Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “Photography”

Blood Rituals: Redux

Photoshoots for last year’s Blood Rituals series of still life paintings yielded several interesting macros which did not fit the aesthetic of classical still life that evolved out of my initial brainstorming sessions. I extracted four compositions from these photos, and after perfecting them in the digital darkroom, recreated them as hyperrealist oil paintings. This miniseries pursues a different avenue of exploration of the same subject matter, presenting another aspect of my artistic vision and skill set as a painter.

These claustrophobic and intimate closeups border on the abstract, as the complex color patterns of wrinkled plastic bags and condensation covered glass lose their original context of setting and scenery. Within this unfamiliar space, the jarring appearance of blood is a beautiful, rich and vibrant color that makes these compositions pop, while providing symbolic depth. The narrative of what’s happening and why is largely absent from these images–intentionally–as they strive for a disorienting sense of wonder by honoring the genre of true photorealism. Uncanny likeness to the “real” provides an illusion that in turn may open up new ways of perceiving the ordinary, mundane objects of the world around us.

Our physical reality contains infinite detail, but to help us move efficiently through the world, our brains eliminate much of what our eyes are capable of perceiving. When given an up close, sustained glimpse of the material complexity we inhabit, the result is often overwhelming, surreal, and disorienting, as our simplified view explodes with new detail. This is the point at which assumptions and certainties are compelled to crumble, opening the intellectual space for new truths to be realized and deeper understanding to form.

 

BLOOD RITUALS: REDUX

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

 

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

 

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

 

(untitled), oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2017

On The Road 12: Spring and Summer Plein Air Adventures

I’ve been so busy painting in the studio for an upcoming exhibition of all new still lifes (announcements soon!) that I forgot to post about my spring and summer landscape painting fun.

Part I: April

At the beginning of April I was in Arizona, where as soon as I get out of Phoenix, I’m reminded why it’s one of my favorite nature states: so much variety of vast and mentally cleansing wild terrain! On this trip I had the good fortune of being able to paint the low desert in the south and then venture north of Flagstaff to paint the completely different high desert plains.

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Salt River, Tonto National Forest, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

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High Plains, Wupatki National Monument, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

Part II: May

In late April I headed to the motherland of classical art for some work and pleasure. First stop was Venice, where I was too busy to paint, but caught some great iPhone snaps (not hard to do basically anywhere in Italy) with my now-antiquated 5s .

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As the calendar turned to May, I traveled with friends to the lush hills of Tuscany, where I had the opportunity to experience the best views the entire region has to offer–from the mountains further inland (overlooking Leonardo’s birthplace Vinci) to the stunning Mediterranean coast–and produced these two plein air studies.

That's me underneath the arch. Photos courtesy of Luca Natalini

That’s me underneath the arch. Photos courtesy of Luca Natalini

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View From Monsummano Alto, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Lerici Sunset, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Lerici Sunset, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

In between travels I managed to squeeze in a plein air session while home in Austin, on the occasion of a few artist friends being in town. We made the short drive out to one of the city’s little natural treasures, McKinney Falls State Park, which boasts some active waterfalls and a variety of interesting rock formations with a kind of outer space vibe.

Lower McKinney Falls, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Lower McKinney Falls, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Part III: June

In June I ventured to the altitudes of Lake Tahoe for the first time, and got roasted by the deceptively strong summer sun while painting the beautiful vistas of Heavenly Mountain and Emerald Bay.

Western View From Heavenly, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Western View From Heavenly, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Emerald Bay, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Emerald Bay, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

On the eve of my departure I caught an ultra-quick sunset session as the haze from California wildfires filtered out some magical orange and pink rays. Since I only had time to block in a quick impression of the scene, I revisited the piece after I returned home in order to smooth everything out and push the atmosphere.

Lake Tahoe Sunset, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Lake Tahoe Sunset, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Part IV: July

In July I visited Ireland for the second time, but first as a plein air painter, and was excited about the opportunities for new environs. The Emerald Isle did not disappoint as I found my way into the mountains south of Dublin for a quick session, then to the picturesque Howth coastline just north of the city, which had me most nostalgic for my boyhood summers on Cape Cod here in the States.

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Keeping my painting out of the rain.

