Friday, May 28, 2010

Loafing Around

by Drew Martin

One of my most sculptural jobs was as a baker. On hiatus from my five years abroad in Europe, I lived in Richmond, Virginia for half a year where I worked at the Montana Gold Bread Company. It was a unique bakery, full of young punks, but it was also special in that we even made our own flour and a distinguished variety of breads.

A few years prior, I had worked on an organic farm in California and learned much about growing food. In the bakery, the relationship to food was quite different: there was the power of creation through methods that were both scientific and artistic. I became fascinated with the various forms of bread, throughout the process, and how the final irregular loaf was the embodiment of both the motion and size of human hands.

The dough was initially mixed and kneaded by a big mixer and then it sat for a while. After rising, it was cut up into manageable pieces and kneaded by hand and then rounded and proofed before being placed in the huge, rotating oven. The job was entirely physical, which meant we could talk freely about our interests, which were quite ecclectic for a group of 20-somethings with college degrees in everything from Fine Arts to German Literature.

We were constant potters throwing edible clay and we labored over the small mounds of dough until they were taught, round balls.

"Rounding" was thematic. Our shoulders, arms and chests became rounded with new-found muscles. It was the only time in my life I remember having upper body strength. At the same time a diet that was naturally dominated by bread, rounded our bellies.

We kneaded two loaves at a time (one with each hand), but rounding a single loaf required both hands. This is what took the longest to get used to because it rubbed the sides of the hands on the wooden table, which
could be quite painful after doing it for hours, day after day.

Kneading and rounding was a wonderful exercise in forming an object because unlike clay, dough is living and breathing. It is a scaled up bacterial mass. Sometimes if the initial vat of dough was too warm and the yeast overreacted. It would transform into The Blob and threaten to roam. When this happened it literally crawled out of its stainless steel cauldron. The only recourse was to beat it back: this required taking a long wooden pole and violently stabbing the mass until it whimpered and retreated.

A few times a week we made Challah, which required braiding the dough. We also made Sourdough, which we occassionally sprayed with water to give it a crisp crust.

We hoped to sell as much bread as we could by the end of the
day but since this never happened, we always had a lot of good bread on our hands. We donated plenty to charity each night and I would take a couple loaves and hand them out to the Richmond's homeless people on my evening walks.

My favorite day was Wednesday because it was the only day we made Sourdough and I worked the early shift, which started at 5 am and ended at noon. My mother's father lived in Richmond. He was already in his 90's and lived by himself as he was widowed. He liked Sourdough so after worked I would walk across Richmond in the blazing midday sun with half a loaf (as requested) for him. He was always well dressed and greated me nicely. We would talk for an hour in his clean, bright apartment and then I would walk back to my place in the city.

The baker's life was a simple and humble one but it allowed for a lot of free time, which I spent reading in the local library or swimming in the James River. Once a week I would run down to the University of Richmond after my later shift and watch international films such as Red Fire Cracker, Green Fire Cracker and Burnt by the Sun. I shared a row house with another baker and a photographer. I had a beautiful little white room with a mattress on the floor, a chair, a tiny radio and a backpack of my clothes. I remember lying down and looking at the blue bottles lined up along the high and long hallway window through my transom. Not needing any tools or even a means of transportation other than my own feet, my existence was very contained and loaf-like. If I were one of their loaves of bread, I was probably the Blue Ridge Mountain Herb, perhaps the Honey Whole Wheat...when I was in a good mood.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Happy Medium

by Drew Martin

Every medium has a set of attributes that either attract or repel an artist. Most artists dabble in various media but feel at home in one, which is what we typically know them by: Richard Serra/heavy metal; Andy Warhol/silkscreen paintings. There are also artists who are perpetually footloose and freely jump between media.

Fortunately, what is now defined, practiced and admired as "art" comprises a wide spectrum, which can range from steel work to sewing and might even be left to words or ephemeral gestures.

I did a photo shoot/photo show nearly a fortnight ago. To everyone involved, I was the photographer, while I told myself I was simply the artist using photography. The photo "happening" was successful on many fronts but I still had a very uneasy feeling about the medium and my association with it.

