Sunday, April 21, 2019

Wonder Woman

First off, thanks to everyone who responds to my posts, either by email or in the comments section. I appreciate hearing your feedback, and it makes this whole blog thing feel less like a monologue and more like a conversation.


As a result of the informal resolution I made with myself, some time ago, to make this blog about my life in general, the blog can take several forms from post to post.
• It can be an exploration of art, both mine and the art of others, with a little amateur art theory thrown in.
• It can be a discussion of art-making, with all its attendant triumphs and challenges.
• It can be a travel and adventure story.
• It can be an exploration of psychology, usually mine... a kind of self-analysis on the page.
• It can occasionally veer off into politics, when that feels necessary.
• And I'm sure I do go off in yet other directions, once in a while.

I know that not all of these topics are of equal interest to all readers. While I imagine that travel and adventure is probably popular with everyone, I'm sure that certain readers are bored (or even offended) by my politics, while others have no interest in my self-analysis, even as others would rather I skipped the art theory. These days, as Christina and Kodiak and I travel a bit less, I find that my posts are shifting slightly more towards the "interior," which is to say more towards stories of art-making and associated self analysis... because, that is what occupies my mental landscape more now. I find, ironically, that I may in fact be in danger of going into that more private territory which evidently makes some people feel forced into an uncomfortably voyeuristic position. I do have to strike a balance here; and I try hard to do that. It's occurred to me that I could put a disclaimer at the start of each post, stating its main themes and topics, so that people could read only that which interests them. I probably won't do that; why make it easer for readers to censor parts of my output?


So, on to the meat of the post.
Here I go... striking that balance... going inwards while trying not to make you all uncomfortable... watch me!

DANGER! Discussions of art-making and self-analysis ahead! (Oh damn, I said I wouldn't do that!)

Christina and I had an interesting conversation the other day about my interest in the female nude and what it really means. It's obvious that the nude (female and male) is a popular and enduring subject for art (nudes could probably put up a pretty good fight with Jesus in the competition for most prevalent topic in the Western art canon) and one can engage with that subject matter without causing a stir. And it has immediate appeal both for erotic reasons, and because it is the 'measure of all things' for us humans, but it also means something else to me. That question, what it really means for me, is endlessly fascinating to me right now, and feels like the most interesting current avenue of inquiry in the department of art-production.

Christina suggested that perhaps it has to do with creating a sort of primordial sense of well-being, something subconsciously related to the realm of the maternal. This dovetails with the "sense of calm" that I first reported feeling back in Berlin at the Helmut Newton museum. My friend Richard suggested some time ago that it was my way of uncovering or discovering the female part of myself, which also seems pretty damn plausible. There is an interesting progression to be observed in the trajectory of my recent artistic output from robot -> human, hard -> soft, analytical -> emotional. The big red robot smelling a flower, called Becoming Human, now at Meow Wolf, looks like a lynchpin transitional piece if we buy into this progression theory.

There is also a very strong overlay of interest in the "strong" female character or archetype, something I've mentioned here before. The images that come to me as possible paintings are all combinations of the (traditionally male) visual trappings of strength - usually expressed in posture and expression - and female nudity and beauty. Christina advanced to me the idea that the nudity and beauty part of the equation undermines the strength part of the equation... that nudity and beauty make the female vulnerable. I suppose that in this fucked-up reality in which we live, there is perhaps some truth to this; some men are intimidated by female power and want to crush it, or possess it through force. But I believe that's not the only way to look at this and that there is a more positive alternative vision, which is that female strength and power does not need to be de-sexualized (think: female politicians) in order to manifest, precisely because beauty and sexuality are a huge part of that power. A beautiful woman walking into a room of men will instantly transform the men into blithering idiots. Christina countered this point by saying that 20% - 30% of those men will have malevolent thoughts towards her, and.. well.. that is a problem (see above.)

At this time, I am generating ideas for paintings much faster than I can bring them into reality, because... I still suck at painting* and also I am having a hard time getting in there to practice, both for legitimate time-management reasons and also because I get discouraged by my poor skills and am reticent to go into the studio and confront my shortcomings. Christina suggested I start sketching the ideas so that they are at least committed to some sort of material form. I've begun to do that.

* OK maybe I don't totally suck at it. The background of my first painting came out surprisingly well, but as I've moved on to the figure I find it very difficult to paint skin convincingly. This is what's caused the most frustration... 

