Tuesday, August 31, 2010

when sounds become drawings...







50 sounds of the sea is the earliest work in my upcoming show. the piece consists 50 drawings in ink on index cards, housed in a hand made wooden box with a hand etched piece of tin on the lid. the drawings were made over the course of an hour on the evening of december 1st, 1990. my plan was to repeat the action every night for a year, but i ended up continuing it for only five consecutive evenings.

the drawings were made while standing on a ship at midnight looking at the sea in darkness as one day turned into the next. the piece was an early attempt to allow sound - in this case the ocean - to determine the movements of my hand. it is probably the earliest piece i made attempting to reconcile my interests in both sound and visual activities, as well as the beginning of an exploration of ideas related to recording and translation.

certainly i was thinking about the drum brush drawings of tom marioni, william anastasi's subway drawings, robert morris's blind drawings, and the work of terry fox - all of which i was just beginning to discover. in 1988 while still in grad school, i had been exploring conceptual strategies towards drawing and painting, but it was tentative, and mostly related to richard long and using walks to conceive of objects that would then be made in my studio.

at that time i was struggling with two things. one was to find a way to exploit process towards a different kind of making activity, and the other was to find a way to bring my interest in sound into my visual work - things i'm still exploring and still struggling with 20 years later. these drawings in a box were an important first step towards the exploration of both of these issues, as it suggested a path of making that involved a kind of performative limitation - drawing with my eyes "closed" - and they attempted to use sound to generate images.

also, at its most basic, 50 sounds of the sea was the first work that i made from a score:

"look at the sea in the dark, allow the sound to suggest drawing actions, and don't look at the paper."

i remember in undergraduate school, a life drawing teacher continually yelling "draw what you see, not what you know," and i think the idea of drawing outside at night was a way of messing with that idea, because i couldn't "see" anything but darkness.

certainly, the score for this work was simple, but i had never before attempted to impose a physical or conceptual limitation upon my natural tendency to draw in any way. the action shifted the focus from my eyes to my ears and hands, and it held the potential to generate something i might not expect to make. it also allowed the work to have some level of vulnerability, and accepted failure as a possible outcome (what if the drawings were absolutely uninteresting?). it approached the activity of drawing as an experimental activity, as opposed to a resolved activity.

one other thing that was so interesting is that i found myself incredibly focused on what i was listening to, and realized that one sense could fuel another - in this case sound and touch toward the creation of the visual without the use of sight. listening changed the way i made drawings.

eighteen years after making 50 sounds of the sea, i was working with allan kaprow's scores towards a performance of 18 happenings in 6 parts. while researching his work for a few months at the getty, i realized that the thing i responded to so deeply within his work was how his approach to conceptual process has always been human scaled (as opposed to academically scaled) and how it allows a great deal of room for the intuitive process. kaprow's work always seems to fall on the side of the conversation, rather than the resolved.

my own attempts towards expanding the ways i can mine a conceptual process towards generating intuitive moves, and somewhat traditional objects still feels like an experiment, and much of my work is still, on many levels, an artifact of a score and a performative process.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

where it all began...


well, since we are nearing september, i should let you know we are also nearing the opening of two exhibitions of my work - one looking forward, one looking back... a 20 year survey will open at the armory center for the arts here in pasadena, and will include painting, drawing, sculpture, film, sound, and text works - and it is curated by howard fox. it will coincide with an exhibition containing a new large scale sculpture/sound/film installation and a series of new tiny paintings, at the pomona college museum of art. both shows will have openings on sept. 11 (pomona from 4-6, and the armory from 7-9), and both will run through the end of the year. both shows will have catalogs.

so... i've decided for the next week or two, to indulge in what blogging seems most commonly used for - to talk about myself... and i'll be posting some images of early work, recent work, and things that hadn't been previously photographed in digital form.

the image posted above is not in either exhibition (i think including work from 4th grade in my survey might seem just a little self inflated), nonetheless it seemed a good place to start. the watercolor has been hanging in my studio since i discovered it a few years ago in my mom's garage. i believe i made it in 3rd or 4th grade...

as i remember it, the teacher instructed us to make a scary picture (probably related to halloween). i remember finishing the piece, and walking it up to the teacher's desk - feeling quite happy with myself. when i showed him the picture he was quite complimentary until he got to the sky, and then he frowned and told me he felt it was too splotchy, and was very bad watercolor technique. he then said that i should smooth it out. i remember telling him i thought it looked scarier the way i painted it, and that i wanted to leave it the way it was. he then said something quite extraordinary... he told me if i left it as is, i would get a C; but if i "fixed" it, i would get an A.

after school, i took the drawing home, and that evening asked my mom about it. she said i could do whatever i wanted, so of course, i went back to school the next day and took the C.

the situation not only made for a good story (and preparing me for what i would eventually be up against in grad school!), but also gave me material to use on my own students when i teach; because beyond some un-constructive criticism, mr. johnstone handed me the foundation of what would become a huge part of my practice; and, even if it had happened way back in third or fourth grade, if i would've compromised what i believed was right for the work because of someone else's goals i would still be paying for it now.

