Tuesday, November 27, 2012

For Young Artists: Follow Your Curiosity

Alan Bamberger at artbusiness.com 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.

Science as a Subset of Art

From Ibn al-Haytham, the great Islamic scholar-scientist and inventor of the empirical study of optics (died aprox 1040 CE) and perhaps, modern empirical practice:
"Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough."
It's worth noting that he studied optics intently while in prison (for failing to invent impossible military technology), watching the movement of sunlight passing through his tiny window. This lead to a complete intellectual revolution, leapfrogging the ancients by cementing theory to observation and experimental practice.

Truth is an interesting and complicated idea itself. The empirical concept presumes the existence of universal truths, more universal than monotheistic religions, which tend to be very jealous with their access to what they consider to be truth. The evangelical ones seem to enjoy company so much they're willing to kill for it, but happily degrade any truth but their own.

One reason that Art still exists is that both religion and science have inadequately described and practiced human imagination and experience. As people, we are sensitive to phenomena - both real and imagined, and which dynamically change one other - as subtle as Art is capable of, which the gross summaries of aggregate systems and ideologies, ones as aspirational and effective as Science, and as apparently meaningful as religion, do not begin to describe.

I do not mean this to draw equivalency. I'm more arrogant than that. Not every culture has institutional religion, nor does every culture have an organized science practice (a more acidic wag than myself might suggest America is one of these.)

But all cultures have expressive art forms, in which personal and social meaning is seemingly built in the actual act of expressive construction. And the end product is in many ways less important than it's creation ( a wonderful example are the Tibetan sand paintings.) That "I" and "We" are making, pulling something real and frequently beautiful from the crushing vast emptiness, is after survival, social bonding, and sex the most essential and inevitable human act, and it is the one that to this day best defines the quality of humanity that is distinct from other animals.

It would be absurd to suggest that people had no meaningful appreciation of moral action or physical truth before the relatively recent phenomenon of monotheistic religion or, in historical terms, the shiny new toy of scientific method.

A defining, truly ancient essence of us it to make: art, music, things, designs, structures, systems, beer, even and maybe especially when we do not need to. That the structural cruelty of materialist capitalism - which really does raise the idolatry of the abstract concept of money above that of human beings - has beaten creativity out of everyone but specialists doesn't change this desire to make the imagined/observed, so common, so natural, so powerful in every child.

This rounds around to this: I think religion and science are both external, somewhat nationalized aspects of the more essential impulses of Art. As Carl Sagan pointed out, a Zen monastery is a highly evolved form of civilization - you don't require radio telescopes to qualify. And one might argue whether a Japanese Zen monastery is really a religious practice.

What I would argue here is that the strange persistent of Art is evidence that the nature of God, still less his/her/their existence, is far less important to human society than we tend to think, and that Science is a really a very late form of Art: it shares generally truth-seeking empirical practice that has been refined through many millenia to recently adding reducible and repeatable and theoretically universal methods. The phenomena of religion is a another creature, itself a social construction of Art, blended inevitably and usually horribly with politics and economic conquest. Science has left it, though only perhaps through its practical limits, to parent Art to probe and explain the inexhaustible nuances of individual being, a problem renewed and deepened with each and every new life.

One will naturally wish me to define art. I demur. All definitions truncated by written language are terribly, terribly, terribly inadequate. What does orange actually feel like, especially that orange in that Van Gogh? Which smells do the key of D minor recall? What were the spiritual views, maker of Venus of Willendorf, or did they just like big tits, or was it, more likely, a combination.

It is best described by observing and participating in its practice and its products, which is of course the same maddening unsatisfactory answer supplied with such blithe self-satisfaction by the religious. And which is precisely why I am forced to paint.

And so there is no summary/symbol of the amazing richness of human consciousness that is still the human consciousness. There is no single, wholly complete path to truth, and the road is rough. We can however, at least, commit to destroy with Reason those demonstrable, self-serving falsehoods upon which so much cruelty and misery is built. We can with it seek what universal truths there are to be had. Where Reason can no longer forge forward alone, Art can guide.

Hard-Core Art Facts. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fascinating and sobering, from Bureau of Labor Statistics on the Profession of Art. I especially love the definitions.

"Artists held about 221,900 jobs in 2008. About 60 percent were self-employed. Employment was distributed as follows:

Art directors 84,200
Multimedia artists and animators 79,000
Fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators 23,600
Craft artists 13,600
Artists and related workers, all other 21,500

For better or worse, artists are key culture producers. Noted: Lawyers held about 759,200 jobs in 2008. In other words, there are 33 attorneys for every fine artist.

Artists create art to communicate ideas, thoughts, or feelings. They use a variety of methods—painting, sculpting, or illustration—and an assortment of materials, including oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pencils, pen and ink, plaster, clay, and computers. Artists' works may be realistic, stylized, or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature, or events.

