Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “symbolism”

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

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.

Soul

The inspiration for this painting came largely from oysters and their far more notorious contents: pearls.

oyster1

The pearl has been a symbol of magic and purity throughout antiquity and across many varied cultures, from Western religions like Christianity to Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism.

soul-thumbnail-lowres

Soul thumbnail sketch, ink on paper.

In this painting a pearlescent lump of vibrant, growing flesh represents the human “soul,” or the mysterious essence of life that animates the decaying physical body, and for which modern science still has no complete understanding or explanation. Quite ironically, the only representation of this lifeforce that we mortals seem able to discern with any reliability is its supposed opposite: the physical embodiment.

Here, its life-giving energy is co-opted by the encasement of confining machinery, which can be seen as representing the limited human form, and in a broader sense, the inescapable yet corroded impositions of society and culture.

soul2-lowres

Soul, 11 x 14 inches, oil on mounted linen panel, 2015

The contrast between the hard and soft elements of this picture illustrates the human struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in the precarious balancing of vulnerability and armament. The title Soul references the mystery of what it is that makes our atoms vibrate with life, and our consciousness self-aware.

Pariah

"Pariah", oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

“Pariah”, oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

My painting “Pariah” was an experiment in contrasts between the extremes of shocking subject matter and uplifting emotions, between surface appearance and underlying symbolism. It evolved out of an intriguing and unusual backstory, and I think anyone wishing to understand the painting on a deeper level than the initial shock value that its grotesque subject might offer could benefit from knowing the story. As an artist, I like to learn everything I can about a piece of art that interests me, in order to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for it. But if you like to interpret art completely from your own imagination, without the influence of explanations, this essay will definitely be a spoiler.

I completed this painting in late 2013 after forming its concept over the previous year of working on my Apostasy series. For that original group of 10 paintings my primary source material and visual reference was a batch of surgery photos “smuggled” to me by a nurse friend who happened to assist on a highly publicized procedure performed by a world-renowned pediatric surgeon in Los Angeles.

The surgery in question was the removal of a parasitic twin body–a set of legs and arms with a partial torso of their own but no head or brain–from a young Asian boy. This risky procedure also happened to be the subject of a documentary produced by The Learning Channel about rare cases of conjoined twins. As my friend explained to me afterwards, “there were cameras everywhere,” and so many unnecessary people in the operating room that it felt like a party, not a surgery. So, she figured, as long as I didn’t depict any precise likenesses while altering and cropping the source photos to fit my artistic needs, it should be okay for me to use them.

Little did I know, the day I first saw those photos sometime in 2011 would start a still unfolding artistic evolution, in which “Pariah” is but one chapter. I’d seen plenty of photos like those before, had often used visceral flesh and blood imagery in my work, being strangely attracted to the aesthetic of their glossy surfaces, warm colors and the soft organic patterns of flesh and body tissue. But never had I as close an encounter with the source of the imagery, nor had I seen photos of anything quite like the incredibly unique and rare procedure of separating two tiny conjoined bodies.

I stashed those photos for many months, looking at them occasionally while ruminating on the themes of life and loss, health and sickness, fragility and brutality that they suggested. It wasn’t until some health struggles of my own necessitated some frustrating forays into the modern medical system that the ideas crystalized and motivation appeared, and with a solo show at Last Rites Gallery in Manhattan approaching in the spring of 2012, I got to work.

Many of the surgery photos had an ambiguous quality that made them appear quite like mysterious snapshots of a strange and very serious, even frightening, ritual. I focused on these shots while culling down the imagery for my solo show, but never forgot one photo that was very unlike the others. Its stark brutality set it apart from those and made it too obvious for the intended ambiguity of the series, but its disorientingly grotesque beauty still haunted me, whispering a vague inspiration into my subconscious.

In this photograph, the disposed bodily artifacts from the surgery were arranged neatly like ornaments on a cloth-lined tray for scientific appreciation, in the precise locations they would have inhabited had they been the constituents of a fully formed little boy’s body. Oddly distorted in shape and size by the parasitism, the tiny limbs–two legs, two arms, a chunk of torso with bulbous intestines splayed out–looked tragically angelic, heavy with dead weight yet still full of lively color and capillary blush.

