Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Here, this is something very interesting which came up in correspondence with abstract sculptor Jesse Soodalter. She wrote:

...although I've admired many different kinds of art, figurative and otherwise, for a million years, it wasn't until I had a kind of damascene realization of the power and, in some sense, legitimacy of abstraction that I began to conceive of myself as any kind of creator of visual art.

It took me a short while, and then I realized I recognized this sentiment; I recognized it very precisely and completely, so much that I could narrow my damascene moment to sometime between September 27 and November 8, 2003.

At that time, I was in Los Angeles, going to life drawing in Santa Monica on Tuesdays and in Los Feliz on Thursdays, and generally screwing around with drawing and painting and calling myself a student of art. I didn't quite feel that I was ready to call myself an artist. But I was definitely a student of art.

When I was a kid, my mom had a book of Francesco Clemente around the house, which I never opened, but I do remember the cover, because you're not gonna forget that face or that font.

So I was vaguely aware of the existence of Clemente from a young age. In 1998, I saw this movie, "Great Expectations," which when you think about it isn't that good a movie, except for the spellbinding artwork attributed to the artist main character, Finn...

ripped off from here

...and the amazing integration of the actual artist into the cinematography, so that Ethan Hawke as Finn, and the hands of the artist actually making the artwork, cut together beautifully.

Ethan Hawke, artist
we all totally look like that

After I saw it, I looked up who this amazing artist was, and lo and behold, it was Francesco Clemente. Best decision CuarĂ³n made in that film, I thought. From then on, Clemente had a specific, if relatively unexamined, place in my mind - the guy who does the very recognizable big-eye portraits and totemic images.

totemic image

On this basis, I went to see his show at Gagosian/LA in the fall of 2003, sometime between September 27 and November 8. This show did not, ahem, exhibit him at his best. Mostly because the set-piece artworks were enormous paintings done on denim.

Francesco Clemente, Liberation Self Portrait, 2000, mixed media on denim
14 goddamned feet tall by 14 OMG and a half feet wide

This is one of those things that's really only obvious in hindsight, but it turns out denim is a shitty medium for Francesco Clemente to work on. It looked blotchy, contrasty, unsubtle, and stupid.

Also, there were some small watercolors in the back room.

I did, however, have a revelation in that show which was a turning point in my life as an artist, and it would not have happened if the work had been good. It had to be bad for the point to be clear. The point was this: no matter what he was doing, Clemente's work radiated self-confidence. It said, "I made this, it is my art, I will not explain myself, and if you don't like it, fuck you."

When the work is good, you can mix up its self-confidence and the quality of the work itself. They only manifest separately when there's really no excuse for the work apart from the reckless assertion of the artist that you're going to damn well look at it. It swaggered. Clemente's work swaggers, it is downright Captain Kirkish. It can be insufferable, but there is no mistaking it for something apart from what it is.

I realized that without this forceful assertion, this possibly swaggering awareness of your classification as an artist, it did not matter how good you got; you weren't going to be making art. I had been holding off calling myself an artist because I lacked confidence in my skill and my vision. I thought, "Well, I need to learn to draw and paint better; I need to figure out what I want to say." And here Clemente was telling me:

"Screw that - you already know everything you need to know, you're avoiding the issue by claiming you don't know what you want to say. Take responsibility for yourself and start making the work. In fact, Maidman, let me quote to you the immortal words of Xenophon, Anabasis, book III:

"'Why am I lying here? The night advances; with the day, it is like enough, the enemy will be upon us. If we are to fall into the hands of the king, what is left us but to face the most horrible of sights, and to suffer the most fearful pains, and then to die, insulted, an ignominious death? To defend ourselves—to ward off that fate—not a hand stirs: no one is preparing, none cares; but here we lie, as though it were time to rest and take our ease. I too! What am I waiting for? A general to undertake the work? And from what city? Am I waiting till I am older myself and of riper age? Older I shall never be, if today I betray myself to my enemies.'

"Hear the moral of it, Maidman, for it is this: make a decision. Your decision may be wrong! Look at these christawful denim paintings - that was a bad decision. But it is better to make a bad decision than to make no decision at all. From a bad decision, we lurch on to a better decision. From no decision, we waver along an endless road of indecision. Your studies are finished; you are an artist. Make art."

All these things Francesco Clemente said to me, and I listened to what Clemente said. I changed what I was thinking about, or rather, how I was thinking about what I was thinking about. The revelation was a revelation of legitimacy, just as Soodalter described in her own damascene realization. It was in reaction to it that I finally made that leap, and became an artist.