Fine artists typically display their work in museums, commercial art galleries, corporate collections, and private homes. Some of their artwork may be commissioned (done on request from clients), but most is sold by the artist or through private art galleries or dealers. The gallery and the artist predetermine how much each will earn from the sale. Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sale of their works. Most fine artists have at least one other job to support their art careers. Some work in museums or art galleries as fine-arts directors or as curators, planning and setting up art exhibits. A few artists work as art critics for newspapers or magazines or as consultants to foundations or institutional collectors. Other artists teach art classes or conduct workshops in schools or in their own studios. Some artists also hold full-time or part-time jobs unrelated to art and pursue fine art as a hobby or second career.

Usually, fine artists specialize in one or two art forms, such as painting, illustrating, sketching, sculpting, printmaking, and restoring. Painters, illustrators, cartoonists, and sketch artists work with two-dimensional art forms, using shading, perspective, and color to produce realistic scenes or abstractions.

Wheedling a Faculty Hiring Committee 2009


As a professional artist and painter with substantial university and community college teaching experience in painting, drawing, and design, and who believes Art is foundational element of successful post-secondary education in the contemporary cultural and economic environment, I feel that I am an excellent candidate for this position.

Coming originally from Alaska and understanding the challenges facing aspiring creative professionals outside of urban centers, I am a strong believer in the commitment to outstanding educational quality, public mission, and community role. In more rural environments, students often have fewer options- the role of a superior public university is enhanced: it is indispensable to their best futures. Having grown up around the University of Alaska, the immediate and lasting effect of an ambitious Art Department on the community was profound and indisputable.

It sounds dramatic, but our national future depends on our creative abilities, which depend in turn on superior and ambitious education in the Arts; colleges devoted to the broad community are the most critical institutions.

I am a strong believer in and advocate for public universities. Just recently, I turned down an unsolicited offer to teach with a corporate for profit-school because of their fraudulent practices with student marketing. This reminded me in very real terms that it is in our public college and university institutions, under political and budget assault now, that most American adults grow their knowledge and and build their opportunities, not simply as employees, but as citizens, as full and equal human beings with every right to a full flowering of ideas and culture and the right to build the world we all occupy.

In my classroom in foundations classes, we begin with visual grammar, working hard to master the variety of illusionistic effects, grounding solidly in observation, moving through proportion to perspective to color theory, but the goal is always open experimentation and expression. Traditional visual art rules, when taught to enhance visual discovery and experimentation, greatly widen rather than restrict expression, and art students who are well challenged respond enthusiastically and with growing confidence. I have been repeatedly amazed by what motivated students can accomplish.

Most of my classes move through an arc of challenge and skill-building toward inquisitive, almost science-like experimentation. The students final projects are always open, with critiques consistently pushing each student, no matter the level of skill they have reached, to recognize what has been accomplished, and what can be improved, and the method by which it can be improved. Refining this process has fed my recent interest in creativity as a subject, and I have developed some effective workshops on creativity.

Methods evolve and transform, but goal is eternal: the creation of outstanding art and design that drives human intellect and emotion and even spirit to new nuances and new heights. I work to instill in my students that Art is indispensable - and even inevitable - in knowing and making who we are.

Former students of mine have gone from high school to MFA programs at RISD, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Generally, they have not been privileged students, and here is where I feel the greatest accomplishment as an instructor.

I am proud to have received outstanding student reviews over the years, and want to not only perform minor creative miracles in the classroom - those “aha!” moments every good art instructor knows - but to become a dynamic part of the Art Department and the university as whole.

Wheedling a Gallery in London

June 23, 2009

F_____ Gallery
London, UK
I am a Seattle-based artist with a 2002 M.F.A. in painting from the University of Washington, and am exploring the possibility of exhibitions of my work in London, and would like information on your submission policies. I sell paintings primarily through the Seattle Art Museum Gallery and privately, and I teach at the college level in the Seattle area.

Modernist and gestural in appearance but rendered using objectivist techniques, the paintings fracture the image field into my competing and complementary aesthetic reactions to time, memory, and cognition of the moment: an ancient artist-to-model gaze, unapologetic, despairing and reverent, processing the expansive emotional and intellectual debris of a man simply seeing a woman.

I labor to be descriptive and evocative regardless of ideology, either political or critical. It often takes months to understand a small aspect of passing hour. In an over-dense visual culture which breeds emotional and intellectual indifference to mere images, I build on the human gaze, the consciousness guiding the hand and learning of the world by this act.

My paintings argue for the dynamic of vision, illusion, and intellectual curiosity explored within the act of painting. This idea of a still image as a description of the passage of time was famously used in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, which itself was based in early motion capture photography. In my work, the direction is reversed; where the futurists embraced technology, metal, speed, this work stuffs the 20th century into observational painting traditions; the notion of time employed is organic and human, photography rejected, the marks gestural and muscular but pushed back into pictorial space, the synthesis of mood, process and image elevated.

Art is a distillation of this passionate drive to both make and understand, more ambitious, putting out tendrils of sensing into the most delicate and fleeting of concepts and experience.

Your initial thoughts or advice would be most welcome; my website is at JamieBollenbach.com.

