I enjoy stories that start late and end early. They give you the sense that you've walked into someone's life and you could be jettisoned at any moment. Stories like that leave a lot to your imagination - they aren't defining every tiny detail of someone's backstory - you don't know where they got that limp or scar or bag of money, it's just there. The author of these works has decided to introduce a counterpart to his artistic process - the reader. People bring their own baggage and assumptions - personal perceptions create a funhouse mirror effect. Think of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction or Norman Bates's mother or what happened when the police arrived on the scene at the end of American Beauty. My favorite example is the finale of The Sopranos - David Chase layered Godfather allusions with cinematic music and the tension of Meadow arriving late and trying to get parked - then the screen went pitch black. There is power in not knowing all of the answers.
In a lot of ways, music influences my artwork more than anything visual. When I turn on these songs, in speakers or headphones, my brain clicks into place and I'm transported into the zone - flow state is immediate. And there is music I love that doesn't do the trick - Charles Mingus, the Pixies, Nirvana, Kanye West, or Springsteen. The tempo and mood have to be just so and then the painting gods smile upon me. These are the albums I return to over and over and over, year after year. There have been recent additions to the rotation (like Karen Elson, Steely Dan, Amy Winehouse, and Jason Isbell) but these are my trusty old reliable stand-bys.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music - Sturgill Simpson
I first listened to this on vacation in Key West and it lit my brain on fire - Waylon Jennings collides with Radiohead. I spent my childhood years in Texas and there is something about hearing a deep twangy voice paired with a Telecaster that takes me back to the rodeo and state fair. Throw in some metaphysical philosophizing and you've got something special.
“That old man upstairs, though he wears a crooked smile. Staring down on the chaos he created. He said son if you ain't having fun then just wait a little while. Momma's gonna wash it all away. She thinks mercy's overrated”
Also recommended - his performance on Austin City Limits (available on YouTube), specifically Listening to the Rain and I’d Have to be Crazy
Time (The Revelator) - Gillian Welch
Pure nostalgia - Gillian seems plucked from a Coal Miner's Daughter alternate reality. Elvis Presley Blues is worth the cost of the album - "He was all alone, in a long decline. Thinking how happy John Henry was that he fell down and died."
Also recommended - Tear My Stillhouse Down, Caleb Meyer, Orphan Girl, Hard Times
Blacklisted - Neko Case
The iTunes description is tough to beat, so I'll just quote it here, “Part Patsy Cline, part David Lynch, Blacklisted is a tense, torchy masterpiece for which the label “alt-country” seems pitifully inadequate."
Also recommended - In California (Live) on Austin City Limits - my favorite song of hers.
Greatest Hits - The Band
Holy shit. If I could paint something that felt like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “The Weight” I would just call it a day and retire forever. There is a reason these guys are cited by so many musicians as a source of inspiration. David Chang has a portrait of them in his restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. Martin Scorsese directed a documentary about their final concert. They were Bob Dylan’s band. And Robbie Robertson’s biography just makes me love them more. Music as method acting.
Acid Tongue - Jenny Lewis
“I went to a cobbler to fix a hole in my shoe. He took one look at my face and said I can fix that hole in you. I beg your pardon I’m not looking for a cure. I’ve seen enough of my friends in the depths of the God sick blues.”
Also recommended - Rabbit Fur Coat with The Watson Twins and anything from her band Rilo Kiley.
15 years ago I attended the Illustration Academy in Richmond, VA. One of the visiting artists was Mark English - he was around 70 years old at the time and had been painting for decades. He carried an air of Clint Eastwood gravitas, wise and no-nonsense. He said that when people asked him how long it took him to do a painting, he’d respond something along the lines of '65 years and 3 days.’ I’ve heard different variants of this over the years and when I repeat Mark’s version, people often reply, “Man, that guy sounds like an asshole.” But I thought the opposite. Mark English is a craftsman and his value is the sum total of years and years of accumulated knowledge, experimentation, study, practice, and experience that have been honed into instinct. Bob Dylan has said that some of his notable songs were written in a matter of minutes, but a novice songwriter can't just sit down and crank out Blood on the Tracks.
