Clouds for Comment is in part a reflection on Alfred Stieglitz’s series Equivalents, in which he claimed his photographs of clouds embodied a specific emotional state, and that a sensitive viewer will concretely understand his specific emotions when viewing the photographs. I am suspicious of that premise and believe that the viewer largely creates what they see in photographs, and this is mostly a reflection of who they are and what they have seen before.
In the series Clouds for Comment I post my photographs of skies in social media such as flickr.com. People make written comments on the photos, and I superimpose a selection of their words on my prints. The text on my prints gets smaller as the prints get bigger. Since I want to make sure that the text is legible, I have to use relatively large text on the online photos. A 30 by 40 inch print of the same image will have only 8 or 10 point text, and often a few more comments than the online version. Mostly I prefer that the text is quieter, that it is something that is discovered when the viewer gets close to the print.
The comments on my cloud photographs range widely. Many offer their personal reactions –- like or dislike -- some give technical advice, others explain what could be done to make the photo stronger. Many are disturbed at seeing just a sky and want some ground. Repeatedly I’m told to center on some point of interest in the photo instead of taking the wide view. Often it’s noted that I ignore rules of composition such as dividing the image into thirds. Many comments are amusing, incisive, kind and thoughtful. Some viewers have photographic or artistic expertise; most are amateurs or enthusiasts.
One viewer of Clouds for Comment noted that according to the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, I give authority to the words of others by placing them on my photographs. I disagree. Instead, more in line with the philosophy of Martin Buber, I recognize the existence of the speaker and engage in a relationship. In contrast to Alfred Stieglitz, I start a conversation with my photographs and anyone may join the dialogue.
Skies and clouds are rich in metaphor and references. They are an archetype of the mysteries and magnificence of the divine. The Jews were led out of Egypt to the Promised Land by a cloud pillar, and through much of ancient Judaism the cloud was used as a symbol for Yahweh. Both Jesus and Muhammad rose to heaven in a cloud, and the Greek and Roman gods reside in the sky. Clouds represent creation, wisdom, power, protection and fertility. In Chinese poetry and in Taoist writings “clouds and rain” refer to sexual practices, sometimes in connection with the spiritual. Other symbolic meaning of clouds found in such areas as tarot, armor, vernacular language and dream interpretation include epiphany, revelation, confusion, potential, impermanence, contemplation, creativity, higher truth and divine communication.
Clouds for Comment responds to the state of photography today, where everyone has a camera, everything is photographed, and the lines between the artistic and the personal, the hobbyist and the professional, the author and the audience are blurred. It’s easy to get good results with new digital cameras; sophisticated software and firmware anticipate and correct what were previously common technical pitfalls. Anyone can post or publish their work. It’s both wonderful and horrible.
Saturated color photographs of sunsets and seascapes look treacly and mawkish like greeting cards and uplifting spiritual publicity. In a world flooded with these kinds of images, no one picture of the sublime is memorable or meaningful. Instead, they act as interchangeable markers for a range of meanings and associations. Yet with all my suspicion of the sublime, I still want beauty, even if it is a mediated self –conscious beauty.
Spectacular, majestic clouds and prominent skies are seen throughout the history of visual art, from Turner and Tiepolo to the Hudson River School painters. More recent references include Richard Misrach and James Turrell. The viewer participation in Clouds for Comment has origins in improvisational theater and the Fluxus movement. The use of text with image inClouds for Comment is informed by the work of a wide range of artists from Hannah Höch to Rudolf Stingel and Ed Ruscha. The photographs in this series sit on the fence between the territory of traditional photography and that of conceptual art.
I make conceptual artworks in the visual language of modern and contemporary artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Richard Misrach, and Damien Hirst. Using auction sales results from the late 1980’s through 2009 obtained from artprice.com, I graph art market data directly into my canvases. The data is legibly presented in line with Edward Tufte’s theories on the graphical display of information. This project is neither parody nor appropriation. Instead, the art and career of the artist in question is the subject matter of my artwork.
There is not one particular way that I approach the work and data of each artist. In Agnes Martin Painting 1989-2004 the data is displayed in a grid, with each square that is not black representing the sale of a painting. Time moves from left to right, while prices rise vertically. While this work clearly references Martin in it’s scale, simplicity of means and the use of the grid, it does not look like any specific painting she made. Richard Misrach Photography 1989 – 2004 at first glance closely resembles some of the prints from Misrach’s Sky Series, yet a closer look shows many elements that are not part of his work such as the numbers surrounding my image and my use of a stretched canvas in place of his laminated photographic paper mounted to a substrate. Takashi Murakami Painting and Sculpture 1998 – 2005 could not be confused with one of Murakami’s works. I have borrowed his color and use of the circle, and the writing in the work is a direct quote from an interview with Murakami in a Japanese art magazine. It translates: “Obsessively I do art marketing in order to survive.”
