Friday, November 8, 2013

Note that this blog has been discontinued

I am no longer posting to this blog site. Please visit my website at for current information and blog posts. Feel free to browse this site too. Thanks. Stephen

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thinkin' bout the past

I had been thinking about painting from the 80s over the past couple of weeks when I happened upon the February Art in America featuring a piece looking back to a couple of issues from 82/83 dealing with questions of expressionism. I remember the issues well, pouring over them in my senior year of high school. I actually managed to keep a copy of these into the 90s.

It was right about that time when I saw show at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk that included a few Neo-Ex painters (Schnabel, Salle and a few others). Going into my senior year, I had been painting large-scale non-objective works but the new stuff that was coming out of New York, Germany and Italy was so exciting to a young punk like me.  I found I was drawn even more to a lot of the painters coming out of the East Village like Rick Prol and Stephen Lack and before long, I was making big, messy figurative work. I was also very involved in music, even playing in a number of punk bands and I believe there is something in this type of painting that fits well with the punk aesthetic.

Jenney- Them and Us (National Gallery of Art)
 Reading Raphael Rubenstein’s recent article, I realized that the original issues were probably the first time I had encountered the writing of Craig Owens and Hal Foster. At the time, I’m sure I sided with Donald Kuspit who supported these artists but also was very interested in Owens and Foster’s take on the movement.

Neo-ex had a pretty short heyday and these artists do not seem exert a great deal of influence in today’s art world. Obviously Kiefer is still in the thick of things but what about Schnabel, Salle, Chia or someone like Richard Boseman. I don’t see these artists on view at museums very often. I did have to smile the last time I was at the National Gallery and they had one of Neil Jenney’s pieces up.

Though much of this expressionist painting had more to do with style than substance, us young and idealistic art students seized on the opportunity to create in a purely expressive manner. I do think that artists of my generation still carry around a little of the spirit. You can see it in the handling of materials and palette. There is a spark I see in works made by painters between 45-50 years old even if we have grown up, somewhat.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Signal to Noise

Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music
Over the holidays, I received a lot of books (and Amazon gift certificates). Of the dozen or so books, I started off reading the Bob Mould autobiography since Lori wants to read it too. After that I've started digging into the more "serious" books. I've been particularly interested in Audio Cultures: Readings in Modern Music edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. The first section includes a number of essays that deal with the concepts of silence and noise in relation to modern music but also in everyday modes of listening.

In general, there is no such thing as silence, and noise would be defined as the interference in receiving signals. Noise is what we don't want to hear in order to better hear what we want to. This applies not only applies to music but to everyday sounds. There is also visual noise which gets in the way of properly receiving visual signals. The senses, smell and taste are not immune from noise either.

I have always been fascinated by art that uses for it signal what is generally referred to as noise. In everything, (whether visual art, music, food, wine) I seek a balance of signal, noise and silence.

Though I typically downplay intentionality in assessing art, it certainly does come into play. That said, the final product/assessment is made by the receiver.  Results will vary.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Johns, Biography and Content

Just before heading to SOVA for the holidays, I finished Jill Johnston's book on Jasper Johns, Privileged information. I had some trouble getting through the book due to some stylistic issues.  

Style issues aside, this book deepened my appreciation and affinity for Johns’ work. Central to Johns’ method is the stripping of meaning from the objects he has depicted, leaving flags, targets, numbers or whatever as simply compositional elements. Basically he would say, “What you see is what you get.” Possibly beginning with the crosshatch paintings in the 70s and more obvious by the earlier 80s, Johns was using more coded information that suggested actual subject matter and content. These paintings were dense and somewhat impenetrable from critical perspective. While some recognized certain imagery (Munch, Grunewald, etc) buried in these works, Johns would not discuss what the images were or what they may mean to him personally. Johns followed Duchamp’s theory that the viewer completes the art. I’ve always taken this to mean that it is not for the artist to explain what a picture is about, whatever the spectator gets from a piece is completely valid.  It is also not important to know any biographical information of an artist to experience the work. In the end, there is the work and the audience, nothing more.

Some artists make their work to try to explain themselves to the world. I have always made work for myself with the hopes that other would find them interesting. Like Johns, I’m not interested in revealing myself to the world yet it is hard not to use personal symbols or coding in my work. Moving to a more minimalist has provided some distance from discussions of “content.” I’m happy enough to reveal that the work is rooted in contemporary music that generally leads to pleasant conversations about music, steering clear of “meaning.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

Ok, so I’m a geek that likes to compile lists. I have been putting together a Top 10 list of albums for a few years and this year it was extremely hard to narrow it down. I’ve even cheated by calling a tie for tenth place because I could not decide which one to leave off. The two main factors are: how much do I listen to the album and do I think I will still be listening to them in a few years. Here they are (drum roll please):