Photography puts a lot of equipment between the artist and the art, which the photographer typically tries to hide. The act of taking pictures can feel intrusive, which I tried to remedy by responding to the notion of "taking pictures" with a show about "giving pictures," in which all the subjects took their portraits home.

I feel alienated by the camera's techno-magical workings and the photograph's hyper-realistic immediacy and photography is not as creative and contemplative a medium (for me) as, for example, drawing is, so it can never intellectually or imaginatively satisfy me the same way. It does not mean I will abandon it. I will simply return to it when it seems fitting for another project.

Media are the variables to the constant urge/need to create or express something. At the same time a medium is the constant to the variables of emotion and experience.

Therefore an artist can continually seek new media, which are most aligned with his or her nature (or fleeting moods), or he or she can excel with what he or she has at hand and is most comfortable with.

When I studied sculpture in the early 1990's with Ann Hamilton I was trying everything. After two years with Anne, she pulled me aside and told me, in a slightly scolding voice, that I really needed to "sink my teeth into something." It was sound, guiding advice she was giving me before she left teaching for a while to pursue her own career as an artist. She knew me well and seemed unsettled that I was more about experimenting than developing my own voice and finding a niche to settle into. The thing is, not much has changed. I am still a very elusive artist and I am quick to turn my back on anything that starts to feel redundant and obvious.

You often hear artists speak about how a specific medium "saved" them from the unknown. For Kara Walker, it was the black paper cutouts. For Julian Schnabel, it was the broken plate paintings. The main reason why I am writing this posting is because I think the medium often gets in the way of what most artists could/should be doing. Especially with someone who sets out wanting to make art and heads straight for a traditional medium, which ultimately causes frustration. The artist needs to look beyond the medium and the studio and all the other trappings and reach back to the creative joy in his or her childhood, when he or she was making cakes or piñatas or simply drawing with a stick in sand between waves.

Finding the right medium is really an intuitive search, but the artist should consider many factors such as: availability, cost, health, safety, scalability, skill required, labor intensity, audience, storage, accumulation, weight, mobility, permanence and the bliss factor.

Although it hard for an artist to recognize the limits of a medium up close, they are easy to see from a distance. Some paintings simply want to and need to be bigger, while others want to be a something completely different. Just as some sculptures really want to be glossy fiberglass blobs, while others want to be precious metal statues, or even videos of themselves.

Sometimes the relationship of the artist to his or her medium becomes stagnant or the medium does not grow with the artist. Drawing, for example, is a great asocial activity but as an artist matures and develops more social skills, that which was once comforting in solitude, may feel as constricting as Norman Bates' "mother".

I am still not sure what medium I am best suited for, perhaps it is drawing. I know it is not marble or oil paints or photographs. In a certain way, I feel this blog is my medium on which I can cobble together all my interests and make this electronic collage of all my projects and thoughts.

Monday, May 17, 2010


by Drew Martin

Photography for me is primarily a social much so that I cannot take credit for its products. This relationship to the medium was confirmed this past Saturday at the UNDER THE HOOD show in Los Angeles, which "happened" at the Thinkery, with the help of its stewards, Anne Hars and Bill Wheelock. On Saturday morning, Anne and I walked around their neighborhood and she introduced me to the residents. I took just shy of 200 pictures of the people we bumped into on the street. The black and white film was developed midday and was ready later in the afternoon for the show, which stayed up until sunset.

The neighbors were all invited to see the photographs together and could take home the ones of them or the pictures they liked.

Below is a selection of the pictures from the show, starting with one of Anne and her 104 year old neighbor, Nadia:

My favorite picture of all, however, is the picture Anne snapped of me and my two year old son, Miles, during the shoot. He is, in fact, responsible for when each picture was taken; the moment of stillness he would afford me.

To view an online book version of the photography show, click here >>>

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

UNDER THE HOOD: At the Thinkery, Los Angeles

This Saturday on May 15th from 5-7pm, the Thinkery will be hosting an UNDER THE HOOD show. All the pictures will be taken of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods within 24 hours of the show and all the subjects are invited to come and take their pictures...and do with them as they please.

The first UNDER THE HOOD started in my back yard half a year ago, which turned out to be a great event.