My paintings are fairly quick - some take a few days, others drag on much longer. There is a process involved - locating an appropriate historical photograph, manipulating it in Photoshop, printing it, projecting it, drawing it, doing an underpainting, and then executing the actual painting, which is comprised of many layers. Sometimes the painting comes easy and choices happen instantaneously, other times it’s a street fight. A while back, I threw away over 75 ‘duds,’ paintings that just didn’t hit the mark. But, in my opinion, failure is fertilizer for success. Bottom line - one individual work of art can happen quickly but the path to get there is rarely fast or easy.
This is a question that I get pretty frequently because of the way that I paint - I tend to play around with negative space, leaving pencil marks and areas of the underpainting exposed.
There's a story about Kurt Cobain trying to perfect a song in the studio and he couldn't get the feeling right. He commented that it sounded better when he was just laying on his back on the couch. And inevitably, that's exactly how they recorded it. Because mood matters and now that computers can play chess, answer questions, predict our musical preferences, suggest purchases, and take beautiful photographs, the so-called imperfections become the pivotal humanizing element of a piece of art.
The risk that I run is overworking a painting and it's easy to 'drive past the exit.' There are other artists who fight past this point but there's a layered watercolor element of my work that dies when the surface gets too busy and/or opaque.
Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portrait of George Washington is the single image that has most influenced my historical portraits because of its energy, minimalist composition, and earthy color palette. While there are other painters that have had more of an impact on me (Alice Neel, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol) this painting is my center line. Stuart started the portrait study but never finished it (he'd go on to use it for many other replicas however). Ironically, it became his most well known image and the most immediately recognizable representation of Washington. There is an interesting juxtaposition of craft and speed, spontaneous intuitive energy and finite precision, to the piece and the incompleteness also creates some interesting symbolism for our country and its first leader. Happy July 4th.
People frequently complain about Jackson Pollock. They say things like, "I don't get it" and "I could do that" or "That's just a splattered mess." Personal opinions are valid in art but my reply to those comments is always the same question, "Have you ever seen one of his paintings in person?" Because there is something visceral and overwhelming about seeing a Pollock - a two inch print in a schoolbook just doesn't do it justice. Pollock paintings have a great deal of nuance - the sheer number of colors is surprising because he's so often associated with black inky paint on raw canvas. There are fingerprints, crinkles, blurry drips of thinned paint alongside thicker ones. And there is certainly pattern, intent, and energy. Dismissing his work after seeing it in a book is like listening to Nirvana on a shitty tape deck and saying, "There's distortion and I can't understand the lyrics."
I just returned from a trip to New York - my wife and I zigzagged across the city, seeing as much art as we could cram into a few days. We went to the Whitney, the Met, Met Breuer, and MoMA - to name a few. This is not our first trip of this nature but I saw more inspiring work in a short window than any past visit. The Whitney Biennial was particularly interesting because, to me, it represented a changing of the guard - you could see the new leaders in art emerging from this grouping of contemporary artists. The attitude of the work was youthful, smart, largely figurative, and certainly more accessible than what I associate with past generations of academic artists. The highlights for me were Henry Taylor, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Shara Hughes, Aliza Nisenbaum, and Carrie Moyer. But there is one painting in particular that caught me off guard...
I'd read several articles in advance (see links below), so I was prepared for the controversy and content of the work. Intellectually, I knew exactly what the piece was about, the artist's point of view, the public response, and I'd seen the image many times online. But when I stood in front of Dana Schutz's "Open Casket," I got emotional. I didn't cry but I did come close and that is not something that is normal for me in a museum - I'm usually the guy eyeballing the tiny details to see how the paint was applied or which materials were used. This painting was different, like touching a nerve ending or having chills shoot up the back of your neck. It packs a punch and holds you by the throat. There can be magic in art that is almost purely driven by the gut/heart/soul. Intellectualizing art or demeaning it by only focusing on content from afar is missing out on its true value to society. As Bruce Lee said, "It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."
The New Yorker: Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till
The Washington Post: A white artist responds to the outcry over her controversial Emmett Till painting
The Guardian: The painting that has reopened wounds of American racism
The New York Times: Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?
Blouin Art Info: Problem Painters: Dana Schutz and David Salle in Conversation
Artsy: Dana Schutz Bio & Works