It’s harder now than it was two years ago to determine the direction of the art market as so many recent sales are in camera. Clearly, though, with the closure of many galleries and the contraction of the economy, less art is selling for less money. From 2006 through 2008 the art market spiked. The sales graphs got harder to put into a composition. On Kawara’s paintings were selling for roughly $200,000 to $300,000 until May 2007 when there were sales for 1.3 and 1.6 million. His market has now come back down. Anne Truitt’s work sold for less than $1000 until 2007, when her 1975 painting Arundel XIV sold for $45,000. I added a panel to my Anne Truitt piece reflecting this dramatic change.
Influences on this project include all the artists in the series, the ideas and practices of conceptual art, the stock market from the 1970’s through the present, and the use of statistics in decision-making. The market itself is of mixed interest to me as an artist. Yet to ignore the visual ideas that have value in my time is perilous. I don’t choose my artists by their sales graphs, but instead I mostly respond to their work, and enjoy immersing myself in their ideas.
Few artists integrate financial or statistical models into their artistic process, or make work that relates to business and markets. Some of the precedents are Jeff Koons, Hans Haacke, Louise Lawler, Andrea Fraser, who arranged a paid sexual encounter with a collector through her gallery, and Danica Phelps, who documented her sales and expenses in her drawings. Loren Madsen uses data from sources such as the US Census Bureau and the Department of Labor Statistics in making sculpture; Komar and Melamid’s series Painting by Numbers was based on statistics compiled from their interviews with people on their preferences in art.
I am one of a number of artists in the San Francisco Bay Area with an awareness of art history using the computer as a vehicle for artistic production. While the computer is simply a tool like a camera or a chisel, its use shapes the character of my artwork and my artistic process. I employ sales databases and graphing tools, and am able to make endless revisions as well as multiples of my works. I push an image forward to completion through as many as ten to twelve iterations, which are much like studies or drawings that move toward a final painting. While this series could be made with a brush and paint, it would not be, or rather, it would have a very different character if it were.
The Measure of Art
by Alan Scarritt
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher most admired by artists from Jasper Johns to Bruce Nauman to Joseph Kosuth, famously said, “the meaning is the use.”
Now, as we survey the wreckage of the early 21st century’s materialistic collapse , where the most prevalent topic of public discourse is the fluctuating value of material goods, the only certain and ironically changing meaning and use of a work of art is it’s monetary value. Schools of thought have come and gone, from Levi-Strauss to Jacques Lacan, from French deconstruction and semiotics to postmodern theories. Barthes, Derrida, Foucault and their buddies have finished their Gauloises and expressos and gone to the beach.
In the debris of their battles what is left standing is the stalwart auction house. Season after season, the paddles flutter, the gavels bang, the funds are transferred, the canvases crated, the headlines written in the Wall Street Journal. Artists’ prices are compared and contrasted; living to dead, European to American, young to old, and early to late by the very same artist. The boys on the street move their assets from pork bellies to stuffed sharks, from junk bonds to Johns, from de Kooning to Koons, all the while never even looking at the fucking things.
Diane Rosenblum has looked straight down the barrel at this scene and has presented us with
“The Measure of Art,” a series of digital prints which map the “performance” of artworks by major contemporary artists at auction as compiled by artprice.com.
The prices works glean are graphed on top of an image of a work by the artist in question. Or so it seems. It appears that Rosenblum’s strategy is that of appropriation, as anticipated by Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince in the 1980’s, where for example, Levine simply photographed a photograph by Dorothea Lang and called it her own, thereby questioning authorship and ownership in the process. But Rosenblum doesn’t simply rephotograph or download a work by another artist. Her method is “pastiche,” painstakingly recreating an image in the style and methodology of the artist in question.
In “Robert Bechtle Painting 1992 – 2007,” Rosenblum traveled to the same neighborhood in San Francisco that Bechtle photographed in preparation for his painting and shot the same banal scene at the same time of day. Similarly, she didn’t simply copy a photograph by Joseph Kosuth of an empty room with x’s on top of it, she took her camera and tripod to the Kala Institute in Berkeley and photographed the empty gallery and then mapped Kosuth’s auction history on top of that with black x’s of her own. The presentation of the graphic data of the artists is also presented in varying styles; while the grid pattern of an Agnes Martin allows for a straightforward substitution of white squares for black ones to represent sales prices, the placement of coursing and diving birds in a landscape a la John James Audubon represent his prices over time. Other artist’s works provide for further inventive graphic methods; Ed Ruscha’s Standard Oil pumps are mimed with bar graphs which also suggest a current ad campaign by a telecommunications company we all know and see daily, while Bridget Riley’s op art rings each represent a year of sales and so on and so forth from artists from Damien Hirst to the Starn Twins.
