Sunday, January 28, 2007

After School Projects

As I approached receiving my BFA there were some decisions that had to be made. There was the question of whether or not to go on for a MFA degree. To get into the MFA program at the SF Art Institute, for me, would’ve been a simple and seamless process. The University of California Berkeley was also very eager to accept Art Institute graduates into their MFA program. It was all very enticing then reality sets in. Did I really want to continue going to school for another 2 years and most importantly, where would the money come from?

Originally, when I took a hiatus from school and worked to save money, I had saved enough to pay for my education. During my last 2 semesters there was a rather steep tuition increase and I found my savings to be inadequate. I was forced to take out a student loan. By today’s standards a $1,000.00 loan is nothing but back in 1970 it was real money. I just couldn’t see getting further into debt especially in a field where I knew I would most likely not be able to earn a living. I was also anxious to set up my own studio and throw myself into the wonderful and magical world of art.

My studio was in a small warehouse in a seedy section of San Francisco called “South of the Slot” or “The Mission District”. A true wonderland that included the bus depot, tattoo parlors, cheap bars, winos, but most importantly spaces with cheap rent. The space was primarily one big room with 15’ high walls. It had 2 toilets but no bath so with the help of a friend I converted one toilet into a shower. There was no heat (the previous tenant caused an explosion so the heater was missing). San Francisco does get cold in the winters but when you’re young you can tolerate little things like no heat. I don’t think that I had my paint freeze more than twice then thaw out and start to run.

Living in a decaying industrial section of a major city can at romantic. It conjures up images of the poor suffering artist. After awhile the bloom of romance fades and what is left is the stark reality of day-to-day living. It begins to seep in through my pores and a subtle change begins to take over my psyche. This part of the city was dark, dirty, and brooding and it slowly began to affect my thinking. Slowly my painting began a transition towards a much more gritty style that reflected my environment. This is not all bad. I was beginning to see beauty in strange places. The color and shapes of manhole covers and sewer grates. The color of oil slicks in puddles after the rain. The multiple layers of posters and handbills pasted up on old walls and sections torn away to reveal the original surface. The sound of church bells, amidst all the traffic sounds, announcing the Angelus, the mid-day prayer of the Catholic Church. This was an ever-changing kinetic sculpture on a grand scale.

The downside was that this was a very depressing area. My OCD makes me prone to depression so living in this area only compounded things for me. Still, there was the romance of the starving artist living a tormented life for the sake of his art. One of my artistic role models at the time was the American painter, Jackson Pollack. A wonderfully creative person but a deeply troubled soul. Perhaps he wasn’t the best of role models for me. But when I was young I figured that I could survive anything so I just forged ahead. At this time I was literally thinking outside of the box. My paintings not only used industrial materials but I abandoned the traditional square and rectangular surfaces and began experimenting with different shapes. The colors were darker and more brooding (just like me) and the sizes and shapes would not fit neatly into most homes. I would apply the paint randomly and then study the chaos and then try to bring a sense of order out of it. An engineer friend of mine, decades later told me it was the law of entropy in reverse. I always did have a notion that the artist was an observer. One who watched the chaos of life swirl about. On occasion the artist reaches out and grabs bits and pieces of the chaos and eventually reassembles these pieces into a whole and calls it art.

These paintings are all from the early 1970’s in San Francisco. They are all done on painter’s drop cloths using a variety of industrial paints, lacquers, and metal powders. The irregular circle and the triangle are both about 72” high. The winged painting is about 72” high with a 96” wingspan. The diamond shaped thing with the tentacles is made from canvas webbing that I got at a sail making shop. I stained it and painted it a little as one whole length, cut it into pieces and wove it together and painted it some more. I am guessing it was about 18” wide.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

From The Beginning

As far back as I can remember I have always had an interest in art. As a child I was always drawing and coloring. I could go into my own world and be happy and safe. It was a protective cocoon. Childhood was not an especially happy time for me. My mother was verbally, emotionally, and psychologically abusive to me. She really didn’t know any better since this was the way that she was brought up. Add to this the fact that in the 1950’s I went to Catholic parochial school through fourth grade and you have the perfect mix for a psychotic or an artist.

All through school art was my best subject probably because it was my identity. Up until high school it was all the normal stuff that you would get in most any school. In high school I could finally take real art classes. This meant all the basics like form and composition, design, learning how to render, and even a smattering of color theory. Later, when I first started college, it seemed like more of the same. I spent a year at a community college. This was a pretty good experience. The most important thing that I learned was that I didn’t want to go to a traditional 4-year state college. I wanted to go to an art school. In order to achieve this, I quit school for a year and worked 2 jobs (one full time and one part time) in order to get the money to go back to school.

I went to the San Francisco Art Institute since the major emphasis of the school was fine arts not that commercial stuff that could actually earn you a living. This was back in the late 1960’s and there was an incredible energy in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Art Institute had a reputation for being very avant-garde and experimental.

