BmoreArt, the award-winning Baltimore online journal, has done a wonderful job documenting the art community and evolved to engage a broad local and global audience.
As Baltimore’s cultural scene has grown and gained momentum, they launched a podcast series in 2015 to dive further into the arts community. “Conversations” brings insightful and in depth audio interviews with local artists and creative leaders to their already extensive coverage. Every episode has a corresponding blog post on the Conversations page of the BmoreArt website, adding visual content that fleshes out each installment and offers an even deeper look into each interview.
To coincide with the retrospective exhibition at Y:ART Gallery, I was honored to be interviewed by Liz Donadio for Episode 15 of the series, which just launched today. Liz’s questions allowed us to explore all of my favorite topics on the creative process, including intuition, mythology, discovery, and deeper connections to one another through the power of art. We also discussed my work with the William G Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, the Baker Artist Awards, and the amazing arts community we have here in Baltimore.
Last Thursday, MPT ArtWorks aired Episode 507, highlighting their theme on “Photographers”. I could not be more thrilled with their segment on yours truly, which featured an in-studio visit and interview with my dear friend Rhea Feikin. I thought the images looked great, and Rhea’s thoughtful questions focused on core aspects of my work and process that I was eager to share.
Standing in front of the Rembrandt’s Night Watch in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum was beyond stunning. He was a true master of so many things – If I were a painter I would be mesmerized by the variety of his brushstrokes. Often he will use what can only be imaged as a tiny, miniscule brush to get the splendid detail so characteristic of his paintings, while at other times he seems to use a pallet knife in a sweeping gesture ala the 20th century British painter, Francis Bacon.
Nothing, however, captivates a photographer like light. And Rembrandt’s light is nothing short of brilliant. A basic photography class, or any photography class, should be required to study this painting to understand how light defines form and creates a sense of dimension, as well as defining space and depth in an environment. In addition, Rembrandt uses light to draw our attention to different parts of the canvas as well to tell us the level of importance of the figures. The most important figures are lit the brightest to show us their glowing significance. As the intensity of the light fades, we realize, so do the status of the figures. As they become darker and darker the figures become less prominent in the painting until they are barely distinguishable from the shadows. The light itself tells a story, as it highlights “moments”, a discussion between two aristocrats, a little girl watching them with a distressed look and the men in background loading rifles, beating drums. It is the light that creates this electric atmosphere full of intrigue and mystery.
After a while, perhaps twenty minutes or so, I turned from the painting, the only Rembrandt in the room, and was struck by the dullness of every other painting. As if they were all painted in mud. And flat – no depth at all. Just as suddenly I felt a gripping need to breathe fresh air. I had to get outside. I craved a Coke. It was as if I had a sudden heaviness in my head that felt a little like having a cold and fever. Once Patricia and I were sitting outside, I was gulping a Coke, sucking sugar and caffeine as fast as possible while she poured cold water just as quickly down her throat, and we talked about the experience. She had felt it too. Immediately overwhelmed and immediately exhausted.
We had become afflicted by the Stendhal Syndrome – also known as the art disease, the Florence Syndrome or the “hyperkulturemia.” The cause is exposure to a concentration of overwhelming beauty – such as is found in a museum. It is a documented disease with a wide range of symptoms including anxiety, confusion, and disorientation. The effects don’t last long and don’t require medical attention. They are clearly real, however, and can’t be ignored.
This syndrome was named after Stendhal, the pen name for the 19th century French author, Henri-Marie Beyle during a visit to Florence. In his book titled Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817) he described his experience:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Being overwhelmed by emotion is more commonly recognized in other areas, such as sports. I admit, I was an Olympic addict this summer, watching as often as possible. Indulging in women’s wrestling, dressage, mountain biking, archery, field hockey, fencing as well as the traditional swimming, diving, track and gymnastics. Many times, as an athlete won an event he or she was so overwhelmed (with joy? excitement? relief? the undefinable?), they would break down sobbing. Is it that the emotions at that moment are too intense or poignant to actually experience?
