Reading List: First World Problems

This is a real grab bag, partly because in the rush to finish up some deadlines this fall my reading was very fragmented. It’s very unjust when life upsets my reading schedule, I just want to be on record with that.

For a brief while, I wasn’t really reading much at all. Some of these are also leftovers from earlier readings this year that I’d never put down impressions for. This is mostly comics, as that’s something that fit my frantic pace of life, but I did return to prose eventually, and there are a couple of those here as well.

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso: a critical fave that I’d alluded to in my Besties list as needing to read. It got nominated for a Booker prize and attracted attention. I read a rather rambling and contrarian review of it in the Longbox Coffin blog, and it sparked my memory. 

It delineates the spirit of our post 9-11, post-truth world (fear, rage, conspiracy and misguided, even corrupt, populism seem to rule our discourse, whether Right or Left). Thus the book is rather bleak, mostly. The art mirrors that social entropy in simplified, almost emotionless cartooning and flat color. Everything looks fluorescent-lit.

Though the book’s not fun to read, it stays with you. I almost put it down, and did avoid it a couple of nights where its creepy atmosphere of fascist media bullying hit far too close to home in Trumplandia. The current conservative trope of infested, dangerous cities, lifted from 60’s conservatism, and dating back to the anti-immigrant politics of the early days of the GOP’s turn toward fascist politics in 1912, are proof of that. It’s hard to see positive human interaction in our venomous, twitter-fied online dialogue, but the book ultimately does offer for one main character, at least, a way out. Fear of change, an armadillo like interiority, are the gateways for the numbing negative populism ranging through our public dialogue. Interpersonal contact is the exit strategy. As always, love is the answer.

I also got Kramer’s Ergot #10 and Now #6 in the mail. They are the two preeminent comics anthologies now, and it’s interesting to compare them. They’re both published by Fantagraphics, a long-time pioneer in alternative comics, but are edited by different people. There is much intersect, but they are not identical.

Now is the latest in a long line of Fanta anthologies, meant to test drive new creators, or promote company stalwarts. The company, led by Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson, has debuted so many of today’s comics stars that it’s easy to lose count, and foolish to not keep up with their latest discoveries. Now, edited by Eric Reynolds, features international artists and has increasingly showcased very abstract comics. Kramer’s has never been afraid of abstract or expressionist comics and has returned often to its favorites. That’s because Kramer’s, a franchise edited and originated by Sammy Harkham in the 90’s and self-published before being published by the legendary and now deceased Alvin Buenaventura before ultimately landing with FB, has developed a kind of stable.

Both these most recent issues feature Steven Weissman, an artist whose hyper charged ‘kids’ comics FB first published in the 80’s, but who now brings a surreal humor and a real zest for fabulism to many other traditional genres including the western, or the fairytale.

Both also are prime promoters of the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad/ ‘cartoon brut’ schools of comics as exemplified by Marc Bell, Helga Reumann, C.F., and Mat Brinkman, etc. These 20-oughts era movements constitute a revival or continuation of the zine subculture that grew out of punk rock in the 80’s and earlier, the comics subculture of the 50’s and 60’s, especially undergrounds. Some, like Bell, trace their roots ultimately back to the ‘big foot’ style of the turn of the century newspaper comics. Many of those were expressions of marginalized cultures, often Jewish.

So while FB (Now) has always sought out and attracted young innovators looking to get published, Kramer’s may possibly have the deeper roots in self publishing. Either way, or both, one can get a nice overview of cutting edge comics, especially if periodic visits to Spit and a Half.com, John Porcellino’s online mini-comics clearing house, are added in.

These are clearly a world apart from the fan-boy oriented mainstream publishers of superhero fantasy found in the direct market shops; but also the newer, burgeoning young adult genres advocated by libraries and school reading programs. Comics are an expanding medium, and in exploring their relationship to the art, design and literary worlds, these two titles are essential.

Songy of Paradise, Gary Panter: Panter also got his start in the punk rock era, and is best known for a series of LP covers he did for Frank Zappa in the 80’s; and the sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse on TV. He was a Raw Magazine mainstay. Here he takes on Milton’s Medieval biblical fantasy, Paradise Regained, which I haven’t read. The Temptation of Jesus in the desert is here enacted with Panter’s hillbilly character Songy. It’s a large format comic, and Panter is able to really stretch out, proving that his punk/expressionist style is in no way incompatible with great design and a sense of place, which his post apocalyptic comics have always had. Panter’s thick, unrefined, but very precise and evocative line must have been an inspiration for the cartoon brut comics creators but his dry humor masks a genius for Candide-like satire that sets him apart.

Comics Journal #304: Simon Hanselmann Interview: I was delighted to see this feisty little mag ( also Fantagraphics) available at Tattered Cover for the first time in a while. Gary Groth doing his Gary Groth thing, long form interviews of comics creators, that in the strictest sense usually need an editor, but in the long view, now after roughly 35 years of them, form an irreplaceable study archive of some of the greatest creators of the 20th and 21st Centuries. ” Moving on to your Kindergarten years… ,” I swear I read in a Patsy Simmonds interview once. That gives you an idea of what to expect.

