Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Eulogy delivered on 11/4/09 for Mardy Lemmons

The Texas Panhandle lost a great artist and educator last week. Mardy Lemmons, artist and design instructor at Amarillo College, passed away at the age of 49. The following text was shared with Art21onKACV by Jacob Breeden. It is a eulogy, delivered by Jacob, at Mardy's service on 11/4/09. Art21onKACV extends its heartfelt sympathy to Mardy's family members and friends. And thank you, Jacob, for sharing this with the Texas Panhandle arts community.

"So...I’ve been asked to say a few words about Mardy. At the risk of sounding cliché, that is no small task. I want to talk about the Mardy I knew well. Mardy the artist.

I met Mardy several years ago. I was working in my studio, and in walks this big lumbering fella. Unkempt, unshaven, and un-tucked. Grinning from ear to ear like he was up to something. He introduces himself and hands me a small paperback book by some guy named Hermon Garbriel, about composition…

My first thoughts were...who the hell is this guy...and who the hell is Hermon Gabriel.

And that, in a lot of ways, was what I came to know as Mardy. Always with a handshake, a smile, and some archaic unknown artistic genius he wanted to tell you about.

Mardy was an artist in the truest sense of the word. His work, drawings-paintings-design… are a visual representation of his pursuit. He was always exploring, always reinventing, and always challenging himself to find something new. He was a blue collar guy, and he brought that with him into the studio.

His subject of choice was always the figure. Even in the brief time period that he went abstract…the figure was always there. I feel blessed to have one of the few abstract pieces he did…and I think, the only one with a nipple.

His ability to deal with the figure…to understand the figure…and to see past the flesh was like that of few other artists I have ever known. He saw the body…and loved the body…for what it is…

Beautiful for all its flaws. Elegant in its oddity’s. Glorious in its ugliness.

He loved to exaggerate the body…be it the eyes, the pecs, the bum, or the ummmm…well “that certain part of the male anatomy”.

Realism, in a way, was always his objective…but not in the sense that you may think. His objective was not to create a “photograph”…but to capture the essence of the scene in his mind. To make that very real thing…that very real emotion…that existed in his mind…to make it visual and to share with others. He wanted to seduce you into sinful thoughts…especially if you were a bit too pure. He wanted to make it hard to overt your eyes…especially if you wanted to…His women often look you straight in the eyes. They challenge you, as did Mardy.

When the phone rang at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday…I always knew it was Mardy. He had not been to bed yet, wanted coffee, and to talk about art. Always art. Never politics, never world events, or sports…or anything…always art. Sometimes his, sometimes mine, sometimes a show around town…or whatever art history book he happened to be lugging around. He loved art. He loved artists.

But the conversations were not always…well…positive. Nothing made Mardy smirk like a well done show or a newly discovered piece from the past…and nothing made him grumble…and damn could he grumble…like bad art. Now…his tastes ran the gamut from the brutalities of German Expressionism to the quiet landscapes and portraits of Thomas Eakins, and more recently the subdued works of Andrew Wyeth.

What he consider to be bad art…was shallow art. Art made to look like last month’s Art in America…art made to please an audience…art made to sell. Mardy shared a trait with another great man we lost recently, Hunter Ingalls. Mardy and Hunter had the uncanny ability to see through the paint…to see through the bullshit…and to see the real intentions of the artist. And if you were making something bad…something off…neither man would hesitate to tell you. In a town full of critics…they offered genuine creative criticism.

Over the last few months a new Mardy began to appear. Motivated Mardy. Mardy the teacher. The evening before he passed away… Mardy explained his teaching philosophy to me. He did not want his students to mimic his work…he did not want to shove some philosophy of “Art Making” down their throats. He told me that he “looked for what each student did well…and then challenged them to use that strength.” He wanted them to use their own voices...not his…not this month’s cover artist of Art on Paper…but their own voices.

Mardy wanted that for all of us. He wanted to hear our voices and then add his to his to the fray. Mardy always said that it was better to have your work be hated, then ignored. At least it meant your voice was real. At least you were creating emotion. At least your work was doing something.

He longed for Amarillo to learn to support art and artists in a real and meaningful way. That people would learn to see the difference between art and craft. Good art and bad art. Between true creative passion and a hobby.

