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Tales of the Unexpected: a Frighteningly Random Reading List

I’ve posted a full list of my Fall workshops on my Monotype Workshops page. I’ll summarize those here tomorrow. In the meantime, another reading list:

I read a short appreciation of cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in the New Yorker. His thesis, during a series of lectures in Chicago, at least, was that pop culture is a sort of place of negotiation where new, or outsider attitudes can be tried out and a “common sense” emerge. I think this is right. It certainly makes my hodgepodge reading lists seem constructive, even directed, rather than arbitrary.

I actually started this list during the spring, but it’s taken on a life of its own. And it was assembled from different, seemingly accidental encounters. Later it doesn’t seem so arbitrary. In moments stolen from my busy schedule I see a book; I grab it. Later, it winds up here, in these posts, and sometimes in my artwork, though I can’t always tell you how.

I take notes while I’m reading, usually in the mornings and on weekends,  jotting down first impressions of new books and when it’s time to post, I cut and paste all of my reading list notes from my diary. This time, it came to 2400 words. Time to start chopping! And in editing, linkages can often be discovered.

My personal diary of readings has generally replaced my studio notes, which were often quite trivial.  Reading is a great way to get inside other heads, and writing about it forces me to make connections between ideas encountered.  The original inspiration for it is Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, originally a monthly column in the Believer mag, but then collected in a couple of different volumes, one subtitled “A hilarious account of one man’s struggle with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read.”

If there is a theme, accidental or not, of any sort to my reading, I guess it would be that I’d like to understand the roots of pop culture in 19th century Romantic thought. Victorian lit, along with the growth of advertising and industrial presses, seems to have enabled quite a bit of experimentation in cultural narrative, and by the late 19th  Century had already given rise to fantasy and genre, in the form of infant manifestations of romance, western and sci fi popular fiction. These gave rise to pulps, then comics. A lot of these low culture tropes then appeared in the expanding paper back industry, along with an increased interest in the classics. This merging of high and low is well rendered in Adam Gopnik’s and Keith Varnedoe’s catalog essays for the High and Low exhibition in the 90’s. It’s a great read that really draws thematic parallels between museum art, such as Phillip Guston’s, and popular culture, such as the comics of R. Crumb, to name just one example.

Gopnik makes a convincing argument, through timing and imagery, of Crumb’s influence on Guston’s turn away from abstraction in the 60’s, as Crumb was starting his ground breaking career in underground comix. Crumb was, in turn, influenced by EC comics’ early Mad magazine, itself a product of the Jewish humor that informed early newspaper comics and later, the invention of the comic book. Daily newspapers and pulp publishers needed content to reach immigrant populations and keep massive industrial presses busy. Later, it winds up in the cathedrals of high art. To an artist, and lover of comics, it’s an irresistible thread to follow.

Undercover: an Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks, Thomas Bonn: In a box of free books at the school where I work, I found this coffee table-ish tribute (published by Penguin, one of the pioneers of paperbacks)  on the history of the paperback book industry, especially during the 50’s when American cultural provincialism was being challenged by the growth of new opportunities in the industry, including comics and pulp, and by social and lifestyle changes. Pulp publishers influenced pop culture such as comics early on, and paperbacks are still playing a major role in the transformation of the comics industry today, with the upsurge in bookstore sales of the “graphic novel” or album format. The paperback, aside from its role in horror, sci fi and other genres, has made comics a more vibrant medium. Not to mention its role in transforming social mores about sex and fantasy. Would we have as much access to European literature, especially fringe forms, such as comics, without paperbacks? Doubtful.

TinTin in America, Herge: Tintin was one of my first experiences of Euro-stlye clear-line comics in college, so when I saw this, one of the few I’d never read, in a used bookstore I snatched it up. Herge, a Catholic boy scout with, early on in his career, all of the right wing implications that entails, began his cartooning career in a Catholic children’s newspaper in colonialist Belgium, and his first stories, which have been suppressed, are set in the Belgian Congo and Soviet Russia. They are replete with stereotypical characters. This one came later, and is easier to find as it’s apparently considered not so overtly offensive. That may be a function of its subject matter: Native Americans are referred to as “Redskins” a term that even today, NFL fans apparently have no problem with. The patois assigned to them is straight out of Hollywood’s worst years. Or maybe the book is still published because it manages to stereotype almost everyone in America, making it fairly hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

It’s certainly not one of Herge’s better tales, which were to come later, after he’d suppressed his parochialism, and concentrated on character-based humor.

Spanish Fever, ed. Santiago Garcia: A real case is made here for Spain as a haven for innovative cartooning. An outgrowth of my interest in the Spanish cartoonist Max, I suppose, but there are many flavors of comics here, and the light shone on current quality reflects on past glories, such as Marti, Daniel Torres and Mariscal. Here, the artists separate into neo-clear line cartoonists, such as Max and Micharmut; Charleroix-style looser graphics; and others exploring edgier, Fort Thunder style cartoon-brut graphics. Subject matter also varies widely, as one would expect, with socialist or libertarian political or cultural commentary a strong element, along with surrealist pranking, ala Max. Spain should be ranked right along France and Belgium as a center of European comics innovation.

