Sunday, June 24, 2018

On "Untitled" 2015

Untitled is one of those paintings where I started it setting up problems that I could not have known how to finish until I dove into in - and indeed, was not happy about displaying until a key, nearly final little market brought it together enough to feel it was worth showing. Like many of my large paintings, including Patricia, Population, and another large Untitled piece in my studio, it is a of jazz, begun with a melody guessed and something of a color structure, and weeks, months, and sometimes years of refinement; it's executed reactively, in the moment, like jazz, but its structures emerge and are refined over time, like a classical work.
I've grown to like this one- it's also in that group of abstracts where I worked on the edge of losing it constantly (painters will know exactly what I mean). There are some paintings that you "give up" on early, but keep working on, ready to follow where it leads only after you surrender all your assumptions about what it SHOULD be.

If you look at the detail photo, the relationship between the two final marks: the isolated, complex and bilaterally symmetrical blueish mark in the upper right, and the leaf like folded mark in the lower right, after a lot of refinement, made the whole work well enough to show. The energetic forms that I forced into illusionistic space elsewhere in the painting (DeWitt Cheng ties this to Abstract Illusionism) could be much looser, but these two demanded very specific forms that were organically "believable," meaning that look less like paint and more like a painting of something specific.
But what? Here's a way to look at this: paintings are often about what is heard and felt, not only what is seen: if it works as visual music, I'm doing ok.

"Untitled" is available for view at my studio by appointment. Sales information is on my website,


Buttressed by the mushier flavors of critical theory divorced from its humanistic core, this view of art in this NYT article, an old, Post-Warhol concept of the conceptual as supreme, elevates what are basically fussy collectors as artists while Artists become mere "fabricators," patronized as heroic. It that now our meaning of what is supposedly contemporary?

This view of this NYT article about what Art is, is very common in museums and especially in the high end of the art market; I think it often reflects a worldview not only doggedly amoral but hostile to that very process of creating meaning from all of the senses and all of the materials to signify what matters, art-making that has been part of the human experience since the very emergence of our species.

The "contemporary" view - at least a century old at this point - marginalizes poetry, the human hand and eye, dismisses both individuality and community and empathy. It's hostile to the value of creativity itself, and utlimately, by methodically eliminating why actual Artists- artists by any historical standard- would have any worth, it demands compliant enthusiasm for the dominance of rich people as the final arbiters of the human experience.

Ironically, it is often justified by a wholly degenerated form of pseudo-Marxist critique whose main point seems to celebrate the commodification of absolutely everything, particularly all the processes by which capital A Art is created.

You can always tell this view by the tired trope of "well Reubens/ Rembrandt/ Your Momma had assistants," or the ceaseless war on painting as a bourgeoise activity- so "bourgeoise" that every human child has an instinct for it, and you can see yourself up with a painting kit for about $30.
Museums now fill so often with half-art, cold, impoverished, 2nd tier illustration created by uncredited artists. This mirrors some patrons' Social Darwinism, Art as spectacle, as the wholly branded self, broad, empty, interchangable: parts that might as well be made by robots and sold on Amazon.

The mission to dismiss Artists as art makers seems a hell of a lot like a bid to erase Art that varies from a nihilistic world view: an erasure of deeply humanistic ideas/artworks born of the building and deepening interplay of material, hand, eye, senses and mind.

At real musuems and galleries, I take comfort in watching museum-goers invariably linger far longer, and engaged far more deeply, in the rooms of artworks sweated over and loved and credited to the people who not only thought of them, but earned the fully flowered refinement of their idea by the work of their hands and minds and senses, their whole being, physical and mental and spiritual wrapped inside the creation of the work.

That is a human being, seeing and making, in balance with the world. Why any feeling human being, let alone entire Art Schools, work so hard to destroy this is despairing

Monday, May 07, 2018

Three grumpy notes on the modern museum experience:

1. Far too many installation and video display shows take up gigantic amounts of gallery real estate far beyond their artistic merit. 1 artist (half the time skating on the craft of others) vs 50 who have might have displayed aesthetically worthy work. This habit shuts down, rather than enhances, the access of artists who are not experienced at playing the curatorial game- and those artists are so often well-connected, wealthy and all too often, facile.

2. Digital art is fine to the extent that it is emotionally and intellectually powerful: but digital art has uncounted outlets, as near as the screen you're reading this on. I love all kinds of museums, high, middle, and low, but the video- more video -MORE VIDEO has turned into a boring, repetitive, extremely didactic and emotionless experience, one easily supassed by curating for yourself at home on the screen you are using now. It should take up the precious resource of a museum gallery when A) it is truly outstanding, not merely visually loud, and B) aesthetically requires physical space to display, not merely insisting on the imprimatur of artiness that musuems convey.

3. If you show short narrative video, fine. Do it in wholly separate, theater were people can sit comfortably and it is not a horrible distraction from all other kinds of visual art nearby. Otherwise I assume your point is to shit on all other forms of art, which at points in history is fine, but don't pretend anything about this is transgressive. It's an old, old, old game now.

Open a movieplex, make a you-tube channel, sell an app, incentivize less lucky, more creative people make your work for you, install slightly unusual drywall arrangements, and make your t-shirts, like any normal capitalist operation. Fine. Just stop taking up so much space needed by any number of people who have something to show we'd all benefit from seeing. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Fall in Love With the Damned World or We'll Never Save It

It's all wrong, a pink cream cheese flowery whip of a painting, a lovely woman painted in a lovely way with loving attention, in colors all too pretty in a room papered in pink swirls, the painting of a besotted man squirming in reverie under her bemused return of his gaze- it is grounded in her, in Miss Samary's force, alive in the air itself: an aura radiates around her and interplays with the softness and her own self-possession.

She is as breathing in this moment as any moving image; more so. She is staring with the lightest but most relentless clarity; time swirls within the painting- 150 years are a wisp, a spring breeze on the arm, a swallow of champagne.

Fall in love the damn world or we'll never save it.

La Reverie. Renoir- Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Sammary.1877.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

On Hating Painting

An easy contempt for human beings comes from a lot of sources. And I can't help but notice that a lot of people who hate people hate painting. 

If you really paint you are valuing what you see - and you can choose anything as a subject that can be imagined or perceived, and all of the possible intersections.  

You paint, and begin to know it. The more you think you know it, the more it escapes from the prison of the concept that what you thought it was. It is new and strange. You adopt it into yourself. You paint it and it changes you, and you change the subject in which you have inserted yourself, and the subject of your work, in turn, changes you.

Zealots of one flavor or another often despise art and painting in particular: the finger into the sand makes a mark that escapes their control of your perception of the world. And that is because authoritarians of all varieties love the principle of control more than they love the world.

They love control because they cannot separate the rise of any new uncertainty from their own crippling fear. And art, even doodling, disturbs the illusion of control like a rock throw into a pond.

