Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Very quick post here. Next week is mold week, so I'm in the usual pre-mold panic, wanting to get all the details and surfaces resolved before it gets set in rubber.

Not surprisingly, those areas that are the most regulated, symmetrical, parallel, etc., are particularly tricky. Straight, even, and smooth are not things clay does easily. That being the case, I've been spending a lot of time on the helmet, with it's raised concentric ridges, and the bow and arrows, which I had given a lot of thought to, and which I'd postponed working on because they dry out so fast. It turns out there's a lot to consider. Those long, straight shafts are tough to make feel solid, and then there's all kind of unexpected questions about what kind of arrows these would be.

Initially, I had been thinking that the arrows would be extremely primitive; essentially just sharp sticks. Compositionally, however, that didn't work. My simple arrows were just too light, and got lost against the bulk and detail of the figure. Turns out they needed fletching, and they need arrowheads.

I teach part of a class on arrowheads (it was actually part of the original inspiration for this piece), so I had a lot of arrowheads to choose from. These are based on medieval armor piercing points, which I like because I like the brutal simplicity of the form, and also because they're so unexpected. Stone arrowheads would have felt too connected to Native American narratives, and the Japanese Yanone that I love would have been too heavy visually, and too hard to make in clay.

In any case, I've been working and working arrows, overworking it really, and have not been satisfied. Something was not right. Then, last night, I did something that I never do - I made a creative decision past 9:00 pm. Usually, if I allow myself to make any big moves after dinner, I regret it in the morning. Last night, however, after laboring over the goddamn bow and arrow for a couple hours, I realized that the curve of the bow was wrong. There was a flat spot that didn't make sense. I've drawn an arrow pointing at it so you can see what I'm talking about, and also possibly see how crazy I've gotten. It doesn't look like much in these photos, but last night this was a big deal, and now, when I go out tonight, I know it will feel right, and that I'll get it done in no time.

Those little revelations, where you didn't know there was a problem until you solve it, are simultaneously incredibly satisfying and insanely frustrating. Satisfying because you figured it out, frustrating because the answer was there the whole time, and you just didn't see it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nice People, Good Advice

Last Friday night, my friends Darla, Justin, and baby O-Rae (or, for the science fiction minded minded, The O-RAY!), came out to give me a mold consult. So generous, and so helpful. Here some bad pictures of them in my kitchen.

I've never been great at asking for help, but this will definitely be the biggest mold I've ever made, and is certainly the one I'm least interested in having fail. Darla and Justin are real pros, so I was thrilled to get their input. This is what we came up with.

It may not look like much, but as far as I'm concerned, it's pure gold. We mostly agreed on how to proceed, but they had some good ideas that I hadn't figured on, including how to get the whole thing horizontal, and tricks for releasing the mother mold. Like I said, pure gold.

On another note, one of the great pleasures of being having kids and being a sculptor is the ability to get sucked into great projects like this one; building a playmobile supermax prison for your 5 yr. old son.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Details, Details, Details

Getting there. Couple of details shots.

An interesting moment as the texture is added. Form, particularly muscles, tend to look very hard in sculpture. A human body is soft, and slightly translucent. With clay, the form is solid, and we can see the difference clearly. This is one of the problems with adding muscular definition, or veins along the surface. They need to be clear, but if they're too clear, they look unnatural and overdeveloped. In this shot I'm about a third of the way through adding arm hair to soften the the surface, and make it more human. I can't think of many examples of body hair in sculpture, except for the super-realists like Ron Mueck and Evan Penny (they inject silicone hairs with a needle), and sometimes it surprises me. Body hair, after all, is a real thing, with real implication in terms of how we see the body.

On the other hand, as we can see (or not see) from advertising all over the world, body hair is not part of the physical ideal. It makes us a little uncomfortable. It's a little gross, in the sense of being crude, or coarse. That, of course, is part of what I'm going for, and is undoubtedly the reason that my work was recently described, not unkindly, as "not very salable". I'm after that gross, human quality. I don't just like the fat and the hair, it feels important to me. To hide it, or clean it up, is to pretend we're something other than what we are - something less flawed, less animal, less vulnerable and dangerous.

Anyway, here it is, mostly done. It will undoubtedly get a few more passes, softened, roughed up, and softened again, before it's all done.

The pants and belt up by the pocket. For some reason I'm particularly pleased with the seam along the edge. Subtle, but catching just enough light to make a difference.

The wrinkles behind the knees, where I've spent entirely too much time.

