the earliest scan I have handy. I'd been working hard for three years by this point.

I didn't regress that far, but I did regress. My fine motor control appears to be shot. I can't make precise little lines right now. I can make crude, strong lines:

Daniel Maidman, Leah, Standing Torso, 7-24-2012, 15"x11"

And I can make soft indistinct lines:

Daniel Maidman, Leah, Soft Portrait, 7-24-2012, 15"x11"

This is a bit of a shock, but it's not entirely unwelcome. Consider the case of Lovis Corinth. Here's a painting of his from 1895:

Portrait of the Painter Karl Strathmann

And here's one from 1912:

Samson Blinded (Stephen Wright first showed this to me)

What happened to him in between?


Stroke, 1911. The stroke seems not to have hindered his productivity, but rather, to have thrown him off one track - a highly accomplished but ultimately uncommitted aestheticism - and onto another - certainly cruder, but more vigorous, and to my eye, more essential. That second painting, coming as it does hard on the heels of the stroke and the physical therapy, seems to me to be a kind of emotional self-portrait: who, in Corinth's opinion, was mightier than Corinth? And who was blinded but Corinth? This is a picture of real torment, and real power.

What I'm saying is, when you lose the things that made you comfortable, you gain the opportunity to start fresh. And what I would add, as always, is that I would rather be a better artist than a happier one. I quail at the thought of having my visual apparatus totally fried the way Corinth did. But I do not mind particularly the challenge I am facing - a challenge which I suspect is actually fairly temporary - as certain skills peel off my brain along with their chemical undergirding.

This thing I am going through - it is allowing me to see things a little differently. For instance, at Spring Street on Monday, while suffering from an almost absurd amount of pain and, of course, a homicidal rage, I drew this:

Daniel Maidman, Burr: Cranium, 7-23-2012, 15"x11"

This is the part of the head nobody gives a shit about. But I was sitting there, reckoning with the diminution in my ability to draw complex forms. And I thought, "Why don't I pay attention to the thingness of the head, the subtle variation of the parts people ignore?" And, looking at it differently, and drawing differently, I think I came up with a drawing that was worth making.

Why do I suspect this phase is temporary? Well, it feels like I am undergoing a shock to the system, not a failure of the system. Consider this, from the same drawing session with Leah yesterday as the drawings above:

Daniel Maidman, Leah: Knee, Arm, Neck, 7-24-2012, 15"x11"

This reflects nearly as much dexterity as anything else I've ever drawn. I can switch off this impulse to crudity, to indecisiveness, if I want to revert to my ordinary habits of high precision and high rendering. I'm just choosing not to switch off these impulses. Rather, I'm going through them. We all need to be renewed. Brain chemistry issues are as good a route as any other route. And, jesus, I am in love with this drawing:

It's not very graceful, or very accurate. But it is very soft, and very simple. Any drawing of a face involves both the physical features, and a feeling. It can be your feeling, or the model's feeling, or some feeling floating in the air in the room; whatever. Your drawing answers to the physical and the emotional criteria which combine to produce it. A distinctive weakness of the high precision, high rendering paradigm is that it neglects the emotional criteria. And my current exile from my comfort zone seems to be deeding over to me a heightened ability to experience and express the emotional criteria. That's a huge big benefit, y'all.

Two benefits, actually. First, I can say, "I am not what I was before; I am new; I am not done growing." And second, "This new thing that I am, cannot do what I did before, but it can do other things which I wanted to do before, and could not."

This is so bizarre, so abnormal, so disconcerting an experience, that I could scarcely credit the truth of it, even as I sat there at Spring Street undergoing it. I felt like I had slipped into one of those tales where a djinn magically transports the caliph, in his sleep, from Baghdad to the distant shores of the Wu-Tang Archipelago; and the caliph seems to himself to spend several seasons there, his grueling training overseen by Ghostface Killah, his evenings lost in scholarly conversation with RZA; and one morning, he awakens not on a hard tatami mat, but in his sumptuous bed back home in the Golden Gate Palace, and but a single night has passed; yet he retains his new knowledge, of shaolin kung-fu, and the secret language of bees, and how to find the cosine, and so forth.

I felt like that, except the knowledge I mysteriously acquired on that far shore had to do with drawing.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How To Make Anger Into Art


A couple years ago, we listened to a model who has a certain amount of background in psychoanalysis. She remarked that while I seemed like an easy-going guy, there was barbed wire underneath.

