Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I don't know how you blog, but how I blog is, I keep a list of topics for future posts, and then I pretty much ignore the list and write up whatever is on my mind. So I'm going to follow this procedure right now, and skip a bunch of stuff I've been meaning to tell you about. Instead, let me tell you about one of my projects for next year (there are a few, but I'll tell you about some of the others later).

One of my many methods for cooking things up is to let partial concepts swirl in my mind, until they link up with other partials, and eventually there is a whole thing - a makable thing.

Let me lead you on a path through some partials, and we will see what it summed up to:

Partial 1: Hypercolor

This is a painting I did late in 2010. It currently lives at Hilliard Gallery in Missouri, whither I encourage you to run and buy it:

La Mémoire, 2010, oil on canvas, 18"x14"

"Sangre de dios, Maidman, this is not your usual style at all!" quoth you. True. Let me explain. Ordinarily, the way I paint something is I draw a fussy underdrawing, as you can see here, because I hate to try to put things in the right place at the same time that I'm dealing with color and value. Then, I choose an undercoat color which I spread over the canvas by means of some turpenoid and a cloth. Then I paint into this undercoat while it is wet.

In this instance, I did the underdrawing and the undercoat, then took a step back and said, "You know what, I like this a lot. I think I'll leave it like it is."

This idiom gnawed at me; I wanted to do more paintings in the same mode. In fact, I tried it twice, with distinctly mixed results:

The Prayer, 2010-11, oil on canvas, 14"x18"

Nursing, 2010, oil on canvas, 24"x18"

These are OK, I think, but what's missing from them is the accidental quality of the first one. I meant to do these as they are.

After the third one, I decided to leave it alone for a while, because clearly I had no idea what to do or how to do it. But something important about it struck me: it is the first idiom I've discovered in which I could consider doing a narrative painting, with a story and characters and everything. You can see this emerging in the third painting.

If you've been following my work, you may have noticed that I have been moving toward greater simplicity, and farther from narrative. I cannot support narrative, with sincerity, in my work - except in this idiom. In this one idiom, I can easily picture it.

Call the idiom hypercolor.

Partial 2: Frankenthaler

With hypercolor running in my mental background, my mind eventually drifted to one of the abstract expressionists I hate least, color field painter Helen Frankenthaler.

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountain Pool, 1963, acrylic on canvas, 48"x78"

It's not even so much that I dig Frankenthaler's work. I dig it in flashes, but mostly, I dig the idea of her work - the large, irregular zones of color, placed with an eye to the elements of design such that, somehow, they work.

(As an aside, I think this mode of appreciation of the work shades into what the conceptual artists get at, that the work itself is detritus, vanishable, a codec of an idea: the artist compresses the idea, and the viewer decompresses it, so that the true art exists in the mind on either side, and the quality of the work as a disposable transmission medium is foregrounded. I find the idea of Frankenthaler delicious, but the fact of Frankenthaler somewhat tedious. I cannot bind strongly to this mechanism, so in my own work, I will continue pursuing the painting in and of itself as the incarnation of a sensual phenomenon.)

Doing a little research now, I find that Frankenthaler's method of application is frequently the same as the one I stumbled on with the hypercolor partial - non-brush application of oil paint, heavily thinned with turpentine. Of course, she didn't prime her canvases, so they have a grossly finite lifespan. But still, I know where she's coming from in terms of the physical question of moving paint to surface.

What I learn from Frankenthaler is the possibility of integrating a large canvas area into a single composition using the general category of color shapes I ran into with the hypercolor paintings. Do you see why this is important? Consider Rauschenberg:

Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1953-4 (4 panels, multiple materials, 89" x 112")

Rauschenberg also demonstrates that a large picture space can be compositionally unified, but he uses so many elements that the fact that he's not actually making a representational image reflects more that he's a prick than any formal consideration.

not a Rauschenberg, but not fundamentally different from a Rauschenberg either

Now consider Frankenthaler again:

Helen Frankenthaler, Flood, 1967, synthetic polymer on canvas, 124" x 140"

This painting is enormous, nor is it busy, but it holds together, and it holds together using an array of elements more in line with what I'm interested in.

So I added Frankenthalerian composition to hypercolor technique in the swirl of elements building toward a project in my mind.

