Tuesday, May 26, 2015


This (previous) story, the gathering-art of Captain Bill, illustrates certain aspects, all of which must be implied or inferred since Bill is no longer with us and didn’t make any sense talking when he was, of the seven conclusions I made earlier (q.v. previous).  To me, the most generally particular quality of Bill’s art is that it puts the emphasis on process over product, which is not to say that the works themselves were good, bad or indifferent – many of them were spectacular – but because it was inevitable that the product would be scattered within hours of it’s completion.  Whether he was aware of it or not Bill’s artistic ventures were analogous to the Tibetan sand-painting tradition, in which the mechanics of art composition aid the process of meditation and enlightenment, and the learning gained from this ritual then reinforced by the deliberate destruction of the art when it is completed.  The veneer of Bill’s activities speaks of isolation, observation, acceptance, equanimity, decision, reaction, synthesis and a rhythm determined and strictly enforced by daylight, and all this in the service of vividly impermanent results.  Likewise, Tibetan mandala-painters induce a state of quiescence through the step-by-step process of visualizing and acting, until the process of thought and act becomes habituated and the perception of self is dissolved.

“Although there be this state, which may be called a state of superconsciousness (Lhang-tong), nevertheless, individuals, or ego-entities, so long as they are such, are incapable of experiencing it.  I believe that it is only experienced when one hath gained the first (superhuman) state on the Path to Buddhahood.  Thus, by thought-process and visualization, one treadeth the Path.  The visions of the forms of the Deities upon which one meditateth are merely the signs attending perseverence in meditation. They have no intrinsic worth or value in themselves.

“To sum up, a vivid state of mental quiescence, accompanied by energy, and a keen power of analysis, by a clear and inquisitive intellect, are indispensable requirements; like the lowest rungs of a ladder, they are absolutely necessary to enable one to ascend.  But in the process of meditating on this state of mental quiescence (Shi-nay), by mental concentration, either on forms and shapes, or on shapeless and formless things, the very first effort must be made in a compassionate mood, with the aim of dedicating the aim of one’s efforts to the Universal Good.  Secondly, the goal of one’s aspirations must be well defined and clear, soaring into the regions transcending thought.  These, I understand, to be the highest of all Paths.

"Then, again, as the mere name of food doth not satisfy the appetite of a hungry person, but he must eat food, so, also, a man who would learn about the Voidness (of Thought) must meditate so as to realize it, and not merely learn its definition.  Moreover, to obtain the knowledge of the state of superconsciousness (Lhang-tong), one must practice and accustom oneself to the mechanical attainment of the recurrence of the above practices without intermission” (Goddard [ed.],”The Life and Hymns of Milarepa,” p. 564-565).

There is an embedded art lesson in these Buddhist teachings, such as this: “you’ve got to train yourself to think of everything you draw as being solid – as having bulk.  John [Buscema] calls this ‘thinking through the object.’  Think all around it – think of its sides as its top and bottom” (Stan Lee, p. 20).

So, approaching Buddhahood and drawing Spiderman have this methodology in common: focus on an object while being mindful of its unseen qualities, and engage a mechanical response to this act of contemplation. Senses, intellect and motor-response dovetail into trance.  The construction of a Tibetan sand painting, which incorporates the figures of hundreds of deities, is a means to transcend the limitations of consciousness by inducing a trance-like state of quiescence.  And likewise, a kid drawing Spiderman might not achieve enlightenment that day, but, if he is of the right temperament, will remain quiet for longer than normal because the simultaneous engagement of mind and motor-functions on one single task causes a decrease in peripheral awareness.  In the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, this quasi-hypnotic state is deliberately induced by the creative process in order to gain enlightenment.  In drawing Spiderman, this same state is caused accidentally by the artist in order to hang a drawing on the refrigerator.  It may take an hour to draw Spiderman.  It may take several lifetimes to achieve superconsciousness.  But in both cases the creative act lumps senses, thoughts and actions together and subsumes them.  This creating-effect is familiar to most people.  For example, anyone enjoying their work or putting on makeup.  It is this trance-like state which catalyzes the artistic process, perpetuating the cycle of thought, action and reaction until the artist deems the work, or himself, finished.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Captain Bill
Everything I have artist-stated so far can be summed up in the following seven points.  First, that when I make a piece of art I am chasing after some personal notion of visual and also thematic “balance” in the finished product.  Second, that I am driven by compulsive habits to have balance in the process too – turning uptightness into methodology.  Third, that I am excited by the realization that I can apply this methodology and simultaneously clean my apartment by making artistic statements out of my teetering piles of broken or useless stuff.  Fourth, that making art instead of working is not economically viable.  Fifth, that maybe it is.  Sixth, that art is a type of ritual performance with stone-age roots.  Seventh, that the thrill of making art is essentially primal.

