Monday, June 26, 2017

Interview with Max Ferguson - Yes, that's a painting, not a photo!

{{{Strand}}}
Click on images to enlarge them.
Originally posted on wsimag.com
Max Ferguson, to me, achieves a type of ‘urban mysticism’ in many of his paintings through the placing of people in seemingly pristine city environments. Although, as he mentions below, his work is becoming more oriented toward interiors, many of his past figures were often alone in public places, waiting or engaged in a temporary activity. The spotless nature of the setting seemed to better highlight the isolation of the individual in that venue. This technique more forcefully brings out the contrast between the relative permanence of the place (with its impersonal function) and the impermanent and fragile nature of the individual.
Adding a deeper layer to this is the fact that Ferguson has often depicted his father, who died before many of these works were completed, in many of these settings. Before his death Ferguson’s dad had functioned as a type of urban “Everyman” in his son’s work. Perhaps as a defiant gesture born of a deep sense of loss, the father now becomes as permanent as the city, giving each place a more human and humane meaning and impact. The unnaturally anti-septic nature of the subway station or Katz’s deli now takes on another potential meaning, implying the integration of place and remarkable person in an idealized relationship beyond time, the second law of thermodynamics and grime. Moments of transition and everyday activity thus begin to reveal a serenity either approximating or embodying the sacred.
Ferguson is one of the premier ‘realist’ or ‘representational’ painters in the world and is currently represented by Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in Manhattan. He has work in major collections and museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum, London.
{{{Nightwatch}}}
Do you consider yourself a ‘photorealist’ – I ask this because I just learned your style was more influenced by Dutch ‘Golden-Age’ painters than the photorealist tradition. How did these Dutch guys impact you? Who in particular?

I do not consider myself a photorealist. The difference between photorealists and my paintings is the difference between having sex and making love. I suppose if I have to be put in any box, it would be “representational artist.”
I spent a very key year in my life in Amsterdam attending an art school there (Gerrit Rietveld Academie). I was initially attracted by their technique (I was a student trying to learn my craft). But another main factor was the subject matter; much more down to earth than Southern European old masters. My love affair and influence of Dutch seventeenth century art continues to this day. My main influences are Vermeer and Gerrit Dou. For me, the ideal artistic marriage would be Vermeer and Hopper.


{{{Laundromat}}}
In an article about you, the author mentions you felt some Dutch painters made everyday objects and everyday life seem sacred. Are you shooting for the sacred… in New York City?

One of my many goals in my work is to make the ordinary, extraordinary, and the mundane, holy. I feel I am most successful if my models appear as though they are at prayer.
{{{Interiors}}}
Can you talk about the influence of Robert Kaupelis on you at NYU? Were there others who helped you get to where you wanted to be as a painter?

Robert Kaupelis was a wonderful man and patient teacher at NYU. He and I were very different in our visual goals (he was an abstract expressionist), but ultimately we both wanted to be as good artists as we could be in our chosen paths. He inspired me in that direction.
My biggest influence on me as a "teacher" was Ton Leenarts, a Dutch artist whom I got to know via my older brother. It was through him that I ended up in Amsterdam that year (78 - 79) and he somewhat inspired me to consider seriously becoming a professional artist. He also was a strong early influence on my work (emphasis on perpendicularity, painting his father, etc.) I probably would have become an artist without him, but I would have been a different artist. It is impossible to overstate his importance on my work and my life.


{{{Girl Looking at a Vermeer}}}
Many people have written that you seem to want to capture aspects of New York City that are dying. Is this true? You currently spend a lot of time in Jerusalem. To what extent are you painting scenes from there?

I have always had a hyper sense of carpe diem about me, and an extreme sense of the brevity of life (even from an early age). One aspect of my work (but just one) is the desire to capture elements of New York that I see are disappearing at an amphetamine-fueled rate. It is not so much that I am nostalgically looking backwards, as I am looking to the future to try to preserve these aspects of contemporary life for the future. I divide my time between New York and Jerusalem. I have done a few scenes here, but the vast majority of my work is still New York-themed.
{{{My Father in Katz's}}}
The Crown Heights Riots had a big impact on your life and art?

The Crown Heights riots were a catalyst for me to get more interested in traditional Judaism and come in contact with more religious Jews. My work is essentially autobiographical in nature, so naturally that was reflected in many Jewish-themed imagery. Some of these images were of some things in Crown Heights (a matzo bakery, for example).
How has your work changed since the 80s? What are your big concerns now? Do you see yourself heading in any unexpected directions?

There have always been some consistent elements / themes in my work. These elements slowly evolve. I find my work getting increasingly intimate, almost all interior scenes now. I have long held to the belief that the more personal you get, the more universal you become. As mentioned, my work is essentially autobiographical. Now that I am married with three children, some domestic vs. urban imagery has arisen. Also, employing my children as models, etc.
{{{Violin Repair}}}
I didn’t want to ask this, but when I take people to see your work, the first thing they say is, “Is that really a painting? It looks like a giant photo.” Then their next question is: “How long do you think it took this guy to do this?” Sorry for asking.

