Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Water Phoenix

It wasn't supposed to be this way, but the history of this painting is starting to read rather like a tempestuous love affair. Starting off full of promise, hitting a snag, then another and another, going from one version to the next, so many times seeming to be complete only to discover that, no, it's not over yet.

It goes back to my very first attempts at painting in oils back in 2008. One day running on the beach I saw a weary cormorant on the beach and realised it was dying. Perhaps it was the very next morning that I went down to that beach to scout for potential photos with by brand new camera when I saw the same bird awash in the surf. Caught as it was in the fried egg-like surf's edge it seemed to be flying, as if in death it had come alive again.

I no longer have that photo, but my 3rd or 4th serious attempt at a painting was based on it, following the image quite closely.

At the time the subject had a lot of meaning for me as I was myself taking a leap of rebirth into fine art as opposed to the advertising animation that had been my vocation to that point. More than that, it was a conscious attempt to break free of a way of life based on the noisy but limited thinking mind and into something transcendent beyond it.

Five years later and I'm still working on that particular little detail, but along the way my relationship with oils has freed up somewhat. I knew back then that I'd like to revisit the subject, and about 2 years later did a small oil sketch of how it might work, this time following the reference very loosely.

I liked the bold strokes suggesting feathers and wondered as 2 more years passed how I'd interpret that in the very much larger canvas I had in mind. Eventually at the end of 2012, after weeks of deliberation, I finally started painting on a canvas just less than 180x120cm. Nice and big.

Here's an early stage in the actual painting. I wanted the left to be noisy in contrast to the empty stillness of the right but I had no intention of laboriously painting in words as I had in the 2008 version, so I threw some lines around at odd angles and added symbols that looked like code, as a background. I was pretty pleased with the way it was going and thought with smug satisfaction that it was going to fall nicely into place.

Rather like said love affair, had I known the dance it was going to lead me I'd have reconsidered that smugness. But there it is. Life will do as Life will do. Not to bog the story down, I'll fast fwd to the first time I thought it was nearly done, around March this year.

Something kept bugging me about it. Something was missing and I didn't know what it was. So after a whole lot of buggering about with solutions that weren't solutions, each tossed out in turn, layers disappearing beneath layers, and then more of the same, I understood I had to darken the left of the image to give it weight.

A major disruption of my careful solutions. A long deep breath. Begin.

About 2 months and a whole lot of agonised tweaking later, here's the next time I thought it was nearly done, last week:

You guessed it. I still wasn't happy. Yes I wanted the left trailing behind the bird to be noisy, but it just seemed too noisy. And just too damned...fussy. In fact it was so fussy it was embarrassing.

One of the hazards of the creative process - in love affairs too I guess - is the temptation to hold on to little things that you like. The way the paint landed at a particular spot, the way colour glows at another and so on. Each of these precious little details is carefully preserved, with modifications to them done in the gentlest possible way so as not to upset them too much.

What I had here was a collection of preciousness that finally I realised I just couldn't live with. From the very beginning I'd wanted bold strokes as suggested by the oil sketch, and what I ended up was a whole lot of fiddly neurosis. The whole way through the journey of this painting I'd been wanting to slash BIG BOLD strokes through it to meet that vision but had lacked the courage needed to pull it off. So I'd settled for the safe timidity of delicate tweaks and fallen into the trap of not wanting to ruin my pretty marks.

Looking last night at the product of 6 months of careful incremental tweaking I knew I could stand it no longer.

And so it came to be - cue drumroll - that I arrived at one of those threshold moments in the life of a painting. With a batch of sloppy white paint mixed I stepped up to the canvas and without even thinking about it slashed huge white lines across my months of precious fiddling. Followed up with equally unthinking modification of the white with some bits of folded up canvas.