I will now elaborate on all of these things, but not in that order, after I tell a story.

In the 1990’s in New York City a man known as Captain Bill lived on the traffic island of Broadway between 80th and 81st streets.  Every refuse-and-recycling collection day Bill would scour the neighborhood for discarded wreckage – old bicycle wheels, broken lamps, empty picture frames, rotting luggage, etc. – and assemble it in one spot on the west side of block.  These compositions were always impressively tall, up to seven feet, and, more amazingly, bilaterally symmetrical.  Somehow Bill managed to find two of almost everything.  Next, the police would arrive and make him take it down.  This happened every time.  So, the art-piece itself was ephemeral, and even had there been no police, Bill’s exhibit was still an accident waiting to happen.  Bill’s transitory display was merely the vespertine part of his day-long ceremony.  That this is an example of art-ritual taking precedence over art-product is underscored by the fact that Bill had nothing to gain from his junk-piles in the form of reward or praise.  The significance of these constructions was that they expressed through accumulation the larger action of collecting for its own sake.  And one might speculate that Bill’s solemn observance of garbage day was fueled by the moment of euphoria when he found a second nick-nack to properly counterbalance the first one.  Eventually Bill got a job and died in a work related accident.


The Mesolithic Metroticket
Having just spoken of the caves of Monte Circeo, another cave in Italy holds the remains of a very different activity.  Blanc’s reading of this second bunch of remnants is as follows:  “In the cave Basua (Savona) a vaguely zoömorphic stalagmite has been used by Neanderthal man (evidenced by its footprints, identified by F. Pales) as a target for a presumably magic ceremony consisting of throwing clay pellets at the target.  This practice occurred in the innermost chamber of the cave (the cave being a cave bear’s den, littered with cave bear bones), 450 meters away from its opening: an extremely uncanny environment.  The hypothesis of a game should not be considered, but rather one of a magic ceremony in which it appears for the first time that Neanderthal man used unmodified zoömorphic natural features of caves for magic purposes, long before the birth of art by the so-called Homo-sapiens, an art that sometimes consisted of the intentional modification, by the addition of engravings upon vaguely zoömorphic stalagmites or cave walls” (124).

I think there is a simpler explanation, more simple even than magic, though if it were elaborated enough it could evolve into magic.  These Neanderthals were after a cheap thrill – cheap as a pile of dirt.  If I were a stone-ager, I think it would be an intense jolt to imagine myself fighting a bear ten times my size, and the key to my survival was to hit the tip of a stalagmite with this feather-light, impossible-to-control, crumbling lump of clay.  What a rush!  If I hit, I live.  If I miss, I die, but all in the safety of cave-cozy make-believe.  This stalagmite is not a bear.  It is not going to tear me into quivering lumps and devour them while they are still quivering.  But the pretending makes the feeling real.  It is the thrill of surviving from one moment to the next, heightened by the imaginative and focused slinging of dirt.  It is nearly the same as the thrill millions of people get from watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, and in that case the outcome is pre-determined, or watching some crew win the Super Bowl, in which case the outcome is not.

Habits such as these: throwing clay pellets, watching Felix Potvin tend goal, waiting with nerdly anticipation for the apotheosis of some bombastic symphony by a German Romantic composer, buying a prize horse at auction, decapitating a Neanderthal, crossing the Rubicon, or tweaking into madness before the DJ goes “dooge” on the record, all contain the same basic element – it is the thrill of a moment when something happens to heighten it.  The enhancement of the relentlessly moving Now.  Or, as Saint Augustine writes, “and thus passeth it on, until the present intent conveys over the future into the past; the past increasing by the diminution of the future, until by the consumption of the future, all is past” (129).  I cannot speculate on the length of Creation, but the creation of an art piece most definitely ought to have an end – it being the cumulative result of many of these Augustinian “present intents” until as much time is consumed as is necessary to finish it.  The planning becomes the past, the execution becomes the moment, the result belongs to the future, which suggests a new plan for the next step.  To make a fresh mark on an art surface is to take on the danger of the unknown.  If the mark hits, it goes “dooge.”  The tension of the past becomes the release of the future.  This danger, and the consequent thrill of success, is especially true in graffiti art and tattoo art, where there is very little room for error, and if you mess up, everyone will know it was you who failed, and there won’t be any hiding it (one could say these are examples of “extreme art ” or maybe “art sports”).  But even outside graffiti and tattoos, the thrill of the Now is a regular part of the artistic process.  A mistake is costly, wrong stitch takes nine hours to undo.