Thanks for your consideration.

Jamie Bollenbach

Letter to Colleague / Lecture Ideas- Art and Politics in 2011

A while back, I was very glad to see your return to (art-making)- and your comment yesterday on Velasquez raised some interesting ideas about Art and politics, and I've got the germ of a humanities lecture/presentation forming. I would greatly value your thoughts on it.

In the news of course is Ai Wei Wei, the brilliant, uneven, and mostly apolitical Chinese avant-garde artist just recently held up as a model of muscular Chinese cultural leadership, and who is now in indefinite detention. Two years ago, a former soldier at Tienanmen took out his old photos and made paintings of them. These were not only suppressed, but nearly eradicated from the internet in spite of front page New York Times coverage. At the University of Washington, one of the Department Chairs (Zhi Linn) has been making traditional paintings based on hundreds of years of capital executions, as well as documenting Chinese labor in the United States - in Zhi's case, the extraordinary quality is essential to making the message much more emotionally resonant than the horrifying facts.

At a personal level, I noticed (the journey of several people from politics towards Art-making in various forms.) We haven't ceased to be political, but we have made Art-making an essential process of forming the substance, and dynamically expanding it, of our values. Critically, this is done in work that is not expressly political.

You may know Walter Benjamin's famous "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the art world's most overused defense of mass images and cultural production as, by their nature, liberating in the old Marxist sense. Somewhat ridiculously in retrospect, Warhol's diminished Duchampian work was identified- incorrectly I feel- with a general sense of liberation. The poetic and the humanistic, the work of the New York School painters in particular, began to be identified with privilege, while the massed, graphic, concept-heavy, ironic, anti-artisan, and propagandistic were identified with movements of liberation. To this day, in contemporary art, a huge contingent is contemptuous of traditional art values, taking a very unexamined view that the individuality, romantic, humanistic, poetic work is by nature intellectually unsophisticated and merely a commodity. This movement favors the conceptual, the anti-craft, the technological. This is driven by a historical association of the avant-garde with Marxism; its modern form is something of a politically disconnected art world creature. A visit to Target will tell both of Warhol's influence and his political vacuity.

But a strong counter-reaction has developed; oddly, as painting and drawing become less common as practice, they are becoming MORE valuable in the culture, and I would contend, (potentially) more threatening to many varieties of brutal oppression. And all without being expressly political.

The core of this idea becomes: political, religious, and scientific ideas are incomplete systems for forming coherent social values, and making social realities. Failed ideologies tend to become fundamentalist, and tend to crack in the face of unexpected pressure. Art, the most fundamental cultural impulse, defining better than any other activity what makes human beings human, is both an indispensable and inevitable system for building not only culture, but society as a whole, especially defined broadly, as distinct acts of creative execution in any form, from Las Meninas to motorcycle design.

Most especially, I am interested in how the act of art-making itself changes and deepens perception of life, and how this generates social norms in real society. Also, how this competes with commodified, or propagandistic, cultural production. ( Years ago at Reed, I read an excellent paper on the Beatles which contended that their love songs had a powerful and liberating social effect - In my view , his version of pop culture, humanizing, was the opposite of Warhol, which was literally fine art's version of wholly commodified culture.)

The arc I want to trace here is:

  • A) Art increasingly is regarded by scientists as the characteristic that most defines and distinguishes human beings.
  • B) How does Art make what we think of as us?
  • C) Expressive artworks, even by individuals doing non political work, are regarded as priority threats, requiring brutal suppression, by governments, religious, social, and economic organizations. Why?
  • D) Why would someone who has political influence and a potential career which can lead to substantial personal economic, social, and even spiritual rewards, move away from this toward the extreme uncertainty of art-making.
  • E) How does art-making, distinct from art-consuming, change one's thinking? (We can look to art There is interesting new neurology on creative thinking, for example, that sheds some light.)
  • G) What is the mechanism of social change leading from art-making? How does the visual experience exist as intellectual inquiry?
  • H) If Art is bigger than politics, what is the failure point of political thinking - what does it mask, and hinder?

What I have in mind is creating a one-hour lecture and brief presentation of my artwork - which is largely apolitical - but that links art-making and the resulting ideas with potentially profound political impacts. Ai Wei Wei is in prison for, it seems, making the inevitable conclusion and point of so many contemporary artists: so many structures of power are absurd, vain, cruel, greedy, and temporary.

Comment on The Millenials

Reading this and many other pieces- and speaking with people in their 20s, I get the horrible feeling that those who don't live in the middle of cities, or in the remaining community-oriented small towns, are losing their best biological opportunity (perhaps like foreign languages) to learn the complex language of real life social skills.

