Featured Artist: Roberto Matta

I dread it when I tell people that I am an artist and they ask me who my favorite artist is.  I don't have many favorites in life -- I'm either too enamored by multiple things or too indecisive -- and I certainly could never have just one favorite artist.  That's like having one favorite band or one favorite food - impossible! But I do have artists who influence my work. One of these is Chilean artist Roberto Matta Echaurren (most commonly known by his first two names only), who was an artist prominent in the 1940s and '50s.  When I first saw one of his paintings in the San Francisco MOMA back in 2006, I immediately fell in love.  I didn't know anything about him or his work, but that painting, Invasion of the Night, was enough: Roberto Matta: Invasion of the Night, 1941 Invasion of the Night, 1941

I was taken with the colors, with the depth, the creation of this whole world that seemed somewhat familiar yet so alien.  It seemed amazing that someone would be making something this weird and abstracted in 1941, yet it felt so contemporary.  Above all that the technique is what really got me.  I couldn't figure out how he had created the thin, wash-like yet cloudy layers of paint that make the shapes more bulbous, add shadow and depth, or make something appear see-through. So I did some research and found out that at least one of his techniques was to wipe away the paint (subtractive glazing, if you will).  I have experimented with this and it is fun and sometimes effective, but also more difficult then it looks!

Unfortunately Matta's work is surprisingly difficult to find - it's hard to find good reproductions of more than just a handful of his work, which is such a shame because having bought a book with plates of his work I feel like everyone who does a Google search of his work is missing out on some gems. I feel like this is indicative of how overlooked Matta has been, despite his work being so influential and important for both Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism.  I am particularly drawn to his work from the 1940s, when he was hanging out in New York with a bunch of other Surrealists exiled from Europe, including one of my favorites, Yves Tanguy.  Matta's work differed in that while they created landscape-based pieces, he was creating what he described as "inscapes". In other words, he used "'psychological morphology,' a fusion of the psychic and the physical that refers to the idea of interior landscape" (from an essay by Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Collette Dartnall in Matta in America).

The Earth is a Man, 1941-42

The artist himself puts it nicely: "Painting has one foot in architecture, one foot in the dream."  That is certainly something I am interested in exploring in my own work, albeit in a stylistically different way. Being inspired by an artist doesn't mean that my work has to look like his/hers; rather, as Max Ernst says, "Art is not made by one artist but by several. It is to a great degree the product of their exchange of ideas with one another."

A Grave Situation, 1946

Handyman Artist

I have been thinking a lot the last couple of months about what it means to be an artist.  The word has so many connotations and often negative ones, as if people still think becoming an artist is this easy thing that rich, privileged kids get to do for fun.  Well, that hasn't been my experience nor that of any of the artists that I know, so I thought I would so a shout-out to all my hard working artist peers who pour their sweat and blood into being an artist, which requires being a bit of a renaissance (wo)man.  This is installment #1, and is dedicated to my mom, who gifted me my trusty toolbox, my artistic talent and most of my handyman knowledge.  Thanks Mom!

IMG_2783

Almost all the artists I know are very handy, especially the female ones.  Even non-visual artists, particularly those into theater props or costumes.  I find it sort of amusing (and terrifying!) when people ask me what I do as an artist - meaning, do I paint? If so, what?  But there is so much more to it than simply rendering a picture on canvas.  Occasionally people do ask about my process, and I enjoy explaining how I take (amateur) photographs or sketches, collage them together and then create a painting.

And then there's the nuts and bolts part of that question.  The part that makes a hardware store my 2nd most favorite type of store to shop in (after the grocery store and before the art store, which has many, many beautiful and unaffordable things).  As a painter, my first order of business is making my own stretcher bars, stretching and prepping my canvases, and when the painting is complete, attaching the proper materials to hang the piece on different types of walls.  That is pretty standard, but then there is the harder stuff.  Like painting walls between every show at the gallery you work at, or tearing up the old nasty carpet and replacing it with faux wood flooring in the building you are helping renovate for your new art collective.  The stuff that builds your muscles, or as Calvin's dad would say, "builds character."

