For the Love of the Game: On Artists Anonymous and Dan Witz

DB@OGN

“…many think of the Art world as a sort of free-for-all, where anyone of any level of mental stability, at the slightest whim and for any reason, can jump in and call himself an artist.  We sometimes fail to remember how extremely important high skill, craftsmanship, and passionate dedication were to painters of earlier times.  Those attributes were far more than just admirable qualities.  Art was a noble vocation and a way of life.  Their skills were assumed to be divinely infused.  Being an artist was their very identity, their reason for existing.”
- Richard Schmid, from Alla Prima II

When viewing certain contemporary art, you might say to yourself, “I could do that.”  But if you visit the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York City this month, I promise that you will have a very different reaction.

For the rest of April, and into the first week of May, Jonathan LeVine Gallery is hosting solo exhibitions by Artists Anonymous (“AA”), titled Old Game New, and by Dan Witz, titled NY Hardcore.  I am not an art critic, but it is fair to say that both AA and Dan Witz remind me of all the qualities that Richard Schmid thought were reserved only for the best painters of the past.

In the Archive section of AA’s website, they state, “Digital reproductions of our works, especially reproductions of paintings are not representative.”  In a post last year, I wrote that I had a Stendhalian moment when I saw online images of AA’s paintings.  I wish I had reserved that comment for when I walked into Old Game New, and saw AA’s paintings and afterimages in person for the first time.

From a technical perspective, AA is a talented group.  In his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “It is impossible to attach the same importance to values and to colours.”  It’s clear AA thinks otherwise, as their works demonstrate their ability to capture form and light while using vibrant colours.  And after seeing AA’s art, I am even more astonished by their method of painting in the afterimage.

AA_Borderlands_LBorderlands, oil on canvas, 78.75 x 149.63 inches

For example, in their multiple canvas painting, Borderlands, it looks like AA uses simple brush strokes of white and two shades of yellow to create the eyes of the woman on the viewer’s right of the painting.  Yet when seen in Borderlands Afterimage, those same eyes are a realistic and piercing blue that stare straight into you.  And that’s just the eyes of one model – the rest of the painting is equally as impressive, and AA must have taken great care in creating it.

AA_BorderlandsBorderlands Afterimage, digital C print, 59.05 x 110.24 inches

When I first saw the images of Dan Witz’s mosh pit portraits on the Jonathan LeVine website, I thought, “Wow, those are unique photographs.”  Then I clicked on one of the images, and read the text next to the image: “Oil and digital media on canvas.”  Dan’s paintings are impressive, and as with AA’s paintings, the online images don’t do justice to the real thing.  When I saw Dan’s skills staring back at me from a six foot long canvas, I couldn’t help but appreciate, not only his attention to detail, but also his ability to paint in a realistic style without sacrificing the energy of the scenes he captured.

DanWitz_VisionofDisorderlyVision of Disorder, oil and digital media on canvas, 40 x 64 inches

But it’s not just AA’s and Dan Witz’s painting abilities that have sunk their hooks into me, it’s also their commitment and passion.  You don’t get this good by treating art as a hobby.

Dan Witz has been painting street art in NYC since the late 1970s, and his studio work encompasses a variety of subjects, including lamps, “nightscapes”, and portraits.  At the end of one of Dan’s videos on his website, he jokes, “That’s all I have to say about being old and doing street art.”  But you get the impression that there is nothing else he would rather be doing.

AA begins its artist statement with, “Art is always an A [Grade], otherwise it’s no art; you are either very very good, or you fail.  There are no shades of grey in art, no acceptable.”  That is a demanding standard, one I think they point at themselves more than they do at others.  Once you are that good, you set your own standards, and you don’t display anything less than your best.  As Jony Ive, the head of Design at Apple Inc. said, “We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”

Most people will see Old Game New and NY Hardcore and appreciate AA’s and Dan Witz’s talents.  But I draw and paint, so I now know how wide a chasm exists between me and them.  It would be easy to be discouraged, knowing what it would take to be that good.  But AA and Dan Witz don’t paint to haunt me.  They paint for the love of it, and they are an inspiration for those of us who also love it.  So instead of packing up my paints and brushes, I’ll admire the dedication that AA and Dan Witz pour into their art, and I’ll take the advice of another inspiring person,