Now, before you guys think I've gone off the deep end with all this female empowerment in art mumbo jumbo, let me just drop two words right here:

Wonder Woman.

Yeah, that's right. Wonder Woman. I just watched the 2017 movie version of this comic book hero and, well, I loved it. To be fair, I recognize the fact that it is not exactly a "great piece of cinema," and the climactic battle between Wonder Woman and Ares is a bit too over-the-top fantasy for me, but I think the movie appealed to me for other, deeper psychological reasons in line with what I'm attempting to get at above. There were scenes that left me emotional... and I'm not talking about the reliably tear-jerking type of scene built around deep connections between characters that you find in the last 20 minutes of every Pixar film, I'm talking about simple scenes of clean power, scenes of an incredibly powerful and incredibly beautiful woman kicking ass. Why would scenes like that have such an impact on me? Who knows, I'm trying to paint myself to the answer.

Spending a bit of time on the Wikipedia page for Wonder Woman opens up some interesting topics. Firstly is the idea of Mythopoetics (or Mythopoeia), a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930's to denote myth-making by modern authors through the incorporation of traditional mythological themes and archetypes into modern media. To me, this is a fascinating idea. Joseph Campbell and others have shown the enduring power of myths, and I believe that whoever would use artistic vision to shape and modernize myths to fit our changing times would wield an incredible power. It has been suggested that the 2017 movie has done just that.

Wikipedia points us in another fantastic direction, which is towards the inventor of Wonder Woman. I won't go into too much detail here about William Moulton Marston because you can just read about him yourself, but suffice to say that I find him intriguing. He was a psychologist, an inventor of an early lie detector, an early feminist, a believer that women were superior to men and would rule the world someday, a cohabitator with three women (his wife, his and his wife's polyamorous lover, and his mistress - with whom he shared an interest in bondage), as well as the inventor of Wonder Woman. He modeled Wonder Woman after various aspects of these women with whom he lived. Early incarnations of Wonder Woman were more sexualized and featured elements of bondage, even while she subjugated men and women alike. (Don't ask me how that all works, I don't know.) Interesting guy, to say the least. I will be reading more about him.

Well, it's Easter Sunday (or Zombie Jesus day, as I prefer to call it) and Kodiak and I are about to go fossil hunting in Pot Creek with our friend Thomas and his kids.

Actually I just read that the name "Easter" is derived from the original pagan name for this spring-time holiday of birth and fertility, so I should probably just stick to Easter. 

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Veering Off Temporarily...

This post is going to veer off, at least temporarily, in a different direction than normal.
In fact, I have some doubts about whether these thoughts are even appropriate for this blog, but I decided a long time ago to just make this blog about my life and thoughts. Plus, there's a chance that this could all end up being relevant to my artwork...

Not long ago I was waiting impatiently for my biography of Caravaggio to arrive in the mail, when Christina suggested I start reading a book called 'Sapiens,' which is a short history of humanity on earth. The writing is great (very engaging and smooth) and although I was skeptical that such a book would hold my interest, I found that I didn't want to put it down.

Well I am the kind of guy who likes horror movies and finds serial killers fascinating, but about 100 pages into Sapiens I read something which left me genuinely shaken, and I've been afraid to pick up that book ever since. What I read was that every time homo sapiens has colonized a new land mass (such as, notably, Australia) we have decimated the animals we found there. Before people landed in Australia there were 22 species of megafauna (big animals), including a marsupial lion! We promptly made 21 of those go extinct.

This bit of history doesn't sound that devastating, right? But it thoroughly undercut my naive understanding of things. I'd always imagined that aboriginal populations around the globe had intuitively lived in harmony with nature, and that the current crisis of the environment was a byproduct of our modernized, technological way of life. If we could just get back to the wisdom of pre-tech cultures, I thought, we could get things back in balance. But guess what? We are a destructive force. Those "idyllic" pre-tech cultures were also excellent at killing everything they found, just in slightly different ways than we do now.

Are you aware that in the last 50 years, populations of wild animals the world over have decreased, on average, by 60%? Are you aware that if things continue in that direction, it will be extremely bad for humans also? It takes a real skill... the skill of disassociating oneself from reality... to NOT care about that. (Take a few minutes to watch this video. It's a David Attenborough project, so it's even-handed, and not alarmist or partisan. If you like the video, there are more great ones on that page. These videos have informed this blog post even more than Sapiens.)

