I’m a bit of an expert dumpster diver, so I was pretty thrilled to find this really cool box on the street a month or two ago. I think it was a box for an expensive brand of whiskey or cognac, not sure, but it has a nice weight to it and a heavy-duty clasp that makes an impressive clicking noise when you close it… very nicely constructed.
I decided to make it into a cabin, cabins and forests being one of my favorite themes:
Pretty straightforward – I think making houses out of boxes has to be one of the most beloved craft projects of kids everywhere (I know I made dozens if not more of them as I was growing up).
Onto this cabin, I added a false bottom so that there is room for some storage drawers:
The drawer slides out and in it are a bunch of little parts. This relates back to the ideas I’ve been working on with books where, in order to have the story revealed, the book needs the interaction of the viewer to complete different tasks and assemble things. But anyway, here are the parts:
It’s what you need to make, essentially, a front lawn for the cabin – a tree that is assembled by putting together little slots and tabs, and a grassy patch with slits cut into it so that the tree fits snugly.
You add, to the branches of the trees, a banner with text on it. (Note: I had to do a bit of a cheat here in this one and use the tiniest little spot of glue to get the banner to stay, but I’m going to go back and add another little slot to the back of the banner so that it doesn’t need glue for future set-ups.)
As I was putting together this project, I started thinking about the idea of heaven and my very mixed feelings about it. I’ll get to that some more in a minute, but for the time being it should be noted that the text in the trees reads: At first, I saw it as a place of comfort, of refuge – away from the harshness of this world.
The landscape, as it gets assembled around the rest of this cabin is, actually, pretty harsh. This isn’t some kind of luxury cabin for vacationing yuppies, rather it’s the kind where you have to go out and chop your own wood and work hard to keep it going:
Above is the left hand side and this is the right hand side:
As I mentioned, there’s a really nice clasp, so let’s open it…
…and then open the box…
This is what it looks like from up top:
The inside of the box is divided into two regions, the sky and the ground. Looking up at the sky, we see the text that addresses some of my thinking about heaven:
It reads: But the more I thought about it, the less I trusted it – heaven seemed set up like a reward for people I wasn’t sure needed rewarding while all around me were people who so needed that refuge and yet weren’t bound for it. Given the rules of heaven, I thought of people I loved who were driven to do desperate things in their lives – didn’t they deserve peace most of all? What about people whose lives are motivated by love and kindness? Shouldn’t that trump all the rules that govern who gets in and who doesn’t? I knew all the arguments to the contrary and I still couldn’t accept it. I also knew I was never bound for heaven myself – or that if I was, it wouldn’t be heaven as intended. Sitting up there, watching the people I love toil and suffer while I sat in abundance – I couldn’t take it. Heaven in that way was like hell for me and I knew there was only one thing I could see as important, one way in which I wanted to spend all eternity.
Ok, basically – I have had friends in my life who have done things that would keep them out of heaven (everything from being in love with someone of the “wrong” gender to committing suicide to not being baptized)… and here I am, I’ve been baptized, I lead a pretty “clean” life by religious folks’ standards (although by no means perfect, but still – I’ve been married forever, stuff like that) and, so…. wait. Does that mean I will get to spend all of eternity surrounded by the annoying, holier-than-thou types that I hate while all my friends get tortured in hell?
It’s a bit of a sarcastic question, but it is something I often think about and this is one of the things that has kept me away from organized religion forever; this idea that religion is really this little insiders club, meant to close yourself off from the kind of people you don’t want to associate. That pains me greatly – it’s not what I want religion or spirituality to be. And I think it’s this total distortion of this thing that could be a great catalyst for love and understanding into something of rejection and hate.
Anyway. On the ground, there are two girls carrying a bucket:
And to the left of them is a well:
This becomes another one of those points where the piece needs the interaction of the viewer to complete the story. The well “works” (sort of – it draws a bucket up, at least):
The viewer is now doing work or labor – like someone trapped on earth or in hell (or otherwise “not in heaven”). The final text is revealed when you look at the water in the bucket:
It reads: I don’t want to ever be without you.