But let me say this: I think the up and coming generation may be among the best generally educated, social aware, least selfish, and community oriented in a long time. But there seems to be a broken spirit - a tremendous loss of animus and hope. The almost total domination of consumer/market culture, the push to replace the actual voice, actual sight, actual society, with technological simulations, (and not incidentally, the value of human labor), has begun to erode the dignity and value of human beings. 4-23-1

An old 2002 Review of My Graduate Thesis Show- By Art History Grads

Review of UW Graduate Thesis Show ; Grad Art History Students of Prof. Patricia Failing

Review of MFA Show, 2002 By Anonymous UW Art History Grad Student

Jamie Alan Andre Bollenbach has three oil paintings in the 2002 University of Washington MFA Exhibition at the Henry Art gallery. April in the Course of an Hour, Two before Windows, and Remnant of April, are large abstractions painted using painterly technique and rooted in art history. I will not aimlessly argue the content of this work which can never be concluded, but I will present the formal facts, those that can be pointed to. These formal facts give the viewer the tools to pursue the content of this work. Harold Rosenburg would examine Bollenbach’s work to determine if it is a result of “bad faith.” I know that Bollenbach, like any good artist, is concerned with making aesthetically appealing art.

Bollenbach’s thesis work belongs formalistically to early modernism. Like the work of Willem De Kooning, these three paintings are an evolution from cubism and impressionism and therefore have also evolved from the renaissance. Bollenbach is revealing the essential facts of his medium. Doing this is the act that primarily characterizes modernism as Hans Hoffman defined it (and is the Greenburg theory of modernism). But the works of Bollenbach clearly contain illusionist elements aas well as the essential elements of the act of painting. He is not reducing his work strictly to what is essential about painting and therefore his work is not truly modernist. Hofmann, justifiably the most modern and most notable abstract expressionist painter, “defied every norm of the art of painting.” Generally, “American-type” painters are best at making modern art by defying the norms of a medium, but this graduate is toying with breaking these norms while also maintaining the traditions of the illusions of three-dimensional space in his work.

The subject matter is each of these three pieces is, to varying degrees, semi-abstract and painterly in the treatment of brushstrokes. There is a tension between the abstracted nature of the subject matter, which appears to have been derived from the early modern and cubist exploration of viewing a subject from multiple perspectives simultaneously, and value contrast, perspective, and volume, all of which convey a sense of space in the composition. This tension is further extended by the painterly linear forms, which cut across the composition similar to the paint swashes that blur the sense of space in de Kooning’s work. Two Before Windows has lines from the center of each window that extend into the space perceived to be in front of the windows. One of the lines extends across the figure’s stomach.

Remnant of April is painted with perspective. The subject matter references interior architecture, and has linear and painterly lines that cut across the illusion of space. A fence-like image ins in the center of the piece and, although quite small,large field of rich light hues in the bottom fifth of the painting.

An array of colorful small brushstrokes and short squiggle-lines extend out from just above the center of the canvas in April in the Course of an Hour. The sense of space in this composition is articulated through the density of brush marks and interactions between bits and fields of color. The density of squiggle marks is concentrated at the area of divergences, and the bottom fourth of the painting is an arrangement of less packed, longer, vertical strokes. It is evident that the artist is concerned with achieving a dynamic composition, and is very intentional about the color relationships that contribute to this.

The richness of the colors in this painting gives it an engaging energy. The vibrancy of the colors resonates in an aesthetically powerful way. The subject matter of April in the Course of an Hour is uncertain, but the dynamic interaction of bits of color and the composition of density make this painting worth to spend time viewing. Bollenbach pays incredible attention to the effect that specific colors have next to one another, and this is evident in the pleasure taken in viewing the rich color of these paintings.

Two Before Windows conveys a clear sense of interior space with windows and curtains and a female figure standing in the room. The figure, presented naturalistically in proportions and perspective, demonstrates, again, the tension between the illusion and the obscurity that begins to reinforce the integrity of the picture plane. This is upheld by being true to the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The figure is painted a very dark but unnatural color that blends with the background coloring. The figure’s pelvis, hips and thighs, have a sense of being held up and would appear to be standing, but from the knee down, the figure dissipates into organic line-forms of color. The upper body of the figure is unarticulated, and the head, which is faintly visible, is floating above the torso. However, there is a sense that the mid-section of the figure is occupying space.

Formalistically, this work has a dynamic combination of organic painterly form and geometric and linear elements as well as an impressive resonance of color. All of these formal characteristics give Bollenbach’s work a powerful aesthetic appeal. Bollenbach does not maintain the integrity of the picture plain because there is illusion in his work. There is no mistake that what the viewer sees is a two-dimensional painting, but we are also presented with an interesting tension that insists that the view acknowledge a sense of three-dimension space.

My thanks to Prof. Pat Failing for securing permission for me to publish the work of this art history graduate student on my web. – J.B.

Lunch With a Proper Artist


It is always a welcome opportunity to cut through the cultural garbage with my former professor N-, a very successful painter who taught for decades and whose work is collected like free drinks at a heartbreak hotel. His work is keenly observational and yet almost wholly invented, a bit like the Yale artist William Bailey and his deceptively simple but deeply mysterious still lifes.

