After the Election

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In midsummer, in the south… or west… or southwest, the unmitigated heat of the day is bookended by measured episodes of color, temperature and airflow, that… somehow, make the midday seem worth it.

I see the twilight peak of sublime color through the studio window… or the soft caress of the nighttime breeze, as we, both drunken and clear with the salt-riddled evening air, waves lapping around our thighs, ditch our clothes and wade into a pitch-black South Beach night… a twilight sojourn through a deep-blue soaked grove of cliff, fern, stone, moss and impossibly massive sage giants on the shores of a glacial lake in Strathcona… the brisk, clear winter air, and the dry crunch of autumn leaves on an overcast day. All these moments mark both a reverence and transient sublime awe that mitigates joy with reverence, and sheer awe with a melancholic awareness that these fleeting moments pass, and that bleak moments are bookended by moments of sheer transcendence.

The moon, as we, and our two dogs, breathed in deeply tonight, illuminated the landscape sharply in dark swathes of indigo, and seemed to project a silent, yet reassuring comfort. We stared up, a brilliant white orb that yielded its infinite pits and crevices as our eyes adjusted to its intensity. We stared up at the night sky before, the night, bone-dead silent after September 11, 2001, and saw a similar, brilliant yet distant orb. It was still there. The silence of the complete and utter absence of air traffic absolutely indescribable in its alien manifestation, like the velvet muffling of sound in a winter’s snowbound night.

Ted Kincaid, Nocturnal Landscape 810, 2015 Digitally Manufactured Photograph printed on Hahnemühle Rice Paper 100 gsm Chine-collé mounted to Stonehenge Natural 320 gsm 22×18″ Edition of 3

Observing Turner in observation

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I am constantly staring at Turner… which painting depends upon the second in which each word in this sentence was penned, for Turner observed, and I am observing Turner in observation. He studied and painted, as many artists before him, his environs… the Thames and its horizons in twilight, dawn and dusk, and the many refractions of light which would feed his imagination as he walked the shores each evening. Turner looked at what was around him, and projected that locality as a universe, which enabled him to transform the shores of the Thames into any point upon the globe that he wished. He was an essential and eloquent Romantic, in that his paintings championed the feelings of the artist for that fortunate observer… emotion and sublime respect for nature. His wisdom lay in the tradition of aesthetic transcendence… of the ability to substitute this effluent waterway… it’s reflections of the sun and silhouettes of the shoreline into any shoreline he desired. His methodical, obsessive eye fed this hard drive of his mind with the lapping of water as sunlight, disappearing in the evening, or emerging in the dawn bounced off of the waves and into his ocular soul.

Whatever Turner painted… the canals of Venice, the open sea, a classic mythological shoreline… Turner was, in fact and without any doubt, painting the Thames. It is impossible to think otherwise. His gift, this obsessive, dutiful ocular obsession, was his ability to translate the personal into the local… and the local into the regional … and the regional into the global. His encyclopedic observational inhalation of the Thames current, of light and shadow, of the sunlight bouncing off of tip and foam, and the dark, swelling abyss of shadow, fed his aesthetic soul with a visual arsenal.

Turner Painted the Thames, and Van Gogh the fields outside his window, and Toulouse-Lautrec the whores and dancers of the Montmarc. Observation and imagination informed the artist, and in turn, that obsessive personalization of that observation ironically made that vision universal.

So here I find myself, upon the shore of the Trinity as the sun rises, observing as a heron breaks the shell of the surface of the river as she rises, and the sun tosses those ripples back at me, like fireworks. Ahead of me, across the shore, the sky separates itself slowly from the ridge of foliage, in ascending shades of grey to blue to taupe and then orange. Behind me, a thick, almost impregnatable swath of branches, leaf and vine rises as if to shield me, and I, in my provincial mind, feel a privileged guest to this most sublime spectacle… and so did Turner, and Van Gogh… and Lautrec, as they recorded each moment in their mind, and through their hand.