But who else was ever going to do such a complete job of documenting ignored cartoonists and writers, with many of the earliest ones now dead? I really doubt there’s a lot of critical source material on Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman, for example. TCJ is comics’ magazine of record.

This is a very timely interview, in that it touches on issues that are hot topics in comics, and indeed in many pop cultures; such as #metoo, transgender issues, and queer identity as pertains to satire and biography in comics. Hanselmann raises some interesting questions in regard to the comics subculture, in which snap judgement and the ‘cancellation’ phenom of say, Twitter are very definitely in force, as in all pop culture. This is a very complex set of questions, as he points out, and may not always be compatible with creative freedom.

I’m also reading a radical feminist survey of Julie Doucet’s work from the 80’s/90’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but sometimes creative work- however ground breaking a feminist vision Doucet’s work was- viewed through that prism can suffer from a lack of balance and perspective in understanding what the artist’s vision and motivations actually are. I haven’t finished it, so it’s premature to say more, but I’d like to return to the topic soon.

Paul Gravett’s overview Comics Art, which seeks to touch on but not comprehensively examine, current and historical issues in a refreshing survey of international comics, is his best book. He had real flashes of insight in Escape Magazine, a British publication that featured comics and criticism from both sides of the Atlantic in the 80’s, but his Graphic Novel was too much a coffee table dog and pony show intended for newbies during the first blush of comics’ entry into the mainstream to be of much use to the serious student of the medium.

This one explores issues surrounding comics’ history as a marginalized medium, its use by marginalized populations, and its structural development to examine its nature as a unique art form. There are copious examples and Gravett does not always go to the usual suspects from American or British newspaper and comic book publishing, instead taking the opportunity to introduce lesser known artists worldwide.

While I do not always agree with his choices, he uses them well to explicate his ideas in a compendium of short essays on various topics. I’ll return to it again in a comparative sense, I’m sure.

I wanted to sample the new volume of Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, and Jordie Bellaire without having to wait for the ‘graphic novel’ album in March. I’ll still buy that, I’m sure. The only place to get a ‘floppie’ of the first issue is the comic book store, so I did one of my periodic ‘State of the Comic Shop’ visits and spent an hour sifting through the various titles on offer. I have my thoughts on that; it’s also a separate post, that ties into the current transition of alternative/ literary comics from comic shop direct market to the bookstore market. But I did enjoy the first installment of the new arc, which takes place in 30’s Hollywood.

I have hopes that I’ll be bewitched by it as much as the first volume, a sort of goth spaghetti western, that I discuss here. I was a little disappointed by the second, a World War I narrative that did not attain the same heights of fabulist synergy. As you may have guessed, it’s one of the oddest series out there. I discovered it during my first survey of mainstream comics, just after I left my day job and had time on my hands. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to mainstream comics now, but again, I’ll try to work up some impressions before the year is out.

And that brings me to my “Besties”, which when I wrote them for the first time last year I just assumed would be the typical yearly survey. But I’m not the type of reader who tries to keep up with current releases, so I have to get on Amazon or Goodreads or something and try to figure out how many of this year’s releases I’ve actually read. I promised myself I would make note of 2019 reads as I read them, but now the holidays are crowding in and I obviously haven’t done that. Reading Listing is hard! But I’m determined to have my Besties, even if it has to include leftovers from last year, such as Sabrina, or Coyote Doggirl, a sort of feminist “Lonely Are the Brave” in bubblegum colors by Lisa Hanawalt that I finally got to this year.

Civilizations, by Armesto-Diaz: a big survey of world history from the perspective of how civilizations interact with and modify their natural environments. It eschews the traditional ‘progressive’ history of flood plain civs to sea/trade/colonialism to ‘modern’. It advocates against a top-down hierarchy of ‘advanced’ v. ‘primitive’. It’s somewhat provocative and interesting, well written and highly readable. But I dawdled, had to take it back, as it was due. I got just over halfway through it, and was enjoying the lively almost bantering tone, and some pretty fresh thoughts on how to judge social and civic innovation through the centuries.

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende: from the freebie pile at work ( it’s not been released yet). My bucket list of South American writers continues, and this one has two, really- Allende, and Pablo Neruda, whose social conscience and poetry inform the story of a couple who span two eras of socialist experimentation, from Republican Spain through Allende’s father’s brief, doomed Chilean reign. The omniscient narration and dreamy factuality of S.A. lit is here, though the realism is far from ‘magic’. Highly readable, certainly sad at times, but ultimately hopeful.

I don’t call myself a socialist, but we certainly need a lot more of the democratic kind right now, as the proponents of unregulated capitalism have failed and are becoming more corrupt. This book is thought provoking about leftist agendas, their pitfalls, and the obstacles they face.



Stories in Art- Music and Movement

Q

Illustration of unintended meanings in article
When I made this large monotype about memory, I didn’t realize that some would associate it with environmental concerns.

