Saturday, August 28, 2010


I have a little to say about these:

Violet Gladioli, oil on canvas, 36"x18"

I just spent about a week painting these gladioli. My wife Charlotte bought them when we were in Minneapolis (the place with the hideous carpets). They were so beautiful I took a picture and vowed to try to find the discipline to actually paint them. I surprised myself and did.

From the start, I wanted to use Schiele's approach, as in his painting of a sunflower:

It has two qualities that I like - an almost autistic sense of detail, and a white background which flattens the object and emphasizes its overall shape. You can do a lot worse than ripping off Schiele for your first flower painting...

But while we're talking about shape, let me explain something. When I was very little, some psychologist-type gave me an image a lot like this to copy:

I remember there was a piano with a dark glossy wooden surface in the room - it was at a party at somebody's house. The psychologist-type timed my reproduction of the image. Apparently the speed was off the charts. I came here not to brag, but to explain: I tried to explain to this individual that I had, in my opinion, cheated.

My idea of the "legitimate" mode of reproducing the image was to conceptualize it as representing a rope, and to understand and draw the rope, with its layering over and under itself. I didn't do that, since obviously time was an issue. So I devised a shortcut - I drew each closed shape, like this, for example:

Having reduced the problem to individual shapes, I could draw each one, keeping them more or less in proper relation with one another, and not bother with the higher-level integration of the image. The image integrated itself, as long as the sub-shapes were accurate.

A long time later, I was thinking about how I'm more of a form artist than a color artist. I think I've discussed that here, and its neurological underpinnings. I see things in terms of structure first, which is expressed in gradations of light and dark. It's a constant struggle for me to represent the colors of things.

So while I was thinking about this form/color issue, I remembered that celtic knot test from when I was little. Suddenly, I realized that form itself is a derivative expression of what kind of representationalist I am. I'm a *shape* representationalist.

That is, I am still deploying the same cheat today. On my first visual sweep and sketching-in of any object, I automatically break the object down into two-dimensional shapes, which I represent in more-or-less-accurate relation to one another. Then the image integrates itself.

For a long time, I had to struggle against a kind of fragmentation of the overall body in my depictions of complete figures. Each part would look fairly right, but when you looked at the body as a whole, it didn't quite fit together:

On the Stairs, oil on canvas, 36"x24", 2006

This is a weakness specific to my mode of breaking down and rebuilding a complex form for the purposes of depiction. I had to specifically tackle and overcome this weakness over time:

The Rest, oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2010

For the same reason, I have never had any interest in those 10-second "gestural drawings" that life-drawing teachers are always on about:

This was posted by an artist named Benza at:

You can see why. This form of analysis is based on total integration of the figure into between one and four fundamental lines and curves. Teachers love this because it's "high energy" and also because it teaches you to do the broad forms first, and go to details later.

I naturally do details first, and broad forms later. One outcome is that I tend to get the broad forms wrong. But I've counter-trained myself to modify and get these forms good-enough:

I simply refuse to draw based on a fundamental cognition that is alien to how my visual analysis wants to operate.

What I am describing here is not meant to imply that this shape-analysis is right or wrong. It's right for me, because it's how I think. And it's valuable for me to know this about myself, because it allows me to understand what I'm doing, and some of my strengths and weaknesses, and some of the ways I can use both my strengths and weaknesses to generate interesting work:

Coming back to where we started, I hope it's clearer now why I would find the outline of the gladioli to be perhaps the most interesting thing about them:

I think the part of this that's useful for people who aren't me is that it's a good example of a question that's very handy to try to answer. No doubt each of you is an expert at something. And the question is this - what kind of expert are you? If you can identify the individual way that you are tackling your work in your field, you can understand how your cognitive and methodological quirks inform and deform your work, and you can understand and improve your work by recognizing the deep forces influencing its formation.

Practical notes: those last three drawings are from the Piera Pregnancy Project. I will have more to say about that soon.

And the nude on light brown paper - that will be showing with The Great Nude at the Governor's Island Art Fair, starting September 4. They were good enough to invite me to participate; I have four drawings there.