To see pictures from that November show in New Jersey click on the following links:

UNDER THE HOOD: Show Preview
UNDER THE HOOD: A Garden Party

As posted by the Hairy Prone Companion:
Thinkery Rises Again

Click on the invitation above for a larger view with details and feel free to stop by...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dreaming as Media

by Drew Martin

Dreams have an obvious parallel to media and the arts; most notably, film and surrealism...especially surrealist films. It seems, however, content aside, there are quality and resolution aspects that are more about the "content provider."

Some people have uneventful dreams, while others simply do not remember their dreams. I am always fascinated by the visual saturation and details of my own dreams. I never have physical sensations of the environment: wind or heat and cold, and I never taste or smell anything. While the sound in my dreams is typically nothing special, the visual details are hyperrealistic.

Four nights ago I had a dream I was trying to get into a grand sanatorium, which was being used as a halfway home/shelter but I was turned away because I looked too clean: I had on a suit, a crisp white shirt and a tie. I walked away from the large old building with vaulted ceilings and marble columns and noticed a brand new, multi-storied and modern, glass Bank of America built on top of it. The sight was so crisp that it looked like a high-end architectural 3-D computer rendering.

When I left, I went to a hardware store nearby and asked to see their doorknobs. These were kept in huge glass jugs, which were lying on their sides on a rack. The shopkeeper only showed me two. One was half of a cheap brass-looking model and the second was some clear plastic contraption with elaborate internal circuitry, which I inspected quite closely. It looked like a piece of laboratory equipment. The shopkeeper told me it was a "widow's" door knob. When I asked him what that meant he said that anticipated what a widow was thinking or looking for and lit up a red light that simply acknowledged that it understood, but it actually did nothing after that. It simply let the woman know that it knows she is entering her bedroom for a specific reason and that it comforted her with a kind of technological small talk.

The following night, when I was aware that I was in a dream, I decided to have a look around and see what was different about seeing in a dream versus seeing in reality. Dreams are not as controllable as one might hope. You can wish things into them but they are fleeting. The best I could do was to make may way over to a wall, twice, but it was an awkward maneuvering, like stumbling drunk or driving an old VW bus with loose steering.

The first time, I got right up to it and looked as close as possible. All the familiar wall details dissolved into what seemed like just a veneer of an electric the scene in the Matrix when Neo sees everything as layers of code, only in my dream that "force field" was more colorful and with a design that looked like chipboard. The second time, a few minutes later in the same dream, I made my way over to the wall again and I was able to get, what seemed to be, less than a centimeter away. Everything was crisp and in focus, no matter how close I got. I had macroscopic and microscopic vision, which makes a lot of sense since there are no lenses involved when you "see" things in your dreams.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Image Karma

by Drew Martin

I have a confession: I am an image kleptomaniac. I take images from the Internet without permission and I shamelessly use them here without acknowledgement. It's not that I am an evil person, it's simply that it is impossible for me to fluidly and creatively function otherwise. Yes, it's "lying, stealing, cheating" but I think this has to be the way of the future. On some photo sharing sites, such as Flickr the photographer can be easily contacted but it is often very difficult to find the right person from other image amassing tools such as Google Image Search.

Since I am not business minded and have no model of how image exchanges could work, I have thought about it more holistically and have come up with the idea of Image Karma. The idea is to generate and upload as many images as you "lift" and that you are willing to give them as much freedom of usage as you expect from the images of other people. Like Karma, it's not something that needs to be monitored and externally regulated because it is something you have to live with, balance and own up to. Although, technologically, it would be quite easy to tag the original image and then run a program to detect which user owns the images.

I looked at this blog to test the waters and see if I have image debt or image credit. I thought it would be quite easy to add up all the contributed versus appropriated images but it gets complicated. For example, what do you do with a picture you find of yourself or something you made, which was taken by a photographer you do not know and posted online? And what about an image you take and add to, giving it another meaning or if you make a unique collage from several independently lifted images?

I came up with four categories for images (which includes photographs, drawings, charts and graphics): Generated, Lifted, Borrowed and Deserved. Generated means you are the original source. Lifted are the ones you have taken without permission. Borrowed are ones either given to you or which you took with some kind of understanding. This happens a lot with people I interview, they either send me pictures of their work or I get them from their websites. T
he latter, is more a matter of convenience for my subject and is always done with discretion and the rightful owner always has final say of whether or not I can use it. Deserved images are pictures of you or something you have done.