Mountain Stream With View, oil on panel, 11 x 4 inches, 2016

Mountain Stream With View, oil on panel, 11 x 4 inches, 2016

One of the only moments of the day without any tourists in the shot.

One of the only moments of the day without any tourists in the shot.

Baily Lighthouse at Howth Head, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Baily Lighthouse at Howth Head, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

On The Road 10: Peruvian Plein Air

Earlier this month I traveled to Peru, where I trekked to majestic Machu Picchu for the first time, documenting the epic Andes landscape throughout the journey with some plein air studies.

Being new to plein air painting, I took a few months before the trip to dial in my portable painting setup, experimenting with different materials and products in order to arrive at something as travel-friendly as possible.

 

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

 

Not only did everything need to clear foreign and domestic customs, the intense hiking aspect of the forthcoming journey required it to be as small, lightweight, and efficient as possible. After getting the initial inspiration from my summer workshop teacher Thomas Kegler‘s novel and ingenious modifications to the traditional plein air pochade box, I searched the internet and local stores for a few more ideas and products. In the end I devised something very functional, fairly efficient, not terribly expensive (as far as high-end art and travel equipment goes), acceptably small, and certainly lightweight.

NOTEWORTHY GEAR

  1. Tripod: The most important part of a plein air easel is the tripod, and to get one that is (1) reliable, (2) sturdy, (3) small, and (4) lightweight, you have to spend some money. It’s not worth the headaches later on, out in the field, to mess around with the cheap stuff. So I read reviews online and settled on the Manfrotto Befree, which seemed to intersect all of the 4 criteria above at an optimal place. After buying the tripod, I modified it by drilling a hole through the center stem a few milimeters from the bottom, in order to be able to hang a weight (my backpack) from it while working outdoors, which is crucial for keeping the very lightweight tripod sturdy in any kind of wind. So far it’s working out great, I just wish it went just a few inches higher like their studio tripods do, but, you can’t have it all when you’re concerned about size and packing space. (Grade: A).
  2. Pochade Box: Ethically, I strongly dislike Walmart, but when it’s the only large store in your small Texas town, sometimes you go there for the one random thing you want that they have (and comfort yourself afterwards by remembering that the entire world is headed for doomsday anyway because of capitalist greed causing global warming, and your minuscule nonsupport of Walmart wouldn’t do shit to stop that, really). In this case, it was the unlikely and unexpected score of a lightweight, plastic, 3-part folding notebook holder thing (with perfectly placed interior velcro elastic straps?!). For around $10.00, and requiring only a few small tripod-mounting holes to be drilled into it, this was an absolute bargain. …and wait, that’s not all!! It’s perfectly sized to fit two 9 x 12 inch panels in such a way that it doubles as your take-home wet painting carrier when you’re done with your session!! Call now, and this product can be yours for only 4 easy payments of literally $2.99!! Seriously though, I’m so pumped about this thing that I want to make an infomercial about it to spread the word. (Grade: A)
  3. Paint Carrier: Just a small bait holder from the hunting and fishing section at…Walmart. Or probably most hardware stores. It worked well enough, but I’m still on the hunt for one of equally small size, but with an airtight seal and divided into cubes instead of just rows. The paint mixed together somewhat during transport and higher temperatures, and began to dry out as well due to airflow (a rag soaked with moisture-enhancing Clove oil placed into the container drastically delayed drying time, though). Customs/TSA ProTip: If asked to explain what your oil paint is, never say they are paint! Always refer to them as “artist colors”! “Paint” tends to get lumped in with the general category of industrial, toxic materials banned for civilian flight, and they try to take those away from you, or at least tend to give you a hard time about it. Flying with as few “artist colors” as possible, and always packing them deep in your checked baggage rather than carry-ons, will also minimize hassles. (Grade: C+)
  4. Umbrella: At first these seem frilly and wasteful but after a few nasty plein air session sunburns, you realize how crucial they are when you’re standing still in any kind of direct sunlight for any length of time. I’ve been happy so far with my very first umbrella purchase, the Multi Mount Collapsible Umbrella from Guerilla Painter. It packs very small, and doesn’t weigh much. I wish the fabric wasn’t black though, because that can make your workspace very dark. And I also wish the mounting clamp had more angle options but that might be wishful thinking given its price range, size and weight. (Grade: A-)
  5. Crucial Miscellaneous Supplies: (1) Cheap zippered cloth bags from Walmart for carrying whatever. (2) Tiny bungee cords from the local hardware store. I use the Cords to keep my pochade box setup sturdy and still–just hook them anywhere, to anything, for some instant tension. These things have been really handy, and surprisingly one of the most indispensable things I bought for the setup. (3) Large industrial rubber bands, also surprisingly useful, in this case for making sure the pochade box doesn’t come unlatched unexpectedly and spring open, and ditto for the paint carrier. (4) Tiny glass vial for carrying solvent. Juuust big enough to hold enough solvent to dip your brush into and sort of clean them after you’re done, until you can give them a thorough cleaning at home. Carrying solvent around really sucks, it’s the worst part of plein air oil painting for me. It’s a health and safety hazard, of course, and not healthy for the environment that you’re trying so hard to appreciate. So, “as little as possible” has been my goal ever since beginning oil painting, and certainly since starting my plein air journey. Customs/TSA ProTip: Because I am a bad person, I have forgotten about and accidentally flown with this single tiny vial containing a mere several drops of solvent, buried deep in my checked baggage, a few times before. Obviously doing this isn’t advisable, and obviously I procure solvent at my destination whenever feasible, and properly dispose of it there as well. So my tip is to scout out in advance where you can get mineral spirits at your destination, and always keep it to an absolute minimum quantity. While on the go, wrap the jar or vial thoroughly with plastic and then double-bag it with ziplocs or anything else you can think of. (Grade: A-)
  6. Backpack: I’ve been so happy with my Osprey Comet 30L over the past few years of heavy, rugged use. It’s comfortable, durable, has enough pockets and compartments for everything I tend to carry, and is also Camelbak compatible, which came in handy during this trip, because carrying separate water containers is a drag. I was able to stuff my 2.0 liter reservoir into my backpack along with every single other supply needed, including energy bars, and the whole pack wasn’t unbearably heavy. It was certainly doable over short periods for someone of average to slightly above average fitness range (and not to mention at an elevation of, in this case, 6000-10,000 feet).