while i knew i wanted to be an artist from a very young age, the situation surrounding the splotchy sky seems a bit like it was the first stepping stone towards becoming an artist... at least in mind - for it was the first time that i can remember when i was unwilling to allow anyone else's desires to determine whether or not a work felt "right." it was also the first time i was willing to sacrifice a "reward" for the sake of making what i wanted to make.

make no mistake, anyone who is an exhibiting artist knows that compromise is going to be part of the deal - but the thing we own as artists is that we can determine within that compromise what we want, or need, to protect - where we might budge and where we absolutely won't. does one compromise in relation to their practice, their studio work, the way work is shown and where, the way it is written about, their approach to career, how they negotiate their time, how the studio is run, whom you deal with and whom you don't...? the list is long, and one must prioritize; and ever since that badly painted sky situation, i knew that compromise would never be part of what happens in the studio, nor would anything outside of the studio affect the "rightness" of the work.

perhaps i owe my grammar school art teacher a bit of gratitude after all...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

music, sound, silence...

the five bowers are bowing. i go home through warm woods
where the earth is springy under my feet
curl up like someone still unborn, sleep, roll on
so weightlessly into the future, suddenly understand
that plants are thinking.

tomas transtomer,
excerpt from the poem schubertiana,
from parabola magazine, 1980

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Monday, August 16, 2010

when sheets have animals drawn upon them...


it began with a cat, moved on to a giraffe, followed by a flat nosed deer, a camel, an elephant, and a burro or a horse... each as if fallen from the sky... or ...

it began with a burro or a horse, moved on to an elephant, and then a camel, followed by a flat nosed deer, a giraffe, and finally a cat... each as if climbing up into the sky...

(snapshot of an unknown hand drawn object by an unknown artist, in an unknown location with an unknown intended use...dated 1906 on the back).

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

when a thing is so beautiful i wish i'd made it myself...


somehow i ended up on this african sculpture/mask while searching for some old music photos on ebay. i swiped the image in the midst of some sort of chaotic bouncing around and hence i don't have the link to the listing that describes what this is - although i do remember it was in the $900 range if anyone is interested in it. the colors, the lines, the forms, and everything about its visual presence leaves me speechless, so i will refrain from connecting it to relevant "modern artworks" and stop writing anymore about it, other than to suggest you stare at it for a long while, at least long enough for it to begin seeping inside you, so that you can carry it with you wherever you go... i know i will!

sunday update: big thanks to greg (whose blog you should definitely check out), for sending me a link to this: In the Songye language, a mask is a kifwebe: this term has been given to masks representing spirits and characterized by striations. Depending on the region, it may be dark with white strips, or the reverse. The kifwebe masks embodied supernatural forces. The kifwebe society used them to ward off disaster or any threat. The masks, supplemented by a woven costume and a long beard of raffia bast, dance at various ceremonies. They are worn by men who act as police at the behest of a ruler, or to intimidate the enemy. It can be either masculine, if carved with a central crest, or feminine if displaying a plain coiffure. The size of the crest determines the magic power of the mask. Mask, colors, and costume all have symbolic meaning. The dancer who wears the male mask will display aggressive and uncontrolled behavior with the aim of encouraging social conformity, whereas the dancer who wears the female mask display more gentle and controlled movements and is assumed to be associated with reproduction ceremonies. The use of white on the mask symbolizes positive concepts such as purity and peace, the moon and light. Red is associated with blood and fire, courage and fortitude, but also with danger and evil. Female masks essentially reflect positive forces and appear principally in dances held at night, such as during lunar ceremonies and at the investiture or death of a ruler. The mask had also the capacity to heal by means of the supernatural force it was supposed to incorporate. The ritual of exorcism consisted of holding the sick man’s mask while a magician acted as if he were casting it into the fire. Kifwebekifwebe society – grooved shields, for example, are adorned with a central mask. Buffalo masks with a brown patina that have no stripes were used in hunting rituals. (lots more pictures here)

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Monday, August 09, 2010

when form is neither a division of time nor a mark of eternity...




"the limitless and continuous movement of a living body is fixed into a stationary position. but the movements are not weakened by being formalized. it is a sort of continuous creation which gains in activity and power upon being formalized. the form is neither a division of time nor a mark of eternity. it is the movement of that inseparable entity which is at once momentary and yet eternal."
soichi tominaga in sofu teshigahara

hiroshi teshigahara directed several of my favorite films, most notably woman in the dunes. teshigahara's cinema world is filled with tension, claustrophobia, angst, and a feeling of overwhelming heaviness - if air is to breathe, sometimes it can be so thick as to suffocate.

i don't know much about the director's biography, but when i picked up this catalog of works by sofu teshigahara, from 1958, i wondered if they might be related, and was surprised to find out that the sculptor was in fact the director's father. in 1926, as a young 25 year old artist of ikebana (traditional japanese flower arrangement), sofu founded the sogetsu school, which was celebrated for its mastery of traditional ikebana techniques in conjunction with more experimental and avant garde languages.