When my nephew and his fiancé asked if Patricia and I would officiate their wedding I burst into tears. I had no choice. It was immediate. I was thrilled beyond what I could feel at the moment. What all these situations have in common is the ineffable quality of being emotionally overwhelmed.
During my time with the Night Watch I was held captive, engaged with the mastery of Rembrandt’s technique on one level, but clearly, on another level, I was experiencing the profound and acute power of true beauty. The Stendhal Syndrome does not come on slowly, giving hints as to what is about to happen. It comes on immediately and takes control.
I now understand what Thomas Mann meant when he said “Beauty can pierce one like a pain.” (published by Buddenbrooks, 1900, by Thomas Mann).
Last month, I had the opportunity to teach a workshop in Norway with NORDphotography entitled “The Nude As Form”, and I loved every minute of it. Upon arriving, my dear friend Jill Enfield was on her way out after teaching a workshop the week before mine. We arranged to meet up for coffee at the airport for a quick visit between intersecting flights, and it set the tone for a wonderful trip.
I found the Norwegian people to be warm and welcoming, and was immediately comfortable from the start. I also found it to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The light was simply spectacular, especially in Inderøy, which is where the workshop took place. Norway is one of several regions that plays witness to a natural phenomenon called the midnight sun, in which the sun is still visible at midnight. Besides making it daylight at an absurd hour, it contributes to magnificent natural light throughout the day. Although we missed the midnight sun on our first night due to rain, my students and I eventually managed to stay awake, – albeit hopped up on wine – to catch it another night and it was truly a bizarre but stunning sight.
Here’s some of us after our successful attempt at catching the midnight sun- taken at midnight in broad daylight:
The workshop took place at SAGA in Inderøy, which is built over a fjord – a deep valley or inlet created by glacial erosion. The founder of NORDphotography, Elisabeth Aanes, converted an old sawmill into a workshop center, complete with a photography studio, fine art gallery, and accommodations. When it is not acting as a workshop center, SAGA is a hotel. This enabled all of us to stay in the same place, eating family-style breakfast and lunch at a large table. Elisabeth proved to be the perfect host- despite being upset with my aversion to eating fish, she managed to cook exquisite meals and meet everyone’s dietary needs. Every evening, the students and I would walk into town to eat at the local pub, sitting on a deck that overlooked the fjord.
My students were wonderful and a delight to work with. As with my other workshops in photographing the nude, our goal was to learn to use the camera as a tool to discover new ways of looking at and interpreting the human form. I encourage an intuitive visual approach in photographing the body, and each of my students embraced this notion. While everyone worked extremely hard, they managed to take a playful attitude towards their visual growth and development, photographing as a means to explore and enlighten.
The images they produced were breathtaking and pushed their work to entirely new levels, and I could not be happier with how far each of them progressed in our short time together. NORDphotography put together an excellent slideshow of all the students work, and I’m happy to share it here:
Thanks again to NORDphotography and to Elisabeth Aanes’ hospitality! I look forward to returning to beautiful Norway next year!
On Sunday, May 22, Juniper Workshops featured a webinar with Ben Long and myself using WebEx conferencing technology to create a virtual classroom for hosting an in depth photo critique session. Although I’ve previously tutored students one-on-one using FaceTime, Skype, and Dropbox, this was the first time I’ve met with a group over the internet to offer feedback, and I found it to be extremely effective.
There were 8 participants total, consisting of 5 students, Ben and myself, and Joanna, a moderator from Juniper Workshops. We began the webinar using a Keynote to introduce and discuss the nature and purpose of critiques. Starting off by declaring that they are first and foremost nothing to be afraid of, I found a wonderfully effective font to use to be sure to get this point across…
All joking aside, we explained how the critique is NOT a place for value judgements, but rather a method for acquiring feedback to build visual awareness, discover potential directions, and enhance understanding of your images. This kind of feedback is crucial to your development as an artist, but can often be difficult to find- while words of encouragement from friends and family may be intended to support you, they rarely provide concrete information about your images and your work. The value of an in depth critique can show you not only how to resolve an image, but area’s to improve and where to go next in your creative process.