Music uses time to create transcendent moments. Visual art puts materials through a process in time, and freezes each transcendent moment into something static after the fact.  Still, it runs on the same fuel that inspired our ancestors to throw clay pellets, and moreover, to ritually cannibalize each other, and, moreover, to represent this cannibalism symbolically after the ritual had passed through an ethical crisis.  Action enhances the moment between tension and release.  This moment between tension and release is pervasive.  Elias Cannetti has a term for it with regard to the behavior of crowds – the discharge.  “The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge.  Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it.  This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feels [sic] equal” (17).  It is the human equivalent of tornado – nature’s way of ironing out the wrinkles and turning disequilibrium into balance.  The discharge has analogies in many realms: including weather systems, bordellos, arenas, Italian caves, operating theaters, funeral homes, riots, music halls, bathrooms and artist studios.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


The human need for art is like the human need for ritual, which originated as a solemn observance for religious purposes.  Today, the word “rite” can be more generally applied to any specific personal methodology (OED).  Thus it was ritualistic when Jackson Pollack laid a canvas on the floor and Zumba-ed around it with spooging glow sticks.  To look at a Jackson Pollack is to watch this ceremony after the fact.  The painting tells the story of the artist’s process in making it.  The painting is an artifact of Pollack’s personal ritual.

The art viewer is an anthropologist taking part in the ritual he investigates.  Or, the viewing of a piece of art is a completion of the ritual initiated by the process of its creation.  This is not to say that a piece of art without a viewer is akin to the proverbial toppling tree.  The artist’s ritual is complete without the viewer because the drive to make art is not born in an effort to entertain.  Rather, it is an essentially solitary challenge to the self to produce by hand what is conceived in the mind.  This is accomplished in stages according to plans, formulae and habits.

By virtue of its relation to ritual, the drive to make art is rooted in what Sir James George Frazer described as a “misapplication” of “the association of ideas” – that is, the belief in sympathetic magic.  “If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based,” he writes, “they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.  The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion.  From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that what ever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.  Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic.  Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious magic …  Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic magic” (12-14).

This correlation between ritual, magic and visual expression is born out by one of the prevailing interpretations of Paleolithic art.  “Magic beliefs,” writes Alberto Blanc, “including black magic, are widely evidenced in the Upper Paleolithic.  The topographic location of engravings, paintings, and sculptures, often in the deepest and least accessible parts of the caves; the subjects treated; the almost constant alteration of the natural proportions of the human body; the fact that the same rock wall was repeatedly used and covered with successive artistic productions, covering one another and forming a sort of palimpsest, leave little doubt of the magic purpose of most of the Upper Paleolithic art.

“It is clear that the purpose has been not to ornament the properly inhabited part of the cave (i.e., the area neighboring the entrance, which is partly accessible to light or at least half-light) or to represent past events, but to promote the success of a future event that obviously had a major importance for the life of the community (a hunt, the increase of births, etc.).  Once the event had taken place, the figures that had been engraved, painted, or sculptured lost any importance and purpose, and the same rock surface was used for new art productions.  This was obviously a ‘sacred’ surface, since long stretches of wall just as suitable to be ornamented, and often more easily accessible, were left untouched” (120-121).

So, the earliest act of visually artistic creation was motivated by deeply rooted superstition, not even really “on view” (at the Gallery of the Deepest Darkest Cave in the Valley).  Blanc does not hesitate to call this “art” (120).  The cave paintings date to between 17 and 29,000 years old (Fagan 156).
Blanc continues, “If we try to penetrate the ideological world of Neanderthal man, our tentative analysis is hindered by the lack of any art production” (124). But he does describe “evidence of definite ideologies” between 40,000 and 60,000 years old (Larsen 204) in the form of a cannibalized skull. “The Monte Circeo skull, representing a late or typical Neanderthal […], about the age of 45 at death, was lying on the floor of a cave surrounded by a circle of stones. The skull bears two mutilations: one caused by one or more violent blows on the right temporal region that has caused conspicuous damage to the frontal, the temporal, and the zygoma. This mutilation points to a violent death more probably a ritual murder. The other mutilation consists of the careful and symmetric incising of the periphery of the foramen magnum (which has been completely destroyed) and the consequent artificial production of a subcircular opening […]