It's fascinating to look at those moments as if a spectator. Some kind of animal emerges from the cage of careful control and follows an instinct unlocked by sheer embarrassment of the timidity revealed in the work. After the thick white lines had landed their modification was more like rugby than art. Call it guided savagery. Or perhaps zen. "It hits", Bruce Lee tells us. "Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" Morpheus says to Neo.

It reminds me of ubermensch Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's "Fountainhead" slashing lines through all the fashionable pretty adornments with which his architect employer had required him to clutter up his elegantly functional blueprints. He got fired, and walked out with his first client. Death and rebirth.

Here's my favorite result of one of those "it paints" moments. The central diagonal is the product of less than one second's worth of furious activity. Careful tweaking can't do that shit.

The large image below is what I now believe to be the final version, an update from the one above with fairly delicate additions of colour not immediately visible at this size. I'm not sure how well this will work as I've not tried it before, but try this Picasa link to view a hi res version. There's a zoom button there but it seems a bit temperamental depending on the browser used.

Phew. It's been a long journey.

I was told the other day I should do a self portrait. The answer to that is, they're all self portraits. This one seems to be something of a summary of a lifelong struggle to break free of all manner of hidden stuff, y'know, the life that happens while we're busy making other plans. So it's not surprising that the painting's been a bit of trek.

I guess.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

AfrikaBurn, Africa Plays

For those not familiar with the "AfrikaBurn" festival, it's a gathering of people in the dry N Cape Karoo, bringing with them all manner of inspired or crazy ventures into creativity. Based on the "Burning Man" festivals in the States, the creations are actually burned at the end, thus the name.

The conceptual framework of the festival is rather interesting and you can find out more here, but what drew my attention was a series of pics taken by a photographer friend on mine at the 2009 event - Monica Miguel Vaccaro. She documented the entire event using a rather specialised fish-eye lens, warping space, curving horizons and giving the sense that, yes, we actually live on a round ball.

I relate strongly to Monica's sense of composition and her eye for interesting elements, so some of the images were saying loud and clear, "paint me", which with her permission I began to do earlier this year. The first of these began with this image.

It's taken through one of the circles in the dome above, and the line in the sand is actually an enormous pictogram a la the Nasca lines in Peru, visible only from the air. In this case the lines were laid out with the use of GPS, but unfortunately no helicopter was on hand to get the full effect. Nice concept though. The bicycle is there because cars are banned and cycling is the best way to get around.

 As is usual with my approach I messed about with the image in Photoshop, and in this case took that a stage further by printing out the result and doodling over it with a ballpoint pen. For no reason other than that I could, I enlarged the rear wheel of the bike and added a flag. The lines in the sky followed an idea of drawing a pictogram there.

In practice though the bike had to be reduced on the canvas, the lines became a crisscross dividing the painting into segments rather as if reality itself were cracking, and the curve of the horizon changed. How that last happened I really don't recall, but I much prefer the final version.

This piece is something of a stylistic departure from earlier work, in particular because I was experimenting in the final painting with the  doodles and cross-hatching of the conceptual sketch. I found that the paintbrush isn't that comfortable with the approach so the result was quite messy, but somehow it works.

At 180x110cm it's a big canvas, but as of this writing I'm contemplating doing a short run of prints which will be smaller due to the limits of printable canvas size.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

So Anyway...

It's been quite a while since my last post, and rather a lot has happened. Out here in the African Sticks the big annual shindig is summer season, when the N2 snaking along the Garden Route fills up with happy holiday makers eager to spend the money they've slaved for all year. It's rather like the Sardine Run elsewhere along the coast, only with BMWs.

So I took advantage of an empty shop at a fascinating take on the shopping experience - Timberlake Village in the middle of everywhere alongside the N2 - and put on an exhibition of work by myself and some other local artists.

Looks awfully trendy don't it just?

Well, be that as it may it all went pretty well and by the end of season the place was almost cleaned out.

Recession? Huh?

So anyway.