Paperback books also opened up access to classic literature. I read, or revisited several Victorian, Edwardian and early Modern novels during the  spring and summer’s slower moments, most of them in paperback: I had promised myself I would overcome my sophomoric aversion to Victorian, or pre-modern fiction, so I picked up the only Henry James currently on display at my neighborhood library, Portrait of a Lady. I’d often opened James’ novels, only to sample passages of his orotund syntax, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how engaging reading Portrait is. It’s a page-turning tale of a young American upper class woman in Europe, and on the battlefield of the sexes. My longtime prejudice to Victorian, or pre-modern lit is confirmed by the archaic language and attitudes, but challenged by the strength of the characters and their direct dialogue. Had I spent more time with James, I’d have realized that he has a very modern sense of driving the action with interior monologue. He is seen as a sort of precursor to modernists like Woolf, and his dialog-  sharp, direct, pacy, offsets the Victorian circumlocution in his expository passages.

Yes, his narrative style and general approach is just as rotund as I had always feared it would be. Are the attenuated double negatives and gratuitous metaphors his own, or integral to his characters and their times? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whose voice is speaking, and often the author emerges to comment clumsily on character, a very un-modernist phenomenon. But there is far more to James than transitional style. His narrative presence ( Schmidt, in The Novel A Biography, calls it “indirect oblique”) implies both omniscience and a guy hiding behind the brocaded drapes.  There is a real similarity between James’ romantic paranoia and Pynchon’s corporate/fascist conspiracies; a real sense of interior conscious as reality, and the outside world as untrustworthy, or an impression.

This is an odd book. It never leaves its cozy upper class world ( the servants are as invisible as any book I’ve ever read), but its heroine never ceases to assert her individuality. Decoding its complex themes is probably more than my limited experience with 19th C. literature allows, but in its investigation of class and longstanding feminist concerns, and its its head-on address of Victorian mores and strictures, it certainly resonates today.

James’ subjective voice definitely contributed to Modernism, and his sense of transcending class- or of psychological “placing” of self certainly alludes to late Romanticism; Whitman, for example, or Melville, who goes to sea in the “Dark November” of his soul. Their distancing subjectivity anticipates Modernism. He also published serially, like Dickens, in paperback, an industrial revolution phenomenon which expanded audiences and created space for pulp fantasy in fiction.

Later, I happened on The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, which I’d read long ago for a friend’s choice in a book club. It is considered an exemplar of literary impressionism, and is of course a direct precursor to Hemingway. I enjoy making these sorts of connections. This was in a critical edition, fattened with essays on various aspects of Ford’s novel and stye. Book nerds, Ho!

 Virginia Woolf, an Inner Life, Julia Briggs: I laid this aside when I’d gotten through the chapters on her central trilogy (To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own), which I’ve read and/or re-read recently. I’ll go back to it again when I’ve read Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, etc. It’s the kind of book one returns to. Woolf’s themes are highly nuanced and this analysis really added background and texture to my experience with these three works, some of them first read back in post-college days.

Hedging my bets against all this Victorian and Edwardian prose, I brought home PG Wodehouse, a classic of light comic reading. Wodehouse was an Englishman turned American, and it shows in his writing. Here, in Sam the Sudden, the classes in both America and Europe have been codified and each have their heroes and villains, and not so very different from Tintin, stereotypes are no less prevalent. Wodehouse depicts a London as a massive door-slam farce, thus leading to hijinks.

If my reading list seems call to mind a literary ghoulash, perhaps we can remember  that what the suburban lower middle class cooks of my 60’s upbringing called “ghoulash”- a sort of bland melange of canned tomato soup, macaroni and ground beef, which I later discovered bore no resemblance to any sort of authentic culinary dish. I discovered this in Red Lodge, Montana, of all places. I had the real thing at a family owned Hungarian restaurant. This would be one of my first encounters with ethnic foods, if you don’t count the Italian-American pizza-place canards of my upstate New York youth. Authentic flavor can be found in unexpected places.

Fall Forward

I’m finalizing what seems like a very busy schedule for fall workshops, and I’ll post complete details with links on my “Workshops” page soon. They’re all available for registration now, with “Monotype Portfolio”, my newly re-named workshop for advanced beginners and beyond, up first.

Monotype Portfolio, which is intended for those who’ve had a basic printmaking course, or perhaps some college experience back in the day, begins Monday, Sept 11, and continues for four weeks after that, making it very affordable and a nice fit for those glorious early fall evenings. Quick refreshers on color and using the press are given to start, then we jump into Chine Colle’, layered prints and advanced registration techniques, and framing, if the class is interested. It is intended for those who might like to execute a series, or perhaps enter a show.

After that, there are both daytime and evening sessions of Monotype Starter, my re-named beginner’s basics workshop, and then back to Portfolio after the Holidays.There is a Saturday Monotype Blast, and a Moxie U sampler as well.

Denver Public Library workshops are back, too, with free 1 1/2 hour drop-in workshops for the family beginning in September and running at various branches all fall, ending just before the Holidays. Other events may be added.

I’m also going to have a rarely-seen large piece in a show at the State Capitol, though I don’t have details on that yet. Click on “Contact Me” if you have questions about any of these, or come back for updates

“Ice Storm” Monotype, 15×11″, 2016. It’s been a very pleasant summer, and I’m not trying to rush it away, but perhaps a bit of creativity and good conversation in the big bright ASLD print room might warm up the chilly days to come?

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When They Go High…

“Magnifying Glass”, Roy Lichtenstein.

I like writing about comics because they partially relate to my professional work in graphic arts. How much do they relate?