And long may it be so: it is the making of art, not tools, not language, not math or greed, that defines human beings uniquely; it is the reason that we are not other animals. Painting is the direct image-product of the human consciousness, marked by the hand into the stuff of the earth, an instinct and a gift every child inherits, far beyond words. It lives within the richest human sense, the visual, the seen, the imagined, the understood, a river 100,000 years old and running as fresh as the next mind that sees and chooses to observe. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Jamie Bollenbach: 18 Paintings at Paul G. Allen Center at Stanford University

Jamie Bollenbach on Twitter
Jamie Bollenbach's Blog: The Amplitude of Time
Jamie Bollenbach on Facebook

Jamie Bollenbach, Jamie Bollenbach Art, Seattle Art, Bay Area Art, Stanford Art Spaces, San Francisco Art, oil paintings, modern art

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Seattle Center, Looking Towards Queen Anne Hill, March 2015

Seattle Center, copyright 2015, Jamie Bollenbach, all rights reserved

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Landscape Illusion

Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington. February, 2014. Jamie Bollenbach, All rights reserved.
One of my dad's standard jokes was to gaze upon some impossibly impressive Alaskan vista, like a smoke reddened sky blazing behind a white conical volcano reflected in a golden ocean, and go:

"That looks like a terrible painting."

Indeed it does. I am suspicious of landscapes. The unoccupied landscape is now so ordinary an artistic subject that a lot of people assume that what artists do is make landscapes.

Pure landscapes before recent times- in the sense of the land as subject itself unoccupied by human beings - are comparatively rare. Here is a spectacular Brueghel (Hunters in the Snow), a very quick sketch by Rembrandt (View of Diemen), a Song Dynasty masterpiece by Xia Gui, and below, the Venus and Adonis by Veronese in Seattle, a painting that is, in my view, nearly perfect in color. (And here is ANOTHER reminder to GO SEE THE ACTUAL PAINTING.)

Notice this: Nature does not exist separate from human beings. There is almost always evidence: people, buildings, places, scenes. We are in Nature.

The modern landscape with its Romantic idea of purity is new, a reaction I think to the rise of the Industrial Age. In these, we are out of Nature, watching it from afar, or it is a backdrop to the narrow interest in family members, or a snap-it record, a substitute for even being where you are. Casual painting especially is besotted with nature as a heavenly place remote from us.

The problem with heaven is that you are under no obligation to take care of it.

There is a rise of a new landscape, less humbled by it, more transformed and alarmed. Just in Seattle, my friend Mary Iverson turns the shipping container into a rigorous visual metaphor of the commodification of Nature.  Another friend and fellow University of Washington grad Cable Griffith creates disarmingly charming paintings of the natural world implied and negotiated by video games.  My own work often contains the shapes and forms and spaces of nature, but with its specific contents, trees, water, grass, mountains, etc, all pushed aside by the ghosts of the forms of the remembered human being.

Almost everywhere artists look now, Nature has been touched, reshaped, gardened, poisoned, idolized, dominated, yet our most common portrayal of nature is as a kind of unreachable Eden.  But the old work almost always portrayed us as inside Nature, and it asked us to perceive our relationship to it, even if it was Veronese's idyllic god-world.  An artist who paints Nature as untouched now is hiding both the modern truth of what is happening to the world, and the old truth that we exist within it.

An uncritical, typically glorious earthporn photo can be uplifting, but it can also hide the truth. If you ask the Inupiaq elders in northern Alaska, the very color of the sky has changed.  The blue sky, the golden sun, the pretty and perfect structures in my own black and white snaps. It's a half truth, and we need much more.

So-  before anything else, before concept, before expression, before style, before technique, see. See fully, see comprehensively, see what it is that actually surrounds you. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Picasso Wins World War 1

Art Project Recreates WW I Dazzle Ships. BBC Story.
In WWI, the cutting edge art movement of Cubism and Vorticism- something I have on occasion been accused of being a late example of - was immediately deployed by the Royal Navy to paint thousands of ships in patterns and colors that would confuse a U-Boat commander as to the direction of a vessel. Art students were called up to cover ship after ship. Did it work? Can't say. But it was fascinating, and a modern art project paints some of the last WWI vessels- beautiful example above.  So why did they stop when it might really work ? Military aesthetics: the desire for gray.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

High Explosives

Reverse image: a Boeing B-17 flies over trees in Discovery Park in Seattle, May 2014.
I recognized the roar of her four massive, distinctive radial engines before I saw her and I got a shot of one of the few flying B-17 bombers in the air. 

I reversed the values: the resemblance between a negative image of trees and bomb explosions is interesting. My first thought: trees grow like explosions and produce oxygen. Bombs burn,  and consume it. The organic looking structures resemble one another, distinguished by, among other things, the Amplitude of Time.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Father and A Glacier

A faded photo of our family from about 1976, near Portage, Alaska; the glacier had not yet retreated far, far back, across its own lake and up into the valley that it had carved into the rock over many thousands of years. 

A shy, well-read and kind man, a scientist, humanist and WWII veteran,  Burt was born on Christmas Day, 1916 in a very Wild West Oklahoma, just as America entered World War I at war with Germany, the country of his father.  On that day in 1916, the glacier stood  high on this spot.

The glacier and the ethereal blue of its ice can no longer be seen from this place.   

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Reality Appears Only in the Interplay of Black and White

A Black Rhino is airlifted by helicopter as part of a conservation effort. (National Geographic)
The discovery of what appear to billions of earth-like planets this week barely registers, a side note to a social media stock offering.   It's a kind of wonder fatigue.  On the one Earth, the Western black rhino, subspecies of the extremely endangered black rhino is now extinct, one of thousands of species being snuffed out forever. 

We can't actually contain these full realities in our minds, only by metaphor and symbol; we cannot contain them any more than we can completely understand our own faces in the mirror.  But if you draw, by hand, in time, your face in full light and shadow, more understanding arises, more ability to render what is significant. 

If you were merely to lift a handful of sand, and pour it slowly on the beach, choosing to assign each grain as another earth, and each grain as a lost species, you would know a fraction more of the nearly unapproachable truth of nature.   If you wish, you could do this for deaths today across the world, and the marriages, and the births. The incomprehensibly vast tragedy and ever-renewing joy of of humanity, of Nature itself, appears to you, if only as a flash of green on a great indigo ocean.

This little act of art would force you to balance limitless wonder and bottomless grief.  It is that balance that gives you power to act, in whatever way that presents itself.  In drawing, reality appears only in the interplay of black and white, in the infinities of specificity created by increasingly nuanced, highly distinct grays. 

The often wonderful - and sometimes horrific- results of science depend on a neutrality that can make it socially neutered: in the global warming debates, climate science alone was not enough - facts can't carry social arguments without a culturally substantial embrace of the value of the meaning of those facts. Unless you care about things other than immediate economic rewards, the debate is hopeless; yet Art is very much a study of what is to be cared about.  Art is free enough to unite the full factual, emotional and intellectual significance of Nature and of human experience. But we better do a lot more of it, and all the other forms of teaching and cultivating empathy, an empathy that is balanced rather than crippling.  We're not getting to those other planets in a dozen lifetimes.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Goings On In My Figure Classes

Insights into  art education:  One of the artists in my Bollenbach Art Labs figure classes has been documenting his progress, and describes some of my teaching process here, and earlier here. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Painting Waves: Splashes of Realism.

