Mobility as a practical matter activates the process of narrative formation. Mobile narratives are naturally dimensional. They scan the past for clues (reasons), shift in the changing topology of a blurry present, and propose possible futures arising from former conditions, circumstances and scenarios.
My family and I are preparing to move across the North American continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast. The immediate quality of our daily activities suggests miasma. Impulsive ordering of the material and immaterial is practically reflexive.
A few days ago I found myself diverted to a project that led to a sequential revelation of motivations, pertinent to my artist life. The catalyst was a search for photographic portraits of my friend Jennifer (Niederst) Robbins made in the 80s during our Notre Dame studies. Searching through a pile of scrapbooks and folders, I haven't yet found the pictures I originally set out to find. What I discovered instead was a trove of photos documenting my earliest, formative artist experiences.
Of these, a handful emerged as particularly relevant in shaping my views of the art business, art world, and patronage. Reflecting on some specific episodes, I today revel at my tenacity, in pursuit of artistic success. Despite what strike me (now) as horrible experiences, I somehow did not abandon the art enterprise in those first years of my so-called artist career. The act of reflection generates a variant definition of what I do and have done for more than three decades. Art is more a vocation, than a commercial identity, in my mind. Otherwise, I might be compelled by the data to conclude that no sane individual would choose fine art as a professional enterprise, given the typical state of the game for artists, especially those just starting out.
In the text that follows, I will share some anecdotes that hopefully clarify the statement above for the reader. If this chronicle helps another artist, one way or another, all the better. If it starts or adds to a discussion about the systematically brutal and wasteful American arts topology, with its sparkly, rigged vertical fixtures, more to the greater good.
This was one of my first art commissions. My memory of the details are a bit vague. I have a foggy recollection of how the thing went down. Maybe the pastor of a local South Bend (IN) Catholic church approached the ND art department, in a search for an artist to do an altarpiece for his chapel? We met, and I got the gig, which I completed between my Junior and Senior years. He had to fight to get approval from the church council. He won the commission funding ($480) in a bingo game, which he figured was a divine intervention. I stayed at the rectory for about a month and made the art. I was drinking a lot then, driving a '78 Trans Am outfitted like the Smokey and the Bandit sports car. When I finished, we hung the art. Almost immediately, the congregation rebelled. The pastor (whose name I can't remember) defended the art and insisted it remain. He passed away about a year later, and I learned that "God" had summarily been disposed of. In hindsight, the experience on the whole proved very educational, with regards the vicissitudes of art/collective/patronage/production, + more. I have never entertained the notion of creating art for churches, since then (although I have received a few inquiries, over the years).
I put everything I could muster into this project. Looking at the image, greatly benefited/restored to close-to-realism by the editing tools of Photoshop, I am proud of the effort. I especially appreciate the iconography, the use of materials and their implications, my Vision of It, of God, at the age of 21. I sure would love to sit down with the young man who painted/assembled this art, to share a meal, to have a chat. I would love to meet the Me of 33 years ago (pretty much to the day).
One of the valuable things about art is it bridges time spans like that 33-year one. I don't really need a time machine, because I have art. Reflection via art is to my mind better in some important respects than the Back to the Future movie version of "time travel." The differences between art enabled time travel and the cinematic imagination's - that's a big topic for another text.
I wrote about this recently. "Liberty" was created shortly after I graduated from ND, and almost died in a motorcycle wreck less than a week later. Maria Rand was the wife of notable NY-based sculptor Archie Rand and curator/buyer for Unique Boutique in Manhattan. Unique was one of the cool shops that sold my FunkShunArt tee shirts in the city. Maria invited me to contribute an art for a show she was putting together, marking the Centennial Celebration of the Statue of Liberty. She said the show was going to be a big deal happening at Herald Square. Archie would be in the show. Maybe Keith Haring, Andy. We spoke on the phone a few times, and when I visited the shop with new FunkShunArt, over a period of weeks or months. It was a long time ago, and the details are a bit fuzzy, now.
..."Liberty" was my offering. "Liberty" was painted on a big sheet of steel and framed in railroad ties and barbed wire. I found the source image in a Playboy magazine. You can't really tell from the Photoshop-improved, old photograph that the finished painting really shimmered, thanks to (relatively new) iridescent acrylics, gel medium, glitter, etc. When completed "Liberty" weighed a couple hundred pounds. JP Keyes drove to Beckley, WV, where I made the art in my parents' garage (during my rehab from the MC-crash-caused head injury), and we loaded it into the Par 3 tour van and drove back to Jersey City, where the band based. JP had just installed a multi-channel sound system in the van, and we listened to a selection of tapes during the ride. It was an educational experience. The art was ready to be delivered on the previously agreed upon deadline date.
The next day, I reached out to Maria. I got the "NY shuffle." Over the next few days, I got the runaround. When I finally got Maria on the phone, she was rude, to put it mildly. Our conversation was colorful. I think my recent brain trauma had an effect on my reaction. The gist? Maria: No show, whatever, GTFO. The next evening, Par 3 & I delivered "Liberty" to Unique. Maria wasn't there. We installed it in the front area of the shop and left. A security dude tried to stop us and wisely stopped doing that.
