Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “Influences”

Blood Rituals Review, Part 2

After completing the review of my recent gallery show that I mentioned in my last blog post, staff writer at tattoodo.com Ross Howerton sent me some more in depth questions to learn more about the origins of the series. This interview made it into another stellar review of the exhibit on tattoodo.com, which you can read at the following link:

“These insanely realistic still lifes at Sacred Tattoo tap into mankind’s deepest veins.”

Source: Nick Baxter Draws Inspiration from His Own Blood | Tattoodo

 

banquet-of-suffering

Banquet Of Suffering, oil on panel, 18 x 24 inches, 2016

For even more in-depth commentary that didn’t make it into the article, here is the complete interview:

RH: How does working in different mediums, like tattooing and painting, affect you artistically?

NB: Each medium feeds off of and informs the other, in a cycle of experimentation and learning that results in a more well-rounded skillset.

RH: What is your favorite medium to work in?

NB: For pure, unfiltered expression with deep symbolism I prefer painting, but for more illustrative or graphic work, and especially for the collaborative creative process between client and artist, tattoos are a perfect outlet for other aspects of my creativity.

RH: As far as painting goes, you seem to have a preference for working in realism; why is that?

NB: I love form—the way light illuminates the world we perceive—and I love seeing the illusion of a reality that’s so convincing it can transport your mind into the world of the painting.

There’s a subtler aspect of realism that I also enjoy, which occurs with the most convincing pictorial illusions: that brief moment of disorienting wonder, a tiny temporary crack in the veneer of mundane certainty when the viewer who thought they were looking at a photograph realizes that’s not at all what it is. I’ve heard that moment described as the point where “emotional certainties waver, and taste loses its bearings.” I like trying to access that vulnerable place with what I do, I think an artwork can be impactful there.

RH: How and why did you first become inspired to use your own blood as a reference point for your oil paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI?

NB: For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the human body, the medical sciences, and all that’s hidden within us that makes us what we are. Blood in particular is such a powerful and universal symbol of life, and ironically, of death as well. I wrote in my artist statement for the exhibit at Sacred Gallery in New York City that blood “is the liquid life force that feeds our physical vessel, the container of our soul. Its hidden presence sustains us; the breach beyond its borders horrifies us. It plays an ever-present and meaningful role in the human lexicon, as a symbol of love and sacrifice, of familial bond and battle alike, its deep scarlet hue representative of passion and our most powerful, primal urges.”

I’ve had my share of exposure to it through routine bloodletting procedures I must undergo for a condition of iron overloading in my blood called Hemochromatosis. Over the years I’ve compiled quite a nice collection of reference material from these sessions, which of course set the creative gears in motion over what to make with it, and eventually the idea of the Blood Rituals series was sparked. Luckily I had the help of my dear phlebotomist friend through this process, and her arm appears in the exhibit’s large centerpiece painting as the only bit of a human figure depicted in the entire series.

But one of my primary goals, or hopes, with this series is to use blood imagery and symbolism in a way that doesn’t evoke the shock value of gore or the campiness of the horror genre, and I’m not trying to comment on a specific medical condition or treatment. So I wanted to surround it with unlikely juxtapositions and temper its visual power with an understated classical sensibility.

My use of blood-related subject matter has several layers of symbolism, from personal struggle and loss to the brutality inherent in all human civilizations, ancient and modern. I hope these images cut through any immediate reactions of fright or repulsion to access the vulnerable state of emotional freshness or tenderness that lies at the core of all our psyches. The fact that it intersects with my personal life makes blood more powerful for me as subject matter, and I hope some of that translates to the viewer.

RH: What was it like doing such an intensive artistic study on your own blood?

NB: I had a lot of fun with it. Blood is just fun to paint, because it’s a living liquid that does so many things. Of course it’s visceral and shiny and incredibly vibrant in color, but it also separates, clots, coagulates, dries and cracks, forms bubbles, changes color. It presents so many great artistic possibilities, to say nothing of its powerful symbolic potential.

RH: Why did you choose to paint only still lifes for Blood Rituals MMXVI?

NB: Still life is my original genre, the one I learned foremost in art school and have the most comfort and familiarity with. I love the other classical genres too though, so I included a small nod to landscapes and figurative work in the series’ large centerpiece mentioned above, called Pull Me Through Time.

RH: Do you consider the paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI as still lifes or self-portraits?

