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Invisible Instruments: From Paintbrushes to Pixels

I once imagined the push and pull between the natural and the mechanistic as a desperate struggle: spiritual individuals vs. industrial machines.  Is now much easier to see this relationship as symbiotic.  Walter Benjamin’s hugely influential work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction describes what happens when artworks are reproduced mechanically.  But in a digital age–when production may or may not mean object-making–the lines between production, editing, reproduction, and consumption are blurred, resulting in tectonic shifts in seeing, making and learning.

It can be easy to forget that the humble pencil and the acoustic guitar are forms of technology.  Before graphite there was metalpoint; before the guitar…lutes?  Unlike designers who wear their Adobe technologies on their sleeves, for visual artists, tracing, working from a photograph (as opposed to working from life), painting by numbers, digital reproductions like giclee prints, and many other forms of image-making are seen as inauthentic. The corollary for musicians is computers-aided editing software and the excessive use of plug-in’s like auto-tune.  When is the use of technology cheating?  And what is the difference between a tool and a crutch?

Avid M-Box with Pro-Tools software

Avid M-Box with Pro-Tools software

At nineteen I remember listening to an early version of a song I had written, after the track had been recorded and heavily edited by an established record producer using an early version of Pro-Tools recording software.  My drummer and good friend Sam said, “We sound like machines!”  And the band did, suddenly, sound like robots.  The players we were listening to were us, but at the same time not us–we had never performed the song with such a high level of precision (coming of age in the heyday of grunge rock).  However, after hearing the song several times in its new brutally mechanistic incarnation, we began to internalize the more precise rhythms.  The next performances would grow tighter and tighter until we achieved a nearly machine-like proficiency.  We became more machine-like, after a machine showed us the way.  (For a related discussion of musicians and digital editing check out RadioLab short: http://www.radiolab.org/story/313542-dawn-midi/)

Just as recording artists create and modify arrangements and performances “in the box” (on a computer), visual artists now make use of Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and other digital image manipulation software to generate imagery to then paint or draw from, print, 3D print, etc.  And just as musicians have learned from computers, artists too now borrow from the aesthetics of computer-generated imagery without ever touching a computer.

Rembrandt-self-portrait

Rembrandt van_Rijn – Self-Portrait (1659). Rembrandt was enamored with paint in the way some contemporary artists are enamored with pixels.

Consider Rembrandt’s self-portraits.  As a virtuosic painter, Rembrandt often hid or completely eliminated the marks of his paint brush in his early years.  Later, he began to experiment with embracing brushstrokes, leaving evidence of the tool as if to say, “this is a painting.  Look what I have done with paint!  Boo-ya!”.  As contemporary artists, we too must grapple with the decision to disguise or parade our tools, from photoshop to paintbrushes.

Usually, computer-artist exchanges happen covertly; the resulting charcoal portraits, landscape paintings, and indie-folk albums read as organic and naturalistic regardless of any digital interventions along the way.  But for some artists, digital-machine-partnerships are more evident.  And occasionally, the tool becomes an integral part of the product, as the paintbrush did with Rembrandt’s paintings.

Below is a small sampling of visual artists using digital tools more opaquely to inform or create art.  Can you think of others?  Can you think of recording artists who leave evidence of their digital tools?

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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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Artworks ArtCars

ArtWorks ArtCars Buick LeSabre

A few weeks ago, working with the non-profit Artworks Cincinnati I led a group of apprentices in transforming a 1998 Buick LeSabre from an old boring car into a driveable work of art! We painted the car over the course of a weekend during Midpoint Music Festival, working alongside several other teams and cars.  The car was stripped and primed at John Hall Body shop in Northside.

The client was my own mother.  Oddly enough I did not know that she had submitted her car and she did not know that I was a project manager for ArtCars!  After learning that she entered her car it seemed only fitting that I work with her.  I created three designs from which my mom would select a favorite.  She wanted something that would evoke some flower child hippie magic.  I knew I wanted something bright, relatively simple, and non-representational and didn’t want to use flowers.  So I thought about ways to do happy and celebratory without being too obviously retro or derivative.  So instead of the 60’s I started out by looking at 1950’s magazine ads, and added some intense contemporary tetradic color.  Like my mother, I think it’s pretty unique, adventurous, and lovable!  She is thrilled.

Thanks to David Heyburn for organizing Artcars this year, Artworks for inviting me back as a lead artist and project manager, and the  amazing and talented apprentices Dontriel Nuckols, Alex Sunderman, Previn Beal, Taylor Helms, and Paige Roberts!