“Modern man is conditioned to expect instant gratification but any success or triumph realized quickly, with only marginal effort is necessarily shallow.  Meaningful achievement takes time, hard work, persistence, patience, proper intent and constant self-awareness.  The path to such success is punctuated by failure, consolidation and renewed effort.  It is wet with the tears of emotional breakdown.  Personal reconstruction is art.  Discovering one’s self, one’s talent and ambition and learning how to express it is a creative process so may not be rushed.  What’s the hurry?  Pressure to succeed according to a particular timeline comes from outside.  If the goal is selfish self-improvement there is no schedule, no deadline.  One’s rate of progress is influenced by the intensity used to address the task.  Hard, intelligent work speeds us along the path.  Neurotic obsession and compulsion may steepen the trajectory but usually lead to illness and injury.  In the end, the process takes as long as it takes — you can’t push the river.”
- Mark Twight, from “Why

P.S. For a more detailed discussion on AA’s art, read this recent Studio International interview with Maya van Malden, a member of AA and their spokesperson.  And for an overview of Dan Witz and his art, read this Village Voice article.  But this blog post and those articles are just words.  For the real thing, visit the Jonathan LeVine Gallery this month.

P.P.S.  As part of their exhibition, AA intended to have a screen that displayed a live recording of visitors as they walked through the Alice in Wonderland themed installation.  Instead of a standard feed, the screen would display the negative image, so that people would “see ghostly negative versions of themselves, while the video reverses their surrounding inverted environment into the positive.”  Unfortunately, when I visited, the monitor wasn’t working.  But Malena, who works at the gallery, offered to take my picture with my iPhone.  She then inverted the colours in the picture using an app called Negative Me.  The picture above is the “ghostly version” of me standing in front of AA’s installation.  Thank you for being such a kind host, Malena.  And thank you, AA and Dan Witz, for sharing your ideas and talents with us.

Sisters

R__1R__y, oil on canvas, 10” x 10”

It’s been a busy few months, so I haven’t updated The Hipping Post since December.  But in my last post, I implied that I would challenge myself, and try to push my art forward.

For a variety of reasons, I am interested in painting portraits, so when my friend asked me if I would draw a picture of his daughters, I said, “Of course.  I’d be honored.”  But instead of using pencil and paper, like I did for the drawings of Stacie and of my sons, I decided to give oil painting a shot.  Since he’s a close friend, I figured my buddy would forgive me if the paintings didn’t work out.

R__2R__e, oil on canvas, 10” x 10”

But the paintings turned out better than I had expected, and I learned a lot during the process.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity, J & L – I couldn’t have asked for two cuter subjects.

P.S.  I am still experimenting with oil painting, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that painting in layers, using poppy oil to thin and blend the paint, was a good method for depicting smooth young skin.  I also found that various combinations of Terra Rosa, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Scarlet, and Titanium White created a solid foundation for skin tones.  If you have recommendations for other techniques / colors, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Mentors


photo-6

I recently read a blog post by Seth Godin about mentorship.  He wrote, “the primary driver of mentor benefit has nothing to do with the mentor herself, nothing beyond the feeling of obligation the student feels to the teacher.  Whether or not the mentor does anything, this obligation delivers benefits.
“We can simulate this by living up to our heroes and those living by example, even if we never meet them, even if they’ve passed away, leaving us nothing but a legacy to honor and live up to.”

hand sketching

My drawing and painting skills have improved because I was lucky enough to find mentors.  Some gave me advice, and others were (and are) just an inspiration.  Most notably, I owe my art instructor, Patsy Taylor, a debt of gratitude for all of her guidance.

Peony

I even received encouragement and specific recommendations from some artists whose work I admire the most.  I learned a tremendous amount by studying their art, and I am humbled that they took the time to point me in the right direction.

Weeping Buddha

I am grateful for my mentors, but as Seth Godin notes, mentorship “works because the person with a mentor has a responsibility to stand up and actually get moving.  The only way to repay your mentor is by showing the guts it takes to grow and to matter.”

In this post are a painting and a few sketches that I recently completed with my mentors in mind.

P.S.  Have a Happy New Year, and all the best to you in 2014.

A Time For Thanks

C & B_babies

I am thankful for these little guys, and for the bigger versions they are now.  Of course, I’m also thankful for the little brother, who after seeing that he was not included in this drawing, told me that I have to draw him next.  It’s a good thing I am still on a portrait kick.

P.S. And thanks to you for visiting The Hipping Post.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Digital Experiments with David Hockney

DH_brushes

“I haven’t stopped painting or drawing – I’ve just added another medium.”
David Hockney

Last weekend, I saw David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, which focuses on Hockney’s work over the past decade.

The variety of art, which includes landscapes, portraits, video collages, and sketches, is impressive.  Even at the age of 76, Hockney continues to experiment with all sorts of media, and one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition was his collection of digital drawings and paintings that he did on his iPhone and iPad.  He used an app called Brushes, which includes a cool recording and playback feature.  The de Young displayed a selection of Hockney’s digital works on a series of flat screens, so you could see exactly how Hockney created his art, stroke by stroke.

flower_brushes.