Backhuysen, Dutch Marine Painter, About 1700

In paintings like this, everything matters- the precise positions of the sails and rigging, the indications of the wind (the perspective on the flags indicate it's strength and direction.) But modern marine painters almost entirely miss the boiling power of the sea and sky, the many subtle indications of the motions of the surface of the sea and wind and rain whipping though the clouds; it's rare enough to be able render the drapery of the sails and the wickedly subtle arcs of the ships. Photographs freeze the motion of the sea falsely, entirely unlike how people perceive it in life- it takes a work like this to really capture in a still image the furious power of water and air in motion.

As I think about it, I have an inference about this- see what you think...What's key here is how our perception of a scene or a surface works: a collection of large number of events, not a simple two dimensional projection.

 1) The geometric turbulence - (complexity, for you science people)- of a stormy water surface is extremely involved. As the 4000 people who put together what artists call "organic" surfaces like water vegetation, hair, etc, for Pixar.

 2) All of that however, models water in motion. Here we are talking about what is arguably the tougher problem still image that must suggest all of that movement. 3) Imagine looking directly at the waves over, let's say, 30 seconds. Unless you are highly trained for another purpose, your eye remains in motion, darting all over the scene, the foam sloughing the backside of a trough, the petal-like outfall of a crest pouring into the glassy underside of a wave, the flick and splash of two waves hitting at off angles. The point is that what you see is dozens, more likely hundreds, of distinct events, inextricable from the ever-transforming shapes of the surface.

 4) What is "realistic" in art, I will assert for this idea, is what conforms to the totality of the experience of being there. (A photograph records only one small aspect of this - it's two dimensional projection- and even that isn't quite right.) In this case, it is the memory- what actually soaks into the mind - of the huge collection of hundreds of simultaneous events, waves moving in a dominant direction, or a confused one, wavelets whipping off in many directions, most which are stone in the pond, and arc-like; there are innumerable nuances, shape, direction, transparency, color, all of which have related but independent motions.

 5. To represent these in a still image with greater power means not only to record this extreme complexity, with it's 3-D qualities, but to present the action of time and direction on each of these micro-events. In other words, the mind perceives each micro-form (think of a wavelet on the surface of a wave melting away and sliding) as something that must imply motion and transformation, as an event. Further, to maximize its power, it has to be edited - irrelevant details from life that take away from the total effect must be eliminated.

6. Further still, meticulous details of reality can interfere terribly with the mood described beautifully by Shawna:  It is precise yet conveys a real sense of chaos, entropy, movement. " It's precisely because humans fixate on details that a large number of irrelevant details take away from a broader perception. If you try to describe a forest with every detail on every tree, you may well miss the visual concept of "forest," that you are trying to depict. 7. Paintings like this typically compress space and time, and imply time and transformative direction, not because it's an inadequate echo of reality, but because its necessary in order to represent the reality of what was really perceived and understood. It is, in many ways, far more realistic than a photo presents, but the mechanical assumptions of photographs today happen to dominate what we think of as realism.

7. Paintings like this typically compress space and time, and imply time and transformative direction, not because it's an inadequate echo of reality, but because its necessary in order to represent the reality of what was really perceived and understood. It is, in many ways, far more realistic than a photo presents, but the mechanical assumptions of photographs today happen to dominate what we think of as realism.

My friend Monty, an aeronautical engineer, summarized it well:  Yes, we don't perceive everything in a scene all at once, our minds build it up over time. We only think there must have been an instant, a peak point of highest drama that can be captured when in fact there is not. In this painting. It is impossible for this scene to have occured at a single instant, yet it conveys the power, the intensity, terrifying forces at work.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


JMW Turner HMS Victory at Trafalgar

If not exactly a hidden fact, any number of brilliant, famous artists - Turner, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck, Van Gogh, Monet, etc etc, produced gobs and gobs of marine artwork, which we tend to now ignore in the contemporary story of art as the march of the modern, the rise of cultural self-examinaton.

But the sheer wonder at the beauty of sailing ships - which were the most technologically advanced things human beings made - the play of artifice and nature at work anytime a ship was at sea, and of course the patronage of nostalgic admirals, meant that the fascination with maritime themes was genuine.

Modern maritime painting is, on the whole, a fairly forlorn affair; in these old works all the details matter, all the indications of rig and weather and position - the skippers would be there reminding them they were wrong otherwise. Simply the drawing skill needed to render the precise curves of ships in perspective, or believable crests falls and swirls of water and weather, defies easy study. And sailors are notorious critics for detail.

Recall, the Spouter Inn, my favorite passage from Moby Dick, and some fascinating foreshadowing, not only of the whale, but of the rise of modern art.
Albert Pinkham-Ryder, The Flying Dutchman

"Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oilpainting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.
But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.--It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.--It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.--It's a blasted heath.--It's a Hyperborean winter scene.--It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. THAT once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?
In fact, the artist's design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Dies When You Fire Arts Teachers

This letter was forwarded to me by a young man named Caleb Penn. It's a passionate defense of arts funding, and some of the deeper purposes of education, just as the Kitsap School District is proposing near-elimination of arts and music. -JB

My name is Caleb Penn, I grew up in Suquamish and graduated from North Kitsap High School in 2004.  I write this letter in an attempt to put in words how frustrated and frightened I am at the proposed cuts to arts education in my former school district.
I was what one would call an ‘At-Risk Youth,’ I fought a lot outside of school and began experimenting with controlled substances at a very early age, the youngest of 3 in a single mother household that was well below the poverty line.  When I think back on my childhood and my exposure to adversity, and what allowed me to survive and flourish, I always end up looking at the influence of art.

James Andrews who currently teaches at Kingston High School, encouraged me to audition for Guys and Dolls Jr at Kingston Jr High and I was subsequently cast as the male lead.  Mr. Andrews was instrumental in the process of me finding positivity amongst a pretty terrible existence at the time.  He taught me that to be a good artist one had to be an even better person and explore the aspects of ourselves that scare us the most.  He did not do this through lectures and essays, but through painting and drawing, acting and writing.  Math didn’t get me out of poverty, art did.  I graduated and went to Cornish College of the Arts to study theater and graduated from there in 2008.

It doesn’t bear thinking where I would be had I been deprived of art in my schooling.  I have broken numerous bones and have many chronic injuries due to fighting, I’ve had friends get murdered or commit suicide, watched most of my family become functionally homeless and have had to fight tooth and nail for everything that I currently have.  Counselors were condescending, the majority of teachers could care less about their students struggles, and in all honesty the only thing that kept me on a positive path was art.  I don’t mean to sew this letter with hyperbole, but art saved my life.  As well as the lives of my peers with whom I founded a theater company, it made some friends become sober with whom I make music.  It gave me the courage to say to myself that I am not the idiot I was trained to think I was because I wasn’t good at math and science; I am an artist.  Out of all titles attached to my name, son, brother, husband, friend, homeowner, it is the moniker of artist that I hold in the highest regard.