The next workshop I’ll teach this fall is Monotype Portfolio. It’s intended to go beyond the basic techniques of one of a kind prints and explore harnessing of acquired skills in service to an artist’s creative vision. Less about how to make a competent print, and more about  making one that tells your story. So here’s some speculation about stories in art:  all art tells a story, whether the artist intends an overt narrative or not.

I reviewed Women of Abstract Expression at DAM in 2016 in terms of its inherent drama- Ab Ex is always about drama, with its reliance on gesture and scale- and in the context of its backstory, of women against a repressive art scene in a sexist society.  

Lee Krasner made obvious use of pinks and browns in this show to declare artistic independence and feminine creative power. “No one was surprised more than I when the breasts appeared,” she says of a pink-dominated piece in the catalog. Pink and brown ( as seen in a couple of pieces in that show), not pink and blue, are the colors of feminine sex. In asserting the dominant colors of the flesh of the vulva and the earth with power, gesture and scale, Krasner must have known she was using color in a transgressive way, to break assumptions and conventions. Pink had already been associated strongly at this time with a demeaning view of femininity, whether in the pink triangles for gays in the Nazi camps, or its prevalence in stereotyped domesticity. She returned later to this combination in “Gaea”. Her generative colors wind up being the story of her will to create art .

 Krasner finds a rich, assertive pink and her browns are straightforward and do not recede. There is tension here, and much to ponder no matter what your superficial reactions to the terms ‘brown’ and ‘pink’. Here, they cannot be separated from her suppressed rage, her earthborn desire to create, her need to assert animal power. Her story, in other words, though through its raw aggressive assertion it becomes ours, too, as recognized by the curator of the show. Colors thus can tell a story in the tension between complements, hues, transparent/opaque, light/dark, warm/cool. Colors are a component of light, of course.

And light has its own story to tell.

As it travels across a pictorial plane, light creates an inherent story. It reveals, hides, blasts and suggests. It’s movement, which creates interest, and even in an abstract picture, one is well served to be aware of the source of the light, as viewers will almost certainly do that, and follow its path, whether unconsciously or not. In pictorial arts, eye movement can certainly be analogous to emotional involvement or interest. It’s an obvious source of drama,   Let there be light. The light at the end of the tunnel.  Every picture is a lighted stage-something is about to happen. It is the white space that makes the advertisement more powerful on a page, separating out noise to let the signal through. Chances are, if you are surrounded by black, you are dead, or asleep and dreaming. Surrounded by white, you are in heaven ( blessed , transcendent), or in a blizzard (lost and near death). Black and white are never neutral.

Composition also tells a story even when not attached to a specific literary narrative. Diagonals are important because they imply movement. Molly Bangs in her innovative Picture This speaks of a diagonal as a tree about to fall, and that’s a form of movement, even an implied danger. But even ‘static’ or stable diagonals in perspective  imply movement into space.  A repeating series of simple vertical shapes, especially strokes, imply rhythm or music, and in this, as in physics, distance= rate x time. Every one of these concepts is somewhat synesthetic; they blend sensory information, which does for the interest level in a picture, what eye movement does. 

Along implied diagonal axes in a picture, other dichotomies come into play as dramatic elements. For example, hard edges versus soft edges: soft =mystery, distance. Hard = surety, obstacle. The eye gives us definition up close, and indistinction far away, so it is a natural thing to see hard edged shapes as closer or more important. In realism, these cues get used pretty straightforwardly. In abstract or expressionistic art, they get jumbled, and become part of a picture’s mystery. This too can be manipulated. Too close, and objects become mysteriously indistinct or vaguely threatening. 

The final story a picture tells is not at all under an artist’s control. Not so much in a gallery setting, but in a street fair show, where artists are spending long hours absorbing the diverse reactions from a large sample of viewers, one is struck by how much a viewer’s interpretation can differ from the one intended by the artist. I actually encourage that with schematic, open ended imagery, but you don’t ultimately control what another tells themselves about a scene. I maintain that this is part of the natural narrative process in art.

When several people interpreted my large monotype, “Man With Torch”, as an environmental statement, I couldn’t really disagree. An indistinct figure wielding elemental power strides across a denuded plain (top).

However, I intended it clearly in my mind when composing it, as a metaphor for memory. One razes the past in memory, even as one marches confidently toward new experience, oblivious of past failure. 

Both interpretations seem valid now. I don’t argue that some interpretations of an image may seem more valid than others; this sort of visual relativism can go too far. But narrative IS organic, and the oldest story is transformation

Thus, no matter how specific the imagery, ambiguity results, and working to make the image more specific often leads to overworking it, which tells its own story, of obsession or neurosis. Visually, this can be a form of stasis, not necessarily a bad thing if balanced against movement or transformation. 

Movement of light across a plane and suggested movement of diagonals comes under the general heading of transformation: all art is transformation of a sort, and anything that shows an artist’s hand, such as transitions from black into white, or blended colors, bring that idea to the fore. Transformation is already in your process, but preconception can sometimes render it awkward or graceless. Transformation IS the story, and it should be built into your process, your composition, and your colors. A recognition of the transformation that inevitably informs a successful piece as it’s being made makes it easier to deal with the fact that the story of a given work of art often doesn’t end when it goes into a frame and onto a gallery wall.  