I worked so hard all weekend getting this one project done, with the promise to myself that I would start out today by posting it (yes, I know it’s corny – but I got all excited) and then I realized…
Oh, right. Today is the day I get to pick up the super expensive camera from school.
Our department ordered a bunch of equipment for next semester, including these cameras which are really amazing and take fantastic photos… except that since school is now out, there is no one to use them. So yay, I get to take one home for the summer and use it to take photos that are better than the ones I’ve been taking (one assumes). And it really makes a lot more sense for me to document this project that I busted my ass getting done on the really good camera which I will get later this afternoon, rather than do it on my older, cheaper model this morning.
Well, duh. Ok, more soon…
I’ve been working on these for a few days but finished them this morning:
I thought about the kind of imagined world I created as a child, 2008
I thought of it in terms of escape, 2008
I’ve been working on a series of drawings on toned ground and, of course, the first one ready to post is the bleakest and most depressing. Naturally, it’s also my favorite drawing in a while. If it makes matters any better, the girl holding the scissors is coming to save the girl tied to the chair, not to chop her in little bits… although I definitely made that ambiguous.
The toned ground is amazing to work on – I always thought I wasn’t the kind of artist that did that sort of thing and, well, that was that. But it brings out all these different qualities of the watercolor and ink which – in my case – means it also brings out a different angle of the narrative I’m unfolding (the images drive the story and the story drives the images, back and forth like that). Just the fact that white becomes a presence rather than an absence – that’s major. Now I’m coming up with a whole bunch of new ideas…
(p.s. wow, I guess it’s something with the toned ground? but the image of this on the site is looking pretty blurry. The scan I made of it is as clean as a whistle; not sure why when it goes on the web all the sharpness is lost.)
I talk a lot about how much I love teaching, but one of the best parts of it (which I don’t often really mention) is that I get to see a lot of really great art before most other people do. I want to start a new thing on my blog where I sort of highlight the work of some of the most interesting artists I meet during a given time and show you some of the things I’ve been lucky enough to see in person.
It’s been tricky for me to figure out how to best present this info. I actually have four people I want to tell you about, but one of them (ok, it’s a secret, but his name rhymes with Slim Fergstrom) is waiting to finish some stuff up before I post it and… well, I couldn’t wait anymore. I wanted to go ahead and at least show a couple of the people whose work I’m enthusiastic about and then later in the summer I’ll show you the other two. As it works out, this might be the best way to do this, anyway, so that I don’t overwhelm each post with a million words and images.
So, without further ado, please meet…
Michaela just graduated from SVA with her BFA. In this installation, she is presenting – in a perfect, stark white gallery space – a simple motorized machine. Picture a film loop, only made out of white paper, with cut-outs (you can see it on the right in the photo above) of figures; the loop is lit from behind while the a motor turns the scroll of paper matter-of-factly. Here’s an image of the scroll:
It’s ridiculously hard to see in reproduction, thanks to its white-on-whiteness, but there are allusions there to American history in all its rambling glory (astronauts, Mickey Mouse, lynchings, cowboys, businessmen), played over and over. Some of the figures have silhouette images cut out around them; other parts are cut out completely and the light burns through them and hurts your eyes as you look at it.
On the wall she projects a video she’s made:
…the video having been made (I assume?) from the cut out parts of the scroll.
Ok, I’m having a hell of a time explaining this. What I’m getting at is that she has created this really smart/quirky/funny/sad piece that does about ten different things at once, which is exactly why I’m having problems explaining it. But what I really like about this work is that it, like so much work I see being done by people her age (and hers is an especially good example of this, I think) is that it shows this dance, or this “thinking aloud” about the ambivalence that the artists feels about being an artist today.
So on one hand, she shows us this video and perplexing machine which are both beautiful, but look at the machine too long and it burns your eyes. Just when you get sucked into the logic of the video and start to decipher it, the logic changes – are those sparks war, industry, Fourth of July? And the stark white space itself feeds into this – while on one hand, it is the conventional space to show work, by putting so few objects in there it seems all the more uninviting than ever.
