Saturday, January 26, 2019

Hurry Up!

When I was at university, faced with the requirement of choosing a major, I chose architecture. I believe that even back then there was a hidden subconscious part of me that knew I wanted to be an artist, but that part wasn't yet ready, wasn't yet confident enough, to manifest... so I gave in to the not-uncommon desire to focus on something professional, something that would bring me an income and some security. I got poor grades because I wouldn't goose-step along with the sheep who somehow became my architecture professors - I wouldn't toe the party line of deconstructivism and its boring and senseless aesthetics. I liked baroque curves. But the spinelessness of those idiots "teaching" me wasn't what killed my career in architecture, rather it was the summer I spent interning in an architecture firm. That summer I realized that the distance between the original idea and its eventual execution is way too long (for me) in architecture. Too much time, too much paperwork, too much dilution by committee, too much compromise. I needed to do something more immediate, where the idea was mine from start to finish, and could be brought to completion as fast as I could personally manage.

Fast forward to last winter in Berlin. I had just learned that I would receive funding from Burning Man to build With Open Arms and although the first check was still weeks away, I needed to get a head start on understanding how I would build it. I decided to try out a much-loved 3D drafting program called Fusion 360. If I could learn the program in those intervening weeks I would be able to produce a slick virtual 3D model which would help very much in presenting my idea (in a modern and up-to-date way), as well as streamline the actual fabrication process. Well after about a week of trying to model, and then unwrap (or flatten) a single cone - a week in which I sought help from several online Fusion 360 experts - I abandoned that route. What it took me a week to not successfully accomplish, I could do in a few hours with my trusty old 2D drafting program and some cardboard. Time was of the essence. I didn't have all the damn time in the world, you know?

So last week I started my painting career. We shall see if I ever come close to earning that word... "career." For reasons which will soon become clear, I think it's actually better to steer clear of the word "painting," too. "Image making career," or "image making experiment" is probably better. Anyway, enough with the semantics. As I've mentioned, I have this idea for an image I would like to produce. It has now mushroomed into a series of 3 images. Naturally I envision them as paintings, because... well because paintings are "serious" and because when paintings are good, they are so good.

So, I bought some brushes and some paint. I bought oil paint and also acrylic. I tried painting. I imagined that because I could see the paintings in my head, that I could paint them well. I imagined I would be a prodigy.

Well, I'm not.

Admittedly I didn't try that hard, and apparently painting well is not that easy (or so they say). But I've got these images in my head and I don't want to practice for a month or a year before I'm good enough to paint them. For christ's sake I've got a kid and I'm lucky if I get 20 or 25 hours to myself per week (during which I must also do all that boring shit that grownups have to do). In the month or year it takes me to get good at painting, the ideas might leave me or suddenly seem stupid, or I might get hit by a meteor. No, I can't wait that long.

My very first effort at painting, two weeks ago, was my knockoff of the life-sized nude that I mentioned. I may as well post some detail pictures here...

The original

My copy (looking at it now, I can see some improvements that should be made..) illustrate the fact that my technique of watercolor followed by colored pencil, all on 1/4" plywood, was not half-bad. (As you can see I started with a cartoon-like outline in Sharpie, which I'm not entirely sure was the right idea.) So, fuck it- I'm going to try that technique. I think I can expand on it and get something good. I bought three sheets of plywood today, and I've already got my watercolors and pencils. We will see. I don't have all the time in the world, you know.

I will post pix as these images take shape. They will feature confident women.
I hope the through-line... the theme... that unites these stories is obvious enough. Do shit. Get it done. Life is short. Sure, I know the value of learning new skills and putting in the hours, but it's also important to be productive and make shit happen. That thing you want to do... do it. You don't have forever.

I continue to be fascinated with images of strong and confident women. Within this adjective "confident" exists a fairly broad range, from "doesn't give a fuck" through "suspicious" and "annoyed" all the way to "angry," and they are all equally compelling to me. I believe that this has got to be one of the reasons that Alexander McQueen continues to hold my attention; he too was fascinated with this particular range of emotions in women (and the zone where these emotions overlap with sexy) and actively tried to manifest all of that through his clothing.