Register here for Monotype Portfolio, beginning October 13, Or Mad Science Monoprint in November.

Workshops For Fall

Let’s get printing!

I’ve updated my ‘Workshops’ page to reflect my fall schedule at the Art Students League of Denver. You’ll find info about beginner classes, weekend sampler, and my more intermediate-friendly classes. I don’t have info on DPL Plaza Program workshops yet. Those are still being scheduled, and I’ll update when I have them. There is also a video, and some brief essays on why monotypes might appeal to an artist.

I’m still working slowly on my web store. I’m using freeware and open source software for all of this, including the web site itself, and they’re glitchy as hell, and poorly documented. I know, what do I expect for free? I’m not a programmer, damn it! But I’m slowly working through the issues. There will definitely be some Grand Opening and Holiday specials , so watch this space.

I have plenty of book posts, and another creativity post in the editing queue. So there should be plenty to see here soon. Thanks for dropping by!

Art and Comics: Not Such a Ligne Claire?

 I started a blog in 2009, with the stated intention of documenting my transition from working class day job to full time artist. I quickly discovered there were challenges to this- running up the credit cards on unprofitable shows, for example, with severely reduced cash flow as a result. Another consequence was trying to keep a steady presence on the web, with the distraction of the cash scramble. Part of the difficulty in keeping a steady schedule of posts, for me anyway, was the reluctance to write every post about me, it seemed monotonous. But many of the interesting related activities that informed my conversation with the day job- travel, important shows in other cities, even arthouse cinema- were out of my price range now.  The  low cost entertainment that I now enjoyed were trips to the library for classic novels, art books, dvd’s and alternative comics. At the same time, I picked up a copy of Nick Hornby’s collection of book blurbs, The Polysyllabic Spree. I enjoyed his casual, almost flippant approach to reading. I didn’t adopt his format- books bought, books read- but I did start a Reading List (word cloud at right) category on my own blog. 

Of the various categories, comics seemed the most promising, since they are a commercial form of printed graphics, but also not covered by many writers, relatively speaking. A good niche for me, though of course, I continue to write blurbs about novels and art books too. It offers a nice way to process what I’ve been reading, with the immediate notes I jot down when I finish a book placing my reactions in a more concrete form. 

But I haven’t really explored in any definitive way the relationship between art and comics, though it’s alway on my mind.   

Raw magazine took an approach to comics that was undoubtedly informed by the proto-punk avante garde art rock movement of Television and Patti Smith in downtown NYC during the mid-70’s. “Raw seems to confuse a lot of people. Is it a comic book? Is it an art magazine?”, Co-editor Art Spiegelman wrote in Read Yourself Raw, a compilation of the best of early Raw issues, in 1987.

“Raw: The Graphic Magazine That Lost its Faith in Nihilism” The subtitle to #3 teased. “The Graphix Magazine for Damned Intellectuals” collected from diverse sources: refugees from the Underground Comix, yes, but also people from The School of Visual Arts in NYC, such as the Hopper-esque Jerry Moriarty, punk expressionists like Gary Panter, and Eurocomics Ligne Claire revivalists such as Jooste Swarte, whom Spegelman perceptively identifies as inheritors of Deco/De Stijl sensibilities in the same intro to Read Yourself Raw. In short, the intention was always to meld comix with high art. 

Raw defined comics-as-art into the early 90’s, before co-editor Francoise Mouly moved on to the art editorship of the New Yorker, bringing the Raw sensibility, and many of the artists, now names in literary and illustration circles, with her. 

Other magazines ( Buzzbomb, Bad News, Exit, Nozone) tried to copy the format  and iconoclasm (don’t forget the witty tag lines!) but didn’t last.

By the turn of the century, however, another magazine was mining the intersect between narrative graphics and high art, which Phillip Guston and Raymond Pettibon, not to mention Adam Gopnik in the catalogue for High Art, Low Art at MOMA, were already exploring from the fine art side. Dan Nadel, often in collaboration with Tim Hodler, had started The Ganzfeld, like Raw, an infrequent anthology of comics, in this case mixed in with essays and graphic illustration from across the spectrum of illustration and gallery art. The art school influence was there as well, in this case with the Fort Thunder school of comics artists that came out of the Rhode Island School of Art and Design. 

While Raw celebrated comics’ outsiderness with ironic tag lines and by drawing parallels with newspaper comics’ rowdy past with reprints of Herriman, Boody Rogers and actual art outsiders such as Henry Darger,  Nadel emphasized the connectivity of comics with New York gallery art and the design world, and the shelving designation for Ganzfeld #3 reads: Art and Design. Lawrence Wechsler commented on Bruegel, The comics-adjacent pop art of the Hairy Who is examined. Nonetheless, many of the pioneering Raw artists, such as Mark Newgarden and Richard McGuire are here. Euro comics are less in evidence, though Blexbolex is an exception. 