Most people have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom to ignore comics as a relevant art form, high or low. This is getting harder to do. There is starting to be a significant body of criticism available to scholars and aficionados, and each new study advances the conversation in both quality and tone.  The book “Origins of Comics”was previously mentioned here, as it makes interesting connections between the narrative, moralistic print tableaus of Hogarth, a pioneer of popularly available printmaking in an academic tradition, and the kinetic narrative of satiric picture stories by Topfer, generally considered the inventor of the comics and by some, as a precursor to visually subversive art such as expressionism. Comics and prints were really the first popular (visual) media. Movies often copied comics’ prank narratives in the early days. High art has been raiding the non sequiturs of cartoon satire since Odilon Redon and Grandville. And into that well have movies and TV, today’s dominant popular media, been increasingly dipping.

My reading choices have tended to reinforce this connection. Mini-reviews that I post on my blog to add diversity from my show and studio news, pretty much track what I’m reading. I love literary and art criticism and comics in their recent mini-renaissance have touched on both. Here are several items from my recent stacks of reading material, randomly acquired, but that seemed to relate:

High and Low, Modern Art, Pop Culture, essays on comics and caricature by Adam Gopnik, 1991: I carefully parsed Gopnik’s essay on comics in this voluminous catalog from a 1991 MOMA show. It ties into other essays in the same massive book, notably his essay on caricature. I was prepared for elitism, but I find nothing particularly canted about it, and in fact it fairly deftly meshes the histories, intents and impulses of both high and low art forms, and brings nice new perspectives on the mutual concerns, even influences, of George Herriman, R.Crumb, Phillip Guston, and others, including Miro, and of course, Lichtenstein.

Gopnik presents one of the more well-researched speculations on comics I’ve read, and it’s filled with original interpretations and unseen affinities. I can’t imagine not returning to it often. Just the section on the evolving and fairly conscious relationship between Crumb and Guston alone brings light to this often obscured relationship between high and low. Gopnik traces Guston’s cartoonish big feet figures from Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff) through Crumb, who’d recently published the first issues of Zap Comix at about the same time Guston switched from Abstract Expressionism to representational figuration. The tone of these fragmented, angst-ridden, offhand personages matches well with Crumb’s neurotic slackers. Crumb, discovering Guston later, pays homage on a cover of Weirdo Magazine. And the lineage continues now with Marc Bell, whose affinities with Fisher and E.C. Segar, again by way of Crumb, and his sense of lower class, paranoid humanity recalls Guston.

The very informed speculation on the artistic relationship between George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Miro are well argued.  Gopnik parallels Herriman’s contingent (Southwestern) dreamscapes with Miro’s Iberian surrealism, pointing out perceptively that while it’s commonplace to speak of “surreal” elements in Krazy Kat, Herriman’s style was fully evolved before Surrealism even existed. High culture critical bias thus sometimes puts the kart before the Kat.

And I’ve not seen Lionel Feininger so well-placed in the history of comics, nor his comics so well integrated in a description of Feininger’s other intellectual  pursuits; Gopnik defines his role as go between for the romanticist  fantasies of Winsor McKay (Little Nemo in Wonderland) and the fauvism of European modernism, reinforcing the idea of comics as a movement toward expressionism in popular culture.

The discussion of Lichtenstein could have made a significant short essay in its own right. Gopnik rescues and humanizes this complex relationship from the mere “ironies of scale” and rote appropriations seen in conventional criticism, thus redeeming both Lichtenstein and the hack artists he thrust into the galleries, one of whom, Irv Novick, in the plainest irony of all, was his commanding officer in the army.

Gopnik also states flatly that Mad Magazine, which led directly to the subversive energies of Crumb and the Undergrounds, and then to the DIY /alternative press which eventually brought comics to the book market (and their current renaissance), changed humor and satire, and thus, politics in America.

This pop cultural transformation in American entertainment, from the rural puritan tropes of minstrelsy, to the urban cosmopolitanism of Jewish culture (which touches all popular media) probably deserves more examination, as does the role of comics and caricature in breaking down the academic tradition in art. He is a bit less convincing in his discussion of caricature from this perspective, though the idea that Picasso’s experiments in facial displacement are essentially caricature and date back to Leonardo’s notebooks is certainly interesting stuff. Like any good critic, Gopnik raises more questions than he answers, and I’m glad to have finally read this important milestone in pop cultural criticism. It’s rare that critics- even comics critics- grant such weight to comics in cultural history.

The Ganzfeld #6, Dan Nadel, 2008: The Ganzfeld was an obscure journal whose intellectually synthetic juxtapositions tended to ignore categorical barriers between high and low art. #6 presents cutting edge comics such as those from the Fort Thunder group that grew out of the Rhode Island School of Design, later published by Highwater Books and Drawn And Quarterly, alongside contemporary NYC artists in a way that shows Nadel’s curatorial brilliance, but doesn’t really offer any analysis as to why it succeeds or fails. High and Low succeeds brilliantly because Gopnik recognizes that both high and low art proceeds from the same romanticising quest for a “universal visual language” though they approach the inquiry from opposite paths.

At issue in The Ganzfeld is how we distinguish (or really, curate) high and low culture to get at truths often obscured in their specific visual languages and metaphorical subtexts. Nadel, who now edits the online Comics Journal, excels at creative mash-ups. But by the time he published Number 6, he was apparently burned out from the rigors of self-publishing, as evidenced in this collection’s theme, I’m Done. It implies either frustrated surrender or self-satisfied completion, and this issue, though I’m sure I’ll return to it rewardingly, has a feel of something jammed together as is, a sort of curatorial catch-all, take it or leave it. So, along with some obvious editing failures to credit artists, there’s not a lot of effort to make his curatorial decisions transparent or readable, though they are often brave and imaginative. The customary page of blurbs about the contributors is gone, for instance.