My righteous anger/rebellion/triumph moment was short-lived. When I took the train to the city, maybe the next day, to see/photograph "Liberty" at Unique, the art was gone. I was furious, although I don't think the UB staffer had a clue, when I curiously asked, "What happened to the big Statue of Liberty painting that I saw here yesterday?" He shrugged and said, "I think some guys threw it in the dumpster in the alley. That thing was heavy. One of them broke his hand moving it."
I can pretend otherwise, but I was alternately brokenhearted and filled with rage. In hindsight, the experience on the whole was a valuable, instructive, initial encounter with the "NY art world." I've been skeptical of curators and their speculative plans ever since.
3. FALLEN ANGEL (No Photo Documentation)
The details of this episode are hazy. A fellow Domer (ND student) offered me - I think - $60 or $80 to paint a mini-mural in his dorm room. I completed the task in short order. I never got the opportunity to photograph my work. As I recall, the figure of a downcast, wrenched angel was directly painted on the wall with bright acrylic primary colors. Really, "Fallen Angel" was more drawing with paint than painting proper. My student-patron did compensate me, and then within a few days overpainted "Fallen Angel" without telling me. When I visited him with friends to share with them what I had made and photograph "Fallen Angel," the guy/patron answered the door and sheepishly admitted to his art destruction. I cursed him out. He apologized. I can't recall ever painting on a wall again, indoors or outside, with one exception (see below).
I admit to a consequent, jaundiced notion of street art, murals, interior wall treatments by artists, probably due to this experience. The negativity association extends to euphemisms like "creative destruction," "erasure," and so on. & Unilateral wall-art obliteration by an owner, like the infamous 5Pointz whitewashing, which had a happy/unhappy ending.
Violence toward art as a prerogative of ownership, or as problematic cultural expression or critique or whatever (see Rauschenberg/de Kooning incident/history) is an uncomfortable subtext in the art/cultural continuum. On the international stage in recent times, ISIS, the Taliban and Al Queda have practiced art/culture obliteration on a massive scale. Being aware of such phenomena, I try not to take others' art-destructive urges and rationalizations personally anymore ~ with a modicum of success. The key is channeling outrage into productive outcomes, and it doesn't hurt to know one's legal options. However, as the 5Pointz case illustrates, it is not obvious that legal recourse can sufficiently address the problem. After all a unique art/cultural expression, once eradicated or vandalized, is not necessarily recoverable.
Yesterday, a man hijacked an airliner, conversed in-flight with air traffic controllers with war planes in hot pursuit of his stolen aircraft, which he subsequently crashed on an island. The man's suicide-by-plane can be interpreted endlessly. Many in the media questioned, "What was his motive?" This artist responds that the definition of performance art is so broad that the incident might be described as a creative expression culminating in the immolation of the plane and the practitioner. Is my ironic explanation really so farfetched, nowadays? What is permissible, if any-everything can be construed as art, and any-/everyone can self-identify as an artist?
Clearly, human beings' struggle with our contradictory impulses for creation and destruction takes many forms, and is scalable. The fundamental issue is of course, Why?
4. SNEAKY PETE (No Photo Documentation)
The owner of a local ice cream shop approached the ND Art Department with a proposal for students to decorate his newly opened or renovated store. He would provide materials and ice cream. A graduate student who had been one of my first instructors brought the project to my attention. I agreed to participate, as did a handful of other art students. Each of us was assigned a booth, with an inset, shadowbox wall, upon which we could paint what we wished. I think the owner suggested ice cream-oriented content, but wasn't very strident about it. I promptly began to paint one of my Sneaky Pete creatures in the assigned area, which was about 6' x 5', with two 6' tall, maybe 2.5' wide panels perpendicular to the centerpiece (as I recall). I worked feverishly for about five days during business hours between classes, about 40-50 hours or more total. The Sneaky Pete figure was dramatic, unsettling and jarring. His Eye was a textured swirl of technicolor paint, eventually animated and complex enough to give viewers the impression Pete was watching them as they moved through the shop. The painting contained many layers. Although the color field behind the figure eventually took on a vibrant cerulean blue hue, it shimmered, and contained text elements in applique and hand-painted renderings. Hovering on either side and above Pete were words, such as "WAR" and "PEACE" and "LOVE" and "HATE." At the end of the week I was exhausted and deeply satisfied, proud of the completed art. I couldn't wait to bring my friends (the Keyes bros. + Scott O'Grady) to see it. We hopped in someone's car, maybe Jim's "Grey Ghost," and drove over.
It was yet another disaster. The shop owner, uncomfortable about the text and eye effect, had dipped a 4" or 6" in a can of blue paint and wiped out the words and the "eye." I couldn't speak. My buddies and I drove back to the dorm. They followed me downstairs and looked on as I threw chairs around the room and howled.
A couple of years later, I returned to that ice cream shop. I was outfitted in the manner of Road Warrior. I outlined for the owner some options, all of which ended with my covering my art with white paint. He chose the one that did not also entail harm to his family (who were seated nearby, enjoying sundaes, shakes and cones) and himself, and time-permitting, the burning down of the ice cream store, before the police arrived. I put some music on [Allman Bros., "Whipping Post" (live)], savored some sipping whiskey, and painted over the disfigured art. As I was leaving, I keyed the owner's beloved Corvette.
I haven't entered into any similar commission arrangements, since then. & I'm not really proud of what happened. That said, to this day, I marvel at what people will do without any concern about the repercussions, the consequences, of their behavior, power dynamics be damned. The Chinese just destroyed Ai Wei Wei's studio. Wonder what will come of that this time?