Seeing another artist being critiqued can also be a valuable and insightful experience in and of itself. On Sunday, students could observe everyone else’s critique, although Ben and I engaged everyone individually. One of the things I appreciate most about working with Ben is that while we agree on a lot of things, we often have different attitudes and approaches in resolving an image, which provides students with different levels of understanding and options for moving forward. Each student presented 2 images, and we spent about 5-10 mins thoroughly discussing each image. Through the WebEx platform, we were able to be very precise in pointing things out to show what we were talking about, and I found it to be a wonderful way to communicate.
I was so pleased with how the online critique turned out. Everyone seemed to find it very productive and to come out of the experience with greater enthusiasm and comprehension of their work. We have already begun planning for the next webinar session, and will keep everyone posted on details as they develop!
In a recent blog post, I introduced some of my latest images, which include working with some brand new broken mirror shards. Over the years, the process of generating new and interesting shapes of these mirror fragments has evolved. My first attempt involved bending an 8′ plexiglass mirror back on itself until it exploded, dangerously blasting reflective projectiles across the studio in a thunderous CRACK. Since then, however, I’ve developed a much more elegant technique that is not only safer, but produces gorgeous fragments.
Without further ado, the refined process of creating interesting mirror shards:
Large plexiglass mirror
One large, nicely shaped, preferably round rock
Someone to direct the model/truck driver
One extremely handsome assistant to record the event on his iPhone
A hat and gloves- if it happens to be 20 degrees in the middle of winter.
The Juniper Workshops promote an interdisciplinary approach, encouraging students “to go beyond simply capturing pretty images. Our students learn to go deeper into their subjects to produce a body of work that expresses more than just surface imagery. As we push students to go beyond the expected image they learn not only the craft of photography, but how to see deeper into their subjects.”
Situated in the heart of Tuscany, the Florence workshops are comprised of four complementary workshops. The structure is a little bit different than what I’m used to, specifically that I’ll be teaching alongside three other instructors, including Paul Taggart, Regina Saisi, and my dear friend Ben Long. Although we will each have our own specific workshop, class time will be spent with all four of us. There will also be presentations, exercises and critiques that will involve the entire student body, providing the opportunity to mingle with students from the other classes. Ben and I have taught together in the past, including at the Oklahoma Arts Institute Workshops, as well as through the award winning online instructional video library, lynda.com. I think working alongside one another and teaching in this format will be an exciting and effective way to push students to the next level in their work, and I’m really looking forward to it!
That may sound crazy, but consider this: Our vision is often limited by our expectation of what we think we should see instead of what is actually in front of us. Our brains guide our vision and while that guidance allows us to move quickly through a complex visual world, the brain’s interference can be a real hindrance to the process of photography. The fact that we see what we expect to see can inevitably leave us feeling like we’re making the same image over and over. The fix for that is to learn to see the world differently.
In this workshop we will learn that what you photograph is not as important as how you photograph it. Through exercises, assignments, and discussions, you will learn to use your camera as a tool to discover new ways of looking at and experiencing the world around you. Instead of thinking about what makes the best shot and being in control, we will learn to develop an intuitive visual approach in our work, trusting in our eyes to guide us through shooting. Working in a supportive environment, we will emphasize process is over product, while encouraging playfulness, and exploring the idea of mistakes as pathways to discovery. This class is suitable for all levels, though a working knowledge of your digital camera is important.
From the Juniper website: “Juniper Workshops offers unique photography workshops with an emphasis on adventure around the world. Like any workshop, we will help students find the best photos, but we believe that good photo instruction requires something more. Because the best photographs tell stories, we push our students to go beyond simply capturing pretty images. Our students learn to go deeper into their subjects to produce a body of work that expresses more than just surface imagery. As we push students to go beyond the expected image they learn not only the craft of photography, but how to see deeper into their subjects.”