by 1930, his expanded language moved beyond flowers and vases, to an ikebana exhibition using scrap metal, and he eventually moved away from ikebana at times to create large scale stand alone sculpture, thereby creating not only arranged forms, but formed forms. after the 30's, his works tended to move back and forth between expanding ikebana language and modern sculpture, and his 1949 exhibition was considered revolutionary in relation to ikebana traditions.

sofu's thorny limbed structures, and his sometime use of fragmented - almost fractal-like and punctured - surfaces, reek of a kind of post-apocalyptic being, suggesting not just a response of someone who experienced WWII in japan, but also an existential consciousness and postwar nihilism that became part of the art of japan in the late 50's, which was shared across mediums with the gutai group, fluxus, the electronic avant garde works of composer's such as takemitsu, and experimental film through directors like sofu's son hiroshi.

while sofu's sculpture look tame by contemporary standards, his movement from framing flowers to carving thorns suggests an aggressive act towards trying to reconcile the violence of recent human behavior. the works feel like organic mutations; and as much as the thorny works are provocations, his softer smaller "blobby" sculpture seem not only quiet, but weak and underfed. kobo abe's work seems a perfect meeting ground for the elder and younger teshigaharas' works - with the younger making films from abe's texts, and the elder making multi-limbed sculpture with auras reflective of the queasy sexual atmosphere of abe's writing.

even though tominaga's introduction talks mostly about sofu's sculpture in formal terms - equating the formal with time, physical movement, psychology, etc., i think the power in sofu's work does not come so much from the way he fragments surfaces, and plays with futurist time and cubist space, as much as his sculpture feeds off a kind of desperate, uncanny feeling, that gives the works' formal beauty a whole lot of tension.

by western standards these 1958 sculpture seem hardly aggressive or revolutionary, but in the late 50's sofu's works were certainly moving into their own territory - not just within the context of ikebana, but in terms of sculpture in general. this is particularly visible with the red piece pictured above, which looks a bit like a later ken price merged with the surface of a disco-ball, and the 'thorny' works which remind me of early anish kapoor sculpture minus the raw pigment.

unlike noguchi, sofu remained in japan, and it was his relationship to a single traditional japanese craft - ikebana, that gave his work a very different feel than noguchi's, which was influenced much more by a response to japanese aesthetics overall than a conversation or conflict with a single traditional craft medium. i think that once noguchi embraced western ideas of modern art and culture, his constant return to japanese tradition and/or craft was a way of maintaining his connection to eastern aesthetics. this wasn't an attempt to disrupt or work against tradition, as much as to include it in his modernist dialogue - and thus expand western modernist language. sofu's relationship was much more about breaking tradition and craft wide open, to expand japanese sculpture - and ikebana - visual language.

in terms of japanese art, it wasn't until the recent era of japanese "superflat" that sofu's language has pretty much left the building; and i wonder if to some degree the superflat phenomenon was so huge, because it was japanese artists' first full-blown embrace of pop art. murakami, nara, and the like, clearly want to move art away from the traditional modernist approach of artists like sofu, who, like newman and rothko, explored traditions - craft tradition as well as certainly modernist tradition - and attempted to pull both forward. it was not the revolution that warhol, oldenburg, and ramos sought... those guys weren't wrestling on cliffs with picasso or valazquez the way pollock was; they were thinking about the sexiness of coke bottles, ray guns, and comic books.

i have no idea if sofu ever read manga, but one could loosely compare his dark, mutant, broken, mended, thorny - and beautiful - forms, with the dark post-apocalyptic creatures and narratives of someone like osamu tezuka (who not only wrote sci-fi comics about a robot boy, but also a comic version of the life of buddha). neither was particularly interested in popular culture's language, as much as they were both attempting to express a 50's eastern human condition - not so much through the visual language of advertising and pop culture as much as revealing the emptiness, and feeding the psychological needs, hidden beneath it. both artists revolutionized their crafts in ways that allowed them to continue to work with, and against, the traditions they were part of. ikebana and manga has never been the same since.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

the alchemy of al taylor...


ulrich loock: would you say these types of words sort of hit you?

al taylor: they hit me and i have to get something made quickly, because whatever hits me i know i'm going to heal from. my use of language is sort of like a songwriter looking for a hook. take a piece like "layson a stick"... i joined some broomsticks together imprecisely, causing a slight angle, and then i attached them to the wall with wires in a manner that played up this downward angle. at the point where the angle starts to droop i hung on some plastic hawaiian leis. that started me thinking about the words "lei" and "lay" - 'lay' on a stick. so now on an adolescent level the work became a visual analogy for the sexual act, the old "in and out" but, more importantly, it is a good excuse for using color. i could play with tones and values to imply a tunnel - light before dark or reverse the tunnel and it becomes an entrance, or ignore those illusions and work on more combinations like "these 'leis on a stick' lie on a stick"... 'lies' on a stick seemed close to an untruth. then it dawned on me that 'lays on' sounds like the french word 'liaison' which completed a circle of logic. all of this took about 8-10 minutes of hands-on action, but the real working time was stretched out over 5 hours of looking and thinking that will take years to draw.

image of al taylor's "layson a stick" and excerpt from an interview from al taylor/kunsthalle bern, 1992

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