Check out some in-progress photos and the results below, and if you’re in the Trenton Ohio area, keep an eye out for Mrs. Hedges.

 

 

 

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Mural Progress, Kentucky Natural History

Colors!

Colors!

A floating reference

A floating reference

We are making good progress on the Artworks mural in Covington, KY!  The mural is a celebration of Kentucky’s rich natural history.  My thesis work at the University of Cincinnati was largely about the connections between art, the natural world and the human hand.  This mural project has been a great opportunity to continue those interests in a more straightforward way.

Artworks summer programs are thankfully designed not only to employ teens but to provide opportunities for enrichment.  To prepare for the project and get everyone interested in the subjects of our mural I organized several field trips.

First, we made a trip to the beautifully redesigned Mary Ann Mongan Covington Library just across the street from the mural site at 502 Scott Blvd.  I organized something of a scavenger hunt/learning rampage, encouraging the apprentices to explore a variety of topics including: the challenges of public art (as illustrated by the popular story of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc), the life cycles and roles of viceroy butterflies and honeybees, and the mastodon bones unearthed at Big Bone Lick State Park in the beginning years of America.  Also, what is a Dunkleosteus?  I have always been interested in synthesizing a lot of information and making connections between seemingly disparate topics.

A couple days after the library trip we went to the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal to visit the natural history museum.  We paid particularly close attention to the ice age exhibit, which is simply fantastic.  Our mural includes a mastodon skeleton, an early American symbol of power and mystery and one of my favorite creatures!  I also included a Brachiopod, the Kentucky state fossil.  These fossils are millions of years old, from a time this area was covered in ocean.  They should be a familiar sight, if you have ever looked closely at a river rock.

Since then it has been many days of sweating in the sun and drawing, painting, and having fun.  I met the most amazing group of teenagers.  It is kind of sad wrapping this project up these next couple weeks.  Stay tuned for photos of the final result!

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Downtown Covington KY Mural Live Web Feed

Artworks Covington Mural Apprentices

Top to bottom left to right: Apprentices Alexandra Weibel, Scott Sanker, Teaching Artist Jasmine Akers, Apprentices Previn Beal, A.J. Newberry, and Evelynn Meyer.

I am now the project manager and lead artist of an even larger, more visible Artworks summer mural project!  Artworks is a Cincinnati non-profit that “empowers and inspires the creative community to transform our everyday environments through employment, apprenticeships, education, community partnerships, and civic engagement,” although they are mostly known for their murals.  This summer, my mural is one of about ten being painted in the Cincinnati area.

After a long saga involving an uncooperative Dayton Kentucky City Council, we have moved upstream.  I am now working in the Artworks Signcity of Covington, Kentucky, with fellow Cincinnati teaching artist Jasmine Akers and now seven apprentices, amazing young artists from the Cincinnati area Evelynn Meyer
, Scott Sanker
, William Moore
, AJ Newberry, Previn Beal
, Alexandra Weibel
, and Marvin Gay Lee Jr.  We are painting 11 panels on two sides of the Kerry Toyota Collision center at 24 E 5th St, Covington, KY 41011.  Marc Camardo and staff have been amazing.  If their willingness to help a rag tag group of artists is any indication of their commitment to customer service, I would say this must be the best collision repair center in the world.  Additionally, this is the cleanest building I have ever seen, which is a miracle when I consider how many greasy cars come in and out of their every year.

When we aren’t baking in the sun on Scott Blvd. between 4th and 5th Street, we are in our studio space, generously donated by the Covington Artisan’s Enterprise Center.  Cate Yellig and Natalie Bowers were instrumental in saving this project and bringing it to Covington.  So many people fought so hard to keep this boat afloat.  While the last month or so has admittedly been frustrating with so many stops and starts, the fact that we have begun an even bigger and better mural project in such a positive environment is a testament to the power of art.  That may seem dramatic, but if you could see what I have seen–people crying, yelling, laughing–all about the possibility of painting, you would recognize.  Plato knew it.  City Councils know it.  Art is power and a simple image can be transformative.

Covington Artworks Swagger

Covington Artworks Swagger

Unfortunately this block in Covington still has many vacant store fronts and unsavory happenings.  However, Covington is going through a renaissance and the mural is perfectly positioned and timed to make a meaningful contribution.  Our site is just up the street from the historic Roebling bridge, across the street from a newly remodeled Kenton County Public Library, and less than a block from the Gateway Community and Technical College.  When we are finished with the mural the entire block will look much different.  Our goal is to give the people of the neighborhood something positive, something colorful, something that will inspire young people to dream and wonder.