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So as for my portable painting setup criteria mentioned earlier, here’s how I rate my current setup overall:

  1. Functionality: A
  2. Efficiency: B+
  3. Cost: A-
  4. Size: A-
  5. Weight A-

Being new to the plein air community, I’m sure there’s further improvements to the system I can make and of course, much more experience and knowledge to be gained, but this recent journey was successful enough that I wanted to share and add to the body of helpful knowledge out there.

As for the experience and the work itself, here are some photos.

Three location shots:

Cusco, Peru

First stop in Cusco, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Second stop in Ollantaytambo, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Third stop, Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, Peru.

Third stop, Machu Picchu, Peru: 4 hour study.

 

Three finished studies, 9 x 12 inches each, oil on panel:

"Above Cusco"

“Above Cusco”

"Ollantaytambo Sunset"

“Ollantaytambo Sunset”

"Huayna Picchu"

“Huayna Picchu”

And some iPhone 5s photography shot throughout the trip, for good measure:

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On The Road 9: Detroit

Detroit is a city where the environment itself takes center stage and needs no actors, a scene and setting so ghostly unnerving that one seemingly enters a land outside of time, a post-apocalyptic playground frozen in charred stillness, awaiting future inhabitants.

It is a beautiful and frightening place, and in the tension between curiosity and revulsion I found untold artistic inspiration. A part of me needs to experience places like this in order to feel alive, to feel the sinewy tautness of real human struggle against all odds, against seemingly crushing decay and despair. The people I met there and the others I learned about during my stay all love their home through the good and the bad, and that was enough to convince me of another form of unlikely beauty that exists in Detroit. Thank you to all of them and to the interesting, dynamic city that inspired these photos.

 

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Karlos

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On The Road 8: Bolivian adventures and a Diablada Mask

Here’s a poster commission I completed last year that got lost in the shuffle and forgotten about:

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“Diablada” Oil on Panel, 11 x 14 inches, 2014

 

I attempted to utilize a much looser painting style to complement the hand-painted folk art look of this traditional Bolivian ceremonial mask. It’s so harrrrd for my neurotic perfectionist brain to not. overblend. every. millimeter. of. paint. but I want to keep trying a more expressive use of paint in this new year. We’ll see how that goes… ha.