I'd like to be optimistic about this situation, but I'm not. I think my generation, those of us in our 40's and 50's, are like lobsters in a slowly boiling pot. We didn't have to think about this stuff when we were young, and we didn't learn how to think about it. The younger generations do give me hope. They seem to think things can improve. I hope they are right. 

A few posts ago I wrote about the short-term thinking and selfishness that motivate and define conservative thinking. The situation facing our planet right now demands leadership and unity. How can we have leadership when this country actually elects dangerous idiots like that fuckface in the White House? How can we have unity when the principal criteria for liking a policy in this political environment is that the other guys don't like it?

The modus operandi of the political right is so transparent. They desire power and money above all else, but the only way to maintain it is to stay in office. How do you stay in office when your positions and policies are so obviously disadvantageous for the vast majority of the populace.. the very people whose votes you need? You stir up fear... fear of gays, fear of muslims, fear of Mexicans, fear of abortion, fear of change. Get the people afraid, and they will vote for you... because you will protect them from all that stuff which threatens their "way of life." If you succeed and get elected, then... great! Now it's time to rape the environment and the lower classes for all they've got, so that you and your buddies can keep living in luxury. The selfishness and short-term vision is astonishing. It's disgusting. Rich people who don't give a shit about anyone else's welfare are the ONLY segment of the population who can honestly vote Republican; everyone else is being tricked into voting against their own interests. And an undereducated populace is an advantage to the Right, because dumb voters won't see all this quite as clearly.

But the Right is the party who decided that the USA will withdraw from the Paris Accords, and who keeps loosening regulations on industry, and who is gutting our environmental agencies, and who is authorizing drilling in natural preserves, and running pipelines through Native American lands without their permission, and and and... so this is not all just political games; there are real ramifications for the earth. They either can't see, or simply don't care, that this attitude will hasten the degradation of our planet.

I think that if I didn't have a kid, it would be a lot easier for me to assume an ironic distance from these concerns and think "Oh well, what the fuck. The earth is going to go down in flames and there's not much to do about it." But I do have a kid, and my ability to distance myself from all of this has been hobbled. The fact that I do care makes me angry at the people who are dragging down the planet for their own selfish reasons. How can a person who thinks and feels vote for the right? How is it possible? I don't understand it.

I believe that in the long term, we humans will probably snuff ourselves out, and that the planet will be better off without us. Something else will come to take our place. Hopefully that something else will do a better job of stewarding their home. Or, maybe, a small percentage of humanity will survive... and maybe they will learn the lesson. Maybe they will be the "wise elder" version of humanity. It's too bad that it's probably going to take an apocalypse to wake us up.

When all of this hit me a few days ago, I had to stop reading the news for a few days; it was just too depressing. They say that activism is one cure for this kind of unblinkered vision of just how bad things are. Maybe I should try that. In the meantime Christina and I are committed to finishing the installation of the solar electricity system for our home and to buying an electric car. It doesn't seem like much, but we want to do what we can... and it's important to show our son that these small steps can and should be taken. 

All this puts ENDGAME into a new light. Not really a different light... maybe just a brighter one.

I've actually started my first painting since "educating" myself through Mark Carder's site. It's not technically my first painting, but it's the first one in which I sort of feel like I know what I'm doing. It's a practice run for my big painting and I think it's coming out well.
I find that I am daydreaming about how to combine this vision of the coming apocalypse with the female form... in a painting. Blade Runner 2049 and Mad Max Fury Road are two films that come to mind that did a nice job with this combo. The very last two episodes of Wicked Wanda also ventured into similar territory. (If you click the Wanda link, scroll to the bottom of the page and click the last two stories for a tongue-in-cheek look at a post-apocalyptic future.)

OK, I know that this sort of post is not everybody's cup of tea. Some readers will not agree with what I've written above (discussing politics is so effective at dividing people!) and others will just think that discussing politics is boring or uncouth. Personally, I think that discussing politics is divisive, boring, and uncouth, so we're on the same page. I would like to promise you that I won't discuss that sort of thing again, but... I can't. What I can say is that I'm ready to switch gears now.


I had an interesting (though brief) discussion with my mom the other day which started out with her asking me "Why do you like Caravaggio so much?" What I realized, and what I've been pondering ever since, is that I am drawn to certain artists because of a mixture of interest in both their work and their lives, their biographies. And... the ways that the work and the biography influence each other.