I’m not making this up. The difference is clearly seen in earlier issues of the anthology, such as the exquisitely allusive Number 3 (2003), which states “We hope it’s […] cohesive and that by reading all of the pieces and then pondering them in tandem, you’ll gain insight into a larger though still inexplicable design.”

Each time I pick this book up, there’s a new wonder. There is a reprint of an Alfred Hitchcock essay, “My Most Exciting Picture”, which begins: “Shooting ‘Rope’ was a little like unpuzzling a Rube Goldberg drawing.” Nadel adds to the synaesthetic fun by engaging a modern day illustrator, Eric Lebofsky, to provide diagrammatically Golbergian cartoons. These in turn cannot help but allude to Jonathon Rosen’s “Monsters of the Medical-Industrial Complex”. In another issue, he prints a Lawrence Wechsler essay on Edward Snow on Brueghel.  This is why I love anthologies- they bring these “Convergences” (Wechsler’s term) of curatorial impulse face to face with fresh, even transgressive creative output such as comics.

Art Ops, Shaun Simon, Mike Allred, et al, 2016: I happened to pick this “Graphic Novel” on impulse as I was reading Gopnik, and though it provides some good laughs and even provocative questions about art, I think they were mainly not intended.  Art Ops, by alternative comics mega star Allred has real potential but ultimately fails because of a reliance on ad hoc plotting and over used cliches about art.

Nowhere are the inherent challenges and ever present pitfalls of comics creation more on display than in Art Ops, a Vertigo project with great promise that appears to have fallen victim to rushed production and fuzzy plotting.  This is the ever present obstacle of the graphic novel itself: especially in mainstream publishing, one must employ enough conceptual hooks and compelling characters to ensure the title makes it to the stands long enough to complete any sort of long term vision.

Some brief background: the star of Art Ops’ creative team is Mike Allred, an independent comics auteur who rose from self publishing in the 80’s to alternative press mega star with his self-owned Madman title. The story of a brain damaged “super hero” in search of his own identity, Madman brought a compelling personal quest and retro-Silver Age sensibility to the comics scene.

A true pioneer of creator-owned comics publishing, Allred has always exhibited a somewhat digressive, approach to story plotting, and this actually meshed well with his main character. Frank Einstein was Madman, and his super power was empathy.  But Madman has been on hiatus for a while now as Allred has pursued a number of projects with mainstream publishers, often bringing a buzz with his quirky mix of troubled characters in media-driven landscapes, rendered in retro-pop art comics visuals.

Yes, there’s a real danger of the tail wagging the dog. He’s had his fair share of successes, such as X-Factor, an X-Men spin-off that featured superheroes as media obsessed celebrities in a Buzzfeed world. And iZombie became a popular TV serial. Others have have been far less edgy but still engaging, such as his current Silver Surfer revival, designed to appeal to the suddenly essential market for young girl readers.

In Art Ops all of Allred’s weaknesses come to the fore, and a few of his strengths. The result, though it has flashes of real innovation, is often a slapdash, confused, cliche-ridden mess. A group of 60’s era hipsters metaphysically extract the Mona Lisa from her frame, substituting a forgery. This is to prevent her from being stolen by art thieves, a paradox which touches on real issues of authenticity and accessability in art, but which is never really delved into. Such throwaways- some of them truly clever- abound. The villain of the story is a “Demoiselle” from Picasso’s Analytic Cubism period who wants to turn Mona into a figure from his later, still much-lampooned Synthetic Cubism period. This is actually hilarious, but again, seems to have gone right over the heads of those who wrote it.

Once again, Allred has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, but satirizing high art is a risky business. On one hand, it presents a tempting target with its pretension to high concepts and strange forms, on the other, it requires real insight into its intellectual inquiry, or one runs the risk of coming off as superficial troll. Comics artists, often illustrators trained in the remnants of the Academic tradition, are as susceptible as any to superficial or reflexively antagonistic attitudes toward modern art. Allred, no less than Gopnik, often has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, and thus very often touches on real modern concerns, as pop culture can. But one treads a fine line. Gopnik, with relentless research and a mind alive to the social secrets that popular culture‘s very popularity explicates, walks it quite lucidly. Art Ops, with its scattershot, improvisational satire, not so much.

The Complete Jack Survives, Jerry Moriarty. Raw Magazine founder Art Spiegelman met Moriarty at the School of Visual Arts, where they were both instructors, and included him in early issues of Raw, then published the first Jack Survives collection as a Raw One Shot. I’ve always wanted a copy, but it’s been a hard find. This expanded collection came out from Buenaventura (publishers of another influential comics anthology, Kramer’s Ergot) in 2009. It’s a unique hybrid in the interface between comics, illustration and fine art.

Moriarty along with punk cartoonist Gary Panter is a pioneer of a somewhat Fauvist cartoon style that has more lately found popularity in the so-called “Cute Brut” style of Fort Thunder artists such as Mat Brinkmann and Ron Rege, along with others such as Brecht Vandenbroucke, Brecht Evens, and even Lisa Hanawalt.  His rendering sits somewhere between painterly and illustrational- he calls them “paintoons”. These artists are consciously or not, inhabiting the gray area between high and low art. Moriarty incorporates elements of both, and Jack, a fedora-wearing 50’s everyman inspired by Moriarty’s father, inhabits a somewhat airless neo-expressionist world as silent as Hopper’s yet subject to the inevitable disappointments and ironic displacements of any comic character. They’re funny in a disquieting way, both funny “ha-ha”; and funny “strange” like that feeling you get on a beautiful day when you hear distant laughter after someone has died suddenly or an airplane has flown into a building.