And for the last few months he talked regularly about wanting to do something big. Something to change the landscape. Something loud. Something powerful. He never got around to saying what he had in mind.

But I do know that Mardy said things lately that might help us understand this idea of his. He talked about the need for artists to support each other…to push each other…to understand that what we do…we do for the sake of ourselves, not for the other people, not for a professor, not for sales…not for the public.

He talked about ways to help the “scene” grow. To bring it life. To make it shout. And Mardy did everything he could to foster that idea. He was a true politician of the art world. He could, and did, walk into any space and talk to any artist…to any lover of art…He brought big egos together at a common table. He was always in the right place, no matter the crowd.

So…I won’t speak for Mardy, but I will tell you what I think might make him smile.

To Amarillo…support your local artists. Guys like Mardy should not have to look out of town for people who are willing to support their work. Go to studios. Ask questions. Look at the work as if it is something more than just an “image”…because it is.

If you are an artist….Never give in to the trend… Never create what you think the “in-crowd” will like…never bend to the whims of the public…trust your own instincts…be bold, be brazen, be ambitious.

Create constantly. Make art that scares you. Make art that means something to you. Use your voice, stand your ground, defend yourself.

Love each other, support each other, push each other. We are all in this together."

Jacob Breeden

Monday, October 26, 2009

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, and thoughts on Originality

Originality: it's one of the sacred cows of art. No matter how many artists have questioned the centrality of this principle, it just keeps coming up. There's that heart-sinking feeling when you see another artist dealing with similar subjects…especially when you think they're doing it better than you! Let me preface this by saying my own paintings are based on Seventeenth-century portraits, and because I omit the heads, the hands and clothing of the figures have to carry the mood and gesture of the image. The figures are hybrids of male and female forms, and often include deer.

I had read a brief article on Yinka Shonibare some years ago; I believe it was in Vogue. The author's focus was Shonibare's use of fabric in his drawings. Nowhere did it mention some of his other themes, which were featured on Art21's Transformation episode. His phenomenal sculptural work features headless figures in mannered poses, dressed in elaborate historical costumes. They are sometimes accompanied by exotic stuffed animals. In his pieces, he acts as social critic, utilizing and then bending the conventions of historical portraiture. His work makes a bold political statement without having to resort to rhetoric..and he does it through beauty (I don't think art needs to be "beautiful", though I am always impressed when an artist is able to use that tool well).

As I watched the segment on his work, I found myself captivated and irritated. A part of me (the shallow part!) was thinking, geez, there goes my schtick! How could I have not known this man's work? Why didn't I realize I was being derivative? Another voice chimed in: my reasons for choosing my images are different, and just as legitimate as Shonibare's…and furthermore, I have noticed a surge of similar imagery in the work of other artists (pick up the latest New American Paintings): historical costuming and animals, especially deer. Deer are ubiquitous these days. My own fascination began ten years ago when I befriended a pair of captive deer. I visited them every day and found them to be lovely and haunting creatures. I don't want to stop painting them just because so many others are (and have, goodness, since the Paleolithic!) Maybe I just need to keep following the thread of the imagery and see where it goes…

It's not the first time I've noticed that a certain set of images will begin to crop up everywhere, unbeknownst to those producing the images. Art does, it seems, tap into something collective and communal. I suppose one cannot help but be a product of one's time! This phenomenon doesn't mesh well with the notion that artists should be "originals"…which, by the way, is the product of the very culture that Yinka Shonibare critiques in his work…in spite of being made a Member of the British Empire by the Queen herself…

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trusting the Muse

As an art instructor I oftentimes deal with student fears about making art. Young artists, of any age, sometimes find it difficult to trust their ideas. I respond by telling them not to question but to follow where the muse leads. Learning to trust and to follow ones personal muse sometimes requires behavior that others may view as eccentric. This leads to another often asked question: why are artists always so eccentric? These two concepts are really bookends to the pursuit of an artistic path. One is the beginning: trusting the muse and the other is the result of this trust in oneself as an artist.

When I was a kid, I collaged my entire bedroom floor to ceiling because I didn’t like the wallpaper. This idea came naturally and there was no anxiety because I was not trying to be an artist, it was just awful wallpaper. When I began to study art, whenever it was possible to cut and paste fragments of images together that was how I would solve the problem. Now I consider myself a collagist, and photography is my primary medium.

