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  • A Year's Work

    Photo by Jenn Wetzel

    Approximately fifty-two weeks ago, near the end of February, Lee Piechocki and I met for beers at an enstablishment known by some as "The Eagle's Nest." There—after exhausting the subject of our respective studio work—we simultaneously asked a simple question: What if we went plein air painting?

    It was still winter of course, and it sounded strange to us both. Painting in the stereotypical mode of a Sunday Painter (at best a comical Frenchman, at worst an re-actualizing American senior citizen) was not something we found central to our desires as artists. And that being the case, we also weren't the type to embrace the hobby end of painting; a characterization that many "serious" painters are constantly feeling bruised by. Moreover, we were wary of using our free time to do something with such cultural proximity to our actual work. Perhaps it wouldn't feel so free.

    But for whatever reason, that oddly warm winter left us anxious and open-minded enough to be pleased by the notion of simply getting outside and painting from observation. Each of the reservations above were fielded and easily overcome with an inner need to present our lives with a change so bold that its results—in terms of our own satisfaction—were impossible to guess at. No expectations, no high standards. Just an opportunity to experiment and play with materials we were unfamiliar with in locations we didn't see enough of.

     

    The Pitch, February 28, 2013

    Theresa Bembnister, writing for the Pitch, tells the rest of the story in this week's feature story (and with great skill). Our innocent desire for fresh air and an expansion of perspective turned into quite the little thing. I am proud and pleased to mark one year of plein air painting with KC PAC, Kansas City's Premier Plein Air Coterie. The friends I have made, the places I have seen, and the paintings I have produced are all elements of what has been a stunningly joyous year for me. From the confines of a beige, windowless assault on my vitality (a former full-time job) to the breathless, challenging, rewarding life of an artist, the last year has been richly layered with new chances to be the person I actually am. And my weekly session with KC PAC has been an extra saturated weekly power-note in a year of true living.

    What is more, while I've always found it easy to like wherever I am, I now live with a daily surplus of pride and investment in Kansas City. With the year ahead, I intend to find ways to spend from that surplus. I want to be one of the people that makes and re-makes this city. It'll be great. We're only just beginning.

  • Instagram is the Cruelest App, Breeding

    As an artist, reading pontifications from tech writers about what constitutes art is about as close as I’ll get to the level of interest and irritation a bull experiences in the flapping of a cape. But, ever since Instagram became a major component of first-world culture, I’ve been increasingly aware of the drivel being passed out (and rarely replied to) by each of the archetypal members of the “conversation”. And ever since yesterday, when Facebook bought Instagram, that conversation has gone from suck to blow.

    “Instagram is destroying photography because the photos are yellow, and our kids won’t understand what our world was really like." — people, everywhere

    I’ve heard one iteration or another of this comment many times. Whether we’re talking debt, national defense, or Instagram, I find it astonishing how concerned we are with our kids. Many of them aren’t even born yet. If we are any indication, we’re doing just fine dissecting and understanding our parents, and they aren’t even done destroying the world. We, the “You Are Special” generation, could be served by imagining a world in which our kids don’t care so much about all the pictures we took and put on the internets. They probably won’t.

    But, to be less abstract (and more serious): even if it were true that Instagram is simply and singularly a place for sepia-toned and badly-composed images to await the eyes of our children (just dying to know more about us), those very images would say plenty. In addition to documenting the world we lived in—from gadget fetish to meme obsession—they would also tell the story of a deeply nostalgic society. So many people are so taken by the associations and aesthetics of filters and effects that alter images to appear like those of another time, made by the mechanisms of other, more tangible machines than the shiny lozenges in our pockets (lozenges upon which, until last week, the hardware disappeared with a Jobsian flourish at the moment we engaged the home button). This desire for authenticity, even in the form of software’s simulacra, says so much about who we are now, and the way our world looks. As for filter-free Instagrams? The most revealing aspect of those images is not the clarity and “honesty” they provide, it’s the oft-tapped and self-righteous footnote they are so often delivered to the world with: #nofilter. Filter or no, we are a people repeatedly revealing our need for authenticity.

    Before we acknowledge the art that can be produced with and without filters on Instagram (or anywhere else), we should first address their most practical reason for existence. When Instagram first arrived, the iPhone it was built for didn’t feature the best camera in the world (although it was an amazing camera, when one considers the context). It wasn’t a DSLR, and given the consumer craze for DSLR’s at the time, it was fair (if illogical) for consumers to expect their pictures to be more striking than those of a typical 2010 camera phone. Meantime, other elements of the experience were young too. The phones were less capable, and the apps available for editing photos were less capable too. Pre-packaged, contrast-heavy, and slightly over-saturated filters were a great way to satisfy the desire an average iPhone user had for images that were worthy of their memories and their friends. As the hardware and software improve, and more control and ease of use are afforded to the user, the tool itself will more plainly prove its worth.

