Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Taking off the Mask: Essays Volume I

The Blog of Innocence was started in 2008 with the motivating desire to write essays and meditations on a broad spectrum of topics that intimately concerned me. The title of “Innocence” is a partial response to Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Whereas Pessoa’s writings center on an imaginative cynicism, I sought to create essays that would appeal to just the opposite.

The sense I wanted to convey about myself and the world was a simple questioning and naivety toward material reality and experience. I don’t go in for any postmodern tricks here, but rather I seek to return to a state where cleverness and sophistication are alien and not very useful to understanding ourselves. I want to experience not knowing, so I can further discover something.

You will see many references to The Blog of Innocence in these essays; this is because the essays were originally posted on my blog. There will be four volumes of essays available as eBooks, each covering a different subject area. This first volume, entitled Taking off the Mask, concerns life and culture. The next volume will be concerned with art. The volume after that will be concerned with technology and the web. And the last volume will be concerned with literature and writing.

My sincerest wish is that you take something from these words of mine. Writing is the closest thing to my heart. It is the way I commune with others, and myself.

Taking Off the Mask: Essays Volume I

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

With the Passage of Time

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Broken Home

Throughout the course of a day, many battles are fought. The mere fact of having a physical body creates stress--whether in the form of exhaustion, bouts of emotion, anxiety. But the alternative, floating around in some amoeba-like wavy film, doesn't sound any more appealing.

And so we have this body. I've been a bit unhappy with my body--now into my thirties, I lack the motivation to lose the weight I've gained in the last year. This requires discipline and for a long time, I've avoided the necessary restraint to curb my appetites.

I wonder if as we get older we lose certain motivations. I'm obsessive about writing, reading, and my work--those things seem to motivate me to a fault--but the care of the body, once a concern, no longer matters.

I'm sort of embarrassed to say that I don't care for my body as I once did. Because the real reason for this is I don't have anyone to impress. There are no women I'm trying to woo, or otherwise get their attention, have dinner with, etc.

Since my late twenties, I've socialized less and less, and my circle of intimates has narrowed.

By choosing to marry, you can prevent the circumstances I've just described. You may be lonely in another sense, but you'll never feel isolated. If anything (and I'm speculating here because I'm not married), you'll feel crowded or as my mother used to put it, "I feel like I'm drowning."

My mother was a fierce individualist, an artist, and not really suited to raising a family or having children. But she did and I acquired many of her traits for contemplation, creativity, solitude and private work.

She used to keep journals in her art studio, many of them handmade. She bound her own sketchbooks and journals. I remember seeing the half-cut fabrics in the laundry room beside reams of thread. But she stored her journals downstairs, in a chest of drawers. My mother's art studio had immaculate white walls and was filled with repurposed furniture and random objects cluttering the floor.

She created scenes with the furniture, rugs, or whatever she found around the house. Her models sat under giant flood lights, and for hours my mother would stand at a canvas and translate this imaginary situation into a painting. The window of her studio regularly appeared in her paintings, with a view of our suburban enclave, a privileged world protected by a gate.

It was a beautifully landscaped, dead conglomerate of houses. The houses were so big and set apart that it was an inconvenience to visit people. You would have to drive to their house just to say hello.

As a teenager, the vastness of the subdivision inspired many adventures on my bike. I charted the territory available to me. Originally a golf course, which had been transformed into a gated community, there were several large ponds, always with a great deal of Canadian geese squawking and shitting in the grass. I remember the exact color of the grass on most days. It was dark green. Around the ponds were massive weeping willow trees and I used to stand on the tops of the roots jutting out of the ground. Sometimes there were nooks in the bottom branches, where you could sit and watch the cars go by.

The grounds of the Midwest Club, where I lived, were expansive. Cul de sacs snaking up hills, and new houses always being built, large, preposterous modern ones. I used to to explore the construction sites with a friend, and we collected those bottle-cap things. The little metal caps were scattered in the sawdust, and we filled our pockets with them.

The basements, I recall. Most basements of the houses we couldn't go down into; there wasn't a staircase built yet. But we peered into the gaping hole that extended into shadows and frameworks for rooms. We marveled at this part of the house, I imagine, because it was so inaccessible.

In time, every basement we peered into would become a finished one, with lush carpets and modern cooling devices to keep the temperature just right. Some of the basements would be equipped with small movie theaters or bowling alleys. The general rule of the place where I lived was that every year a newer, more elaborate house would be built. The new house in the subdivision with a waterfall, indoor gardens, and running streams, would inevitably provoke gossip and cause the other residents to look with envy as they drove back to their humble, dated mansions.