Raw cheekily asserted comics’ otherness while advocating for their legitimacy as an art form, The Ganzfeld placed them side-by-side with other hard to categorize art forms to integrate them into the critical landscape. These are both interesting strategies, one growing out of a punk/DIY sensibility, the other leveraging design/publishing elites to elevate by association. 

A more recent anthology, Black Eye, makes the comics/art connection but more implicitly, focussing mostly on comics, perhaps because coming out of Detroit, they can’t really access the design/ illustration world as easily as Ganzfeld.  They sometimes feature comics criticism, and like The Ganzfeld, often feature printmakers, natural allies. Issue #2 features a strong underlying Posada theme, not only in the graphic styles presented, but also in its undeniable skew toward black humor, which pervades all three issues of Black Eye. Again, Raw alumni, as well as Fort Thunder artists are published frequently. 

The editor, Ryan Standfest, draws explicit connections to Raw Magazine, i.e. taglines! But he also returns to the savage black humor that the undergrounds inherited from EC’s Mad and Panic. However, a knowing sophistication accompanies the gleeful savagery. Jeet Heer, for example, points out in #1 the divide in the Undergrounds between the narrative comix (Crumb, Shelton) and the very visual psychedelia of Griffin and Moscoso, who liberally adapt contemporaneous Op Art tropes. Black Eye, even more than Raw and The Ganzfeld, wants it both ways, and this dichotomy between the serious and mockery characterizes much of more recent comics as a whole. This places a lot of cutting edge comics into a high art/pop culture art form that dates back to Oscar Wilde and continues through Stonewall ( as Heer points out): the weaponization of irony, as camp. 

All of this would have been impossible in the repressive 50’s, when comics writers and artists sought to escape the low pay, grueling work conditions and censorship to find ‘respectable’ employment as illustrators or syndicated newspaper cartoonists. Comics deserve critical attention for their own unique aesthetic qualities, of course, but more and more the line between them and art and literature is blurring. This creates a healthy critical dialogue, and also expectations and opportunity. These anthologies offer all three.

Mention here is appropriate for the euro-centric Nobrow Magazine and the yearly Blab series, both of whom pair cartoonists with illustrators and graphic arts designers. Nobrow usually features work in both fields by artists who work in both. Even comics-exclusive anthologies such as the excellent Kramer’s Ergot make a case for comics as art, though by consistent quality, rather than by overt editorial agenda.The Comics Journal pursues essentially the same tack, but WITH the editorial agenda. Still, their inborn irreverence betrays their fanzine roots. It appears succinctly in the title of their own oral history, Comics as Art: the voices of Groth, Spiegelman and Heer proclaim. In the subtitle, comes the nose-thumbing rejoinder, seemingly straight from the mouths of Kurtzman, Feldstein and Crumb- We Told You So.

Raw, Blab and The Ganzfeld can still be found on the second hand back issues market, though Raw, like many of the alternative comics pioneers of the 80’s, is beginning to get quite pricey. Black Eye is still available from the publisher, Rotland Press, along with their many intriguing chapbooks, though print runs are small and probably dwindling. The same is true of Nobrow

Transforming an Idea

Or Being Transformed By It?

Ideas are far from static entities. I mentioned in another post that like the particles in Maxwell’s Demon, they will usually gain energy or significance only by colliding with other ideas, and thus are born of a process of synthesis or transformation anyway. But even an idea born whole -assuming that really exists- will benefit from different approaches to it. Transforming an idea puts you in the driver’s seat, even when you are not sure where you are going- especially when you are not sure. Taking ownership of an idea sometimes means taking it apart and putting it back together again. If you find you have parts left over, perhaps they didn’t belong there in the first place.

There are different strategies for transformation, and some are additive, and some are subtractive. It’s become a convention to speak of Picasso, for example, as a ‘creator/destroyer’ as Arrian Huffington once put it, and apart from the implications in an artist’s personal life, the famous time-lapse film of Picasso painting onto a clear panel, erasing whole areas and putting new elements in their place is an extreme (and possibly self-dramatized) example of the way process can be far from linear. A good book on Picasso’s  creative process that I’ve enjoyed recently is The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, by Rudolf Arnheim.

It is a bit of a self-drama, for me, anyway. I’m sure other artists might agree. One gets one’s favorite studio soundtrack going- let’s see, Pixies, or Phillip Glass? A stimulant can be added; now, it’s usually coffee, though I admit that wine or beer was more common in the early days. There is a certain choreography that pertains: anything from organizing the studio, to a restless pacing back and forth from close-ups to long view, a sort of rhythmic dance might even break out.

And then the adding and subtracting. This has a real metaphoric weight- it’s not just a surface arrangement. Questions of positive and negative space, visual weight and color messaging impact the meaning of an idea, the way it blossoms from pure visual immanence to a more objective literal object. No artwork can escape this fluid dynamic. 