And this is not necessarily a bad thing!  I know many artists who have worked as house painters, construction workers, home-improvement builders and/or in hardware stores as their day job to support their art.  One often reaps benefits from this type of work: discounts on materials, free use of tools, seasonal work that allows you to work on your art, introduction to cheaper, non-traditional materials that inspire new and more interesting art (not to mention the know-how to make your own home improvements when you do become rich and famous and buy a house!).  All-in-all I think there is a sort of toughness that develops the more serious one is about pursuing art, and this translates into the work, whatever medium it may be (stand-up comedy, musical theater, poetry).  This sort of thing weeds out the people who became art majors in college to study something "easy" from those of us who are (maybe too) serious about our work.

 

Featured Artist: David Mills

Like most artists, I am very process-oriented: the thrill of creating rather than the final product is where I really feel alive.  When I look at other people's art, I am often trying to figure out, how did they do that?  Not because I want to steal their idea or try and one-up them, but simply out of creative curiosity.  So being able to visit another artist's studio and talk with them about their process is one of my favorite things to do. Recently I found out my friend and fellow artist David Mills has been uploading time-lapse movies of his painting process (and by "painting" I don't just mean paint and a brush like most of my work; this guy really takes it to another level with all sorts of cool materials), so I thought I'd share one with you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCUSKBcBGWg

You can see more where that came from on his youtube channel, blog, or Facebook page.

Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

Happy 2013 everyone! My year has started off very busy, hence the lack of posts, but I hope to get back on the wagon as I have lots of fun new things to share. I'm going to start by sharing the work of photographer Vivian Maier, whose work I was introduced to through a lovely book given to me for Christmas called Vivian Maier: Street photographer by John Maloof.

Maloof stumbled across hundreds of thousands of negatives of Maier's in 2007, which she had apparently "kept secret  for over fifty years". A nanny by trade, she lived in big cities and documented city life, but never showed the images to anyone.  In the past couple of years, though, Vivian's work has become something of a sensation due to the quality of the work, the period it is documenting (primarily 1950s and '60s America), and the incredible number of images. It seems both impossible and romantic that this woman who was not trained as an artist nor a photographer should have such amazing work and also have kept it all to herself.

  Self-portrait  of the artist

You can read more about her story at the links above (or wait for the film Finding Vivian Maier), but I just want to comment on what I find inspiring about her work. First, it appears she was making art for art's sake - not for shows or fame or anything like that. And because she was taking photos only for herself, she seems to have the freedom to choose whatever subject matter she wants and in doing so manages to capture some really intimate and fascinating subjects. For example, she has this picture of a dead horse left in the street. Part of my fascination with this gruesome scene is that it gives a window, albeit a black and white one, into the streets of post-war America, when horses were still commonly used as transportation even in big cities. But I also think the photo says something about the artist (for trained or not, the quality of her photographs confirm that she had both an artist's eye and artistic talent), about the types of things she felt worth documenting. In a way many of her photos of every day occurrences remind me of Norman Rockwell illustrations, but often grittier and less optimistic.

I also really like that even though many of her photos have people in them, none of them are posing. They often seem unaware of her presence -- which is somewhat odd to me considering that cameras were much bigger and more rare than they are today -- except for this lady below, who has such an awesome expression of disgust.

Another reason I identify with her work is that Vivian was a professional nanny, and from my brief stint as a nanny I know that it can be quite a lonely profession with a lot of down time, especially if the child is young. During that time it is easy to get bored, but Vivian seems to have used whatever moments she had to take hundreds of photos of the big cities (New York and Chicago) in which she lived. I wonder if she ever shared her photos with the children in her care?

Lastly, while most of the photos have a person or an animal as the subject, I, of course, love the photos with interesting framing of architecture. I don't know what Vivian felt when she framed this shot, but amidst the interesting shapes and overlapping lines I see the buildings as a stand-in for people or relationships that appear so strong yet can crumble and leave a giant hole. Of course I'm reading into the psyche of someone we will never know, and perhaps that is the thing that strikes me most about Vivian Maier's photographs: that they make me want to have a conversation with them and create a connection with the woman behind the camera.