Just as Lichtenstein made Novick’s limited magna dots a complex metaphor for the emotional vacuity of American culture and the intellectual pretensions of Seurat’s pointillism, so Herriman and Crumb’s India ink scratchings have given way to broad range of different styles and techniques to express complex personal visions more like Guston’s mute personages than Crumb’s confessional, sex-obsessed neurotics. Comics have appropriated a lot of the expressive toolkit of high art, accruing the spiritual disquiet as well, while continuing to refine their satiric message, which is why people write about them.

Like the Post-Modernists, Moriarty does not seek finish in his art, and often lets changes and overpainting show, as if to place Jack, trapped within a medium that dares not speak its name, in this dialog with the gods of existential inquiry. Some of these visual effacements seem planned, as if to pit text against subtext, paint against line, caricature against portrait. If there is anyone still puzzling what might have happened had the Ash Can school survived the intellectual buzz saw of Cubism to make it to the age of Pop irony and emotional effacement, then maybe Moriarty has the answer. Jack survives, indeed.

Ab Expression: First Impressions

"Epic", Judith Godwin (Detail)
“Epic”, Judith Godwin (Detail)

I took a preliminary stroll through “Women of Abstract Expressionism”, the new and ground-breaking show of “under reported and undervalued” artists from the NYC and SF art scenes of the 40’s-60’s.I wanted to leave all pronounciness at the door, and let the show simply wash over me.

After an initial wide-eyed cruise through the show to take in the lay of the land, the groupings of multiple and various works by each artist, the rich colors, broad or frenzied strokes and gooped-on paint so characteristic of Ab Ex, I began to entertain myself with more ancillary aspects of the show, as outlined in the title cards.

There are 12 artists in the show, most of them now dead. I will not speculate on the role the omnipresent cigarettes dangling from their lips in contemporary photos may have played in this.

Frankenthaler, Krasner, Mitchell and DeKooning have, honestly, long been heavyweights, at least among the cognoscenti. Undervalued, perhaps (out of my league), but certainly not as under reported as several others that I, at least, have never heard of. This provides its own sort of pleasure, as the “bucket list” aspect of the viewing, the anticipated “wow” of seeing the male superstars of Ab Ex is washed away, and a freshness of first impressions takes its place.

A Joy DeFeo in blacks, grays and distressed whites is now on my bucket list for destination viewing in future visits. Mary Abbott shows a diversity of ideas; Pearl Fine’s use of non-traditional materials in painting anticipates Anselm Kiefer’s.

The design of the show, with its generous samplings of each artist, gives perspective. The artists’ own words and work defeats any lingering temptation to typecast along gender lines. For example, it’s hard to miss a large signature Krasner piece at the entrance in defiantly “pretty” pinks; and another later in the show which is awash in a lucsious magenta paired with a spring green. Yet a superficial impulse to judge these in terms of “feminine” qualities is quickly defeated by two nearby stunners executed in a potent, slashing brown/black, their insomniac beiges,drips and spatters palpably all her own, despite the famous “action” of her husband’s multi-million dollar canvasses. Krasner must have known by then that she was fated to become recognized primarily as Jackson Pollack’s wife. In this grouping, we can detect irony, resistance, anxiety and disappointment. And the ever present cigarettes in the photos perhaps speak to a jaded resignation, as they were wont to do in movies of the period.

Similarly, Elaine DeKooning shows an explosively chromatic “Bullfight”, which must certainly be related in many minds to her husband Willem’s work. But across the way are two portraits (of Willem) that in their measured flowing gesture and dark contemplative atmospherics of tone and color, must also qualify as two of the most unique in the show.

The exception that perhaps proves the rule is found in the opening vistas of the show, in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, whose soft pastel colors and abstract, misty riverine washes suggest flowery effusions and vulva-like redoubts in direct lineage to the delicate, so-designated cunts and petals of Georgia O’Keefe. But as the show notes steadfastly maintain, they primarily attest to her innovative and influential discovery of a staining process which spawned an entire movement, color field painting. So the scholarship behind the show is strong, and revelatory, and clearly not afraid to address the inevitable gender issues head-on and straightforwardly.

Nor is Krasner the only artist to allude, if only subconsciously, to the gender gap and its connotations. In a time when Freudian interpretation was still very influential, Judith Godwin, in “Epic”, situates a vaguely erectile swath of black and purple in a field of warming whites. Positive and negative space, good and evil, figure and ground, hidden grotto or towering monument, they are in a state of eternal flux in this show stopping canvas. And so might have Godwin’s ambivalence about her station in the art world expressed itself as well. But for the most part, the women of Ab Ex did their jobs for years despite the iniquities of the art market.

One interesting title card revelation: the testimonial evidence that San Francisco, as an American art scene outlier, was not afflicted with the sexist repressions of the well-monied NY city scene. This is a perspective especially appropriate to a place like Denver, where almost every artist, male or female, is “undervalued and under reported.” It speaks to the balance and thoughtfulness of the show’s curation, by DAM’s Dr. Gwen Chanzit.