New solution for the helmet, which I'm quite pleased with. Those engraving marks were too generalized to work against the rest, which is so specific. This deco-ish solution is happily anachronistic, and works better inside the medium. It's not a solution a helmet maker would love, but clay is not a surface you want to engrave. At some point you've got to follow the material.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Trapped In Carbonite!

Clay maintenance continues to be an issue. I was feeling a little anxious the other day, because the clay seemed to be drying out no matter how often I watered it. So I overcompensated. Lost most of yesterday because the clay was too wet to do much. Left it uncovered all day without wet rags, and today it was basically perfect. Had a gratifying day working the details as a result. Also nice to know that the drying is reversible. Otherwise, I'd be finishing this sucker up over the weekend.

Working the surface, for me, means finding a way to suspend the time-is-money mindset. Working the surface is slow. And mostly, mostly nobody notices or cares. To be able to spend an hour getting the folds in the fabric behind the back knee right requires that I not think about the millions of other ways I could be usefully spending that time.

I come from a commercial art background, and while I'm grateful for that background in lots of ways, the commercial arts start and end with a deadline. Fine art is different. In two important ways. First of all, nobody is waiting for this piece. There is absolutely no reason to rush this thing to the finish line, other than my own Yankee/Calvinist/Commercial Arts sense of productivity uber alles.

The other difference is that I'm making an object, not an image. This, I think, is particularly important in a world of arts aggregators like butdoesitfloat and FFFFOUND. The story of the impact of the internet on art is yet to be written, but an important piece of that story has got to be how the ubiquity of images influences artists. When what you make is primarily viewed (and evaluated) as an image on the internet, you start to think and work in terms of what looks good on the internet. You'd be a fool not to.

The problem is that many things do not look good on the internet (and many things look better than they are). Subtle details are lost against higher contrast, higher key images. And everything becomes an image. Great sculpture, which really needs to be experienced, is lost on the web. Think of James Turrell or Richard Serra, both of whose work makes no sense as an image. Or even Ron Mueck, whose work is so amazingly realistic that the photos just look like people, not amazingly rendered, totally out-of-scale objects.

All of which is to say, when working the surface, I try to remember that I'm not making an image, I'm making an object, and if I want that object to have any integrity, I need to work for the people who will actually see it, not the people who will scroll past it on the internet. In other words, I don't need it to look good, I need it to be good.

Stage 1 - .07 mil plastic pulled close with push pins

Stage 2 - .4 mil plastic pulled across the frame, and stapled tight along the edges

Friday, June 11, 2010

Spoke Too Soon

Turns out I can't stay away.

Actually, I'm finding that, despite my best efforts, the clay seems to be drying out at an alarming rate, and it's becoming clear that I need to get this done it becomes unworkable. I wanted to work in clay for a number of reasons, and I'm glad I did, but I'm definitely getting a sense of why sculptors generally prefer plasticine. Having a large clay sculpture turns out to be like owning a dog; you need to pay attention to it every day or it's going to die.

Anyway, here's Wednesday's efforts. The form is essentially done. Now it's all in the details. You can see on the helmet where I'm trying to figure out how to approximate engraving, without actually engraving. This is the problem with detailed realism. If you're not Evan Penny or Ron Mueck, at some point you're going to need to figure out where to draw the line. Fingernails, yes. Cuticle, no. Seams, yes. Engraving, no, but...there can't be nothing there, either. It's an interesting question.

All this aside, I remain excited about the direction the small relief is going, and am hoping to work out some of those ideas on Monday. As for the plates- screw 'em. Maybe I'll get to that in August.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Further Thinking About Relief

Stuck at jury duty. Gives me a few minutes to reflect on recent developments with the relief project.

In the previous post, I discussed my eagerness to create new work, what my unwillingness/inability to spend time working out the details of the production/installation. In thinking about it yesterday, I decided that my recent process has reflected forest/trees/forest model. An initial idea (the forest) is decided up. Given the way I work, these ideas always seem to involve multiple pieces, (the trees). Working on these pieces is labor intensive, and I never feel like I have enough, so that I end up making new work (trees) right up to the moment I have to install. Having spent so much time developing the individual elements, I am usually surprised to see the actual execution of the original idea doesn't look anything like what I imagined, at which point I am left to reevaluate the project(forest), which is where I am now. It is not a part I enjoy, but I think it's important. It may be that I can't find a satisfactory solution, but the process of tearing the work apart and putting it back together should be instructive.

Having made all of these figures with the intention that they should interact with architecture, I needed to see it in action - I needed to create some examples of the narrative shifting with each new environment and installation.