My new images are different, or at least they are to me. Okay, so now I have been photographing in mirrors for a few decades. In the beginning there were lots of new discoveries and fewer and fewer as time goes on. This makes sense because I see much of my job now as a more nuanced one of refining and pushing. Recently, in the beginning of 2016, I have seen a shift in my work and by my standards – a rather major one. Yes I am using the same mirrors I have always used and using them to reform the human body and to use shapes of broken shards to exaggerate gestures and forms. Nothing new there.
What is totally new, however, is my appreciation of the edges – sharp and angular or round and curved.
Now I am not just breaking the shards but gouging them, digging into them with screwdrivers, utility knives and using paint to selectively bring bits of color into the marks. The result gives them a visceral quality – distressed and marred. Because the focus is on the shape of the shards, the edges and textures, they flatten the space. This flattened space results in the body appearing as if broken into flat planes.
These broken planes are disconnected from each other so the figure appears to be put together from disparate pieces. Their loose, often imprecise construction makes me think of marionettes, or dolls. The figures appear less individuated because the emphasis now is not on particular individual features, but more on shapes. The images are still dark and disturbing, as most of my images are but more removed from the form of the human body.
The way the shape of the mirrors relate to each other is similar to Hannah Höck‘s photomontages. An artist from the German Expressionist era, Höck would collage together different elements, torn or cut out magazines, photographs and drawings. The shape of these elements created a similar flat sense of space that my mirror planes do. Figures in her work are often redefined through the edges of the paper and images she uses. The effect is often twisted, almost comical in it’s bizarreness, but disturbing to the point of being haunting, and this new mirror work seems to echo that strange emotional quality.
photomontage by Hannah Höch
I’ve also found the figures in the latest mirror images to appear in odd, uncomfortable and perhaps unnatural gestures. Although there may be nothing particularly twisted about the bodies themselves, the way the mirror shards reshape and redefine the body’s extremities make these gestures seem rigid and stiff, and jarring, reminding me of the way the figure is depicted in the work of Egon Schiele, or Oskar Kokoschka. Their drawings and paintings of the human form are immediately recognizable for their simple yet exaggerated linear quality. The figures are often twisted, sometimes to the point of being grotesque, and frequently have elongated, disproportionate limbs and/or features. Since the latest mirror work focuses on the shape of the mirrors, the arms, legs, torso and even heads of the figures are forcibly redefined into these rigid shapes, echoing the taut oddness of Schiele or Kokoschka’s figures.
Much of the figure in my latest mirror images becomes similarly flat and simplified, often breaking the body into flat planes. This effect gives them the same gaunt, stark, and desolate appearance as seen in both Schiele and Kokoschka’s work.
Since I have taken more liberty with defacing the mirror surfaces, the “hatching” effect has become louder, and is visually similar to Käthe Kollowitz‘s mark making. Through the expression of her mark making there is an element of tragedy in her work, one of desperation and despair. The figures in this latest mirror work exhibit a similar quality of despair, reflecting more of an internal, psychological state rather than representing actual, physical beings.
To be influenced is to engage so deeply with a piece, with a work of art, that it becomes part of you, infecting your point of view, challenging values or just becoming a catalyst for opening yourself to greater experiences. Francis Bacon, the 20th-century British painter, one of my most personally treasured artists, was heavily influenced and inspired by the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and had a reproduction of his “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” hanging in his studio when he made his “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X”. Not only was he influenced by the elements in the composition, such as the throne, the robes, and the posture of the Pope but also by the Pope’s facial expression and gestures. The darkness implied in Velázquez’s Pope has been transformed into articulated agony in Bacon’s version. There is no subtle anguish but, instead, loud and clearly expressed emotional torture. Through his engagement and encounter with Velázquez’s painting, Bacon created a portrait of Pope Innocent X that is undeniably his own. His powerful ability to communicate emotion through his application of paint, his choice of colors, and his way of making marks on the canvas leaves no doubt that this painting was made by Francis Bacon. While clearly influenced by Velázquez, the result is, without question, original.
