You can tune in or watch online at http://video.mpt.tv/show/artworks/
In the meantime, here are some behind-the-scenes shots as we prepared for filming in the studio. Enjoy!
You can tune in or watch online at http://video.mpt.tv/show/artworks/
In the meantime, here are some behind-the-scenes shots as we prepared for filming in the studio. Enjoy!
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).
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.
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.
Patricia, my wife, read a review in the NY Times raving about this season’s Met Opera production of “Lulu” by Berg. She immediately got us tickets for the Met broadcast at a local cinema. Reading the synopsis I couldn’t get past the small type at the top of the page that announced that the opera went on for FOUR hours! As soon as the curtain was lifted, however, I was mesmerized to see a stage filled with heavy ink drawings and projections immediately recalling the intense and demanding style of German Expressionism, an anti-realism style characterized by extreme distortions “to show an inner emotional reality rather than what is on the surface”. Large cut out hands and cylinders with crudely drawn features like oversized paper bag masks appeared incongruous and out of place. Yet these seemingly silly props were thin veneers covering the angst and foreboding that filled the set. Paper cut outs of Lulu’s intimate parts taped onto her clothes made her seem even more raw and naked than if she was actually without clothes. The fracturing nature of cubism and the sophisticated decorative approach of art deco were overladen with the weight and complexity of German Expressionism.
There was so much happening on the stage- intense projections, bizarre music, and of course the actions of the actors and singers. As if that was not enough, a mannequin-like figure on the side of the stage seemingly played the piano. Conjuring the seedy, dark and edgy cabarets in 1930’s Germany, this character interpreted and mimed the actions on the stage, often amplifying the intensely psychological qualities.
The visuals got me. Immediately and fully. The music, the strange “twelve tone technique,” which I know nothing about except that musicians cringe when it is mentioned, was indeed strange but interfaced perfectly with the eerie stage set. To cap off the entire experience, Marlis Petersen has perfected her role to the point where she seems to inhabit Lulu’s complex and grim psyche. Through her voice we could viscerally experience her fights, loves, deceptions, and despairs.
I enjoyed opera before this experience, but now I am hooked. At least for really excellent opera, such as those produced by the Met. Lulu stayed with me on a conscious level, but she also penetrated my psyche. I know this because my work immediately changed.
I had another binge shoot in January, six weeks after seeing Lulu, with Carl. We started off playing with different ideas and new directions. The resulting work recalls the strange reinterpretation of gestures, emotions and figures reminiscent of German Expressionism.
Redefining the body using the shape of mirror shards is not new for me; I have been doing it for years…
but this time feels different, and not only due to the inclusion of color. Perhaps it is coming from the impact of the breaking and shattering I experienced occurring on the set, in the music, and throughout the story of Lulu.
In any case, I find myself once again inadvertently bearing the influence of one of my art heroes – Kathe Kollowitz.
I have always been a fan of Kathe Kollowitz, a German artist working in the first part of the 20th century. Her work speaks of the tragedy of war and of the human condition. She would often divide the planes of the face into extreme geometric forms, transforming the external expression into a reflection of innermost concerns.
I’m still exploring this new work, and have been really drawn to it’s emotional and geometric qualities. The shapes of the mirror shards flatten the body, but within their reflections there is dimension and form, which is defined even further by the color. The texture of the particular mirrors I’ve been using also lends itself to the German Expressionist style, with scrapes and scratches that echo the dark, dense, and inky quality of the movement’s mark making. Woking with one model instead of two seems to emphasis the deconstruction of the form, while the reconstruction is incomplete, marred, or extremely distorted.
I was so immersed and so captivated by the production of Lulu, so affected by the power of its expression, that it influenced my own work. 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. Lulu did just that, and has since elevated my exploration working with the same materials and subject for over 30 years.
Untitled #1-22-15-288 is another recent image from my last “binge shooting” session with Carl and Cory. The figure is deformed, with its legs appearing as stumps and an odd sensation that his body is caving in on itself. He is in transition, caught in a spontaneous moment of struggle as his body morphs into something else, perhaps a corpse?
Many of the images from this shoot are quite dark, but this is nothing new. Darkness has always shown up in my images, especially in working with the mirrors.
In 1991 I had the good fortunate to meet Stanley, a young schizophrenic man, and I asked him if he wanted to model for me. When I showed him my work and talked about what I wanted to do, he enthusiastically agreed to be part of the project. We had a weekly appointment to photograph. I would show Stanley the images we had made the week before, and we would talk about them: what they meant to me and what they meant to him. We talked openly about the psychological quality of the work, and about his condition. I realized that his personal experiences could push my work to a new level. The conversations we had offered me insight and understanding into both Stanley and the photographs. Stanley and I worked together for about a year, and the images we made grew deeper and darker as the trust and understanding between us grew.
Photographing Stanley alone, without another model, enabled me to concentrate on just him. I worked with integrating his position and gestures with the marks on the mirrors, as in Untitled #3757. I had always admired the way that painters could be expressive with the way they applied the paint and realized that the marks on the mirror could also be quite expressive, especially when combined in a visually striking way with the gesture of the model.