Time: The oils generally take from 2 – 4 months. My record (hopefully not to be broken) is 8 months. I do find them taking a bit longer lately, as they have gotten rather complex. Size affects the time factor less than one would think.
It has never been my intention that my paintings look like photographs. But I suppose the comparison is inevitable. Risking making a strained analogy, somewhat inevitably, all musicians with an acoustic guitar and harmonica are compared to Bob Dylan...all realistic paintings are compared to photographs.


{{{Popcorn}}}

Any contemporary New York City artists you are really into? 
I like Richard Estes and Phyllis Herfield very much.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Interview with Paul Glabicki - previously posted on wsimag.com

{{{The Light #7}}}

Paul Glabicki is a multi-media artist represented by the Kim Foster Gallery in Manhattan. His work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennial, MoMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Tate Modern, Cannes, and the New York Film Festival, among other prestigious venues. His work plays with the ‘delicate thresholds between abstract and figurative form’ and he has used animation as a way ofconstructing or reconstructing perceptual experience in time’. His work often seems to deal with the inevitable creation and use of language or symbols as signifiers, while also pointing to the limits of these signifiers in the exploration of our inner reality of emotions, motives and cognitive processes. 

{{{Topography #1}}}

Tell us a little about your new Topography series you are working on. How is it similar to or different from the last two series: Relativity and The Light?

The genesis of a new series tends to emerge while one is immersed in a current project. I like to write down ideas that come to me while I’m working, sometimes a simple word or potential title.   The concept of the RELATIVITY series was generated while creating the previous ORDER series – in part because the ORDER works were a relentless collection of expressions and interpretations of organization, classification, and categorization of data. 

Einstein came up during research and a search for ORDER data. Light was a central element in Einstein’s RELATIVITY research and experimentation about space and time. I was fascinated by the imagery used to convey complex notions of physics – in Einstein’s own writings and in various studies of his work. After reading so much about the properties of light from a scientist’s perspective, I began to think about light in religious symbolism, as visual experience, and the theories of Josef Albers, as expressed in the history of art. Botticelli’s drawings of spectral spirits in his “Dante’s Inferno” drawings, memories of orbs of green light representing spirits seen during Kabuki Theater performances in Japan, and the prismatic angel wings of Fra Angelico’s frescos at the San Marco in Florence all became key references. 

Alber’s studies with yellow hue (luminous, especially with yellow on white) set a goal of working primarily with yellow – a color I tended to avoid. All of these ideas emerged while working on RELATIVITY. The first drawing of each of my series really sets the premise or thesis of the body of work to follow. At that starting point, I had a list of concepts and parameters ready and waiting to take form.

While working on THE LIGHT (and while looking at work uncovered during my university studio exit process), I really began to think about recurrent compositional and technical strategies in my work that focused on surface, layering, and strata of information. The idea of geologists or archeologists analyzing layers of earth and sediment - to navigate through signatures of time - appealed to me. The notion of topography, examining the nature of surfaces, provided a conceptual framework to consider landscape, pigment and mark making, other surfaces – skin, layering of surfaces, and other associations. TOPOGRAPHY #1 features imagery and graphic form, as well as interaction between the properties of paint, pencil, and ink on my prime surface – paper.  Topographical maps also inspired the use of contour drawings of my own hand, references and play with scale, and new compositional strategies.


{{{Relativity #4}}}

Can you explain the relationship between your experimental films and drawings?

My central body of work in 16mm experimental animation was essentially constructed by drawing.  Each successive film moved toward an aesthetic of making each drawing/each single frame a work that was unique and which could be viewed as a unique work of art. This is most apparent in OBJECT CONVERSATION (1985) and UNDER THE SEA (1989), both of which introduced color, as well as collage fragments and other data unique to each drawing. From my very first look at an actual strip of 8mm film, I loved the unique character of each individual frame. I studied how the camera documented motion – everything from a slight blur, to degree of change from frame to frame. Drawing each frame made me the camera, but working from my mind, eye and hand. I usually constructed my animated films as a series of cycles or as a specific compositional space, adding and layering detail by adding new information behind or on top of other completed layers. I never moved the camera position (zooms, pans, tracking). Each shot was a self-contained motion composition.  I loved working on a light table and viewing transparent successive frames and degrees of change simultaneously, guided by my motion templates on the bottom layer.  My non-film works on paper and canvas are often analogous to this process.

{{{Film-Wipe-Film}}}

Is your work process art, does your art represent cognitive processes or something else?

The animated films, which were designed to fit into a temporal context using image and sound, were anchored by cognitive processes, specifically perception and memory.  Film theory – especially the formal realm of Eisenstein and the analytical world of semiotics provided models for giving form to personal experiences and awareness of cognitive processes. I was really fascinated by perception as a simultaneous selection and processing of information – intuitive or conscious, subjective, responsive, reactive, objective. A memory can recall a sound, touch, or smell, one’s gaze can be deliberately fixed on a specific point while recalling a completely different image/thought/association, sounds can suggest space or a visualization of an object. Language can become image, and images can become language. All of this happens while walking down the street: looking, listening, and allowing the incoming data to sift through one’s layers of consciousness.