NB: Primarily they’re still lifes, as most of the symbolism is impersonal enough to have universal meaning, and many of the arrangements are mysterious enough to invite multiple narratives or interpretations.

However, they are all quite intimate to me, carrying personal narratives inspired by certain events and struggles in my life, featuring various objects I’ve collected over the years. And needless to say, the blood I used for reference is me, in a very literal and existential way.

One of the paintings is actually intended to be a much more direct reference to the self-portrait, and it’s titled as such. The viewer is invited to interpret the objects as parts of me and the arrangement as representative of my existence.

RH: How would you recommend that viewers try to interpret the profound oil paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI?

NB: I love when people viewing my work engage with it deeply enough, and are informed enough generally about visual art, to formulate their own ideas about it. Hearing these is always fascinating to me; they’re like a mirror, reflecting back to me the effects of my visual communication, the aspects of it or elements within it that spoke something to someone. As an artist and a maker of visual communication, I can always learn valuable insights from these.

On the other hand, I created this series with a very specific artistic vision and a premeditated intention, and with that comes the desire for people to engage with the images from a certain mindset. There are layers of symbolism and art-historical references that some viewers probably wouldn’t know how to decode without some prompting, so I included the artist statement quoted above with the exhibition, for those curious to know where I’m coming from.

Aside from the statement, when a viewer sees the gallery show, I’d feel like the works achieved their aim if that viewer felt a quiet somber darkness, and the existential sadness of loss, which is something all the paintings depict in one form or another. The blood is lost from the body, the weathered shelves and rusted metal have lost their former shine, the skulls and various bones, the wilted flowers, the tattered books—all have lost. But all still remain.

I imagine viewers perhaps also piecing together a loose semblance of a story being told by the remnants of some mysterious recent event—the artifacts left behind in the form of a still life arrangement. But I don’t need them necessarily to feel what I feel, or anything in particular, I just hope that they feel something.

RH: Just to give us a sense of the symbolism behind your still lifes, what meaning do you intend a piece like “Banquet of Suffering” to convey?

NB: Speaking of stories, I wrote a short parable about that particular piece, as an accompaniment to a future publishing of the series in book form:

“In a world much like ours, there was a race of conquerors who spread death far and wide to finance their empire. They drained all the land of its lifeblood to hoard it for themselves and hunted those who dared oppose, a once vibrant population now reduced to a grizzled band of vagabonds and scavengers.

One autumn eve, as frost turned the last of the green to black and night descended, this race of false heirophants and infant gods and gluttons gathered for a feast to celebrate their conquest. Drunk with power, intoxicated by greed, they gorged themselves deep into the night. Grown soft in their decadence, gloating in their spoils, they grew accustomed to the dark–indeed, foolishly thought their revelry would never end.

But eventually the morning did come, as it always does.

In the cool dawn, scavengers found the remnants of depraved merriment: a candle still burning, blood still fresh in silver bowls, chunks of bread and flesh as if frozen in mid-bite. They ate from the scraps and sipped cautiously, weary and watching for their vanished oppressors. As the rising sun revealed the murky depths of the banquet hall, they saw the bloated corpses, and realized with sudden relief that they were safe: the conquerors had gorged themselves to death.”

RH: Do you have a favorite painting from Blood Rituals MMXVI and why?

NB: I don’t have a favorite. I think some are more successful on an artistic level than others, in terms of vision and execution, but this is just a technical self-critique.

Each piece carries its own particular meaning for me, and the process of developing each into its final form contains a series of memories, problem solving, and minor struggles, so they are all important and meaningful to me in unique ways.

RH: What draws you to painting landscapes?

NB: I’ve always been a nature lover, plain and simple, with an explorer’s urge instilled in me by my father, to adventure in the lesser-traveled and wild places of this planet. I’ve been determined lately to combine this with my artistic passion, so painting landscapes is a natural fusion of two important parts of myself. I especially enjoy the raw directness of plein air painting, which is an old term meaning on location, out in the elements. It’s a great counterpart to my controlled finesse process of studio painting.

RH: As a painter and tattooist, who and what are some of your greatest influences?

NB: Classical realism painters from antiquity and modern times, photorealism and its various offshoots beginning in the 60’s and 70’s, and too many other genres, periods, muses, artists, and amazing tattooers to name. I’m lucky to call some of them friends and colleagues.

RH: Do you have any other art projects currently in progress and, if so, what?