Have a great weekend, folks.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sexual Dimorphism in Cop Cars

Sexual dimorphism, as the Encyclopedia Britannica would have it, is:
The differences in appearance between males and females of the same species, as in colour, shape, size, and structure, that are caused by the inheritance of one or the other sexual pattern in the genetic material.
The most common example of sexual dimorphism is, of course, that of the peacock and peahen:

Sexual dimorphism exists in humans as well:

But here, I would like to draw your attention to a less well-known instance of sexual dimorphism: that found in cop cars.

Like many other mammals and birds, the male cop car is larger, stronger, and more brightly colored than the female cop car. Cop cars are a social species, and the distribution of tasks in the species is segregated along sexual lines, reflecting functional differences resulting from their strong dimorphism. Male cop cars perform tasks involving intimidation, overwhelming force, and coordinated aggression on the part of multiple cars. Female cop cars perform "stealth tasks," in which camouflage, subtlety, and surprise are more important than the ability to physically overwhelm an opponent.

When the layperson pictures a cop car, he or she is generally thinking of a male cop car, as in the instance of peacocks and peahens. Even so, a significant difference between male cop car displays remains poorly understood by the general public:

The mating display is more varied in color and flash-pattern than the aggression display. Many people, stumbling on a male cop car performing a mating display, confuse it with an aggression display and react accordingly. This can rapidly turn an opportunity to witness a beautiful cop car mating ritual into an unfortunate interspecies confrontation.

A second confusion is also common: confusing an aggression display related to a "duel" between two would-be alpha bulls, for the predator-prey aggression display which cop cars perform for civilians. For safety's sake, when you see a male cop car performing a display, run through this mental checklist:

1. Are you sure this is an aggression display and not a mating display?

2. If it is an aggression display, is a second male cop car of comparable size and age present and also performing an aggression display?

3. If so, are the cars facing each other? In this case, you are almost certainly lucky enough to be witnessing a "duel" to determine leadership of a clan of cop cars. However, if the two cars are facing you, then they have probably identified you as the natural prey of the cop car.

Only when you have run through this checklist, and come to the certain conclusion that you have been targeted by one or more aggressive male cop cars, should you review the ordinary list of options available in such a situation:

1. Submission.
2. Flight.
3. Fighting the law.

You will want to make your selection based on the specifics of your situation.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Endless Procession

Well, you've got my being cooped up waiting all day in the wifi-enabled jury room 2.60 of King's County Criminal Court to thank for this post not being delayed even more than it already is.

I don't know about you, but I am always worried about receiving too narrow a stream of information. When I started painting, I looked at Sargent a lot:

Then I needed more, so I settled on the Big Three, and studied them for many years:




Titian - for beauty. Velazquez - for psychology and brushwork. Rubens - for energy and joie-de-vivre. No doubt I'll have more to write about them as this blog unfolds.

But even the wonderful worlds of these three painters were not enough. I needed to turn to more artists; voraciously more. I was forced to be catholic in my tastes. I started with a few artists I had once flirted with, and then avoided.

Pablo, bien sûr


And I started catching up on what's going on in the world today. Let me say it plainly: abstract expressionism, and every single movement since then, have done nothing for me. But that doesn't mean I don't look at them. I need shock treatment - I need my boundaries to be attacked and breached all the time. I need to see what possible things other people have thought of...

Lately, I've been watching PBS's Art:21 a fair bit. This documentary series on contemporary artists in many ways encapsulates everything I hate about PBS: its would-be hipness, its snobbery convinced it is populism, its self-righteousness, its tedium, and all with a dash of sucking thrown in for good measure. But they do stumble on some good stuff sometimes - heck, it's a good premise - and I learn even from the bad parts. So I keep watching it.

I saw an episode the other evening which included a section on artist Allan McCollum. This was a fascinating look at a body of work that resonated very strongly with me, even though it's in a mode I do not identify with at all.

Let's look at one of his pieces a bit, and hear what he has to say about it. Then I'll explain what I'm on about:

Individual Works...series begun in 1987.