 

Michele Pred: (IN)Security

Have you ever wondered what happens to the items that get confiscated before you board a plane?  I have, but only when a TSA agent took away the yoghurt I was planning to eat for breakfast, because he considered it a liquid and it was over the 3 ounce limit.  I suspect it became his breakfast...  However, I hadn't given much thought to the objects that are confiscated -- all the scissors, razor blades, pocket knives, etc.  But Michele Pred has.

Travelers

Travelers, 2011

She asked the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) if she could have the confiscated items to use in her installation art work.  I recently saw a show called (IN)Security at the Thompson Gallery on the San Jose State University campus featuring some work from her series Homeland Security.  The work is partly about curiosity, wondering how dangerous the tiny (formerly travel-size) sewing scissors could be, or to whom all of these pocketknives belonged?  Did they have sentimental value, and have they been saved from a death in oblivion by being on display, in the shape of heart, in this exhibit?

The show also has more serious undertones, though, as a social commentary on how our culture views danger and threats.  Michele uses color and placement of objects to create an American flag out of razor blades, pocket knives, or, as in this piece, a combination of objects carefully placed in their own containers as if logged for evidence by a forensics expert or scientist.

Fear Culture
Fear Culture, 2007

Michele speaks about how she is capturing a moment in history, the feelings of threat and danger that has prevailed since 9/11, and the above piece certainly has the feel of creating a time capsule.  Check out more of her work at her website.

Behind-the-scenes of Jordan Matter's Dancers Among Us

I shared some images from photographer Jordan Matter's "Dancers Among Us" series a couple of months ago.  Now check out this behind-the-scenes live action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgWfYisRr20

I won't lie, I am really taken with this work.  I think it's an incredibly successful merging of concept with artistic execution.  And I don't think I will ever get tired of looking at his new combinations of amazing dancers in often humorous "skits".  It reminds me that life is beautiful and humans are amazing.  Matter has just released the book version, also titled Dancers Among Us, which includes the story behind capturing each image.  I, for one, am excited to get my copy!

(I'm not sure if the embedded video is working properly, so here's the link to the video too)

Create with Nature

A couple of years ago I helped teach a class with Zach Pine who specializes in nature sculptures and has designed a "create with nature" program using things found in the great outdoors (sticks, rocks, leaves, etc) to make temporary sculptures which can then "recycled" to create something new.  It's eco-friendly, simple enough for any age group, and fun!  This is an easy and great way to get inspired and refreshed through creativity and play, something that everyone - not just artists - needs to be encouraged to do more and more.  It's also an opportunity to collaborate and to create community.  Such a simple, beautiful idea.

Cindy Sherman shows her face(s) at SFMOMA

I find it very interesting and informative to see the arc of an artist's entire career, and it's a rare event among contemporary artists unless the artist has the good fortune of having a retrospective show.  The Cindy Sherman exhibit on view at the SFMOMA through October 8th affords such an opportunity by displaying her work from 1975 to present.  What really struck me about Sherman's arc is her remarkable consistency in subject matter. While I might get bored or frustrated with a subject and move on to the next thing, Sherman seems to delve deeper and find another way to represent her subject.  She does this through innovative portraiture, including simulating movie stills and Old Masters' paintings. All of her work has to do with the portrayal of females - in art, the media, film, fashion, etc. - yet her manner of doing this is subversive by her being both the (heavily disguised) model and the photographer.     

Another interesting thing to me is that by portraying so many different "types" of female - the diva, the plain Jane, the 60s housewife, the socialite - Sherman herself defies being typecast and throws light on the fact that the way one looks does not make up one's identity. It also seems to reflect on how women see themselves; how we try to remain young, beautiful, sexy. Yet beneath all that make-up and plastic surgery, there's a whole other person.

 

I was really impressed with Sherman's devotion to her craft, which involves her expertise as a photographer in staging the scenario just right, but also her skills as a make-up artist, including the use of prosthetics, and as a method actor. Her attention to the details - making sure the tattoos, the painted on eyebrows and the freckles match her character just so - show her devotion to her craft.  It really is a remarkable exhibit.

