March 26, 2013

Letter to a Young Painter

Administrator’s Note: The following excerpt is from an email I recently sent to the daughter of a friend. My critical evaluations of her representational paintings touched on the history of painting and its continued 20th Century development. I am posting it here (with some details edited for privacy) in the hope that it may be of interest to other young artists.

[ . . . ] 
The initial aspects of the history of painting, as it relates to your work, have to address the evolving theoretical issues concerning representation. Painting has steadily eliminated most of the formal elements of art, beginning with the Impressionists who rejected the traditional need for art to represent reality as seen, to instead champion their subjective interpretations of what they felt about reality. Thus, Georges Seurat’s pointillist paintings give an “impression” of light, with his visual ideas influenced by his passion for scientific knowledge.

Eventually, representational painting was negated (temporarily) and abstraction of various forms and styles arose around 1900. While there were random painters here and there that “returned” to representational and/or figurative work, the majority of painters during the first half of the 20th century focused more about the “why” of art than the “how.” Malevich developed his theory of Suprematism and introduced a severe reductive visuality that culminated in his iconic “Black Square” of 1915. The Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko also engaged these reductivist theories with his “Red, Yellow, Blue” paintings in 1921.

A rupture in this trajectory toward the minimal was Pop Art in the late 1950’s. Suddenly the “real” returned to painting with a vengeance, yet now the image of an artwork itself was less important than the theory behind it; think of Warhol’s “Marilyn’s.” Ideas about images as signs, and how we read them, were introduced to painting and representation gained new theoretical footholds with various styles ebbing and flowing – in Italy, Germany and New York a “new” or “neo” expressionism returned with Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Georges Baselitz, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. [I wrote an essay on my blog several years ago that might give you some ideas about what these painters have done with representation: Figuratively Speaking.]

Throughout the last years of the 20th Century and into the beginning years of this century we have see a continuance of all kinds of styles of painting; this Pluralism seems to validate the idea that there are different kinds of art for different tastes. This may be so but what I'm trying to convey to you is an idea about representational paintings – paintings that have recognizable imagery – that they are either about semiotics (the study of signs) and/or about the history of representation itself.

Because ideas about representation as another language was supported by a group of French philosophers, linguists and critical theorists (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault) it became vastly more interesting to artists in the late 20th Century. These contemporary painters use visual ideas to explore representation not as a means of imitating something but as a way to open a discourse about cognition, perception and meaning.

That is why I believe your paintings (drawings?) show promise. In your pieces, particularly the ones that show full figures as cut-outs in exterior urban environments, intellectually engage the viewer in thoughts about the “planes of existence.” What does it mean to use a cut-out figure? They are actually like holes into another reality that cut through the picture plane to reveal a transparency; not only of reality but also of the picture plane itself. That is to say, in my view, either consciously or not, you are questioning both the reality of our everyday existence and the futility of trying to convey the three-dimensional on a “two-dimensional” surface.

My questions for you: Are you attempting to only depict a fantasy, or imaginative narrative? Do you see a way to regard representation as your subject matter? If you can see that representation itself might be what you could become visually concerned with as a painter – to question representation’s validity, it’s privileged position in art – then it's a question of how to visually demonstrate that questioning.

And that's a very powerful thing. Because merely to reproduce the world – to make a beautiful picture of the world – is less intellectually engaging for those who are familiar with the history of painting and critical theory. Art theories about the falsehood or fragility of trying to represent anything visually, and what that “means,” are visual explorations and challenges that can take you far into the 21st century. I think that you could be well on your way in terms of working with these yellow cut-out transparent figures.
[ . . . ]
I wish you all the best.

IMAGE: Untitled (Lens Painting) by Sigmar Polke; 2007; © Copyright by Sigmar Polke Estate.

March 20, 2013

Coincident of Silver Stars

The 1960 U-2 spy plane incident catapulted Francis Gray Powers into history and his name into our consciousness as the public watched his Soviet Union trial and imprisonment, and the eventual American resolution of our suspicions about his actions. As a pilot conducting aerial espionage of our Cold War enemy, the former Soviet Union, Powers’ surveillance of Russia's potential nuclear capabilities and ultimate threat were eventually recognized to be "CIA-initiated." Powers served nearly two years of a 9-year sentence for espionage in the U.S.S.R. yet when he returned to the U.S. he wasn’t eligible for de rigueur military awards for being captured “behind enemy lines” because he was ostensibly CIA, not military.

I learned about Gary Powers as everyone did: through the myth of the U-2 spy plane. I had forgotten about his legend, not knowing even that he'd served time for piloting the U-2. I certainly wasn’t thinking of him when I wrote lyrics for what would become an original song by the Boyd Bros called “Silver Star.” I was living in a loft near downtown Los Angeles, driving up on the weekends to Val Verde, north of LA,  where I played music in one of those desert huts with my brother Scott, Chan Poling and Beej of The Suburbs, and often Su Tissue of the Suburban Lawns. We jammed and partied together those long weekends and I usually ended up late Sunday evening working on songs with Scott at his Newhall bungalow.

“Silver Star” was originally about a bar and a guy in there maybe suffering delirium tremens visions that culminated lyrically in orgiastic, Jim Morrison-like petulance, with choruses of “ain’t nothing wrong with staying in bed.”

Over three decades later, I changed those lines and introduced the idea that the protagonist of “Silver Star” might be suffering PTSD, with a new chorus, and a new set of chords to go with it courtesy of Boyd Bro Scott. In the new version, the singer survives Iraq, comes home, and gets a job driving a flatbed, bravely suffering his regular nightmares of being "still in the fight." Our song's refrain of "..the Silver Star, the Silver Star" now possibly implying the singer was awarded that third-highest military decoration for valor.

Suddenly, when I finished those final mixes of my song “Silver Star” on June 21, 2012, it now was  about a decorated veteran, in recognition of outstanding action in some mysterious traumatic combat, of which he sings in the last verse: "No trouble with what I did."

As surprising as that was to me, it wasn’t near as overwhelming to learn that, unbeknownst to me, Francis Gary Powers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star on June 15, 2012.

The full, coincidental extent of this “Silver Star” story only became clear to me later when I read a Powers' obit to discover how Powers had died: he’d been killed while piloting a KNBC news helicopter while covering brushfires near LA; his helo crashed in a field north of LA’s Sepulveda Dam on August 1, 1977.  

Remarkably, a song I had begun in 1977, the same year Francis Gary Powers had died, crashing in a field within 50 miles of where I had wrote that first version, was randomly resurrected in 2012, with new lyrics about a decorated war vet, almost to the very day that Powers was finally awarded his elusive Silver Star.

IMAGE: MCB as "The Pilot" in still photo from "Stop In The Name Of Love," a Hollies video shoot directed by David Jove, 1983.