The point of this bit of back patting is that the various works in progress reported on last year were brought to completion for the show. In particular Beach House Kleinkrantz last mentioned as merely a thought was done, up in pride of place and nice and big.

Earthen Moon, Tall Story and Scorpio Sunbird were also complete and were sold over season along with Beach House and African Dream. Of these Earthen Moon, Scorpio Sunbird and Beach House are still available in limited numbers as giclee prints on art canvas.

So what now?

Well, I rather like Timberlake, so after the show was taken down I thought I'd try the shop out as a working studio/gallery. It's been about 2 months now and I'm rather enjoying this, having started on a new series of paintings derived from the 2009 "Afrika Burns" gathering.

More about that shortly...

Friday, October 14, 2011

The search for authenticity

And then you get and artist
says he doesn't want to paint at all
He takes an empty canvas

sticks it on the wall

Mark Knopfler
In the Gallery

Behind the scenes, pretty much constantly as I watch the stuff that appears on the canvas of my mind and on the easel in front of me lurks the inevitable question, "Is this Art?"

This leads to the next question, "What is Art?" and waiting in the queue just behind that one is "What is art to me?"

I'll confess that I've never really resolved any of these questions. Mostly I dance around a sort of central pole that I sense but don't fully grasp, but a few days ago some of the mist cleared when I realised that my obsession with marks as they land on the canvas is a quest for something authentic. This doesn't take me very far because immediately the next question pops up, "What's authentic?"

What Mark was complaining about in his song quoted above was that the passion of his hero Harry, who "made a bareback rider, proud and free on a horse" was dismissed by the hip art crowd in favour of clever statements like hanging a blank canvas on the wall and calling it art.

So is cleverness authentic art? Could be. I guess.

But then investment banksters are also clever. In fact it could be argued that their diabolically clever manipulation of our lives via the money system is as much art as Damien Hirst's provocatively clever manipulation of our sensitivities with his sheep in formaldehyde or rotting barbecue.

Perhaps Art then is what you can get away with. After all a con artist is still called an artist.

However that may play out, one thing's clear - I'm not in the con business. Between the need to communicate with an audience and the sometimes errant meanderings of my mind there's a wobbly line that defines a common perception of value. The elasticity of that line has often surprised me as I veered closer to my own brand of madness than seemed safe, only to find an enthusiastic reception in the people passing by. Or at least some of them.

So bolstered by this knowledge I now find myself playing with something I don't even really understand. If I look at this current piece objectively I must admit that it flirts dangerously with a terrible cliche, the raven haired voluptuous beauty. I guess I'm attempting the opposite of cleverness, allowing whatever arises to arise and dealing with the fallout later.

So is it art? Mmmm.

The only thing that's clear to me is that I'd like the strokes that land on it to have the honesty of living their lives much as they were born. Some will pretty, some ugly but interesting. Those who are neither get dissed and scrubbed into the chorus line. More marks will land later and slowly build up a song amongst themselves.

As for the overall impact of the piece as it progresses, I'm willing to keep pushing paint around and wait to see if the story that eventually emerges is of value.

In the meantime another Tall Story is slowly approaching that mysterious central pole. I pushed some more paint around this week and found some resolution to the lack of integration that has been its big issue since the start. It's been a rather difficult child with a 6 month labour so far but as I look at it now I begin to think it might just turn out to be a favorite one.

Also meanwhile, two other children are looking for re-incarnation, both of them revisits of much earlier pieces that I've been wanting to explore again. This one's currently called Water Phoenix but that could change. Here's the digital thought form. I'm thinking of making it nice and big.

It's a development of the 4th piece I did when this painting lark began, when I knew that I wanted to work loose and free but didn't know how to yet, and settled for painfully careful.

The other revisit I'm thinking of also harks back to the early universe - Beach House, and again I want to go big, currently thinking 180x120cm. Even bigger would be even nicer but there's a limit on what I can move around the world, and that's it. Here's the original digitally manipulated as a guide.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Tall Story

So something moved.