That loving commemoration of a dismemberment spoke to me more as time went on. It seemed a succinct representation of what a technological society does to its citizens, all of us in some way or another, starting at birth and continuing well into adulthood. One by one, or all at once, our wild traits, impulses, and inconvenient feelings are intercepted, punished, shunned, contextualized, repressed and denied, severed and forced into an individual and collective shadow psyche. Whether done with good intentions or bad, for better or worse, the disassembling is the same. This living dissection is the process of enculturation and assimilation: the purpose of civilization.

The inescapable cultural phenomenon filters down into individual lives, in turn influencing what we do to each other in personal relationships. Friends, family, lovers alike are each cut up into traits, moods, and moments. We categorize these desirable and undesirable, rewarding the former in order to encourage more of them, punishing the latter in order to banish them from our experience. We do unto others as it’s being done to us; part instinct and part conditioning. We end up severed, ashamed of some parts of ourselves while clinging to others. And so most of us grow up with fragmented psyches craving wholeness, wanting instinctively to be put back together again in the compassionate embrace of person and deity alike.

How fitting, then, to use that image for a painting honoring the pariahs in our world, and in ourselves. I wanted to create a visual wish that those who’ve been eclipsed could wear that crescent ring of light as a halo. That the broken could be seen as beautiful in their imperfection. That the cast out, the unloved and unwanted, could all have their day of acceptance.

"Pariah" (detail)

“Pariah” (detail)

I like to paint what many people would deem ugly and shocking things because I believe the grotesque needs to be fully accepted, and even seen as beautiful, in order for inward and outward progression to occur. I believe that each and every aspect of reality has its own intrinsic value while also being a necessary part of a complete whole.

Although not obvious to anyone seeing the work, in “Pariah” I enjoy the contradiction between its subject matter and the feeling I had while painting it. In other words, the unity of dark and light that resulted from painting a child’s severed body parts while meditating on compassion and love. Like the unification of all dichotomies, I believe the intersection of brutality and empathy is a fruitful place. I wanted this painting to be my document of that, and, once the backstory is understood, a map of sorts for getting there.

Singularity

Singularity, oil on canvas, 18 x 20 inches, 2014-15

Singularity, oil on canvas, 18 x 20 inches, 2014-15

Here’s the recently completed work mentioned in my last blog post. Mankind’s increasingly intimate yet perilous relationship with technology and machines is the idea I’m working with here, and would like to explore further…

Realized with influence from creative sources such as

  • Ray Kurzweil
  • Michel Foucault (“biopower”)
  • Neill Blomkamp
  • Guy DeBord
  • H.R. Giger
  • Terminator © franchise
  • Metal and Industrial music
  • Postmodern alienation
  • Medical-industrial complex

 

That’s all for now, but more soon!

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)

 

What Is Art? (Part 1.5): An Integral Approach

In a delightful twist of fate last week, an email appeared on my computer screen (via my subscription to the Core Integral newsletter) that advanced and expanded the concepts I attempted to shed light on with my last blog post, about what art is and how to use it as an effective communication. So, in an impromptu Part 1.5 of my ongoing inquiry, here is the text of that newsletter with a link to the lecture it refers to, followed by a brief review of its major concepts.

“Think of a piece of art that you are particularly struck by. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a painting, a piece of music, a film, or any other expression of beauty that you find yourself impressed with or inspired by. Visualize the piece in your mind’s eye—or, if you like, open a new tab in your web browser and Google it, so it’s right in front of you. As you admire your preferred object of beauty, ask yourself a simple question: how can I tell what this means? How do you answer?

  • a) The meaning can be found in the original intent of the artist. If I want to know what a piece of art means, I should simply ask the artist.
  • b) The meaning can be found in the artwork itself. The artwork is a whole unto itself, and everything I need to understand it is fully present in the actual piece of art.
  • c) The meaning can be found in the response of the viewer, which means that a single piece of art can have multiple meanings, depending on who happens to be observing it.
  • d) The meaning can be found in all the social circumstances surrounding the artist, since no artwork is created in a vacuum. If you want to know what a piece of art means, you need to consider where and when it was made, its historic and techno-economic influences, etc.
  • e) All of the above.

If you answered “all of the above” there’s a very good chance this talk is for you. But here’s the weird thing: people don’t always know that’s even an option. In fact, it’s still overlooked most of the time. Most artists, philosophers, and critics have devoted their entire lives and careers to just one of the first four choices, while passionately trying to negate the others. Listen as Ken describes each of these major schools of interpretation, how they originated, and how they all fit together into a more cohesive vision of art and aesthetics.”

