Musician Zak Skinner, also featured in the most recent post, playing on a perfect Autumn afternoon at the recent Porchfest in Jefferson City.
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Exhibiting a few noir works this week.
I’ve said before that I believe black and white photography – “Noir”, as I like to call it because, I guess, it sounds cooler – is itself a form of abstraction. The world doesn’t look like this. Add just a little bit of artistry and it really doesn’t look like this. The last time I concentrated on Noir work was last summer’s very successful tornado series. In retrospect, I added filtering in those works that was intended to, and did, emphasize the edging of the tornado ravaged buildings. Now, I think that might have been one bridge too far. The work here, as with the other two that will be exhibited in this week’s blogs, simply plays with the lighting and the color curves.
Color curves in black and white. Well, yeah, baby! That’s one of the most artful techniques.
Returning to Noir photography is, for me, like a visit to the beginning; call it a drive by ‘grounding’. Actually, move backward through the last four posts to find the full range of my work, (click this link to go to the main page, then scroll down) beginning with today’s noir, to three works, each progressively more abstract, all derived from captures made during the same event, in the same lighting, at the same time of day; four very different visions.
Musician Zak Skinner performs at last fall’s Porchfest held along Jefferson City’s gorgeous Forest Hill Avenue. When my sweet wife was an even sweeter little girl growing up here, she wanted to live in a home along Forest Hill Avenue when she grew up. Today, she lives with me on the other side of town along a street with no sidewalks in a 23-year-old, vinyl-sided house of limited old-tyme charm. But, hey, she’s got me!
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I’ve written before that the more unique are the elements of a photographic capture the less room the artist has to take that capture into new visions. The elements themselves predominate both the composition and the artist’s technique. In this case, a bubble machine had been placed near Zak, so the bubbles dominated the scene visually. I isolated nearly every bubble and pulled both the bubbles and the background into their own files, applied different techniques to each seeking to better saturate the bubbles but not the background, then blended both files back into the original. Finally, I pulled Zak out of the composite entirely and created yet another file which desaturated and de-emphasized the buildings in the far background and blended that one back in; this helped Zak himself stand out; albeit, it also added some graininess in the background, but I think it works. All that effort created a work that is closer to realism (or perhaps surrealism) than abstraction. But that’s the nature of a capture with strong visual elements; the artist is essentially along for the ride.
So just as I get a hankering to prioritize photographic captures with people, everybody goes home and becomes shut ins. Was it something I said?
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A good friend, something of a social butterfly for whom our current social distancing model is akin to torture, signed off a recent series of texts with ‘hope you don’t get too bored at home’. Which, as I pointed out, is very difficult. I’m the opposite of a social butterfly – I’m an extreme introvert. I have declined invitations to exhibit at certain galleries because they require volunteer hours working with the public. There are so many things I’m interested in that keep me preoccupied. Boredom only becomes an issue when I can’t decide what to do next.
One of those things that so interest me is history, to an extent that I consider myself an amateur historian on some subjects. I’m fascinated by the shifts in culture, societies, economies, and, of course, people. A subset of history is the question of purpose. The purpose of any given individual to the course of history.
This is one of those circular, meaning of life questions that may especially arise at night, music playing, a couple single malts down the gullet: ‘Why am I here?’ For most of us, ‘purpose’ is hidden in the minutia. Little ways we interact with people or things we throw out into the universe may just that tiny little bit move the ball forward in ways we can never calculate.
But there’s a relative multiplier to ‘purpose’ in juxtaposition to history.
History is not an even flow. It recedes, it moderates, and at times it gushes. When it gushes, ‘purpose’ expands in magnitude. It’s still incalculable to most people, we’re still just incrementally moving the ball forward. But the ball is moving faster.
In our present circumstances we are not at war, and saying we are is imbecilic, incitement to overreact, and belittling to those who have indeed experienced the horror of real war. It is not a virus to be labeled with a particular nation or race as a scapegoating tool of incompetent political expediency. What once passed as ‘status quo’ will not be returning in a few weeks, or months, or years. We have entered a period of profound change, and how we engage now will define our tomorrow. Ask yourself, why am I alive, now?