NB: For now, I’m just continuing to paint a few more related still life ideas that couldn’t make the gallery show deadline, as well as attempting some more complex and larger scale landscapes.

Additionally, I ended up culling a few pieces from the Blood Rituals series in order to keep the desired aesthetic and narrative intact, as a few of them veered into pure photorealism and lost touch with classical still life. In the future those outcasts will form their own offshoot series, since I love photorealism just as much as I love classical realism, and they turned out just as good as the ones that made it into the series.

Notes & Advice 11

The popular text message shorthand TMI, as most of us growing up in the cell phone era know, means “too much information.” Normally not a good thing–except when it comes to my realism oil painting strategy.

To be specific, I find it useful to paint as much information as possible in the beginning stages and opaque layers of my photorealist paintings, so that I can pick and choose where to obscure it during the final (semi-transparent) glazing layers. There’s perhaps a bit of inefficiency involved in this approach, but it allows for a more organic development process overall, and a greater degree of control during the final artistic choices of what to emphasize or subordinate into shadow.

Dying In America-shadowglaze1

“Dying In America” (detail). Before and after the final shadow glazes. Note the subtle loss of detail/information in the rose petals.

The human eye is capable of seeing every detail of any given view, but the brain, our computer processor of sorts, is wired for efficiency and baseline survival, and as such is instinctively tuned to only allow us to focus on what is most important in any given view. Details and countless bits and pieces of any scene get stitched together from memory, assumption, and expectation, while a vast majority of the remaining minutiae are simply discarded as inessential to whatever task is at hand.

Some of my favorite realism artists were masters of this concept, knowing exactly what to emphasize or subdue in order to pull the viewers attention towards their focus and tug at their heartstrings with an effective narrative or use of symbolism.

Notice in John Singer Sargent’s portraits how little attention was paid to large areas of dress, allowing inessential areas to become black or brown silhouettes with no detail. He created a hierarchy of importance within the picture that mimics the way our brains naturally function, using the aforementioned technique to subordinate certain areas.

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop)

John Singer Sargent. “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” 1884, oil. The dress and background, which comprise nearly all of the painting, are almost entirely flat areas of dark value.

Andrew Wyath used the technique of reserve just as brilliantly towards the goal of depicting scenic vistas and landscapes with a completely lifelike–yet surprisingly graphic and simplistic–appearance, setting the often somber and peaceful mood with just enough detail to draw us in and keep us looking.

bca808651127103ffc3f45c7c49cee68

Andrew Wyeth. “Sea Boots,” 1976, tempera. Details in the boots and foreground tempered with the geometric simplicity of everything in the top half of the composition.

scanned from 8 x 10" ct 11/13

Andrew Wyeth. “Barracoon,” 1976, tempera. Just enough accurate rendering in the figure and folds in the fabric, juxtaposed with large open fields of color and diffused texture.

 

And so I too try to keep the artistic concepts of hierarchy, subordination, and reserve in mind while envisioning my final result, with the goal of creating a visually appealing image, rather than chaotic overload containing a factually truthful amount of information, yet lacking cohesion and harmony.

I think these concepts become especially important when painting anything approaching the photorealism genre. Micro details are common and often necessary to complete the desired illusion in this style of painting, and yet conversely, a closed-minded and strict devotion to every detail of one’s photo reference or still life arrangement can result in a less aesthetically pleasing work of art.

"Dying In America" (detail).

“Dying In America” (detail).

Visual information, as with most things in life, can in fact become too much of a good thing. To make sure I hit my desired sweet spot on the information spectrum, I’m not afraid to paint more detail than will ultimately be needed, only to lose it in deep, rich, believable shadows. The most effective of these shadows will still contain the faintest traces of the details underneath, yet not so much detail as to clutter and distract from my desired focal point.

"Dying In America," 2015, oil on linen panel.

“Dying In America,” 2015, oil on linen panel.

What Is Art? (Part 2)

Last year I started collecting my thoughts on the continual debate in my head about what art is, and how it can be (among other things) an effective form of communication. That effort was and still is intertwined with the process of further understanding my own art, and all other art, as well. In hindsight, I thought the initial writing (here and here) was a bit unfocused, and since it was also incomplete, I took the time recently to revisit those blog entries and rework them into a more cohesive essay.