She was right. I am a very angry person, and the fact that you missed it doesn't make it not so. I have a geological model of the self - all spherical layers. If you stripped off the layers above my anger, you'd be left with a planet of fire. The anger layer is fire.

Right now, I am quitting nicotine. I haven't had a cigarette in over a year, but now I'm quitting nicotine itself, which I was getting through e-cigarettes. This process, relative to the visibility of my anger, is like kicking a paving stone, and it breaks in half, and an absolutely huge fucking cockroach that was behind the stone freezes for a second, then scuttles out of sight. You can never unknow that it was there.

I have a tremendous amount of pain in my head as the nicotine drains out of the nicotinic receptors in my neurons.

graphic of dubious scientific validity via BBC

I have found that my outbursts of anger, during this withdrawal, temporarily submerge the pain in a sea of glittering pinpoint pleasure. The anger itself is acting as a kind of narcotic. I am not chemically addicted to sadism. But I have the machinery for it. It would be very easy.

This out-of-control anger is completely selfish. I haven't got a thought for anyone else, except inasmuch as I want to hurt them. I want to hurt everyone. I want everyone to hurt, and then to apologize to me, for the pain I am undergoing.


Well, as you know, I believe in the alleged Indian injunction against wasting any part of the animal; the animal being, of course, ourselves. So what are we to do with anger?

The last time I was this angry was in 1996, in Texas. I was so angry I was dangerous. People shied away from me. I couldn't sleep, or talk normally, or calm down, or eat. My weight dropped to 163 (I'm 6'1" - that's a very low weight). I was drifting toward becoming a stalker. I fled Texas, to flee myself. It took another year to disentangle myself from what I was in Texas.

During the Texas period, I used anger, quite consciously, as an energy resource for exercise. I ran a lot - about six miles at a go, 4-6 days a week. I ran at night, on the rubber track at UT-Austin, among the snails and bats and herons, when it was cool enough to go outside. I ran for hours. And I reflected on my anger as I ran.

What is anger? Anger is a form of energy. There are some things to be learned from anger, and that's why I'm writing about it. But whatever there is to be learned from anger, and about anger, this is dwarfed by the amount of energy represented by anger, if you are at all an angry person.

What I'm saying is that you will learn everything there is to learn about anger in the first 32 minutes, and anger lasts 24 hours. The other 23 hours and 28 minutes of anger are nothing but energy. Featureless energy is usable only as a fuel.

Unfortunately, anger is not quite featureless. It wants to fuel destruction more than it wants to fuel creation. So look, o ye of anger - there is a little bit of self-modification you have to engage in if you have positive goals, and anger to burn.

What you have to do is build a kind of scrubber. You must pass the anger through this scrubber before you fuel your work with the anger. What is the scrubber? It is hate. Feed your anger into the scrubber, and use the scrubber to hate your anger, to scourge your anger, to punish your anger; use it to discipline your hand, and your mind, and your eye. Your anger will be turned against itself, and when it burns, it will burn clean.

I am currently using my anger to fuel the underdrawing of Inanna #1, a tedious process which has been going on for days. I have a whole blog post to write about what my Inanna #1 method is teaching me, but this isn't that post.

what it's like to draw on a 7-foot-tall canvas

Inanna #1 is about air, light, color, beauty, and life. It is safe to say that I am feeling none of those things right now. Not only am I not feeling them, I don't believe in them. I think they're all pretty much stupid.

design sketch: junior goddess Inanna discovers the me, or power-object, of life, depicted as a pregnant woman

But I did feel them at one point, when I was coming up with this painting; or at least, the Sumerians felt them when they wrote the myth the painting is based on. Or if they didn't feel them, they wrote some myths down in such a way as that it was possible to misinterpret the myths as implying that the Sumerians felt them. At any rate, sometime along the way, an idea was generated, that somebody, somewhere, believed in air, light, color, beauty, and life. And those seem like pretty nice things.

Inanna, incomplete underdrawing

I don't have anything insightful to say about anger, in my painting; at least nothing I can say while in the depths of it. But I do have some insights about air, light, color, beauty, and life, which I was already in the middle of working on, when anger, like a thief, found my house. I am enslaving my anger, and using its energy to continue what I was working on anyway. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of concentration and patience to draw the drawing for this painting, and I'm charging it to anger's Visa.