Of course there are tons of existing rights issues involved with what I am suggesting. I would not typically grab someone's personal photograph unless it was absolutely fitting and was handled respectfully. I also would not purposely trespass onto the property of living professional photographers who depend on their photo rights for their livelihood. These people are typically sharks roaming the Internet for improper usage of their photographs and will sink their teeth into you with threats and lawsuits. I envision a shared future where such possessiveness will seem wrong and archaic.

This is the 90th posting to this blog and up until now I came up with roughly 150 Generated and 125 Lifted I have got some image credit in the grand scheme of Image Karma. I also have about 50 Borrowed images, which are, in the end promotional for the original source. There were also a couple Deserved images and those were from a freezing mud run I took part in so I really deserved those images. Although this seems like a justification for appropriating images, I actually think it is a duty to be thinking this way and contributing as well as taking. It is a very positive exchange and a lot less suspicious than the thinking behind the idea of offsetting your carbon footprint. In this posting there is one Generated graph and a Deserved image below. The other two pictures are photographs I took of sculptures I assembled from found objects. No one else could possibly have these pictures. I have added them only for that reason, to introduce them into the sea of images without restriction. I could care less if they end up on a corporate presentation or someone else's website.

I started thinking about this a year after 9/11. I was pursuing my Masters degree in Media Studies at The New School and was taking a class in Media Ethics. One day I was flipping through a big silver book by Magnum Photographers on 9/11 while waiting for a librarian. To my surprise, there was a picture of me running (in the center, black suit) from a wall of smoke/debris/ash being pushed up West Broadway. I was four blocks from the first tower to collapse, when it collapsed. One would think that I would have some say as to whether or not that picture could be used, especially to generate money for profit or even a cause. But I have absolutely no rights to it. It belongs to the photographer Adam Wiseman. I did contact him and we arranged for him to send me prints but I did not get his permission to use it here. I did not ask. In terms of Image Karma, this falls into the 100% Deserved, especially because of the emotional circumstances.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Critical Mass: Julian Schnabel

by Drew Martin
It is often hard for me to write about a current, big-name artist, such as Julian Schnabel, because my own life as an artist has been quite isolated from trends, raves and the who's who of the art world. At the same time I feel compelled to chime in when I am turned on to someone because I want to explain him or her first and foremost as an artist.

With all due respect to the old guard critics who have said some unkind and unfair things in the past about Schnabel, I think they take themselves a bit too seriously and, in doing so, betray the very nature of art and the free expression of artists. While their dialogue is often enlightening, their judgement, especially because of their influence, functions as a kind of censorship.

One of my favorite and just retaliations by an artist towards the narrow scope of the critic was during the 1989 filming of the Polish television show 100 Pytań Do...Krzysztofa Kieślowskiego
(100 Hundred Questions For...Krzysztof Kieślowski) seven years before his death in 1996. In it, the famous (and my favorite) filmmaker irritatingly tells off the small audience of Polish film critics and basically says that not one of them present are competent enough to mount an intelligent conversation about films, particularly his.

After listening to all the questions and comments from the audience leading up to this remark, you cannot help but to feel his frustration and take his side. During this critique of the critics, he pauses for a second, counts in his head and then concludes that possibly three people in all of Poland could comprehensively discuss film (I wonder if that included himself, fellow screenwriter/trial lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Andrzej Wajda...and maybe he would have said four if Roman Polanski had not emigrated). He states this after discussing, by contrast, that in France he once heard an hour-long, in-depth conversation on the radio between four "serious" people about his use of music in the film, Krótki Film O Zabijaniu (A Short Film About Killing, 1988). They discussed it from all angles and thoughtfully analyzed it, thinking of things that not even he was aware of.

I write all of this not in defense or promotion of Schnabel, but merely to point out that what is lost in the language of the art review, and even in a dialogue with an artist, is the language of painting, drawing, sculpture, etc...because words like these are simply words. I also want to question our own competency when it comes to understanding various media. This has less to do with intelligence and more to do with what we set ourselves up for and how we have been raised. Most reviews and discussions about the arts are about liking and disliking the subject at hand and explaining and justifying what is to be liked or disliked. Sometimes the review is simply a biographical sketch, which uses the works of an artist as milestones. At other times, the critique feels like an extension of a report card. A serious problem is that we are often grading artists on languages we may not fully understand ourselves.

