Monday, November 3, 2014

One of Tracy's pieces from her show at the Loge.  Es muy bien, no?

I thought I might take a little jaunt away from the trip in Guanajuato this week to talk about our efforts to use the images from this and other places to actually make art.

As I said in the last post, Tracy and I spent three nights walking through the alleyways and streets of Guanajuato on our first visit, but we also spent the four days bookending these nights exploring that town, collecting images for Tracy's December '08 show in the University of Utah's Loge Gallery.  Tracy spent the next several months creating an impressive number of mixed media works based on this material, as well as images from Taxco, Oaxaca and a few from the South of France.  It was an eye-poppingly colorful show, and almost all of the images have since found happy homes in the the houses of groovy people.

It took me quite a bit longer to start using any of these as source material, however.  Tracy and I have built up an absurd number of photos in the old iPhoto library over the years (71,440 as of this writing, and she's out shooting more as I type this), and sometimes the sheer volume of the material is daunting.  There's so much to choose from, but it also feels like just a whole bunch of haystacks to go looking for needles in.

The other thing that frequently happens in our household is that when one of us starts mining a particular vein, the other one feels like they can't really touch it.  This isn't said overtly and is even occasionally   denied by the person working that vein, but I think we both feel this pressure to stay on our own side of the artistic bed.

There are similarities in the way that Tracy and I work as well, which is one of the first things that drew us together as a couple, but which occasionally people who aren't looking very hard will say annoying things about, such as "You two paint exactly the same!"  (actual quote from an actual museum-art-collector-type person).  But it is true that Tracy and I have been barking up adjacent if not conjoined trees since even before our eyes met across a crowded room back in '02, and it's also true that we have influenced each other heavily ever since, on and off the canvas.  How, Dear Reader, could it not be so?

Aside from a show we did when Tracy was eight months pregnant, where we both painted about 10 or so paintings each from the same model setups, and hung our paintings up side by side like this, Tracy and I have kind of kept to our own individual subject matters.

Plein Air in France, where they invented the phrase
However, I was very interested in the beauty of all of these places we'd been, and in their sheer visual weirdness when compared to the very sensibly laid down grid, boring architecture and muted tones of the town I live in.  Even though I've painted plein air on most of our trips to Europe, I sort of felt like Tracy owned the photographic images from our excursions to Mexico, France and other places we'd been to, and I didn't want to infringe on her turf.

Also, a lot of my subject matter over the years has been about the very banality of growing up in a certain place and time in the U.S., and I really didn't know how to fit these picturesque locales into my body of work.  I've had a love/hate relationship with working from photographic reference for many years, sometimes swearing them off completely for a while and then coming back to them when I saw an image that was completely irresistible.  But when I'd worked from photos before it had nearly always been from old family snapshots that have a certain dorky nostalgia and time-muted color sensibility, mostly from the 1960s and 70s.  I really liked these new digital images we were accruing, but I just didn't know what to do with them, if anything.

Hey!  That's New!
One of Damien Hirst's Polka Dot paintings
This kind of inner critical dialogue can sometimes make an artist self conscious, and self consciousness kills art like roundup on so many dandelions.  Somehow there also has taken root in Western and particularly American Art the High Holy Doctrine of Unprecedented Uniqueness, which is that your work must break out anew as the Next Big Thing like Athena from the skullshards of yesterday's misguided tradition.

Continuing the Greek myth riff, this new Promethian fire, brought down the mountain of cranial grey matter from the solitary (and almost certainly New York based!) artistic genius, hopefully arrives just in time to save Western Civilization from stagnation by ushering in the New Paradigm, whatever that is.

This is all of course complete and utter Clement Greenberg B.S., but it is one of the primary myths (and not one of the good kinds with minotaurs and togas) left over from Art School that a painter may have rolling around their cranium when they sit down in front of a blank canvas.  It's also one of the many reasons contemporary art has become so utterly dreadful, but that's a whole other rant for another day.  One tries to empty one's mind of unhelpful myths, but sometimes it can be a challenge.