I did not make art right away. Early the next year, I began; a friend commissioned a painting, of whatever I liked. I decided, for painting #1, to do a female nude. This has perhaps set a pattern that has persisted. At the time, I had been working with burnt sienna and white for a while, but I had no real idea how to paint, or how to color, or anything.  So I bought John Howard Sanden's Portraits from Life in 29 Steps. I was worried I would wind up painting like Sanden, but more worried about my total ignorance. It turned out that Sanden is a tremendous teacher, and, because I was swaggering like an artist, learning from him didn't compromise how I painted at all. Here's a Sanden:

John Howard Sanden, Dr. Kim B. Clark

And here's a detail of my first serious painting, done in response to his instructions for how to paint like him:

Daniel Maidman, Kem (detail), oil on canvas, 48"x24", 2004

Looking at it now, I see a couple of genes of Clemente thrown into the mix. But this is the first time I've thought of that.

Anyway, that's the story of how I became an artist. Let me return to Soodalter's story for a minute. She writes about it beautifully, more beautifully than I have here:

For me it was a specific Rothko.  Having never really thought about him--or indeed Abstract Expressionism at all--much before, I wandered into a room at the Art Institute of Chicago and found myself faced with this painting,

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Purple, White, and Red), 1953, oil on canvas, 197.5 x 207.7 cm

and out of nowhere it just reached into my chest and yanked, hard enough to make me choke up.  It really was a single transformative moment, and it unroofed some profound sink of emotional and aesthetic responsiveness to abstraction that has been the absolute and literal making of me as an artist.  It took time to root, and lots of tentative and sheepish but infatuated gestures, before I found my voice, so to speak, with the object and wire pieces.  That came very much with getting into Arte Povera too, that sense of a kind of profane sanctification of objects/spaces/events by the means of the artist's attention.

This is a piece by Soodalter:

Jesse Soodalter, The Only Way Out is Up, found object (asphalt), copper wire, paper, October 2012

Now, I don't know what I'm talking about when I talk about abstract art. I don't have a good sense of the terms of debate and discussion. But there is something that is so perfectly correct to my eye to this.

There is the found object, pure matter, close to the alchemical prima materia - raw, cruel, base, meaningless.

Then there is the first level of intervention by the artist, the wrapping of the object in a gold-colored wire. This wrapping is the sanctification of which Soodalter speaks. The eye of the artist perceives the object, the palm holds it, the soul blesses it - and the fingers express the blessing with wire. The artist interacts with the object at the most visceral, physical level.

Then there is a second intervention, the fixing of the object to the paper. This to me is the equivalent, by means of reason, of the first emotional-spiritual intervention. First the heart and hand absorbed the object, now the mind does too. The paper is flat space, the cartesian plane, the page of text. The sanctified object becomes part of the map of the universe in the mind of the artist. It is set in its right place, here and not there.

This minuscule thing records the confrontation between the human presence and the universe: a confrontation characterized on the human side, for Soodalter, by fascination, love, and ultimately, integration.

That's what I see in these humble materials. But part of the reason I see that at all in a jumble of stuff which I might otherwise overlook is that Soodalter has passed through the revelation of legitimacy. You are walking along, and you pass by her, and she holds up her hand and says, "Stop. Thou shalt look. This is art."

It is essential for the artist to have the revelation of legitimacy, to learn to make the assertion. You can make the assertion and still be wrong. But if you don't make the assertion, you can't be right.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Parthenogenesis: Self-as-Symbol in Lauren Levato's 'Wunderkammer'

This previously appeared at Huffington. No additional text is included here. But it will lead to some posts down the road, because it treats a topic I'm thinking about a lot right now.

Also, the artwork in this post is so insanely awesome.


Lauren Levato is a Chicago artist who previously specialized in bugs.

Lauren Levato, Longhorn No. 2, 12" x 9", drawn with a single No. 2 pencil from Walgreens on paper, 2009

She had been working toward making the emotional and intellectual resonances she sees in bugs pictorially explicit:

Lauren Levato, From the Bodies of Dead Horses, graphite on Bristol, 2011

But it is only very recently that she has made a breakthrough. Having tackled some personal issues, she was suddenly able to make self-portraits. And her outlook, grounded in the methodical qualities of scientific illustration, opened a very interesting path:

Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as Thief in the Night, 12" x 12", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

This could be a one-off until you look at a second one:

 Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as Hex, 17" x 14", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

In these drawings, called "Wunderkammer," she incessantly repeats not only herself as an image, but more or less the same pose and the same gaze at the viewer. What is the significance of this?

