Category Archives: Experience

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.

San Francisco Ferry Building

Ferry bldg

One of my favorite blogs is Urban Sketchers (www.urbansketchers.org), where correspondents from around the world post their sketches.  The first rule of the Urban Sketchers manifesto is, “We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.”

I often draw from direct observation, but I don’t usually sketch outdoors on location.  But on Friday, I had plans to meet Stacie for dinner.  I had some time between the end of work and our reservation, so I walked to the park beside 4 Embarcadero Center, and sketched the San Francisco Ferry Building clock tower.

The Ferry Building is a San Francisco landmark, and it’s my favorite building in the city.  Inside, vendors sell fresh seafood, meats, cheeses, and all sorts of other goodies.  On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, it’s home to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, where foodies, like Jamie Oliver, can sometimes be found shopping.

When friends visit San Francisco, I always recommend they take a trip to the Ferry Building.  You can enjoy a glass of wine and some clam chowder at the San Francisco Fish Company, buy some Mt. Tam triple cream cheese at the Cowgirl Creamery, or go to Gott’s, and have the best chocolate milkshake you will ever try (yes, it’s worth $5.99).  And don’t be afraid to grab a pen and some paper, and sketch.

Fette Sau

Fette Sau

Vincent: Want some bacon?
Jules: No man, I don’t eat pork.
Vincent: Are you Jewish?
Jules: Nah, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.
Vincent: Why not?
Jules: Pigs are filthy animals.  I don’t eat filthy animals.
Vincent: Yeah, but bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.
– A conversation from Pulp Fiction

This week, for my departing colleague’s farewell dinner, he took our team to Fette Sau, which Zagat voted the best BBQ in New York City.  I can hear people in Kansas City and Texas giggling, but Fette Sau was exceptional.

With a rolling loading bay door for its entrance, and rows of picnic tables, Fette Sau resembles a garage more than it does a New York restaurant.  Their “less is more” attitude is obvious.  For convenience, the food is served on metal trays and paper plates, and the beer is served in glass gallons and mason jars.  The food is prepared behind the counter, and we watched while one of the cooks cut slabs of pork that were thrown onto a simple wooden table (see the sketch above).

At Fette Sau, they focus on three things: BBQ, whiskey, and beer (the cider was pretty darn good too).  I tried brisket, pork shoulder, sausage, and a variety of BBQ sauces, including a spicy one that I was tempted to slip into my coat pocket, it was so good.  Unfortunately, they were out of the Berkshire Belly (bacon), which my colleague assured me was worth the flight back from San Francisco.

So if you are in New York, and are deciding on which of the countless restaurants to try, skip the white table cloths and cabernet, take the Subway to Brooklyn, and visit Fette Sau.  Because Vincent is right: pork tastes gooood.

P.S. We’ll miss you, Andy.

Merry Christmas

Santa at easel

Every day, for the past month, my kids have reminded my wife and me what they want for Christmas.  Their letters to Santa were impressive for both their thoughtfulness and length.  When I was a kid, I also was excited about receiving presents, so I’m not bothered that my kids are focused on the material side of Christmas.

But yesterday, my eldest son surprised me when he asked me if he could give a present to Santa.

I said, “Of course.  What do you want to give him?”

He said, “I want to paint him a picture.  Can you help me paint a picture of Santa Claus that he could take with him when he comes to our house?”

So on a rainy afternoon, I set my son up at my easel with some paints and a board, and he painted a picture of Santa Claus.

Santa painting

I helped my son a little, but he painted most of it himself.  Since Santa is taking this painting back to the North Pole with him, I decided to sketch my son while he was painting.  I want to remember a moment when I knew my son considered what another famous Christmas artist once wrote, that “‘Maybe Christmas’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”

Bradley painting

Merry Christmas, and may you have a wonderful Holidays with your family and friends.