Education should be about creating fully functional human beings and not just repositories for knowledge.  I didn’t become an artist, art made me become a person.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Some Comments on Salvador Dali

From a social media discussion, April 2013, on this article in The Selvedge Yard.

"If it wasn't for his enormous moustache, he would have been the most ordinary man I had ever met." Pablo Picasso on dinner with Dali.

Dali's long cooperation (not to say dalliance, as much as I want to) with fascist Spain attests to this, which is a major reason he is fairly marginal in 20th century art history. His rebellions were entirely personal- there is little sense of liberating anyone else- rather, a mocking hostility and delight in control toward others.

This story is an illustration of the political limitations of shock value. Ultimately, shock values the power of the shocker- if this characterization of Gala is fair, she did a terrible thing to such a skilled artist, turning curiosity into pomposity.
Dali is sometimes dismissed as merely being skilled, but "technical ability" in painting is ultimately very difficult to divorce from the Art's subject, much, much more so than the recent conceptual view would suggest. Dali is rightly marginalized in some ways, especially politically, but it wasn't just empty or mechanical execution; he was full of remarkable visual innovation.

His sad end state, as described in the article, damaged his reputation even beyond his cosiness with, if not support of, fascism. But it is worth noting that many Pop innovations were pioneered by Dali: he used painted half-tone dots, arranged happenings, the whole nine yards early on, enough that I now wonder how much Andy Warhol self-conscious modeled the Factory on Dali's operation.

But to me that speaks towards the limitations of Pop. (And yes, I am deliberately making self-consciously annoying comparisons between Warhol and Dali. ) That being said, and as a fan of most of Picasso's work, it takes some serious doing to out-pompous and out-decadent Picasso, but Dali managed it.

Fascinating to this day how every other high school art student comes into college loving Dali. (Escher, right behind.) There's no doubt it had a power, but there is a hollowness in the air of a Dali that makes me want to avoid them.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

For Young Artists: Follow Your Curiosity

Alan Bamberger at asked what advice you would give to young teenagers asking for guidance on becoming artists. Here's my offering. 

"Most importantly, what fascinates you?  Start to find- and build deep knowledge about- something that really, really fascinates you.  No matter how geeky it is, nerd out: find out as much about funny cars, the color blue, adorable kittens, the War of 1812, nematodes, Queen Nefertiti , chocolate, dinosaurs,  armor, teacups and submarines as you can. As you read about it, watch examples, visit places about  it,  use artists' tools to teach your eyes and hands about it:  draw, photograph, sculpt, 3-d model, or collage your subject.

Make something about it every day that you can, even if it's just a doodle or two that doesn't seem very good.  But don't give up. People might tell you you're crazy or what you're interested in is stupid and boring.  Never mind those chowderheads- they're the ones who are boring. The opposite of being boring is being interested.  Your job is to grow your interest, learn about and make something about your subject every day that you can.

But as you learn more about your subject, be sure to keep your mind and heart open.  Let your research and artwork lead you to new places. As you follow your curiosity, your first interests will change and grow. Kittens might become a study of cat bones, or the even the weird ways cuteness works on people. Funny cars might get you  thinking about power, physics, fire and metal. An Egyptian Queen might lead you to other cultures, or to ask what beauty really is.  Chocolate might get you thinking about what color brown really is. Your path might even lead you out of art, and into something else. That's ok.  Just follow your curiosity, and keep making things about what you discover on the way.

Look for surprises: the more surprising the better.  This is where it gets REALLY interesting.  You can, on your own, and with a lot of persistence and effort, realize something about your subject that no one else has ever understood or valued before.  Like a surprisingly beautiful drawing of a crumpled up piece of paper, one of the greatest things Art does is let people know what is valuable, when no one had ever thought that your subject was worth anything at all.

The oldest arts and deepest traditions of the culture you are in have much to teach you, but so does something invented or discovered this morning.  Your curiosity is more important, and more powerful, than any ideas about what art should  be and what artists should do.  Grow your curiosity, use artists' tools like drawing and photography and computers and sculpture to understand your subject. When you get interested in how these tools work, you'll get a strong sense of what skills you want to learn, and the effort it will take to master them will come naturally.

When you learn enough, you can make something that you've never seen before.  The rest of us might not have either.  What artists do is to show us exactly this.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Quasi-Warholism" is Fun To Say

(Edited from a Facebook thread.) Dare one suggest that Warholistic Pop turned out to be a nihilistic embrace of corporate culture, hostile and even bullying to curiosity, emotion, craft, individuality, visual poetry and in some ways basic humanism? That its fallout has pushed a generation of artists into a fear of expressing something suspicously personal, ambitious, moral and beautiful?  On "The Curse of Warholism" at The New Republic.

    DeWitt Cheng     One dares, forsooth! Maybe 2-3 generations, even.
    Janet Norris         One could dare, and one could be correct.
    Jamie Bollenbach     My perception is that this Quasi-Warholism, I phrase I coin because it's fun to say, peaked for artists a few years ago; many of my friends long since became exasperated with it, and worse for whatever future influence it might have, rather bored. 
    However, the institutional inertia is still cranking it up. It's hold on some curators defies belief, except that it's a perfect art philospohy for bureaucrats: bloodsuckingly safe, pseudo-serious, and slightly popular. It's aesthetics are also perfect for the blizzard of digital graphics: flat, pat, cold, and detached.
        Janet Norris     Quasiwarholism, the enemy within. I agree, Jamie, one sees the inertia in countless institutional settings. One has become accustomed to shoulder shrugging while one continues to be on the lookout for authenticity.
    DeWitt Cheng     Well said, Jamie and Janet. Neoretinalists, arise! Trample the referencers into the dust!