One of the things that I was struck by in the next episode of Art:21 is how the early work of each artist led to a lifetime of images. The footage of Paul McCarthy dragging his young body through white paint reminded me of early William Wegman films of his dog Man Ray drinking milk poured on the floor. Both of these films are silly, and for me, far more interesting for where they lead the artist. Wegman’s dog would not stay out of his films or photographs and so in frustration he lets the dog take the leading role. This eventually leads to a contract with Sesame Street. But can you imagine Wegman telling his parents that when he grows up he wants to make dog portraits? No doubt, they would have suggested something more practical.

Cindy Sherman, another featured artist, never stopped playing dress up and was always enamored with her image on film. I love the little scrapbook where she would circle herself in the picture and write below “That’s me!” Through her love of play acting she has deconstructed stereotypes of women and built a career out of self-portraiture. The history of self-portraits goes back to the refinement of the mirror during the Baroque era with Salvator Rosa and Rembrandt being two of the earliest to explore this genre. It could also be argued that it is an ancient theme dating back to the Greek myth of Narcissus. It has been a genre of photography since the inception but no one has produced a larger body of work than Sherman. Of course now with social networking sites and digital cameras she probably has a few rivals with their cameras at arms length in what I call the My Space point of view.

Albert Einstein once said, "If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." The artists mentioned may be considered eccentric; they are known for pushing art in new directions and for challenging the status quo. What they have in common is that they trusted the muse to guide them. Watch Art:21 this week and get inspired.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Krzysztof Wodiczko: Socio-Political Art in the Private and Public Sphere

In 2005, Polish-born artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, known for his public projections on existing monuments and public architecture in more than a dozen countries, exhibited his first large-scale indoor video projection titled “If You See Something…” at Galerie Lelong in New York City. This series of video projections responded to changes in public policy regarding immigration after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The title, inspired by an ongoing homeland security campaign in New York City subway stations, refers to posters that encouraged suspicion of immigrants by vaguely demanding, “If you see something, say something.” The Lelong exhibition, because of its site-specificity and controlled voyeuristic environment, allowed the artist to manipulate the typical dynamic of communication in the public sphere. He inserts the voices of immigrants, the implicit targets of the security campaign, while silencing those conditioned to fear these “strangers.”

The temporary installation at Galerie Lelong consisted of four life-size video screens in a dark room in which silhouetted figures projected upon the screens appear to be holding conversations behind frosted glass “windows.” The figures, all presumed to be immigrants, act out private dramas of pain through audible conversations that center on themes such as deportation, political harassment, racial humiliation, detainment, and exclusion. The conversations confront the audience with the hopelessness felt by immigrants and racial minorities due to what Wodiczko calls “the assault on civil liberties in the name of war on terror.”

Wodiczko’s work has fascinated me since I first watched season three of Art:21. His childhood and early career behind the Iron Curtain in Poland and subsequent life as an immigrant in America (he now teaches in the Interrogative Design Department at MIT) has inspired his interest in giving a voice to oppressed or struggling individuals (victims of abuse, war veterans, immigrants, etc.). He has projected on over seventy public sites around the world, and his prolific career surprisingly has not received the attention that I believe it deserves. Perhaps, this comes from the ephemeral nature of his installations. The public projections last only one or two nights, and then disappear from the façades of monuments and public architecture forever. His temporary video projections assault the surfaces of static (often increasingly meaningless or ignored government structures) and bring them back to life with the faces, hands, legs, and bodies of living victims of public policy.

I have chosen to focus on his first indoor installation, “If You See Something…” because I am particularly interested in the dialogue created by art in both public and private spaces. The small, intimate setting confronted the viewers in a way that encouraged close listening and transformed the audience into individual voyeurs rather than collective spectators. I am particularly interested in the artist’s process of collecting, editing, and reproducing testimony from traumatized individuals—a process that Wodiczko compares to post-traumatic stress therapy. The production process and poignant final projections carefully critique social injustice and political ideologies while simultaneously giving oppressed members of society a platform for their testimony and a chance to heal by bearing witness to a captive audience.