The Hip at The Fillmore

Gordon Downie

“Whoa baby I feel fine
I’m pretty sure it’s genuine
It makes no sense, no it makes no sense
But I’ll take it free any time”
–  Gordon Downie

On Monday night, I went to The Fillmore with three friends to see The Tragically Hip.  As usual, the concert was fantastic – the crowd was fired up, the band hit on all cylinders, and Gordon Downie reminded me again of why he is the best front man in all of rock and roll.  I’m Canadian, so I’m biased, but The Tragically Hip is one of the best bands to see live.  They have a long list of songs to choose from, so you never know what you are going to get, but they never disappoint.

They didn’t play a few songs I would love to have heard, including “Little Bones” and “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, but they played, “Scared,” “Gift Shop,” and “An Inch an Hour,” one of my favorite Hip songs that I had never heard live.

I didn’t think anything that evening would make me happier than seeing The Hip finish their encore with “Blow At High Dough,” but I was wrong.  Our friend, Wendy, surprised us with back stage passes.

Stu Gordo Doug

Doug Rob Stu

We weren’t back stage long, as the guys had to drive to L.A. that night.  But we met the band, took some photos, and had entertaining conversations with Gordon Downie and Rob Baker.  As you can tell from the photos above, I felt fine, and it was definitely genuine.

Alive In My Rearviewmirror

Two weeks ago, Oracle hosted its annual Open World conference in San Francisco.  Each year, to show appreciation for their employees, customers, and vendors, Oracle sponsors a private rock concert.  On the day of the concert, I unexpectedly ran into my friend John, who works for Oracle.  He was headed to the show, and he asked me if I was free to join him.  I checked in with Stacie, and told her that after 20 years of waiting, I was finally going to my first Pearl Jam concert.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and in the early 90s, I embraced grunge.  I wore flannel shirts and Dr. Martens.  In college, I hung a Pearl Jam poster on my bedroom wall.  Pearl Jam is still one of my favorite bands, but I had never seen them live.  I didn’t expect my first Pearl Jam experience to be a corporate event, but I was still excited.

Despite a rocky start with “Do the Evolution,” by the second song, “Animal,” Eddie Vedder hit his stride.  Mike McCready ripped through guitar solos and Matt Cameron hammered rhythms on the drums.  They sounded like the Pearl Jam from Ten and Vs.  It was a great show, and I was happy to be there.

So were the other 50,000+ concert goers, but I was surprised by how many wanted to take their experience home with them.  John warned me this would happen – as I looked at the crowd between me and the stage, I saw a sea of people holding their iPhones or iPads above their heads trying to record the event.

Unique experiences are fleeting, and at best, I partially relive mine through photos, drawings, or stories.  Sometimes I want to preserve my experiences, but I can’t.  Time moves on, and I only hope to string together new experiences and enjoy the memories of the ones I’ve had.

I appreciate that some of those people wanted to show their spouse or their friends a clip from the show.  But I would rather just remember sharing a good concert with a great friend, than replay a video in my kitchen and pretend that that experience could come close to the real thing.

P.S.  I take videos of my kids at sporting events, on Christmas morning, and at school functions.  I kick myself when I forget to bring the video camera on vacation.  Given what I just wrote, you could argue I’m a hypocrite.  I never watch the videos I take, but I know someday I will.  I just think that trying to hold on to my boys’ childhood is a nobler exercise in futility than trying to relive a Pearl Jam concert.

P.P.S.  When you see Pearl Jam you never quite know what kind of show you’re going to get. Sometimes they play all the early hits like “Jeremy,” “Black” and “Alive,” while the very next night be mainly deep tracks from Yield, Riot Act and No Code. Regardless of what they perform, Pearl Jam approaches every show with a Springsteen-like level of passion and respect for their fans. They go out of their way to make each show special, often extending out the encores for well over an hour. It’s one reason why they continue to pack giant venues without radio hits or much media mainstream attention. – Rolling Stone