I cannot explain how these images came to be so psychologically challenging. Initially it was not easy to photograph Stanley: I did not want to pose or direct him too much, and he wasn’t sure what to do or how to move. As a way to diffuse the awkward tension that was building between us, I suggested we put on some music. Stanley loved the idea, and picked out what he wanted to listen to from my collection. He immediately began moving with the music, and I encouraged him to relate to the marks on the mirror as he did. He was creative and an artist, so his gestures were interesting to me. Often I would ask him to stop, move this way or that, purely responding to the visual elements, trying to further integrate his body with the lines and marks on the mirror. Stanley did not filter himself, he had a direct and genuine quality. Because of his disease, he wore no public mask, so he often exposed what most people hide, leaving him raw and vulnerable. In a fascinating sort of dance, I was reacting on a visually intuitive level to his equally intuitive movements.
The symbiotic dynamic between Stanley and me led to some dark and challenging images, further enforcing the power of an intuitive creative process. I felt these images came from someplace outside of myself. I have known darkness intimately throughout my life, and the emotions I felt from these images were not alien to me. At that particular time, however, they did not feel like they were mine. I was not having any crises when these images were made; on the contrary, I was happily in a relationship and pleased with how my career was going. There was no angst in my life at the time. Neither were the images a recording of Stanley’s psychosis; he was not having a breakdown when we were working together. We never tried to illustrate the expression of any particular emotion or psychological condition, and the images consistently surprised me.
The painter Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1912) expressed the experience this way: “The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel” – accessing an expression from a deeper place, or what Jung would call the collective unconscious. This is exactly what was happening when Stanley and I shot together. The darkness and intensity of the images we produced was unintentional, but expressed real and recognizable pain. Once again, letting go of trying to consciously control the meaning of the image, rather letting my eyes lead and using the camera as a tool to explore, opened me to the power of intuition.
The session this image (#3725) was made was like any other shoot with Stanley—spontaneously creating the experience and the images together. He danced with the music we had playing while I worked on incorporating his movements in a visually cohesive way with the marks on the mirror. Yet this image takes us over the edge of sanity, into a type of psychosis, a disorienting place full of unimaginable terrors where the protective masks and the egos are demolished. The word psychosis is literally a disorder of the soul. This image illustrates an agonizing condition, a spiritual crisis of prolonged darkness and profound loneliness Christians refer to as the “Dark Night of the Soul”. The figure could be the embodiment of evil, a contortion of the soul so twisted the essence becomes perverted into malevolence. It is shocking and disturbing because we all recognize this state, whether we want to look at it or not. Perhaps this makes it uncomfortable because it forces us to confront the potential evil in all of us. Untitled #3725 does not refer directly to the darkest moments of my life, or of Stanley’s, but of darkness itself, the darkness we all know.
This is the power, and also the danger, of the intuitive process. It does, if followed, eventually lead directly to some deep, core stuff, and that core stuff can be quite dark. I have often been tempted to turn my back and quit; the process has been hideously difficult at times, uncomfortably revealing at others. It has also been the most profoundly satisfying endeavor that has opened up the world to me and brought my life meaning and great joy.
Since being involved in the art world for over the past 30 years, many things have changed. Trends come and go, notions of what is considered “good” art vary, and what is popular in contemporary art fluctuates. While these things are constantly being redefined, I’ve continued to question and contemplate the function of art in our world. Here are some of my thoughts:
We can have an experience of tragedy without personal tragedy. The Greeks called this catharsis, which comes from the greek word for cleansing or purging. Greek tragedies were opportunities to vicariously experience deep feelings. For example, Sophocles’ Oedipus let’s us experience murder, incest, suicide and self-mutilation. We feel the horror, but ultimately we don’t have to suffer the consequences. We can experience genuine and deep feelings without actually living the event or circumstances that elicit these emotions. All Great Art is an invitation to experience – fear, joy, anxiety, confrontation, vulnerability, ecstasy and rapture. It is not a description or documentation of an event or feeling – it IS the event or feeling.
Art is a way of expanding and deepening awareness.
It is not a way to confirm what we already know, but to push beyond that. We want to try to understand what is beyond our reach. Art gives us the opportunity to access unconscious material by enlightening the rich areas of our mind that otherwise would not be available to us. Through a work of art, we can peek into our unconscious and make what we discover there part of our awareness, enriching our lives and our understanding of our world.
Art is a way of communicating that which is beyond the limitations of language.
Karen Armstrong states that “Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything” (The Case for God, Anchor; Reprint edition). She goes on to say that through music we can have experiences that do not translate to verbal communication. The same can be said of all forms of art- we listen to music for the feelings evoked, we read books and watch movies for the connections we make. Through art, we can transcend the inadequacies of language and communicate on a deeper, more meaningful level.
In all of these years considering the value and function of art, the common thread seems to be clear: it’s all about connection. Art connects us to each other, to ourselves, and to our humanity. It connects us to our past, present, and future. We are unique in our capacity for self awareness, our capability to grapple with the meaning of life and our mortality. Art provides us with a means to explore our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It enables us to share our discoveries with each other in profound and [deeply personal] ways. Through art, we are offered insights into who we are and why we’re here, and it enables us to fully experience our extraordinary and complex existence.