I’ve always played with delicate thresholds between abstract and figurative form. Film permitted endless ways to process and present input to the viewer.  FILM-WIPE-FILM (1983) constantly shifts between abstract and figurative uses of image and sound. An abstract sequence may be accompanied by the sound of birds or water. A moving geometric shape might generate the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor. Working within the static space of a piece of paper or canvas, sound input and motion can be implied or suggested by other visual associations or text.  I’m very selective and I always considered the gestural physicality of Pollock to be very selective. Pollock’s work is an accumulation and history of a relentless process of layering pigment on a surface. My work has its own relentless process, but it’s centered on the layering of information, graphic form, and data. So, your question is very perceptive, my work is process, cognitive, representational, and abstract, and at (for me) it’s most effective when it’s all happening simultaneously.

{{{The Moon}}}

You’ve experimented a bit with the ‘narrative’…

My last handmade animated film UNDER THE SEA (1989) was indeed an experiment in bringing narrative into my non-linear and abstract universe. I extracted narrative fragments from five classic novels. There were several scripts for each novel – one included extended text and dialogue, another key phrases, another had lists of places and props, another translated into German, French, Japanese, and Indian Sanskrit. Actors and narrators recorded vocal interpretations of the scripts – some in character, some in foreign languages. The film featured some of my most complex animation (in color) and sound editing, cryptic/coded animated alphabets, sub-titles and text compositions.  The narrative fragments interact and overlay, but (most) audiences can identify all (if not most) of the source novels. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to an approach to narrative in film.  I did do a drawing series in the early 2000s called ALL AT ONCE that transcribed the entire text of Jung’s book SYNCHRONICITY from start to finish.  The text was systematically woven between and around images and other visual data collected at the time the drawing was made. An amazing number of Jungian “meaningful coincidences” occurred as the text was transcribed. With patience and effort, one could also read the book from start to finish.

{{{Object Conversation}}}

Can you tell me about the impact of music on your work?

Music has always had an impact on my work.  Classical music is central, although I like to sample a variety of musical forms, especially as I work. A concerted effort to listen to opera while making FILM-WIPE-FILM helped shaped the film’s rhythms. I especially like composers who play with narrative or cyclical repetition: Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley. I’m attracted to composers who also play with language, including the diverse, ambitious and often non-linear works of Stephen Sondheim (his recent two volume publication on writing lyrics is a great look at a very specific type of language quite alien to me). Music of other cultures is also important.



Can you give us a hint as to what insights you are conveying into the use of language in some of your work?

Language has always fascinated me – the look, the sound, the connection to things (names, signs, symbols, cultural context). It’s at once descriptive, subjective, objective, rhythmic, and beautiful to look at. My undergraduate school had a not-so-popular course in calligraphy that was a revelation to me. I’ve always liked to look at ancient writing, writing from various cultures, mathematical equations, font designs, and forms of calligraphy. Not being capable of reading or understanding a written or spoken language made it all the more interesting. I envisioned my work as a singular, personal kind of language (image and sound) that represented aspects of my own admittedly eccentric mindset and voice.

{{{Object Conversation}}}


 I once wrote: 'Glabicki seems to point out that all of our symbols derive from the outer world and are insufficient for us to explore the inner world.  Ultimately, after a painstaking commitment to semiotics, we are invited to leave it for something better.' Was I on the right track here?

You are absolutely correct.  I always loved Laurie Anderson’s song (based on a quote by William S. Burroughs), “Language is a virus from outer space.” No matter how many signs, symbols, words, numbers, colors, objects are used to create a statement, there is always a danger of (or, in my case, a desire for) ambiguity, and alternate readings and interpretations.  I always remember the noble effort of Carl Sagan and others to enclose a golden phonograph record and set of diagrammatic plaques on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft mission.  Each plaque tried to depict specific data about humanity and life on earth – most famously there was an image of a nude male and female, with the male holding up his arm with a welcoming wave.  It immediately became clear, and controversial - that this image and gesture could be wildly misinterpreted by some alien civilization.  Even this most humanly articulate desire to communicate through sight, sound, and symbol became a landmark of the futility of escaping the limits of language and our human constructs of communication and organization. DJ Spooky recently did a witty installation and performance based on this classic case of ambiguity.  Ironically, it’s this very ambiguity and sense of disorientation that makes art compelling.  In my case, it’s not so much a search for something better, but something transporting, playful, or that embraces the sense or nonsense of it all.


{{{Relativity #1}}}

In recent email to me you wrote: "...sorting out 40 years of stored work (finding out what to do with so much work in so many mediums) was an interesting time to get a new perspective on the arc of my career." What did you discover?

It was interesting to discover so many threads and connections to current work, as well as dialogues/contrasts/overlays between concurrent activity in different media (film animation, photography, painting, drawing, digital media, installation art) in various decades from the 1970s to present. There was an increasing immersion in process, concept, and technique in the handmade animated films from the 1970s to 1989 (increasingly complex spatial schematics and motion design, degree of detail, amount of information encoded into each drawing for each frame). The complex “motion templates” (pencil drawings of motion paths placed on the light table to guide the frame-by-frame drawing process) clearly pointed to the decade of work in evolving digital media – and actually gave me a conceptual framework to make the transition to digital spatial configurations.