Like any other beginning student I started off somewhat conservative, trying to show that I did have certain basic skills. I started off doing paintings that were somewhat surrealistic but quickly let my environment change me as I experienced this new art scene. I was also pretty eager to show my instructors that I was not just the average, run of the mill, student. In the 60’s and 70’s the art scene in NY was dominated by large abstract color field paintings. As a young student I wanted to emulate the modern day masters. I wanted to be an urban painter on the cutting edge of the art scene so I started to experiment. I was going to make art for the sake of art.

San Francisco in the late 60’s was a pretty vibrant place. It was the new center of rock music and the counter culture was growing by the day. On the weekends free concerts were the norm in Golden Gate Park. Experimental theater and Alan Ginsberg doing poetry readings at the City Lights bookstore. There was student unrest at SF State and Cal Berkeley. The time was ripe for change. The art scene in SF had gained national notoriety with the New Figure movement headed by Richard Dibenkorne, Elmer Bischof, and David Parks. The ceramic artist and sculptor, Peter Volkous, gave new direction to an old craft. Sound was being used to create sculptures that could not be seen but heard and felt. Art and technology were partnering up.

California has always been on the cutting edge of technology and this carried over to the arts. The instructor that taught me how to use airbrushes and spray guns learned his craft doing custom paint jobs on cars and motorcycles as a low-rider in the 50’s. He also taught me about automotive lacquers and synthetic paints. Another instructor was using epoxy paint on surfaces built up dimensionally with strips of aluminum and fiberglass. It was very easy to be influenced by all of this.

Eventually a core idea took root in my mind and working abstractly seemed to be the logical direction to head. This early direction is still the basis for my artist statement. I wanted to create large fields of color, of what appeared to be a single color but was made up of many different colors and shades. I wanted to create paintings that seemed simple on the surface but really had a complicated understructure. Even back then color was the most important element for me. To help the color become more intense, more vibrant I would use industrial materials and techniques. In some cases I would use a dark, almost black ground and then spatter bright intense colors over it, the dark intensifying the bright. Other times I would lay down a base coat of gold or silver metallic paint and use transparent glazes of lacquers over it in a spattered effect so that the ground and the top coats would both show. These paintings were created in a very physical way like the abstract action painters of the late 50’s. The act of painting was almost like a dance, as I would move around the painting lying on the studio floor.

These paintings are all from 1971 and part of my final student portfolio. They all measure 96” X 96” and are done on plywood. The paint is a mixture of acrylics, lacquers, synthetics and metal powders. I apologize for the quality of the images. The slides are old and have not been well cared for and my slide scanner doesn’t work so I had to improvise. Hopefully, they still show the general idea.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Alternative Materials

I was recently visiting the blog of the abstract painter, Philip Edson. He mentioned mixing pigment that is used for coloring concrete into his paint. I had left a response that over the years I have used many different non-traditional materials. He had asked if I had any examples. Regretfully, the many moves over the years have relegated my old slides (that date back 30+ years) either to an obscure unopened box somewhere or they just got tossed because I got tired of hanging on to them. I did find an old exhibit brochure, from 1973 that is from a group show that I was part of in San Francisco. The images are in black and white but they may serve to illustrate my thoughts.

My use of alternative materials came from different sources. First, in San Francisco back in the early 1970’s, there was an aire of excitement and experimentation. Artists all over the SF Bay Area were playing with new and experimental materials. Unlike so many east coast artists, Californians were not afraid of technology. During my school years I had also been exposed to instructors who were very experimental and knew and understood different industrial materials. There is also the fact that art materials are expensive and like so many other young and struggling artists I was trying to keep expenses down.

While in art school I would buy enamel oil paints used for house painting and mix them with my oils and paint on large sheets of heavy Kraft paper that I bought on rolls. When I started to use airbrushes and spray guns I switched over to acrylics. I did a number of large amorphous color field paintings this way. I was influenced by the artist, Jules Olitski. Later, I had seen some paintings by the LA artist, John McCracken and was very intrigued with the high gloss lacquered surfaces of his panels. It was then that I started to experiment with automotive lacquers, fiberglass, polyester resins, and metal flake and powdered pigments. I seldom went to an art supply store rather I would go to custom car paint shop and surfboard shops for my materials.

I would stain or paint my surface a somewhat random gradation. I would then begin to layer fiberglass and resins to build up thick glaze like effects. In between layers I would spray the dry powdered metal pigments into the wet resin. I would build up some six or so layers. The light would reflect off the metal powders in the various layers and cause a wonderful color modulation. Later I would pour, drip, and dribble the materials onto my surfaces. I gave this up because of a combination of toxic fumes and getting resin in my hair one time too many. I was also starting to work larger and needed to find less expensive materials.

The paintings that I was doing at the time were about 8’ X 10’. My primary painting tools at the time were all from commercial paint stores. I was using 9” rollers, 3” house brushes, and gallon paint cans. It was then that I discovered that I could make my own acrylics, of sorts by using industrial materials. The basic material for making acrylic emulsion (used in the paint, mediums, and varnishes) was a product called AC-22 made by a SF Bay Area company called Rohm and Haas. At the time I worked for a large national paint company, Dutch Boy Paint, and had access to ordering the material. It had to be ordered in 50 gallon drums, which was fine since I was going through about 10-15 gallons of paint a month. The AC-22 was intermixable with latex house paint, which I just happened to have access to, acrylics such as Liquitex, and with the tinting pigments used in the commercial paint industry (which are also intermixable with oils, lacquers, synthetics, and even stains). So I started to experiment and make my own paint.