(An audio file of Ken’s talk can be streamed here.)

In this hour lecture, leading Integral philosopher Ken Wilber talks about the various schools of artistic interpretation that have arisen in the past few hundred years, and how each used in isolation is inadequate as a means of reaching the deepest or most comprehensive appreciation of visual art. He gives the historical and cultural context surrounding such movements as Formalism (too dismissive of an artist’s intention), Romanticism (too dismissive of external social forces), and other useful but incomplete -isms that have made major contributions to the art world. Ken argues that one must integrate as many of these schools of thought as possible, in order to build a more complete framework for understanding (or creating) art that accesses knowledge from each of the “4 Quadrants” that comprise reality (interior, exterior, individual, and collective).

rtemagicc_aqalfig3_integral_akademia

Ken Wilber’s theory states that all art is created by a combination of all 4 quadrants of reality, and therefore can only be fully understood with knowledge derived from all 4 quadrants.

He refers to the concept of artistic intention quite a bit, which I was thrilled to hear from a non-artist, since increasing the level of intentionality that I paint with has been one of my areas of focus for the past few years (which I mentioned as part of my internal dialogue in Part 1: Self Inquiry). What intention requires, as Ken eludes to, is knowledge and context: a framework of understanding broad enough to shed light on all the different choices an artist can make. The opposite of intention is what I’ve experienced as “the manifestation of indecision,” a state of ignorance or naiveté in which the art-making process resorts to blind instinct and shot-in-the-dark crapshoots that one merely hopes will look good or manage to communicate something in the end.

What Ken doesn’t mention is that understanding all of this, of course, requires a level of motivation (to spend time learning) that perhaps only the most dedicated artists or enthusiasts would possess. So while I thoroughly appreciate his critique and advice, I feel it’s a bit of wishful thinking–if not a bit patronizing as well–and in being “over the heads” of many laypersons, it therefore still won’t solve the great debate for most.

But if you’re an ultra art nerd like I am, and have a quiet hour to devote to a dry intellectual oration, you will love the complex yet logical perspective Ken offers as his answer to the questions “What is art?” and “How do we make sense of it?”

“You really need to have a comprehensive philosophy of reality if you’re going to [effectively] interpret the meaning of art, because all of these dimensions impact an artwork, and therefore are part of the art’s meaning. And if you’re going to unfold that meaning, then you have to have a really rich, comprehensive philosophy of contexts.”

–Ken Wilber

What Is Art? (Part 1): Self Inquiry

“If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

This is the kind of existential crisis I circumnavigate when considering (read: having anxiety about) the effectiveness of my paintings and the symbolism I choose to communicate with. Am I effectively expressing my intended meaning? And is my intended meaning aligning with the viewer’s perceived meaning? Does it even matter?

It can be argued that what makes something art is the group participatory act; it almost always requires someone other than its creator to see it. Art is, in general terms, a unit of cultural information that is put forth by participant A, and taken in by participant B. Hence, a communication. Always. A message is always put out, whether the artist intends to or not. This visual communication is even more fundamental than our ever-present and taken for granted verbal communication. At its most primal level, visual art certainly is more direct–it’s sub-verbal, it requires no complicating exchange of written or oral language.

But, contemporary art in the postmodern era is often maddeningly indirect and complicated. A product of an exceedingly complex society, annd having been created either intentionally or instinctively on the foundations of modern philosophical thought spanning hundreds of years, it does actually beg the need in the viewer for a more advanced knowledge of the visual language of symbolism and metaphor. That red means “stop” or “danger” or “look here!” is basic and even primal knowledge. That a picture of surgeon’s hands manipulating opened flesh might symbolize the oppression of technological civilization and the material-reductionist paradigm which has separated spirit from matter and meaning from life is quite frankly, a lot less obvious to all but the most studied art critics and curators. That’s where the ‘art as communication’ issue gets complicated and sticky…and so necessary for any conscientious or ambitious artist to ponder.

Anointing

Anointing, oil on panel, 24 x 24 in, 2012

Having established all of this, I ask myself again the artist’s version of the tree falling question, “What is art?”

In the case of visual art, I follow this line of inquiry to a fork in the road separating the act of creation from the result of creation or the art object, the painting that hangs on the wall. So when I ask myself what art is, I must remember this important distinction (thanks to the clumsy imprecision of the everyday English vernacular), because what I discover that I really mean is: what is an art object?