 Doesn't give a fuck 

Jassans (that guy was such a master!!)

 Alexander McQueen *

 Sculpture I did in Berlin 

 From a book in Spain 

 A sculpture I did in Barcelona 

This fascination is operating on something of a subconscious level, which is to say that I don't really have a handle on why it's so compelling to me. My wonderful friend Richard took the liberty of psychoanalyzing me (based on my blog) at a recent birthday dinner, and his theory is that the "confident female" is the part of me that I'm trying to manifest, to bring to the fore. I love the theory.. or at least I love the fact that he bothered to think of a theory.. (my major was architecture but my minor was psychology), but I'm not sure yet if I agree. The fact that, just as Jassans did, I prefer confident women to be nude might undermine his theory... or it might just make for an interesting twist. People are complicated... so who knows. In any case, thanks for the great conversation Richard; clearly I'm still pondering it.

In more mundane news, I've been moving shipping containers around in the snow for the last 2 days. This involves a lot of jumping in and out of the forklift, and even a fair bit of getting up and down from the tops of the containers, and it's exhausting.

But I do love my forklift.

And it seems to be "car fixing season." 

Wandering, imprecise steering was the single worst thing about the Scout... until I fixed it the other day. (That's the steering gearbox in the vise, at lower right.) I feel like this gave the old car a bit of a new lease on life... suddenly I want to fix all the small problems and make the thing fun to drive again... or at least less of a pain-in-the-ass to drive again. The Honda got new rear brakes.

I forced myself to do a day of digital detox last weekend, which was unexpectedly hard. I instinctively reached for the phone or the computer several times during the day... in those little "in-between" moments... but I stopped myself and it did force me to do other things, like look at books. I have so many great books that I so rarely look at. I re-discovered Hans Bellmer while looking through an art book about the surrealists. That guy was a freak.


* Have you ever noticed that photographs of men typically only show their head, while photos of women often also show their breasts? There is a totally different image-cropping protocol for the two genders. I tried to find some scholarly article on the topic to which I could hyperlink, but came up empty... which surprised me. I wasn't quite sure how to frame some of these images... give in to the unwritten protocol? or go with head only? I decided to just mix it up a little...

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


A few blog posts ago I mentioned that there was a specific painting which I would love to own, but with a price tag of $11,000 it seemed unlikely. For a few months I found myself scheming and plotting about how I could manage to scrape up that amount of money (sell motorcycles? sell my Scout? sell random stuff on eBay?) but I really couldn't fathom how to do it. The painting is a large-scale female nude, and at some point I even cleared enough wall space in my office to hang it. When I finally came to terms with the fact that I wasn't going to be spending that much on a painting, I hit upon the idea of finding an artist online whom I could commission to make a different large-scale nude for that same spot on my wall. I did in fact find a fantastically talented guy in Russia (how about that internet, huh?) and for an incredibly reasonable fee he did a full-scale nude drawing for me. In negotiating with him, I tried my best to convey exactly what I was looking for... to distill what were the elements of the original painting that I liked so much. The subject of the original painting is confrontationally looking directly at the viewer, and I felt that was important. She is standing neutrally - not trying to be sexy, not flirting with the viewer, and yet she is quite beautiful - so I conveyed that to my new online Russian friend (let's call him Igor) as well. I specified the hair color and a few other details. And yet... when the drawing arrived... it was just not right. There was something critical about the woman in the original painting that I had failed to put my finger on (and had therefor obviously failed to convey to Igor), and that is that she was confident. Igor's subject had a very slight slouch in her shoulders and an ever-so-subtle "beaten" or "weary" look in her eyes, and it just ruined it for me. Minute subtleties in posture are so very important, both in art and in life - I believe posture is one of the main parameters on which we judge other people. I don't feel that this was Igor's fault. I was looking for something too specific, and I wasn't able to communicate it to him.

I found the whole process so interesting, from a psychological point of view. There was some feeling that the original $11,000 painting gave me, and that is the value of it to me. The feeling. Even though Igor's drawing is technically wonderful, the feeling I got from the painting was really different. I guess one thing I figured out was that I find confidence quite appealing. (How's that for uncomfortable voyeurism, Joseph!) I am reminded of my previous discussions of Niccol├│ dell'Arca and the importance of the role of emotion in artwork, as well as of Alexander McQueen and the allure of cold confidence.