Let me tell you something about sitting doing nothing in a deliberate and sustained manner. It's not easy. The mind wants to constantly jump up and go ferreting about in it's grimy old haunts and has to be repeatedly ushered back like a child to its lessons. Which in this case is a little silly because what it has to be ushered back to is this incredible African Spring. Paradise can't be all that different.

Anyway, the experiment was to see if something moved on its own without me moving it, and I can now report a useful outcome. Earlier this week I got interested enough in the unresolved King of Streets painting to get up from my stillness and try an idea I'd thought of on the weekend.

That was the first thing that moved.

The beauty of computer imagery is that I can try things out digitally before committing oil to canvas, and in going there I discovered an earlier digital experiment I'd forgotten about. It was suddenly so obviously right that I took the jump and painted it. And ended up in quite new territory.

Here's the backstory. Back when I lived in the Cape Town I was often struck by how much the faces of the city's street people resemble the original inhabitants of this land, the Bushmen. Whether this is true or not it seems feasible that their hunter-gatherer lifestyle got shunted aside by a new world that had no place for them, and they ended up at the bottom of the pile.

However that may be, at the time I often looked at my own struggles of survival in the modern world in terms of small nomadic bands roaming and living off the indigenous landscape. The modern equivalent featured shiny buildings and BMWs cluttering the same spaces, but the struggle for survival still ran strong in this new world. Only now with TV and more angst.

So probably my interest in this couple was more personal than just a subject to paint. What attracted my attention was their incredible vitality and joy in the moment in spite of their poverty, so the contrast in the painting between them and the wealthier but more inhibited crowd around them wasn't lost on me.

But the painting just wouldn't get resolved. I'd tried all sorts of ways to fill in the bottom left corner which clearly needed something, but nothing worked. One idea that kept surfacing was to put cave-style images of animals there but it seemed somehow too obvious, or maybe too pretentious. But that was in fact the idea I discovered when I looked at my earlier digital experiment.

So I did that and immediately the dust of Africa entered the picture. The new atmosphere was undeniable. A layer of prehistory had become superimposed over the modern street scene, as if the deep memory still running in those lined faces had seeped out and onto the canvas. It felt authentic.

Only trouble is, I felt like a fraud. What business did I, a first world white man, have painting in a bow carrying hunter? Ok, it's out there in my world which happens to be the Africa I love, but it's not my culture. Hell, I haven't even seen a real life bow hunter, other than as cave drawings. I'm basically being a cultural thief.

And then the second movement happened. How would those ancient cave painters view this bizarre white man's world? Without really realising I was doing it I scratched a primal hi-rise building amongst the dusty animals.

It took all of 10 seconds, but it completely transformed the painting, and for that matter my role as painter. The whole long human story of civilisation rising like a bean stalk through the most fundamental patterns of human life got summed up in those few strokes, and along with it our dislocation from our own deepest nature.

In the months I've been hunting for a solution to this painting I've occasionally been asked what the man in it is saying. In the context of the primitive hi-rise and the plane I added afterwards, the expression on is face is saying, "You won't believe this baby, it's just too wacky to be true, but I swear, it's real."

So I've decided to rename it Crazy Story.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Come to a stop. Get more done.

Because I can, and because circumstances have suggested it, I've been experimenting with the complete absence of effort as a way of getting things done.

If this sounds like a load of bollocks to you, indulge me for a sentence or two before you sign off because there is method at work in this seeming madness.

It arises out of the process that produces the work I do. I've noticed again and again how the best paintings are most often those that arise by surprise, take over the creative process and basically paint themselves. Quite often this will produce something that I believe at first the public will dislike, while typically it's those pieces that become the most popular.

Because of this I often say that I just follow orders, it's not me doing the work. This is familiar to many creative professionals, like musicians who report songs dropping into their minds essentially complete, all they had to do is write them down and soak up the applause.