Painting/works on paper created separately, but concurrently with hand-drawn animation projects, often became more abstract or more about color, or explored compositional ideas quite different from the films.  Photography also provided other avenues to explore time and sequence. Travel – especially several trips to Japan – also had an impact on work produced at the time. The constant production of work in a variety of media (including installation) – while also dealing with the energy and demands of full-time teaching at a university was something I didn’t think about until I began to clear out my studio space upon retirement.

The 1990s was a decade of rapid evolution of digital media and software. I began an interaction with simple pixel-by-pixel drawings, limited to 30 to 100 colors, floppy discs, and 1 or 2 MB of RAM/memory (AMIGA 2000 computer).  I began work in digital immediately after completing my final hand drawn 16mm, UNDER THE SEA (1989), with the goal of producing images and animation impossible to create by hand.  The arc of my digital work produced from 1990 to 2001 paralleled the rapid development of the medium as well as the rapid access to more and more sophisticated hardware and software to artists (as with film animation, my digital interaction was self-taught).

The process and techniques of my hand drawn films really prepared me for this new medium. By 1991-92, I was creating animation cycle pieces (each cycle stored on the memory capacity of an individual disc, with data/detail composed and edited to fit the disc capacity), transferring multiple cycles to videocassette for exhibition.  By the mid-1990s, I was creating far more elaborate spaces using modeling software – with still images used to create 3D projected dioramas for installations.  By 1999 – 2001, I was fully engaged in digital animation and the sound of complex modeled spaces presented on video – RED FENCE (1999), FULL MOON (2001).  All of the software and hardware rapidly became obsolete, with much of the actual digital work (except for work transferred to videocassettes) no longer accessible. 

In 2001, I was confronted with issues of preservation – not just the previous decade of digital investigation, but of the 16mm film materials dating back to the 1970s.  Ironically, all of the work on canvas or paper looked as fresh and pristine as ever.  Also in 2001, feeling somewhat drained by the expense of maintaining digital media and constant grant writing, I decided to focus again on handmade images – at first as a sort of sabbatical from animation.  The drawing series/projects from 2001 to the present were liberating, but clearly reflected the experiences, methods, concepts, processes and techniques of all that came before.  Still, it was daunting to figure out what to do with hundreds of floppy discs and other obsolete digital hardware and software. Much was destroyed.

Your work was recently included in a retrospective of experimental animation at the Tate in London. I got the feeling that the air got sucked out of the experimental film movement in the 90s. How 'alive' are experimental films these days - are we stuck to just retrospectives? Can somebody write about the rise and fall of experimental films or is this genre still alive and kicking? 

I think the retrospectives and looking into the past is important.  Film and the changing domain of media art have a relatively short history, and its fragility and impermanence can be alarming. Viewing habits, presentation, and access to films have rapidly changed.  The audience’s knowledge of and relationship to “cinema” varies widely. This is especially true of experimental film, which inherently appeals to or reaches a much smaller, selective audience. 

I know first hand the dilemma of addressing the preservation and access to my own work – encompassing Super-8mm and 16mm film, reel-to reel video, chemical-based and digital photography, VHS cassettes and S-VHS Video, floppy discs, and never ending changes in formats and storage.  I came to accept the ephemeral nature of media art, and the irony that paper, pencil, brush and canvas have offered much more permanence and stability. Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. Experimental film is alive and well in new manifestations.  I was privileged to serve as a juror for the 2011 Punto Y Raya Festival, a wonderful international festival focused on point, line and abstract expression in a variety of media (though primarily all levels of digital media).  The beauty and range of activity, experimentation, technique, and imagery was astounding! I never met the other jurors. I viewed the works on CDs, and communicated and conferred online. 

It was strange to experience a “festival” alone, yet feeling an undeniable connection and participation with an audience scattered all over the world.  The experience was truly inspiring and refreshing.  To be honest, it was the first time in 20 years that I thought about or considered experimental animation and film.  I thought my eccentric decades in 16mm film were pretty much forgotten, and that I moved on to a different mode of expression.  It’s been gratifying to become aware that those films have been remembered, and even important to new artists.  In 2013, FACT, Liverpool, UK, and ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany, mounted a monumental exhibition expanding over 100 years of cinema and digital media titled: TYPEMOTION: Type as Image in Motion.  I was surprised and gratified to be included. 

Most recently, as you pointed out, curator Herb Shellenberger organized “INDEPENDENT FRAMES: American Experimental Animation of the 1970s – 1980s” at the Tate Modern, UK.  It was exciting to see that era celebrated, and perhaps inspire a new generation of innovators who may or may never have seen those films. My exhibitions at Kim Foster Gallery have brought new audiences and reconnection with the experimental film community. This kind of activity looking back, looking now, looking forward is promising and confirms that experimental discourse is alive and well.  After a lull in the 1990s, virtual reality is getting interesting again.  Some of the energy and invention of the CD-Rom era (again, Laurie Anderson, and her “Puppet Motel”) is morphing into new notions of interactive experience. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Interview with Sky Kim: Repetition, Reincarnation and the Sensual

Interview with Sky Kim
Repetition, Reincarnation and the Sensual
(originally posted on wsimag.com)



Sky Kim is a New York City-based artist originally from South Korea. In her pieces she often repeats basic patterns, possibly investigating the need, possibility or hope for spiritually emergent qualities appearing through this process. Kim also approaches sensual energy as an essential part of the human experience – sensuality as a type of energy or vibrational waves.