This seems like a more appropriate option than just killing everybody. I have zero faith in air, light, color, beauty, and life right now, but I do have faith in my hatred. My hatred is pure and powerful; it is forged from anger, it is at the first logical remove from anger. I can aim it at anything I like, and I aim it at its source. This is how you make something good out of something bad.


That was what I was like in early 1996.

My headache brutally reminded me that we will always be everything we have ever been, if only we can locate the correct address in our vast internal directory structure. I reappeared at my grisliest to myself, shimmering horror. And then my headache moved on.

Now I simply feel as if somebody were rolling a dull probe around the frontal bone of my left eye socket:

This hurts, bad, but it can be supported. Perhaps you have never been an addict; perhaps you haven't had the counter-intuitive experience, in breaking an addiction, of regret, that you cannot reasonably return to your addiction now that you've put in the suffering to detach from it.

So much for nicotine.

I do not quite believe in air, light, color, beauty, and life today. But I am not consumed by fury either. I am merely sick, and hopefully getting better.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Performing Design: The Puppetry of Kate Brehm

Judah Low is one of the heroes of China Miéville's novel Iron Council. Low makes golems. Traditionally, a golem is a clay man animated by magic.

Mikoláš Aleš, Rabbi Loew and Golem, 1899

In the fantastical world of Iron Council, golem-making is well established, complete with university courses and theory:
What we do is an intervention, Pennyhaugh lectures Judah from his notes, -- a reorganization. The living cannot be made a golem -- because with the vitality of orgone, flesh and vegetable is matter interacting with its own mechanisms. The unalive, though, is inert because it happens to lie just so. We make it meaningful. We do not order it but point out the order that inheres unseen, always already there. This act of pointing is at least as much assertion and persuasion as observation. We see structure, and in pointing it out we see mechanisms and grasp them, and we twist. Because patterns are asserted not in stasis but in change. Golemetry is an interruption. It is a subordinating of the static IS to the active AM. -- p. 205
Judah Low ultimately outdoes all other golem-makers. They know the theory, but they intuitively think in terms of the clay-man model. Low is radical: He deeply understands "unalive" as the only limit on his medium. He makes golems out of heaps of corpses, shattered railroad tracks, air, light, sound...

One real-world equivalent of the golem is the puppet: matter persuaded into meaningful motion by human interruption. And the puppet, like the golem, is prone to the clay-man restriction on its nature:

Big Bird and Pat Nixon (!)

When we think about puppets today, we mostly think about Muppets. Muppets, like all other anthropomorphic puppets, are capable of the most startling and delightful resemblances to living things. They can move like them, express emotions like them, display little tics which we overlook in everyday life, but which become precious and beautiful when meticulously repeated by a puppet. People love this quality of puppets. Just ask the producers of War Horse.

As great as all that is, it is not the only mode in which puppetry can take place. New York puppeteer Kate Brehm is a lot like Judah Low. Ask Brehm, "What should be puppetized?" and she will tell you, "Everything."

Brehm has coined the term "performing design" to describe the work she does. A few years ago, she created the Poofs, human-sized tunicate-like puppets capable of a surprising amount of humor and poignancy:

The Poofs

I've seen the Poofs in action, and though they are awesome, they represent an intermediate step between the classical clay-man puppet, and the premise that everything is a puppet. It turns out that it's easy to say everything is a puppet, but very, very hard to do.

Think about it. You and I are sitting in a cafe, having a cup of coffee, and I say to you, "All things are puppets." You consider it, and you say, "Okaaaay -- this coffee cup is a puppet. These little packs of sugar are puppets. This spoon is a puppet."

That's an intermediate step. It's broad, but it's not broader than, for instance, Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

 intermediate concept of total puppetry

The further step is to say: The size of this cafe is a puppet. The triangle between my eye, yours, and the coffee cup is a puppet. The mass of the table is a puppet. The division of space is a puppet. The rate at which time flows is a puppet.

This is how Kate Brehm thinks when she thinks about puppets.

I recently had the good fortune to see her work-in-progress The Eye Which We Do Not Have. It is Brehm's most complete effort at total puppetization yet. With lingering traces of Hitchcock and du Maurier, it is ostensibly the story of a woman losing her mind over an unhappy affair. But the story is nearly submerged in a universe come shuddering to life.