I particular appreciate his what you might call millennial perspective on visual art, art rolling in ribbons of rhyming cycles through history, far more coherent and conversational -over centuries- than the present fashion's interpretation, which assumes that context is so complex and powerful that art appears as a mere illustration of a certain ephemeral nexus of deterministic cultural factors. Well - duh. If I may be allowed (and I am) a caricature of contemporary art interpretation, it feels like there has been a long campaign among intellectuals to regard artists as globs of clay, their work wholly formed by cultural, economic and political circumstance, and that as that circumstance changes, their work cannot be understood except with a complete accounting of those circumstances. The implication is that the work has no particular value without historical interpretation.

Fine analysis, if you are getting paid for historical interpretation.

By contrast, N- reads art history as more of a dynamic conversation among artists living in different times, a multi-sided conversation until someone dies, and even then, there is an unending visual multi-lectic. I find myself much closer to this view - I start off every drawing class with the 70, 000 year old image from the Blombos cave in South Africa, which has soaked into compositional structures in my work. But the real point is in his phrase - artists speak to each other across centuries.

It's interesting that in such a technically skilled painter, he makes an absolute distinction between art and rendering, rendering, in my phrase, simply being the grammar of visual art, which like English grammar must be mastered but never confused for the end itself. It's fun hearing him on Bouguereau, the brilliant but endlessly cheesy villain representing the 19th century French Academy, sort of the Evil Empire compared to the liberating rebels of the Impressionists: N- points to the absolute technical genius: maybe the best in all of painting history in painting light on flesh, and in spite of this, it will never really be rehabilitated as high art. Yet even here, the Impressionists desperately wanted the validation of the academy, and the academicians were adopting techniques from the rebels; John Singer Sargent, the powerful American portraitist of the aristocracy, did impressionistic, cutting edge works of breathtaking gestural power and saturated color, while his portraits veered from obsequious money-makers to among the most brilliant.

What capitalizes art as Art is a serious philosophical ambition combined with the technical mastery and imagination to uncover and execute it. Far, far from a complete definition, but that element is true anywhere, at any point in history. Good work is rich, essentially inexhaustible in its viewing. There are any number of strategies to get there, but what makes artwork powerful, interesting and irreplaceable is incredibly fragile; a flat note in it's symphony can erase all that was done. This is why 90% of the stuff in the galleries lays there like a lump (worse, a pretentious lump) and even the greatest artists have piles of terrible work.

One of N-'s essential points is that the driving principles of effective artwork are remarkably simple, and they tie together artists as diverse as Andrew Goldsworthy (N- once essentially called this stuff Design 101 with sticks) and Damien Hirst (the half-a-cow in formaldehyde guy). The push and pull of attraction and repulsion, the conscious manipulation of spatiality, a practiced but straightforward understanding of color and line, an understanding of the difference between what is and what people see (there are no lines as such in nature, but we see lines everywhere, symbolic boundaries between intrinsic natures of things perceived.) People are fascinated, have always been fascinated, by the juxtaposition of geometric forms on organic forms, and vice versa. Simple, like the 12 musical notes. Infinitely complex, like arranging 12 musical notes.

It would be very easy to dismiss all this conservative; that would be a red herring. N- says"the avant-garde is a very crowded place," and in the contemporary art world, with a genuine and truly unprecedented flourishing of all art forms, in all kinds of media and all their intersections, enormous, grant-drunk, gate-keeping institutions are camped on that line like Star Wars fans in tailored grey Channel suits, waiting for the next new opening, and usually getting "Attack of the Clones" for their trouble. That's what you get for dismissing authorship as essential to art-making. Now the simpering Soho dandies will have to live with their BX Haus 211B art robots.

But N-'s last observation cut through. He just drove to Alaska last summer, primarily in the Interior around Fairbanks. What left the greatest impression on this landscape painter , the unreal majesty of Denali, the foraging grizzly bears, the mighty Yukon?

"I think those must be the fattest people I've ever seen."

"Art will cease to be political when reality ceases to be political."

April 12, 2011

"Art will cease to be political when reality ceases to be political."

- NYT Reader comment on the Ai Weiwei detention story in China. Not to say Art MUST be political. But as a social practice by many people, it will be, and a free practice is, we trust, it is vastly better.

Another interesting reader comment:

"(in the West) We don't call it "censorship;" instead we say something like "the market isn't interested/it won't make money....See Jeff Koons, and a long list of other trivial, highly marketable 'artists' who are not only accepted, but heavily promoted - precisely because while they may seem culturally outrageous, they are politically harmless. "

It may surprise you to learn of the huge commercial success of avant-garde art in China - but the arrest of Ai- a big deal- changes much. Art can be commercial, poetic, it can edgy, or political, or all of these. To the Chinese dictatorship, edgy is great: it gains prestige and business. (As it does here.) But political is a crime. This underscores the incredible potential and emptiness of much contemporary work.

The severe suppression of a painter's Chen Guang's work two years ago- his work on Tienanmen Square was not just censored but nearly eradicated from the Internet - while edgy performance and situationist styles flourished in China, suggested to me that painting what's in front of your nose with courage is still one of the most uncontrollable, powerful art forms.