So what can be added? Especially in printmaking, which is subject to the technical limitations on effects and processes that can be changed after they are once applied, and a general bias toward simplified graphic forms? The short answer is: distance and movement. There are many ways to add depth to a print, which by nature and design, can sometimes be flat. These range from the traditional, such as perspective, to other more abstract strategies.

Visual and metaphoric distancing strategies affect our reactions to a picture emotionally and analytically. This often takes place in terms of creating eye movement, which is the physical manifestation of ‘interest’ in looking at an artwork. Something detailed, heavily textured or just very hard-edged often gets our most immediate attention because of how the eye works. Something fuzzier, and less distinct feels ‘farther away’, less of an immediate question or challenge. Distance is the essence of ‘depth’ in an artwork. It also creates musicality when we consider that distance=rate x time. Similar objects, varied in size, and placed at regular intervals, create a rhythm and depth that becomes harmonizing. We follow the ‘beat’, moving into the space and time of a picture.

Textures can add energy and attract the eye, things such as “noise”, a word I  use to refer to ‘accidental’ by-products of ink manipulation- debris, extruded strokes, distressed color forms, and scratched-in forms, such as in clouds or dark areas. Textures impart important cues into an artist’s attitudes toward the basic shapes in a composition, and are not to be ignored. Texture sounds like a decorative detail, but two shapes, treated in a soft, fuzzy, mystery suggesting way; or in a hard-edged, definite, foregrounding way, can say different things about meaning. Literally and figuratively,  texture provides definition.

Edges and contours work the same way. A hard edge will physically ‘foreground’ an element, owing to the way the eye works; and in combination with a darker color can also create a sort of silhouette, a neat trick of adding both proximity and mystery to an object, a very basic and challenging question to the viewer’s eye: Do I stay here, or move around this, into what has by implication become a distance. Thus movement is created.

Contours bring softer, more reticent shapes forward. Contours can be textured to add intrigue or expressive notes, or faded to add mystery and metaphoric movement. Contours can be found in shapes that already exist in the image, or imposed on top of textures or patterns beneath. They can be somewhat arbitrary or even contrary, or harmonious and integral.

Textures can be stylized (semi-abstract), or realistic and sort of gritty or tonal. In monoprints, texture can also include different printmaking techniques such as relief, dry point, and collograph, among others; each offering a new ‘window’ into a separate reality, upping the way meta narrative can be incorporated. Whatever one’s opinion of Andy Warhol, his genius was to prove finally, conclusively, that art can never be wholly a matter of physical gesture. Ideas are born, live, and die in the mind. While his art is obviously about much more than printmaking, the surrealist juxtapositions of process color and deliberate mis-registrations inject the ultimate distancing effect of all- irony.  Viewed in these lights, texture and color, especially in printmaking, is anything but decorative.

“Treehouse”, 2019, 21×15″, Monotype. In every monotype, there are things one might wish to change, or that one hadn’t changed.

Color’s transformative qualities are magnified in printmaking. Transparency can form newly surprising or intriguing colors, change mood overall or in parts of the picture, or unify disparate elements. Transparency is a measure of color’s willingness to engage with other elements in a print.

Bright, warm colors bring the underlying elements forward; dark, subdued colors can make the overlapped elements recede. In printmaking, where color schemes are often simplified, accents can attract the eye to important areas, add irony or balance, or a visual counterpoint. When complementary colors are used, they can demonstrate visually the adage that “opposites attract”.

Positive/negative elements can foreground detail, or create visual reversals, which are energizing and add intrigue. As in famous optical illusions such as Necker Cubes, positive/negative elements in art can be both additive and subtractive, foregrounding and backgrounding, at the same time. A splash of textures or small shapes can lead from positive (dark) areas, in color on light areas and segue immediately into negative (light) shapes in a dark area. This is a cubist trick that leads the eye and breaks visual planes. Again, eye movement trumps surface illusion. 

As for the subtractive side of the creative process, As an idea becomes more developed it often becomes more complex. Other ideas and nuances accrete, leading to a signal to noise disjunct that can obscure a simple first idea. It can be liberating and freeing, in a creative sense, to simply take something out. Let the idea suggest itself, rather than spelling it out. If an idea isn’t strong enough to survive this at least you know that now.

And white space is well known, in printmaking’s cousin, advertising, to create places for the eye to enter a picture, or to rest briefly while considering a next move. Monotypes or prints without sufficient white space can sometimes feel heavy, or busy. With an often limited color palette, and no way to reclaim the resplendent whites once they’ve been printed over, this is not surprising. But balance in darks and lights doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 mix. A small, very bright white area of the original sheet showing through a mass of black ink can be very compelling.

When do the transformations end? It’s a question I get a lot in classes- when is it finished? Do I keep going and risk irreversible change, or stop and risk Superficiality and incompleteness? Transformations have consequences. Do I dare to eat a peach? is T.S. Eliot’s sublime, elegant and wholly understated version of this existential dilemma.

And it is very much existential. Change will happen anyway. Embracing change places you in the very engine room of the creative process. What to do there? I wish I had a simple answer for that in my own studio work. Be present. Open yourself to the movement and the music. 