    From the beginning, out of this large (and constantly growing larger) set of users, there has been a select group of users able to build an acuity for which—if any—filters to use and when, in order to produce individual streams of images suitable for their aims. In addition, they soon enough became aware of the other photo-editing apps available, and some went so far as to use more than one. You can call these people professional photographers, artists, or simply people with taste. In addition to the fine things crafted by the sacred few, there are a great number of 'snapshots' worth seeing, usually from the streams of family and friends, just like there used to be in the days of Kodak and actual socializing. Whichever exemplar you choose, you’ll get in trouble with someone who believes such a distinction of quality or even art is impossible, because Instagram is an app, and your choices are pre-ordained within that app. You'll also get in trouble with those that espouse rather esoteric taste. And, people with bad taste. But these laments are silly. Even on the rarest occasion of their fulfilled potential, are not tubes of oil color mixed and filled by someone (or something) else? Since when was art, or quality, or value determined by such arbitrary (and layered) measures of authenticity?

    Instagram is an incredibly open tool for creativity. Are there constraints? Yes. Is it pedestrian? Of course. But to say art can’t be made there is to be the fool who challenges an artist not to make something interesting out of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. That analogy alone should give photography purists pause, as they worry not about art, but the purity of their fetish for their preferred form. It would likely frighten them to learn that the technicians who have been perfecting the production of acrylic paint for the last several decades have had one major goal before them: replicating the quality of oil paint. Most people can’t tell the difference between the two, and more importantly—even fewer people care. Those who care really care. But you know what? Collectors and curators alike have been embracing acrylic paint for a while. Instagrams aren’t being confused with instant film (yet), but soon enough, no one will even care about the distinction. Especially so long as interesting and powerful images can be produced with the medium. Increasingly, they can.

    Image-making methods tend to experience periods of popularity, but rarely do they go extinct. And never have they simply replaced one another on a linear timeline. Those who worry what is becoming of photography would be more honest to admit they're worried about themselves and their place in the narrative. Painting—a medium that supposedly died in 1964, and again in 1988—is also a medium that has assisted, at times, in my ability to eat food and live indoors. There is room for old things.

    Is Instagram largely a giant pot of kitsch and agony and poorly-composed ugly? Yes, it is. And so is the world. Is Instagram a place where beautifully delicate, artful, singular, and profound images can be produced and easily shared? Yes, it is. And it also resembles the world in that such things can be produced by a few, and unlike the world before it, in which image sharing was less personal, less mobile, and less accessible than the square and instant image you are holding in your hand—anywhere. 15 years ago, the white-coated man at the lab could probably tell you how ugly and artless the world was (at least in terms of his user base). Now we all get to peek, and we all get to discover, too. This isn't what I did, this is what I'm doing. It's so instant that there's a word for photos that aren't instant (#latergram). An app, a tiny little free app that can do so much, with so little friction—that’s worth a billion dollars.

    Despite Instagram's obvious worth, I wish Facebook wouldn’t have bought it. My reason is exemplified by a story we all share in one form or another, and therein one will find the very set of reasons Facebook had for acquiring Instagram (and the paradox that annoys my sadness). Most of the wistful declarations out there conjure Instagram to be the beloved set of dixie-cup-and-string “phones” we dangled from our tree-houses, astonishingly (and rudely) acquired by the Bell Company, the public utility that keeps growing. There’s something to that. Instagram was built by a few people, people that “followed” us and let us visit their office. And Facebook is, more and more, a public utility. A phonebook, yellow pages and all. But that isn’t really the way the story goes, and those analogies (appropriately) don’t make total sense. What really happened to our romantic little cup-phones? We got older. We matured. The fun could only last so long. And so it goes with these phones.

    I don’t mean to say that the fun with Instagram is over. But it’s wise to wonder. A free app that was ad-free and run by a few guys earning nothing but investment? That couldn’t last forever, and there was always an endgame to that thread. I wish it hadn’t been bought for the same reasons that a child doesn’t want to go to bed, or grow up. I wasn’t finished. In that sense, I was (and continue to be) just the sort of user they wanted and needed to produce the valuable product that Instagram now is. Users want an Instagram that remains in the magical stasis of community and independence it so recently occupied. Others want users to be happy for the faceless individuals who made millions off the app (and resultant happiness) that may soon change. Both desires lack a sense of reality. Users were the valuable product even before Facebook entered the picture, and even so, users want a product they value. My hope is that Facebook puts as much thought into Instagram’s future as they did cash. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I’ll trust that they will. Meantime, I can make things anywhere—who profits is another matter.

      

  • Solo Exhibition at Central Missouri University

    I'll be exhibiting recent work in a small solo show opening Thursday, February 16, at the University of Central Missouri Gallery of Art & Design. The exhibition is the final part of a three-part exhibition focusing on process (Anne Lindberg and Jaimie Warren exhibited previously). My most recent Nocturne, New Mexico (2010, acrylic on linen, 54 x 96 in.), will be exhibited, along with a video documenting its production (video still above).

    The opening reception is February 16 from 4–6pm. The exhibition runs through March 16. 

    UCM Gallery of Art & Design
    217 Clark St.
    AC 215B
    Warrensburg, Missouri 64093
    660 543 4498

  • Naming the Ineffable on a Saturday Night

    But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.