1. Eno: LUX
2. Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan
3. Neil Young: Psychedelic Pill
4. Japandroids: Celebration Rock
5. Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth
6. Dan Deacon: America
7. Grizzly Bear: Shield
8. Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory
9. Bob Mould: Silver Age
10. (tie) Byrne/St Vincent: Love this Giant
10. (tie) Bob Dylan: Tempest

My list may appear overly eclectic with a mix of older guys and younger groups but this year, so many musicians that I grew up loving somehow managed to remember how to make great music. I seriously put Young’s Psychedelic Pill among his best albums- maybe not as good as Tonight’s the Night or Everyone Knows This is Nowhere but damn close. Bob Dylan at his best is…well…the best. His new album Tempest is no Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde but falls somewhere in the Blood on the Tracks/Desire range. While Eno has made good music over the past 30 years, LUX is possibly his best ambient album. It’s the follow up to Thursday Afternoon that I stopped waiting for 20 years ago. Likewise, David Byrne has been hit or miss in his solo career with his best work usually being part of a soundtrack project. Here he teams with one of my favorite younger artists, St Vincent to craft a fabulous album of quirky, off-kilter songs.

Closer to my age, Bob Mould has been spotty since Husker Du broke up with nothing that I found compelling in years. Silver Age is perhaps the record every Mould fan has waited for. The playing is urgent and the sound is great. The songs may not have the bitter bite of his best Husker Du work but since I’m much older now too, it hits the sweet spot for me.

I’m generally very forward looking and there are plenty of newer bands/musicians in my Top 10. Dirty Projectors are one of the smartest, most accomplished bands out there. At first I was disappointed with Swing Low Magellan since it seems more “normal” that there last couple of albums but the songwriting is so strong as is the playing. Japandroids, a guitar/drums duo, has probably spent the most time playing in my studio this year. It's a fun, short set of great punk tunes. I’m a big fan of John Darnielle/Mountain Goats and think this is his best album to date. His band has really come together as a unit and the addition of horns to some track fills out the sound. Dan Deacon is one of the most intriguing artists out there. He studied classical composition and now drives around the country in a custom built bio-diesel bus playing crazed electronic music with a large collective group out of Baltimore. The first 5 songs are well-crafted pop/dance pieces that really aren’t very commercial and the multi-section suite, America, makes me think of what Aaron Copeland may have done with computers and synthesizers. Grizzly Bear has another album of amazingly beautiful songs constructed to allow plenty of space to breathe. The production is absolutely perfect in creating a somewhat precious atmosphere. With Steve Albini recording the Cloud Nothings album, the sound is again, perfect for this raggedy punk-ish group.

Here are a few albums that I ultimately left off of my list:

Swans: The Seer
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Beach House: Bloom
The Walkmen: Heaven
Antlers: Undersea
Bang on a Can: Big Beautiful Dark & Scary
Sigur Ros: Valtari
Regina Spektor: What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

Sunday, September 30, 2012

DC Galleries 9.29.12

As a practicing painter, I know that don’t get out to galleries enough but lately, I have been trying to get better about that. I haven’t been very active with my own blog either, so providing a wrap up after one of these tours feels like the right thing to do.

Yesterday we needed to run into town for a couple of things.  Our first stop was Dupont Circle to take care of some details for Lori Anne’s upcoming solo show. Just down the street we stopped into Cross MacKenzie, a little hallway like gallery that I had never noticed before. Massachusetts-based artist and writer Lyn Horton was showing a number of small to medium-sized drawings on paper with a large wall drawing installation on the back wall. Horton, who received her MFA from Cal Arts in the mid-70s, spending some time executing Sol LeWitt’swall drawings. Horton is also a noted jazz writer, covering some of the contemporary improvised music’s most challenging performers such as Leo WadadaSmith to others on the fringes like DJ Spooky and Thurston Moore. Her drawings feature looping, interconnected white and gray lines on black surfaces. Many of these works have long, tangled strands while other consist more of interlocking shapes. There is a looseness that does provide a link to LeWitt and the improvised music Horton writes about but something about the marks suggest a more studied, deliberate nature. In checking out Horton’s blog, The Paradigm for Beauty, I became more intrigued since she covers a lot of the musicians I was listening to in the 90s and still play in the studio from time to time. Unfortunately, yesterday was the final day of this show.

Next stop was Gallery Plan B and a show of new work by Sheep Jones. Plan B is one of my favorite area galleries. They consistently show work that surprises me. Often the images online will lead me to expect something different that what I actually find. In this case, the images used on the gallery’s website, had that sort of boxy, pallet knife look that I generally run away from as fast as possible. In person, nothing could be further from the truth. The surfaces of these painting were simply gorgeous. There were a few botanical paintings, some figures, some paintings of roads and intersections and a grouping on the back wall which surrounded a good-sized painting of a beehive with numerous small paintings of bees. We’ve all seen shows where an artist has some sort of style and then tries a bunch of different themes playing to a wide variety of possible interests. For me, I quickly associated many of these paintings with the dreaded human activity of working. Work can be direct, hands making things or working the earth to help produce its bounty. For most of us though, work is less tangible. We get up early to drive to our jobs then drive back home again. I get this feeling from the wonderful paintings of roads and power lines. The intense activity of a beehive, where everyone has a job to do, illustrates on a micro level the interconnectedness of human activity.

