In October 2007, I was at a mall in Las Vegas looking for things to photograph, as I’m always looking for new images to turn into artwork. I remember walking past a portion of the mall where a small glass-enclosed recording studio began emerging from the floor. From the outside of the studio, looking in, I saw a guy wearing an auto mechanic’s uniform performing in front of a camera & a few other people working as a studio crew. Our guy (I later learned his actual name is Nathan Phillips) was in front of a green-screen & seemed to be having a conversation with someone outside of the studio. I took a few pictures & continued exploring Las Vegas. When I returned home I sorted through the images & I realized that the few shots I got of the glass studio were some of the more interesting & visually complex of the trip.
I still had no idea what was going on in the glass studio other than that they were filming something & it featured just one person. I then did some fruitless searching online & found nothing, so I called the mall in Las Vegas from my home in Denver & asked if anyone knew anything about the glass studio, then got a call back from the manager of the mall & he gave me the details. Apparently Nathan Phillips was playing Bill the Billboard, the 1st interactive billboard, put on by the company Counts Media. Most of what I saw in the mall was only a part of the whole deal; outside the mall a larger than billboard-size (160’ wide by maybe 11’ or 12’ tall) screen had “Bill” looking for people on the street–in front of the mall–to interact with. I suppose that there were cameras & very sensitive microphones set-up outside the mall to catch the passersby & have Bill talk to them & try to turn them on to a specific ad, say a Las Vegas show or to just chat & have fun with people on the street. The next Bill the Billboard should be in Times Square, New York. How they’ll get microphones & cameras tuned to specific people on the street there seems like a difficult job. I’ve e-mailed Nathan Phillips to tell him about my painting & he seems excited to see the results.
I liked the notion that this picture was taken in Las Vegas, but it didn’t contain the usual clichéd imagery of casino’s, slot machines & tourists. Another reason this photo got chosen was for its visual complexity. I’ve often found that my eyes are seduced by intricate & unfamiliar images. It’s also worth pointing out that I have a strong & never-ending curiosity with the work of other artists that have come before me (& working now), so I’ll acknowledge the photo-realist artists like Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close, & others working in the early 70’s onward, as influences. Of these artists, I should note that the work of Richard Estes might be comparable to my own intrigue with visually complex “urban landscapes.” His paintings have been influential in how I think of photo-realism as a discipline, given that his work seems to be widely accepted as emblematic of the style & it closely resembles aspects of my own (difficult to pin-down) aesthetic. His paintings are challenging & rewarding to a viewer who takes the time to examine & consider them. The other photo-realist artists (Goings, Close &c) I look at & consider in much the same way. Basically I want to see the extreme effort it took to create such illusions. I want to feel the hours it took to paint such paintings. I want to replicate this in my own work. I might seem shallow to ask a viewer to regard the labor as a central focus, but it’s important for my own work & how I view the work of others. Work is an important part of our everyday lives; it should be respected & examined. The Victorian artist Richard Dadd should be mentioned, as an influence for this painting as well, namely his dense & claustrophobic painting comically titled “The Fairy-Fellers Master Stroke.” In this painting, I sense a similar workmanship as the photo-realists on a bizarre & fantastical level unmatched since. I admire Dadd’s intensity & the difficulty he presents with this painting & others. It’s important to name these artists (& some I should name, but can’t for a lack of time) as historical forces that motivate & inform me when I create work like this painting. I believe an artist needs to position him/herself within a historical context. What came before me is what I’ve seen as possible. By reflecting on the work of others, I can find part of the source for my own fascinations, interests, & obsessions. I can hope to contribute, or not.
As I made this painting I felt compelled to look at photo-realist painting & also its controversies. I’ve found some interesting arguments against it & I want to explore some of that here.
“Photo-realism has always struck me as the triumph of technique over imagination. Do people admire photo-realist works for the images they contain, or for the fact that some artist spent hours and hours perfectly capturing the glint of sunlight off the ketchup bottle?”
This quote is from a blog by R. M. Vaughan quoted in an Art on Paper article “Putting Photorealism Back in Focus,” (March/April 2008). In the article, Deborah Ripley writes that art-dealers, collectors, auction houses & the general public are all reevaluating photo-realism, in a more positive light, rather than Vaughan’s stiff & narrow interpretation of the style. To Vaughan’s credit, he does seem to like what the Canadian artist Mike Bayne is doing to continue in a photorealist vein (however the artist himself eschews the “photo-realist” label) & I agree that Bayne’s works demonstrates a nice technique with photo-based subject matter. In Art+Auction “Keeping it Real,” (January 2008) Philip Gefter discusses a similar notion that yes, photorealism is getting a closer look, but there has been this nagging controversy of technique over substance, and he writes that photorealism has been:
“…generally dismissed as a conceit. For more than 30 years, critics and scholars have, for the most part, written it off as an example of style trumping substance—of trompe l’oeil bravado. Many 20th-century painters, too, regarded the camera as a mere tool, without the potential for creative expression. The photographic image, they thought, lacked the ideological grandeur—never mind the artistic validity—of painting. The photograph’s optical fidelity to reality may have possessed its own magic, but the use of the camera to create a shorthand of objective representation was just too easy. What’s more, to paint from a photograph was one thing, but to establish a photographic vocabulary within the realm of painting was quite another. The photo-realists did just that and were accordingly deemed to have crossed a line. For their audacity alone, no doubt, they were scorned.”