To produce the Individual Works hundreds of small shapes are casually collected from peoples' homes, supermarkets, hardware stores, and sometimes from the sidewalks: bottle-caps, jar-lids, drawer-pulls, salt-shakers, flashlights, measuring spoons, cosmetics containers, yogurt cups, earrings, push-buttons, candy-molds, garden-hose connectors, paper-weights, shade-pulls, Chinese tea-cups, cat toys, pencil sharpeners, etc. From this collection of shapes many rubber molds are produced from which replicas of these shapes can be hand-cast in plaster in large quantities, thus creating a vocabulary of shapes which can be combined to produce new shapes, and so forth. A simple numerical system is used during the production process to insure that no two finished Individual Works will ever be alike. Each unique Individual Work is hand-cast in gypsum, and hand-painted with an enamel paint. The Individual Works are usually gathered into collections of over 10,000 per collection.
Now, why is this so interesting to me? Let me tell you about a couple of dreams I had when I was very little.

In one dream, I was in a flat landscape. There was nothing superflat about it: it was a village, with trees, small hills, widely spaced houses on farms. Some of the ground had been replaced with checked red-and-white tablecloth fabric. There was a road through the town - it was a sunny day. What was flat about this landscape was that there were no mountains or oceans nearby. In fact, I was aware that this particular region retained this character - houses, streams, trees, thoroughfares, grass, tablecloth - for hundreds of thousands of miles. The extension of this landscape in space was unfathomably vast. It never strongly changed, but it never repeated either. Every point in this land was unique.

A second dream. There was a closet, with a number of shelves. Each shelf was stuffed with a variety of dolls: dolls of animals and people. If you closed this closet, and opened the door again, you would find that the dolls had been replaced with different dolls, arranged differently. A second closing and opening would produce a new set of changes - but the changes would be slightly less significant. Repeating the closing and opening action gradually reduced the changes until they were incredibly slight; a single arm of a single doll would have shifted slightly, perhaps, or a doll would rest at a mildly shifted angle. But the changes, while diminishing in degree, never ceased. There was no logical end-point to the closing and opening of this horrible door. You could keep producing changes, trivial changes growing more trivial, forever.

I have a deep and queasy connection with the concept of an unbounded set of objects which are all unique and yet have no meaningful differences. Consider the trilobites:

Or Stephen Wolfram's cellular automatic plane:

Or the monstrous invasive dream-parade in the movie Paprika:

Or my own fascination, documented here previously, with the sequence of the prime numbers. My friend and model Vadim, considering fashion magazines, once referred to the images they contain as "the endless procession of beautiful but meaningless forms." Perhaps I am not describing something like fashion here, but I like Vadim's phrasing very much - don't you? It is a wonderful phrasing.

It is this very topic, this hideous thing that has no start and no end, which is the subject of much of McCollum's work. In the Art:21 interview, he described his interest in using an industrial process to make unique objects. The objects should have the feel of industrial mass-production, and yet no two should be alike. To that end, he has contrived extremely clever techniques, culminating in a very ingenious computerized graphical procedure (basically sophisticated copy-pasting) which underlies his Shapes project. Here's a bit of what he writes about the project:

And here's a photograph of some of its horrifying scale:

Allan McCollum. The SHAPES Project, 2005/06. 7,056 SHAPES Monoprints, each unique. Framed digital prints, 4.25 x 5.5 inches each. Installation: Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, 2006.

McCollum adds a clarification of the difference between the physical implementation of the project, and its vastly larger conceptual space:
The Shapes Project is a system to create a large quantity of unique shapes, one for every person on the planet when the world population peaks in the middle of the twenty-first century. To make certain that the system will be able to accommodate everyone, it has been organized to produce over 31,000,000,000 different Shapes.
There is a stark inhumanity and terror to McCollum's work. This is work that not only has no meaning; by mimicking many of the structures of meaning - variation, distinctness of shape - it tricks the mind into partaking of it from the perspective of meaning, which it perplexes, confounds, and ultimately undoes. It makes meaning appear meaningless. It renders thought and hope and humanity futile. It makes Sol Lewitt's comparatively finite combinatorial systems look downright quaint:

McCollum has figured out how to particularize a functionally unlimited space, and in so doing, to destroy the mind that attempts to take it seriously.

I think I've been speaking a lot of hyperbole here, and I'd like to back up for a second before I get to the moral of the story. What do I mean "destroy the mind"? What kind of a claim is this?

Well, let's consider a common feature of the Ptolemaic and Copernican universes for a minute.

Sure, they're at each others' throats about the Earth and the Sun, but they both agree that the imperfect world we see around us progresses outward in space toward perfection. This model, to the extent that it permits the infinite, sees stability in the infinite. Its infinite is infinite in extent, not detail.

