Thursday, April 22, 2010
*The workbench circa 1998@ BGSU
Back in the mid days of my grad school experience I had the interesting fortune of a studio visit by the renowned Bay Area painter, Bruce McGaw. As an even younger student; I was wholly captivated by the Bay Area Figuration of Richard Deibenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff. Bruce McGaw was part of the “second generation” of this loose knit group of painters. And he has been part of the Academic royalty on the West Coast for many years. He also happened to be one of the teacher/advisers to my studio mate, while my peer was doing his BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Open to Closed Panel 5 of 6 1999
oil & emulsion on panel
At the time of this visit I was just beginning to find my way to what would become the work of my thesis. It would involve a penetration into self-portraiture in the manner of the Old Master’s. With the guidance of key mentors I was actively trying to understand and implement an age-old process that despite its lengthy history, very little has been transmitted verbatim over time. In fact generations of restorationists and conservators have devoted time and whole careers to a practice of art sleuthing in order to preserve centuries old work. I was moving deeply into an arcane realm of art-making that embraced craft, draftsmanship, process & material and some dose of the super natural. And as James Elkins expresses eloquently in, “What Painting Is”….the resolution sought by an alchemist was not that different from that of the painter. It is hard for us to imagine how powerful it was to be able to transfix a likeness on a substrate that could mimic a sitter. And, in affect, “cheat” death by achieving some sense of immortality. In either atelier…the art and the magic began with earthen materials and goopy substances, brought together with the hope that the sum total of these parts would transcend the ordinary and evolve into a form that is precious and rare….gold on the one hand, immortality on the other.
*working at the bench circa 1998 BGSU
It is fair to say that the work Bruce saw in my studio was seemingly self-absorbed and perhaps even a bit misguided. I had a number of self images drawn up on small panels that were adopted from Polaroid SX-70 images. I shot scores of these as reference material and made short sequences with a given number from a ten pack. Eventually, these would help to inform the format my thesis work would take. I was also making Xeroxes of these and collaging with gum arabic, pigment and beeswax on panels and paper. Some of these constructions were treated with heavy hand-built framing elements, mostly in Cedar. The studio presented an olfactory experience along with simply looking at the images. On some level I wanted to be as much the alchemist as the painter…if that is even possible in…what was then…the late days of the 20th century? Our conversation lasted some portion of the afternoon. In summary, I wouldn’t say he had high regard for what I presented that day. In fairness, I wasn’t really yet able to articulate my concerns. I was working from a very visceral place and could only talk around the issues. And, I was admittedly awe struck by a painter who, only years before, was a figure from recent art history. He was someone to study in a book. Not someone sitting next to me, in my studio, speaking to my work. The takeaway comment that left an imprint was that I was “so Midwestern” in the way that I cared about craft, from his perspective it seemed to reduce my practice to menial, manual labor. And I remember that he almost seemed perturbed as though I was trying to perpetrate high art crimes.
I certainly did not articulate my position well, but I think Bruce missed out on the idea that, I then and now, have a deep reverence for the materials I choose and how I go about bringing them into one conversation. The art is not only in the final piece, but also in the bicycle drifting in search of images and formal structures to transcribe. It is also in the selection of groupings of work to present in a space. And it is present in all aspects of the final presentation of a given piece.
I have found that one’s practice can be quite circular. As we age and continue to grew we may till the same soil, but from different directions. I have continued to pursue self-portraiture, but not recently in painted form….”drawing off the bicycle” and the bicyclejazz short films have taken the place of the painted image…for now. And to that end, while working in the shop crafting frames for a current show, I took the opportunity to document and edit two new films. handmade 1: hone & handmade 2: the joint. Perhaps they may further illuminate the point to the earlier portion of this submission?
*photos by Matt Gamber shot one day in my studio at Bowling Green State University