The final part of that essay, as mentioned in the second of those prior blog posts, is about my belief that photojournalism can be viewed as a creative art form, possessing an almost-accidental form of raw beauty capable of inspiring other works of art (such as many of my own). This critique of photojournalism introduces broader questions about the “unintended” as art, and–for now–completes my investigation into the sneakily complicated debate “What is art?”

In the future I’ll post the final version of the essay in its entirety, but for now here is the “part 2” continuation of those prior blog posts.

Photojournalism and the Unintended as Art

In the last 100 years, photojournalism has become a fixture of our visual landscape. On the surface, it’s simply defined as the use of images to tell a news story or to report on current events. In this role, the photos are not art, and their photographers are not acting as artists, which means their images are typically held to strict ethical standards of honesty, impartiality, and objectivity. But these attributes are graded on a scale that becomes increasingly inexact amidst the complexity of postmodern thought and the digital age of endless reproduction and re-appropriation. This is the point at which the question “What is art?” becomes relevant and fascinating to me, when applied to the medium of photojournalism.

I’ve always appreciated the naïve purity of an image that’s been produced with no pretense of art, utterly uninhibited by the finicky shackles of artistic rules or the whims of unreliable muses like inspiration. In this open and wild space, artistic qualities and natural beauty are given the chance to emerge on their own, unintended and raw, like the strongest of weeds in a perfectly manicured lawn, and photography seems to be an ideal medium for this phenomenon. This element of chance can produce quite powerful images, capable of communicating intensely to the viewer while remaining—and precisely because they remain—firmly grounded in the truth of reality “as it happened.”

And so the commonplace photos we’re bombarded with through ever-increasing media saturation begin ostensibly as visual data comprised only of ‘facts’ or neutral information, yet end up loaded with symbolism, embedded with the perceptions and beliefs of their creators and audience after becoming the subject of this artistic line of inquiry.

2004_TWIP_040304_02.ss_full

One of my all-time favorites (sorry I could not find the photographer or image credit online).

In studying art history, it seems this afterlife of the journalistic image became much more possible in the wake of the Dada movement, when artists (including photographers) carved out new niches for their work beyond mere decoration or commemoration of important people or places. Art in the 20th century became increasingly deconstructivist, philosophically charged, and conceptual in nature, filling multiple roles while having its meaning manipulated by the increasingly complex worldviews of both creator and audience1.

Because of this evolution, just about anything could be considered art in the right context, meaning that most contemporary art now resides as much in the blurry, ambiguous realm of provocative ideas as it does in the realm of traditional craft. Hence a museum visitor might encounter an exhibit of random paint splotches that, beneath its completely underwhelming, childlike appearance, contains a metaphor referencing complex political or psychological theories learned by the artist through years of intense academic study.

This can be maddening to the viewer who simply wants to marvel at a skillfully executed object of beauty, or it can be liberating for those who want to engage in debate, controversy, or social change through the arts. My own art has always attempted to straddle this fence by incorporating the best of both worlds: technical, precise handling of paint in the realism tradition, yet depicting modern subject matter and informed by the angst and alienation of postmodern philosophies. It is my belief that photojournalism in the modern age, thanks to that 20th-century process of expansion and deconstruction, straddles a similar fence, one separating objective observations from subjective beauty and meaning.

This ability of the journalistic photograph to transcend genres is confirmed in the academic community by the fact that “Breaking News Photography” is a Pulitzer Prize category.  This prestigious yearly award started in 1917 as a way to honor impactful achievements in American journalism, literature, and music. Winning photographs are resurrected as art objects, receiving appreciation for their poignancy and beauty—a second life of sorts, after their initial purpose or function in the journalistic media has been served.

This second life also takes the form of photo essays, curated and arranged into cohesive narratives, which are now commonly presented in art and lifestyle publications, fine art galleries, and museums throughout the world. Depending on the intentions of the photographer and exhibiting institution or publication, as well as the sensibilities of the viewing audience, these photographs may be appreciated for their communication about the world events that comprise their content, or for their artistic qualities—or both.

In his 1995 essay about the modern age of photojournalism, writer Richard Lacayo wades into the debate surrounding artistic subjectivity and meaning:

“Photojournalists tend to stay aloof from talk about camera aesthetics. There is something about dodging gunfire in Beirut that discourages ruminations on style, understandably enough. More to the point, no one who catalogs bloodshed or poverty wants to be thought of as yet another vendor to the senses. Some news photographers spend half their lives chasing wars; who can blame them if they reach for the door when they hear the word art? …The stereotype survives: artists have visions; journalists have assignments. They may both think to themselves, ‘I am a camera,’ but each means something different.