And finally, I am deeply disappointed in the tone of all the commenters in the articles. None of these professors and curators of Asian Art and political affairs, stands up and says: China's arrest of Ai is wrong, it is meant to crush free thinking, it hurts both China's growing culture and international standing, and China must be pressured to release him. Several weakly imply it.

I tire greatly of balanced, reasonable deference to dictators.

Aspiring Artists and Puppies

2006 (essay response)

I brought Rilke up -a little lazily -because that confession in the night question is the still the key question to reassure the serious and challenge the art puppies nipping at the socks.

It's important to remember, as late stage capitalism threatens to make Blade Runner look like It's a Wonderful Life, that the urge to create is nearly universal among people, and the mere fact we channel it into shopping and commodified labor says nothing about our capabilities, only our vulnerabilities. (And as I write this in the cafe, there is literally a table of marketers next to me "trying to adopt the artistic mind-set process," underscoring non-profit organization "social networks'" "psychodemographics as opposed to demographics." And now the guy pretending to have the magic of artistic process just dropped the word the word "mindshare," and connected it to "community." I am restraining myself with some difficulty, imagining as I am the perfect "Clop" and tinkling sound my cracking the coffee cup over his head would make, not to mention the screaming. "We need to bring people together in real ways." Every second of this endless self-congratulatory greedy drivel is pushing me I ask myself: What Would Utah Phillips do? Probably whack them with that "sockful of puppy shit we call a culture.")

Art, - as profession and sublimity - is a special case of creativity, when it is pursued to an obsessive degree from a repeated impulse of individual necessity toward the exploration of the baroque permutation of truths observed and worked from within specific phenomena, often, in the case of painting and sculpture, by thinking within the phenomenology of material. Draw, write, compute, re-create -expand the envelope of what can be known and what is possible through explorative action, communicate it, and you've struck something that could be Art. Even Science may be a special case of Art - the same impulses drive it, the same obsessive observation, the same bringing of nothing into knowing. Art is freed of necessary function, but by giving up universal clarity, it is capable of attempting to track the whole impulse of the human mind at once.

But we all crave making. I wandered into the ceramics studio the other days and threw about 6 pots - satisfying, mediocre pots....a lot of people there, smart students otherwise, poking and pounding clay like six year olds. Something about it, ceramics at college, usually a stand in joke for misplaced pride in a lopsided ashtray, something about it that stands in for what people can't be anymore without being hobbyists: harmless, neuter, unmarketable, irrelevant.

So many people face an endless, dreamless bureaucratic life - and there so many gatekeepers to Art, of which I'm a minor one, so many reasons to wither at 19. (Kids these days: smart and meek and betrayed by our convenience, with their abilities to build and give less relevant to our markets that their manufactured desires.)

I believe there are plenty of good poets - more than ever, I suspect, like good musicians and artists, but even the greatest mastery cannot much stir a world producing endless fountains of Product. Art exists when a hair goes to one side of a blade, and not the other, and it's intrinsic delicacy makes it extremely fragile. I think the kind of obsessively clean, minimalistic, cold and empty style which has dominated since Warhol is an embrace of delicate futility, where presenting the simple absence of social noise is considered sufficient to be artistic.

The aspirants have even less chance than the students or the masters, but they will be rewarded, oh so rewarded, for making the right purchase.

But those endless schools of would be poets and writers and artists and physicists (yes it must be said - physics and mathematics as philosophy is just as highly impractical a career choice) are coming from people who are taught that their fundamental abilities are completely replaceable, our communities are interchangeable, and their lives are best lived in constant worry, false certainty, and commodified desire. Who wouldn't want an alternative? Art seems like an out - so does music, so do sports-to act, to be human, to be individually recognized. Your disposable life at Best Buy isn't gonna cut it. Facing their disposability, interchangeability and their individual irrelevance before mass culture, why not try, try to be an artist, a rock star, a poet, a B-Ball god, an evangelist zombie, or Paris Hilton? If the society teaches you that your already reified labor is done more cheaply by even more anonymous people in even more anonymous places, if it cannot offer you a place, a reasonable sense of meaning and identity, what is your plan?

Today, you can even forget trying to go into single family farming in America. Finally, we're weeding out those lazy bastards and their gold-bricking economic inefficiencies.

But in the modern world, the outs are also are professionalized social roles, wholly capitalist creatures, and it's hardly a new observation that in non-industrial societies art, music, politics, poetry, games, hunting, gathering, making and spirituality were done by nearly all and share a particular quality of full expression and participation - and aside from endless centuries of poverty, uncertainty and iron-clad social roles, it's kind of appealing.

I'm not an anarchist (or AM I?) but all this techno-industrial candy, with all its promise, is not making us our best selves. Polls pointing to growing social isolation and expressions of intense American loneliness do not bode well.