In a fortunate twist of fate I had the pleasure of visiting Bolivia last year after completing the commission, and got to experience the intensely macabre blend of indigenous and Christian/colonial cultures being celebrated in their annual Natitas festival. Here are some iPhone photos from that experience and the rest of this latest South American adventure:

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In Review 2: Forever Losing Sleep

Indie rock band Forever Losing Sleep recently released a new album titled I Lost Myself Again, which features one of my photographs as the album cover. I’m honored to have provided the visual accompaniment to these amazing sounds, and my ears confirm to me that my grainy nighttime tree image snapped while roaming the quiet streets of Evian, France this past April is indeed the match to the mood of this music.

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(untitled), photo/digital, 2014

Active for the past few years, FLS hails from New Jersey with a slow and darkly melodic sound influenced by the melancholy Seattle grunge of the early 90’s as well as the most successful wave of emo bands who peaked a decade later. Throughout this collection of songs, moody ethereal passages complemented by soft crooning build up to crescendos of heavier crashing chords and tasteful throaty howls, with plenty of reverb and echo sprinkled throughout, finally giving way to the open space of sparse, ringing feedback.

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Forever Losing Sleep’s debut LP

…Like staring up at the moonlit trees on a midnight walk through the hushed small town you know too well, too full of skeletons in dusty closets to be quite hushed enough for you to catch any sleep.

Complete your insomniac’s soundtrack at the Forever Losing Sleep bandcamp page, and be sure to name a price worthy of the cost, work, and time put into the independent recording and releasing of a fine debut album.

(P.s. see my first “In Review” blog post here)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Take Refuge: Fallout Shelter Designs

Here are some graphics I designed for a tattoo-related project last year, with accompanying text (see the final product here).

I made the following images around the same time as these, using the same original photographs (shot with a Canon EOS Rebel before I even owned a digital camera…I feel old) and Photoshop CS4.

 

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The concept of the fallout shelter gained popularity in the 1960s, in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation posed by the Cold War.  These protected spaces offered survivors of a nuclear blast a life-saving refuge from the deadly radioactive energy and debris, which would rain down in the aftermath of a detonation.

As part of the nationwide fallout shelter program, the U.S. government unveiled a symbol depicting three inverted triangles within a circle, which would become prominent throughout the urban landscape for several decades. But in the 1980s, the threat of worldwide nuclear war was averted with the fall of communism. This new era completed the rise of powerful corporations, as Big Business brought their own version of peace and prosperity to the world. As a result, the fallout shelter and its symbol have largely faded from public consciousness.

Yet unbeknownst to many, a certain Cold War still rages on—not externally, but internally—as an all-out assault on our minds and spirits by the cultural influence of the aforementioned capitalist elites. Their fantasy of escape through mindless consumption is served to resigned, debt-ridden and overstimulated masses, who despite living in material abundance, often report increasing levels of angst, anxiety, depression, and a lack of fulfilment. It’s in this 21st century war zone that the fallout shelter concept can re-emerge with a new significance.

So I say to those in search of a meaningful and passionate life, the rebels and social misfits, the misunderstood and the cast aside, the spiritual seekers and restless explorers, creatives, visionaries and dreamers, and of course, all the artists striving to bring forth authentic and original works expressing beautiful truths:

Take refuge in yourselves. 

Build shelter in your minds and hearts. Cultivate in that place an inspiration that may overcome the corporate enforcers of the dull and dreary, the false idols of passivity and obedience. Strengthen your will for the cultural battle of our era, this New Cold War.  

Notes & Advice 6

I came across this quote today by a plein air pastel artist, and found it to be a perfect description for the process of realism painting. In my own work, time and again, I find I need to come back to basics in order to accurately portray the form and mass of an object or the atmosphere of a scene–to see things simply, before choosing to add complexity and detail. The ongoing challenge that all of us who undertake the realist genre have is depicting the true, unmistakable essence of an object or scene without being a slave to reference or the infinite detail of reality.  When we manage to accomplish this tightrope walk, we create an illusion that ironically seems more real than reality, in turn creating a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer.