To see the mural unfold check this live feed!  The folks across the street at the PPS group were excited about this project and graciously offered to film it, feed it, and time lapse it later.  Check out this link to see the wall live, right now:  http://www.theppsgroup.com/ppstv/.  We are working near the camera right now (autoposting this blog!).  We will wave to you Monday through Friday at exactly noon.  Our work day is 9am-2pm.


View Larger Map

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Mintabox.com: A New Interactive Internet Art Project

Well after about six months of tinkering I am finally finished with this project.  This is one of those projects that just grew and grew and I have had to cut myself off, at least for now so that I can launch it.  Please visit:

Mintabox.com

Mintabox.com: An interactive generative web-project designed to investigate the meaning of information storage in the information age.

and add your own box.  mintabox.com is an interactive, generative web-project designed to investigate the meaning of information storage in the information age.  The site is inspired by my paintings and conversely, my paintings have begun to become inspired by the site.  The project is a meld of some of my creative interests including collecting, painting, photography, and web-design as well as a merging of conceptual interests including nostalgia and the effects of digital technologies on our aesthetic and sociological experience.

To use this site, visit the “main array” on the first page at mintabox.com. You may click on any existing box in the main array to “open” the box and see inside it. Inside each box you will see words and images that were submitted by other anonymous contributors. To add your own contribution to the array, select “add a box” from the top menu on any page and follow the instructions on each subsequent screen. Your newer box will cover older boxes. This process will continue indefinitely.

I am hopeful that people will actually take the time to play with the site and possibly even take the time to submit something clever.  I am considering submitting mintabox.com to some internet art databases.

I will be teaching internet art at the University of Cincinnati this fall.  This project is the first of several that I have begun to deeper my understanding and engagement with the medium.

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New Paintings

The show at DAAP was a success.  I will try and find some photos of the reception.  Here are some images of the paintings, as well as installation shots from the exhibition in 840 Gallery at the Department of Art Architecture and Planning at the University of Cincinnati last week.  the paintings look so much smaller in these photos!  maybe the camera adds ten pounds to people but it subtracts a few feet from paintings.

It was so nice to see the paintings in a clean space with good light after living with them in my cramped and often messy studio for months.  I was especially pleased with the way the colors read in this space.  i received a great deal of valuable criticism and praise.  i feel pretty satisfied with this small series; i am considering ways i can expand and push things from here.  i am also working on an internet project that relates to these paintings; i hope to launch that in the next couple weeks.

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Pieces of Paintings

I believe every inch of a painting should be considered.  Here are some small areas of the surfaces of my paintings that help make color, texture, and the physical properties of oil paint so exciting for me.

 

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Cold War Color


i have been fascinated lately with the evolution of color sensibilities as dictated by politics and consumer culture. after a painting instructor mentioned to me that the boxes i was painting (and by extension the paintings themselves) reminded her of cold war artifacts–and many probably are–i began snooping around online for manufacturers who may have had a role in shaping American color preferences at that time. Kohler, the manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom tiles, toilets, etc. has a great chart on their website that reveals the evolution of color swatches taken from their products throughout the decades as a reflection of the tastes of American consumers.

until a few weeks ago the Kohler site also featured interesting text descriptions of these changing sensibilities, including this one about the 40’s:

“The 1940s and World War II brought soil-hiding khaki and olive green, as well as patriotic reds and blues. Doing its part for the war effort, the American textile industry even restricted the number of colors available for fabric, thus suppressing the appetite for new colors and new clothes every season. Brighter colors started to return after the war years, though the political and social influences of the time kept colors relatively restrained.”

I also discovered this website http://www.colourlovers.com that gives you the ability to create your own palettes and lets you browse palettes from other users.  You can select colors individually or use an interface that allows you to generate palettes automatically based on uploaded photographs.  below is a portion of a screenshot from http://www.colourlovers.com featuring a palette I just created, based on one of my box paintings.   after I created this palette, i found that the website had matched each color as closely as possible to a variety of wall paint by “Martha Stewart Living Paint™, available at the Home Depot.” Like the purple in my painting?  The closest Martha Stewart match is “Plum Pudding”.  Home Depot is obviously a sponsor of the Colour Lovers website, reflecting the intrinsic links between advertising, consumerism and the ever-shifting color preferences of societies as manifested in products of design and fine art.

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Walking a Path / My Studio

For the last few months I have been trying to find my way into a new series of paintings. It has taken me a few starts and stops but I believe I have found a good path. I hope to have some images of new paintings for this website soon. In the meantime, I have uploaded some photographs of my studio.

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