I had trouble writing this small blog post because there is SO much to be said about the artist and his prolific body of work. Since it is nearly impossible to sum up the importance of his work in a few paragraphs, I hope that you take the time to check out these youtube videos (linked below). The first is from Wodiczko’s episode of Art:21 and provides an excellent overview of his public projections. The second is an interview with Wodiczko conducted by BOMB Live and shows some footage of “If You See Something…” If you have any questions about the artist or any of his works, feel free to post a response. Also, let me know what you think about his work (to many his work is considered controversial) and I have discovered that lively debates can be inspired. So long and happy watching!



On a side note, if you are interested in contemporary monuments or controversial public art, I recommend a recently released PBS documentary titled "The Last Conquistador." The documentary follows the controversial production of a monument to Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate at the El Paso Airport a few years ago. It was the most interesting art documentary that I have seen in a while, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ethics and Photography

Photo-manipulation is nothing new. It’s just a matter of where you want to start and how you want to define it. When Hippolyte Bayard posed as a drowned man in 1840, he was stretching the truth by staging the photograph. Oscar Rejlander in 1857 created the seamless combination print, The Two Ways of Life, out of 17 negatives (some say as many as 32). Insertion, adding images to the photograph, has been employed since at least 1865 when Matthew Brady added General Blair, to a photograph of Civil War officers. In the early 20th century, the half-tone printing process brought about a proliferation of photo magazines, and the Dadaist of Germany started making photomontages from the photographs found on the pages.

Digital photo-editing programs like Adobe PhotoShop make the possibility for image manipulation easier and perhaps more tempting. As early as 1990 in his book, "In Our Own Image," Fred Ritchin wrote about the potential of digital images to flawlessly manipulate photographic space and called for a need to label image composites in publications. In the book he gives an example of the pyramids being moved to create a vertical image, out of a horizontal photograph, for the cover of National Geographic.

The power of all of these strategies relies on the inherent nature of a photograph to be perceived as truth by the viewer. The idea that a photograph represents an indisputable truth and the debate about image manipulation starts at the inception of the medium and continues to this day. In Germany, Brigitte magazine has implemented a policy effective 2010 to use normal people (instead of size zero models) for images and not retouching them. In France the politician, Valérie Boyer, advocates passing laws that require enhanced photographs to have warning labels. She says, "These images can make people believe in a reality that often does not exist” which can lead to lower self-esteem and eating disorders. Since most advertising images, and many other images, are frequently manipulated there is naturally resistance to this movement. Currently there is a fight brewing in the blogosphere between the blog, Boing Boing, and a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Xeni, a regular contributor on Boing Boing, criticized the image because the model's head is larger than her pelvis, and Ralph Lauren rather than address the criticism has demanded the blog remove the post claiming copyright infringement.

While these trends are important, perhaps the most effective weapon to use against the persuasive effects of the photographic image is to teach people how to read photographs. In the 1940’s Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said that "... the illiteracy of the future will be ignorance of photography." But over 50 years later, media literacy is still not part of the school curriculum, and considering how many images the average person views in a day, it seems like there ought to be some attempt to teach people how to read those images.

The topic of the next segment on Art:21 is fantasy and features the work of photographer,
Florian Maier-Aichen, who creates idealized landscapes by means of digital manipulation. The show will be broadcast at 9 pm, Wednesday, October 14, on KACV.

Additional resources:
Dove Evolution
Top 10 Doctored Photos
Photo-tampering Throughout History

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Art of Collaboration

The former sense of isolation for many artists has faded as they gather both visual and conceptual information from across the world through the Internet. Personal artistic relationships now span the globe through social and professional connections to other artists through networking sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Social networking sites have also become a valuable tool for artists to promote their own creative work.

YouTube has been an important venue for me to showcase art-related videos that I create as well as a way for me to share other videos that inspire my work. My “friends” on YouTube and Facebook have given me valuable feedback on my work and many new ideas.

One of my YouTube/Facebook friends named Glideascope (a brilliant musician/composer based in London) asked me to do a video for one of his songs called “CB Radio” from the album “Audio Cinematography.” Here I am in Amarillo, Texas collaborating on a video with a DownTempo, Chill Out and a sprinkling of Trip-Hop dub musician in London!