When you have an encrypted but repeating signal, you can try to decrypt it by examining changing and fixed elements in the system of which the signal is a part. Levato herself is fixed in her drawings - what varies?

The imagery varies. It varies a lot - like the cabinets of curiosities after which the series is named, she includes diverse animals and manufactured objects:

Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as St. John the Baptist, 12" x 12", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

But the variation takes place within a certain set of constant rules. They are all full-length nude self-portraits done with spare, elegant lines. They all involve animals and odd hairdos, and most depict Levato with unorthodox items in her womb.

Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as My Sister's Keeper, 12" x 12", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

Evaluated in this light, we begin to see that Levato's image construction follows only the most basic rules of visual grammar. The sophistication of the work results not from visual grammar, but from linguistic grammar. Each of these paintings is a sentence:

"I am Lauren Levato, and I am [ ] and [ ] and [ ] and that involves [ ] and [ ]."

They are elaborated reflections on the consequences of a series of self-recognitions. The titles reflect this.

It would be very easy to classify this work with the various other instances of pop surrealism which currently abound. I think this would be a mistake. Surrealism, in its original instances and even more so in its current degenerate resurrection, is dedicated to the peculiar, the allegedly unconscious, and the dreamlike, for their own sakes. This is a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that it too eagerly indulges an exclusive focus on preference, or taste, or style.

Levato's objects and arrangements are categorically surrealistic, but they are not ends in themselves. Like her self-image, they are words in her language. Just as her self-image is halfway to a Chaplinesque caricature, so her objects have been partly emptied out of their self-contained meanings and character, in order to fit more smoothly into their relations with one another. The meaning of her work emerges from its total composition, not any one part of it.

What is this language she creates? What is the meaning of her work?

I think she is producing a rare form of a common psychological inversion among artists. All art has an expressionist component - the revelation of the interior life of the artist, their state of mood and thought, the progress of their soul. All art serves, to some extent, as an exteriorization of this interior state, as the objective correlative outlined by T. S. Eliot in Hamlet and His Problems:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

And yet, while this element is common, and even emphasized among, you know, the expressionists -

(Odilon Redon, The Crying Spider, 1881)

- it is, generally speaking, disorderly and inchoate, a matter of a self-willed passionate disposition violently expressing itself through bizarre imagery.

Levato, on the other hand, designs her work with a meditative calm. Emerging from science, she applies an artistic equivalent of the dissectionist's practice: the bloodiest of matter, the most methodical of excavations. Her image-objects are partly defined complex symbols representing internal states. She has developed the ability to relate important visuals in her life to specific aspects of her own state of being. She has thus laid portent on top of physicality, and trained herself to draw in a way that conveys both the likeness and the portent - "This is not itself, it is the substitute for something else." And she has also trained herself to detach, once each exploratory surgery is complete, from the brutal work of conjoining the interior and exterior worlds. Having detached, she can lucidly convey the results. She's got the tastes of a tiger and the sensibilities of a lab assistant.

In some of the drawings, certain symbols are immediately decipherable, as in the Self Portrait as Forgetting:

Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as Forgetting, 12" x 12", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

Here black ribbons are monstrously large versions of the strings children are told to tie around their fingers, to remember. In other pieces, though, the set of symbols defies simple analysis:

Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as Caul, 17" x 14", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

Yes, I know what a caul is, and I'm still not going to claim I get it.

But this is important - that sometimes I should be unable to get it. It is exactly when the symbol is indecipherable that its nature as a symbol is most evident. The falcon, nest, horns, and hair/cape clearly form a network of symbols. They mean something to Levato; they don't need to mean anything to us. What we receive is the unnerving imminence of the perplexing but loaded symbol, the threatening authoritativeness of the Tarot. We are not traveling on Levato's path; her art is not the same as her path. Our path with her art is an experience of the intellectual and emotional texture of Levato's journey. We see her walking. We do not see, entirely, where she walks.

 Lauren Levato, Self Portrait as Capricorn, 17" x 14", colored pencil and graphite on Bristol, 2012

There is only one other artist I can think of who has developed something analytically similar to this - Frida Kahlo, of course. But because Kahlo and Levato both generate absolutely sincere, personal symbol-systems, their work bears next to no resemblance on the level of content or appearance.