Besides just mixing up the paint I would dump in sand, silica, even baking soda and beer to see what it might do to the paint and the different textures that it might create. I would take my metal powders and throw them into the wet surface to see what the affects might be and how it might alter the look of the material. I would apply the paint by rolling it on, splattering it and even pouring it. At times it would get up to an inch thick. I started to use painter’s drop cloths because they were so much cheaper than canvas. When the paint dried I would even carve back into it to expose the different layers and add linear elements. I would cut the paintings apart and reassemble them in different shapes them using grommets.

I used to spread plastic sheeting on the studio floor under my canvas. If I didn’t do this it would be next to impossible to peel the paintings up from the floor. The overflow paint would spill over the edges and dry. It could be pulled up from the plastic in solid, eccentric pieces. I used to adhere these pieces and parts to paper and illustration board and then embellish them or use them for small studies. I had a friend who peeled up a nice chunk and made it into a necktie to wear to a gallery opening. I learned a lot from these different materials and techniques. I don’t use them much anymore but they are still in the back of my mind. One day, when the time is right, I’m sure that I will slowly pull them out and start using them again.

The top image is a photo of my SF studio back in 1973. You may notice a lack of traditional studio equipment and an ample supple of industrial materials. The next image is one of my paintings from the period. It is done on a length of corrugated cardboard using my homemade paints with various materials (beer, baking soda, sand) mixed into it. The colors are vary soft and muted (pinks, creams, yellows) and percolates its way up the surface. It measures 87” x 36” and is untitled. The next image is a mixed media piece by an artist friend, Ursula Schneider. She used metal, wire, plastic and acrylic paint. It measures 44” x 19” and is titled “BATMAN”. The final piece is by another SF artist, Vincent Lynch. The colors are very earthy and organic. Vincent used yogurt and ketchup along with his paint, let mold grow and then sealed the surface later adding dyes, paints, metal powders, red oxides, fiberglass, pebbles, and rocks. The piece has an 84” diameter and is titled “STONEHENGE 3”.

Friday, January 05, 2007


An artist, I once knew many years ago, was working on a series of paintings based on the idea of intensity. Her premise was that all intensity equals no intensity. At the time the idea seemed strange to me until I saw her paintings and understood what she meant. If everything is intense, if there is no contrast, if there is nothing to compare it to then intensity is a relative term. It is like the idea of “local color” which if it exists in a vacuum it applies otherwise it is relative to everything around it.

Okay, so why am I thinking about intensity? Well, the last 6 months of my life have been more intense than I would have liked them to be. At times I felt like I was wound up tighter than a cheap watch. I think that this has been reflected in my paintings, which seemed to portray all intensity all the time. This is just tiring. It is like when I cook spaghetti sauce, if I let the pot boil, soon everything will cook away. When I keep it at a simmer I can gently nurse it all day long letting the flavors gently weave together and not evaporate away. Yet, at any moment I can simply turn up the heat and bring it back to a boil if needed.

Well, it is a New Year and so time for new thoughts, ideas, goals, and directions. It is time for me to loosen my grip on those things that I cannot control. It sounds simple enough but with my OCD it becomes a major task. So, I have started to refocus on my meditation practices. Going back to meditation is like visiting an old friend that I haven’t seen in awhile. I enjoy the company and can’t figure out why I stayed away. It brings a calmness and relaxation that is a welcomed counter balance to the intensity. All intensity all the time is fun for a while but it is a sure recipe for burning out my life.

Our winter here has been very mild and most pleasant. This has enabled me to get the dogs out for a daily walk in a nearby nature preserve. The walks alone help to clear and calm my mind but I have a bad habit of getting caught up in some obscure thought that ends up taking on a life of its own. So, I have started using yoga breathing techniques to go with my walking. Focusing on my breath is like a mantra that empties my mind of irrelevant thoughts, concerns, and worries. I am able to let go of my death grip on all things intense and start to enjoy the more subtle things all around me. It is like a vacation, a well-needed vacation for my brain. Once again I am enjoying the wonderfully rich earth colors and the textures of the bare branches and vines as they twist and weave in the most intricate patterns. There is an incredible visual richness. It reminds me of some of the things that I wanted to achieve in my paintings before I got seduced by my own wandering thoughts. So it is time for me to refocus.

I am starting to play with some different materials and techniques to see where they will lead me. I am also going to dial back the intensity of my colors and explore some muted tones. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed them. It is time to try for a more balanced approach (considering how unbalanced I am this should be interesting).

Both of these pieces are done on prepared paper. The first one, NUDE IN A YELLOW CHAIR, measures 36” X 24” and is done with oil and oil pastel. The second one is an attempt to play with some new techniques. It measures about 10” x 14” and is done with oil washes and colored pencil. It is an attempt to somewhat dial back my colors. It is based on my recent walks.