Concepts for the “CB Radio” video have evolved between Glideascope and me in the past few weeks, as my technical abilities have struggled to keep pace with the visual demands of the project. This video is not the typical music video. Glideascope’s song “CB Radio” is an exquisite layering of audio textures and impressions, and my challenge has been to make the video’s visual impact reflect the visceral qualities and movement of the music. Glideascope has given me suggestions and feedback that have made the video a truly collaborative work of art and music. Our project has inspired me to go beyond what I thought I could accomplish.

Comment from Glideascope:
“I came across Victoria's work on YouTube, and I enjoyed her free-flowing way of putting visuals and sent a casual invitation to her to produce some visuals for the track CB Radio. This wasn't about a big budget, crew or equipment...just the passion of creating something new, and experimenting - taking us both outside our comfort zone.

Our only form of communication has been via email, Facebook and YouTube. Working within different time zones, with very limited time but with constructive criticism, ideas and feedback helping us to create something we are both proud to be associated with.I really enjoyed this collaborative effort and it was a pleasure working with Victoria.” - Glide

The possibility of a collaborative project like this was impossible until social networking sites allowed this kind of international contact and communication. My question to you: What stories of artistic inspiration and collaboration through social networking sites would you like to share with us?

Glideascope Links:
Website: http://www.glideascope.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/glideascope
FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Glideascope/117500890942
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/glideascope
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/glideascope

Victoria Taylor-Gore Links
Website: http://www.victoriataylorgore.com
Blog: http://www.anartjournal.com
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/vtg60

Monday, October 5, 2009

William Kentridge: Thoughts on Looking at Art

I remember the first time that I saw a painting in a museum that mesmerized me. It was a Van Gogh self-portrait with acidic greens vibrating on the canvas to the point of screaming out his pain. I had seen this image reproduced in dozens of books, and we had talked about it in art history class. But when I encountered it hanging on the wall of a museum it stopped me in my tracks. I think I must have stood there for at least twenty minutes staring at it. There is no way to explain this in a slide lecture, and there is no way of knowing what images will evoke this type of a response or why. To really understand art, and artists, it is imperative to look at the actual art.

William Kentridge recently had a one-person show at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth and when I first encountered the work; my response was similar to my encounter with Van Gogh’s painting. I was visiting friends in Fort Worth, and although I must confess that I had never heard of Kentridge, I make it a point to go to every show that Michael Auping the Chief Curator installs. I googled and searched You Tube for Kentridge before going and thought I knew something about his work. But I was not prepared for what I found: large scale video installations were behind partitions and drawings from the videos were installed on the outer walls. His drawings alone are world class museum quality work, but what he does with them in his videos is incredible. How can I even explain what a large scale projection of one of his videos is like, let alone describe the experience of seeing seven of them running simultaneously in the same room. Did I have a favorite? Well it would be either the Mozart “Magic Flute” theater installation complete with robots on tracks that run across the stage, the install in the room behind that with seven separate videos running depicting the cultural history of post-revolutionary Russia, or maybe it was that odd piece projected from above, spinning, and reflected onto a polished cylinder (embedded video above).

On the way home, I called all my friends and told them to go. I posted it on Facebook. I arranged a trip with my colleagues for one last look. We spent the weekend at the exhibit. Victoria Taylor-Gore, Chair of Visual Arts, Amarillo College, even went back on Sunday and has the distinction of being the last person in the museum at closing time on the last day of the show. She did not get back to Amarillo until after midnight. It was that good.

William Kentridge’s work is featured in the first segment of Art: 21 this season in a section dealing with compassion in art. It is fascinating to watch him construct frames for his films and listen to him discuss the process. This segment will be broadcast on October 7, and I highly recommend watching it.

Viewing art is crucial to understanding why an artist is significant. Reproductions rarely do images justice; they lack the magnitude, the mark of the artist’s hand, and the experience of the encounter. Some people go to the mountains for vacations; I plan trips to big cities to see art. But I also look at local art. Two monthly local events worth mentioning are First Friday at the Sunset Center, and Third Thursday at the Amarillo Museum of Art. These are both fun events that combine socializing and culture which is always a good mixture. They are also free and kid-friendly.