Sounds like a damn fine idea to me.

By contrast I've also seen with tiresome monotony how charging after some stated goal with all the enthusiasm of a puppy far too often just produces a tired and disappointed puppy.

So for some years now I've been fascinated with the possibility that life can be lived from a state of non-effort. Rest on Existence as a seed rests on the breeze. Move only when moved, so that what emerges is the product of a deeper current and is achieved effortlessly even if vast amounts of energy are being expended.

The most recent bout of this thinking came along as a result of the Lightrider piece (seen here in its final form). The metaphor of surfing got me pondering the interplay between the immensity of Immensity and the small but crucial human.

Take that tiny dark figure out of the painting and it's just a meaningless abstract. Put him back and a huge crashing energy is given conscious intent.

But here's the point - the rider doesn't create the wave. He/she paddles out, gets to the ideal spot and waits. Floats on the water's surface. Gazes attentively at the vastness that is the ocean, and . . waits.

When that particular wave is seen approaching it becomes all about place time and balance. If it all works out there's an exhilarating ride that gives the rider a rush like a clean drug, and heshe heads straight back out again for more.

Now obviously there's plenty of effort involved in paddling out to the back line, getting to the magical spot where the wave picks you up, and of course tons of practice and lots of getting wiped out at first. But ask any surfer if what heshe does is hard work?

And here's the bottom line. If the surfer tried to get that rushing ride by paddling furiously without the push of a convenient wave, you'd quickly see an exhausted and very disappointed puppy dragging its soggy self back home. The wave supplies the effort. The rider just goes along for the ride.

It looks rather as if something was trying to make this point to me, because the Lightrider painting is itself the result of a creative surge that arose without my conscious intent. And once it had my attention it pretty much used me as a brush to bring itself into physical form. Certainly there was plenty of kinetic energy expended in its making, but it was energy I simply rode to completion. It was exhilarating and effortless.

Sounds like a damn fine way to make a living if you ask me.

So. With this still fresh in my mind, various forces conspired to lead me this week to carefully and constructively do nothing. I don't mean just hang about idly. I mean do Nuh . . thing!

Because if there's one thing we humans do incessantly and uselessly more than anything else, it's think. Lay the body down in a comfy couch and the mind goes hurtling off all over the place. And usually it's fretting, strutting, or fantasizing. Uselessly. First thing AM to last PM. 24/7 (with sleep breaks, but then you dream). Year after year. Most of it utterly fruitless.

So what happened is that said conspiring forces made me acutely aware that a whole lot of discomfort had chosen to visit with me and that said discomfort was rooted in the incessant chatter of this monkey mind chasing its own tail trying to solve the unsolvable.

What might happen if I pulled the plug on it every time it got up to its junk jive? Made like the surfer, lay at rest on the surface of whatever mind rests on, and . . . waited?

As it turns out it's Spring out here in the African sticks, and a rather gorgeous one at that. And because I got no deeds to do no promises to keep (spot the cultural ref? I'll give you a clue. Paul Simon) I have the freedom to sit and constantly refer my inner monkey to the gorgeous Spring out there and away from the tedious and useless obsessing that it so does love to do.

As a whole lot of Tibetans in funny clothes know, this is not easy. Bizarre how much work it takes to relax. Except that then you're not relaxing, you're working. Bummer. But I've had a bit of practice at this over the years so convincing those little internal clutching hands to unclutch is at least possible in bits. And the gorgeous Spring helps.

Ok. So I open my mind to the pretty space in the garden. What am I waiting for? For a wave. For something to move without me telling it to. Could be a painting. Could be go make some popcorn. Go snooze. Maybe the solution to the unsolvable. But mostly what I'm interested in is a glimpse of the mysterious something that makes a painting happen without me painting it. That great things can arise out of stillness. That life can become effortlessly fulfilled.