This argument & Vaughan’s seem to be saying that it’s not enough for an artist to simply copy a photo, that this doesn’t have enough “creativity/imagination” to deem photo-realism a legitimate form of artistic expression. How much “creativity/imagination” should an artist have in a particular artwork to begin with? Should his/her art be subject to some critic’s obscure scale of imagination, say this artwork has 10% imagination & this other has 75% imagination, therefore the one with the most imagination is the more valid artwork? When did this kind of scale arise? In the 1600’s did Diego Velazquez get criticized for not painting Philip IV with enough imagination? Or did a patron of Frans Hals ask if Hals could paint his portrait with more imagination than reality? Surely there is some fiction in both the masters’ work & these fictions that may have had something to do with the patrons own will, but were they judged only on how much imagination the portraits depicted? Yes, these are just examples of portraiture, but I’m sure this can be extended to landscape painting such as Canaletto’s depictions of Venice, or the still life’s of Willem Claesz Heda whose paintings are clear & lifelike images of food, drink & related tableware. All these examples seen now are extraordinary renderings of reality, very lifelike & maybe have similarities in what the photo-realists did in the 1970’s & what younger generations of artists are doing now with depicting reality, whether by using a lens, a photograph, or just depicting it as closely as possible. I’m also careful to note that I’m not suggesting that these old masters lack imagination or creativity, just that they “used” reality in similar ways to the photo-realists, in some cases, merely depicting it.
This painting (including the frame) took 4 months to paint & make. I started working with a digital photograph where I brightened the image with Photoshop & then printed the image. I made a clear acetate grid that I laid over the print to see the photo in bite-size pieces. Then, I carefully taped thread over the primed Masonite (Gessoboard) support with the same grid size (about 154 square inches). The thread is used on the support instead of drawing one, the reason for this is that when the threaded grid is removed, the grid is gone, whereas if the grid were drawn, it would have to be erased, & on the white ground even an erased line will be visible through white oil paint. I then placed the printed image next to the gridded support & I started drawing.
The drawing I made was done very lightly & with a straight edge, a ruler & calipers. The calipers help to get small subtleties in measurement, rather than trying to line up everything with a ruler. I try not to use a regular graphite pencil since this creates a smearing problem; colored pencils present less of a problem. I think the drawing took about 2 or 3 days. The thread was removed, and then I looked over the whole picture to finish-up any lines & anything else that caught my eye.
Then I started painting. I thought I’d start by laying down all the black 1st & as I got started, I realized that I needed to not only paint the black, but also a warm gray & whatever other color I came upon as well. The painting is mostly black & grey. It seemed easier to simply paint what I was seeing right-away, rather than some other method. Most or 95% of what’s seen in the final painting is done like this, very little over-painting was done, after the paint dried. I also will sometimes use a thin Japanese masking-tape (that’s either used as is, or cut down with an x-acto knife to whatever size/width is needed) to help paint most of the sharp lines & edges. Needless to say the painting is what took the longest, something like 1 ½ square inches per day. At times, individual parts of the printed image would have to be cut-out & laid next to the painted image to give me the clearest idea of what small parts looked like—more or less. As I continued, the process of painting presented numerous difficulties, such as getting the skin colors right, or just painting a simple water bottle. It’s important to see that with some details, I’d have to change what appeared in the photo because I wasn’t getting an exact copy with my painting. It’s typical, in a situation like this, to see the photograph as a strict guide to paint the image, but what will be looked at in the end, is the painting itself (without the photo beside it, to compare it to). I had to make these tiny decisions as to how I wanted a particular object to look, all the time, with each part, till it looked as I wanted. To make this point more simply, the water bottles on the desk of the studio crew I painted do not look precisely like the water bottles in the photo. I needed to know when to leave an image alone & to move on, that is, when my eye was satisfied enough with what I’ve painted to continue with the rest. Again, the painting itself is important, not the exact minutia of the photograph. This particular point is funny since the photo is the guide & I am using it to define the overall painting. Part of the complicated give & take to create a painting of this kind, is made clear when I understand that I must be satisfied with the particular details, as I painted them, rather than looking at the photo & comparing the painting to it as the ultimate guide. I’m the guide & the artist, the photo helps me. I sometimes joke that the photo is a tyrant & the tyranny is to replicate the photo verbatim & once the photo is taken away the painting can breathe a sigh of relief that the tyrant’s gone & start a life anew without being micro-managed by the over-confidant photo. It’s a difficult balancing act to say the least.
The frame I made with an idea that it had to somehow contribute to the detail of the painting while still having its own eccentricities. The interior frame is made using zebrawood, which has a strong linear grain pattern, it needs minimal working & it matched the ebony I wanted to use. The ebony was used for its great strength & color. I wanted to use steel in the frame as well, since the image has a few metallic surfaces & the brass was included as a way to join the ebony & rosewood to the steel. I broke some of the ebony sticks, in haste & had to splice a part of two sticks with rosewood because I wanted to emphasize the error, I wanted the error to serve me. Instead of trying to conceal a “mistake,” I try to cherish & work with it. Errors should inform & help in growth. After assembling the frame to see what it looked like & how it fit, I realized that it needed something on the ends of the sticks, I thought perhaps something small & white to correspond to the whites in the work. Oddly enough I had some boar tusk lying around & thought it’ll do the trick. I also liked the thought that the boar tusk brings a primal & unique quality to the work, whereas without it, the artwork would be too plain. Yes, the ebony, rosewood & zebrawood lend a certain exoticism in-&-of themselves, but the boar-tusk extends the notion to a nice & neat absurdity.