This is not the universe we now conceive: a universe of varying background radiation, of galactic superclusters, of twisty little garlic knots of spacetime. This universe, too, may prove infinite in extension, although we don't think so. But if it is infinite, it is not uniform. It is thick with detail.

This detail, we abhor. We have a different and more subtle form of the stabilization feature of the Ptolemaic-Copernican infinite: the second law of thermodynamics.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: In any cyclic process the entropy will either increase or remain the same.
Entropy is disorder. The second law informs us that the universe as a whole is tending toward disorder. Total disorder is heat, aimless vibration, crap. The universe is tending toward crap. This crappiness does for time what Ptolemy and Copernicus do for space: without setting an outer boundary, it assures uniformity. It is infinite, but without detail.

The Stephen Wolfram referenced above, a very interesting guy, has referred to the second law as "the so-called second law of thermodynamics." This is kind of a funny line. Wolfram thinks that entropy is not necessarily as straightforward as all that. If you scroll back up and look at that weird triangle pattern, you can see where Wolfram is coming from. This pattern, which never repeats itself and never settles into a quiet uniformity, emerges from the repeated application of some very simple mathematical rules. Wolfram has used this type of rule-set to simulate all sorts of interesting things, such as the patterns on seashells. This work has convinced him, and he's not a stupid individual, that the universe itself is the outcome of some similar repeated execution of simple rules of the type he is studying.

Now, this is not worth much as science, so far, because it doesn't predict anything and can't be tested.

However, one feature of Wolfram's systems is that, while broad areas tend toward entropic crappiness over time, new nuggets of order spontaneously arise and spread out as well. So if the universe is a Wolfram system, then it is not tending toward total entropic disorder. Wolfram's derision about the second law results from his belief that we are extrapolating the law from a small scale, where it works, to the ultimate scale, where it fails.

A Wolfram universe is a universe of infinite extent and infinite variation. It is thick with detail from here to eternity. And this induces the same terror that I am seeing in McCollum's projects. I think I can explain this terror better, having presented the situation at a universal scope.

We are accustomed to thinking of all the things we see as having some meaning. A tree - this means something. A cat, a dog, a man, a woman, a child - all these mean things. A cloud, a brook, a house, a road. All of them are part of a world, sometimes gentle and sometimes rough, but always meaningful. Those parts that are not meaningful in themselves, are meaningful to us, as we behold and consider them.

But how many things can we consider? Ten? Twenty? A hundred - a thousand?

What if there were no end to these things, all of them having distinct and serious human import? Can we stand to admire the beauty of a million clouds? A billion rivers? A trillion men and women? But a trillion is hardly even the foothill of the infinite.

So we have learned to cope with the infinite - with the grains of sand, the waves of the sea, the stars of the sky - by means of the concept of repetition. Repetition collapses the infinite. One grain of sand may be said to be functionally just like the rest of them. The waves of the sea - alike. The stars - alike. We have bounded the infinite prospect with Ptolemy's EMPIREUM or Copernicus's STELLARUM FIXARUM SPHAERA IMMOBILIS. Perhaps we can about choke down infinity if it doesn't really mean anything.

But an infinity consisting of an infinite and non-repeating number of elements just like the elements we know and care about blows us apart. Not only is it impossible for the finite mind to comprehend it, but its very existence forces the finite mind to consider that everything it knows, being alike in kind with so much more that it cannot know, is in fact a useless fraction, a meaningless fraction.

We cannot abide a finite universe, and we cannot abide an infinite but meaningful universe. We need a finite number of meaningful elements and a vast and empty cold surrounding them, a cold we can safely ignore apart from your occasional moment of wonder or dread.

Wolfram's universe, McCollum's universe, by contrast, is a mind-splitting, soul-mocking, terrifying universe.

So why on earth do I like this man and his project, which combines fecundity and sterility in the most unholy of ways? For this very terror I have been trying to convey. It is a specific kind of terror, a very particular formulation of terror, and it has haunted me in the most personal and visceral way my entire life. By some weird chance, it has manifested itself to McCollum as well. For him, it does not seem terrifying. For me, it was so terrifying that I stopped thinking about it, and then forgot about it. Looking at McCollum's work was part of my artistic shock treatment. When I saw his work, I remembered this thing, my own personal terror. McCollum restored to me a part of myself that I had lost.