The "stage" is composed of two doors. In each door, there are three windows, through which we see into the space of the play. The windows have flat shades. The shades are on rails. And the first several minutes of the play are a dance of the shades:

This serves as a kind of introduction to the range of animation we can expect. It is not meaningless kinetic activity. Accompanied by the theme music from Vertigo, it is a menacing bit of performance: unexplained, mysterious, and somehow threatening, as if our eyes were blinking by external command.

From there, it's off to the races. Brehm frequently references cinema, which has implicitly recognized point-of-view, edits, and the frame as puppets since Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles and Gregg Toland swaggered onto the scene. Brehm appropriates this grammar by occasionally converting her six windows into a kind of moving storyboard, as in a sequence of the heroine running up a flight of stairs:

This is puppetry-as-montage. She also performs puppetry-as-mise-en-scene by, for instance, rotating a set mid-scene, from a level perspective to a bird's-eye-view:

"Look," you might be inclined to say, "rotating the set is a long-standing trope of theatrical machinery. What makes this special?" I think that what makes it special is the purpose for which the set is rotated. Ordinarily, it's a purely functional act. It changes the imaginary location visible to the audience. In Brehm's world, it is, like every single other thing, a means of expression. It corresponds with a sudden sense of terror in the narrative. That is very special indeed.

This sense of the expressiveness of all things covers not only point of view, but scale. In a hallucination scene, the heroine struggles with a group of amusingly be-penised paper cutout men:

Examine this group of frames. The heroine is represented by multiple puppets, of different sizes. And the cutouts change size as well. The many figures in the scene maintain continuous identities, but their sizes relative to one another keep changing. Size has become Brehm's puppet.

Perspective and size are both qualities of things, and not things themselves. It is difficult to advance the claim that a quality is a puppet. In all plays, things move closer and farther away, changing our perspective and their apparent sizes. True. I would propose that such qualities become puppets when their progressions throughout the play assume independent, thematically coherent narratives of their own. In this regard, Brehm's affinity for Vertigo makes sense. In many ways, the vertical distance between objects is a puppet in the movie Vertigo: It steadily declines from the start of the movie to its middle, and expands from the middle of the movie to its tragic close. Hitchcock tells the story of the movie purely on the formal level of organization of space. Brehm does the same.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea: Everything that crosses the boundary from ordinary life to the universe of Brehm's stage is examined and animated. Animate things on her stage are not characters alone, or objects alone, but the qualities of things as well: space, perspective, light, size, rate.

I have seen and heard tell of people making puppets out of unusual items. But I have neither seen nor heard tell of anyone recognizing quite as Brehm does that the totality of the stage phenomenon is a puppet, that every instant and dram of the stage's innards is a puppet. This approach takes a staggering amount of work, of filling multiple information transmission channels. And inevitably, Brehm's enormous creativity runs far ahead of her technical capabilities. The images in her mind are fully formed; matter lags behind. The production is rough around the edges, even for a work in progress. All great things are.

Why am I so fired up about this puppet show, The Eye Which We Do Not Have? I've considered that a bit. I think it's because I'm excited about how Brehm thinks, about how she allows me to think when I'm in the company of her work. Her universal animation represents a kind of awakening: a sudden sense, after much struggle, of the entire world as active, of all things and qualities as fluid, as engaged in a process of meaningful becoming. We are capable of many transformative insights in life. Some equal this one, but none exceeds it.

Poofs and Stills from The Eye Which We Do Not Have: courtesy of Kate Brehm
Kate Brehm online:
Iron Council at Amazon

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Cyan is the Loneliest Color

NOTE: This piece ran originally at The Huffington Post. I apologize for discontinuities between my ordinary writing voice at this blog, and the way I write over there. I'm still tinkering with this issue.


Here and there, we eventually run into snippets of the history of painting reacting to photography:

Degas, reference photograph and painting, see image credits at end

Painters are still evaluating what photography means to their work. But the wheels of technology have rolled on. The television monitor and billboard updated the challenge to painting, and Andy Warhol, for one, responded noisily to this challenge. But even the unendingly modern, biblical-present glare of his fame is technologically obsolete. Today artists have got computers to deal with as well.