The three artists which come to mind who fit neatly into what I am getting at here are Francis Bacon, Alexander McQueen, and Caravaggio. While I genuinely like the work produced by all three of these guys, what elevates my appreciation of the work even higher is an appreciation of their life stories. All three were gay, as I pointed out previously (actually it seems Caravaggio was bisexual) but what's really quite a bit more important is that all three were complicated, tortured individuals, and all three were major iconoclasts. Each one found a way to channel his personal angst into an art that was totally original, totally personal, and that totally broke with his contemporaries. Each of them created darker and more challenging work in difficult times of their lives. To some degree it begs the question: Do you have to be tortured and maladjusted to create lasting work of genius?

If I had to hazard a guess to the above question, I would say "No, but it doesn't hurt."

Joy Division, whose fame only seems to grow over time, comes to mind here too. 

Well, I said I'd started my first "real" painting. 

I took this picture this morning, and then painted all day (which was really fun!) and so I'm quite a bit farther on it now than when this photo was taken. Thanks, Oswald, for making me a real easel.

In the next few weeks I have a ton of Hand of Man related work to do, so finding time to paint might be hard... but I will try.

If you made it this far, 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Sharing is Caring!

OK, I have several topics in my head to discuss in this post...
In an effort to make it not-too-long, I will move through them relatively quickly, I hope...
These topics kicking around up there are, roughly:

Writing a blog... too much sharing?
The mystery of the nude... and how to not alienate my readers.
Painting... Mark Carder and the new paint box
ENDGAME... work in isolation (trust my vision) or take in the views of my fellows?


In the last few months I've had conversations with two friends which basically consisted of them telling me that reading my blog made them feel uncomfortable, to a certain degree. The idea was that the information I share herein felt just a bit too personal, and made them feel like voyeurs.

I guess the most interesting aspect of this topic to me is the degree to which their thoughts genuinely surprised me, and the degree to which I don't feel any conflict around this.
To me, the idea of sharing my thoughts around art, travel, culture, and once in a while a bit of politics or philosophy feels totally natural. I suppose you could imagine that all individuals fall somewhere along a continuum ranging from "very private" at one end, and let's say "very open" at the other end. I think it's clear that I am not at the "very private" extreme, but I think I'm closer to that end than the open end. If I ever start blogging about creepily personal medical problems or the inner workings of my relationships, well... someone please stop me. As it is, I guess I have some fantasy (like most writers probably do) that my musings will actually be interesting to someone out there, and maybe even spark a conversation or two.


As readers of this blog know, I have an enduring fascination with the female nude.

I find that, as I am stepping into the world of painting, my interest in this topic is getting more focused, but I am also spending more time trying to understand it.

One thing I want to say, right off the bat, is that I am highly aware of, and very sensitive to, the fact that female nudity can be a divisive thing, and has the power to alienate certain segments of the population (and therefor also a certain segment of my readership.) Ideally, this is something I want to avoid, although I realize that my power in this regard is limited. 
I believe that the divisiveness of the topic is related to the sexualized power we allocate, as a culture, to the female nude, especially the "young, perfect" variety. For reasons which I think are complex and layered, this power and the resulting divisiveness are at their apex in cultures such as the one we find here in the United States, and are less of an issue in Europe. I think this must be related to the puritanical underpinnings of the culture; because sex is taboo, and not integrated into life in a wholistic way, it becomes fetishized.. and the nude female is the totem of this fetishization. 
After having lived in Europe for two years I can say with a certain small amount of authority that the nude (both female and male) is more integrated into the culture (statues and paintings everywhere) and simultaneously less fetishized, and... big surprise... seemingly less divisive.

I had an interesting conversation recently in which I found myself, again, pointing at this elusive gray zone between "sexy" and "sexualized." I think that Jassans was the first artist that I personally identified whose work confidently and effortlessly inhabited a "sexy but not sexualized" territory. The standing female nude by Alberto Galvez which I like so much finds the same delicate balance. Interestingly, they are both Spanish. Jassans was a religious man and seemingly saw the beauty of the nude (although he was biased towards the female figure he also did a handful of male nudes, including a pretty erotic Jesus) as an integral and essential part of the spectrum of God's creation. I find this fascinating, perhaps because it is so unAmerican, and... talk about wholistic. 