(I realize sitting here, writing this, that there is just a problem in talking about installation vs. painting when you discuss it on the web. Installation needs to have you take it through it, where as painting is a lot easier – you just introduce them and then show the paintings. The latter is much more straightforward. So if it seems like I’m not saying enough about the next artist, then that’s why.)_
I met Alana in the fall when I was a visiting artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she was getting her MFA. She makes oil paintings – some big, some small – which are loaded with art history references and… well… some of the oiliest oil paintings I’ve ever seen. They’re greasy, gooey and teetering on gross, which is just how I like my oil paintings. And then in one moment there are passages of almost obscene beauty… and then juxtaposed with that, the next passage will thumb its nose at all that is pretty and nice in the world.
One of the reasons why I think her work goes well with Michaela’s is that I think there’s that ambivalence – or almost, in Alana’s case, downright uncomfortableness – with being an artist right now. I can look at her paintings and see passages which clearly refer to feminist artmaking and then parts that are straight out of R. Crumb or Peter Saul, neither of whom are exactly brimming with feminist street cred. So which is she, a feminist or anti-feminist? I don’t know and that’s exactly what I like about spending time trying to figure her work out.
If you’d like more info on Alana’s work, check out her website at http://alanabograd.com. Michaela doesn’t yet have a site, but if you want to reach her just get in touch with me.
Tomorrow… back to work!
My plan all along has been to build this book such that I’m doing the hardest, most tedious parts first when – one assumes – I have the most patience and time to work on it. Oh man, I hope that’s the case, because this first big chunk of building it was pretty rough.
In brief, after piecing together what I would guess is about a couple of hundred of teeny, tiny little tabs, slots, and various other bits, we now have a forest:
The tallest tree is a little over 3′ tall which is shorter than I originally intended but, having now gone through the process of doing all this, as tall as I can feel reasonably comfortable will be stable and secure. This looks much more delicate than it actually is – I mean, it’s delicate, but if a little kid were to touch it on opening night, the whole thing won’t come crashing down (which is probably what would happen had I made the trees all the way up to 5′ as originally intended). I’m hoping this will be the only corner-cutting I’ll have to do.
So the forest gets built over the stumps and then text, in the form of yellow banners, gets placed in between the branches of the trees, revealing the next part of the story.
You have to walk all the way around it to read all the text and, also, one of the things that can’t really be seen here in these photos is that there are some tiny birds hoisting up one of the banners. (I hate to be like, “take my word for it” but photographing it just wasn’t working).
The text reads:
I was scared of it at first. This is only a normal, natural reaction, I think. This presence is something so far outside of our everyday reality – so different from what we’re taught to see. The irony of this is that the presence is all around us, all the time, yet it’s so hard to see. When I really think about it, inevitably I am led to consider the sort of spiritual questions that have been off-limits to me for so long. This is uncomfortable territory and I don’t feel as though I belong here, but I’m also not sure who does.
Ok. So first there was the text wrapping around the tree trunks (which is still visible and readable) and now there’s this new text in the branches. To get to the next layer of text, the next part of the book has to be built so that it can be revealed… and that is a job for another day.
Ok, after a ridiculously long weekend, I finally got all the trees in the forest up and standing and sturdy and everything they have to be. They look awesome! Now I just have to clean up around here so that I can take a picture and move on to the next step… stay tuned.
I’ve been playing around with ways to make the documentation of my work somehow, also, part of the work itself. One of the hardest things for me to figure out is a way to make the texts available so that it doesn’t eliminate the struggle or effort expended by the viewer, but also solves the problem of what to do when someone literally can’t read the text.
I think I finally have a solution. I experimented on one of my recent drawings (with the sunflowers) and I like how it came out…
So, I start out by transcribing the drawing in 12 point font, as one long narrative (with paragraph breaks). Then, because I didn’t like the idea of simply handing a viewer this sheet of paper with all the answers on it, I came up with the idea of making a simple book:
So the viewer can be handed this little thing which has all the text in it and is easier to read, and yet still homemade and intimate and something close to private. One of the things I like about my work is that I feel like I’m whispering secrets in the ear of the viewer… and in presenting the text like this, that sense doesn’t get lost. The books are simple and straightforward, but also very personal.