Let's look at three painters who are responding to the image-making qualities of the computer. It would have been possible to meaningfully say "computer" anytime in the past seventy years. But I'm not talking about a chattering mainframe heating up the third floor at Bell Labs. I'm talking about the computers you and I use: laptops equipped with Adobe software, high-speed internet connections, and crappy integral webcams. I'm talking about Skype.

Response to a medium involves an appreciation of the native capacities, aesthetics and themes of that medium. The responder may appropriate some of those qualities, or alter them, or reject them. The three artists we're looking at produce work which is formally similar, but which illustrates three distinct responses to Skype.

First on our survey is Charlie Hankin.

Charlie Hankin, Mickey, 2011, oil on panel, 16"x20"

Several elements of this image are broadly recognizable. We have here your basic bandana-wearing hipster in a post-collegiate apartment with a ceiling fan. You can almost sense the beige wall-to-wall carpeting. Our hipster has that distinctive pale blue light on his glasses lenses. He's looking at a computer monitor. This is a low angle image: the monitor is below him. It's the monitor of an opened laptop.

We look at this image, and we can make a good guess that he's Skyping. Skype was born in 2003. The long-anticipated science fiction scenario of video telephones has only been widely available for a few years. But in that time, it has become ubiquitous. It has its own distinct visual paradigm, and awareness of the paradigm has quietly settled, like so much other techno-cultural debris, into our consciousness: the random room background, the slightly off-axis gaze, the frontal reflected glow of the computer monitor.

Have another Hankin:

Charlie Hankin, Robin, 2011, oil and acrylic on panel, 5"x5"

Same deal. We see Hankin responding in a pictorial sense to the construction of space and depiction of figure in an emerging technology. But he's responding, in a startling way, at a deep procedural level as well. These paintings are painted in CMYK.

A little explanation: painters can and do mix colors any number of ways. Many start with the primaries you heard of in grade school, yellow, red, and blue, and throw in a white, brown, and black, and make all the colors they need by mixing those. Others depend on a red-heavy palette. Some have palettes with twelve colors, or thirty.

Computer printers, on the other hand, all work more or less the same way, by mixing various proportions of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (acronymed as CMYK). Throw in the white of the underlying paper, and the printer has a complete color space on its hands:

via Wikipedia, links at end

In this image, a color photograph is broken down into the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black components which are combined in print to produce it.

Hankin has a background in mathematics, and the "long walk" of mixing colors for painting seemed counterintuitive to him when he began painting. It has extra steps; it's visceral and inexact. Printers do it much more sensibly - the computer figures out percentages of each of four inks for each dot, and boom: full spectrum. So he just decided to paint like that.

If you're a painter, you will understand how deeply bizarre this is. Trust me, folks, I've been to this guy's studio, and he literally has stripes of four paint colors right there on his palette. He mixes them carefully until he has the right browns, oranges, greens. He's not an automaton - the full spectrum of aesthetic choices informs exactly how he paints what he paints. Paint is subtler than Photoshop.

But the legitimacy of the mode does not efface the procedure:

Charlie Hankin, Hayden, 2011, oil on panel, 5"x5"

His colors do not look like normal painting colors. They are precise and clean; they are full, but cold. In fact, they have the icy crispness of the monitor. There is something deeply unnerving about a color universe without the messy warmth of your siennas, your umbers, your ochres. Hankin's work is not only about the impact of the computer on what we look at. It is also about how the computer forces us to see it. His work delves into the deep epistemology of the figure in the age of Skype.

Now we move on to Katy Diamond Hamer.

Katy Diamond Hamer, Stephanie (Aka Lady Gaga), 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 48"x48"

Hamer focuses here on a moment you will know, if you Skype - the moment the goddamn transmission falls apart. Often a moment of emotional intensity when it would really be better if you could keep communicating clearly.

I have a friend who once asked me if it were possible to make some kind of interesting, interpretive painting based on the JPEGiness of JPEG's. I said that I didn't think so, because to capture the quality that makes it JPEGy in the first place, you'd have to so mechanize the process that it would become boring. So anyhow, Hamer proved me wrong.