Several of the works, by the way, are now in the collection of the DAM itself. This show is not a hasty band wagon leaping-on, a middle American museum calling desperately for attention. The museum clearly intended to find a niche for itself in this area for a while now and will continue to make this type of inquiry in the future. A previously installed, but related exhibition on the level below provides context for this show in a brief but well balanced look at Ab Ex as a whole. You shouldn’t miss it, because it supplies sketches and smaller works by some of the artists in the feature show.

There is much to be said for solitary and spontaneous wanderings through a show like this. It allows one to “listen” to what the show has to say. This show, though it attempts to set the historical record straight, also gives ear to these artists, as artists. I suspect that this show will become one of the more significant conversation starters in Denver- and the nation’s- cultural history.

Workshop Update

I’m enjoying the Spring weather. Yes- even the rain ( see my latest reading list, below). I’m preparing for the Art Students League Summer Art Market, June 11-12, where I’ll be in Booth#98 with fellow monotype artist Taiko Chandler.

In the past, people have stopped by the booth to meet me and ask about Summer workshops I’m offering at the League. Then they go into the office and register right then. I’m not sure that will work this year as the workshops are filling up unusually quickly, and one is already sold out. So if you’d like to know more about the workshops, click here, or send me an email and I’ll try to answer your questions. Then register online to be sure you get the spot you want. If a workshop is full, you can put your name on a waiting list, as there are often cancellations. I’ll offer a new round of workshops in the Fall, too.

Reading List

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell: Is she the queen of the history geeks? Sarah Vowell, of NPR’s This American Life, travels to obscure historical sites, such as the New Jersey beach town where James A. Garfield died after being shot by a deranged office-seeker, to get at the weltanschauung of American political violence. I liked Wordy Shipmates better, for its insightful scope, encompassing the Puritans, English history and the roots of American political thought. Assassination’s a neccessarily uneven tale, in that Lincoln’s death is (still) heartbreaking and consequential; whereas Garfield’s is (by now) stupid and tragically trivial. But it’s a wonderful, funny and amazing read nonetheless, with Robert Todd Lincoln’s bizarre appearances in each of the three stories a reminder of how even the most seemingly inconsequential historical events can be connected in powerful ways.  The last section, on McKinley’s shooting, dovetails nicely with another book I’ve recently read:

Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin: I’ve long-postponed a look into this very intriguing era of unfettered corporate greed, political corruption and progressivism, which speaks not only to the very beginnings of the “American Century”, but to our own era as well. I was not dissappointed. Goodwin links the tales of Teddy Roosevelt, Robert Taft and the Muckrakers of McClure’s magazine in painting a portrait of an era in great flux. The progressive era accomplished much in the way of redeeming the promise of American democracy, then dissipated as conflict over how best to reform fractured the party and opened the door to the inevitable conservative backlash. If this sounds familiar, as it does to me, then it’s a must-read. As they say, one must know it or repeat it.

Murder Me Dead, David Lapham: James M.Cain-like in its violence and bleak picture of doomed romance. Incisive yet lush black and white ink work, in dark puddles or crazed slashes or just haunting and unforgettable, like mascara on a beautiful schemer’s eyes. Lapham has always provided these wholly derivative yet compelling noir tales, because he understands that noir is about the ambience of violence in the harsh light of the extremes of the human soul.

The Best Comics of the Decade, Volumes 1, 2: It’s easy to forget that before the black and white, direct market explosion of the early- to mid 80’s ( where David Lapham, above, first appeared, that truly interesting comics were very hard to find. Many of the artists here pioneered the independent, literary album- or graphic novel-style comics now filling up bookstore shelves ( and providing one of their fastest growing categories). Could easily have been bigger, as inferior stories are included by seminal creators ( Hernandez Brothers, Bill Griffith, Jerry Moriarty), probably to make more artists fit, and others such as Alan Moore, are not represented by their best work because it was done for larger corporate publishers. But a nice return to the days when comics were still struggling to find a place in pop culture, and the corner comic store was where you went to see them grow and succeed.

"Dream Bed", Monotype, 15x11", 2015
“Dream Bed”, Monotype, 15×11″, 2015

The summer has been a cool one with breezes or showers at night for comfortable sleeping. With the Summer Art Market show over and the workshops begun, I’m catching up on postponed tasks, such as paying off credit cards. I’m working a temp job in a bookstore for that, and it makes it hard to get a lot of writing or art done. It’s mostly, go to work then come home and read, with some Women’s World Cup and Gold Cup sprinkled in.

I’d wanted to work on some larger work for gallery and art consultant sales, but instead I’m watching my ideas lay fallow till Fall. It’s too bad, as there is usually a rustiness that sets in when I finally do go back to the studio. But less debt means more cash flow for supplies and frames.

I’ve got two comics posts sitting nearly finished in the can. I’m persnickety about editing, so I won’t rush them, but I hope to post within a few days. I’ll be working a few less hours the next couple weeks, and can devote time to studio and blog work.

 

Summer’s Here; Time is Right for Printmaking

A Taiko Chandler Monotype, using her characteristic cool secondary colors in multiple transparent  layers. Taiko shows at Space Gallery, and is joining me in Booth 99 for her first Summer Art Market!
A Taiko Chandler Monotype, using her characteristic cool secondary colors in multiple transparent layers. Taiko shows at Space Gallery, and is joining me in Booth 99 for her first Summer Art Market!

I’m spending most of my time working on my Summer Art Market show with monotype artist Taiko Chandler. We’re in Booth 99. Looks like the weather’s finally clearing up; I’ve made quite a bit of new work and Taiko will bring a whole different look with her abstract, very organic work. And filling only half a booth makes my preparation less stressful.