My thought is to make the books in an edition of three – one for my records, one for the gallery’s, and one for the person who buys the piece. I might also make a few APs just so we have some extras in case one of them goes wandering off, as happens in galleries if you’re giving them out to be looked at (I have a very strong desire to keep the assistant who sits at the front desk from being yelled at because, of course, I was that assistant for so many years). So they’re sort of incredibly precious on one hand and then not really on the other – not so much that you’re afraid to pick it up and touch it and turn the pages.
Making the words more accessible is something I’ve struggled to resolve for years and I think this is finally it!
I’ve been batting around a few titles for my next show and for this body of work in general, and I think the one that best suits it is The Myth of Loneliness. I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately and what it means both to me and in relation to the work I’m making right now.
Jeff first used it in a conversation we were having about films that depict the Old West. Those films invariably have something to do with rugged individualism standing out in this stark landscape, the emptiness of which seems to infect every character and moment on screen. So you’ll have this person in the film who is on one hand completely heroic and triumphant and then on the other in the middle of nowhere and not getting out of that situation any time soon. The loneliness and desolation of that landscape seeps into everything, making triumph seem kind of… wistful.
My relationship to the American west is totally different from Jeff’s. Not only do I not care for Western movies (I don’t think I’ve ever sat through an entire one), I’ve only traveled to the west on the rare occasion (Jeff, meanwhile, is from central California and has a great attachment to that part of the world). My main associations to “the west” as an idea are: long, endless drives over summer vacation; various UFO movies; and James Turrell. Isn’t Turrell originally an east coast Quaker? I have no idea, but his work about “the light inside” seems to sum up everything I know about the west:
My take on The Myth of Loneliness is maybe a little different. As someone from (mostly) New Jersey, I am constantly astounded at how crowded our world is. It’s most obvious when I’m out running errands in NYC and passing by a hundred or more people in an afternoon without even really registering it, but it’s one of those things that always remains there. Sometimes, at night, I like to think about the building that we live in and all the people in their apartments, and then pull out like a camera looking at our street and picture all the people in the various other buildings down the block, and on and on… and it’s just so huge. There are so many people around, all the time.
But, almost necessarily, there is also the sense of isolation that comes from living in such a crowded place. And so you’ll have someone – sometimes me, sometimes someone else – walking down the street, passing by dozens and dozens of people in shops and businesses and walking around, and that someone will just feel so alone that they may as well be on a desert island somewhere. It happens to everyone. It’s like you let your guard down for a moment and then you’re there, a million miles away from everyone else.
But one of the things that I think is especially extraordinary about people is how we all feel this way, sooner or later. And in that way, loneliness is almost (an oxymoron? a double negative? what’s the term I’m looking for???) where everyone feels it and it’s an underlying part of our humanity. It comes, it goes, maybe it stays for a while or takes off quickly – it doesn’t matter. There’s no one alive who has never felt this way.
And so in one way, loneliness is very real and ever-present and in another, it is a total lie if only we recognize it as such. We’re all fumbling around in the dark and somehow ignoring this great light inside which – if we paid attention – would be all the light we’d need.
I am in the middle of a very strange relationship with thoughts like these. Part of my overall “program” for the next few months is to figure it all out, if in fact it can be figured out.
So, after assembling a bunch of little tiny parts, eventually you wind up with a large, more-or-less 3-d tree (this tree is not a flat drawing that is propped up in back, rather the shape is curved and you can actually view it from all angles) that is about 2′ tall:
Eventually, once the other four trees get put into place, a new line of text will be woven in their branches and the story will continue.
But first, I think I need to go back and rethink a few tree-related things I hadn’t really thought about before, primarily having to do with how the tree attaches to the base (which I will admit to having not thought of at all until I was standing there with this paper tree that needed to be attached to something). So that will take some figuring out, but it’s something that needs to be resolved before I just jump in and do the rest of the trees.
The plan is that I hope to have the whole “forest” part up and finished by Friday so I can move on to the next stage. I think that’s pretty doable.