High Water Mark of Contemporary Art: "Tree"
Paul McCarthy's 80 Foot Butt Plug in Paris two weeks ago.
What is known today as the Art World is a very noisy place, filled with a whole bunch of stuff catering to the One-Percenters or Po-Mo art critics or God knows who, that frankly Tracy and I are just really not very interested in or moved by.  While there are of course a lot of interesting artists still working all over the world, it seems that the most famous people who refer to themselves by that moniker today are 99.9% P.T. Barnum, and in my opinion they are pulling their ideas out of a different place than their grey matter, in the case of Paul McCarthy quite literally.

Still, there are some noted exceptions, like David Hockney, who is still kicking and continues to inspire artists like Tracy and me.

David Hockney Photo-Montage
One of the things Tracy and I have learned over the years from Hockney's photo-montages is that they have a much more interesting spatial (as well as temporal) relationship to the viewer than any individual photograph, and this space in some of them (though not so much in this one) begins to bend in ways that are closer to what it is like when you are actually standing in an environment that curves around you in every direction.  The image is also fractured in interesting ways that recall cubism, though in my opinion this fractal effect always looks a bit tricky when you try to do it with paint.

Add to this spatial idea the weirdness of actually standing in a place with winding streets like Guanajuato or San Miguel, the extreme light contrast and the color of these places, and it seemed like there might be something interesting to really track down here.  In the last few pieces for her show, Tracy was using this multi-vanishing-point bent space perspective to great effect in her pieces, and some of them had become quite large.  I also liked how she was bringing people, cars and animals from other source images into her composition to balance them and create new relationships between the characters and compositional elements.

Earlier that year, Tracy and I had worked together on a mixed media piece based on a hilltop town in France where we explored these ideas, and this collaboration reignited my interest in the images in our photo library.  I started digging back through the enormous number of pictures and figured out how to stitch the montages together in photoshop and similar programs instead of printing them all up and doing it with scotch tape on the studio wall.  I'd been playing with this for fun since I bought my first Canon PowerShot G1 back in '01, and even as far back as 1992 I was combining analog photographic imagery in the good old fashioned cut-and-paste-with-real-scissors-and-real-paste way, but in 2008-09 I started really pursuing digital stitching extensively as a compositional tool.

Worth pursuing
I ended up making a large number of these montages over the last 5 or 6 years, many of which are enormous jpeg files that would sometimes crash my old Mac.  Most of them will never end up turning into paintings but occasionally one will really stick out as something worth pursuing.

There are of course many people in the world and probably on your block making panoramic photos every day, and there are now programs and even apps for your smartphone which do everything for you and smooth out all the seams between the individual images so they even move around your screen like Google Street View.  But I prefer the clunky old manual photo stitch that shows all the rectangles and color and value inconsistencies from the source files, as they have that fractal Hockneyesque neo-cubist space thing going on in them, and I can try different incarnations of the same image, deleting or moving characters around like a collage and then deciding whether to pursue any given image further or not. My montages are intentionally pretty rough as I don't really want to spend all my time in photoshop, and I think of them as studies for the real thing.  Essentially, I'd rather get painting.

I still did some old-fashioned manual montages with tape and physical photographic prints like Hockney did, as it's actually pretty fun for an afternoon or so, and a very tactile and direct process, but somehow the photos feel kind of dead to me after they've been printed, whereas they literally glow at you when viewed from the screen, which glow gives you something to aspire to when you bust out the paints.  That deadness in your standard print from the Costco Photo Lab is one of the main reasons why I've disliked working with photos in the past.  Still, sometimes this is the approach that makes sense, especially when there are a lot of photos that would create an enormous file or crash the program, my computer, and then my brain.  Here's a link to the painting I did from this montage, if you're interested.

I know some artists who declare from the rooftops that working from photo reference is always bad.  At least one of my professors in Grad School, Alfred Leslie (an artist way more famous than I'll ever be) was always railing about the evils of artists using photography, and he sometimes went to extraordinary lengths in his own paintings to only work from life.  Once he had an actual jeep dismantled and brought into his third story studio with a crane through a large window and then reassembled for a series of paintings about the untimely death of his friend the poet Frank O'Hara.