Simplify the Scene

by Richard McKinley

“Because light changes, it’s important to work with efficiency and power when you’re working en plein air. Detail is not an artist’s friend; it’s easy to believe it holds the answers, but in fact it becomes the diversion. Simplifying what you see is a necessity. Remember, it isn’t individual blades of grass that make the field rise and fall across the landscape.

“Without light, we see nothing, so light falling on form is the key to communicating what we see. It’s by arranging shapes and creating the form that you represent the scene to the viewer. Your goal isn’t to create a painting that’s polished and finessed, but rather to capture the essence of the light and the magic that captured your attention in the first place.

“Ever since the arrival of photography, artists have had to fight the urge to see it as the master of what is real. There’s no doubt that photography, used carefully, is a valuable tool. What limits its usefulness is the belief that it can’t tell a lie. That can prejudice your thoughts more than you realize. Try to imagine what artists thought the world looked like two hundred years ago. It’s difficult to do when you’ve never known a time without the printed picture as a part of your consciousness.

“When you take photos back to the studio to use as reference, be sure to ask yourself: What is it that the camera won’t capture? That’s what you want to infuse into the painting.”

On The Road 7

In honor of an upcoming journey back to the chaos and adventure that is South America, here are some medium format film shots from my last trip to Colombia and the Amazon River.

All images were shot with an old, rickety Yashica Mat-124G on Kodak Ektar 100 film, with the help of a light meter app on my iPhone 4s, and edited in Photoshop CS4 from high resolution film scans.

 

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Invocation Of Trust

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Invocation Of Trust, oil on panel, 4.5 x 8 inches, 2013

Here’s a recent piece I completed for submission to an upcoming charity art exhibit at The Egan Gallery in Fullerton, California, curated by friend and fellow artist Cody Raiza who is a passionate animal welfare activist.

 

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This tiny painting was inspired by events this summer at my house in Austin Texas involving the rescue of 2 baby raccoons from a rain catchment bin in my backyard by my partner and I. These two little fuzzballs, normally capable of being quite ferocious, were reduced to  feeble, trembling snugglebugs by their traumatic night spent flailing and trying not to drown. They instantly grasped and climbed my extended arms seeking warmth and comfort, and stole our animal-loving hearts in the short time before we entrusted them to the care of an area wildlife rehabilitation center.

Of course, never one to miss any artistic photo-op, I snapped away with my iPhone camera and ended up with some gorgeous, heartwarming shots, which after the usual in-phone editing, made their way first to Instagram*, and then to the easel when I realized they were perfectly suited to the theme of this upcoming art show.

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Edited reference photo from my Instagram account.

 

Here’s the evolution of this image, which just as the title declares, was intended as an invocation of trust in my life, to overcome barriers of fear and isolation, and to elicit sacred tender moments of unity between humans, other beings, all life.

invocation_of_trust-process-lowres

Pencil transfer drawing and Grisaille, followed by color block-in and 2-3 layers of color adjustment and glazing.

 

(*This is the first time I’ve painted an image originally intended solely for my Instagram gallery…not sure how I feel about that. I routinely attempt to post content there which is reminiscent of my paintings, and certainly aligned closely with my overall artistic aesthetic, often self-critiquing them afterwards as if they were paintings…but I really despise the over-saturation and cultural-race-to-the-bottom of social media, despite my own degree of participation in it. I’m curious to see how the Ig creative outlet will affect my art in general. To be continued…)

On The Road 6

In my last few On The Road installments, I posted lots of iPhone photos from a trip across the Pacific early this year. During my stops in Hawaii and New Zealand I also shot several rolls of medium format film, which I finally processed recently.

All of these images were shot with an old, rickety Yashica Mat-124G, with the help of a light meter app on my iPhone 4s, and edited in Photoshop CS4 from high resolution film scans.

 

I

solscape: sand

solscape: ocean

solscape: sky

II

solscape: wandering

waiheke: wading

III

paige 1

paige 2

paige 3

paige 4

Then, And Now 3

My recent post about medium format photography adventures reminded me of the last time I had some fun with it, in 2009 when my parents were in town for a visit.  My photographer friend got ahold of a loaner Hasselblad 6 x 6 medium format camera and a tilt-shift lens for the occasion, and I dug out some expired old film to see what would happen.  Here are my favorite images from that day.