My next workshop for adults with at least some printmaking experience is Mad Science Monoprint, beginning July 23. Register this week. The thoughts from this post will be on my mind then, and you are welcome to join the conversation.

Play It Again, SAM: How To Win Friends and Get Good Art At the Summer Art Market

I’m not sure how many Summer Art Markets I’ve done, but this year’s must be close to 25, if not there. I’m in booth #100. I’m entering the final week of preparations, and I think it’s going pretty well. Some years- especially the earlier ones- were frantic. There have been a few like this year where I had a good start, and though it’s always work, it’s been pretty calm the whole way.

The Art Students League #SummerArtMarket2019 is one of the better shows for artists, and many long time shoppers believe, for art buyers. It combines experienced artists, many of them, like me, on the faculty at the school; with newer artists doing their first festival show, many of whom are students at the school. It has a real community feel, and tends to emphasize the art, rather than the food vendor and sponsor booths, and it is the school’s biggest fundraiser. Only media taught at the school can be exhibited in this show, so various ‘craft-ish’ items are not allowed, giving the show a real focus that true collectors have learned to love.

A nice feature of the Summer Art Market for buyers- Giclees and other reproductions that represent themselves as ‘fine art prints’ are not allowed, so one can shop for original art with confidence. At some shows, you might see these offered in “limited editions” at inflated prices, as if they themselves were art. At SAM, you can buy actual handmade art, often for prices as friendly as others charge for their Giclees. It’s worth pointing out that at any of the many printmaking booths at this show, only true, hand-pulled fine art prints are for sale.

“Ladder at Moonrise”, Monotype, 15×11″. An original fine art print differs from a Giclee, or other commercial reproductions, in that it is hand-pulled by the artist ( in my case) or Master Printmaker under the artist’s supervision. Etchings and woodblock prints can have larger edition numbers ( 1/10; 1/25; etc, meaning: 25 total prints from the same plate or block), but in the special case of a monotype or a monoprint, only one unique print can be created: thus, 1/1

You’ll probably find art bargains there. The beginning artists, many of them quite good, tend to keep their prices very low, whereas the more well known need to protect themselves from the competition in this large show, and many probably also try to keep prices as low as they can, or offer smaller more affordable pieces as I do. Many of us are trying to maintain a consistent, gallery price level, so higher prices from established artists are not a surprise, either, though Denver in general has low prices for art, so it can be hard for a full time artist to generate sustainable sales in a year. Great for buyers, though. This is the balance an aspiring art community must attain.

Haggling is a personal issue with artists, though a show of this type, especially on Sunday afternoon, would probably be as good as any a place to try it . Some artists seem to see it as an insult. I personally don’t mind it, though it should be reasonable, for the issues of consistent and sustainable prices mentioned above. Even galleries offer discounts, especially when a multiple, or larger sale is being considered. Repeat buyers also get nice prices. Be respectful, is my advice. Again, if you’re shopping for art in Denver, you’re probably getting a deal, anyway.

If you’re just looking, that’s fine, too. Questions about process and philosophy are fun for me, anyway- they break up a long day; and questions about my classes are certainly encouraged (you can register there too!). But be mindful of monopolizing an artist’s time for too long, as this may be a major source of income for their year, so they must make sure they don’t miss the opportunity to speak with any potential buyer. If you are a buyer, monopolize all you want. Enjoy being a hero. Not only have you paid some nagging, distracting artist bills, or even launched a career, but you’ve put money into the creative economy, money proven to be beneficial to a region’s economy and quality of life, especially as it tends to be returned to the economy quite quickly!

Other situations call for common sense: Solicitations for donations for your group’s charity auction, or for your new framing business or whatever are not that welcome if they’re going to take up valuable time. I certainly don’t mind if you leave your card or a flyer. No artist is going to make room in their crowded booth for your ad flyers for CFE’s, shows, etc.

The real value of the show is interaction and feedback from peeps you wouldn’t normally meet in a gallery, so don’t be shy. I certainly enjoy it- all conversations about art are more welcome than say, any conversation about the Broncos. Stop by and introduce yourself, make a comment about the art, get to know the community.

Search: #sam2019, summerartmarket2019, #asld, #artstudentsleague, and my personal favorite, #sambooth100.

Summer School Daze

The process of updating the blog has turned into a tragicomedy with two stubbornly unfinished drafts awaiting liberation. I’m posting an update on my Workshops page to get the ball rolling again.

The school features Kids Art Camp classes during many of the days, so most of my adult classes will be at night, when the breezes run cool through the print room windows. However, I am offering a Teen workshop, Monoprint Mad Science, during the camps. Monoprint Mad Science is also available for adults on Tuesday Evenings.

A fun way to have your questions answered about workshops is to come down to my Summer Art Market booth, #100, during the show. You can also register with a friendly human in the ASLD booth, only a few feet away.

Though it’s no excuse for not posting, I have been quite busy in the studio. The best way to stay updated on new work is through my Instagram account, @JoeHigginsMonotypes. I’m also still active on Twitter, @hggns; and I’ve been trying to revive my Facebook page, honest.