While some viewers may find comfort in finally knowing why a colored square is placed in a particular location in an Ellsworth Kelly composition for instance, Rosenblum has actually challenged us to consider what reason the artist may have had in mind when he made the work in the first place. What a radical idea! Work actually made for some reason other than money! Shit. What was he thinking? Rosenblum is challenging us to consider our perceptions and reception of works of art, the “use” to which we put them. In perhaps the most subversive and seductive work of all, she skewers the auction house itself, as a beautiful painting by Cy Twombly is appropriated, not by Rosenblum, but by the auction house. Christie’s used a reproduction of the painting as the inside cover for its auction catalog. Here we see the work already distanced from us, transformed into the inside of a book cover, the spine easily visible, the auction house’s name emblazoned in bold letters. The work has been appropriated and drained of all aesthetic and emotional value. Rosenblum simply places Twombly’s auction record on top of this image, spine and all, revealing the true function of the book, the institution. The prices are right up front, in our faces, further obscuring the “art.” There is no romance left in the work itself. It has been defeated. Mammon wins again. Rosenblum has hit the target directly and the silence is terrifying. We can only wait and look forward to her next foray for hope and redemption.
New York, 2009
Making these photograms is a practice, like yoga, modern dance or Japanese calligraphy. They come out of years of darkroom work, in which the manipulation of light and chemistry became second nature. In place of film exposed in a camera, I use anything and everything to create an image on the photographic paper. Tools of my trade include string, rubber bands, hair, plastic bits, tin foil, color gelatin filters, toys, ink, etc. I block, shape and color the light hitting my paper to form an image mapped in my mind. While a lot of experimentation is involved, after almost ten years of working in this mode, I have gained some control over the process. On a good day in the darkroom, I get into a a zone or a groove, as musicians and athletes aim to do, and that energy can be felt in the images.
While largely abstract, the visual language and content of the photograms varies widely. Whatever I have been reading, looking at or thinking about comes into them. Chinese ink brush painting, Russian constructivism, the graphical design of information, landscape references, diagrams, wallpaper, game boards, adolescent wanderings and Tantric philosophy have all made an appearance in the photograms. While the references are diverse, there remains a unified coherent sensibility to this body of work.
Many of the photograms occupy an edge between abstraction and an unusual sort of representation or realism. Abstraction in art is breaking down, taking on new meanings, becoming something else. After 100 years in Western art (never mind the grammar of design stretching from Egypt through Greece, India and the Islamic world) abstraction is no longer radical or perhaps even inherently meaningful in and of itself. It is one of many tools, part of the repertoire available to the contemporary artist. Arranging spheres, cones and cylinders into some pleasant composition has no compelling meaning any more.
I think about abstraction critically, sociologically, theoretically, as it is used to create meaning outside of fine art. Logos, flags, game boards, military insignia, diagrams, architectural floor plans, and other arrangements of abstract form and color are used to define identity, to communicate and to consolidate power. The use of flags originated in warfare: after battle the victors carried poles topped with cloth dipped in the blood of their enemy. Over time, flags were used to differentiate groups, factions, nations, etc. Logos and branding are central tools of capitalism, used to trigger consumer recognition and loyalty.
My photograms are small doses of power. They are bits of energy, literally made from light. They look like paintings but are truly photographic, light-drawings. Some of their resonance derives from the use of light as a metaphor for knowledge and creation. Otherwise, their energy comes from the practice of the creative process and their connection to a language of power.
The small photograms are complete as individual images, but are often exhibited grouped in a grid ranging from 2 to 48 photograms. I also make larger works in a similar vein, up to 12 feet in length. Some of the longer pieces are shown as scrolls. They are attached to a wall about seven or eight feet from the floor, and then roll inwards when they meet the floor.
A related series of larger works involves writing with light. In these works, I write illegibly with colored light on photographic paper. There is an autobiography in 100 pieces (in progress), some writing on art theory and history, a few confessions and some poetry.
The history of the photogram goes back to William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of the photographic process in Victorian England. Non-camera photography has been a small but active thread throughout the history of fine art and photography, from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray to Picasso, Méret Oppenheim, Sigmar Polke and Robert Rauschenberg. I am continuing in this artistic tradition with my own brand of existential-conceptual-neo-process-meta-abstract-representational art of power and energy.