This probably explains why I wanted to spend so much of my later adolescence outside of the house, and the neighborhood, for that matter. Our environments undoubtedly shape our personalities, and when I was younger, I remember being by myself a lot. Whether it was amid the vastness of the gated community or sequestered inside my own large house, it was a common experience that repeated itself.

It seems I had more friends when I was younger, but at every stage of my life I've felt a disconnect between myself and others. I felt this even when I had made friends in high school or college; my friendships were always private and never in large groups. They were also tenuous. When a friend was accepted into a larger group, I was usually left on my own. I'm not wallowing here--that's just how things turned out for me. And I kind of liked being by myself.

Of course, a part of us desires what we don't have, and so, I did long for acceptance and to be part of a larger group. But my personality never allowed for it. Another way to put this is I didn't fit in.

And now that I'm thirty years old, soon to be thirty-one, I'm slowly recognizing why things are the way they are for me.

We tend to forget the past, and how we developed into individuals. I feel stuck when I forget my past, like a coma has obscured some vital reference points. And these instances of my separation from others, where I lived, how I grew up, describe my tendency toward contemplation and creativity, as opposed to other forms of immersion, like social immersion, which has always made me slightly uncomfortable.

I understand why I'm on my own, and it doesn't bother me as much as it used to. I've always wanted this, even though I may have pretended otherwise.

Every choice in life implies the loss of another. Since I was very young, I chose to cultivate my interior world. And that's where my poems come from, and these essays.

Strangely enough, when I write these essays, I'm consciously reaching out to the world. The fact that my interiority changes to its opposite makes me think that while we're always "on our own," we also have this place to meet others, through language and art. It's a wonderful hidden doorway, and I'm passing through it a lot these days.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Escape into Life: Issue no. 16


This issue of Escape into Life expresses every reason why I began the journal in the first place. Lara Cory's article, "The Etsy Phenomenon," challenges us to see the effects of a democratic web on art. The article provoked a lot of conversations, and I invite you to read the string of comments.

Also in this issue, Escape into Life introduces a new project for artists. Inspired by Giorgio Vasari's artist biographies published in 1550, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, I'm asking artists to create their own stories about their lives. We will run the artist autobiographies periodically through the online journal.

The Etsy Phenomenon . . . Lara Cory's balanced account of the success of Etsy with much room for opposing viewpoints.

The Poetry of Kelli Russell Agodon . . . Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of several published books, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.

What is Real: Chuck Close and Kazimir Malevich . . . Mark Kerstetter provides a fascinating analysis of photorealistic and abstract painting, and whether either one can be said to be "real."

PeopleMatter: Interview with Nic Rad . . . Nic Rad talks with Lara Cory about his PeopleMatter project, explaining how he intends to give his paintings away to the public for free.

Why Nic Rad Matters . . . Nic Rad's portrait project is an intelligent critique of celebrity culture, and a brilliant use of social technology to promote art.

New EIL Project:

Lives of the Artists . . . Arists! Tell your story. How did you become an artist? What style and medium do you choose for your work and why? See the website for more details.

What is Escape into Life?

Escape into Life hosts over 700 contemporary artist profiles, and is also an online arts journal with contributions from nearly 25 different writers. Many of our contributors—ranging from well-known published authors, university professors, and freelance journalists—continue to publish art reviews and art history essays month after month. In addition, our poetry editor selects a new poet to feature in the journal every issue.

The Escape into Life digest comes out about twice monthly and you can subscribe at the top of the website, next to the search bar.

As an organization, we seek to promote the arts in all its forms. Our next milestone is to merge the thriving online publication with a viable online art store and auction.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is Nic Rad the Next Warhol?

Nic Rad, Peter Schjeldahl

Nic Rad's PeopleMatter project is essentially a portrait project in which the artist paints media personalities, tech-industry giants, literary and entertainment figures. He shows the portraits on his website and offers his paintings to anyone who can give a good enough reason why they should have them. (Some portraits have a paywall; meaning these works must be purchased.)

Reading the interview Lara Cory had with Nic on Escape into Life sparked my thinking in the direction of contemporary art as a predominately social vehicle. Because the PeopleMatter project has leveraged the potential of the web to spread word about a single artist's work, I see this experiment as noteworthy and perhaps suggestive of how art is increasingly becoming a social object.