( Detail of large monotype) No title for this one as yet, it is only a day old. It is a elaboration on a ghost from a different monotype. I enjoy bugs, mostly, especially when they stick to their gardens and pollination bailiwicks.

Library Drop-in Workshops Added

I’ve updated my Workshops page to reflect two additional dates, January 22 at Gonzales Library; and March 5 at Montbello. These are free and open to the public. Yes, they’re very basic, as there are often kids there, but the main interest for artists might be the chance to try the non-toxic Akua inks. Not to mention, you can actually let your kids try etching without fearing for their health.

I’ll be teaching full 4 week classes in non toxic methods twice this year, doing workshops in both etching and photo-etching techniques. Approach 18

Above is a photo etching with top roll I did using non-toxic techniques this fall after taking a workshop with non-toxic etching expert Henrik Boegh. It’s a drawn image on transparent film, exposed to a polymer film, then etched with a soda solution. I hand pulled the print using the Akua water soluble inks, Black for the hand-wiped image, then a top roll of blue. Please excuse the iPhone snap shot.

Happy Hopeful Holidays!

I think most Americans feel that the 2018 election greatly increased the chances for democracy to survive in this country, and for justice to be served to those who would profit from corruption. So it’s a hopeful end to the year. I’m taking a week to relax and recharge after a very up-and-down professional year that also came to a hopeful end. We’ll see if optimism is justified in either case, but one thing is certain: we must press on.

While I don’t have a full post ready, I may have one soon, as I have several unfinished drafts to work with, and I find writing blog posts with morning coffee very relaxing. In the meantime, I’ve updated my Workshops Page with all the Winter/Spring workshops I currently have scheduled. It’s a light schedule. My first one begins January 20, and it’s my Monotype Starter workshop, the one most likely to fill quickly. It’s also the only session of this one scheduled this Spring. The next one won’t be till Summer.

I do have two new workshops debuting, Modern Intaglio: Etching; and Modern Intaglio: PhotoPolymer Etching. These are a result of a workshop I took in September with Henrik Boegh, a Danish printmaker recognized as an authority in safe, earth-friendly etching techniques.

There are descriptions and links for all of my workshops, as well as my schedule of free DPL workshops. I’ll also be giving a series of professional development workshops through Colorado Art Educators Association. If you are involved with that organization and need professional development credit, watch for them! The first one is January 7.

A happy holiday season to all, however you may celebrate. I wish you prosperity and hope in 2019, and I thank everyone who supported me through art sales, classes, or a friendly word.

Gathering Hopes

This rather contented looking feller is from a nice thank you note I received from artists and staff of The Gathering Place, a day shelter for homeless women where I taught a series of monotype and relief printing workshops this summer. Card by JVO

I’ve got a brief break for writing and studio work after finishing up two workshops. One was my Monotype Portfolio summer evening class, which went well; I’ll post a nice image from that soon. The other was my Wednesday morning workshop with the women of The Gathering Place, a day shelter for homeless women. It was a wake-up but a joy, for several reasons.

I love a morning class anyway. You get to start off the day with conversations on creativity, it really puts a hopeful spin on things. The perspective of the whole day changes to one of possibility. Also, the women there, despite their many struggles, are talented. All of us need to see reminders of the humanity in everyone, whether fortunate ( Yes, I’m grateful) or not, and art provides that.

And I felt welcomed there- The staff and clients made me feel valued- a contributor for hope. At some point, I really began to buy into that hope. I began to ask myself how I might help advance the hopes of others. TGP is not surprisingly situated at the epicenter of this city’s exploding homeless population. Eat day I went there, I walked or rode through the hordes of much less fortunate people that our current failing politics seeks to ignore.

That brings me to the point of the post, not the art we made in class, which was mostly fairly simple processes which in some cases led to spectacular results. As I said, there were some talented artists here, and I’ll post some of those below.

But the cat above is not from the class. It’s part of a separate Gathering Place project I’d like you to know about: Their card project which allows down on their luck women to make money from their talent for art and making. I got this one, with some nice notes written inside, as a thank you for teaching the workshop, and it’ll be treasured along with some other artworks and notes I’ve received over the years. I wish the picture showed it better- it’s drawn in a sort of sparkly colored ink!

 

By Purchasing this piece of handcrafted original art, you are making a difference in the life of an individual who is experiencing homelessness or poverty. 75% of the revenue generated for The Gathering Place by the sale of this card will be returned to the individual artist.

-back of the card

Many of the artists were pondering how the simple relief prints we did could be incorporated into The Card Project, which made me feel very happy. Have I contributed in a small way?

As you might imagine, The Gathering Place is not really open to the public. But you can visit, and see all of these hundreds of cards at affordable prices by contacting them at cards@tgpdenver.org or calling 303.996.9068. We’ve all been feeling a bit knocked around since November 2016. Soon, we get to vote, but we can also pay it forward a little. 

Just a few of the many prints done by the artists of The Gathering Place.