“Yet aesthetic questions have a moral dimension. Color is pretty; misery is not. How does one keep the simple appeal of color from confounding the full range of meanings a photograph may convey? If pictures of genocide come to us in the muted pastels of a GAP ad or the vivid hues of a rock video, how does a photographer keep atrocity from looking palatable?”2

While the moralist in me sympathizes with this sentiment, the artist and rebel in me, raised in an age of cynicism, desensitization, and ambiguity, views adjectives like ‘palatable’ as mere subjective opinions, impossible to resolve into an absolute truth for all to agree on. Human culture is so diverse that practically anything could be considered palatable art, by someone. And so I answer Lacayo’s question with another question: “Why should the photographer keep atrocity from looking palatable?”

I want to ask this question not because I enjoy atrocity, but because I am capable of the postmodern complexity of holding multiple feelings and competing appreciations within me simultaneously. In this case, that multiplicity includes the horror and revulsion at the tragic events occurring in our world as well as the aesthetic delight at the spectacle of color, shape, line, emotion, symbolism, and meaning on vivid display, emerging somewhat accidentally (and perhaps with more purity) through the photojournalistic medium.

As if to concede this very point I’m making and pay homage to the “What is art?” debate, the author goes on to admit, “The most capable photojournalists…have learned to incorporate the unruliness of color into a deliberate statement. …Barbaric rule can operate in the broadest daylight, suffering can happen in sensual settings, a place can be cruel and inviting at the same time.”

And so we see that through the inescapable conduit of subjectivity, passive observation becomes intentional communication, and thus, photojournalism can also be the highest of art forms, loaded with inspiration for artists working in any medium. I’ve always appreciated the best journalistic photography for this transcendent ability, the point at which the happenings of this world become awe-inspiring images, and the deepest truths contained in the human condition are put on poetic display.

referencefolder-lowres

Various newspaper and magazine clippings I’ve saved over the years for reference and inspiration.

 

So once and for all, “What is art?” This question may never be fully answered. But with an integral approach and an open mind, artists and viewers alike can use this line of inquiry to enrich their experience of reality, to deepen the communication that is the purpose of all art, and to find beauty everywhere, even where it may be unintended.

2000_51398791.ss_full

Another powerful, poetic image (sorry I couldn’t find the photographer or image credit online for this one either).

 

1The Situationists of the 1960s took this evolution to the extreme, espousing radical anarchist views on art that embraced destruction and merciless re-appropriation of all imagery, in the service of transforming society and conscious reality into a powerful and playful dialogue with the present moment.

2Lacayo, Richard. “IV: Resurgence 1980-1995.” Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism. New York CIty: Time, 1995. 166. Print.

The 13th Hour: Worlds Within

I’m honored to be part of two group shows this fall, one of which I announced previously, and now the 6th annual “The 13th Hour” Halloween show at Last Rites Gallery in NYC that opens tonight, October 26th. Here’s the press release from the gallery website, and here’s a link to the online preview.

The 13th Hour
6th Annual Group Exhibit

October 26 – December 7th

NEW YORK, NY (October 26th, 2013) – Last Rites Gallery opens its sixth annual The 13th Hour group exhibit, celebrating the spirit of the Halloween Season.

In its annual exhibit, Last Rites sets out to present a broad-spectrum representation of Dark Surrealism. Held days just before Halloween, the show is the gallery’s largest group exhibit, and features renowned artists from around the globe working in an array of mediums including painting, drawing and sculpture. From gothic elegance to finely crafted grotesquery, the beauty within the darkness is embraced and brought into the spotlight.

Artists include: Stefano Alcantara, Agostino Arrivabene, Tom Bagshaw, William Basso, Nick Baxter, Blood Milk, Matthew Bone, Scott G Brooks, Matt Buck, John Cebollero, David Choquette, Ryan Matthew Cohn, Jason Goldberg, Carl Grace, Fred Harper, Naoto Hattori, Stephanie Henderson, Jeremy Hush, Sarah Joncas, Jed Leiknes, Eli Livingston, Dave MacDowell, Chris Mars, Megan Massacre, Marco Mazzoni, Jim McKenzie, Vince Natale, Buddy Nestor, Richard J Oliver, Anthony Pontius, Michael Ramstead, David Richardson, Paul Romano, Matt Rota, Richard T Scott, David Stoupakis, Tin, Yosuke Ueno, Redd Walitzki, Jasmine Worth, Vincent Xeus, Kate Zambrano