“Now,” continues Blanc, “this intentional mutilation is identical (author’s Italics) to one presently produced by head-hunters of Borneo and Melanesia with the object of extracting the brain and eating it for ritual and social purposes” (124-126).  Blanc deduces that the Monte Circeo skull was produced by a ritual of similar character, and reinforces his deduction with the following observations: “the skull, after its mutilation, was laid on the floor in the center of an inner subcircular chamber of the cave and honored by a crown or circle of stones” ; “while the other chambers of the Circeo cave are littered with bones, antlers, and skulls, the one in which the Neanderthal skull was lying contained only three groups of a few bones each: one group lying between two big stones resting against the wall near the entrance; another one about two meters away from the skull …” (128).

Which also is very closely identical (artist’s Italics) to something I saw at the Whitney Biennial, though without the skull with the brain eaten out.  

Professor Blanc is making a distinction.  He classifies the cave paintings as “art” but not the remains of the Neanderthal-brain-eating ritual.  But he is not clear on why these are different.  Both are remnants of what he describes as ritual. In fact, the intent of the cave painters and the Neanderthal-brain eaters was the same.  They were born out of the same misapplication of ideas – that a ritual action should translate into real-life actuality.  None of these cave works was intended for an audience.  Some could even argue that, since the cave paintings were not intended for an audience, they are not art either.  I would argue that if the cave paintings count as art, and of course they do, though sadly that class is no longer available, then the remains of the Monte Circeo ritual is art too.  Both are thoughtful arrangements of objects in a defined space.  In a word, art.  Thus, art is a habit that predates the species.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Hay Bales in the Bloom, Three Hay Bales, Four Hay Bales : three images from a suite of 21 farm landscapes - The Fable of the Hay Bales - all composed on recycled subway tickets.  Hay bales turn overgrowth into renewable energy as horse feed ; ticket art turns waste paper into substrates for art.
A farming family can live directly off its art and feed other people on the side.  The art-product of a farm is renewed energy – a tight model for living.  The artist is not in such a position.  A farmer uses kinetic energy to produce potential energy.  An artist uses kinetic energy to produce an expression of that kinesis but with little tangible potential of its own.  Art is probably dispensable in a way that food is not.

Nonetheless, like a traditional family farm, an artist’s living is related to his capacity for production, and to varying degrees this living can be enhanced by working efficiently.  The difference between the modern farm and the traditional farm only underscores the similarities between farms and artists.  On the modern farm, diversity and even direct utility have been stripped away.  Wendell Berry calls the modern farmer a “specialist.” “By the power of a model,” he writes, “the specialist turns the future into a greenhouse of fantasies” (43).  For example, the modern farmer will employ heating coils to produce asparagus in the winter.  Winter asparagus is true artifice.  More than ever, the farmer, or “specialist,” is an artist.  They apply their energies to foods that defy nature.  Moreover, these are often not even food, strictly speaking, but food bases – corn or soybeans, for commercial ingredients or animal feed – that cannot, by themselves, directly sustain the life of a small farmer.

In some ways art and farming have switched places over the centuries.  A medieval or early-modern European artist, if he was lucky enough to find a master and live through puberty, could survive as part of a guild, workshop or academy, and specialize.  He might learn to paint really nice wings in fresco for example.  He might even become “the wing man” and survive, constrained in a nook, but subsidized according to legal arrangements with monarchs.  Meanwhile his farmer contemporaries depended on risk, initiative and ability to survive, practicing extensive forms of sustainable agriculture, making their own decisions on how to live in the present and maintain the land’s long-term health into the future.  Today, an artist is much more able to do as he pleases, freed from the whims of popes, monarchs and guild masters, but with no guarantees of real subsistence.  Today’s farmer, on the other hand, often works under contract to supply a specific product for a guaranteed return.  The contract might provide the farmer with more security, but at the same time strips the farmer of the right to make her own farming decisions.

All of which is to say, art is like farming in that both employ minds and hands to make products, and both farmer and artist must be mindful of some of the same rules, but unlike farming, art is useless for survival, so there is no way to determine its market value, unless it goes to auction.  Therefore, the artist who chooses to live to make art must subsist on nothing but air.  It is practically suicidal, except for one hopeful sign, which is that throughout history and across cultures, human beings want, maybe even need art.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


A work of art can be cluttered or sparse.  Either way, it can still be harmonious.  The challenge is to apply this rule of harmoniousness to the creative act.  How can I maximize my resources?  These resources include not only materials, but also time, physical energy, clarity of vision and emotional fortitude.