I then find that this line of inquiry opens up the need for even more distinctions: Does intention make something art? Meaning, the creator intends the work being produced to carry a conceptual pretense, some kind of idea or symbolism beyond the literal depiction or the physical, material object. In such cases where there is presumably no overt artistic intention (such as photojournalism*, the simple documenting of events), does viewer perception make it art, retroactively? Following the postmodern ethics of subjectivity, a viewer’s perception can not be disproven; if someone says it’s art, then for all intents and purposes, it is…to them.

(Insert Dada and Duchamp’s controversial urinal into the debate here.)

arts-graphics-2008_1183879a

So I guess what all this means is that part of my ongoing refinement as an artist is a constant evaluation of my message, its truthfulness, and its effectiveness, and in order to do this I have to dig deep into the world of art theory to prove or disprove–and IMprove–what I’ve done. What am I intending to say, and what do viewers think I’m saying based on the feedback I’ve received**? Do the two match up? If they diverge, how and (maybe more importantly) why? What symbolism and what artistic strategies can I experiment with to bring intention and perception into alignment to produce powerful, life-altering, inspiring communication?

 

*Sometime between now and forever I’ll write about my love for this “artform” and the unintentional masterpiece in What Is Art? (Part 2): Photojournalism

**Praise be to the all-important critique session!

Art From The Edge

My friend Addie over at Fuck Yeah Mad Pride clued me in to a fascinating blog featuring the art of people considered to be in extreme mental states, called Art From The Edge. Having made some art in years past while in some of these natural, non drug-related “edge states” I find this blog incredibly interesting, and it should be relevant to anyone addressing issues surrounding mental health in our society, or dealing with their own mental health issues.

I can’t help but think of the recent Sandy Hook school shooting in my original home state of Connecticut, which recently brought these issues to the forefront of a national debate.  Did the perpetrator of this unnecessary tragedy have a nonviolent, creative form of self expression–such as visual art–as an outlet? Could future massacres be prevented with more awareness of edge states and the role that creating art can play in diffusing and communicating difficult emotions?

One glance through my paintings, with their intense nature, and one could easily conclude what I already know firsthand: how effective and therapeutic creating art indeed is.

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 Included on the Art From The Edge blog is a beautiful explanation of its purpose and conceptual background, to which I would only do a disservice in trying to paraphrase with my own awkward writing style, so here it is:

Art from the Edge, a virtual gallery and resource center by the creators of the Serious Mental Illness blog, is a blog dedicated to art created in and about extreme mental states. It is an open and public world wide forum for artists to share their visual and written works and their personal stories with all those interested in the connection between creativity and “edge” states.

Much like art, which exists in a multitude of mediums and forms of expression, there are a plurality of “edge” states that inspire the artists who harbor them. For this reason, we leave the term completely open to our community’s interpretation, knowing from research and experience that this state could be driven by psychosis or trauma, or an altered state induced by drugs. It could be the offshoot of extreme depression or grief, or the aftermath of a spiritual or mystical state of consciousness. Ultimately, we are interested in the artist’s individual experience and in his or her sense of what it is that drove the creative act.

The link between creativity and extreme states was first discussed by Aristotle who said that “There never has been a genius without a touch of madness.” Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist, was the first to give this link a public platform by assembling a large collection of psychiatric art in the 1880s. He claimed that “Genius is one of the many forms of insanity” (Seldes, 1996, p. 102). A now substantial and ever-growing body of research is empirically verifying the strong connection between mental illness and creativity (Waddell, 1997).

Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, the quintessential mad artist, experienced prolonged episodes of depression and possibly psychosis, spent considerable amounts of time in psychiatric facilities, and famously cut off his ear. The life and works of Van Gogh, as well as those of Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, Martín Ramírez, Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Judy Garland, Robert Schumann, a few among many, suggest that creative genius is often accompanied by extreme mental states.

Art from the Edge does not assume that all art has its roots in extreme states, nor does it champion the idea that all artists experience or have experienced extreme states. Its main purpose is to be a place for such art to be appreciated and for such artists to be heard––on their own terms.

 

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My 2010 painting Progression Through Unlearning (oil on panel, 12 x 12in) features the symbolism of scars and tangled audio tape to represent the personal struggle to overcome internalized negative messages received during childhood.

Endgame IV

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began contaminating the Gulf of Mexico, and resisted containment for an agonizing and appalling 87 days. By the time its crude flow was contained on July 15, 2010 it was considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Its effects on the Gulf ecosystem–already compromised by ruthless industry–are still felt today.