Perhaps it’s the infinite variations artists deal with that makes us, as a breed, shall we say, slightly more flamboyant, further to the left of the spectrum. Any spectrum. In the creative process there is no single “right” way to proceed, although I’m of the opinion that most works hold certain approaches, sometimes just one, that leads to the best results. It falls to the creator’s decision to go that way - the artist’s eye at work.
This becomes more agonizing in traditional art; a decision to invoke a particular brush stroke, a particular chisel strike, and the direction of the variation is set. Photo artists and digital artists confront the exact opposite problem in that no action is, holding the analogy, set in stone. Today’s work is an example of a capture that moved in multiple directions. Compare the work above to my most recent work, ‘Goes Around’. It’s the same capture visualized very differently and flipped. There are actually four versions, of which I’ve chosen these two as final versions. Final, of course, being relative.
Frustration can set in when variation after variation never seems to reach a conclusion, and I’m thinking of my own recent work ‘Chalk Angels’ that I spent literally days on. In that case, rather than multiple variations, it was a matter of applying technique after technique to the same work, never quite feeling like it was finished.
So many works, I’ve gone back later, sometimes years later, and created a new variation. Art becomes an analogy of the human experience - a constant morphing towards possibilities.
Creator and the creation. Are they ever finished with each other?
Everyone has been affected by Coronavirus by now. One of the galleries I exhibit at has postponed its new exhibit and closed for two weeks, and a second, while its new exhibit opened, cancelled the opening reception. I assume the gallery itself remains open – you know what happens when you assume. A third gallery is about to host its big annual judged show – I’m holding my breath to see how that comes down. A concert I have tickets for has been cancelled and the venue closed for two months – not weeks, months (which is actually what the Center for Disease Control would like everything and everybody to do). My son works a couple restaurant jobs – also waiting to see what comes down with that. At least a couple trips to the ballpark have been postponed indefinitely, and every sporting event I follow on video has shut down.
And the thing is, I’m a big fat introvert! I don’t go out that much anyway. Think how the social butterflies are feeling.
As I wrote this, an alert popped up that the stock market is once again suspending trade. That, to me, just underscores how unsuited our societal institutions in general are for a pandemic like this. So much of our civilization is based on uninterrupted individual production. One person goes down with the flu at work and everybody’s work plans are thrown off for a couple days. We have few institutional provisions for people not being productive for longer than a couple days. People are encouraged NOT to get sick; functionally, it results in people PRETENDING they’re not sick.
And now, to stop this, we’re assuming that everyone is pretending.
Stop almost everything to combat Coronavirus, and our social and economic institutions that count on nothing stopping are going ape shit.
And, folks, it’s just starting
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I want to say I’m quite proud of this work. It went exactly the way I envisioned, from the capture onward. That it went that way suggests I’m getting a slightly better handle on the many new tools and techniques I’ve been exploring. Which is not to say getting there did not produce its variations …
Over the years, I’ve gone out of my way NOT to capture photographs of people. Now I’m doing exactly the opposite.
I avoided it for so long mostly for privacy concerns. I didn’t want to put work out there of some anonymous stranger only to have that stranger show up later complaining that they’d never given me permission. Forget that such captures would always be gathered in public places. Do I have a right to use the image of someone for my own purposes? I suppose that’s the ‘straight arrow’ side of my personality coming out; I’m fine stirring the pot up, as long as I don’t REALLY get in trouble for it.
What’s changed is that the abstraction techniques I’m using now are so compelling when applied to human figures as to overwhelm any fear I once had in capturing them. That, and that when I’m finished applying these techniques the identity of an individual pretty much vanishes. At least eight faces are clearly depicted in today’s work – could a positive ID be made from any of them?
Oh, sure, this was a public event and the individuals captured were part of an organized group conducting a planned activity, so, yeah, those involved probably have a fair idea who was who. But all those factors, in my current view, make them fair game.