I started at home, and it was a disaster. This is one of the lesson of the forest; color and light are crucial. These pieces die in overhead light, and the details disappear on a rich red. This picture is of the cut-outs I was using as a guide to install, but the overall effect wasn't much different.

My second attempt, installed. Better. The color is good. The lighting rakes it from the side, and brings up the shadow, and the space is compressed, so that the composition makes sense against the scale of the figures. This is a good example of my original concept, but by this point, I was thinking that other solutions might be possible.

The next two images are process pics I snapped along the way. The first is of all the work on it's way to installation at Pentimenti. The second was taken while working out the composition for the installation above.

This is one of those hard moments - where what's working has little to do with the original idea. By preferring these jumbled moments, I'm making a radical move away from the shifting, spatially dependent narratives I started from. Sadly, it can't be helped. This is what looks right. What it's about will have to follow.

So this is where I'm at. I've built a wall of pink foam in my studio (something I should have done a long time ago), painted it a good, low-contrast color, and I'm practicing. It may be that, in the end, these don't even end up on the wall, but in frames like this one, with lights attached. The narratives, so important in the beginning, would be totally scrambled, but I like that. As a realist, it's hard for me to push through the linear and the narrative, but in the end you have to go with what works, and I think this is getting there.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Problem With Productivity

This post will make more sense if you're familiar with this work.

The past 3 or 4 years have been busy ones. In 2006 we moved to New Jersey for a full time teaching position at Stockton College. With the new job, came curriculum to develop, classes to prep for and, most importantly, the constant hum of tenure anxiety. Faced with the studio art version of the publish-or-perish scenario, I became almost frantically productive. I made a lot of new work, and I took part in a lot of shows.

Since 2006 I made close to 80 new pieces, in with multiple casts of each, in dozens of different iterations and installations. I participated in 23 group shows, a two-person exhibition, and two solo shows (one at Pentimenti Gallery, in Philadelphia). During the same period, my wife and I bought a house and had our second child. I was in a car accident that resulted in brain surgery, and which cost me most of a year. I converted my garage into a studio, taught between 3 and six classes a semester, and applied for (and was granted) tenure. It has been busy.

What I am realizing now is that, in my rush to create, I didn’t leave myself much time to come to terms with what I actually made. In grad school, we called it the make-and-crit merry-go-round. I was in a frenzy of production, often seeing the work come together for the first time on the wall of whatever gallery I happened to be showing in at the time.

When things in the gallery didn’t look the way I had imagined they would in the studio, my solution was always to make different stuff, never to spend time working with what I had made. As I look at it now, I realize that these new bodies of work were much more complicated than I understood at the time, and required a lot more time to process and resolve than I was able to give them.

I was working in new genres, with new materials and processes, and creating installations that turned out to be heavily dependent on the color, light, shape and nature of the space. You’d think it would be obvious that this is not a problem that can be solved by working on individual parts, but it wasn’t obvious to me at the time. I was so focused on production, and on making new work, I didn’t think I could spare the time to assemble what I had and see how it behaved up on the wall.

As a result, the installation at Pentimenti was among the scariest two days of my professional life. I think it came out well, but at the time it was a waking version of the actor’s nightmare. I was literally drenched in flop sweat. All the confidence I had in the individual objects evaporated at the install. It wasn’t that they looked bad, so much as it was that I realized all my vague ideas about how they would look turned out to be exactly that; vague ideas. When it came time to link all the individual elements into a cohesive composition, I was totally unprepared. Again, I think it came out fine, and I was proud of how it came out, but I also left that installation with the feeling that it could have been better.

Then, this summer, as I got more and more wrapped up in this new large scale figure, I realized I was making the same mistake all over again –making new work, rather than figuring out how to maximize the work I’d already made. While this solution appeals to my production instinct, which is only happy when it’s making something new, it makes no economic sense. Because the truth is that the make-and-crit merry-go-round we talked about in grad school is really a conveyor belt. Old work doesn’t come around again. It goes into storage, or it goes in the trash.

But I spent too far long, and invested far too much in these projects to let them fall off the back of the conveyor. My plan for the summer had been to make the figure that was the initial focus of this blog figure, and his companion piece, but plans have changed. My new plan is to slow down and try to resolve the work that I have. It’s not as sexy, and it doesn’t feel as productive, but I think it’s the right move. Even if it turns out the work can’t be resolved (which I don’t believe will be the case), I will learn more spending a few months in what has past than I would charging headlong into the new.