I find that many young artists are concerned with being “original,” as if this is the defining test for being a “real” artist, without really understanding what “original” actually means. Original works are not innovations or subjects that have not been used before. It is not that simple. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe addressed the complexity of originality when he said, “The most original authors of today are original not because they create something new but because they are capable of saying such things as if they had never been said before.”
The first time I saw any quantity of Bacon’s work was in 1989 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. I was immediately struck by the passion of his expressions. Even the paint itself was screaming with intensity. The raw, honest texture of these emotions startled me, confronted me, and ultimately pushed me. He put into his paintings feelings I thought I was surely the only one to experience. Through his work, I found connection to the deepest parts of myself, beyond the scope of mere words. By the time I had finished viewing the exhibition, Bacon’s work had become a part of me, incorporated into my psyche. Jeanette Winterson expressed this perfectly when she stated, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.” (Art Objects:Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage, 1996) Bacon inspired and dared me to push myself in my own work, as far as I could go, and then to keep going.
I didn’t see the depth of this influence until five years later when I made “Untitled #5978,” an image clearly informed by Bacon’s work. The resemblance to a number of his paintings depicting a scream was unintentional, the result of a long, intuitive exploration, yet it was such an exciting moment for me when I saw this effect. In “Untitled #5078,” the reﬂection of the lower jaw is prominent on the surface of the water and makes the mouth look like it is double-hinged. The head above the water does not show because it is night and there is no light on it. The scream is coming from so deep in the figure’s gut that her jaw appears to be blown wide apart. The body is twisted in just the perfect way to maximize the force of the scream. The scream is not in anger at something but rather the expression of psychic agony, a release. Bacon’s scream in “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (c. 1944) articulates similar primal raw intensity. In both Bacon’s painting and my photograph, the scream represents pure expression and emotion; there does not appear to be any cognitive activity within. These forms are a mass of muscle, gut, neck, and, of course, an ear and a mouth with a full set of teeth. Without a frontal cortex, both figures lack the ability to think, allowing their reactions to be unrestrained by the power of reason.
Did Bacon’s paintings inform my work? Did his images give form to (or animate) my own feelings? Yes, there is no doubt. After I had experienced his images, my awareness of my self was heightened, and I was enlightened to powerful yet previously undefined feelings and thoughts. Bacon’s paintings dared me to be honest with myself in a raw and real way. This is one of the greatest functions of art – to express complex emotion that cannot be conveyed in a linear or verbal way. Bacon’s work affected me deeply, and it would eventually have a profound impact on my work as well. I discovered “Untitled #5978” through my own exploration, and I was able to see it because of the way Bacon’s work had become a part of my psyche. It was not an attempt to copy but rather was an encounter – the result of an intuitive process – as all of my images are. My debt to Bacon is undeniable as is my admiration. The compelling passion of his paintings pushed me in my own process to be daring and to reach as deep within myself as possible, as he did.
So, if being “original” is not to be the ﬁrst to do something, yet if being heavily influenced by other artworks does not preclude originality, then what does it mean to be original?
The word “original” is deﬁned as “Of or pertaining to the origin, beginning, or earliest stage of something; source of something; from which something arises The wonderful paradox of originality is that it is at once something unique and individual (“the earliest stage”) while at the same time it is connected with the source. How can something derive from a “source” and simultaneously be unique? The fascinating paradox of originality makes sense in the context of Carl Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious. If we think of the “source” as the collective unconscious, then the word “original” refers to an encounter with the deepest parts of our humanity – the pool of collective symbols, archetypes, knowledge, and wisdom that is accessible to all humanity. The most profound connections we can make with ourselves and with others is through this “source” in which we encounter the very core of our own humanity and which is shared with every other human being.