Across the street, we stopped in at Hemphill for William Christenberry’s show. Christenberry tends to mix a lot of elements and you're never quite sure what he will show. This exhibition contains paintings, constructions, found objects and of course, photography. There is even a holographic Klan Room piece on view as well. Though I never met him during my time at the Corcoran, I’ve always been intrigued by his work.

In the same building, the lush digital photo-imagery of Karan Knorr was on view at Adamson. The large-scale images collaged animals and birds into interiors in Mughal and Rajput palaces, mausoleums, and holy sites in India. I was particularly drawn to Witness at the Tomb of Humayun. 

Our final stop was Civilian Art Projects where Dan Tague’s show: "Independence in the Age of Decadence" was on view. I didn’t know anything about Tague but thought his pieces that use folded and crumbled paper money to have its printed text to spell out such phases as “The Kid are Alright” or “Resistance is Futile” looked pretty clever. Now, I generally scoff at clever since once you’re on to it, its over. Tague’s work had more going on than simply witty messages.  I spent a little time looking at Tague’s US Department of Civil Obedience work that was shown in New Orleans, where he lives and works.  The video that accompanies the show has Tague coming off like a Stephen Colbert-like community organizer. It is unclear how much of this may have actually been done and how much is just made up and in the end--it didn’t really matter. We were surprisingly drawn into this show. It must have been an odd sight to see a family of three standing in small bathroom listening to Tague’s audio installation of statements being read in a straightforward manner. Check this one out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

First Art Teacher

I often joke that the only thing I ever learned from an instructor about technique was how to draw with an eraser from Franklin White. There are plenty of things I picked up on regarding how to be an artist whether from direct interaction or through the way instructors approached their own work. In preparing a bio, I thought about some teachers that did affect my work in different ways.

At about 15 years old, I began taking classes with Robin Clair (Partin) at Kempsville High School in Va Beach. In a way, I think she appeared to be a “real” artist. She definitely seemed nuts. She was always running to the cafeteria to refill her gigantic coffee mug- this was long before Starbucks would offer more coffee than one person should drink. By chance (or perhaps by design) the women’s faculty restroom was right outside the art studio door. She seemed to visit frequently and tended to smell of cigarettes upon returning.

Ok, she may have been crazy but the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk had purchased a large painting from her and it hung near the old entry. She told me that she had to use a standard corn broom as a brush because it was so large. Sensing my interest in art history and appreciation for the New York School, she would constantly go in the back room and pull out materials and tell me to do something with them. By my senior year, I was making 6’ paintings with plaster gauze intended for use in making casts affixed to  canvas which was then covered in casting stone to create a wonderful mixture of textures. From there I would cover the surface with chalk marks and then, at various consistencies, apply gloss medium to the chalk to create color fields. Did I mention that her work was somewhere between second generation Ab Ex and Minimalist? She also turned me on to art journals, sending me home with copies of Artforum, which given the amount of nudity in those pages, would get a teacher in serious trouble today. Through Art in America and Artforum, I discovered the Neo Ex painters and until recently I had given up abstraction.

She would frequently “quit” her job, disappearing for a few days only to return, so when she pulled out a work on paper by her friend Michael Goldberg (yes, that Michael Goldberg) and gave it to me because she wasn’t coming back and she had nowhere to keep it on the boat she was living on- well I knew it was temporary. It was a work on paper with various metal leafing and powders that had definitely been compromised being rolled up so long. I did some things to gently try to get its shape back but I knew my “ownership” would be short lived. After less than a week she returned and said she really should not have given it away. I knew she’d be back and the piece should be returned but it was nice having for a short period of time. For some bizarre reason, she traded me one of her pieces for the Goldberg, which I still have and cherish today, though I need to clean a small bug out of the frame.

The last time I saw her was at the Chrysler Museum. I had taken a year off from school to paint and figure out what I was going to do with my life. At that point, I was riding high. I had just received a Fellowship Grant from the Va Museum in Richmond and was getting ready to head off to the Corcoran School of Art in DC. I had a piece in the Irene Leach Memorial Exhibition at the Chrysler and being the young punk that I was, it was somewhat sloppy with a frayed string of canvas hanging from the corner of the piece. After congratulating me on the exhibition and the rest she literally started hopping around the gallery in front of my piece yelling, “Pride in Craftsmanship, Pride in Craftsmanship!”

It’s hard to quantify what I took from my experiences with Ms Partin (as we called her then) but it definitely shaped the artist, and perhaps, the person I would become.