I’ve also got a full load of monotype workshops scheduled. I’ve updated the Workshops page with full details, but here’s a quick summary:

The last free Denver Public Library workshop is at Athmar Park branch on June 17. Full details here. There will be a full Fall schedule, including a couple of new branches, announced here in late summer.

At the League, my workshops vary in length and detail, and come at many price levels. All of them stress creative process and good conversation. It’s a great place to meet new friends and jump start your creativity!

Tuesday, June 16, 4-7 PM. Moxie U: Monotype Graphics This is a new program at the Art Students League that features brief, user friendly sessions at a very low price ($27/33. member/non-member). A good way to dip your toe. Link: http://asld.modvantage.com/Course/CourseDetail/7974/moxie-u-monotype-graphics-good-enough-for-happy-hour

Tuesdays, June 23-August 11, 6:00-9:30 PM: Monotypes for All Ability Levels This is my summer evening full, 8-week workshop. It starts with the very basics of print room procedure and goes gradually into more advanced techniques. ($252/308.)(http://asld.modvantage.com/Course/CourseDetail/2544/monotypes-for-all-ability-levels

Saturday, August 8, 9-4:30 Monotype Sampler This is a moderately detailed full-day workshop that starts with the basic print room procedure and black and white printing in the morning, and advances to color in the afternoon. Moderately priced, too ( $67.50/82.50). http://asld.modvantage.com/Course/CourseDetail/7973/monotype-sampler

You can register on line by following the links, or come down to the Summer Art Market and see the show, and register there. I’ll be there (in Booth 99), so I can answer any questions for you.

The Summer Art Market itself is June 13-14 west of the school at 2nd and Grant Street (we’ll be near the urban gardens somewhere between 2nd and 3rd on Grant). It features over 200 artists over 4-5 blocks, but is less crowded and more focused on art than most street fairs. I’ll be doing a demo there on Saturday at 1 PM, and the fair is open 10-6 PM. Sunday hours are 10-5.

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Guilty Treasures

A slow starting day with gathering clouds- perfect! I did finish up some MoPrint biz earlier this week, and went to studio twice, but I didn’t produce a lot of finished work, mostly thinking and prepping for a final push at the SAM. Here’s another weekend book post:

Next to the bed, I have an unread Teddy Roosevelt bio by Doris Kearns Goodwin that will help fill in many of the gaps in my understanding about the last time the ultra rich were out of control in America. I enjoy stringing related biographies together  in service to the larger picture. I also love Post Modern door-stop type novels. Next to TR is A half-finished David Foster Wallace novel. This contains the usual rabbit’s warren of parenthetical musings, foot-noted speculations and general digression one expects from DFW- all about tax returns! I can here the traditionalists groaning from here. Other weighty volumes within arm’s reach are unfinished Dickinson and Picasso bios. These are what I regard as winter books- best suited for the long dark hours when it would take a legendary party to get me off the couch and out in the cold city. The couch opens its arms for a long stay, bluish dusk cloaks the rare streetside movement.

Now is a time for my warm weather books, easily digestible, pop cultural back porch snacks immune to the distractions of flipping steak on the grill, baseball and soccer shouts from the park. They fit my more hectic schedule, but do tap into my  desire to prove to myself, if no one else, that pop culture is where the repressed soul of  human creativity often leaks out. Lately this means, natch, comics I’ve been catching up on since I started spending a lot of time in the library, those which didn’t fit my limited bookstore budget before. These are almost all guilty pleasures, a concept that we lapsed Catholics recognize as a redundancy.- something considered slightly unsavory that is nonetheless, irresistible. Tawdry fantasy bought with stolen time! Here’s what one thief has been reading when he should be reading something else:

Booklist:

Paul Moves Out: A young couple in contemporary Montreal. I took some older stuff I didn’t want to store down to Kilgore Books and Comics for trade and I got Palookaville #21, and this Michel Rabagliatti confection in return. It’s an agreeable confection, in the style of Depuy and Berberian’s Monsieur Jean series (e.g. Get a Life), a romantic comedy with a lively, Euro graphic sense. Unlike, D &B, it fails to generate even mild dramatic tension. Its emotional conflicts are solved rather early, and it devolves into some amusing situations and minor domestic complications. A triumph of style over substance, but enjoyable for the exquisite brush work.

Miss Don’t Touch Me: A young innocent girl in 30’s Paris attempts to solve her sister’s murder. Another bit of stylish eye candy, with art which hovers quite attractively between Herge’s classic  Ligne Claire style, and a retro, Milt Gross gestural style. Unlike Paul Moves Out, there is plot conflict and tension aplenty, but it mostly derives from lurid, somewhat hackneyed  plot devices such as the virgin in the whore house, the psychopathic S&M enthusiast, the gay dandy dominated by his rich mother. This is apparently a series of shorter episodes stitched together into album format, so its superficialities are no surprise, and nicely balanced by its period-piece charm. It’s good, fluffy fun. 

Book of Genesis: Illustrated word-for-word by underground comics pioneer R. Crumb.  I had declined to use limited funds and shelf space to obtain it, so hurray for a progressive library. This is the most thought provoking of the three. The last time I spent this much time with the Old Testament was in sunday school, where the nuns were understandably reluctant to delve into its many bizarre aspects. Not so R. Crumb! He generally plays it straight in the telling, though, and lets the book speak for itself. He does provide some notes at the end, and like Crumb, many of us are dying to know why- in three separate chapters- men tell wives to pose as their sisters. A question we’d’ve gotten our knuckles rapped for as kids. His take, influenced by other readings, is that these tales must be taken in the context of co-existing matriarchal hierarchies in Sumerian culture. I can’t speak to that, but it does provide a possible explanation for why Abraham might pimp his wife to the Pharoah. I predict further reading on biblical historiography will stem from this.