I discovered your work at a 2014 group show at Garis & Hahn called ‘Leaps into the Void: Shamanism, Meditation, Transcendence, Oblivion’. This was an amazing show featuring artists who referenced alternative belief systems, many of which were grounded in ancient religious or philosophical systems. I was attracted to your commitment to pre-modern ideas like 'cell memory' and reincarnation. How did you develop these interests/beliefs?

My inspiration comes from my philosophical belief in reincarnation and, on an unconscious level, my work is largely influenced by the loss of my twin sister at birth. This early separation is probably the source of emptiness that I always feel inside. Growing up, it was tough for a little girl to deal with this uneasy feeling. I had to find a way to fill the hollowness in my heart. I tried to figure out why I was here, in this lifetime. There were so many ‘whys’ in my little head and this made me look everywhere for an answer. I began to dig into spiritual books, religions, new age beliefs, etc. I finally found a partial but critical answer to most of my questions in reincarnation, which I thought explained many incomprehensible phenomena in life. This realization influenced my work a great deal. I began to use the repetition of circles and lines to create patterns that represent the wheel of life: reincarnation. I believe that remembering my twin sister in my art is the only way for me to complete my being, as every old and new cell of my body remembers every minute I was with her in the womb. My memory of her in the long but also brief time we spent together in the womb, which was the only time that we were together, has entirely prevailed in my unconsciousness.


What about folks who do not believe in reincarnation - can they derive anything meaningful from your work?

Whether they believe in reincarnation or life just being one-time thing, they shouldn’t have any problem appreciating the meditative patterns that are both optically three dimensional and still at the same time. I’ve encountered a number of viewers who don’t consider themselves spiritual but told me they sensed an enormous energy emitting from my work which had a soothing and healing effect on them.


That Garis and Hahn show also partly highlighted the cognitive/emotional processes involved in the creation of works requiring time-consuming repetition. Can you tell me a bit about your mental state as you create?

My work comes from stillness and everything within. Out of that stillness, a certain impulse comes, like every sound comes from stillness. I meditate on the nothingness and then something wants to be born and expressed. I honor that quiet space. It’s a deeper space where your mind is no longer operating, but just being in your consciousness. I create a sacred space, a place where I can have a dialogue with my true self--my higher self underneath my humongous ego. I own that moment and that uninterrupted time and space is one of the key ingredients of my creation. You can’t rely on your thinking to produce something powerful and original. You simply focus on the energy of your present moment. It’s natural for negative thoughts to crawl into your mind but you don’t fight with them because whatever you fight against, you make it stronger. Doing isn’t enough, BEING is necessary. Artists need a lot of time alone. I simply BE in the present moment and enjoy whatever I have. Presence isn’t an old pattern. Instead, it’s eternally new and timeless. I complete my life at each moment in my studio since I have nowhere else to go but within. When I’m fully present at the moment, there’s enough of everything. When I know that everything is provided, I stop competing for love, power or whatever I wish to obtain. Then I experience abundance, a pool of energy and inner peace. That is when I’m ready to pick up my pencil. My studio practice is very meditative but also labor intensive as it requires both undivided focus and raised vibrations which create the work. Repeating patterns is like citing a mantra over and over again.


Your visit to the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation influenced a whole series of your pieces. How did that visit affect you?

I’m very sensitive to the energy field in places, especially when I visit sacred spots where there is believed to be a strong vortex. I feel the energy with all my senses and I even physically get affected sometimes which is not always pleasant. I felt the presence of strong energy from the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona and the Chichen Itza Pyramid site in Yucatan, Mexico. Since I try to contain condensed energy in each circle and fluid line in my work, I’m genuinely drawn to those ancient sites and natural formations which have become a source of my inspiration.


There was a time that your work was considered to be too sexual. Can you tell me about this event?

I was showing my work with the Victory Arts Project in Jersey City. My watercolor paintings and marker drawings were displayed on 5 tall wooden panels in the large glass windows of the building. Since the show room was located in a financial district, my work became controversial. To me the images were subtle and not provocative, but to some people they were too sexual to show in public. This was all happening while I was in the UK. Upon my return, I discovered that 3 of 5 works were covered with sheets of blank paper. I didn’t understand why I was getting such reactions when there were gigantic billboards nearby that exposed half-naked blondes in embarrassingly seductive poses that never seemed to bother anyone. I was amazed by their double standard.


Art and sex have always been tied together, probably because sexual desire seems the perfect analog for spiritual desire and the beauty of sexual union mirrors the beauty of the union between desire for something more and its fulfillment. Can you tell me the extent that you are exploring sex or desire in your work?