Partial 3: Cassandra

I always try to match the project to the model, and the model to the project. And as this project germinated, it occurred to me that it suited Cassandra, an absolutely stellar model whom I've been drawing for a little more than ten years now. I used to draw her in Los Angeles, and we moved to New York around the same time, and I've drawn and painted her here. This is a painting of Cassandra:

Merops Iphikrates, 2009, oil on canvas, 60"x36"

This is another:

The Sister of the Storm, 2010, oil on canvas, 60"x36"

Something you would only vaguely figure out from looking at this work is that Cassandra is a dancer with a flair for costume...

...and a taste for the alchemical:

Cassandra's performances are riotously fun to attend, and painting her is one of the great pleasures of my life as an artist.

When I hit on making large paintings of Cassandra, using the hypercolor combination of refined underdrawings and washy color fields, and the Frankenthalerian integration of the picture space, I thought I had completed assembly of partials into a project, and I was excited to start...

But no ideas came to me. I doodled a couple possibilities, but "random naked chick + color" wasn't cutting it for me. Grumbling, I had to move the project from "active" back to "pending," and wait for further inspiration to strike.

Partial 4: Inanna

I'm not sure how this idea emerged. It's probably just a synthesis of a few things - that Cassandra casts a mythogenic field around her, that I'm interested in the harrowing in hell to begin with - but I eventually thought again about the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and from there came to the strange story of her descent into the underworld.

Inanna is a goddess of war and unlawful carnal knowledge. Also a virgin goddess. And one time she pulled a Prometheus and proliferated technology to the people of Uruk. Nobody's going to accuse the Sumerians of theological consistency.

Be that as it may, Inanna, for reasons not entirely explicit, decided to go down into the underworld and have it out with her older sister Ereshkigal, who ruled there.

It turned out hell had seven gates, at each of which a gatekeeper demanded one of Inanna's garments, which also functioned as instruments of her powers. You could call this part of the story The Deadliest Striptease. Inanna entered the underworld naked, which comports with my motto, "It is only naked you will enter into the house of the truth," as well as with Cassandra's talent for burlesque.

When Inanna met up with Ereshkigal, she died, and Ereshkigal hanged her on a hook. She hanged dead for three days before Father Enki's minions showed up, applied the life-giving plant and the life-giving water, and busted her on outta there.

Maybe she gained the power of life and death. It's not clear. Sumerians.

Now, this story motivates some nudes (you may have noticed I'm not averse to nudes). It provides a character Cassandra can play to a T, a narrative to match the hypercolor idiom, and a mythological context complimentary to the Frankenthaler landscape. But more than that, it is a story I find personally moving.

I do believe that we must all be harrowed in hell - that we are all Dante, and we will never leave our dark forest except if we go downward. I do believe that we must die and be born again. I believe we must stake our souls, going naked into the house of the truth, if we are to be saved. I believe we must abandon every hope, even the hope of salvation, before salvation will come down to us, and we will emerge glorious from our wretchedness. I believe we must do this again and again; that we will be weary, and will believe that we have done with it - and then the dilemma will re-emerge, and again, we will be forced either to become directionless grey ghosts, or to go down to the dark room, and the hook, and the hopelessness, before the life-giving plant and the life-giving water are bestowed.

This is a story I believe; it is a story I can tell.

So this was the final partial - now the project is ready to begin, telling this story, this way, in twelve or fifteen paintings. It will be one of my main pursuits in 2012.

I hope you all will find yourselves renewed in the new year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Aesthetics of Information

So, my job involves a very strange set of science-related skills: I need to know a fair amount about every branch of science, I need to be able to communicate this knowledge in an easily-understood way, and, very importantly, I need to never (or almost never) make a mistake - I need a hair-trigger alarm for what I don't know.

What, you thought I made a living from art?


Ha ha ha.


No, my friends, I most certainly do not make a living from art.

Be that as it may, my per se job provides an excellent opportunity for refining an understanding of the aesthetics of information. I don't literally know most of what I functionally know about science. Rather, I have a pretty good understanding of what scientific knowledge looks like. Each branch of science has its own texture. For instance, biology is the science equivalent of the English language - delightfully large in vocabulary and full of irregular verbs. It is a field composed as much of examples as of principles. Unless you are certain of some biology fact, you cannot assume it is true; the molecule that carries oxygen in humans is not the same as the one that carries it in horseshoe crabs.

Hemoglobin versus hemocyanin. Who knew, right?

