The story of the microbe paintings and the show they're in starts with my friend Erika Johnson. Erika is one of three people I know who have what I think of as pure creativity. Let me explain what I mean. Here's a diagram of a snap-analysis misreading of creativity:
In this analysis, one starts down a specific well-defined road, and reaches the goal toward which the road leads. This is almost never true of actual creativity, and it's debatable whether its products are genuinely creative. I'm thinking of any number of quirky romantic comedies produced by mini-major studios in the 1990's.
My own experience of creativity is rather more like this:
In this version, I have a range of possible outcomes, any of which would work for me, and there is no road. Rather, there is a field. Many paths can be blazed through the field, so long as they result in an outcome in the desired range.
Now here's Erika's radical form of creativity, as I understand it:
This is creativity as pure play. There is a start point, a possible field, and no goal. There is only the act of following where the prior step has led. It is impossible for anyone, including Erika, to anticipate what she will wind up producing.
A few years ago, Erika learned how to reverse the lens on an ordinary webcam. This procedure turns the webcam into a video-enabled low resolution light microscope. So naturally, Erika obtained some local pond water and started looking at it through iPhoto:
She found it teaming with microbial life. In response, she made drawings, paintings, clay sculptures, zinc prints, and ultimately, a body of videos and still photographs. She eventually called this project small neighbors.
This is where I stumble into the picture. I saw an album of Erika's photographs of microbes on her Facebook profile:
At the time, I had been thinking about things I could paint that weren't naked women. Don't get me wrong, I remain a member in good standing of the naked-women fan club, Brooklyn chapter. But I was thinking that my artistic range was getting a little cramped. So when I saw these pictures, I immediately wanted to paint them.
Why? Well, they were representational, but only just. Within their loose representationalism, they were close to being pure studies in the elements of composition. Masterful studies. And they had soft edges. I'm interested in soft edges; I think the edges of many of my objects are too hard.
So I asked if I could paint some of Erika's photographs. And - what utter luck - it turned out she had been kind of hoping I would see her pictures and think of that idea. Her problem was that, being low-resolution, these images cannot be made large except by painting them. Painting is usually an information-subtractive process. In this case, it was an information-additive process. Also, she happened to like my work.
Here's some more utter luck: Erika already had a solo show of small neighbors scheduled at Brew House SPACE 101 Gallery in Pittsburgh, another one of those old industrial buildings that's been converted into a hip art zone. Erika, being completely generous, asked if I would participate in the show, converting it from small neighbors to small neighbors/Microbiota (adding my name for the series of paintings I had begun). I said, "Uh, yes."
That was around June. I've been painting microbes like crazy since then. My creativity, as I've been explaining, is much less free-form than Erika's. I'm not only comfortable working toward a goal-range, I can hardly work without one. So I brought a different methodology to my contribution than Erika brought to hers. Hers is an exploratory work of years. Mine is a sprint of months. I do work on a field, not a road, so I zigged, zagged, and reversed a few times. But I always sprinted.
Let me acquaint you with my unsuccessful attempts at reading Watership Down. As a child, I got through most of it several times; and each time, I would get to some point where I would say, "But they're rabbits. Who cares what happens to a bunch of rabbits?" And I never finished it.
I won't claim that I didn't have similar boggings down with the Microbiota paintings. I've already bitched about painting all the algae in this one:
piertotum locomotor!" Art is inspiration, and the rest of it is will.
So I painted seven Microbiota paintings, completing the last one in just enough time that it didn't actually smear when I stuck it in an SUV and drove (well, Charlotte did most of the driving; driving in the northeast scares me) to Pittsburgh.
Thereat, we stayed with Erika and her girlfriend Lynn (a professor of rhetoric!) in their house, the kind of three-storey place you and I can't afford in New York. Erika had hung most of the show:
I helped with hanging the rest. It looked fantastic. And I understood my work in a way that I hadn't understood it before: as part of a continuum of pieces revolving around a theme, ranging from tiny pucks of incised clay to eMacs playing live video feeds of magnified water. It was a two-person show, but most collaborations, in my experience, have a lead collaborator. I am not the lead on small neighbors/Microbiota - my paintings took their proper place as seven of the objects arranged, carefully and ever playfully, in the mind of Erika.
As for the opening itself, it was on Saturday, October 15th, and it was really nice. Charlotte had a great time. My dad and his excellent girlfriend drove down from Toronto. The opening was enthusiastically attended by Erika's friends, as well as a pleasing number of black-clad art-opening attenders:
Erika demonstrated her microbe-observation apparatus and technique:
This was good. The work can be joyful, or not, but it is always hard. Showing it is one of the big rewards.
With lots of love and gratitude, Erika - thank you.