 

13thHour2013_web

 

The image I painted for the show is a representation of the Many-Worlds Interpretation and “observer effect” phenomena involved in quantum physics research. It was actually inspired, of all things, by song lyrics from my favorite band and longtime artistic influence Catharsis, whose ultimate goal was total transformation of reality through armed resistance and revolutionary anarchist struggle. Their lyrics were oddly and perhaps unintentionally connected to the aforementioned theories in that they focused on the ability of the embattled individual to redefine themselves and change their very reality…to imagine a world of their own choosing, to believe in it wholeheartedly, and thus to fight for it passionately. Their song “Obsession” begins with the following lines:

To sow seeds in barren fields

When there’s no more fertile ground

To bear the fragile worlds within

Through the ruined one that surrounds

For many years these words have given me strength to be true to myself through hard times by holding fast to the inspired visions and emotions that populate my inner world, and working to manifest them in the outside world. They took on new significance after I started learning some of the basic concepts (very, very basic. haha) of quantum physics and became fascinated by the philosophy of metaphysics. The connection between the lyrics and these sciences is the tentative yet intriguing assertion that the world out there exists as it does only because my mind first creates it in here.

 

worlds within

Worlds Within, oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches, 2013

 

worlds within-detail

Worlds Within (detail)

 

Influences 4

Edward Paul Abbey (January 29, 1927 – March 14, 1989)

Sometime around 2006 or 2007 a close friend lent me a battered, worn out paperback, paying forward the very item which had once been lent to her. Unbeknownst to both of us (or perhaps just me?), this compact tome of ochre edges and soft corners would begin a journey of deep appreciation for the American Southwest and all things wild, which would culminate not only in the avowal of a profound new influence on my art and thinking, but in my physical migration west to Austin, Texas.

desert solitaire book

A rambling yet quick-witted recounting of the author’s time in the wild lands of Utah, whose salty tone resembles the very landscape it describes, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey introduced me to a strain of pure environmentalism and a curiosity of what lies “out there” in the part of this conquered and domesticated continent “where no one goes.”  Since then I’ve rather unintentionally incorporated Abbey’s ethic and attitude into my life and of course, into my artwork, only in the last 2 years realizing the true significance of having been exposed to him.  Though they rarely show up in direct or literal fashion through subject matter, the cleansing spirit of the vast, open southwest and Abbey’s maverick attitude both inform the concepts which drive my artistic purpose, and the themes I explore.

I recently encountered an editorial piece celebrating Abbey’s work and spirit, which resonated with me in a way that once again confirmed the importance of his work as an underlying factor in my own.  Reading that author’s interpretation of Edward Abbey’s legacy inspired this post, which has the perfect occasion of marking the 24th anniversary of Abbey’s death.

grows back stronger

Grows Back Stronger, oil on panel, 16 x 24in, 2010

A Prophecy:

“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. …The city, which should be the symbol and center of civilization, can also be made to function as a concentration camp. This is one of the significant discoveries of contemporary political science.

How does this theory apply to the present and future of the famous United States of North America? Suppose we were planning to impose a dictatorial regime upon the American people—the following preparations would be essential:

  1. Concentrate the populace in megalopolitan masses so that they can be kept under close surveillance and where, in case of trouble, they can be bombed, burned, gassed or machine-gunned with a minimum of expense and waste.
  2. Mechanize agriculture to the highest degree of refinement, thus forcing most of the scattered farm and ranching population into the cities. Such a policy is desirable because farmers, woodsmen, cowboys, Indians, fishermen and other relatively self-sufficient types are difficult to manage unless displaced from their natural environment.
  3. Restrict the possession of firearms to the police and the regular military organizations.
  4. Encourage or at least fail to discourage population growth. Large masses of people are more easily manipulated and dominated than scattered individuals.
  5. Continue military conscription. Nothing excels military training for creating in young men an attitude of prompt, cheerful obedience to officially constituted authority.
  6. Divert attention from deep conflicts within the society by engaging in foreign wars; make support of these wars a test of loyalty, thereby exposing and isolating potential opposition to the new order.
  7. Overlay the nation with a finely reticulated network of communications, airlines and interstate autobahns.
  8. Raze the wilderness. Dam the rivers, flood the canyons, drain the swamps, log the forests, strip-mine the hills, bulldoze the mountains, irrigate the deserts and improve the national parks into national parking lots.”