In many regards, life is a process of forgetting and loss. Art, on precisely the same topics, is often a process of remembering and restoration. In art, we are all moving toward being as whole as we were when we began. I needed something I was missing, and McCollum gave it back to me.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Proxy Light --> Proxy Knowledge

Here's a really specific topic that's probably of limited interest to the non-painter.

Before I get going, may I just add this? Теплые приветствия нашим русским читателям!

So anyway, I'm working on this painting in which the face probably shouldn't be lit. The composition really doesn't want the face lit. But I am unable to subordinate my fidelity to the model to fidelity to the painting. Plainly speaking, I hate to have a painting with the face unseen. That's why I do so little work with backs and butts; you have to produce a really twisty pose to have a face in a painting like that, and I don't have any ideas that motivate such twisty poses.

Anyhow, on this painting, the face doesn't want to be lit, and yet I'm lighting it anyway. I figured out a way to just barely light it - to have hardly any light on the eye - and yet to have the eye read clearly. Here's the outcome of the first session:

If you look closely, you'll see that the iris and pupil are not really painted at all. The entire region - the inner portion of the eye - merges into a single patch of uniform dark. What is lit is the white of the eye. That's the only part you can actually technically see. You think you can see the iris and pupil, but you can't; you simply know where they are. And you don't directly know where they are; you only know 1) where they could be and 2) where they aren't. Your mind puts those two pieces of information together and provides a complete model of the eye, even though the light is directed such that the relevant part of the eye is actually completely invisible. Confused about what I mean? Compare that eye with the similar eye placement in my recent painting The Lightning which, incidentally, is covered extensively in my article in this month's International Artist and you should run out and buy it:

In this painting, the light in the darks is much brighter, and you can see every part of the eye. In the new painting, I am using proxy lighting to produce proxy knowledge. By means of the thing that is lit, you are able to fill in what isn't lit. The dark part is lit by proxy light provided by your mind. Your direct knowledge yields proxy knowledge. I get to have it both ways - I can leave the eye unlit, as the physics of the composition wants, without hiding the eye, which is what I want.

I agonized about the eye a lot before I started painting, and had this little trick in mind in advance. Thinking it over later, I realized I had pulled a similar stunt a few years ago, in this painting, The Saint:

As you can see, I really punched the light in the lit part of the eye. I planned for the unnatural brightness in the white of the eye and the nose, making them part of an aesthetic mimicking the jagged unreality of medieval iconography. Why would I do that? Because I knew that my technique at the time wasn't strong enough for me to portray natural light levels as I saw them in front of me. I always try to adapt my aesthetic to match my technical limits, while pushing my technical limits a bit farther each time. Not a bad idea, I think - the best example of this that I can think of Kevin Smith's first movie, Clerks, which was very adeptly designed to match his ignorance of filmmaking at the time.

Thinking more about this very specific trick for a very specific lighting and facial-angle situation, I suddenly thought that I probably learned it from Sargent. Like many an aspiring contemporary figurative painter, I started out thinking I wanted to paint like Sargent. Since then, I've changed my mind, but I still admire Sargent a great deal, and I still study him. I have this painting of his on a corkboard above the desk in my office:

If you look, you'll see that he deploys this exact trick in his deeply underlit painting. He also gets to have his cake and eat it too. He preserves the profound chiaroscuro, he turns the face away from the light - and he doesn't lose the eye. His merest hint of the eye pushes it much farther than I have in either of the paintings I'm showing you here, but let's face it, he's still much better at painting than I am.

If you are a non-painter, and you've still made it this far, I think this can serve as a useful example of the mighty force of detail that the painter considers in producing an image. We're trained by photography to consider image-making effortless, but actually, every little thing you see on the canvas is the outcome of thought and decision. Perhaps these thoughts and decisions are not always analytic, the way I am describing them here - often, they are intuitive or unconscious - but they all result from grappling with the specifics of the situation and with the specific situation's relationship with recurring general issues. The question of how to convey information about an unlit object is a general issue, and this is a very detailed exposition of a particular solution to it in a particular set of circumstances. I think that climbing the mountain of these proliferating problems is a good part of the fun of painting.