 

(Hasselblad 6 x 6 medium format with tilt-shift lens on Fujicolor Reala 100. Negative scan to digital, Photoshop)

(Hasselblad 6 x 6 medium format with tilt-shift lens on Ilford Delta 3200 Pro. Negative scan to digital, Photoshop)

 

 

In Review: Union of Art and Sport

The Rules of Basketball: Works by Paul Pfeiffer and James Naismith’s “Original Rules of Basket Ball”

September 16 – January 13, 2013

Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin

In an unlikely combination of history and psychology, this exhibit pairs basketball inventor James Naismith’s 1891 document “Original Rules of Basket Ball” with contemporary artist Paul Pfeiffer’s basketball themed digital works. In hindsight, the Naismith material seems like it’d be merely a passing curiosity for most, and only significant for true sports geeks and devout basketball fans, as the real philosophical and entertaining meat of the exhibit is the collection of work by Paul Pfeiffer.

This basketball-specific compilation of pieces is dominated by enormous C-prints of mostly vintage and notable game photographs whose removed logos, names, and team colors imbue them with the ghostly hollow silence of a haunted house. Interspersed among these are tiny viewing vessels affixed to the walls, where short-length video clips run in fast highlight-reel styled loops.  Pfeiffer’s knack for selecting just the right 3 seconds of game footage to convey his symbolism is evident in the same unexpected walk-through-a-graveyard, eerie feeling they impart.  Some of the images and video border on absurd, utilizing the unreal juxtaposition of blanked-out team jerseys with highly memorable sporting moments. Taking all of this in, I found myself suppressing alternating fits of amused, snickering laughter, chest-vibrating tension, and fond childhood sentimentality.

Paul Pfeiffer
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (08), 2005
Fujiflex digital C print, 60 x 48 in.
Collection Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman NY, Courtesy The FLAG Art Foundation
©Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Like nearly all contemporary art, this work is primarily conceptual, deeply embedded within the theoretical realm of symbolism rather than in the organic lineage of traditional craftsmanship…what most tend to quickly appreciate as “skill.” As such, sadly, only the most informed viewers are likely to truly appreciate the full significance of what the artist has made (“Some photoshopped video clips–so what?”).  And this, of course, embodies so much of what’s wrong with art in postmodern society, and isn’t necessarily the average viewer’s fault (but that debate gets complicated, and needs its own future blog post or 7).

But, as guest curator for the Blanton exhibit Regine Basha insightfully describes, “Paul Pfeiffer frames media, spectacle, and masculinity [and, I’d add–race] in a way that sheds new light on the game of basketball.”  His clever digital work “adopts today’s frenetic visual language in order to consider the role that mass media plays in shaping consciousness,” according to the exhibit’s press release.  As such, Pfeiffer’s retouched photographs and manipulated video clips are sneakily at the epicenter of some of the most pressing and pivotal conflicts smoldering, unresolved, in the heart of our first-world empire of consumption and spectacle.

In Germany in 2000 the Kunst-Werke Berlin e.V., Institute for Contemporary Art, presented the first comprehensive one-man-show of Paul Pfeiffer, offering a beautiful description of his symbolism and process:

Pfeiffer’s digital videos are “moving still-lives,” challenging human perception as well as exploring long-standing issues of painting. Due to the accelerated repetition of short sequences, the essential codes of perception, such as the instant recognition of fore- and background, depth and surface, motion and unmoving, blur or cease to be of relevance. For example, in JOHN 3:16 Pfeiffer took found video footage of a basketball game and re-edited it in order to place the ball in the central foreground of the screen with the play swirling around it. The seeming fluidity of the image belies the painstaking nature of the production process: over 5000 individual video frames have been enlarged and repositioned to create the moving image of a ball in play.

(http://kw-berlin.com/deutsch/archiv/pfe/pfe.html)

John 3:16, 2000 (Filmstill)  ©Paul Pfeiffer

As a lifelong sports fan, artist, and cultural deconstructionist I had three inherent and unlikely leverage points with which to appreciate this exhibit.  Having long ago dissolved the barriers of the self-limiting, culturally-reinforced disparity between “jock” and “artist” stereotypes/archetypes within myself, I felt as though Pfeiffer’s work was made for–and was speaking intimately to–me. I was thrilled to stumble upon these eerily-altered iconic sports images on my recent museum trip, having planned my visit around the Blanton’s simultaneous exhibit of classic Western Americana paintings.


Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon), 1999 (Filmstill)  ©Paul Pfeiffer

In one short video clip that’s both instantly terrifying and hilarious, digital editing and repetition turn the post-dunk celebratory scream of a basketball player into an unnerving, awkwardly aggressive expression of rage.  What gives this art added significance to me–perhaps belying the original intent of the artist, who has purposefully removed any team, league, corporate or personal identifiers from the scene–is that I know the basketball player is former college and pro star Larry Johnson, who in Pfeiffer’s video was playing for the Charlotte Hornets, and whose promising career was disappointingly cut short due to injury.  I used to watch him enact that primal ritual on live TV as a child, reveling in his athletic prowess, imitating it in my makeshift driveway basketball court, and collecting his basketball cards. It’s in this sentimentality that the work touches a deeper human chord within me, and I feel like a participant in Pfeiffer’s visions, embodying a small part of the very unresolved conflicts that his work calls forth.

On The Road 4

 A few weeks ago I spent two quick but relaxing days in the Middle Of Nowhere, rediscovering my medium format camera with some long-expired film, then hoped and prayed for some advantageous developing defects (which can be unpredictable on old color film). Lacking traditional darkroom access and skill, I get high resolution scans of my negatives, and do all editing in the “digital darkroom” with Photoshop CS4. For the non-purist photographer, this mixed-media, mixed-era process creates a satisfying blend of traditional and modern aesthetics, while exponentially increasing one’s creative options.

Guadalupe Mountains, West Texas

(Mamiya 645E medium format with 80mm f/2.8 on Kodak Plus X-Pan Pro 125. Negative scan to digital, Photoshop)

Marfa, Texas

(Mamiya 645E medium format with 80mm f/2.8 on Kodak Portra 400UC. Negative scan to digital, Photoshop)

Notes & Advice 3: Photographs vs. Paintings

The appropriate and effective use of reference material–notably, where and how to deviate from it to actually heighten illusions, ironically–has been an ongoing commentary of mine on this blog, being mentioned in a few past entries.  I consider this issue a central concern for any painter working in the realist genre, or who depends upon “fool the eye” illusions for the success of their images.  I’m always trying to increase my knowledge and refine my skill in this area, as well as find succinct and poignant ways of explaining it to others.
Austin-based, British-born artist Edward Povey, whom I’ve recieved valuable instruction and mentoring from over the past few years, had an interesting take on this concept in a recent email newsletter:
Artists and photographers are really both image-makers. The camera truly sees, and the artists could learn from its honesty. The photographers could learn from the artists’ profound sense of composition, knowledge of color, tonal value constructions, and expressiveness–relying less on the cleverness of the modern camera.
I believe that the wisest artists will be intimately aware of this dichotomy, and will strategically use the best of each world for the overall success of their images.

Wildlife In the Post-Natural Age 2

This past Friday, September 14th was the opening reception of my friend Cara‘s curatorial debut at the WIlliamsburg Art & Historical Center in Brooklyn, NY, in which I had 2 hand-retouched photographs featured.

Tonight I found a rather heartwarming email in my inbox regarding the exhibit, and thought to share it here.

I’m honored to be a part of this, and I’m proud of my friend’s accomplishment:

Dear Cara, the participating artists, interns, volunteers and staff members and all.

 

I and the WAH staff members  want to thank you for bringing a great show to the WAH Center. It is a big duty for a curator to put up a show as big and as excellent as this one. Cara is not only a fine artist but also a great curator/organizer who could see with her keen aesthetic judgement and logistical abilities how to bring the show to fruition. The opening was a full house with many new and young visitors all celebrating with good cheer.

 

We would like to share with you this video of the opening reception on  Youtube.

 

Since the show still goes on for another two weeks, please tell your friends and people whom you know to come and enjoy it, as it is a worthy show that one cannot miss.

 

Many many thanks again,

 

Much Love,

Yuko Nii, Founder & Artistic Director

WAH Center (Williamsburg Art & Historical Center)

 

“WAH means peace, harmony, or unity in Japanese”

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the opening reception, nor will I be able to view the exhibit in person before it comes down, but here is the video mentioned in the email above.