Sounds cool, huh? But before we get too excited - assuming you're still with me -, the jury's still out on this one. It's really just a working hypothesis and an experiment to match. But the fact that I'm now writing this blog is because something moved - Go write that blog, it said. A first result. Woohoo!

Originally this posting was going to be about the painting at the top of the page. The painting was itself an unmeditated product, having arisen out of a whoosh of creative energy a couple of weeks back. At first I couldn't stop staring at it, smitten by the freshness of stroke and what they represent. But after about 3 days the honeymoon was over and I set about adding to it.

And completely lost the plot.

What you see here is the result after rescuing it from a place that was seriously not well. I'd followed a daring idea to smear red onto the canvas direct from the tube, living dangerously and confident that it would work out fine.

Well, it didn't. The result reminded me of those colourful paintings of clowns, usually very well executed but churned out en masse and corny as popcorn without the taste (I sprinkle Kikkoman on mine).

And so things stayed for a while, until this last Tuesday something moved again and I splashed some more paint across, this time coming off my third day of sitting in non-monkey space.

It's an improvement, but I can honestly say I have no idea where it's going. What seems to be happening is that the disconnect from humdrum thoughtwheels has entered into the creative flow. I found myself adding white right across the body of the figure, following the sort of impulse that I might normally notice but be too timid to act on. I guess I had nothing to lose so I followed it.

A similar impulse produced the squiggle over the right shoulder. A friend had visited earlier in the day and was talking about a bird tattoo across her shoulder. I hauled out an old sketch of a piece I still intend to do sometime, and the upshot was that the sketch got in on the act too.

So now I find myself adrift on the creative breeze as far as this piece is concerned. It's become the external version of the internal experiment.

As Zorba said, Ghoo ghno what ghappen next?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Art and the elves, boys and girls

That hidden hand or mind or whatever has been at work once again in the latest piece in progress. After uploading the previous post I thought I'd better reshape things into a rough usable form before the paint got too dry, so I got to work and scraped, pushed and shoved until it seemed ready for me to get more focused the next day.

As usual I hung it up on my work-in-progress lounge wall and went about the evening's  routines. So it was only some time later that I realised it was already almost perfect.

Here's how it looked at the time, and below how it was after adding light and dark the next day.

Behind all that huffing and puffing the real creative process had been at work again without my normal conscious mind being aware of it.  The big long strokes and vigorous scrubs I'd intended as a guide to later work had already taken on the essential form of the finished piece, all I had to do was add depth following the shape already laid down.

And try not to bollocks it up.

This appears to be the way this other mind seems to prefer working. It likes it best when the thinking department is occupied with something other than a direct focus on how to apply or remove paint, as it was when scrubbing away. It's as if a space gets cleared somewhere in the creative warehouse because the well-meaning but rather plodding clerk-mind gets called away and the elusive mercurial genius-mind can take the gap and run with it.

Another thing that struck me about this latest piece is how similar it is to the previous one. That too had a stand-back-gobsmacked moment, the time the profile landed all by itself, gifting me with the core of the piece to dance the rest of the painting around.

Like this one, that piece also emerged at the last moment to bump off from the prepared canvas a different idea I'd been about to start work on.

What fascinates me also is that at the time I was obsessed about it being a chick painting and omigod how was I going to hold my head up in the world producing chick art?!? Well, this one's a bru painting. Parity has been found.

Another similarity of opposites is that the first is a woman-shaped gap through which is seen what seems to me like deep galactic space, whereas the second is a small but significant man-shape riding what looks like a wave of light rolling in from those same depths.

Are these two siblings? Are they lovers? Hopefully for painting genetics it's the latter, because already there's been cross-pollination from the Lightsurfer to the Earthen Moon. The coloring and strong free strokes of the surfer dude helped free up some of the angst-laden paintwork in the goddess. Following the momentum of that kinetic energy I reworked some areas, particularly the area behind the head, and at last I'm beginning to look at it with a sense that it feels right.

Now to loosen up those horses...