Here's a link if you want to take a look at a slideshow of the paintings from this cycle, all of which were (apparently) painted strictly from life, even the crazy one with naked people running all over the place and the guy flying through the air.  But I've come to believe that photographs are just another tool in the box, and that many of the images I want to create would be impossible without them.  If you make the decision to only work from life, then you are accepting the limitations of that particular decision, and your paintings are going to look a certain way.  I wanted mine to look a different way.

Whatever.  Alfred's got paintings in the Smithsonian and the MOMA and I don't.  He's also a terrific guy if you ever get a chance to meet him.

Crazy Studmuffin d'Art
In any case, photos are certainly not as good as actually being there.  Van Gogh's night paintings are amazing partly for the fact that he was standing out there in the streets of Arles with a straw hat with candles he'd attached to it so he could see what he was painting.  Still, all his neighbors thought he was totally nuts and more than 80 of them signed a petition asking for him to be evicted and perhaps committed.  Ultimately, they were kind of right, it turns out.  He was and still is the major Studmuffin of western art, and the standard by which all artists since are compared, but let's face it:  he was also kinda bonkers.  He's become the Tragically Crazy Jesus of Art, as has perhaps been observed by others.

Painted this puppy plein air
Ultimately, this anti-photo rhetoric just seems mostly like old fashioned Ludditism to me.  I've painted outside plein air at night several times, and sometimes I came back with something interesting, and sometimes I didn't.  The truth is I really like painting night scenes but I usually get real sleepy around 10:27 pm every night, especially if I've had a glass of wine or two.  Plus it's not the safest thing to do, even in a quiet town like Salt Lake City.  My friend John Erickson was painting outside in the Avenues one night when some Yuppyspawn teens drove by and threw a Snapple bottle at him.  Little jerks.

I've also had to come to terms with the fact that I'm not the most facile plein air painter.  It's true that plein air painting has a certain urgency and energy that is frequently absent in works from photo reference.  But it takes me way longer to bring an image together than people who are really good at this kind of painting, like my buddy Doug Braithwaite who absolutely kills every time he goes out outside with his brushes.

Renoir.  What a douche.
I'm sure there were artists who railed against these new whippersnappers who started buying their paint in tubes back in the 1840s when this technology first became available, instead of grinding their pigments with a mortar and pestle and adding linseed oil every morning for a couple of hours like a real artist did.  But as Renoir said, "Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism." Course I hate Renoir.  He was right though:  No tubes, no Monet, and by extension no Cezanne and most definitely no Van Gogh.  Tools are neither good nor bad.  It's just that you need to learn how to use them.

On one of our trips to France we had also spent time walking around in an amusement park in Paris right after a May rainstorm, and I had snapped off a great many night photos that were pretty intriguing.

The technicolor carnival lights reflecting up in all those pools of water on the pavement was super seductive.  I began to work from some of these images on a small scale to test their viability as subject matter, and to see what it was like to work directly from the digital images, which could be adjusted or expanded when necessary.  It turns out that people liked these little paintings immediately and all of them disappeared about as fast as I could paint them, which is always nice.  But more importantly I started to get a sense for using this tool to create works that still had the feeling of walking around in that French carnival in the brisk Parisian night.

Guanajuato 1
Come on, Brad.  I thought we were talking about Mexico here.

Okay then, let me try to catch us up.  A little over two years ago I finally painted my first work from our initial Mexican excursion to Guanajuato for an invitational show at the Salt Lake Art Center's (now UMOCA's) annual Gala Fundraiser.  It was a fairly modestly sized offering but I was pretty happy with how it turned out and it got snapped up pretty quickly by a friend of that institution who has collected a few pieces of mine over the years and who even commissioned a large piece a few years back.  It also felt like in these night photos I was able to finally take ownership of some of these images, as Tracy had not worked with any of them.  The night stuff was just not her thang, it turns out.  It was mine.

This painting made me want to work more in this vein, and it also made me want to get back to San Miguel as soon as possible.  Turns out that year we went twice, bringing our young daughter Sofi with us both times, to see what she thought of the place.