Shooting underwater provides a number of logistical challenges. In “the old days”, we were only able to photograph at night- with the dark sky as the backdrop- and only during the Spring and Summer months- when the weather was warm enough for models in an outdoor, black lined pool.
Since that time, I’ve worked with a couple of different methods to enable both day-shooting as well as shooting during the colder winter months. Photographing in the water anytime between October – February typically means the installation of a large, air tight inflatable “bubble” over the pool. The bubble is filled with air from a fan, and the pool is heated, making it a nicely enclosed and surprisingly warm environment for shooting. The first bubble I had installed was 3/4’s black and 1/4 white. The black section worked perfectly as a backdrop, keeping the background of the images dark, clean and clear from visual clutter. Completely unexpectedly, the white section ended up serving as a giant softbox for the sun- allowing in this beautiful, warm diffused light that would lead to my discovery of a significant difference in the color temperature of light above and below water.
The bubble worked extraordinarily well- for a time. For one thing, it’s not the most attractive set up when viewed from the outside and with the perspective of a home owner. For another, we would eventually have a big snowfall and the whole thing would collapse, rendering it not only more of an eyesore but completely useless until A) the snow would melt and B) we could bail out the water weighing it down- no small task, I assure you. When spring would roll around, the bubble would need to be uninstalled, which would make the backyard easier on the eyes but remove the potential for shooting during the day, not to mention at a time of year when the days are longer.
With a renewed desire to return to working underwater, we were faced with the usual dilemma- how to get the most of photographing in the pool during the day without the sky/trees/background being so…um…present? I also LOVED the diffused warm light that came through the white section of the bubble, but I still wanted the dark, simple, isolating black background as well. I basically wanted the best of the bubble, without the usual hassle and eyesore.
There is a farm that comes around every year and sets up a tent to sell their produce right by the side of the road not far from my house. One day, as I’m stocking up on peaches, squash, and other veggies, I realize I’m drawn to the subdued light under the farm’s tent, and BAM! That’s it! I’ll put a tent in the pool!!
Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that- I needed to figure out what the underside would look like, and how to accommodate for the uneven transition from deep to shallow ends of the pool. I also needed to figure out how to get that simple, black background, you know- to avoid that whole Tent-In-The-Pool look.
The CONtraption features a simple, easy-to-set-up folding tent with minimal skeletal structure on the underside. The legs are adjustable in height, meaning the uneven ground of the pool can be compensated for- or even used as an asset. It also includes 3 long, black, light absorbing cloths which are attachable through the use of the tents crossbars and a few strategically placed clips. The crossbars of the frame make excellent lightstands by simply clipping a strobe or external flash to them, and they can further be hidden when wrapped hockey-stick style with black duct tape, as seen below:
We can add or subtract the cloth, depending on how much visual space we need, and we can also choose which side of the tent it is attached too, convenient when the sun is on one side or the other and when we need more or less light! And the best part? It can be set up and broken down rather easily in the same day, making an underwater shooting studio out of a lovely black lined (though now quite faded) outdoor pool- and vice-versa- a reality. The CONtraption also takes into consideration model comfort- being close to the surface of the water, it provides a great deal of privacy from potentially nosey neighbors, unexpected house guests, Fed Ex delivery folks and yard workers.
All joking aside – the CONtraption wound up being the PERFECT solution for a recent series of very intense photo shoots which never would have happened without it. I’m looking forward to posting some recent images here on the blog that are a direct result of being able to shoot with the CONtraption, stay tuned….
I have recently been thinking about what a rich and powerful word “muse” is…
I’ve always felt that Spell, an image I made in 1986, depicts a figure being guided by an
unconscious force- perhaps intuition, and/or the muse.
As an artist, teacher, and funder of the arts, I’ve come to see the contemporary art world from several perspectives and it has given me a unique point of view into some of these areas that I see as problems within it. I’d love to have the opportunity to open up a dialogue about some of these issues and share further musings on the rich and complex world of art….
|Excellent llustration of color absorption under water from
I discovered, quite by accident, that I could exaggerate the disparity of how things appeared above and below the surface of the water. By lighting the portions of the body that are outside the water with warmer, natural light, while illuminating the submerged portions with a cooler, bluer underwater strobe, the passage from above to below became extraordinarily distinct. The boundary between above and below water became charged, creating fascinating transitions and bizarre transformations. [Since the strobe only illuminates what is under the water, there is also a significant exposure difference between what is above and below the surface. By considerably slowing the shutter speed, the body above the water becomes soft due to the motion blur, while the strobe freezes the body underwater into sharp focus. This differentiation can give the body outside the water an ethereal, flame-like feel that contrasts with the hardened, cold, stone-like feel of the body underneath, like in this image from 2009:
I find all of this- and the science behind it- just incredible and truly fascinating. I had no idea these dramatic effects of light and color were happening right before my eyes for so long, and the discovery of them reinvigorated the intrigue I’ve always had for working with this subject matter.