What is Real?

hands 4, photograph

“They are imbeciles who call my work abstract. That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things”.

Constantin Brancusi

Smart people in many fields, ranging from classical philosophy (Plato) to modern physics to Kashmir Shaivism and Buddhism, point out that external appearances are not real in some fundamental way. They are transient, illusory, a deception.

We have it backwards – what we think of abstract is real and what we perceive of as real is abstract. Of course, it’s hard to live one’s everyday life with this perspective. But, as artists, we have the freedom to entertain this viewpoint in our work.

This is why most of my photography explores a shadow world, a level or two below what we think of as reality. It’s like the part of the iceberg below the waterline – there’s much more there to explore than what’s on the surface. That volume has extraordinary dimension. It is from there that the parts we see emerge above the surface.

It’s reassuring to know that there is so much more in the abstract world beneath the surface of things – no end to what we can explore!

 

 

Show Announcement!

vapors 7, photograph

I’m excited to announce I will be having a one person show starting March 31st through mid-June at the art gallery at Thumbprint Cellars in Healdsburg. This is a wonderful venue for displaying art and I will be hanging 15 or so large pieces on canvas, many never printed before. I will have several “mini-themes” on display including several from my Vapors series, some very large nature abstracts, some figurative pieces and a new urban series.

There will be an opening Friday, April 1st from 5-7pm. If you are in the area it would be great if you could stop in so I could say hello and share with you what I’ve been up to. Thumbprint Cellars will be doing a wine tasting and food pairing that evening as well.

This show is part of the Winery Program associated with the Art at the Source Open Studio event I will be doing this year June 4/5 and 11/12. I hope you also get a chance to come by then!

Why, not How…

hands 3, photograph

“The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

Raymond Chandler

I really don’t like to talk to people about how I’ve done a particular shot. You might have gathered that from reading this blog, where I rarely if ever discuss how the photograph was made. This is definitely not a how-to type of blog…

It’s not that I’m protecting some great secret, I just think it’s beside the point. The point is how the photography makes you feel, what emotional or intellectual response does it elicit, not technical details about what camera or lens was used, what lighting, exposure, etc. When I get into that kind of discussion with someone, I know they’re not really seeing the photograph.

Since I tend to shoot images that involve a fair amount of technique, some of it unusual, I’m opening myself up to more than my share of such questions and conversations. And I accept that – but I do relish the times when someone talks to me about how they feel about the image. And I feel myself deflate a bit each time I hear “how did you do that?”.

 

Representin’

hands 3, photograph

“I wished to copy nature. I could not. But I was satisfied when I discovered the sun, for instance, could not be reproduced, but only represented by something else.”

Paul Cezanne

Another worthy distinction to bear in mind as an artist – the difference between reproduction and representation.

As a creator and as a viewer of art, I find representation much more interesting – and, of course, as Cezanne says, you really can’t reproduce another thing anyway!

There are many choices that go into deciding how to represent something. You have to make decisions about how your approach will be like and how it will be different from the thing represented. This provides ample room for interpretation and expression. There are an infinite number of ways to represent something, a very finite (perhaps singular) number of ways to reproduce it. As a viewer of art, trying to understand how and why the work represents it’s subject offers a visual and intellectual challenge that engages me.

When I think about representing, I am forced to consider what are the essential qualities of the thing so I can attempt to make those more evident in the piece. This deepens my understanding and experience of my subject in a way that simply reproducing it does not.

Just another way that artmaking is so much about the process, not just the end result.

Out on a Limb

vapors 54, photograph

“Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?”

Frank Scully

I have mixed feelings when creating new work that is new and different. First there is the excitement of creating something (hopefully) unique. But there is also the uncertainty of whether I’ve strayed down a path that no one will join me on. Going out on a limb can be a lonely place – exhilarating, but scary.

Not only is there risk to the ego, but there is real risk to the pocketbook as well. Often a financial investment is required, to print and frame the work, to enter it in shows (usually there are application fees), to ship it to remote venues, etc. I guess you have to pay to play.

But, indeed, the best fruit hangs at the end of the limb. Playing it safe in the art world is usually not a recipe for success and even if some success occurs, it’s not as personally rewarding as that which comes with greater risk. It’s when I take risks creating something new that I feel that I’m coming closer to expressing myself honestly.

So I’ll continue to experiment, to try new ideas, print and show new work (much of which will probably end up in my storage unit!) – hopefully I’ll harvest some sweet fruit along the way!

Planning to Improvise

smoking nude 2, photograph

“Careful planning, and brilliant improvisation.”