    Jamie Bollenbach
    Neoretinalists...How about "Lookers"?   
    Janet Norris         DeWitt is using big words; uhoh, pull him off that podium!
    DeWitt Cheng     Wait, I'm standing on a Brillo box! That's art!
    DeWitt Cheng     Manic lexiphanicism — I'm waiting for disease of the week TV show. In Wm. F. Buckley's immortal words, Eschew obfuscation!
    Jamie Bollenbach     Notice how much Buckley and Warhol looked alike... Coincidence? Yes. But still.
    DeWitt Cheng     Did anyone ever see them together? Hmmmm. Of course Warhol did hire stand-ins.
    Jamie Bollenbach     Not to mention they shared a philosophy of the primacy of business.
    DeWitt Cheng     Yes. WFB remained a Catholic; AW worshiped consumerism.
    Janet Norris         I'm still catching up to the Celtic harlot, who was not Bouboulina, definitely. I had to go eat with people yesterday so I'm late for important ideas needing bashing.
    Jamie Bollenbach     Speaking of shopping, at Target, you may see a perfect expression of Quasi-Warholism: hanging pictures of Manhattan-stylish models, exuding "playful indifference but artsy design," so large, flat and slick that they completely over-dominate any accidental view of the actual people shopping there.
    DeWitt Cheng     Thou shalt shop til thou droppest. Go, buy some individuality!
    Jamie Bollenbach     To round this back.. we get plenty of Warhol at Target. Do we need it at every museum in America?
    DeWitt Cheng     I remember a critic of Vietnam War asking, When did we become the redcoats? Maybe avant-gardists could ask, When did we become a nation of hipsters?
    Jamie Bollenbach     The moment big companies realized there was big money in it.
    Lauren Horn         Warhol does not control me, and his greatest influence is my preference for John Cale's version of "Halllelujah." Is it so unfair to expect that artists have strong enough will and thick enough skins to ignore him and say what they want to say?
    Todd Keeling         The push or pull of playing the oposite, in an artistic movement...a reaction, a re-reaction. It gets attention. Provocations are stimulating and if an idea, or anti-idea steam rolls another, what does that say about the people paying attention to it? If anything.
    DeWitt Cheng     Any idea, any movement can yield great or terrible — or ho-hum art. Novelty is as bad s criterion as antiquity. Art lives (or dies) in the eternal present that Picasso described

  Jamie Bollenbach     Formless political centrism, the persistent, seeming reasonableness of equivalency works by a kind of nihilism, not just drawing commonalities between beliefs, but by erasing their importance. (A classic example is global warming deniers, cynically overstating ambiguities to argue that we can make no conclusions and take no expensive actions that might threaten company proftis.)
    For Art, that is in many ways what Warhol did. Mao and Marilyn Monroe are just mechanical object-images, exactly like all others, distinguished in his work only by the accidental physics of paint on a silk screen. In Warhol's work, the image of a man being beaten and hosed by the police in a civil rights struggle is more or less the same thing as a set of iterations of images of Elvis. I find it among the most repulsive, and least interesting, view among modern artists.
    And this isn't a rejection of Pop aesthetics, exactly. Lichetenstein's ironic wit, for example, never erased the joy of what he was reproducing, or his visual interest in his subjects. He was, in a way, making landscapes of comic strips. Warhol's work looks like he wants to erase all the emotions and hopes and internal lives of human beings.
    Modern, institutional quasi-warholism, is a strange elevation of what Andy Warhol acutally did, and unlike reams of papers making tenuous threads connecting this to critical politics, it has exactly nothing to do with progressive politics. Quite, I argue, the opposite; the elevation of the banal means to reduce all of us to blank consumers, distracted by nothing but shiny, falsely certain, antiseptically clean-edged surfaces. (For a great example, look at your computer screen right now.)
    The modern version, this Quasi-warholism, is, I think, almost a social movement of hostility to meaning, to human feeling, clothed in cool detachment, beloved of those who find thought and power and love and hate and loss and glory and the heavy, grand, dazzling beauty and ugliness of the world hateful and unsettling. Just like politics, the problem is that the substance of ideas matter, aesthetics matter, and to those of us working in the arts, just like any career, institutional power matters.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Stuggles with Art Rent, and The Trump Tax

The NY Times asks: will gentrification happen in SF?  That train has sailed, as I like to say.  But the Bay Area is still a magnet destination for artists, and it is still possible, however thready, to work and show in San Francisco. It's not NYC; I'm asking around, and the only artist I've heard about moving to New York City, in some years mind you, is one moving back. The once great world city for culture is all but dead for the artists, writers, musicians who drive the innovations in culture. But the Bay Area, and Seattle, I dare say, are vibrant places at some long-term risk of losing their creative hearts.


As any professional artist who doesn't own land or have a high professional income knows, maintaining viable work space and access to show space dominates your professional life.  70% of my income generally goes to rent.  I once had to move studios three times - in one year- in my last year in Anchorage, as a hard-won studio find was surrendered to bigger property interests.  My last place in Anchorage, Studio Daddy-O, later turned into a fancy-man bakery, just to rub in that I had served my magical purpose of enhancing property values for no investment. 

To my persistent dismay the NY Times has written up almost all the neighborhoods I've worked in on the West Coast as a desirably artsy area, in articles with titles like 72 Hours in Portland: Driving Up The Rent, which was a sure sign I was going to have to leave.  This included SOMA in San Francisco, downtown Anchorage, Hawthorne in Portland, Northeast Portland, Fremont, Ballard, Downtown  and Georgetown in Seattle. In Anchorage, Portland and Seattle I've helped start artist studios simply because I could not find a room with a mildly abusable floor I could paint in for less than the price of a full apartment.


It's happened almost everywhere I've lived - this endless, frustrating process of artists trying to find a place to live and work, finding an area with a stock of cheap housing and marginal commercial space sort of nearish to a downtown, and becoming wildly successful, a dynamic community springing up. Then, real estate values balloon, with virtually all the benefits naturally going to the same landlords, until the success turns against the people who made it happen.  From SOHO to SOMA to SODO, it's happened again and again.  Its a bit feudal. Land is everything.

Artists moving in have turned many "problem" neighborhoods into giant piles of cash for real estate owners through making the area extremely desirable in a very short period of time. In five years your dilapidated warehouse can become the IT property.  Once this happens, a clock runs, you have maybe 15 years before they are priced out to us woe-be-gone artists, the magical gnomes of property value-  along with the people who already lived there, of course; many poorer neighborhoods have learned to fear rather than welcome artists and community art development, because the suits with measuring tape follow close behind.


In many urban areas, relatively small numbers of people and companies hold enormous amounts of real estate.You see this especially in San Francisco: all non-land owning entrepreneurs are trying to cover rent, all professionals are trying to cover rent, all prices are higher, trying to cover rent. It's a much bigger factor than any income or sales taxes; plenty of other wise profitable businesses fail when rents rise unpredictably, or as the result of aggression meant to drive them out based on speculative interests. Both the market and the government methods of distribution have broken down, and almost every business and personal decisions is over-dominated by rent paid to the same real estate holders, year after year, decade after decade.

MARK MY WORDS: Always fear Suits with measuring tape.
But in almost all of these cities, even in the most dense urban areas, many large, empty buildings sit, year after year, decade after decade, unusable because the most profitable activity for the real estate holders is to wait and wait and hope that someone will buy at top dollar.  And so, Market St. in SF is full of empty buildings.   Huge new luxury condo developments rise, often largely unrented.  Meanwhile, with all of this space off the rental market, everyone else's rent stays artificially high, while the city has to pick up the costs of policing deteriorating buildings, and other holders lose property value.


So here's an idea to try to ease all of these problems: Speculator's Tax, of if you prefer, the Trump Tax. It's key feature: make it increasingly costly to hold onto available, un-rented housing units and commercial spaces, or under-used land as time goes on. The longer it's unused, the more it costs the owner in property taxes, but tax benefits flow for putting idle properties on the market.