Images in my work are often feminine, delicate, untouchable, venerable and sensual with a strong sense of sexuality. I explore the similarities in the scope of birth and life with the images of flowers and seeds that are associated with a fertility, germination, growth and evolution. I create these images to get a sense of uncanny sensuality but in a more playful, teasing way. As a result, the organic, metaphoric images are not overly but they are obviously sexual, and at the same time they are somewhat enigmatic, elusive and ambiguous; just enough to stimulate your imagination.

I often use the symbols of stamen and pistil to illustrate what we once were in the womb, the beginning point of life and of my personal memory of my twin sister who shared my time in my mother’s womb and with me relied on a single umbilical cord. The image of seeds, flower petals and blood on the surface, whose personality also implies both the principles of Yin and Yang, the male and female energies, co-exist in one body. They shouldn't be interpreted as a neutral gender; instead they should be understood as the life energy that a fertilized egg newly acquires, beyond the visual, sexual differences of the flesh. There are two different energies that co-exist, but their essential natures don't blend together into a total stranger.

I have explored issues around the representation of sexuality within a personal and emotional context. I focus on developing new aesthetics to represent a female body with the inclusion of the masculine point of view. Working together with drawing, painting, performance and sculpture, my work has often played, not without humor, on the ambivalence of the feminine and masculine relationship in terms of sexuality. In my constant work on the interrelationship between the masculine and the feminine, I manage to render the interchangeability of sexes and of sexuality by deceiving conventions. The complete, vital form is favored not in order to discover who I am, but to create myself anew.



Do you still enjoy using scrolls? Why did you start?

I try to produce at least one scroll piece a year. It’s a time consuming process which requires serious commitment and dedication. One day, about 10 years ago, I was going to cut the paper after I finished a regular sized painting on a paper roll but didn’t want to stop the flow I was feeling. I decided to paint the whole 30 foot-long paper roll just to record the whirlpool-like creative energy I was having at the moment of creation.


Were you influenced by other artists who use repetition and/or alternative belief systems? With which artists of the past do you identify with?

Oddly enough, if there’s anyone whom I feel connected to, it would be Basquiat. Our styles are totally different, almost opposite from each other, but I’ve always thought that he is like my soul mate in my creative practice. Many people think that my work is precisely calculated and meticulously planned and controlled but that’s not the case at all. It’s all done by free hand, automatically drawn without knowing where to go next. My only belief system is my own sense of intuition which is the strong driving force of my creation from start to finish.


During a time of social crisis, do you think an artist should attempt to make some type of social statement? Do you consider aspects of your work political? Are you interested in politics?

When wasn’t there a time of social crisis in the history of mankind? Somewhere around the globe, innocent children, women and men are suffering from horrendous violence right this moment. I’m interested in both politics and social issues and I believe that artists should always be alert. Whether or not they should make political, social statements in their work should depend on how literal they want their voice to be heard. I strongly feel responsible for all the issues we’re facing today because we’re co-creating every moment, every reality together as one massive collective consciousness. My work shows who I am, every inch of me, but it’s not necessarily showing any particular social issue in a literal context. All the issues that I want to address are rather dealt with energetically. I’m a transmitter that generates and transmits vibrational waves carrying messages and signals through a constant tug of war embedded in the organic undulations in my work.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Norman Lewis at the Chicago Cultural Center (September 17, 2016–January 8, 2017)

(Norman Lewis - 1909 - 1979)
{{{click on images to enlarge them}}}

The first big problem for Norman Lewis was that most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were drawing from their cultural capital as white, male and middle class to purportedly create art which was ‘universal’ to the human experience and which gainsaid the concept of gender, economic or racial difference. At that time the white, male, middle class perspective was dominant and taken for ‘universal’ – everybody was supposed to benefit from it and get on board that train (and some black and women artists apparently even tried to get on that train). It was Lewis’s goal, however, to draw upon his experiences as an African American in situations of oppression to create his pieces. His depth of insight coming from struggle and resistance was deeper and, ironically, more universal than that of his buddies in the Abstract Expressionist movement, but he was marginalized due to this orientation.

{{{Early figurative work}}}

Drawing from the black experience in America allowed for a greater type of universalism than the type the white guys falsely asserted that they, themselves, owned, but it relegated Lewis to nearly complete irrelevance among the established and respected critics of the time. Indeed, he is still referred to as, basically, the black guy who was doing Abstract Expressionism when, in fact, the current retrospective show, ‘Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis’, at Chicago’s Cultural Center, would seem to show that he should never have even been characterized as an Abstract Expressionist in the first place. Indeed, that Lewis was not an Abstract Expressionist seemed to be the opinion shared by the curator of the show Ruth Fine in a comment she made at the National Gallery of Art this year.