Finally I hit upon the idea to make a copy of the original painting for myself. This would save me just about $11,000 (well, let's say $10,950 because of art supplies), and would give me a reason to actually paint, for the first time in my life. Yes, I've never painted before. I painted it on plywood instead of canvas. I painted initially in water color because I was afraid to jump right in with something like gouache or oil, but then went back over the image with Caran d'Ache water-soluble colored pencils when I saw the limitations of water colors. To be honest I very much enjoyed the process and I am very happy with the result. My copy of this great painting manages to evoke much the same feeling in me as the original, and that counts as a success in my book.

Only after completing the painting did it occur to me to research the legality of what I'd done. While the overwhelming majority of the views expressed online seem to espouse the idea that copying someone else's painting is OK as long as you are honest about the fact that it's a copy and that you do not sell it, there is a minority claiming that even personal use would be illegal. So, I'm not going to post my efforts here, or name the original. (Haha, what a tease!)

But the upshot of it is that I am inspired to make more paintings, original works that aren't copies. The only thing I can imagine painting at the moment are large-scale confident female nudes, but hey.. that could change. Way back in my blog post of April 2nd of last year I mentioned that I had an idea for an image that would be well-conveyed through painting. At that time I dismissed the idea that I might paint it myself... but now I am considering it. That particular image features just such a female figure, but has a thematically significant and rather complicated background as well. So who knows, maybe I'll start painting...


My last post, with its allusion to an existential crisis about the future of this blog, elicited a few messages of support. Thanks. One such writer was my brother, who encouraged me to write more about my thoughts behind my different sculptures. When I was in LA last month I got a similar message from my pal Jon Alloway. Cool, glad you guys like reading that sort of stuff.

I had to look back through my posts from last year to see what I'd written about my thoughts behind "With Open Arms," because I sort of thought I'd covered it already. It turns out that everything I ever wrote was presented in the post of March 3rd, in which I announced that Burning Man had decided to fund my project, and in which I also posted the application materials, which laid out the concept of the piece. 

To be fair, the content of that post covers it for the most part. But it's also true that I did flesh out the narrative of the piece a bit more, as I spent more time with the sculpture. The basic idea of the piece is that it is a monument from a possible future, a dystopian future. In this future, humans have become so thoroughly subjugated by our robot overlords that they (the robots) have decided to appoint (or build) one of their own kind to be our new god. The idea of a god is foreign to them, but they have scanned through the annals of our human history and observed that we have a tendency to invent gods which we then worship. They see the value of the presence of a god within human society as a force which they can use to organize us, control us, and keep us docile. So even though they know full well that this new god is nothing more than another robot (albeit an unusual and special one), they have convinced us impressionable humans that it is in fact our new god, which we must worship and serve, or risk death (by either punishment via one of the god's formidable human-processing end-effectors, or by starvation... because robots and AI networks now control all means of food production and distribution.)

The low-relief frieze around the piece pretty much spells out this story, and I imagine that most people who spend any time with the sculpture can pretty much put this narrative together in their own heads. 

As I wrote the above paragraph, I had a flash - a realization - that this piece would actually benefit from some light kinetic mechanization. Because the truth is that the piece is not really intended to be a monument from some dystopian future, as I wrote above, but is in fact supposed to be the actual robot, the one that was built as our god. In line with this idea, it would be fantastic if the central figure, the robot, would actually move. The issue is that some sort of simple, repetitive movement (like the claw opening and closing with a cyclical motor, for instance) would be lame. What would be not-lame would be if the character had realistic, life-like movement on many different joints, in the service of it looking genuinely lifelike. I thought about trying to achieve this prior to the sculpture's debut at Burning Man by incorporating a very subtle movement of the head... but there just wasn't time for that, much less for full-body multi-axis articulation. Burning Man timelines are really short for building this kind of thing... 4 months is tight. A friend of mine in Berlin, Frank Barnes, advised me: "When it comes to kinetic movement, go really big... or not at all." I think he is basically right, and real-world constraints forced me to go "not at all" on With Open Arms. But it's a tantalizing idea for the future to mechanize that freakish robot god.