In classical physics, on the other hand, you can re-derive a fact given a surprisingly limited number of principles. The kinetic energy of a falling brick is not noticeably different from the kinetic energy of a helium atom.

One wants a sense of the aesthetics of information, both to maximally extend what one knows, and to have a sharp sense of the boundaries of one's knowledge.

Now, how do you extend what you know to make almost completely reliable guesses about what you don't know? You take advantage of a grasp of the aesthetics of the body of information - and then you form an analogy. A does X, and B is like A with regard to the relevant factors, so B probably does something very like X in the same situation. Identifying the correct relevant factors is the key - that's a matter of aesthetics. One gains a sense of aesthetics by tasting a huge amount of information, even if much of it is eventually forgotten.

A basic example to illustrate the point: fluorine bonds with one atom of hydrogen. Bromine is in the same column on the periodic table as fluorine. Elements in the same column have similar properties, and columns toward the edges of the table (like that of fluorine and bromine on one side, and hydrogen on the other) don't have multiple bonding ratios. So probably bromine bonds with one atom of hydrogen as well.

Spoiler: it does.

This is analogical thought, and it is very powerful for extending your functional knowledge, as long as you keep in mind the difference between what you actually know and the considerable volume of smack you're claiming to know.

I personally suspect that it is also a characteristically Jewish way of thinking. There's a reason for this. Judaism, among its bewildering variety of definitions, is a system for living. This system for living is defined by an extensive written body of law. The law, however, cannot possibly be as detailed as the universe. In referring a potentially infinite variety of real-world situations to a finite body of law, it is necessary to extend what is known (the law) to what is unknown (how to behave in a given situation). This scaling-up of the law to match unanticipated situations occupies a great deal of classical Jewish scholarship, with extensive recorded disputes about the applicability of various points of given law to new situations.

Rabbis disputing until morning

Case in point: it is possible to derive the implicit anti-abortion position of Jewish law despite a lack (so far as I know) of a specific prohibition on abortion. How? Because the laws regarding murder specify that the murderer of a pregnant woman shall be tried for the murders of two people. This is analogical reasoning at work:

A (murderer of pregnant woman) does X (goes on trial for murdering two people).

B (abortion) is similar to A with regard to the relevant factors (termination of a fetus).

Therefore B does something like X (abortion constitutes murder of a human being).

Most contemporary Jews do not sit around arguing points of Talmud with one another. But I run across this kind of thinking disproportionately among Jews, and have therefore concluded that the pattern of thought persists in the culture even though the instigating practices have long since receded into the background.

It is interesting to note, as long as we're discussing the topic, that there are two other major modes of reasoning (that I've mused on, anyway). There is also:

Syllogistic reasoning, which derives new knowledge from the premise "All A are B," a much more demanding and rigorous approach than "A is like B."

Revelatory reasoning, which derives new knowledge from the premise, "Aha! A and B are the same!"

I can reason syllogistically when I can be bothered to put in the effort, and when I'm on fire, I can reason revelatorily. But I am primarily an analogical reasoner. My friend Chris is a syllogistic thinker, which means that winning an argument with him is a bitch, because of his tendency to point out that you're talking a considerable volume of smack. My wife Charlotte is also a syllogistic thinker. Chris's ancestors were Italians, and Charlotte's were Scots. So they gave us the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, and therefore we'll let them off the hook for being such fussbudgets about strict proof.

Leah, subject of the Blue Leah paintings, is a typically well-educated secular Jew, whose ancestors no doubt came from the next ghetto over from mine in Ukraine. Leah reasons analogically.

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

Alley, subject of Her, is of Swedish descent, and reasons revelatorily.

Her, oil on canvas, 36"x36", 2010

I don't know if that has to do with her being Swedish or not. I don't know anything about Sweden except for that Liv Ullmann is a babe.

Liv Ullmann

Believe it or not, all of this has something to do with art. It has to do with the old problem confronted by everyone serious about figure drawing:

Should I draw what I see or should I draw what I know?

Arguments about this topic go all over the goddamn map, and frankly they're not very interesting, because the map isn't very big. But I think I can lay claim to a diverting wrinkle in it, so here we are.

