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The Forgotten History of Montgomery Jones

My great grandfather Montgomery Jones and his brother Joe came to Wyoming from somewhere but I never knew exactly where.  I know they wanted to “become cowboys” and I knew that’s exactly what they did: my grandmother loved to tell the stories of my Monte riding horses with Buffalo Bill, wrangling and taking care of business with other homesteaders in Cody, Wyoming while Bill Cody was out doing shows.  Eastern U.S. born and immigrants had come from all over to unlikely places like Wyoming and Idaho for gold or for promise of a better life for their families.  But the details of Monte’s early (pre-Wyoming) life were not so interesting to me.  Until now.

Photo Aug 04, 7 29 12 PM

My great grandfather, future cowboy Monte Jones, squeezed into the middle.

A week ago during the long road trip from Cincinnati, Ohio to my new home here in Moscow, Idaho, my wife Mei and I stopped at my Aunt’s house in Cody, Wyoming.  As usual, we got out the old cowboy family photos.  There were the old true sepia favorites: My mom and sisters in oversized hats, indians and cowboys with names like Shootin Billy and Davey the Kid playing poker at the Cody Stampede, etc.  As we turned the pages and my aunt recounted the histories, I noticed one family photo I had never investigated closely, featuring Monte as a kid squeezed awkwardly into the middle.  Then Mei spotted it–a photographer’s stamp in the bottom right corner reading: MOSCOW, IDAHO.

I had never even heard of Moscow Idaho (until I got a job in the nearby town of Pullman, WA) let alone visited or lived here.  But of all the places in the country to randomly end up, I am here now in the very same place that my great great grandfather chose when he decided to leave Virginia to find some freshly acquired U.S. government land for his family.

With a little help from the University of Idaho (now within walking distance from me) I learned that, ERICHSON AND HANSON, the photo studio stamped in the bottom left, was comprised of two prolific and skilled photographers Henry Erichson from Germany and John A. Hanson from Denmark.  As well as studio work, the photographers compiled the (now partially reconstructed) photographic history of the U.S. war with the Nez Perce Indians.  Since Erichson and Hanson’s partnership was so brief (University of Idaho Library Nez Perces Indian War Series ’77 (1891) . April 2001), I can practically confirm the date of the family photo as 1892: the same year The University of Idaho opened its doors and the year my current employer, Washington State University was founded.  It’s likely that the Danish photographer Hanson took the picture of my great grandfather and great great grandfather with family in Grangeville, ID, while Hanson was still in partnership with Erichson who remained here in Moscow, ID.

Well, okay, so that old photo was probably not taken here in Moscow but in Grangeville, ID, on the other side of the Nez Perce reservation.  My Aunt says that yes, Monte and Joe had lived in Grangeville for a while before they ran off to “become cowboys”.  That’s always where my mom started the stories.  Well, now it starts right here in Idaho.  Or is this where it ends?

Today, I am going to Grangeville, ID to find the ghost of my great, great grandfather Jones.

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Selfie or Self-Portrait? Van Gogh and the Art of Sharing

Under the pretense that I was an artist, and that the lives of artists should be documented through self-portraiture, I began taking photos of myself around 2000.  At that time the idea of turning a camera on one’s self was still commonly seen as odd, despite (or perhaps because of) the sudden proliferation of bad MySpace mirror profile pics.  While the practice of spontaneous digital self-portraiture received an enormous boost of in 2013 due to increased usage of camera phones and image-based social media services like Instagram, many still view the practice of taking a selfie as odd or worse–vain, absurd and a reflection of the millennial generation’s self-obsession and inability to enjoy the present moment.  But what happens when an artist makes an image of herself?  Where is the line between a selfie (#selfie) and self-portraiture?

The artist has long enjoyed a special status in culture, an expectation of self-centeredness or even self-obsession.  Thanks to Van Gogh and many others, the self-portrait is connected with ideas of authorship, genius and creative struggle.  Strictly speaking, the selfie is a photograph taken with a digital camera and posted to a social network.  However, self-portraiture is inherently social in nature; through painting or photographing their own faces and bodies, artists attempt to reveal to others some aspect of their very essence or being.  What could be more social than that?

VanGogh-self-portrait-with_bandaged_ear

Does Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear from 1889 prefigure the #selfie? #vangogh #urgentcare #sucks #whatwasithinking #omg #ear #holyshit #dutchmedicalcare #artist #suffering #torturedartist #modernism #postimpressionism #gauguin #hatehim #sad #lonely #yellowhouse #arles #injured #bandaged #forlorn

Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with a bandage on his ear is perhaps the art world’s first #selfie in that it succinctly captures the image-maker in a peculiar moment.  While the source of Van Gogh’s injury is still unclear, one thing is certain–the event involved his man-crush of the moment and fellow post-impressionist Paul Gaugin.  Perhaps, Van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of depression upon hearing Gaugin’s decision to leave their yellow house studio in Arles, France.  Or, was it Gaugin that sliced it off during a fencing accident?  Either way, the image is nothing if not a provocative update about Van Gogh’s status.

For centuries the words visual artist essentially meant image maker.  An image-maker was a particular kind of person and making compelling images required life-long dedication and skill.  Now that photographic and digital media technologies have become less expensive and the speed of transmission is approaching instantaneous (i.e. Instagram), nearly anyone with the means and motivation to acquire and learn to use a cell phone can become a prolific–although not necessarily adept–visual creator.  This renders the majority of self-portraits in existence anything but artistic.  Could an unending stream of images tagged #bored, #drunk, and #cleave really be Joseph Beuys’ dream of the democratization of art?

A Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1500.

A Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1500. #selfie #artselfie #blinging #robes #mirrorselfie #jesusstyle #pimpcoat, #fur #selfportrait #self-portrait

Since the Renaissance, the self-portrait has been a form of advertising.  We feel no shame; as artists, self-promotion is a necessary part of life, for who can survive without patrons?  Thus, the self-portrait has survived and enjoyed lasting popularity in art as a two-punch tool: a way to communicate proficiency in one’s chosen medium while maintaining appearances.  But Millennials in the twitterverse are not searching for their Medicis.  We (and I use “we” loosely as I am caught between Millennial and Gen-X stereotypes) have been voraciously consuming–or reluctantly swallowing–images our entire lives.  Why should the right and responsibility to promote and preserve one’s image be reserved for artists and corporations?  Seen in this light, the selfie is subversive:  The audience becomes the artist, the consumer becomes the producer selling herself back to the world.

For all the selfie’s alluring sociopolitical ramifications and high entertainment value, the quick digital image simply neglects to do well the things that art does well.  The selfie does not conform to the elements and principles of design.  The selfie is of a positively low-quality.  The selfie is impulsive.  But isn’t that precisely its charm?  The selfie does not apologize for its vanity nor attempt to hide its self-consciousness.  The self-portrait, on the other hand, takes itself so seriously that the posturing of artists is often comical.  After decades of living in a culture of government and corporate lying and spying, is it any wonder that Millenials distrust the idea of authenticity itself?

Some random Instagram Selfies.

Some random Instagram Selfies.

The bad selfie (and most are bad) could be seen as a reflection of the distrust of propaganda (as evidenced by the hashtag “nofilter”): a willingness to put oneself on display without the handling, designing, research and development, testing, photoshoping, retouching, reshooting, retooling, editing and censoring, all the artifice of bureaucracy.  The artist too, unfortunately, has no choice but to self-censor, selecting and editing ad nauseam, having lived forever with an unforgiving, internal overlord, possessed by the specter of art history and bent on getting things just right.  Just maybe, the less a selfie resembles a self-portrait, the closer the image is to truth.   For to create art is to lie.  To represent is to misrepresent, and to create a self-portrait is to, well, #filter.

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin), September, 1888

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin), September, 1888

Van Gogh was indeed an interpreter (not a truth teller) but his willingness to interpret, to stretch, to bend and color made him a master and a great innovator of modern art.  His paintings are some of the most moving works of all time, in any media; in the strokes you feel his presence, his suffering, his joy, his life.  This connection with future viewers, forged by a willingness to overshare, secured his legacy.  Most people will never attempt to become great painters or photographers.  But our desire to share our sadness and madness and joy and everything between through images with any available technology is a reflection of our humanness.  Unfortunately, a quick look at the latest selfies in my feed reveals that society at large still has a great deal of catching up to do–the artist has been sharing for a long, long time.

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For a continued exploration of this topic in a fun way, I created an Instagram account dedicated to self-portraits of artists.  Follow me on your cell phone or browse the images so far at instagram.com/artselfie.

Art Self artselfie selfie

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Thesis Paper

MFA Thesis Paper

My MFA Thesis Paper with $5 Binding at Kinkos

A Stack of Books about new media art and critical theory

Some resources

My thesis paper is finally complete!  It was not without challenges as I tried to synthesize a large amount of information and a wide range of topics into 35 pages.  While a lot of people scoff at the idea of a written portion of a thesis project for an art degree, writing has always been a way for me to organize my thoughts so this was helpful for me as an artist.  Most of the ideas in the paper I have been blogging about or will blog about anyway, but if you have trouble sleeping e-mail me and I will send you the entire document…

I am going to submit my paper and then to the final installment of Launch: MFA Thesis Exhibitions.  This will be my last official event as a graduate student.  Tonight, champagne!

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Common Threads

My MFA thesis will be continued work on this project that began last summer at Joshua Tree, which is tentatively (and somewhat arbitrarily) named Solgonda.  Above are a few images from a recent exhibition at 840 Gallery at DAAP.  I had intended to shift gears after this show, but I found that I could not stop working on this thing. Instead, I am hoping to present the ever-growing project in a larger format (projection or larger screen or screens) in the spring as a more varied investigation of the visual language of photography, digital art, and science. Everything begins with photography but I am using HTML, PHP, and javascript, to create interactive music and visuals, and exploring themes including:

  • art as information
  • information as art
  • information and code
  • images as code
  • systems of organization and categorization
  • language systems
  • networks
  • buildings
  • clues and puzzles
  • magic and mystery
  • artifacts
  • geology and landscape
  • history
  • wonder (vs. alienation)
  • Simulacra
  • Archive as art
  • Collecting as destruction or preservation
  • Image making as collecting
  • Visual Anthropology
  • ethnography

This list arose as I attempted to find some common threads or links between my last paintings of boxes and the accompanying interactive web project, mintabox.com, and my current research which came out of the Joshua Tree trip but continues to evolve.

Even though I am working a lot with the computer lately, I still think of myself as a painter. Now I am creating interactive paintings. I am also working on a series of 10″ x 10″ static paintings and art objects which I am hoping to show with this project or shortly thereafter. These came about during bouts of occasional frustration with code, which gave rise to an accompanying need to do something physical. They are also round-about solutions to the challenges of commodifying internet art. I will post some images of those soon.

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