{{{Early attempt at abstraction - a Jazz Club}}}

The second big problem for Lewis was that wealthy white folks who bought art would often buy what they ‘liked’ and not what had universal or humane meaning. Once, after I wrote a review of an unrelated gallery show, the gallery owner emailed me and bluntly told me that the people who buy pieces from his gallery do so primarily because they like the colors in them. He prayed that potential buyers would not read my review because they definitely would not buy pieces if they realized there were controversial ideas in them. Some wealthy white guy wandering into the Willard Gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1950s was probably not going to buy a work that dealt with psychological responses to racial injustice or which referenced the struggle for human rights or racial equality.
{{{Kandinsky-inspired work}}}
Indeed, the range of content and themes in art has been severely limited, historically, due to first the patronage and then the market system. The anticipated taste of art buyers often determines what gets shown and then saved in museums. What the (white, male, affluent) art buyer does not like does not often go very far – this has been a limiting parameter throughout the history of art, especially since the market system took over, and it hurt Lewis severely.
{{{American Totem}}}
The third big problem for Lewis was that in much of his work he made no pretensions to abstract art being a bifurcation from or radically divorced from representational art. Abstract art, to Lewis, seemed to be a continuation or further development of representational art just as, as an analogy, infrared radiation is a continuation of the overall light spectrum. On occasion his pieces seem to be completely non-representational, as in his overt imitations of Kandinsky (seen in his piece ‘Fantasy’), his overtly geometrical pieces of the late 40s which spoke through line and color, his attempts to mirror the rhythms of music in some of his pieces or in his ‘Sea Change’ pieces. (Yet, even in his ‘Sea Change’ paintings you see egg-like or placental images intimating, perhaps, re-birth on a social scale.) That you could often see figures and that the figures sometimes seemed to allude to Klan meetings or cross-burnings or lynchings, again, supposedly limited the universalism that the Abstract Expressionists falsely claimed as their accomplishment.
{{{Alabama}}}
The most interesting experiment I came away with from ‘Procession’ was how Lewis uses the repetition of human figures to create geometrical or organic shapes against contrasting backgrounds. In ‘Double Cross’ we see an image that very well could have been inspired by the phenomenon of cross-burnings with a thick, blackened concentric grouping overlapping an intense fervid background. Figures seem to be running toward the two crosses, creating greater and greater density and overall darkness. 
{{{Double Cross}}}
The power of hatred to awaken the worst in us, and to link us to others as a greater and greater organic mass of blind emotion seems to be implied (and is clearly applicable to a political and social phenomenon which reared its head in the recent American presidential elections). ‘Alabama’ seems to work from the same principle of either a gathering or loosening of social density, in this case the color white possibly representing the color of Klan robes.
{{{Journey to an End}}}
‘Journey to an End’ uses a similar technique as we seem to see one large Klan figure moving forward aggressively in a violent gesture (perhaps throwing something – his arm bent back like the common image of a baseball pitcher just before he brings the ball forward) who is comprised of numerous smaller white figures marching, carrying flags and walking with guns in lockstep.
{{{Ritual}}}

‘Ritual’, on the other hand, presents a mass of smaller human figures in colorful, African-inspired clothing, forming a crescent image below three ambiguous lines against a background of rich and soothing blue. It is as if this group - formed like a bowl or cupped hands - has come together to receive a blessing or higher influence and the implication is that this must happen as a community – a gibe, perhaps, against the lonely, alienated Abstract Expressionists who felt they each spoke for and to humanity from their isolation and individuality.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Plein air paintings: San Francisco/Hong Kong - Interview with Claire Lau

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Claire Lau is an artist known for her plein air paintings who was born in Paris and who has done work in Hong Kong and San Francisco. According to her statement, she “…explores the unique spatial relationship between nature and metropolis…cityscapes on a macro level; banyan trees and succulents on a micro level.”

The cities seem nestled within but autonomous of the surrounding landscapes – carved out of nature and not meaningfully integrated into it. Both Hong Kong and San Francisco are situated near mountains and these are spectacularly rendered by Lau even though the mountains near both cities may have become, in the popular imagination, more picturesque than sublime. Both types of flora (banyan trees and agave plants) once held deep mystical significance for the earlier inhabitants of these respective regions so a conclusion to be drawn might be that the modern city dweller wants the paradoxical situation of proximity to the sacred without the meaningful engagement of the scared. The once-sacred in nature merely catches and pleases the eye of the hurried city-dweller but no longer stimulates the imagination to the extent it once did.


The ability to introspect and examine aspects of our inner reality derived from the mediation of symbols and our earliest symbols came from the natural world. So, to me, Lau’s paintings seem to point to the fact that one thing which has been lost through urbanization is a desire to engage nature on a deeper interpretive level, a level which only comes from a type of integration that allows really seeing and trying to grasp the natural - having a direct and meaningful experience with nature which then throws light on our own humane development.



Why are you so committed to plein air painting?

