Way to go, Detroit!

(above, facade of Mocad, or Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; thanks to the NY Times).

A great-looking new museum of contemporary art in Detroit, jiving with its locale, rather than playing against it...and an awesome exterior graffiti piece by Barry McGee (seen at Space 1026, et al) to boot:



PHL to NY: yoo-hoo...

(above, Hercules in NY, 1970...a Grecian Rocky, stormin' the 212!?)

Hey folks; below is a great little expose of the Philadelphia art-scene from the New York Times magazine...and according to NY Times custom, seems to have gotten a hold of local places/galleries that most Philadelphians don't even know about. But really, if it wasn't for school trips, how many natives would visit the Art Museum anyway? Well, now that Rocky(c) is gesticulating victoriously down by the poor Charioteer of Delphi (sigh)...



Abide, 2006

Just last weekend, my church, Oxford Circle Mennonite, celebrated its 60th anniversary. I had been commissioned to make a painting in commemoration of the event, and also for the 80th birthday of one of our long-time members and deacons.

The painting is titled Abide, and is inspired by the passage in 1 Peter 2: 4-12, which we have been forming the anniversary celebration and theme around:

"As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: 'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.' Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone', and, 'A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.' They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."

From this scripture I took some inspirations for the symbols, and the way the painting would look; especially since our particular body clearly sees ourselvese as participants in the dynamics Peter mentions in this passage. From "living Stone/stones" I made a background of bricks, a more urban version of a spiritual building material. And from this material, a "spiritual house" is being built, by each life that is given to the life of the church body. I've included a house shape, combined with a keystone shape -- my version of "capstone", or "cornerstone" -- which houses the presence and indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the form of a cloud/flower shape; echoing the Old Testament presence of God seen in the Pillar of Cloud (Exodus 13:21: By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night).

Doing a painting as a commemoration for such an entity as a church body is challenging, since the whole idea of a church, really, is an extremely mystical and mysterious, and at the same time utterly corporeal and flesh-bound, concept: it is, in fact, where those two worlds collide; clash even. And also, I needed to keep in mind the fact that many people in my church had little experience with contemporary art, especially in the forms and motifs which I normally use. And I am the "missing link" between those two worlds which I love so much. So, I made a piece which I think is largely understandable; connected to the scripture -- which is really just as initially inscrutable as much art, but more familiar, anyway, to the general church population -- and yet still well within my particular style of working. I've found myself explaining this painting more than I normally like, but I see it as an exercise in helping people "catch up" to the tradition of art-making which has continued over the past fifty years, but largely out of sight and grasp of the large percentage of the population. I've learned more than anyone, I think, in the whole process. And that's another thing I love about making art...and educating.


Douglas Witmer at Gallery Siano

(above, Douglas Witmer, Garden Spot, 2006)

My good friend and consummate artist Douglas Witmer has a series of stunning new paintings hanging right now at Gallery Siano, on Arch Street between Third and Fourth in Philly. I was there briefly for the opening, and was very impressed; following are a few thoughts which have congealed since then.

Soon after I had entered the gallery, a little girl of four or five walked in, and said to her daddy that the painting directly in front of them "looked like a waterfall." I had just gotten there, but I decided that I agreed with her: I'm always grateful for a child's fresh perspective; partly because they naturally speak before they think; before their raw thoughts pass through the cultural and contextual filters which are eventually formed in us. It just comes out: blahh, like so. And we all know that particular discomfort that some childish comment has brought to a social situation; a faux pas that we usually laugh off.

Yet, I didn't laugh this comment off, and it actually got my thoughts rolling about two things, one following more or less naturally from the other: memorials, and landscapes.

Both of these things I've written about before, but in Witmer's paintings they run along side each other nicely. When I say "memorial", I'm referencing the word's origin or relation to "memory", and referring less to the solid edifices or wordy epitaphs that the word may normally bring to mind. And when I say "landscape", it is also in a slightly less traditional manner; I speak of it as a record of a particular place, but definitely rooted to a physical, tactile experience.