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 2013 1967

Influences 3: Catharsis

lightfrom

catharsis  [(kuh- thahr -suhs)] — n

1. An experience of emotional release and purification,

often inspired by or through art.

2. American anarchist hardcore/punk band, active c. 1992-2002

Two decades ago, before the music industry had fully colonized it, the do-it-yourself underground was a space of exodus and experimentation, often in violent opposition to the rest of the world. This was the context in which Catharsis appeared, one of a new wave of bands to meld metal drama with the raw urgency of hardcore punk. They quickly distinguished themselves by an almost self-destructive intensity and uncompromising anticapitalist ethic. Inverting Christian iconography to champion the struggle of the individual against a hostile cosmos, they took up the centuries-old banner No Gods, No Masters, extending this project of total defiance into their increasingly tumultuous lives. This apocalyptic orientation in turn informed their music, as they sought to hit upon the magic combination of words, harmonies, and rhythms that could spark a global conflagration.

Following relentless touring on three continents and a final catastrophic five months in Europe, Catharsis broke up in 2002.

After a decade of other projects, they reunited in January 2013 for a weekend of performances to commemorate the release of their discography, Light From A Dead Star. I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany the band for the duration of their mini-tour, giving me plenty of opportunity to soak in the incredible transformative energy of their performances and reminisce on the effect this band–no, more than ‘band’: this entity–has had on my life.

reminder

“May the flags all die at the tops of their poles…”

Forging a camaraderie with vocalist b. as a teenager was incredibly impactful to my young mind and budding sense of identity and purpose. That impressionable age is a time of hero-worship, which can just as often end disastrously as beneficially. But in this case, my personal connection to Catharsis and their dynamic frontman helped shape my personal work ethic, determination, and spirit, giving me “courage for my passions and my pains” in the midst of often turbulent coming-of-age years. I now see my relationship with Catharsis as the fulcrum upon which hinged a destiny: ultimately, a departure from the life laid out before me by the traditions of my privileged suburban upbringing.

Ever since, my art has been a representation of this personal rupture and resulting reclamation, its very conceptual foundation being self transcendence through deconstruction–of the human body and other thin veneers and obscurations.

samsara

Samsara LP, 1997

samsara2010-30

Samsara, oil on panel, 12in x 12in, 2010

The band’s themes and lyrics continue to be recontextualized, remaining as relevant to me today as when they first opened my eyes to a meaningful life and worlds of new potential over 15 years ago. And I’m convinced that this militant music about radical disavowal and re-appropriation of values cannot be truly appreciated nor understood in the absence of that very context. Frenetic drumming blasts through driving, gritty, wailing guitars, all drenched in desperate screams…a primal intonation borne out of suffering and postmodern alienation, baring the beautiful vulnerability of its makers. For those who’ve deeply felt that suffering, music like Catharsis’ soothes the ears and the ache within; it must surely obscure as a wall of detestable noise to those who haven’t. In this way, context is indeed the threshold through which to enter this experience.

3

Screaming along, into the mic offered by b. Only my arm and gloved hand make the picture. (Photo by Rebecca R.)

Of course, the band’s live performance was the the pinnacle of their emotional outpouring; their shows were ritualized incantations powerful enough to redirect the trajectories of entire lives.  Such performative power given to already intense themes can be polarizing, and often led to emotional breakdowns by audience participants or hostile backlash from hecklers. The Catharsis live show, by design, brought nearly everyone out of their comfort zones, bringing the band’s purpose full circle by illustrating in real-time the utter destruction of all human limits and worldly constraints.

25

(Photo by Rebecca R. More photos here.)

To be free in the empire of entrepreneurs and authorities.

To be lucid between the airwaves and sedatives,

To trust yourself under the tyranny of consensus reality.

To be sensitive living in earshot of the sweatshops, the stadiums, the slaughterhouses,

With the scent of blood cheap in the air.

To dream of beauty with the stars plucked from the sky,

The angels caged and heroes demonized.

To sing through throats stuffed with the cotton of inhibition,

To write of grace with calloused hands and bloody faces;

To dare to scream, and even cry, proudly, before the jeering eyes

Of the judges, the executioner, and the crowd.

To lie, cheat, steal, and betray as much as necessary

To be honest,

To tell the truth.