Witness the absurd - and dangerous and historically recent - rise of fundamentalism in so many religions- which is partly, I think, a toxic reaction to the disease of social isolation. That disconnect is felt with particular intensity among young 2nd generation Muslims in Europe, and we're seeing the results.

But Americans are feeling a version of the same thing, good old-fashioned alienation with a new intensity from mass-culture, ubiquitous marketing, dissolution of community, and escalating economic insecurity. They turn to art, to religion, to fantasy, to truly impossible dreams of celebrity or riches.

Interesting, just Friday, I happened to walk into a bookstore on Capitol Hill and bought The White Goddess; perhaps pre-industrial societies were better at creating a sense of our meaning.
I don't say go back. I do say: look out.

Robert Hughes and What You Might Call Your Art There

Explain your bad art to this face.

Robert Hughes serious, hilarious and readable Time art critic for many years, has a new autobiography. (NYT) The Washington Post review is more to the point.

Comparing the careers of J. Seward Johnson Jr. and Jeff Koons, he once said, was like debating the merits of dog excrement versus cat excrement — although Mr. Hughes would never use a word as flat and unevocative as excrement.

Hughes wrote the definitive, argumentative, popularizing work on the rise of modernism, Shock of the New, with it's famous attacks on Brasila,( a critique I share) and Picasso's Guernica (as a triumph of style over substance, even of a Nazi air raid, an understandable critique I don't share) He has long been a welcome antidote to ever-higher piles of ideological garbage in art, a rejection of the primacy of the word.

But he is far more than a contrarian:

"Art, I now realized, was the symbolic discourse that truly reached into me -- though the art I had seen and come to know in Australia had only done this intermittently and weakly. It wasn't a question of confusing art with religion, or trying to make a religion out of art. As some people are tone-deaf, I was religion-deaf, and in fact I would have thought it a misuse, even a debasement, of a work of art to turn it into a mere ancillary, a signpost to some imagined, hoped-for, but illusory experience of God. But I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organized landscape a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me -- but that I had never received."

Fine Hughes quotes:

The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.

Lines, Molecules and Metaphors of Painting 2006

If you ever sat still long enough near me, you probably will have heard me talk about material and illusion and information and time as a source for painting. What's below is not news to anyone doing animation, or anyone pursuing mathematical topology modeling for a living, or probably anyone who's read Tufte's classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, except for the end result.

I was sketching a little graphic today, somewhat like one of these: {

Then I doubled it: {}

I then treated it in three dimensions, building this shape on the full xyz axis, on paper, sketching out the results, adding another, adding another. It builds into kind of "spin." When you spin it on one axis you get a solid shape, sort of a like a sphere with a brim. A two axis spin is even more interesting.

The process of drawing the spin of this {} fits neatly into a model of the operation of the natural progression of time on a line shape. I take a 2 dimensional shape and twirl it, and as I draw more positions of the shape in illusionistic 3-d space, the shape becomes a solid, each step adding more material, each illusion I add representing another step in the progression of time.

The idea is clearly fundamental to animation. But animation is also presented in a strip of time, for the purpose of presenting a direct illusion of reality - the still images with a series turns into the illusion of the passage of time. It's almost a primary application of digital imaging technology to do this precisely and cheaply.

What was beginning to be interesting to me here was sort of the reverse - the strip of time represented by the still image. The act of drawing the image involves time, adding each new {}, and the progression of one position of the {} to the next on the z axis IMPLIES and can only be the result of the passage of time. The still result, however, is an unmoving three dimensional solid, a 3-d shape almost exactly like an old metal float.

I backed up a little at this point. In a revelation for someone who last did calculus or ceramics 20 years ago, and never took topology, I re-realized that any line that was NOT straight, once spun through time, would create a three dimensional shape, a little like a Spirograph. If the line was straight you could get a flat circle by twirling it on the other axis.

Spin out any slight flaw in a line and you get a volume.

(About a year ago I got to play with a rapid prototyper and made a mathematical object that was the institial space between a regular stacking of spheres. This suggests a project of hand drawing straight lines, scanning the results, spinning them in Rhino or a similar program, and making the thin, irregular, semi cylindrical object on a prototyper. Or, save the $750,000 equipment costs and do it on a lathe. New prototypers are truly incredible.)

I can report that an interesting problem in formal topology was recently solved by a glass blower, something that really should not surprise you- material teaches when symbology stutters. But I'm going down this road for a different path - the irreducibly human: our perception of time passing, immediate past memory and anticipation of human presence, how nothing spins into something - a visual analogy to the popular summaries of string theory (see above on scraping through calculus) which suggest collisions of fields that twist and spin into stuff.

Painting can be the static image that is the spoor of these machinations, distinct, because it only forms through human consciousness and the twists and spins the body's action forms on material. In the act of painting is the static footprint in the mud of absence spinning into presence slowing into absence, and importanry to me, it occurs at the natural pace of human consciousness, which of course is a constantly evolving state, from a shade of blue to a Monkees riff to my arm itches to an irrational desire for twinkies.

The final analogy here was thinking of space-time spinning an empty volume into stuff, a mass of some kind. I suppose there are physicists who can tell me whether mass exists without time, but my suspicion is that mass without time would have no applicable meaning.

Allow me to leap to the metaphor of the molecule: and old definition of which is the smallest part of substance which has all the characteristics of that substance. Here is where I'm tying this together: a successful painting, or artwork of any kind, is a molecule of a much larger substance. In the case of painting, I'm using substance to mean the stuff of human experience (this is my metaphor and I can do what I want) - substance as a combination of material, the illusions the material creates, the physical object of the painting's relationships to all its spiritual, political, perceptual, personal implications, the way this wholly dependent on the human natural and cultural biases in perceiving those illusions.

A good painting -any good artwork - is something irreducibly "true," a single molecule of big stuff, containing what you need to know about that stuff, but unable to show the vastness of it's totality across time, distance, and human consciousness. A great work, say Brughels's 99 Netherlandish Proverbs, gives you untold volumes of information about time and experience not shown in the work, stories and smells and the plays of light and personality before the moment of the image and inevitable in the future. It is just as true of Rothko's color field paintings, which boil beautifully before your eyes, touching the spiritual impulse.

So an analogy of good art might be this: an illusionary process or object, cleaned of the extraneous, whose quality is proportional to the richness and penetration of all its implications. A single molecule of the big stuff.

Why illusionary? It has to be. Truth never reveals itself without a fight in the shadows.

Anselm Kiefer: When I was Four I Wanted to be Jesus

May 21, 2008

While looking for contacts with European artists about the B-17 project - I found this excellent interview with Anselm Kiefer by Sean O'Hagan, who more and more represents to me what art must be today.

His mentor was Joseph Beuys, who once famously explained art history to a dead rabbit in a three day gallery exhibition, and who later founded the German Green Party.

I am fond of artist interviews: art prose tends to be unreadable, either fawning, dry or cynical.

His show that toured through S.F. a couple years ago, the maddeningly ambitious, intelligent and emotional Heaven and Earth, is I think one of the great cultural works of contemporary art. It would have been easy for him to join the massed millions in the lightly ironic Pop Army, but he bucked every trend, progressive in politics, conservative of art's real power.

Below, O'Hagen describes paintings from my favorite series - monumental paintings of the open ocean - in Leviathan, a lead U-Boat hangs just above the sea. (One note here - I'm not sure that any artist's work looks worse on the internet than Kiefer's compared to its actual appearance. It will look muddy and scattered and unreadable in many of the images- this is emphatically NOT the case in person. )

Kiefer's sea is a huge, brooding ocean, grey-black, turbulent, thunderous. Up close, the crashing waves seem like solid ripples of congealed oil so thick are the layers of paint - and what looks like encrusted earth - that have been applied to the canvas. The paintings are so elemental, so humming with raw energy, that you can almost hear the ocean's roar in this big cavernous room. There are echoes, too, of other seascapes, of Turner, of course, and Courbet.
'Yes! Yes!' says Kiefer, nodding his head vigorously. 'You do the sea and Turner is there, always.' I ask him if, given his prodigious output, he discards many works along the way. 'Many, yes. But then I go over them. A painting is a conglomeration of failings. But, we can say this of life also.'
He laughs and then quickly turns serious again. 'The making of a painting,' he continues, 'is a reflection of your thought process but it also has a process of its own. Always, it is about somewhere I am trying to get to that I can never get to. This is the dilemma. But you also reach a place of transformation. The painting is transformed and you are transformed also. This is the exciting part.
Turner - that made me happy, it was my second thought looking at these pieces. The first was that it felt more like being on the sea that any painting I've ever seen .

In particular, he had delved deep into what it means to be German, and poked around in the open wounds from the War in order to find a path out of unimaginable horror, a horror which had to not just be confronted but engaged.

It is not a minor point that American artists must too regard our recent history with open eyes, and find a path to our best selves. We have an odder task than German artists. Americans would confront self-concept of heroism in that same, infinitely bloody war, and in present war. Superficially, that is easier.

But war by nature mixes heroism and brutality- the means which serve the hero and the villain were not greatly different. I read the account of one B-17 pilot who said, after much agonizing over the shift in targeting toward the destruction of cities, that there was one salvation for such horror: the promise of justice. (More on this later.) In war, metal flies at high velocity through flesh. Just war becomes a question of targeting, conduct, and the consequences of victory.

So we are at a place in American art where laughing along with Pop's facile appearance, saved in our intellectual seriousness at the last second by ironic distance, just isn't going to cut it. Social consequences driven by culture have become too important. I've seen enough Skate videos in museums, thanks, and false landscapes that show an untouched nature, endless recyclings of Warhol (who of course was about endless recyclings), wise but safe sayings by famous poets engraved on cement benches.

Pop imagery hides too much, it's obsessively clean edges that serve like candy coatings on shapes, obscuring their nature of the image, making art inter-changable, commodity-like, endlessly distancing. Kiefer cuts the weeds from the path: release the dialectic between thought and emotion.