I was so taken by this display that when I got home, I downloaded the Brushes 3 app on my iPhone so I could try it out.  Included in this post are three of my digital paintings.  I completed the flower on my iPhone in about 20 minutes between the Orinda and West Oakland BART stations.  With the apple, I took more time so I could learn more about the app’s functionality.  Finally, I used my iPad Mini and a Bamboo stylus, to paint the above portrait of David Hockney.

apple_brushes

If you have a chance, I recommend you visit A Bigger Exhibition.  The art is fantastic, but it’s also a reminder to keep experimenting.

“The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.”
– David Hockney

P.S. Although the new version of Brushes includes the playback feature, you can’t export the video, as you could on older versions.  Apparently, the developers are working on an upgrade, but unfortunately, I couldn’t include the videos in this post for any of you who actually care about seeing the steps I took to create these paintings.

On Jeff Koons, Technicians, and Minions

Minion

Last Tuesday, Christie’s held an auction where Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142.2 million, the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art.  Jeff Koons‘s Balloon Dog (Orange), which according to the New York Times, is a “10-foot-tall mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture that resembles a child’s party favor,” sold for $58.4 million.  Jeff Koons made four other balloon dogs, each in a different color, so I’m sure the owners of those pieces are feeling pretty good about their respective art collections.

Unlike Francis Bacon, who unquestionably painted his triptych, it’s unlikely that Koons actually built all five dogs on his own, as Koons is known for employing “technicians” to construct his sculptures.  Some contemporary artists defend the use of technicians, as they believe the idea behind the art is more important than who actually completes the work.  For example, Damien Hirst had the idea behind The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, but I’m sure he had help suspending the 14-foot tiger shark in his 20-foot case of formaldehyde.

With three sons, I’d like to think that I have my own budding young technicians.  I have plenty of contemporary art ideas, some of which I have already titled, but none of which my technicians have properly completed.  These ideas include Clean Bedrooms, Table Manners, and A Day Without Whining.  Not only are my helpers not as dedicated as Jeff Koons’s employees, but I also recently found myself in a role reversal.

My son asked me to help him paint a portrait of a Minion that he wanted to give to his friend.  My son picked out the reference picture, and said that he just needed help with the outline.  Once I drew the Minion in pencil, I pointed out where the yellow, the blue, and the black should go.  He blocked in most of the colors, but then he asked if I could paint the eyes, the mouth, the hair, and the logo on the overalls.  “And can you just finish the rest for me?” he said.

So after a few minutes of watching me add touches of paint here and there, the artist left the room to consider more important ideas, like whether to litter our living room with orange construction cones, or to just watch another episode of Jessie.

When I finished, I showed the painting to my son, who was happy with the result.  He then asked me, “Where do I sign it?”

Like a loyal technician, I pointed to the right hand side of the painting and said, “Your name would look good here.”

P.S. And no, the irony of the subject matter was not lost on me.

P.P.S. I listened to an interview with Damien Hirst, who said that he often thinks of titles for his works before he even gets started on the idea.  And if you would like to see some of Damien’s technicians in action, watch this timelapse video.

Portrait Practice

MJF

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” – Stephen King

As you can tell from a few of my recent posts, I am in a portraiture phase.  I imagine most artists go through a period of wanting to draw the exact likeness of a human face.  All of our artistic paths start by drawing stick figures and smiley faces.  That might be the best time as an artist, as we draw and paint with reckless abandon.  We don’t care whether the eyes are in the correct proportion to the nose and mouth, or why hair is just so bloody hard to capture.  We just draw.

WT

But eventually, the urge for accuracy takes over.  This may be the point when artistic curses take hold.  We try to draw the shape of a head, and wonder why it looks more like an alien’s than a human’s.  We can’t understand why the nose is just so hard to place properly on the face.  And it certainly doesn’t help that artists like John Singer Sargent and Jonathan Yeo make it look so easy.

BART portrait

As Stephen King advises, to get better, we are left with only two methods, study and practice, with practice being the most important.  Included here is some of my recent practice.

Selfy

I once read that when you are learning to draw portraits, you shouldn’t practice drawing famous people, as others will know when you’ve messed up the resemblance.  Drawing unfamiliar faces is safer and will build your confidence.  There’s definitely not much room for error when drawing a self-portrait.  I asked my son whether the sketch above looked like me.  He said, “No.  Your neck is too skinny and your head looks like a balloon.”  Apparently, children also criticize with reckless abandon.

P.S. Stephen King suggests that would-be writers should read to become better at writing.  This would-be artist likes reading too.  So Stacie, please feel free to surprise me at Christmas with Jonathan Yeo’s new book, “The Many Faces of Jonathan Yeo.”