  

One of my favorite pieces was actually an early one - a stop-motion video titled Doll Clothes (1975). It's simplicity belies it's ingenuity. As someone who grew up loving to play with paper dolls, there's a nostalgia Sherman taps into while also highlighting many of the themes she went on to explore in her later work. She has, impressively, come full circle,  and yet it's not over: I'm sure there's much more good work to come.

Exploring the Central Texas Art Scene

Traveling and moving across country have kept me from posting on my blog over the past few weeks, but it's also thrown into sharp focus all that I have learned, and come to appreciate, about the art scene in Central Texas.  Having only lived there for a year, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface, but none-the-less I will share a few of my (paired down) recommendations: First and foremost, check out www.glasstire.com. They are your artist resource in the region, providing information and commentary about shows, artists, jobs and more.

AUSTIN

Despite having a relatively small art scene by some standards, there is actually a lot going on in Austin at many different levels, so I have just made a few selections from my favorites:

Women and Their Work, a non-profit gallery where you will find friendly and informative staff in addition to some very innovative and diverse works, largely installations, by contemporary female artists. They also host a lot of performances, info sessions and social events and are a good place to learn the who's who in the Austin art scene. One of my favorite exhibits from the 2011-2012 season was Laurie Frick: Quantify Me.

The Austin Museum of Art/Arthouse is a mixed experience for me, but with three venues you can definitely find something you like. I suggest the shows at the Jones Center and Laguna Gloria; the latter is located in a French riviera-style house with beautiful grounds and gardens to explore, plus the museum's art school.

Although most people know about the Blanton Museum of Art on the UT campus, which I also highly recommend, it seems the Visual Art Center (VAC) in the middle of campus is less well-known, yet with 5 galleries housed in an impressive building, it has a lot to offer, from both the art department and outside artists.  My favorite this year was Diana Al-Hadid: Suspended After Image.

For something a little off the beaten path and for those of you into contemporary and experimental art, I highly recommend Co-Lab. Primarily run by the amazing and innovative Sean Gallagher, this is a non-profit performance and art venue that always has something good going on.

HOUSTON

I only made it to Houston for one day, so despite it being an art hub with many attractions, I am going to simply recommend the  Menil Collection - "A museum and a neighborhood of art. Free of charge, always" as their website so aptly states.  Residing in a quiet residential neighborhood surrounded by trees, it is an oasis great for picnicking in between seeing some fantastic art.  It is home to the Rothko Chapel, an architectural feat and meditation spot open to all religions that houses Mark Rothko's black paintings and was founded by philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil.

Although I loved visiting this peaceful spot, I actually preferred the 6 or so black paintings housed in the Menil Museum that didn't make it into the Chapel.  Among other things, the Museum includes a fantastic collection of Surrealist art featuring mainly works by Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, but also some Yves Tanguy and Roberto Matta, two of my favorite artists from this movement. Behind this building stands the Cy Twombly Gallery, which houses a retrospective of the artist's life works, which really opened my eyes to both the immense scale of many of his paintings and to the subtleties hidden in his brash style.

SAN ANTONIO

My brief stay in San Antonio did not allow time for an art tour, however the McNay Art Museum  was recommended to me, particularly for its Post Impressionist collection.

Also recommended is Artpace, which "serves as an international laboratory for the creation and advancement of contemporary art", according to it's mission statement. They do this through their support of established and emerging contemporary artists via international residencies and exhibitions, and through their education programs.

FORT WORTH (Dallas)

I am sad to state that I didn't actually make it up to Fort Worth, mostly because I missed two amazing shows that I would have loved to see: Caravaggio and his followers in Rome at the Kimbell Art Museum and Lucian Freud: Portraits at The Modern, the latter of which is up through October 28, 2012. These are two artists that I have great respect for, mainly for their very different, but equally impressive, painting styles. Of course I'm talking about Caravaggio's use of chiaroscuro (light/dark) effects and that wonderful deep yet bright red that shines out in many of his paintings; and Lucian Freud's use of thick, tactile paint and bizarre color combinations.

                    

Art shows beating the heat around Austin 4: Multiplicity

Multiplicity: Photography by Malia Moss @ UP Collective, opening TOMORROW - August 11  

Opening reception Sat. Aug. 11, 7-10PM. Open to the public, find out more.