Over the years, I've kicked this idea around with friends who know economics and real estate - the idea to adjust property taxes to encourage rentals and discourage empty speculative holdings seems to have potential.  I don't pretend this is a rigorously developed idea-not yet. Proper studies would need to be done, by people like economists and tax specialists. And I can guarantee you a flame-thrower of angry, sad words from the Real Estate Holders' fancy men.  But it's much less draconian than rent control, for example, and uses market forces for both economic and social benefits.  Roughly, this is it:
  1. A Yearly city-wide reviewof  major properties in the area (let's set it at $3 million, just to say something. That's basically a very small multi-tenant building in San Francisco.) Yes, this will require a bureaucracy. Identify unused, un-rented, un-leased property which is clearly held for real estate speculation. Give owners a property tax break for renting out within a certain period, but their property tax increases substantially for every quarter off the market.  The city's intent will  be to make it too expensive to speculate with idled properties for multiple years.
  2. Favor redeveloping and renting out certain properties for business or residential uses with property tax benefits, particularly for rehabilitating property and putting it on the market.
  3. Raise property taxes on idle properties held in speculation.  If it is not in active use by the owner, and does not have another socially beneficial use (such as open natural lands, casual parks, architectural heritage, etc.), and is not rented after a certain period, property taxes go up, ,at a certain percentage every year, until it reaches a maximum, and until it is rented, leased, brought into active use (this would require "active use" standards, such as living or business) sold, or redeveloped with the clear intent of active use.
The intent is to push speculatively held housing and business property onto the market.  You can wait for the price to go up before you sell, but this will cost you; for neglected, empty buildings in dense areas exert public and social costs, sometimes serious ones.

This should have many direct benefits. Housing and commercial stock increases, lowering price pressure for both residents and businesses. Empty, problem buildings (expensive for the city to police and regulate) become too expensive to let sit without redevelopment.  City revenue increases.  Who loses? Giant private holders of urban property, but only if they stick with sitting on their properties for the obvious purposes of idle speculation. If they redevelop and rent, they still make money.  But they no longer get what amounts to a subsidy, the public costs per block of utilities, street maintenance, policing, crime, etc, so they can keep speculating while immediate needs for space in a dense urban area are unmet.

Real estate speculation in an urban center pushes costs onto the public and to government that should be born by the big real estate holders.  If this carrot and stick system worked extremely well, and brought a lot of new spaces onto the market, rent control might even be relaxed.   In a place where   property ownership is in fewer and fewer hands, this should benefit almost everyone by decreasing housing and business rents and directly lowering or moderating the costs of doing business.

And maybe, eventually I can finally afford a big enough place to turn my largest paintings around without knocking off the books on the shelf.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

New York is Dead Yet Again

No New York for You!

This is 569,099,002 in a series of articles about the death of Art in New York, and I should say that know less from personal experience about New York than some of my Eskimo friends; for they are artists and very stylish women, and they probably go to Manhattan a lot more than me. You might want to ask them about this, if you can catch them at Heathrow before the flight to Moscow.

"Should I move to New York?" was once the cliche question for American artists, like Hollywood for actors.  Art as such is still thriving there by most accounts, the sales scene is huge and if you're saying "the Gagosian called: should I show in New York, even if they show terrible, plagiarized paintings by over-rated singers like Bob Dylan?"; why certainly yes, as there are many real estate managers and marketing vice presidents who require papering over the huge gaps in their souls. 

But like a celebrity dying that you thought died long ago, the New York Art scene has finally died, in Seattle, Washington, of evaporation, in the faded priorities of painters. 


It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I had not heard of any serious painter out West here talking about moving there in at least five years.  This came as something of a bolt in the soup- New York has been THE artists' aspiration my entire life, all the way through graduate school. But where was the buzz, the "I've got a friend who knows a guy who has sub-sublet in Chelsea, and I'm on the short list for the Astor-Hagan-Daaz grant - New York City, here I come!!" ? I 've been asking around in the Pacific Northwest for weeks - no artist, except one guy who was from there anyway, is planning to move to New York City.   Great city, New York, I'd love to be there,  if someone insists on a handing me a tenure-track teaching position at NYU or Hunter or something; few real ways to commit to a visual arts career there, unless you're able to sell $300,000 worth of art every year which would generate, after the 70% gallery commissions, taxes and rent, about $30,000 to live on. (Oh, you wanted a loft?)

Like Paris in the 20s, we dream this bohemian idyll of post-war New York, of art, music, social and political progress.  New York's post-war Paris moment is described by Elaine DeKooning's memories of flirting with Mark Rothko, when she was a beautiful, brilliant painter, looking a bit like Debbie Harry, who subsumed her career to a more famous bad-boy artist husband, just like Lee Krasner.  But these appealing scenes - NYC in the 40s and 50s, ruling the visual art of the world from studios in Soho and the Village- are now turpentine-scented ghosts among the lawyers.  It's priced out, and without artists able to live and work there (remember Williamsburg? I never made it in time to see its brief flare-up), it will dry up, except as a major sales point and cultural library. 

Even a decade ago serious, professional artists I know were still thinking about going to New York.  Today: no one. Between rent and the Internet, the great cultural magnet of New York City has demagnetized.


The cultural energy in the arts seems to be out West, where both tech and traditional arts are more or less exploding in quality and quantity.  Art scenes in Seattle, LA, the Bay Area, and Portland are thriving and attracting people, in spite of the economy and the price pressures. The cultural energy on the Pacific Rim is crackling, the creative community huge and diverse, economically significant, and politically important. 

And the economies are recovering - with an attendant risk of another rent run-up (more on that in another post.) A city that makes itself unattainable to its creative community injures its creative abilities as its society. The economic dynamism of the Bay Area depends on its diversity of ideas as much as anything, and if you just have lawyers talking to financial managers, instead of engineers  to manufacturers to artists to doctors to chefs, its the new Manhattan: a giant Wall St, with over-rated food.


So this all comes with a warning. New York City is not really a place to make art anymore, certainly not the way it was.  The West Coast cities, in much better balance, are.  But we face many of the same pressures, at risk of hollowing out with excessive gentrification.  I notice San Francisco is anxious is the same way NY was 15 years ago- artists are crossing the Bay, although I never figured Oakland for Williamsburg. Seattle gets a lot of credit for making live-work spaces a goal of city initiatives - but for artists there is always the rent, the rent, the rent, the struggling hold onto work and show space, which is the domineering, gnawing problem of a creative career. 

To avoid New York's fade into artistic irrelevance, to maintain our growing cultural strength, and to give people in the middle and lower incomes a fair shake, major real estate developers can never be allowed to have total dominance over housing decisions. To cities: make affordable housing a priority for your citizens, and if you have time, make it live-work. You will thank yourself in 20 years.

Monday, May 28, 2012

On Terrible, Beautiful Wings

One of the B-17s my uncle flew in, "Meat Hound," in 1943.
First published on May 29, 2006; edited May 28, 2012. 