The other thing I was hoping to achieve with the sculpture, which would be something that would work on a much more subtle and subconscious level, was to mirror on a metaphorical level our relationship with technology. What I mean to say here is that I was hoping to build something so alluringly beautiful that people would be drawn to it, wanting to spend time with it. And then, slowly, upon getting closer and taking in the details, they would realize they were in the presence of an entity that might well be malicious - that might not have their best interests at heart. In the ideal metaphorical construct, they would be so drawn to this figure that they would override their concerns for their own well-being and stick around anyway. This narrative would mimic the way we are drawn in by our little black-screened techno buddies, and can't seem to step away from them even when we begin to understand the damage they do to us. Hence the central god figure's good face and bad face and mixed bag of benevolent and menacing end effectors.

A topic which is tangentially related to the "what I actually had in mind for this particular piece" discussed above, and one which I personally find more interesting (in part because it's still largely mysterious to me) is: "how to come up with good ideas in the first place."

Well, I have no frickin idea. 

Haha, that's not absolutely correct! What I can say is that I feel there ideally should be a role for both the pre-conscious intuition (what we might call inspiration), as well as for the rigorous intellect. Ideally, the first part of the process is that an idea should come in a flash, and then secondarily that idea can be worked out, embellished, and forced into line with reality by the intellect. In many cases this secondary process can add significantly to the meaning and the richness of the work.

One thing that I've observed, and which I think is really worth pointing out, is that it is not necessary (indeed, in many cases it is not even sufficient) to just sit around and wait for the inspiration to strike. On the contrary, I think it is important to consciously and intentionally immerse oneself in a soup of ingredients as a way of encouraging the alchemic spark to suddenly unite those ingredients into an idea. 

With Open Arms presents a good example of what I am talking about. When Burning Man announced the theme of "I, Robot" last year, I did not initially have any idea what to propose. So I started reading about the current, and near-future, state of affairs in the worlds of robots and AI. Some ideas, or to be more accurate... a tone, started to gel. Then Christina and Kodiak and I visited an Indonesian Cultural Center in Berlin, and while Christina and Kodiak watched the shadow puppet theater I found the library. Glancing through a book of Hindu / Buddhist religious statuary was the last ingredient needed, and suddenly the image of a robot god formed in my head. Lots and lots of intentional, conscious modifications and refinements followed that first flash of inspiration, working out issues of construction and lighting and aesthetic refinements and dreaming up the frieze to convey the narrative, but it was all in service to that first idea.

One is not always so lucky. I have had situations in which I very much wanted to present a proposal for consideration for funding, but had no "inspirational spark." In certain of those instances I have sort of "forced" myself to consciously construct a vision. And frequently, those proposals are not quite as strong. 

Christina and I pushed the "Submit" button earlier today on our Burning Man proposals for 2019, and that is a great feeling. The proposals are quite a bit of work, and it feels good to be done with them. The idea for my proposal for this year actually came from a song, of all places. That process was a bit unique in the sense that I saw the image really clearly, and felt very strongly about the power of the image without really knowing what it meant. Only later did I try to figure out WHY it was a powerful image. Luckily, I think I did hit upon a kernel of meaning... something that feels a bit universal... if I may say so. Also, I think this piece fulfills Keith Haring's Lesson # 3 a bit better than With Open Arms did. Of course I will expand on this piece after February 21st, when we hear back from Burning Man, whether it is funded or not.

Well, in keeping with Keith Haring's Lesson # 2, I belted this blog post out in one fast sitting. 

No pictures.

Wait, is that OK? Should I add a picture?
OK, here's one...

It's been snowing a lot here lately. In this pic you can see, from left to right... The Hand of Man (disassembled on pallets in the background), Fledgling, a pre-historic heavy equipment bucket (yard art), Garraplata (the lobster), Skeletor, and the Subjugator. We should charge admission to this place.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Get into the Groove

Hello again.