Katy Diamond Hamer, Paciunko (aka Igor), 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 48"x60"

Hamer takes JPEGiness as her inspiration here. The decomposition of parts of the image into rectilinear blocks is immediately recognizable, but not slavishly copied. She is riffing on the JPEG in the key of expressionism. She bends the qualities of the JPEG, and of the faulty data flow, to emotionally heighten a story. The story is the eerie double-facedness of overlapping partial frames. The emotions are confusion, separation, alienation. The story is specific to the Skype medium. There is an unbridgeable distance embedded in the medium itself. And it is always announced by that wretched cyan, the color of monitor reflection glow, the loneliest color.

Here's another:

Katy Diamond Hamer, Dark Conversation, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 14"x18"

At last -- that distracting reverse view embedded in the Skype window. Hamer uses this composition as a shorthand for conversation, recognizable to any Skype user, and then uses the dominant elements to elaborate on what the nature of the conversation is. It is jarring, disturbing -- the viewer, mirrored in the embedded image, is normally lit; but the other party emerges from the darkness. His expression is not hostile, exactly, but his cyan-inflected context is ambiguous and menacing.

Contrast Hamer's work with Hankin's. Hankin's narratives are flattened, allowing him to foreground his inquiry into the most basic elements of perception. Hamer's technique is much simpler, serving as a rough-and-ready means of exploring narratives and attendant emotions. Their subject matter is nearly identical, but their approach is worlds apart.

Now throw a third painter into the mix. Paul Beel, recently featured in these pages [Huffington Post pages, that is], is an American living in Florence. He comes from a background of traditional highly-rendered figurative painting:

Paul Beel, Haresissi, 2009

For him, Skype as a perception medium has been liberating:

Paul Beel, untitled portrait, 2012

Unlike Hankin and Hamer, he is not working from screen-grabs. He paints his subjects live over Skype. Low-resolution and brief in duration, his encounters with his subjects force him to abandon his sophisticated brushwork and tidy draughtsmanship. His marks gain energy and his colors become simpler and bolder. He's only got a few minutes to get to the point.

Paul Beel, untitled portrait, 2012

Again, we see the cyan of the monitor, but the emotional tenor of the work is different from that of Hankin and Hamer. Painting live, Beel imports the emotional give and take of the physically present artist-model interaction into the Skype-painting process. Which is to say, Skype becomes transparent for him: rather than reinforcing distance, it collapses it. His models, in countries far from Italy, enter into company with him, and he uses the shared moment to evoke them as people. In a sense, his work is the most classical we have studied here: as if Braque or Matisse, for instance, had woken up one morning and found a webcam in their jar of brushes, shrugged an ineffably French shrug, and gotten down to work.

Paul Beel, untitled portrait, 2012

But without the webcam -- no work. This liberty, this connection, this modified form of the classic head-and-shoulders portrait, is unique to the age of digital telecommunication.

Consider these three again:

Charlie Hankin encounters Skype and asks - how does this adjust what I see and how I see it? His inquiry focuses on the fundamentals of perception. He calls his series Laptop Paintings.

Katy Diamond Hamer encounters Skype and sees it as a means by which people wall themselves off while pretending to come together. She seeks to tell a story of disruption and alienation. She calls the cluster of paintings Since You Left.

Paul Beel encounters Skype and sees it not as a reduction of interactions he would normally have in person, but a window through which he can have interactions otherwise impossible. For him, these interactions are not categorically different from physical company. He cheekily titles the body of work Live Tonight.

I find this very exciting, these three engaged responses to a shifting technological landscape. Looking at the Degas photograph and painting, you feel a little frisson of pleasure, seeing Art, so ancient, so eternal, contend with a Changing World, so new, so suddenly familiar. It is a story we have all learned. We've learned that it is one of the fundamental facets of human progress, the use of art to incorporate change into consciousness. What's exciting about looking at Hankin, Hamer, and Beel is that we find that this story is still going on. Bravo, you three.


Degas Photograph:
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917), After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back, 1896, French Gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 x 4 11/16 in., Accession No. 84.XM.495.2, by kind permission of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Degas Painting:
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917), After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself), Oil on canvas, c. 1896, 35 1/4 x 46 inches, purchased with funds from the estate of George D. Widener, 1980, by kind permission of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

CMYK separate layers and combined image:
From Wikipedia:

All other artwork courtesy of the artists:
Charlie Hankin:
Katy Diamond Hamer:
Paul Beel: