Thursday, December 20, 2012

How I Learned to Love Paintings of Giant Rectangles

I waited in line for a Mark Rothko exhibit outside of the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. It was March and lightly raining. I dozed leaning against the wall of the building, not excited about the prospects of seeing the work of one of the best abstract expressionists. I went to the exhibit out of feelings of obligation and an obnoxious desire not to like the work in that acclaimed show. It was 1999, I was 21 years old and very pleased with myself.
No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)
Photo: Art in America
I first saw a Rothko painting in my high school art history book where it was poorly represented in a tiny photograph. I was outraged when I saw it that a colored rectangle would make it into the same book as Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” I held fast to a dislike of all abstract expressionism until I began actually seeing examples of it in person.

The show was arranged chronologically and I was surprised to see Rothko’s subway paintings which were moody and expressionistic like a mixture of Kirchner and Munch. I immediately latched onto these works because at the time I was trying in vain to create something like them.

Entrance to Subway (Subway Scene)
1938, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel
Photo: National Gallery of Art
The biggest surprise of the show for me was when I turned a corner and was faced with one of Rothko’s signature giant abstractions. It was similar to the work I had dismissed in my art history book, but confronted with this overwhelming benevolent force of a painting in person, I was awestruck.

I will make a note here that this exhibit is also where I gained an appreciation for curation and its role in the art world. The choice of introducing the viewer to Rothko through the earlier works and then allowing a famous, breathtaking work to ambush the visitor around a corner was brilliant. Clearly, as I am still thinking about it today 13 years later.

As I walked from canvas to canvas, I felt like I was watching the artist’s life unfold through his work. I saw the joy and pain that we all experience. I even became emotional as I saw the dark paintings he made late in life. The viewer did not have to read the placards to know that the artist was despairing and near the end of his journey.

 I will not spend too much time describing the paintings because they must be experienced. Reading about them prior to seeing them did not move me to appreciate them and my description will not move you. I will say that the difference between a Rothko painting and a simple rectangle of color is the difference between a mannequin and a human being.

That chilly Spring morning in Paris changed me. I learned that before I dismiss a work of art out of a book, I should take a look at it and see what all the fuss is about. In the years after that show I became a fan of the abstract expressionists. During my time living in New York, I visited the museums often to sit in front of the work of painters that I once rejected out of ignorance; Pollock, Kline, Motherwell and the American artist I met in Paris, Mark Rothko.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


 In my early twenties in Brooklyn, I spent a year hanging out with a group of people who would drink excessively and behave badly. They would leave the bar early in the morning and yell inappropriate things throughout the neighborhood. It was not unique behavior, but what was particularly frustrating was their rationality. They were self-proclaimed anarchists who believed that they were expressing their freedom by disturbing people at 3 in the morning. They felt that they shouldn’t be hemmed in by the generally accepted conventions of society by trying to get a good night’s sleep. Sometimes they would even rationalize that they were waking up the people that they disturbed to new possibilities. I think they felt that they were living in a Chuck Palahniuk novel. But in reality they were just rationalizing their bad behavior. 

This brings me to present day Phoenix where a company has bought a parcel of land where a house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for his son stands. The company got a great deal, buying the parcel for $1.8 million and has declared that it will level the house and subdivide the property if it doesn’t receive $2.2 million dollars. The company has every right to do this, and they should have that right. But like the Williamsburg hipsters that I spent time with, they don’t need to exercise that right just because they can. I, in no way believe that any agency should step in after the sale and prohibit the company from doing this (they should have done something before the sale). But I think that companies should show some restraint in cases like this. Good for them for seeing the opportunity in this, they are clearly good at their jobs but taking a piece of architectural history hostage is just bad behavior. By rationalizing that the free market allows them to do this is the same as pseudo-anarchists waking up the working families of Brooklyn.

Note: After writing this, the house got a stay of execution while the developer continues looking for a buyer.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Artist's Hero, The Artist

The art that is important to a population has always been a reflection of what is important to that society. In ancient art people glorified the hunt, the feminine creation mystery and their gods. Then art glorified rulers as well. And then it added mythological heroes.

If we trace the history of Western Art, we get classical society which made art about gods and physical ideals. In the Renaissance the art continued to glorify the Judeo Christian God, rulers and added the heroism of history; the societies of ancient Rome and Greece.  Art marched on and added nature to its list of subjects. Then the common man, and everyday scenes like railway stations. Each addition of a new subject draws controversy. But art marches on. Next aesthetics become a hero. In the modern era, color, shape, form and space are king.

Finally we get to the second half of the twentieth century, where celebrity is the big dog. The obvious development is pop art where artists paint the heroes of the day: movie stars and rock stars. But around this time something else starts happening: the artists become the heroes. Perhaps this started earlier with the rebellious schools of art like the Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists. But “who painted it” is as important as the painting itself.

But how does the artist become the hero? We have to look at what a hero is first. A hero is someone who leaves the life expected of them to achieve great things. To illustrate this concept, I’ll take a look at the two pop music archetypes of the nineties: the hip hop performer and the grunge rocker. The hip hop performer in the nineties focused on rising up from poverty to attain wealth while the grunge rocker focused on rejecting life in the suburbs for…I don’t know…some kind of imagined moral superiority. These two narratives gave musicians legitimacy in that decade.

Fine artists can gain art world legitimacy through narrative of their own. It can be as simple as the myth of the artist living a rock and roll life style. I overheard a local muralist talking about how his clients seem disappointed when he tells them he is spending his evening watching Netflix with his girlfriend. They expect him to be out all night in some tortured hedonistic haze. Or it can come from making art in a controlling state like China. Ai Weiwei is much better known outside the art world for being arrested than for his artwork.
A few years ago I watched the Bravo series “Work of Art” and noted that the contestants on that show were constantly pushed to be personal with their artwork. This often resulted in self indulgent nonsense. But just the fact that the series showcases artists to the public as self aggrandizers alienates the public. The posturing of artist as hero is not in itself bad, but becoming obsessed with the self as subject limits the art world.

Then there is the narrative of artist as academic hero. An artist has given up everything to spend many years and dollars in school to get their MFA  in Fine Art. Often, what they create is completely incomprehensible to the public without a written thesis. But this makes them admirable since what they created is so far over the heads of the general public, they are to be revered. This leaves most of the public completely alienated and makes others intimidated subjects of these academic art gods. People who really want to love art grant these giants instant legitimacy but really have no idea what they are looking at. This is incredibly destructive because it means that people who can’t afford schooling are eliminated from this canon. It gives academics ultimate control in steering the path of art and therefore creates homogenization.

Making the artist the hero in art is not a bad thing. It expands artistic possibilities and adds to the grand dialogue. But, we must be careful that it does not become the only hero. That would be just as boring as if we were only allowed to paint landscapes or politicians.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Arting Other Artist's Art

While I’ve been toning my figurative painting muscles over the past year, I’ve run into an interesting problem. There is art everywhere.

Epic Cafe Painting
While clearly this is not a quality of life problem, it does pose a challenge in art. I don’t want to paint other people’s artwork. For example there is a wonderful mural on the Epic Café which I have recently made a painting of. However, I was working on a post-impressionist-esque (like that?) style which would not do the mural justice, plus someone already painted that mural. I don’t want to paint it again. So I added a few brush strokes to suggest the mural.

Epic Cafe, Tucson, AZ
Murals, tattoos and graffiti are all around and each represents other people’s art. To photograph them or to paint them in a photorealistic style could do them justice, but why paint someone else’s artwork? From a documentary point of view you could show the juxtaposition of a purely functional warehouse wall with tags on it or a beautiful tattoo on a person, but the bottom line is; I did not make that graffiti. I did not design or execute that tattoo. The graffiti/tattoo artist made that juxtaposition or that beauty themselves. They beat me to it. It is theirs.

I feel like the same goes for painting buildings. CharlesSheeler did a beautiful job showing the unintentional beauty of industrial buildings. But when an architect creates a building where beauty is an intention, why paint it?  I would be merely documenting someone else’s creation. Maybe in fifty years it would be interesting to show the atmosphere and gravity’s effect on that structure. But in the present it is a work unto itself. So, I will leave it alone. 

Before this digresses into theories on the role of photography and photorealism, I’ll leave you with this. I am learning that as a 21st century artist it is my job to paint my own reality whether figurative or abstract. It is fun to reflect or interpret what I see, but I think I must not base my work on the work of others.

Not Going to Paint This

Friday, June 22, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion

Back in 2002, right after I moved to Brooklyn, I got it in my head that I was going to be the next big thing in art. I didn’t really have the work to back it up at the time, but I arrived in New York with my ego blazing. I ordered some “Tim Doyle’s Really Fine Art” postcards. Bought a display easel. Put on a pin striped suit and headed out to Chelsea with a painting under my arm. My plan was to be my own Chelsea gallery on the sidewalk. I had heard that selling artwork on the sidewalks of New York was perfectly legal and had a backup plan to explain that I was not selling, but simply displaying my artwork. This would certainly be the case anyway.

I set up “shop” outside of a vacant store front at 532 West 24th Street (now home to Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery), right down the street from the Larry Gagosian Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery at the time. I had watched Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” too many times and was convinced that if I parked myself there someone would notice me. Some people did. Most did not. I tried to hand out cards to the many art tours which passed by that day. Most were not impressed, but they were not repulsed thanks to the power of the suit. One person that was impressed was a cab driver who was fascinated with my little stunt.
He drove by me in the morning very slowly, circled the block and stopped in front of me. “Hey! What are you doing?”

“I’m showing my painting!”

“That is yours?” he asked.

“Yup! That’s mine!”

“Very nice! I like it!”

“Here! Have a card!” I said happily.

“Thank you! Give me more!”

I gave him some cards and he went on his way. Throughout the day I saw him drive by with a fare, pointing at me and presumably explaining what I was doing.

Across the street from my post there was a giant construction site which is now a luxury apartment building. There was a construction worker who was not so appreciative of my efforts. He came walking over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I was showing my painting.

“You can’t do that!” he explained loudly. “You have a permit?”

“Sure I can! You can sell books and art on the street,” I told him.

“No. This isn’t right.” He looked around uncomfortably and went back to the construction site.

An hour later, he ran over and asked “Does the landlord know you’re doing this?”

“I’m on a public sidewalk,” I told him, “The storefront is vacant.  I don’t see what the problem is.”

He seemed angry and frustrated and ran back across the street to the construction site. A short time later a tenant walked into the building’s foyer and the construction worker ran across the street and accosted the tenant, yelling at him and gesturing at me. At this point I was sunburned and needed to find a bathroom, so I packed up and walked away, not waiting to see what the tenant would say.

I gave out a lot of postcards that day and for my efforts saw a small spike in traffic on my website. I was not “discovered” by a gallery, nor should I have been at the time, as I only had five or six paintings. But I seemed to make one New York cabbie happy and I think that made it all worthwhile. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Really Fine Art Criticism

I have never really been afraid of criticism of my artwork by the public. Within a year of declaring that I was a painter and making my first painting I had an exhibition at a café in Boston called Curious Liquids. I was a wonderful place, perched atop Beacon Hill across the street from the Statehouse. It was surrounded by Emerson College and Suffolk University and so attracted a very dedicated mix of students, artists and proto-hipsters of the mid-nineties. I enjoyed sitting at the café, drinking giant coffees and smoking endless cigarettes while watching people walk around and look at my paintings. I remained anonymous for the most part, at least until the viewer had done their rounds and shared their honest opinions.

 “Clearly they are derivative of…”

 “He needs to learn to stretch a canvas…”

“There’s a lot of movement…”

“Why does he sign his name so big?”

If they had a question I would pipe up, oblivious to the embarrassment it would cause them. I preferred to do this than to ask my friends their opinions both because their opinion would be colored and I would take criticism from them more personally than a stranger. The other thing that I liked about getting honest opinions by eavesdropping on strangers was that people who didn’t normally talk about art would give their opinions. My paintings were less figurative in those days and I liked to get “non-artist" opinions on paintings. The most flattering thing I heard was when someone who doesn’t consider themselves “creative” says “I don’t normally like abstract art, but I like this.”

 I exhibited some paintings at an electronic music festival in Boston and hovered around them listening to people talk about them. The most memorable contributor was one very excited guy who ran over to one of my paintings, grabbed a friend and screamed at him “Yes! Yes! That’s my shit! That’s my shit! Not so much that one, but THAT ONE!” He then ran onto the dance floor and removed his pants. I love rave reviews. While in New York, I tried a few different publicity experiments. One day I posted an ad on Craigslist inviting people to look at my website and invent an “ism” which applied to my work. A response was posted and I paraphrase, “How about ‘Hasafewgoodideasbutnonaturaltalendandcouldreallybenefitfromartschoolism’?”

 I’ll admit to spending a good hour trying to write a snappy comeback, but abandoned it in the realization that I had asked for it.

After the Great Freak Out of 2009, I got back on the horse here in Tucson and have been quietly making more paintings than ever before. I’ve had a couple of paintings in gallery group shows, but haven’t really received a lot of feedback from those. However, it is here that I discovered the feedback of the patron. A collector began acquiring several of my paintings last year and it is from him that I have received some of the most valuable feedback ever. He is able to tell basically what I was thinking when I make a painting. He knows when a painting has shortcomings and why. It is not just the feedback that is valuable from this individual, but the knowledge that I have successfully connected with an audience. Beyond money, recognition, admiration, and finding value in something you do, beyond all of that, connecting with an audience is what any art is all about.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Victorian Fever Dream Series

While the majority of my paintings since I arrived in Arizona have been cacti and landscapes and sweet local buildings, I also have this series of odd characters which I call the Victorian Fever Dream series. The intention was to create an allegorical world to showcase basic human emotions. They developed a life of their own and became more and more absurd and rooted in the late 19th century.
It was an amazing and absurd time. It was a time of unbelievable optimism and cruelty. It was a time of murder, deception, giant hats and spectacular facial hair.
It was this painful time that bore our great nation though. Because of the cruel work of that era, we have the freedom to try to ensure that we don't end up in another era like that where workers are murdered for unionizing. I don't feel we should hate the past, we should revere it because it made us what we are today. I also don't believe we should return to that time or romanticize it.