To be fearless: to move and follow that movement

Even into death, to live to burn up in the wreckage.

To give everything:

To kiss without apprehension, shame, or restraint,

To make love in the city of hate.

And yes, to be alive,

Alive in the land of the dead. Catharsis.

 

Influences 2

Light Shines Through was a painting I completed in 2010 for a group exhibition memorializing artist and tattooer Monica Henk, whose life was tragically cut short in a still-unsolved NYC hit and run incident. Featuring a surreal depiction of one of Monica’s favorite pieces of jewelry, this piece is about the persistence of hope, and a belief in the triumph of mankind despite the potential for monumental sadness and suffering inherent in the human condition.

Light Shines Through, oil on panel, 2010, 12in x 12in

One of the original inspirations for my choice of theme and symbolism in this commemorative painting was the writing of pioneering logotherapy psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. A Jewish holocaust surviver, whose harrowing memoir of life and death in a Nazi concentration camp is a moving description of the unbreakable human spirit, Frankl’s work has been an ongoing influence in my art. Throughout Man’s Search For Meaning he describes his observations, and concludes:

We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.  For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.  When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.

Reiterating his powerful analysis, Frankl again poses the question and answers:

How…can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?  After all, ‘saying yes to life in spite of everything’…presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.  And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.  In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … That is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Though the hardships I’ve faced pale in comparison to his plight, my paintings have always been part of an over-arching narrative searching for meaning in suffering, and the process of finding hope through often difficult personal transformation. As such, I believe Frankl’s work appeared in my life quite auspiciously via energetic resonance rather than random coincidence (this, of course, in observance of the universal “law of attraction”).

To my delight, this quantum phenomenon reared its head again when my recent foray into the Integral work of Ken Wilber revealed an unexpected connection to the symbolism of this painting, inspiring me to revisit and feature it here. Specifically, it was Wilber’s use of a poignant Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, which features the title of the painting and summarizes it perfectly:

From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.

Influences 1

“Denial Vanitas” Redux

You know that thing that happens when you stare at a single word for too long, and the letters start to separate themselves, become individual symbols, and your brain starts to mistakenly think you’ve misspelled the word?  The original form and meaning of the word dissolve into the existential void and our primal phenomenological sensing ability comes back to the forefront, from the recesses of our “reptile brain.” (Comedian Chris Farley’s hilarious take on this concept from the incredible movie Black Sheep featuring the word “roads…rooooads…rowads…rroowwads” comes to mind…)

Well, um, anyway. That happened. When I was composing my last blog entry about my new painting, I kept staring at the words “Denial Vanitas,” checking for misspellings before going live with the post, and this psychedelic subconscious shift took place:

Denial Vanitas

Daniel Vanitas

Daniel Vitalis

I’m a huge Daniel Vitalis fan so this is not nearly as surprising as it is amusing. Just thought I’d share.

“Re-wild yourself.”

And while I’m at it, I should share another amusing corollary: there’s an excellent documentary about the death-denial work of Ernest Becker (mentioned in the previous post) called Flight From Death that was envisioned and co-produced by a longtime acquaintance of mine, Greg Bennick.

Painting: the quest for immortality.

I’m also a huge Greg Bennick fan.  But I originally know him from his long run as vocalist for the seminal hardcore/punk band Trial–one of the most inspiring hardcore bands ever. Here’s why, some sample lyrics:

In The Balance

while i choke strangled by the hands of time
my life slowly slips away
the dollars i save aren’t worth the days i’d spend
with images of freedom as lies in my head
the hand that feeds will always bleed me dry
though these hours, these minutes, these moments, are mine
intensify
no one else will guide the way
break the silence before it breaks us…
down to a point from where there’s no escape
where regret destroys whatever life remains
and you, when you’ve told yourself a lie
the path of least resistance destroys you in time
is it heresy to want to live today? that’s not asking too much
so many are barely getting by, and starving in the streets
while in denial of death, yet still afraid to be free
we grovel beneath the pantheon of security
assured as we sell our dreams to buy our pain
that “the meek shall inherit” when only the strong will reign
all life hangs in the balance, i won’t wait until it drops
i can’t wait, they might not have another day
i have to live, i might not have even one more day

Live in Chicago. I am buried somewhere in that pile of humans.

I find it interesting how my influences–both personal and artistic–show up in everything I create. So maybe this is all more proof that everything is connected? There are no coincidences.