Yesterday a B-17 flew over my head twice as I walked by the sea. The B-17 is a talisman in my life - what my father worked to protect from sudden storms that killed the young pilots still in Texas, what my uncle nearly died in as a navigator over Germany, the nexus of my family's experience of WWII. It still permeates Seattle, the strangely appealing and ominous bomber, the machine that made this town a city, an aircraft whose purpose was to place large amounts of high explosive on buildings and people, assembled by women and men, all to the great glory of life and democracy, I need to believe, and to darker purposes of power and property, I often fear.

The four-engine Boeing B-17 bomber is a symbol of my own safety, family history, beliefs and prosperity, and my own distant, romantic delusions about the nature of war.  13,000 were built in just a few years.  The B-17 looks democratic with its windows at each of the 10 positions, built to see and guard the whole sky. It is a tool of war.  Bury it in metaphors as you will, war is about inserting metal and fire into soft human bodies at high velocity.

But it's a good day to remember several stories: my father catching a ride to Chicago in the nose of a B-17, watching the world pass in the best view in the world, falling asleep and waking hours later in a deep fog, with the smokestacks of the city passing high - whoops - above his head.  He said it was the best view in the world, but he took a moment to strongly request a change in altitude to the pilot. On one of these trips, he saw Fats Waller live, and delighted in this astonishing period in American music.

He told me about the B-17s and P-51s parked in rows by the Frankfurt airport in 1946, all for sale somehow, $100 each or perhaps a box of good cigarettes, men buying them just for the fuel still in the wing tanks. He told me once that he knew a pilot who would pay $100,000 for any B-17 he could find in 1970, because it was the best platform for aerial photography.  It was, along with the P-51, his favorite plane.

A photo shows my father's arm holding the skull of a Japanese soldier burned out of a cave on Saipan a few months earlier. His friends are smiling - it is a post-war moment, so it is a cheerful, almost delirious moment. He was passing through the Pacific island, on a kind of flying hop around tour, an Army Air Force captain, a meteorologist working his way by air to the literally smoldering remains of Frankfurt Airport in early 1946. There is nothing but the joy at the death of an enemy, the death that meant peace.

He told me he knew many men who had been so competent, confident and capable in the war who simply wasted away in peace, or that particular peace we built-  the consumer peace. In a phrase common of the men I grew up around who fought in WWII, there was bitterness over the worship of the All-Mighty Dollar to which they returned.  These men at least, his friends, professors, humanists, scientists, artists, lawyers, writers, believed intensely in freedom, in the cause of the war: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Belief, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, the Four Freedoms Roosevelt articulated as the policy of the United States, as the counter to rising, endless, deliriously murderous fascism.  But they never meant to offer up their lives for the Almighty Dollar, for the most selfish forms of consumer capitalism. They had seen quite enough of unmitigated capitalism in the Depression.  They sacrificed for their country, particularly its safety and its promise.  America, my father believed, entered the great nations of history at the end, holding the Atomic Bomb as we did, and a fleet of Bombers to deliver it, and resisting temptation, and choosing imperfect humanity, decided not to conquer the world when we had overwhelming, unstoppable power. America proved itself the nation about something more than conquest.

His station in the Army Air Force in Dalhart, Texas primarily trained B-17 bomber crews. My father was a trained pilot, and wondered if he could fly one in an emergency, which was an excuse to fantasize a bit about flying one.  The crews called them ships.

Fleets were built - tens of thousands of bombers of many types. Formations of bombers stretching 1000 miles, involving 1500 aircraft, cycled like a conveyor belt from England to Occupied Europe, to Norway and France and Germany, first bombing military targets, then industries, and finally cities, simply cities, of human beings, often German ones, Germans with names like Bollenbach, who had collectively committed the capital sin of allowing to rise the most insatiably murderous government in human history, and for this collective sin, would die in their beds and at their tables crushed by bricks and beams, burned and concussed by airplanes built with spectacular ingenuity and skill, 20 a day, 5000 miles away, in Seattle, Washington.  In 1943, they were flown by men knowing that each mission, 6% -8% of the planes would fall; and each man faced 25 missions.

The crews, 10 to a plane, broke or allowed to be broken the Nazi war machine. And they destroyed  half a million people. (Conventional bombing raids in Japan, firestorm raids, killed 140,000 people in one attack on Tokyo, more than both atomic weapons. ) This war established the modern pattern: civilians die violently, more, often much more, than soldiers in war. The numbers put you into a calculus far more numbing and incomprehensible than the pleasant wonders, the vast stretches of time and space, of cosmology.

Yet I am pleased knowing that there are still twelve B-17s flying.  It thrills me to see one: the roar of those radial engines, the curvilinear form, the most natural arc of flight, this ship belongs in the air like no other.

My father served much of WWII in the U.S, and then was transferred to England. I know almost nothing about this critical period where he worked with the forecasters for the D-Day invasion, in what has been described as the most important weather forecast in history.  He told my mother that he missed that day when the decision to go or not was made.  But he was part of the science team- the best weather scientists in the world were there for months, trying to pin a date - and they threaded the needle with a correct and critical forecast upon which depended tens of thousands of lives and the fate of the war.

Like many men who didn't serve in combat, I think he felt keenly his exclusion from the shared physical risks of war.

He sacrificed still, like all families, like families of soldiers and dead civilian victims of war now.  His brother, my uncle Duane, was wounded horribly in air combat over Germany with 20mm cannon fire from a Nazi fighter striking his head, moments after he had removed his flak helmet. The energy of the round was spent, and it shattered into fragments.  It was an archetypical B-17 moment, war in the air, the ship struggling on three and then two engines, metal rattling and brittle cold air pouring through holes shredded in the fuselage, bodies bleeding less in the cold, his buddy literally holding his head together for the long hours home.  Approaching the coast, they had to toss everything to lighten the load, guns, radios, and unfortunately the emergency landing gear handle, which, as it turned out, they needed.. The Wahoo II landed safely back in England on one wheel, looping on the ground. 

The ambulance they called a meat wagon came as Duane was taken out of the plane, and the medics weren't going to take him in for treatment, until the pilot pulled a gun on them, a souvenir Luger no less, telling them to take him in or he'd blow their heads off.  Duane outlived my father, but paralyzed on one side.  But the sacrifice was in how Duane's spirit was in some ways wrecked by his permanent disability,  how in a falling out over this they spoke only every few years until their deaths in the 1980s. He didn't come to my father's funeral. I didn't go to Duane's. Duane I only met twice as an adult. This story is almost all I know about him, that and when they were kids in Nebraska, he had an unfortunate love of onion sandwiches.

I think something about that incident and certainly the military experience drove my father to Alaska, and in a way drove his first son, disconnected from a fairly large family, into the Green Berets in Vietnam. And Grant I do not really know now either. I do know that WWII nearly cured my father of respect for authority, and most desire to wear hats, except the brown beret he adopted later, which with his tweed jacket and turtleneck, horn-rimmed glass and goatee made him look like the Cool Jazz weatherman.  He was a respected weather scientist in his many years in Alaska, popular enough with the international pilots that he once pulled a favor and had a 747 turn around on the runway and come back to pick us up.  He became an artist as well, and defender of liberal and humanist values in the public sphere, values forged, quite consciously, by his experiences of WWII.