As you possibly know by now, my own history with figure drawing divides roughly into an early craptastic period:

life drawing, 2001

And a later shockingly-awesome period:

life drawing, 2011

The border between these periods is 2001-3, during which time I was involved in cadaver dissection at Santa Monica College, under the guidance of Dr. Margarita Dell. It was a period of two years during which I spent as much as 40 hours a week drawing my own personal anatomical atlas:

you don't even want to know what that is

So you'd think that I would bloody well be on the side of the draw-what-you-know camp. But you'd be thinking wrong.

Here's an interesting twist: because I'm lazy as all hell, I didn't ever memorize the names of any structures. Not one muscle, not one bone. I see artists going around saying, "Yeah, and there's the iliac crest," and I'm like, "If you say so, dude."

We fix this kind of explicit detail in our minds with words. So if you asked me to draw you a diagram of the muscles of the body, I would have large regions known as "getting it wrong." Same deal with bones. No way could I draw you that mess of bones in the center of the foot, even though I picked them apart and drew them more than once:

So what did I learn from two years of formaldehyde headaches? I learned the aesthetics of anatomical information. The body is a chaotic grab-bag of things. There are two fundamental modes of making sense of it: explicitly learning all its structures, or looking at it long enough that you get it. I did neither. I retained the aesthetics of its structures, and I applied that knowledge to looking at it.

What does this buy me? I can't tell you where a muscle starts and stops. But I know the insertion of a muscle when I see it. I can't tell you the standard distribution of fat depths beneath the skin, but I can see the difference between muscle and fat. And I can't tell you all the points where bone typically stretches skin, but I know its shine when it's there, so I see its shape as well.

What I know is so partial that it is flexible. I don't have a systematic approach to the body - I am constantly thrown back on direct perception, as ignorant as a child. But I also have a sense of the aesthetics of the body. This helps structure my perceptions just enough to lead them to anatomical accuracy. Consider Leah's left shoulder in Blue Leah #5:

Now consider the same phenomenon from the perspective of explicit knowledge:

That bulge just to the right of Leah's armpit, catching a bit of light, is her teres major, overlaid with an adorable shot of yellow adipose tissue (fat). The region between the left dink and the right dink is her infraspinatus. We're not seeing the edge of her trapezius because it's relaxed and not as well developed as one expects in, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The next bright line we see, moving right, is the medial border of her scapula.

I didn't think of any of that stuff while I was painting it. I thought, "bright spot, dink 1, dink 2, shoulderblade."

I think it's very, very difficult to draw the body accurately on the basis of looking alone. On the other hand, I think it's next to impossible to draw the body realistically in the context of medical-grade anatomical knowledge. Why? Let me deploy another analogy.

Early in the history of Assyriology...

Assyriology is the one with the cuneiform tablets

...scholars drawing copies of tablets tended to draw what they saw very accurately. Why? They weren't so sure as they are now what was meaningful and what wasn't, so they instinctively took down everything so as not to miss something that might turn out to be important.

W. M. Flinders Petrie, published 1894

Try copying something in Chinese sometime, and you'll see what I mean.

Later, once cuneiform was better understood, typical renderings of tablets became more idealized:

Possibly Hans Güterbock, after 1960

By this point, scholars were drawing symbols, not things. They knew what was essential, and they threw away the non-meaningful idiosyncrasies of the tablets in front of them.

This is the danger of total anatomical knowledge. Once you learn what is "meaningful" anatomically, you automatically subtract what is accidental to the person actually in front of you. The living model becomes a story written in physiological letters, in the inflexible syntax of anatomy. Just ask Prud'hon:

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Study for La Source
c. 1801, Black and white chalk, 21 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches

And this is something I oppose (although I like Prud'hon quite a lot). My work looks much clumsier than the paintings of many of my classically-figurative contemporaries. The anatomy is accurate, but it is not a given. I want the sweat to show. When I build up to a figure, I don't want that figure to fall into place as if it were always so. I am not - just now - painting the Human who lives in the sky. I am painting the particular people in front of me.

I learned the aesthetics of information in this field by learning its knowledge and then forgetting much of it. This allowed the course I prefer - depending on the aesthetics of information to help me organize what I see. I didn't want pure empiricism to make me incapable, and I don't want knowledge to make me blind.


As always, take this with a grain of salt. I am describing here the exact method I am using right now. And I have a tendency to think that every little thing I do is not only right, but inevitable. When I change methods tomorrow, I'm sure I'll have a clever reason for my new method being ever so perfect. So please, please remember that this is an advocacy for one of many valid procedures.