Kahlo's work expresses in rigorous formal terms a journey that is heated and violent, that careens between sensual pleasures and agonies, nearly undone with a self-regard so intense that the work threatens to replace a life forever in the process of becoming unlivable.

Levato's journey is cool and composed; we join her at the very end of that fiery compression which transforms graphite into diamond. She cannot bear to express any image before it has completed such a metamorphosis. In the aftermath of the violence, her images occupy a fairy-tale landscape, an uncanny semiotic world - forms, previously invisible, reveal themselves: animals and ribbons, jewelry and hair.

I called this body of work parthenogenetic because parthenogenesis is the manufacture of offspring without fertilization. In "Wunderkammer," Levato impregnates herself with herself, filling her symbol-womb with her symbol-objects. Again, the meaning of each of these objects is not really any of our business. Our business is that her work is compelling; it is airily weird; it is perfected and honest in its difficult conception and flawlessly elegant in its execution. Confronting it, our head fills with interesting thoughts, and our feet float a millimeter or two off the floor.


"Wunderkammer" at Packer Schopf Gallery, Jan. 11-Feb. 16, 942 W. Lake St., Chicago, IL, 60607
Opening reception Friday, Jan. 11, 5-8 p.m. (you missed this, but that's alright, I'm including it for completeness's sake)

"Wunderkammer" images courtesy of Packer Schopf Gallery
Lauren Levato online:

Twitter/Instagram: hioctaneredhead

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dragon Skin

So this painting, which is for a friend, was an unbelievable sonofabitch to complete:

Daniel Maidman, An Octopus, oil on panel, 12"x12", 2013

Suckers, textured skin, the works - it took forever. It brought vividly to my mind an idea I have had, occasionally, for many years. I first had this idea when I stumbled on a sleeping chameleon in a hedge in Israel. The chameleon had turned white while sleeping, which seems like a poor idea from a survival perspective, but he's the professional. I had a chance to study him closely for a while. When he woke up, he turned green again.

He might not have been a he, I don't know.

The idea I had was this - human skin is fairly low in detail. We are low-detail organisms. Imagine if we had descended from lizards, or birds; if we had feathers or scales, or large-scale complex pigmentations, or involved edges. Our entire art history would have been different. We would either have had to commit more time to each picture and sculpture, or make due with a more stylized, reduced-detail visual paradigm from the very start.

Actually, reflecting on it now, my friend rupa dasGupta, who has been drawing an octopus every day since 2010, at the appropriately-titled http://anoctopusaday.tumblr.com/, has been confronting this problem continuously. Her project can be read as a set of experiments in the question of detail: its representation, interpretation, aesthetics, and reduction.


My thought is not a very interesting thought, because art would also be different if we could see the polarization of light, or ultraviolet, or radio. Or if oil were highly volatile. Or if the electron had a different mass.

I'm just saying. Feathers and scales. That would be fucked up.

Thank you very much.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Patron Saint of Hunger

The other day I went to the Met to see the last day of the Bernini show. On my way to the Bernini section, I had one of those art museum experiences which I find essential to my well-being as an artist.

Here's what happened. I went the long way around, passing through the medieval and early Renaissance galleries on the second floor. I glanced to my right, and this is what I saw:

This is Bartolomeo Montagna's (no, I never heard of him either) oil-on-wood "Saint Justina of Padua," painted, as nearly as I can tell from the museum label, between his birth before 1459 and his death in 1523.

Saint Justina here hit me like a solid punch to the gut. I had a jaw-dropping, soft-legged sensation of ringing stillness. I was being overpowered by the beauty of this painting: the compact rounded clarity of the depiction, the model's force of virtue, intelligence, insight, and wit, and Montagna's gorgeous technique.

I don't go to art museums often enough. They say you can't just invent art out of your own head, without reference to history. This is less true than you would think. I have gone through a very long period of studying some of our art heritage very intensely. But I have also sequestered myself intensely from it for a time, and my new pictorial ideas build, as much as anything, on my older pictorial ideas. Fortunately for me, I'm either very good or deluded enough to believe I'm very good. So I do not perceive myself, moment by moment, becoming impoverished by living in my solipsistic art referential universe.

Then, after a long absence, I go to the Met, or the National Gallery, or someplace like that. And it is just shocking. Here is simply magnificent work, the wealth of age upon age of discipline, inspiration, and genius.