    W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

    Last Saturday night I saw Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. I have been meaning to write down what it made me feel ever since I rose from my theater seat. Daily life so quickly gets in the way of opportunities to mark its meaning. When I returned from the theater, more contemplative than usual, I peered into the windows of my own house—watching things not move. I quietly snuck inside through the back and Molly called me upstairs. She was in her wedding dress, patting down the sides of the white fabric, stretching her arms through the veil. This was the second time I had seen her in that dress.

    Later we drove to a neighborhood we didn’t know, to walk its streets and see something new. We removed our sandals and walked in someone else’s yard. She sat in a couch with a “FREE” sign taped to its center, and later leaned against the back of a signless chair. We turned a darkened corner and found a high view of the city. It was unexpected and enchanting. Is this where we live?

    As we walked, I told her about The Tree of Life. I openly couldn’t decide if she would enjoy it. In what seemed a way of reaching out to my affected demeanor—and keeping me with her for the rest of the night—she said she’d be willing to watch a “dramatic movie”, and she asked me to consult Netflix accordingly.

    The selection process soon fell apart. She stated her preference for something more thrilling than sad. Within minutes our choices were Wall Street and Blue Velvet. We watched Wall Street, and I felt a tinge of disappointment for spending away the wonder I had captured at the theater by watching Oliver Stone’s most tasteful attempt to arouse the base expanses of my brain. The upside was the humor (where humor wasn’t intended), from which we were able to add to the experience. The dated styles and dialogue gave us something to jeer and chuckle at.

    There are so many memories and emotions that The Tree of Life called up. The task of putting them all down would be onerous, not unlike drawing a map at a 1:1 scale (a task that Malick could be accused of attempting in telling the story of time). As the days and hours have passed, despite Wall Street and ordinary life, the film has sunk into my consciousness and found the deepest recesses of long untapped feeling.

    There are moments in the film during which my self-awareness as a viewer peered out, and I briefly asked myself if I could accept what I was seeing. Images from Hubble, cells dividing, a curious moment between two dinosaurs, a vision of life and relationship outside of time. In each of these moments though, I was snagged by something running beneath and between the visuals, dragging me onward like a lure on top of the water. I was too enthralled with what is perhaps the most ambitious, honest, and true story I’ve ever seen told. Roger Ebert called the film a prayer, and that is true. I was praying by seeing. I was not at the movies, but finally back in a sanctuary. The communion is overpriced and buttery, but I’ll gladly pay that price again to be in brief contact with the places once conjured by the hymns of my youth.

    There are specific moments—in the largest, most epic scenes of the universe unfolding and expanding and in the most intimate, wordless moments between a father and son—that feel so true to my understanding of creation that they are devastating.

    So much—too much—is brought back by watching the son wrestle with his inner world until something sudden must burst forth as he shouts in the face of his father, and seeing the astonishment and pain on the face of his parents standing in the yard. I can remember with surprising clarity the Saturday afternoon that I screamed up the sides of my dad’s face that he could keep his money, his riding lawnmower, his plans for the yard to himself. I didn’t care what that meant. I didn’t care if I was grounded. I didn’t care if I had dinner or a bedroom. I hated him that day. Or, with some reflection since, I hated the hundreds of decisions he was making each day to be someone I couldn’t know or be, I hated the plain and uncomfortable fact that for as great a man as he was—and he was great—I only felt shame when I held myself up to him. I hated feeling ugly and weak in front of everyone’s favorite man. My favorite man.

    We held each other and wept that afternoon, the lawn half-mowed. We knew something fully then that I struggle to remember today. What it is, I haven’t the talent to say.

    Not long after a sequence in which the father endures his own fall from power and grace, I was shown something that doesn’t elicit old memories, but instead makes contact with fresh wounds of the present. The father’s inner story is suddenly permitted to speak, as his voiceover allows us his heart, sadly marshaling up the sidewalk after a day’s empty work: I am nothing. At once the father reveals he too was once the son. He too had a head full of what he would one day be allowed to be, only to be wrong. At the ever-ripening age of 29, I am heartbroken to realize that I somehow identify with a broken, unknown father. There, at his bottom, he was the picture of the nobody-man that we American men have long learned to fear becoming. And yet, in acknowledging his nothingness, he was approaching an Emersonian freedom. He had begun to see. He too could grow—could live—until the day he no longer lived at all.

    That sequence alone, and the filmmaking that leads to it, are enough to affect something in me so important that the film stands in my mind as transcendent, life-affirming, and terrifying. But there are so many such moments therein, and I suspect more will be found upon repeat viewings. The feeling I wanted to grasp and put to paper was the sense that despite the way I may have thought I would feel if you read me the script and showed me the storyboards, the film itself had me constantly and consistently enthralled. I was aware, at all moments, that Malick was pulling something off, that his alchemy of sound and picture was dismantling previous models and expectations. He made something not simply great, but new. A movie, and something else. Do you remember when it was a regular occurrence to see something for the first time?

    To see something such as this—the old made new—is to momentarily grasp the rare conviction that perhaps something wondrous, something Other, something slow and old is just beyond the most distant horizon. If not, then what did I feel? And if so, then what am I? Lonely as those questions are to confess, by asking, we are not alone. By making, we can search.