I know more, much more, about the B-17 than these other men in my own family, which the war both ennobled and broke apart through the instrument of the B-17, that beautiful bomber whose elegant, oddly humanistic design seems to have been the final echo of humanity in the military industrial complex that grew to maturity in that war. I know more, much more, about the B-17 than the Bollenbach family, and my ancestral history. That plane in some ways is the end and beginning of my family.

I hadn't thought until yesterday about the man in the German fighter who fired that 20mm cannon round which changed my family in these ways, how, in real war, all battle is equivalent, metal twisting and tearing flesh, metal emitted from an insane magic bag of ideologies to rationalize the destruction of human beings. He fired on a man named Bollenbach, which is also a small village in Pflaz-Rheinland. That pilot probably died that day, defending something real, the people he knew, and something spectacularly horrific. And the B-17 carried my uncle back to life, and men on the ground at the little airfield waited for its throaty roar, staring for their friends and comrades encapsulated in dark smoky dots against a buttermilk sky.

Now at this great remove from that injury, and the injuries my uncle and my father inflicted on our nation's enemies - before and since friends- I am safe and grateful and indulgent in my whims of work and play.  But a tiny dark hook of that war still touches me: what was my father's family?  My grandfather, a shadow, was hated for hitting my grandmother; my grandmother, a school principal, flickers as a formidable white haired presence in a handful of memories. I might have found out, but time had passed, and I did not. So much more clear in my living mind is the airplane, the B-17, its history, its symbology, an icon to me of horrendously flawed but ultimately substantive nobility, the Vargas girls on its sides marking it a war goddess, a Kali-mother dropping its horrific high-explosive children that by the path of total madness pushed the human race back to sanity.

Agnostic as the day is long, I have an answer for the Pope's question at Auschwitz on Thursday: where was God?  He was unknowing, stumbling, half-blind and blundering, like he always is, and seeking mostly to stay alive and keep his friends alive; that collected human consciousness we dully call God lived and worked in the Allied soldiers, the undergrounds, the millions paralyzed in fear, the victims of both the Nazis and the God's vengence we visited upon them, in dischordant momentary compassions among the Germans themselves, but most in the sum of all that resisted in any and every way industrial murder for madness and property.

And this vengeance flew too on terrible, beautiful wings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bollenbach of the Antarctic- Bits of a Polar Grant Proposal from 2007

With the kind and timely encouragement of C_______, I am developing a proposal to travel under grant from the National Science Foundation to the Anarctic as part of the artists and writers program.

I recently received an encouraging letter from the NSF in reply my letter excerpted below. (Reading above, notice how quickly the blood drains out of any sentence even vaguely connected to a grant application.)

I would be thrilled for the opportunity to travel to the Antarctic, particularly on science ship, and have been researching possibilities for several years.

My primary focus is oil painting. The Polar regions interest me for the scientific history involving artists (I think of Shackleton's artist sealing the seams of the James Caird boat for the almost suicidal voyage to South Georgia with his precious oil paints), the highly specific knowledge that traditional painting can bring to an understanding of color in a region, and the poetic collision of remote eternity of the Antarctic and the new fact of its transformation, an Icarus of a continent, moving too close to the sun.

Elders among the Inupiaq have noticed changes in the color of the Arctic skies. I would be very curious to see if this might be true in the Antarctic, which might require accurate paintings as a baseline. (Photography has limitations in the recording of accurately perceived color. ) That suggests subtleties of shift of color in the atmosphere - (and) some scientists have used studies paintings from periods around considerable volcanic activity -such as the 1883 Krakatoa eruption -to estimate atmospheric changes (Munch's Scream paintings may be an example of this).

I gained a lot of interest in the subject from my father, was a NOAA meteorologist for many years in Alaska, starting just after WWII. An amateur painter, he often noticed the particular qualities of light from Russian, Scandinavian and other Arctic painters shared around the world in the same latitude. In the days of hand drawn weather charts, he told me that the more beautiful the drawing of the isobars, the more accurate the weather predictions, and idea which has served me well in painting in the idea of specificity as a course towards both beauty and intellectual seriousness.

I recently developed three or four works based on polar themes, in this case they were specifically non-observational; the images of ice and highly specific colors and surfaces was an associative source for memories of a friend who was an Inupiaq dancer - specializing in modern dance forms, and on half-remembered stories of goddesses like Sedna. These few works served as a way to reprocess my experiences of Alaska, which unfortunately never allowed much travel in the Arctic.

Some ideas I've tossed around include:

A series of color studies of sea ice in oils.

It may prove important to collect an accurate record of color in the Antarctic. Aside from the superior sensitivity of the human eye to most technology, in terms of recording accurate perception, I spoke with an artists' material's expert who pointed out that oil is the best suitable cold-weather color sketch material.

Large paintings which accurately describe the coastal spaces of Antarctica.

Another limitation of photography is the inability to compress our experienced space into the frame of photograph. Painting from careful observation can be far more evocative of the human experience of presence in specific space, and small photos, as well as small paintings based on photos, have not captured the awe that such a landscape inspires. I can only project from my limited experiences in coastal Alaska, but paintings add a powerful feeling of "this is here, now." I'm hoping to experiment with latter studio projects approaching the scale of Anselm Keifer's recent work.

Large format photography.

Large format photography also offers possibilities- in particular, I had considered an idea of reproducing images from the classic period of polar exploration by setting up modern scientists and team members, as well as indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions, in the posed positions of the original photographs, an idea kicked around with the director at the Coast Guard Museum here in Seattle.

Site-Specific Polar Sculptures

This is just the germ of an idea, but I thought of a kind of warning buoy, spherical, sealed, and made of a bronze alloy, designed as a kind of self-contained weather station, ideally with the ability to self-power through photo-voltaic cells integrated into its surface, inscribed with designs and even poems related to exploration, warning, hubris, etc, which is positioned at the North Pole, and alerts when it gets immersed in open water. An Antarctic version would follow as a twin. Like the Japanese floats of my youth which washed up on the shores of Alaska, or the Nike Shoes riding ocean currents, this giant float would travel freely with sea-ice and water, in areas susceptible to the effects of warming.

It would be an art-science object - a working instrument and a kinetic, permanent sculpture, intended to be lost, and eventually rediscovered, in a year, or a thousand. Like the Voyager plate, it could describe ourselves to future civilizations; its very existence is a warning.

I would welcome ideas from our ingenious contributors on technical, conceptual and practical considerations. I've worked up the float ideas as art piece more, and will be bothering the oceanographers at UW here in Seattle who have developed an impressive new generation of buoys and current monitors. I would also like a web component (the idea just struck me of little sensors position indicators, in cartoon snowman form, saying "I'm melting!" on a website when they hit 1 degree C water. OK, that's a little silly.)

The first trip would be reconnoitering, working up to a return to deploy the artworks.