If you are not an artist, your experience of attending an art museum will be different from mine, just as a musician's experience of a musical performance is different from that of a music fan.

If you are an artist, when you are just starting out, the work in art museums - the really good stuff - seems miraculous, it seems to be a unitary phenomenon on the far side of an unbridgeable abyss. Your ambition is to earn your own spot in these museums, these treasure-houses, and yet you despair of ever earning such a spot, because of the magnificence of the existing residents.

Your despair, however, inspires you. You start down the long road of your training, to see if you can rise so high as to reach up and touch the drapery, trailing below these gods as they circle the empyrean.

You study and work for years and years, and that unitary miracle you saw begins to come into focus, and as it focuses, it separates. Now you see that this incredible work is not immortal only; like the Greek heroes, it is the offspring of a union of mortal and immortal parents.

The immortal parent is vision. Vision is beyond your control as a would-be artist. You have it, or you do not. You can gain and lose it; it will come and go as it will. All you can do is prepare yourself to receive it, and even so, nobody has found a method for this preparation which is more successful, in terms of statistical significance, than just getting drunk like an asshole every night.

The mortal parent is technique. This, you can gain, and in fact, much of what you are spending all those years and years on is refining and improving your technique.

As your technique improves, it will begin to match the work you have admired in museums. You will not want to admit this to yourself; it will seem sacrilegious. But recognizing what is so is part of being reasonable. Technique is mortal. You can train hard enough to beat it. I can paint as well as, say, the bottom quintile of the painters in the Met. And my technique is not as good as that of dozens of painters I know, many of them annoyingly younger than I am. Technique is difficult, but not impossible. Some of it derives from talent, but without practice, talent doesn't amount to much.

Now you go back to the museum, and you have lost the innocent awe of the art lover or the aspirer to art-making. You're an artist, and you spend a lot of time squinting at particular passages in paintings, decoding the methods of their creation. You admire the flow of compositions. You make notes on bits to steal.

You begin to evaluate vision, to say, "My vision is as strong as this, but not yet as strong as that." You know it is foolish, that this kind of evaluation is notoriously biased, unreliable, and best done in the long light of centuries. But you cannot resist. You are still ambitious.

You have gained a great deal, but you have lost a great deal as well. You are jaded; there are scales on your eyes. You have looked at so much art that you are blinded to art.

This is a hazard of the profession. We are like bouncers at the strip club of the soul.

This is my experience of it, anyway. There is nothing in this sequence I have not undergone, the pointless vanities and stinging disappointments alike. You know I am ambitious, and I am doing my best to share with you the convolutions of my ambitious road...

So all of this explains the tremendous importance, the absolutely vital importance, of the sensation of being punched in the gut. This is the return of the original interaction with great art, the reminder of the might and grandeur of the thing. It is the humiliation that redeems the drudgery and the vanity, that renews the challenge of the majesty of the project, of us, we ourselves, when we look up from the mud.

My sensation of this sucker punch was different from what it used to be. It used to be, "I will never make such great work." Now it is, "I will never make this great work." This is an astonishing leap in assertion, and it was surprising to me how highly I regarded my work. But it would not do to make a false report. My sensation was not of an essential incapacity, but of an essential lack. Whatever I ever do, I will never paint Montagna's Saint Justina; Montagna already did. I will never paint any one of these masterpieces. I might paint masterpieces, but they will not be these, they will be some other ones. These are no longer available.

Since, it would seem, my craving has the same borders as the universe, this unavailability struck me like the pang of a hunger that cannot be fed. It was a terrible feeling, an abrupt sense of envy and loss. It was actually the reverse of that impulse to paint which I described in Credo - I saw what Montagna loved, and loved it too, and could not perform that conversion of adoration into paint which is so central to my experience. I became Montagna, but with my hands cut off, my tongue cut out, an incapable Montagna. My craving burned me.

And this - this is enough! I have worked to become mighty, and every inch of might I conquered cost me an inch of wonder. It is no good to live without wonder. I've got plenty of wonder about plenty of things, but less about art, and I need to have wonder about art to remain an artist. So this experience, this discovery, is vastly reassuring. The wonder moved, and hid, and finally, it re-emerged. Its quantity is undiminished. The inner circle of wonder that I cannot make so great a thing has narrowed, but the outer circle, of wonder at things I might possibly have made but did not, is greater in area. It is a savage lack, a gnawing absence. It is the very hunger I am always worrying about losing. Saint Justina teaches that the true hunger is unfeedable.