"Sexualized" tries to convince you of something. "Sexy" is just sexy; it's power is self-evident. The differences are usually incredibly, and fascinatingly, subtle. A slight shift in posture, a minute change of expression...

OK, before I alienate just about everybody....


So far, I am much better at talking about painting and getting prepared to paint than I am at actually painting. 

In addition the the Lips that I showed in my last post, I did also paint a human figure which was a practice study for the protagonist in the big work I hope to start soon. The figure I painted served, more than anything else, to show me just how little I know. (In retrospect, I now understand that I  • did not prepare my surface correctly, • did not mix enough paint and was therefor "stingy" with the brush, and • did not mix enough values to correctly convey "volume" with shading and highlights, among other errors). As it happens, a chance conversation with another painter led me to a website on which I have now spent many hours teaching myself the basics. Mark Carder's is a really incredible resource of information, with hundreds of hours of free videos and a choice handful of paid videos which promise to go more in depth (pretty soon I will be buying the "portrait painting" video... 8 hours of instruction for $100 sounds like a deal to me). To the degree that I now feel confident moving forward in actually putting some paint on canvas, it's largely thanks to the time I've spend watching his videos. Thanks for doing that, Mark. 

One thing I did realize along the way was that I need a place to paint. Our house is too small and clean and multi-use, and our shop is too dirty... and multi-use. So...

Many years ago I purchased a Frito-Lay delivery truck, which I've always called "the Bread Van." It is essentially the same beast as a UPS truck. I bought it for its great diesel engine, which I transplanted into my International Scout. About 10 days ago I decided to separate the cargo box off the rolling chassis and make it into my painting studio. (Finally, some pictures!)

Moving the Bread Van into place...

The box, removed from the rolling chassis...

The cab, cut off...

The front of the box, where the cab used to be, walled up...

The box, set into place on cedar blocks....

A painting studio! (It's darker in there than I thought it would be - I am waiting for my daylight balance lights to arrive in the mail)

(When I was transplanting the engine into my Scout, if I ever needed something like an exhaust elbow or a proper radiator, I could always find what I needed within the Bread Van...  So the saying that popped into my head was "The Bread Van doth provide." Now, years later, when I need a painting studio... the Bread Van doth provide. I may even, one day, convert the rolling chassis into a trailer. I am reminded of the Native American protocol of using every part of the animal carcass...)

The main problem with this studio is that it's going to be pretty impossible to heat, unless I do a major insulation job on it... which I don't want to spend the time doing right now. So I will use it for the summer and evaluate how to move forward when the time comes. Christina and I might just build a proper art studio one of these days...


I'm sorry if you're all tired of hearing about ENDGAME, but...

I did finally get some feedback from Burning Man. They indicated to me that, while they liked the piece and it did reach the final round for funding consideration, it ended up not fitting in to the overall, curated experience that they shaped with all the other pieces. 

Almost simultaneously, I received an email from a dear friend who told me that he felt the piece was not up to my usual standards... that it didn't really seem like a "Christian Ristow piece," and that it felt like a bit of a "bummer." I love it that I have friends who can be that honest with me, and I appreciate the feedback... AND this assessment of the piece (along with a very similar evaluation by my dad) sent me into a one-day-long crisis of confidence. The thing is... I really, strongly believe in this piece. If my friends and family are right, then perhaps I've "lost my touch." Or, at least that's what I was thinking on that day.

I'm going to insert two quotes here... 
This first one is a quote by Joni Mitchell, sent by my friend Wylie Elson..

I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to co-operate is what is necessary to be an artist – not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation [or what "other people" expect from you... my words], especially now, have nothing to do with art or music, that’s why I spend my time now painting

And this second one is by the painter Andrew Wyeth, found on Mark Carder's blog...

"People only make you swerve. I won’t show anybody anything I’m working on. If they hate it, it’s a bad thing, and if they like it, it’s a bad thing. An artist has to be ingrown to be any good."

I believe in ENDGAME. I think that, at the end of the day, I'm going to need to ignore what everyone else says and build it, or paint it, or get it out of my system one way or another. Sure, I think it maybe needs another stage of development... another "layer." But I believe it's an incredibly strong and relevant image, and I think the world will be a better place when ENDGAME is birthed.

OK, that's it.
Goodbye, until next time (when I will probably write more about painting, and about Caravaggio and "Sapiens.")