A major question for the artist is “how do I best express my idea?”  Say I decide to express my idea in paint on canvas.  My goal is to express the idea in a so balanced a fashion that all the annoying, disruptive bits cancel each other out and I am left with one clear statement.  Very good.  However, there is a problematic side-effect.  My painting process includes the use of old bath towels.  So after a few years of painting I must ask myself another question: “what am I going to do with all these towels?”

the painter's towels
There are two answers.  I could throw them out or I could make further art out of them.  One thinks of composting.  An artist is an urban farm: urban, because cities are fertile with the surplus monies and audience necessary to sustain art; and farm because, like a farmer, an artist must produce. Farming is an art that produces food.  The artist and the farmer share many of the same concerns.
For example, both artist and farmer must consider the carrying capacity of their resources.  A classic, Jeffersonian, family farm thrives on the judicious use of its land.  Furthermore, the small farm thrives on diversity and the symbiotic relationships facilitated by the nurturing of different crops and different animals.  Likewise, artists, if they so choose, can discover the utility of various media, some of which are created as the by-products of another branch of their creative output.  For example, scraps of unused canvas from painting can be used in some other work even if they no longer have potential as painting surfaces.  If the artist can find the beauty or at least utility of the scraps, then the only additional expense is the time spent putting them together artfully or patching holes in the roof of a squat.

Repurposing is one way for an artist to maintain carrying capacity.  It only requires that the artist start with the medium, rather than the idea.  And necessity can yield results, maybe even beautiful ones.  There was a period when Picasso had too much blue paint. He used his surplus blue the way a farmer will nurture life out of hay.

And speaking of compost, here is what I did with the towels.  First, I conditioned them.  I washed them, so that only the image adhering to the surface remained, and they got soft and fluffy,

Wash-machines are in the basement.

and then I gave them some air.

airing the towels

Then, I bound then together as a book.

towel codex binding

Töwelbuch opening
The book structure is a variation of the medieval codex – the text block sewn together over bands sewn into covers, the contents are pure action painting totally free of rational control, and the medium is towels.  As far as I know, the Töwelbuch is the first artist's book totally suitable for the bath – a repurposed-double-elephant-post-modern-steam-punk-folio unique.  I could go on to make many claims about it, but suffice it to say that while it may be tidy or beautiful or ugly or large, it serves no purpose other than to be.  It is no longer suitable as a desiccant.  Nor is it edible.


Repurposing is a good way to save on the cost of materials.  I recently saw a thing about a guy in Australia who makes ingenious animal forms out of used auto parts.  And it’s one way in which art triumphs over cooking, where repurposing causes food poisoning.  Maybe the artist will stop when she uses up all her stock of materials.  And it would be better if all the materials got used up evenly.  In other words, the resources that go into the creation of an object and the action of creating that object can be dictated by the principle of balance, just as the elements of the finished product should combine to produce a harmonious ideal.

That is to say, a work of art originates in an idea, which, through a process, becomes a product.  The artist is alone in determining the rules and decisions and methodologies that drive the process.  An exception to this is exemplified by artists who have their own factories with employees answering to a designer.  In that case, the artist’s only job is to have the idea.  But such cases are rare.  So, if the driving principle is balance, and this principle not only determines the look of the finished product but also applies to the resources that contribute to the object’s creation, then anything repurposed contributes to the artist’s objective because repurposing reduces disorder in the studio.

Simply put, the objective is a sum total of one – one piece, comprising values in a harmonious state, with nothing left on the side.

Practically speaking, this is impossible.  The challenge of achieving an art piece of perfect, self-contained harmony produces the additional challenge of half-empty paint tubes, unused scraps, busted brushes and used cleaning products – all the stuff that slowly drifts towards those bins on the side.  Nevertheless, the more the logarithm of creation approaches one, the closer the artist gets to her ideal of balance.

Although, in fact, assuming the artist wants to trade art for a living, the true objective is zero: a completely empty studio.  Not only is it green, it is also aesthetically satisfying, and if the artist is lucky enough to have turned all that material into food, then all that mass has been converted into energy, which boosts the artist’s chance of survival, and is in pleasing accordance with the laws of physics.

Here we see an example of utilitarian art, which can be espressed mathmatically, where x=art and y=utility, as x + y = 0.  And as I have often been told, all things are one, or, espressed mathmatically, 0 + ∞ = 1.