Punk RockAn Oral History: This one clearly deserves, and will get- a full review, which  I’ve already started writing. I’ve alluded to Punk’s influence on comics and politics, two other cultural areas that get regular attention here. Like most Americans, I came to it late (1978) but it had a revolutionary influence in my own life, and anyone honest about pop culture will recognize its influence as the equal to the flappers and the hippies. I’m glad I read this collection of often conflicting accounts from the actual players before I embarked on a more “proper” history, and a visit to iTunes for some early-to mid career Stranglers, Public Image Limited, Magazine, and The Damned has already happened.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby: I picked it up, devoured half of it, put it down again. I’ll finish it in a burst with a Martini or Manhattan beside me, I’m sure. Another guilty pleasure- it’s got literary shenanigans, though Scott and Zelda actually DO quit drinking and staying up till dawn for about a whole week early in this account. It takes place around the time F. Scott was starting The Great Gatsby, the same time a sensationalized murder hit the nation’s press, which Sarah Churchwell is itching to prove informed Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It’s got crazed youth in a post war America that had decided to give women the vote and Prohibition a try. Both 18th and 19th Amendments, incidentally, spearheaded by many of the same activist women. It’s like a Vanity Fair article stretched out to novel length- delicious!

 I’ll still do the women in comics post, too- I’m up to #15 (from 40) on the wait list for Jill LePore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a character which I consider essential to that subject.

Everything’s a Work in Progress

What I have worked on this winter is a small series of work intended to develop organically from sketchbook ideas on up through experiments in different sized paper and eventually to a large, significant, and fully realized work. Especially as I transition to new methods of working such as stencilling, etc, I’ve tended to have smaller works that experiment in formal ways, but don’t have a refined narrative. Here is a small sketch for a project I’d intended to call Bed Dream with Poppies. Most of these are not very good photos, but most are studies or unfinished experiments.

"Bed Dream with Poppies", 7 1/2" x 10", a small monotype intended as a sketch for a larger project.
“Bed Dream with Poppies”, 7 1/2″ x 10″, a small monotype intended as a sketch for a larger project.

The best way to produce a relatively large set of meaningful work, Ive found is to explore variants of one idea of a few related ideas, and cherry pick the best ones as finished, exhibited work. I’m inviting you  to view the sketches and trial runs, the not neccessarily ready for prime-time pieces that would sometimes be offered to the public, sometimes not. Yes, I  do have large amounts of work that never see the light of day. Here is a larger variation on the theme, with poppies dispensed with and replaced by a sort of pod-like chine colle’ element and a somewhat organic dark field in the background. A somewhat distressed blackness creeps up behind the bed:

Untitled Monotype w/ Chine Colle'. 13x20".
Untitled Monotype w/ Chine Colle’. 13×20″.

I’m already seeing more content, symbolic narrative, and meaning in the work. I intended to leave landscape (a narrative of earth and time) and try more interiors ( as it implies, a narrative of internal life, or the soul). Jumping to a new subject can often jog the creative machinery, and I hope to see fresh approaches. Here’s another experiment that adds in more pod-like or thought-balloon-like shapes above the bed.

Untitled Monotype w/ Chine Colle', 13x20 "
Untitled Monotype w/ Chine Colle’, 13×20 “

Sometimes you have to execute a finished piece, and in this case, I had a deadline to meet for a show. So I tried a larger piece, with more color. I left the poppies out to further explore the pods, and instead placed some layered fauna where the darkness had been behind the headboard. I wanted something more abstract on the left, but added an Icarus-like figure to focus it. It still seems more like a study than a finished piece, and I’ll return to the studio this week after working a temp job to pay some bills. I’ll go back to the poppies, I’m sure, but I’ve also seen the Miro show at the DAM in the interim, I’m sure that will have its effect, too.

"Bed Dream 29", Monotype, 20x26".
“Bed Dream 29″, Monotype, 20×26”.

Let’s Talk Monotypes

This monotype debuted in a gallery show in 2013 as "1/2 Place". The deal was, one could buy the 1/2 completed version for half price, then accompany me to finish it. No takers then, so I completed it myself, adding the chimerical creature on the left, and another layer of fanciful foliage. 22x30"
This monotype debuted in a gallery show in 2013 as “1/2 Place”. The deal was, one could buy the 1/2 completed version for half price, then accompany me to finish it. No takers then, so I completed it myself, adding the chimerical creature on the left, and another layer of fanciful foliage. 22×30″

I do have two longer posts in the works. One is a photo album and discussion of a progression of monotypes I’ve been working on, the other is book and media related. I’ll edit them, add photos and catch up with the back log soon.

In the meanwhile here is an interview I did with Terry Talty of the Limitless Idea Project during the 2014 Month of Printmaking exhibition. The talk touches on some of the process I’m using right now as I produce the larger works I’ll be discussing.  I’m on the committee that is already beginning work on 2016 MoPrint.

More news: I’ll be teaching a free monotype workshop at the new Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales branch of Denver Public Library on March 17. I’ve updated the “Workshops” page to reflect that and will add time info when I get it, as well as another 8 or so workshops planned at other branches between now and June. These are all open to the public, with non-toxic supplies and materials included.