A story is told of a young person in a small, poor village who wants to buy his teacher a gift. Being poor he has nothing he can give her. The ocean, the most magnificent force of nature in his life, is just 20 miles away. So beginning early one morning he walks all the way to the beach, takes up a handful of sand, walks all the way back to his village and places the sand on his teacher’s desk. “The journey”, he tells her, “Is part of the gift”. This parable has always struck me as an especially poignant means of conveying that the heart and effort that goes into an act is more important than the act itself.
But everything can be turned on its head. It’s struck me that art traditionalists take the same tack in considering digital and photo art. Anything touching a computer is found to be inadequate; only brushes and paint are judged a legitimate long walk to the beach.
However, turns out there’s more to the story than what was once told to me. The teacher is actually quite popular. There are others in the village who, equally poor, recognize the symbolism that a little beach sand infers. Another young person, who is quite social and vivacious, convinces a slightly older person who’d studied under this teacher to lend him a bicycle. He makes the same journey to the sea and comes back with the same size handful of sand, albeit he makes the journey faster and with less effort. Another young person hires himself out working nights in a small business until he has earned just enough money to afford a bus ticket. His journey involves less physical effort, but he must endure the mental anguish of traveling the crowded and somewhat dangerous bus route. He too comes back with an equal sized handful of sand. Finally, a fourth young person remembers her friend from the youth congress she attended, who happens to live in the city by the ocean. She writes her friend a letter, and the friend then mails back to her, in a small container, a handful of sand.
So there the teacher sits on her birthday with four piles of sand on her desk, each of them obtained through compelling journeys, each of them reverberating with the sounds and scents of the vast ocean, each of them brimming with heart. Were she to consider one more beautiful than the next she would not have become a great teacher.
The anthropological record is filled with societies who died off due to their inability to change with rapidly evolving conditions – rapidly evolving conditions in climate, viral, and societal forms. Art is illustrative.
Art was arguably relatively stable until the rise of modern art, including the Impressionists, in the late 1800’s. Society was already rapidly changing as the Industrial Revolution facilitated transportation and communications revolutions; economies were becoming global and ideas could be rapidly shared. The human ‘toolbox’ for conceiving and affecting the world grew from a handheld box to a factory-sized space with no walls. Established communities (audiences, critics, educators, aficionados) have taken years to ‘get it’.
Artists themselves are not immune; stuck on certain techniques, certain mediums. Stuck on things we’ve learned inside and out (often haven’t at all) and know how to control (and actually can’t). It’s understandable; a certain technique sells, and a new direction sits around collecting dust.
It’s worth suggesting that the lure to go off exploring new directions is what defines ‘Art’. Break away from the ‘old’. Evolve with conditions.
I admit it – three quarters of the time I start working on a piece, I’m just playing. In more serious moods I call it ‘experimenting’. Nah – it’s playing. It’s diving joyously into a pool looking to see what works there.
Now, the quarter of the time remaining, I start working believing I know exactly what I’m doing … yeah, most of the time I’m wrong and I end up playing anyway. For me to predict exactly what a given technique is going to achieve is like a weatherperson saying they know exactly what second NEXT WEEK it’s going to start raining; there are just too many variables. Until last summer I had only so many balls to play with, and I knew how each of them bounced, so I had a fair idea the direction I might be taking a piece even if I was playing. As I’ve learned more, however, I’ve got all these new balls. I dare say I have ten times the balls I used to have, and, because they’re new, I mostly only have the vaguest of ideas how each of them bounce. So now, it REALLY is play!
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I had something more serious in mind for the bunnies – something more akin to last year’s ‘Marked Down Man’ that is on exhibit at the Soulard Gallery for about another week. But as I’ve said before, all it takes is the most subtile shift in lighting or subject to completely throw off how one work unfolds in comparison to another work that seemed to be, but turns out wasn’t, identical. There’s a point while playing when I expect something artistically serious to emerge, and I expect it right up to the point it doesn’t. And then it’s just school at recess.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.