One could argue that art has always been a social object--a topic of conversation, a locus of interaction with others in a museum or gallery--but I believe the acceleration of the web is serving to emphasize the social aspects of art. And if it continues, I believe we will be seeing more projects like Nic Rad's, which enroll the public to participate in the process of the art-making, exhibition, and sale.

There is a Warholian overtone to the PeopleMatter project. Like Warhol's silkscreen prints, Rad is making a statement about celebrities through his portraits of them. He sees these portraits as "avatars" and "graphic symbols" of members of the media, inspired by how we are represented to each other online. Furthermore, his method of aiming for imperfect works, perfectly resonates with Warhol. Rad says,
This kind of painting requires a certain speed and stops looking and feeling like art. It starts to look like fan fiction or signage or candy wrappers; it looks like everything but nice furniture . . . which is why I believe I’m doing something right.
What has changed since Warhol is our notion of celebrity, and Rad seems to pick up on this and play off of it in his portraits. He purposely intermingles actual celebrities with self-anointed ones, and blurs the distinction between the new media and the old. With Warhol, we have the mass-produced image of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, but with Rad, the mass-produced image is no longer meaningful as a critique.

Today we are deeply entrenched in mass-produced images and so what titillates the viewer is its opposite: the one of a kind and the possibility that it could be you. The democratic process by which a person can obtain a portrait of herself from Rad, simply petitioning for one on his website, appears straightforward:
If you feel that you’re a member of the media and are on some inexplicable trajectory and that I should consider painting you instead of one of my current subjects—tell me why. There’s a decent chance I’ll agree with you and make a replacement.
The democratic process, however, is not without its irony. Rad is offering to memorialize you as a cultural figure (read on his website: Become Immortal). And he's also capitalizing on our particular historical moment, with major industries, and social hierarchies, in transition; this project could not be achieved at any other period in history. The categories for fame these days are fluid and loosely-defined as new technology catapults regular people into the sphere of celebrity over night.

The genius of the project is how the website generates interest in the portraits. First, with the possibility to be painted, and second, with the possibility to receive a painting for free, Rad has created a mini-ecosystem of "celebritization," a word that Rad used in his interview.

The whole experiment could quickly be dismissed as a promotional gimmick, and Rad knows something about public relations and marketing for having worked in the field for six months; but I believe Rad is holding up a mirror instead.

His PeopleMatter project shows how we make each other known and important in this new cultural landscape; and how the individual is made into a media icon. It also shows how we use "graphic symbols" to represent ourselves in the Internet era; and how the public projects meaning onto these short-hand representations through floating bits of information on Twitter streams, articles, video clips, and web searches.

It is not by coincidence that many of the portraits resemble caricatures, some more than others. This representation of the celebrity is meant to be a visual reference point which may only capture a single quality of a person's character or beliefs, but serves to place them on the map of cultural dialogue. It is also important to remember that the portraits are set against the background of the entire body of paintings. Unlike Warhol's prints, these icons are taken together, as a cultural whole.

Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, following the tradition of Warhol, put as much work into marketing their art as they did creating it. The PeopleMatter project is contradictory and wonderful for its ability to make art social while at the same time critiquing the social consequences of such art.

Rad does not attack the cultural apparatus, but instead feeds it to each of us. We are one among many; no single portrait deserves ultimate scorn or praise. None is set higher or lower. These portraits are a tapestry of dreams, however imperfect or fragile our dreams may be.


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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why is Photorealism Hugely Popular?


One of the things I've noticed lately is the immense popularity of photorealistic works online. I believe this is related to how photorealism conjures up the "real" while simultaneously negating it due to the materials involved; ie, this is a drawing or a painting, it can't be real. Apart from the technical virtuosity of many of these works, there is an enigma at play beneath the surface; and there is something about the works that mesmerizes us.

Escape into Life, the online arts journal I edit, receives surges of traffic around photorealist artists such as Richard Estes, Dirk Dzimirsky, Denis Ichitovkin, Don Gore, Eric Zener, and Alyssa Monks. Another arts blog by Alice at My Modern Met, covers photorealistic and hyper-realistic art frequently. Some of Alice's most popular entries include, "Hyper-Realistic Acrylic Body Painting," "21 Mindblowing Hyperreal Paintings," and "Photorealistic Pencil Drawings by Paul Lung."

When we look at these works, we see some similarities in technique and method. For example, images of water are common in hyperrealistic paintings and drawings. Eric Zener chooses solely to focus on pools and individuals diving in or suspended underwater. In an interview I had with Zener last year, he described his method:
I take photos of models in the water and then use them as a reference to make my drawing. Usually a lot changes but it gives me a good starting point. Then I paint an underpainting in grey/blue scale. After that I paint from the farthest point back to the foreground.