A year or more ago, I remember first hearing of Witmer's interest in thinking about "what his work is for." And, Douglas, I think I've discovered at least a small part of that "for-ness." These paintings are definitely rooted in an experiential place; each one, through various routes--color, title, composition, etc--are intrinsically connected to a happening or event or Thing; what we'll call a memory. And those memories are recorded, or captured in a sense, in these works, for all of us to partake of and participate in. This is where I think part of that "for-ness" is; these works function as a beautiful memory of a "landscape" that can speak in either a general or specific way to anyone who stands in front of them, and gives something of themselves to the painting, and the viewing experience. It does speak to the pureness of the artistic deed, in that something so personal can become practically universal. And this is what the best of memorials do; even a foreign visitor, unacquainted with a memorial's specific "memory" can still look in awe at a good memorial, and realize; absorb the importance, the gravity, the beauty and presence of what that memorial stands for. They can feel the memory.

That points to another reason why Witmer's paintings are so good at memory-sharing: he chooses to use the reductive language of abstraction; the laconic speech of simplicity and spare composition. When an artist uses a reduced expression, the possibilities are greater for communication, but the challenges to clarity are greater; exponentially increasing each time something is taken away or reduced to its simpler form. And Witmer is on his way to making this a science--in the best meaning of the term, which loops back to art--while still leaving so much for the viewer to relish: the musicality of obscured drips under a layer of charcoal paint; the finest thread of bright pink juxtaposed between a felty gray and everyone's favorite red; a transparent spring yellow, in Primer, which at one moment sings like a sun-lit leaf, and the next gives you a crabapple-sour taste in your mouth; the jaunty tilt, in Cardinal, of a color bar, sitting on the canvas like its namesake bouncing on a thin twig.

So, at least I have found partly what Witmer's paintings are for, for me: memorial-landscapes to which, each time I experience them, I add my own brick of delight to the memorial, building my part of them even grander and more heartfelt. They are a greater source of enjoyment the closer you draw to them. Which sounds a little like nature, no?



Occam's RAZR: simplicity reconsidered

(above, William of Occam: looks a little severe, no? The sign of a Reductionist.)

"Simplify, simplify, simplify" is a maxim, this one from Thoreau, which I hold close to myself at all times. It's not always the easiest, nor forthright path to choose; sometimes what looks more simple on the face of it ends up requiring more committment or involving more complexity than first thought; other times the more circuitous means result in a simpler end. Simply a part of our complicated, interesting times and minds. What I do believe, however, is that the more examined and unencumbered life allows us to consider and reconsider, over and over again, what the distance is between our beliefs and our actions; the gap between what our ideals are and where our present priorities actually show through.

For years, I've had a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with emerging technologies. I am interested when something comes on the market as a device which could really, in its uncomplicated and sometimes theoretical form, actually live up to much of that technology's claims to "simplify our lives." Usually, though, my interest turns to disgust and disdain when these technologies quickly lapse into fads, bejewelled gew-gaws and status symbols, and cheap knockoffs which eventually claim to make easy that which the previous, older technology already did just as well.

And usually, I thought I was right.

But recently, I've been considering my needs to keep connected with my wife; my family; and keep up my church committments, all which require I keep in touch with many different people, at sometimes unpredictable times of day. Which is to say, I often had to put off phone calls because I didn't want to bother the co-worker next to me; I'd wait until lunch, and then another co-worker would come back early; I had to make a private call, and didn't have change for the pay phone; or a pay phone was nowhere in sight, when I needed to call home for something.
All the while, I "soldiered" on with my resolve that I'd never give in. I still tried to strike a balance between putting my aversion to faddish technology over my desire to reach out and help people, which should be my primary concern.

But, with time, I realized I had been increasingly complicating my life to make necessary phone calls, and it was taking up valuable time to do so, when the most obvious solution, which Vicki had long been suggesting to me, was looking much more simple.

So, I'm trying it...what did William of Occam say? Don't overcomplicate the solution? If there is an obvious, simple solution that works, don't overcomplicate it; go the simpler route. And that's what I'm trying to do; outside of technology or not. Technology is almost besides the point at this juncture. Hey; the stick that certain birds poke into a tree to get the insects to come out is technology. Remember screwdrivers?

Perhaps I've given in...I'm not sure yet. But I believe part of my stubbornness stems from being in the blood lines of folks who consistently stood firm in the way of new technologies, questioning harshly their neccessity in what was an already simple, wholesome lifestyle, before they decided to accept or reject.

And trust me; if the wheel of simplicity turns the other direction some day...I will dispense with this solution, and follow Thoreau and William of Occam down a different path...


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