Sergi Eisenstein

The yin and the yang of making art. Years of practice, hours or even days of careful preparation for a specific piece and then ultimately the surrender to the creative spirit. Planning gives way to improvisation.

As in all things, the key is finding the right balance. Planning without improvisation produces nothing or work that is static, lifeless. Improvisation without planning may lead to an occasional success but lacks consistency and dimension.

Moving from one phase to the next is hard. It’s sort of a left brain/right brain kind of transition. It requires a shift in focus that requires a leap of faith – faith that the planning has laid the foundation from which the improv will flourish.

The piece above, part of a new series for me, is a case in point. I photograph smoke and independently I photograph figures in motion. Both require a lot of technique, lighting setups, creative use of exposure, etc. Lots and lots of shots to get some that work. The improvisation comes when I start combining them into image collages, looking for complementary forms and motion. I enjoy the discipline needed at the beginning and the freedom to play at the end.

The yin and the yang.

 

 

Everyone Likes a Good Mystery


transient 3, photograph

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”

Francis Bacon

I’m not very interested in using photography in some of it’s more common forms – to explain, document or reveal. Rather I’d rather put it to work in the service of mystery.

Mystery arouses curiosity and speculation, which allows for a greater range of meaning. In fact, since photography is so well suited to literal description, the use of ambiguity can be even more compelling.

Perhaps an apt  analogy is between a documentary film and film which is fiction. While good documentaries can be fascinating, they usually don’t involve the viewers imagination and emotion in as complex a fashion. Documentary film and photography brings you face to face with reality – the impact of that reality can be powerful. But non-documentary film and photography invite you to create your own reality, make up your own story.

Deepening the mystery is an important way for me to pen my own reality…

Too Much of a Good Thing


transient 1, photograph

“…detail kills imagination.”

-Colley Whisson

A bit of a controversial position to take as a photographer in this day and age of digital everything – more megapixels, bigger sensors, better lenses, sharper prints…  The capability is all there, but does that compel us to use it?

Most painters, except those doing photo-realistic pieces, know that the surest way to kill a painting is to try to put all the detail in it. It’s a beginners mistake. The viewer is more engaged when their perceptual system has to get involved, when it has to resolve what’s going on.

I find myself drawn to photographs that are more suggestive than descriptive for the same reason. I have to look at the photograph for a while to figure out what’s going on. Too much detail, as Whisson says, deprives me of an important facet of my experience.

Some will argue, perhaps rightly so, that photography is a unique medium because of it’s ability to capture detail and render scenes literally. They say that one should embrace this and find the artistry within that characteristic, that doing so is what it means to be a photographer. I understand this – I sometimes wonder why photo-realistic painters don’t just become photographers!

Maybe I should take up my brushes again. But until then, I’ll soldier on taking pictures that stare those damn pixels right in the eye!

Disturbing News

Into the Continuum, photograph

A painting without something disturbing in it – what’s that?

– George Braque

Another bold statement that might just contain a grain of truth in it.

Does all (or most) good, interesting art have at least some element in it that could be considered “disturbing”? If there is nothing that throws us off just a bit, is the art reduced to something that is just decorative? What role “decorative” art plays is a topic for another post…

I use the word disturbing in a fairly general sense – to unsettle, to interrupt, to interfere with the order of something. When I experience this in a work of art it causes me to stop and reconsider, to reflect on something in a new way. My status quo has been disturbed. What results from that experience can be good or bad, but without something in the work that triggers it, chances are we won’t get much from seeing the work.

I always get a small thrill when I create an image that I know will disturb my viewers (bearing in mind the above definition). I don’t want to make you feel bad, I want to make you feel…

Aiming High

 

drops 1, photograph

“If you would hit the mark, you must aim a little above it; every arrow that flies feels the attraction of earth.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Most of the time I find myself trying to do something I haven’t done before, trying to figure out something new. Usually something I don’t know if I can pull off.  There’s a downside to this in my experience that has to be managed.

I’ve been playing the piano for the past 5 years or so and I’m typically interested in playing music that is beyond my ability. As a result, I don’t play it as well as music that would be more appropriate for my level. I have to be satisfied with a more limited “success” in the interest of  stretching myself past my comfort level. And my playing is actually better for it.

In photography, I try to constantly explore styles, subjects and techniques that are new to me. The results may not be of as high a quality as what I have more experience with, but the effort informs everything else I do in a positive way. Plus, I have a restless artistic nature that gets bored easily – it’s more fun to try new things.

Is it better to try to perfect what you know or to move on to what you don’t? For now, I’m following the advice of Gertrude Stein who said, “If you can do it then why do it?”.