I think I've started most of the last few posts by talking about how it was easier to structure and to write blog posts in Europe. It's getting to be a boring refrain, but I am still grappling with my different mental landscape since being back here, as reflected in my newfound lack of certainty about whether I have anything worth writing about anymore. I had an interesting conversation with my smart and talented friend Alan Vedder in which I tossed around the idea that maybe I'm just duller here in Taos than I was in Berlin; that maybe the more subdued landscapes here (cultural and physical) lull my mind into a more torporific state. It's probably not true... but it's hard not to at least consider it as a possibility. 

Add into the mix another conversation I had with a different friend, Joseph Lightman, in which he mentioned that he felt "creepy" reading my blog... as if he was voyeuristically learning things about me that he almost had no business knowing, and I guess I could say that I'm in an almost existential crisis about the blog. Joseph's comments did cause me to reflect a bit on the continuum between "private person" and "public person," and the ways these two 'types' communicate information about themselves. Naturally I briefly investigated my own propensity to share fairly personal thoughts through this blog, and found myself wondering where I land on that continuum, and... that's a topic for another day. 

Ironically, I've also gotten some nice comments of encouragement lately, a few people mentioning to me that they like reading it. And I enjoy writing it. But really, the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for it to get boring. Then I'd have to stop. Or, try to figure out why my life had gotten so boring and do something about that. Anyway, blah blah blah, self-indulgent first-world problems, blah blah blah. I will get my groove back; I will carry on for now.


My trip to LA, which I undertook in order to install Big Mother at the Hive Gallery, was pretty fun. The show itself was rather ridiculous - a few good pieces and quite a lot of mediocre stuff too. I visited the amazing Amoeba Records (where I was astonished at the high price of vinyl records... I wanted to buy an LP by my favorite band Rammstein but couldn't justify $40.00 for ten songs I already own) as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), all with my pal Chris Wagganer. 

Chris Burden at LACMA

John Chamberlain at LACMA

I crammed in about 10 art galleries, and an amazing mannequin store. 

I have to go back to LA in the beginning of February to pick up the piece. That's a lot of driving.

I built us a new table for our home... a dining table / art project table / laundry-folding table, and it looks like three pieces of bacon. It's actually made of red cedar, not bacon.

Christina and I both submitted work for a group show of self-portraits here in Taos. I realized earlier today that this means I currently have two pieces of work up in galleries right now. I think that's good. I've always secretly wanted to get some sort of gallery career going... and although I don't think either piece is likely to sell, it's still good.

I'm inserting this image of my self portrait in an unfinished state as something of a placeholder.
When I get ahold of a photo of the finished, framed version (a photo which for some reason I did not take at the opening) I will swap it in here...

Christina and I are also both in the final stages of preparing our proposals for this year's Burning Man festival. I would love to share my proposal here... because I like it and I'm proud of it... but as some readers might remember from last year I am superstitious about revealing proposals before they are approved or denied. We will find out from Burning Man in about a month whether we are funded this year or not, and I will discuss my proposal at that time. It will be interesting... and unprecedented... if Christina and I are both approved for funding. 


Before I leave you this evening, I'll share a tragi-comic Taos story. A flock of bighorn sheep were introduced to the mesa lands west of Taos a few years ago. The land which they inhabit flanks both sides of the highway, so big fences were erected to keep them off the road (also constructed were under-road crossovers to facilitate their freedom of movement.) A few days ago I was driving Kodiak to school in the morning and we saw what happens when a big ram somehow manages to get onto the road.

Kodiak and I spent some time looking at it, reflecting on how sad this was.

On my way home 40 minutes later I got out again to see that someone had dragged the ram a bit off the road, propping it up on the concrete barrier (for a photo op??)

While I was standing there, a bunch of workmen stopped to have a look. At this point the whole thing took on a macabre and darkly comic tone, with the men alternating between "aww, poor guy" and joking about how they were unable to get a hunting permit this year so they had to run this guy down in their car. They even took a few "hunting" photos...

All in a brilliant Taos accent. If only our friends from Europe could have been there... Classic Taos.

Anyway, when I left I found the suspect vehicle a quarter mile down the road.
The fur stuck in the crumpled metal left no doubt.

Moral of the story? Well, if you're a bighorn sheep, stay off the damn road.

Until next time, when Stella gets her groove back...