I've already had a sneak preview to the show, so I can vouch for it. Having recently seen some not-so-impressive photography, I have been a bit jaded about young people's photography, but Malia's work is a breath of fresh air. I think this is partly due to her commitment to her very time-consuming and painstaking process of digital manipulation which could very easily become stale and/or mundane, yet it doesn't.  Her use of one subject, whether it be an animal or a human, repeated dozens of times in the same setting becomes a kind of story-telling, albeit a strange one.  By placing herself, just once, in each photograph Malia becomes the omniscient narrator to these tales.

I didn't know when I first saw this series that they were about living with chronic anxiety, but when I found that out I saw how completely Malia has created a sense of anxiety in each frame.

Lastly, I have to add a shout-out to UP Collective, the host of this show. If you haven't been yet, you should. UP is becoming a happening place to view some really amazing emerging artists; and if you have been before, you'll be blown away by the new gallery floors! Hope to see you there.

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If I Could Dance and Other Tales: LAST CHANCE to see my work at Jerry's Artarama

Show comes down Monday, Aug. 13th, so go check it out.

 

Leticia Bajuyo: Event Horizon

Art made with recycled items interests me and Leticia Bajuyo's installation at Women and Their Work gallery in Austin (open through August 30th) is no exception.  Featuring over 8,500 CDs, its scale is enough to be profound, while the theremins placed on either side of the gallery add an eery soundtrack to this sci-fi inspired show. An "event horizon", according to Bajuyo, is a boundary in space time, the point of no return, such as the moment right before one is sucked into a black hole, and her twisting vortex shapes that emerge out of the walls of shiny CDs include such moments of in between-ness.

 I like that the CDs create two solid free-standing walls of reflections as you walk into the gallery, enclosing you in this curved hallway. The visual serenity of the reflective walls is broken by two vortex tunnels, one on the left directed up and one on the right directed down, that draw you towards them and yet you cannot climb in.

Instead, you continue around to the backside of the walls, revealing the outside of the vortexes which look horn-shaped, and the titles of all those CDs, discarded and almost obsolete in this digital age.

I was lucky enough to work with Leticia helping to install part of the show, after countless hours stringing hundreds of CDs together with fishing line (and I contributed some of my CDs too). Here's me installing:

http://womenandtheirwork.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/leticia-3-blog1.jpg

(You can see more photos from installation week, including some with the artist, at Women and Their Work's blog: http://womenandtheirwork.wordpress.com/)

During the opening (on June 30th) there were two professional theremin players (I think they were called The Autobots, but I'm not positive). Now, while the show is open, viewers are encouraged to play the instruments themselves, adding an interactive element to the show.

 

Jordan Matter's Dancers Among Us

I love to see people dance. Not necessarily just anyone, but rather those people with natural ability and/or the raw precision and spectacular muscles of an athlete. It's amazing what the human body is capable of doing and expressing, and a well choreographed performance will highlight just that. As Jordan Matter says in his artist statement, dancers "bring to life what we feel but are unable to express physically."

I was first introduced to Matter's work when someone forwarded me an article in The Telegraph about his 2009 shoot in New York City. I was struck by these images in which world-class dancers dressed in regular clothes to "blend in" perform extremely difficult, gravity-defying dance moves in a public space (from commuter trains to libraries).  It's rare to be able to pause and share such a beautiful moment, because obviously the dancers are in motion, yet that is precisely what Jordan Matter's photographs do.  He has continued this project,  titled "Dancers Among Us", in many cities and it's a breathtaking and beautiful endeavor which I find most inspiring. You have to just look at the photos to understand:

http://www.dancersamongus.com/

I recently read Matter's artist statement, and was pleased to learn that his inspiration for the project came from watching his own kids play, and remembering those moments of passion, imagination and ability to stay in the present moment that we seem to lose as we grow older. I suppose that's what all artists, no matter what their medium, try to do to varying degrees --> recover that sense of wonder in the ordinary. Matter states his hope for his children: "I want them to be free from self-consciousness, to discover the deep happiness of impassioned lives, and to find the serenity to be truly present. These photographs communicate my dreams for them more powerfully than words alone-- relish moments large and small, recognize the beauty around you, and be alive!"