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Photograph: U.S. Coast Guard

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Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Likewise, I still feel the knot in my stomach and the lump in my throat whenever I revisit those infamous photos of oil-slicked turtles and birds, and the brown stain spreading across crystal blue waters. With no small amount of internal conflict I revel at the heartbreakingly beautiful shots of fluffy smoke plumes ascending from a smooth field of blue that recedes forever in all directions, melting into a milky white ozone haze…the artistic serenity of the scenes always belied the senseless threat to life that I couldn’t help but know was unfolding.

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Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

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Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Equally inspired by both fragile beauty and tragic destruction, I recently painted  another in my emerging series of vessels and catastrophe, with a working title of Endgame IV:

Endgame 4

Endgame IV, oil on panel, 12 x 24in, 2013

Endgame 4 detail

Endgame IV (detail)

Meanwhile, lessons that could have been learned by the ultra-powerful, the elites, the vanguards of corporate capitalism have fallen by the wayside. Right now in my current home of Texas, a foreign corporation, TransCanada, is using the supposed 5th Amendment right of eminent domain to confiscate private land belonging to Americans in order to build a massive oil pipeline called the Keystone XL. This new profit artery will enable TransCanada to transport oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, in order to sell it to countries around the world. This is, not surprisingly, what got me thinking about and eventually revisiting those Deepwater Horizon photos again during my continued search for reference material for this developing series.

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As the status quo marches on, Our world, like the pristine and fragile vessel poised on the verge of ruin, is left to wonder: is the next deepwater disaster on the horizon?

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New Vessels

Lately I’ve been brainstorming and refining a new artistic vision, taking the opportunity of any downtime between large surgery paintings to complete some smaller, fast-paced still lifes with a much different palette and ambiance.

These pieces utilize clean forms and simple compositions, attempting a confluence of opposites to symbolize the precarity of industrial civilization in the new millennium, the increasing sense of dread among many who see the global destructiveness and the coming end of late-stage capitalism:

Serenity and catastrophe…the mundane and the dramatic…solidity and ethereality.

Like much of my work these pieces are also influenced by Buddhist philosophy, with smooth surfaces representing the perfection of form that simultaneously experiences impermanence: smoke, flames, and ultimately, annihilation. These vessels are bodies facing their inevitable destruction through aging, inflammation and disease.  These vessels are the purification of the ego, burning away its own delusion and illusion.

 

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Endgame II, oil on panel, 6 x 7in, 2012

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Endgame III, oil on board, 6.5 x 7.5in, 2012-13

This budding series is an expansion and evolution of the themes broached in another less recent painting, which of course is also a metaphor for the edifices of civilization and their approaching collapse; the rise and fall of human achievement:

Endgame 1

Endgame I, oil on canvas, 5 x 7in, 2009-12

My plan (completely subject to change in the winds of artistic inspiration or be ground in the gears of other life obligations) is to continue to refine these concepts and build up to scenes of larger scale and higher complexity, as I wind down my Apostasy series this year.  Who knows what will actually happen, but I’m excited and nervous about finding new challenges. So stay tuned for more updates on both endeavors.

 

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Small, medium, and large…

 

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.

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.

The Inquisition

Painting #11 from The Apostasy series, finished a few weeks ago:

“The Inquisition”, oil on panel, 12 x 12in, 2012

I wrote about some of the aesthetic decisions made during the painting process here.

Regarding symbolism, this piece–along with “First Judgement”–deal with gender and the genesis of personal identity. For all domesticated humans born in hospitals, there is no escaping this moment of truth, which begins a lifelong process of psychological conditioning by the all-seeing eye of culture.

To be binary: male or female. Gender assigned and reinforced. A life indoctrinated, molded.

An inquisition of the vulnerable by archetypes of power, the first judgement (literally) marks the first loss of innocence, the beginning of a differentiation between self and other that many spend a lifetime trying to erase, or simply comprehend.

And what of the uncertain ones? The ambiguous? Born damaged or incomplete? What happens when the wrong judgement is handed down? What happens when the gender binary facade is shattered at birth…when the entire construct collapses later in life?  When we get sick of playing our roles? Get sick of enforcing the roles on others?

Who do we find at all, when we question who we are underneath all that we cling to?

“First Judgement”, oil on panel, 12 x 12in, 2012