For the past year, I have explained that I am interested in the scope of "arts and media" but this is not actually how I really see it. Simply put, the arts are part of my idea of media. A painting, for example, is a medium and has its own special language unique to itself.

My interest in Schnabel has gradually developed; initiated with bad press and rekindled with each film (Before Night Falls, Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), which I liked but wasn't crazy about. I pass near Schnabel's Palazzo Chupi quite often and not too long ago we crossed paths as he was about to enter The Spotted Pig in the West Village. We exchanged glances and polite hellos and then proceeded on with our respective friends. He looked good natured and approachable. I wanted to know more about him so I went online and watched a few hours of interviews with him and various hosts. Then I went to The Strand and bought an old, overpriced-but-well-worth-it monograph: Julian Schnabel: Paintings 1975 - 1987. Surveying the pictures in the monograph, I was surprised by Schnabel's range and style. There is also quite a bit of insightful writing about him and by him.

(November 1981, Amsterdam)
"I saw a Van Gogh drawing of his girlfriend's mother in her backyard in Amsterdam. It was made in 1887. It has a grayish purple wash on it. There's a funny light in it. It made me feel like I was standing on Houston Street in late November, the temperature has just changed; I don't have a scarf; a friend has cancelled a dinner appointment with me. I had nowhere to go. I felt the air go through me. I had a sense of my own twilight. That drawing made me fell like I was dead already. That's what I call Modern."

While Schnabel's films are widely liked, his paintings have been scoffed at and his material success with them has only deepened the suspicion...and jealousy. Typically the secondary activity of a celebrity is diluted and unimpressive...i.e. Madonna as actress. The fact that respect for Schnabel surged after he directed each film is a pretty good indicator that maybe the furrow-browed critics misread him. He has certainly written about art more comprehensively than a lot of peope who make it their profession.

(continued from the Amsterdam writing)
"Something that's appropriate, that approximates the recognition of your consciousness. That's what it means to say 'that painting looks like it was painted yesterday.' Vermeer has that power of moderness. The ability to make the viewer disappear...It is like when you go to the movies and the lights go out and you become invisible before the film comes on. These paintings can make you recognize yourself observing observation. For a moment, you have an acute realization of your own transience, and your explicit perception of being."

In an August 9, 1996 interview with Charlie Rose (and David Bowie) following the release of Basquiat, Schnabel responds to Bowie's very cynical take on the commodity of art by discussing how people experience music and how painting should be experienced in the same, open way. I think people do not understand Schnabel's paintings because they simply do not understand painting as a medium. They do not know how to open up and experience it. America is a cinematic culture. Cinema is our mother tongue and we understand its multitude of dialects. The language of cinema also goes hand-in-hand with America's car culture: the windshield as a screen and the "ride" as compression/play of time and an out of body experience. It is not simply that film is a popular medium and we are a nation of popular arts. It is a bit more complicated. It is more like we are finely tuned into cinematic time sequence, visual movement and linear narrative.

This is actually quite a conceptual leap...that we can shelve a two-hour time slot in our minds for the course of a film: quite a feat of patience actually because it means we are willing to wait that long for issues introduced at the beginning of the film to be resolved by its end. With this standard we are less able with true literature (Marcel Proust or James Joyce) but are better readers of books that flow like a movie (Dan Brown). It is also by this standard that we are critical of television shows and shorter video clips as being too flighty. When it comes to painting, however, we are left a bit dumbfounded. The typical approach, even with the most abstract work, is to look for something familiar, allegorical or narrative. This works well for paintings set up for this, such as Leonardo da Vinci's (or even Salvador Dali's for that matter) Last Supper because this is not a painting about painting. Schnabel makes paintings about painting. Like him/them or not, he speaks the language.

In one of the interviews I watched online, Schnabel stands in front of one of his works (at least a story tall) and draws a comment from his surfing experiences, that he considers the canvas as a wave he is about to enter. Like any language, the symbols and function of all the components need to have such meaning.