Plein air painting is a process that forces me to study the world around me with intent, and to build a connection with it. It is a way for me to reflect on questions like ‘Why does this form interest me so much?’, ‘What are the movements that I see and feel here?’, ’How does this all fit together? What are the forces at play?’, and ‘How do I also fit in this space?’. After I’ve painted a scene or a tree, I have built a special connection with it that gets triggered every time I pass by. It’s like how Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s fox taught the little prince about “aprivoiser”. It’s “créer des liens” - to create connections - and that to me is through plein air painting. I find this particularly important today against all trends towards the digital world. I moved from Hong Kong (a place where everyone’s eyes are constantly fixated on a screen, whether it be a hand held device or TV screens on trains and buses), to the world’s tech capital, San Francisco. While I believe that technology has made our lives a lot more convenient and is attempting to solve some important problems, I firmly believe that we must not lose sight of and lose our connection to the world around us. This is everything from the trees, the plants, and the water around us, to the struggling families and homeless people on the streets. It’s about being observant, caring and understanding.



How did you develop an interest in your cityscapes?

When I grew up in Hong Kong, I lived on top of a forested hill. Over the years, I witnessed the forests next to my bus stop being completely removed for highways, the adjacent hill chopped off for skyscrapers, as well as the deteriorating air quality due to the industrialization of Shenzhen. This made me very aware of the relationship between human development and nature. By junior year of high school I made a painting of the chopped off trees next to my bus stop and a very grey painting of the valley called "A Sunny Day in Hong Kong”.



The banyan tree has aerial roots which can point upward while other roots drop to the ground forming new trunks. The banyan tree can therefore be considered ‘upside down’ – roots going upward and trunks/branches downward - as if it were being reflected in a river. So the tree once was a reminder to Buddhists that all is reflection and that even the real or permanent is merely a concept deduced from reflection (a reflection of a reflection). What does it mean to you?

The banyan tree’s forms remind me of life and its cycles, connecting earth and sky with their air roots. They’re a visual embodiment of sustainable systems. They flow, roots like rivers and air roots like arteries; they stretch, they lean, and they dance; they show strength, show support, and are grounded.

A lot of the plants you highlight in your SF paintings are agave plants. Did you do research into this plant and its use before the urbanization of that area of the US? 

I did not do in-depth research into the agave’s use before the urbanization of the US, but I did know that it was used for medicinal purposes, consumption, and daily use. I grew up with my mom cooking me aloe vera soup when I was sick, and using its skin to treat burns. I chose it because I found it fascinating that such a majestic and purposeful plant would be growing around the city like a weed. Formally, they demand attention through their layers unfurling from their core (like a rose), yet with their rigid strength and spikes they recall resilience, especially during California’s historic drought. As with other succulents, they remind me of the beauty and adaptiveness of nature, of how wondrous life forms will continue to exist even after human beings make this planet uninhabitable for their own species.



What have been some of your influences?

I'm influenced a lot by my physical environment, the spaces, the plants, the light and colors. In terms of artists, compositionally I've been very interested at how David Hockney and Rackstraw Downes explore space - the compilations of multiple fields of vision as your eyes move, creating an experience of a space much more fluid than the Renaissance theories of perspective. Nowadays people call it "fish-eye", because they are all conditioned by cameras. But how do we describe the full experience of being in a space?

Artists you admire?

Other artists that I admire include Wayne Thiebaud and Sébastien Mahon (color, exaggerated space, giving personality / energy to landscapes), Sangram Majumdar and Suzanna Coffey (for color, touch, composition, visual abstraction). I also can't deny that having spent my childhood in the Musée d'Orsay and Pompidou, I had always admired Cézanne. Even though I only really came to the conclusion that plein air painting was for me in my final year of college, after experimenting with many different ways of painting, I think my childhood in France affected me tremendously.



Chow Chun Fei, from HK, recently had an opening at Klein Sun Gallery in NY City (one of the best galleries to see contemporary Chinese work in the US).  There are actually a few galleries devoted to mainland Chinese art in NY and this seems to be meeting a growing market in the US. Are HK artists a part of this trend or do you folks see yourselves separate from this new wave of mainlanders?

When I was in high school and was asked what I wanted to study in university, my classmate (herself going into art) was extremely surprised by my answer and exclaimed “But your grades are so good, shouldn’t you be studying something other than art?”

In Hong Kong, I think there is still very little respect for fine art as a career, and thus less resources put into nurturing local artists. The situation is slowly improving, but even projects like the new West Kowloon Cultural Centre so far mostly benefit real estate developers, tycoons, politicians and those in the top of the art market rather than any local emerging artists. With the insurmountable cost of living in HK, it’s often difficult to survive as an artist. Consequently there are fewer artists that can rise to attention internationally. I think as there is a greater ‘thirst’ for Asian art in the US, Hong Kong will start to benefit from this trend, but I don’t think it will produce the same number of artists per capita.





When you are not painting, what do you like to do? Books you like? Movies? Music?

I am a singer, used to be a composer and have done a lot of a cappella arrangements for groups that I've led. For the past year I've been extremely busy being a political organizer and volunteer for the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and I'm currently the co-founder and co-Chair of a progressive political group in San Francisco. I'm also part of a political club for Hong Kongers in the Bay Area. I'm currently writing a graphic memoir on my participation in the Umbrella Movement and my grandma's escape from China to Hong Kong in the late 50s.

I think everyone should read ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ by Jarred Diamond, and watch Miyazaki's films, especially ‘Mononoke Hime’ and ‘Nausicaa'.


Claire Lau can be contacted through her website: http://www.clairelau.net/