Many of the paintings by Alyssa Monks are situated in bathrooms or behind shower doors. We are presented with a human face behind glass, steam clouding the glass, and drops of water blurring the picture. This play of barriers against the direct human image heightens the drama of the "real"--we see the human figure, but we cannot directly approach/access it.


Another example is Dirk Dzimirsky's Drawn Face VI (below). Here we are drawn to the frenzied motion of water, the splatter of drops and the trajectories down and off the man's face. The water is so pronounced that it seems to take on another form, like transparent oil. The heaviness of the liquid reinforces its impact. Just as the drawing enhances the qualities of water, the image heightens the reality of being drenched, producing a simulacrum of experience and sensation.


Another technique used in photorealistic works is reflection. Like water, reflection deflects the "real," fragments the "real," complicates the "real," and thus heightens it. Richard Estes is a contemporary master of this technique, often using reflections from city buildings and the play of sunlight on various types of glass, to create a multidimensional effect. In The L Train (below), we are presented with a dead-on view through multiple layers of glass. The reflections from each panel create distorted, but corresponding images in different quadrants of the painting, while the numerous steel bars at various angles further break up the picture we are looking at.
If the Photorealism heralded decades ago by Chuck Close, Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, and Audrey Flack was a reaction against Surrealism and Pop Art, then these artists seem to have presaged our contemporary moment. The popularity of photorealistic works right now says something about our needs and desires as humans in the 21 century.

Consider the introductory paragraph in David Shield's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto:
My intent is to write an ars poetic for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconsciously connected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger chunks of "reality" into their work.
While photorealism in art has been around since the late 1960's, there is a curious resurgence of interest around these paintings and I wonder if it is connected to Shields's thesis. He goes on to describe the "hunger" contemporary culture has for "the lure and blur of the real."
Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the "real," semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all fabrication.
In a convincing argument, made up entirely of quotations and passages, many of them not even the author's own, Reality Hunger uses examples such as the popularity of reality TV shows, the ascendancy of the memoir, and sampling in hip hop to show our lust for reality-based art. Most of us would agree that reality TV is not art, but it reflects a trend in culture where we are more attracted to the "real" than the blatantly fictitious.

Photorealistic works can thus seem to cast an enchanting spell upon our reality-hungered lives. They are like drugs, providing the greatest visual impact, giving us the thrill of the "illusion of reality." Shields writes:
The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger dose in order to experience the thrill. An illusion of reality--the idea that something really happened--is providing us with that thrill right now. We're riveted by the (seeming) rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at least less worked over than a polished mass-media production.

More Essays . . .
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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Escape into Life: Issue no. 15


The popularity of Escape into Life on the web is reaching unforeseen levels. According to a conservative estimate, we received nearly 50,000 unique visitors last month. By blending artist profiles, multimedia, poetry, and journal-length essays, I am finding that people really do enjoy a mixture of content relating to the arts.

Also, this month a new writer joined the team. We feature Marc Nash's essay, "Approaching Non-Linearity in Literature," and Marc will be focusing on literary criticism for Escape into Life in future issues. Here are some of the highlights of this issue:

Approaching Non-Linearity in Literature . . . Marc brings together insights in science and literature to show some of the ways in which contemporary fiction might be rejuvenated.

French Rococo: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard . . . Arts critic Stephen Pain introduces us to the "three tenors" of French Rococo in the history of painting.

Poetry by Susan Rich . . . In "Curating My Own Death," Rich offers us an ironic and humorous contemplation of her own death.

Fernando Botero at the Museum of Fine Arts . . . Mark Kerstetter recently visited the Fernando Botero exhibit in St. Petersburg, Florida. Here is his review.

From the Showcase Series:

28 Recommended Art and Design Tumblrs . . . These blogs range from contemporary, modern, and classical art; vintage illustration; vintage photography; design and typography.

What is Escape into Life?

Escape into Life hosts over 700 contemporary artist profiles, and is also an online arts journal with contributions from nearly 25 different writers. Many of our contributors--ranging from well-known published authors, university professors, and freelance journalists--continue to publish art reviews and art history essays month after month. In addition, our poetry editor selects a new poet to feature in the journal every issue.

The Escape into Life digest comes out about twice monthly and you can subscribe at the top of the website, next to the search bar.

As an organization, we seek to promote the arts in all its forms. Our next milestone is to merge the thriving online publication with a viable online art store and auction.


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