Despite this separation of continent and century, what drives a person to creation is an attempt to an almost overriding obsession to put into order this bizarre yet opulent influx of imagery, and to somehow hammer it into order. Titian himself expressed this most concisely when he painted The Flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas stands in for the artist, who challenges the god Apollo to a singing duel. They agree that winner shall do with the loser as he pleases… and Apollo, upon his victory, decides to flay the satyr Marsyas alive. Marsyas, the artist, attempts to surpass the skills of Apollo, the god. What we find out, over and over again, is that when you challenge a god, you inevitably lose, and in the process, expose yourself completely. Marsyas is exposed as the artist as his skin is methodically removed by Apollo, and Titian as he attempts to put to canvas these ripples and glares and dapples, and Van Gogh these real and/or imagined lines, and Lautrec the glint of nightlight upon the sweat of these dancers.

So how am I, with the hum of morning traffic from the interstate less than a mile away, and the wretched odor of a rendering plant upstream, able to muster a challenge to the gods to somehow universalize this heron’s ascendance, and this mathematical dispersion of waves, this smell of earth and wood and weed? How am I that different from Turner, wandering the shores of the Thames at the height of the industrial revolution, with the bellowing of untreated refuse from the factories into the Thames, and the belching of coal ash into the sky, transforming the orange and blue of the dawn into an apocalyptic fire, any different? His vision was a transcendent yearning for an idealistic yet sublime Eden, and mine the same.

ART FAIR CULT(URE)

It is Wednesday morning, overcast and broodily hinting at a mid-April shower. Around me, in my classroom, 30 juniors and seniors are thoroughly engaged in heated debates about the nature and trajectory of their work. It’s times like these that I feel successful as an educator. I am both nurturer and coach, and I have trained these young artists to be inquisitive, to question everything and everyone, especially themselves, and now, the class runs itself, and I am able to step back and observe, chiming in only occasionally to emphasize or elaborate on a point. The work produced, the discussions held, the issues and ideas expressed are of a profoundly original and mature nature, and I am reminded of an oft-used quote from Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” A number of these kids are headed to the top art programs in the nation, and it is my earnest wish that this rebellious and independent spirit remains intact, and I sometimes fearful that it won’t.

ART FAIR CULT(URE)

A decade ago, I attended the myriad of fairs that make up art fair week in Miami… the behemoth that is Art Basel Miami, and the dozens of other satellite fairs scattered around the city. Three of my dealers were showing at various fairs, and it was the seemingly perfect, and in retrospect, incredibly naïve opportunity to get a reading on the state of contemporary art. All the “zombie” movements were in their malevolent infancy, and “collectors” were corralled from fair to fair, booth to booth, by a battery of consultants. Collections were being “assembled” based on a market-driven checklist, remotely, and devoid of any aesthetic investment by the collectors. New collections were sprouting up all over the United States, Europe and Asia that had a cookie-cutter quality, like a Best Buy, Ikea or Chico’s. You can walk into any of these chains in any part of the country and pretty much be guaranteed to find the exact same items, and now, collections were mirroring this bland materialistic sameness.

“OUR Matthew Barney has potatoes… What does YOUR Matthew Barney have?!”

My epiphany, standing behind a consultant as she stared as if in full paranoid meltdown at her fellow consultants and whispering like an ISIS operative into her phone, was that this whole scene was absolute and unequivocal bullshit, that it had nothing at all to do with how I approached or made art, and was in fact, a malicious virus to the soul of any artist who took it at all seriously. What I didn’t realize was that other artists I knew, and a few who I genuinely respected, were furtively lining up and drinking a giant cup of the Kool-Aid. They returned from that week, with a Children-of-the-Corn glow to their eyes, armed with a list of who sold what at what pre-pre-preview, paint chips from Lowes of all the hot colors, and a desire to have their work mirror what they saw, and hopefully be swept along with all this glitter and Studio-54-never-closed glory into the collection of a Russian oligarch or Kanye West. To put it country simple, it was nuts.

That week was a watershed moment in my career as an artist. I graduated in 1991 with a Master of Fine Arts and zero idea about how to either live, produce or succeed as a working visual artist. I was professionally anemic. The next fifteen years I spent learning, developing, and working my ass off to make up that profound higher-educational deficiency. At the end of that first decade and a half, I had managed to build my career and reputation up to a position farther than I had ever thought possible back in my graduate studio in Lexington. Each step towards that goal involved trusting my instinct and experience more and more, and looking less and less at what other artists around me were producing. Ironically, the more seemingly personal, inward-gazing and idiosyncratic my work became, the more it resonated with an art-viewing and art-buying public.

Last week I was invited to speak with the students of a graduate photography program about my experience and advice for them. After an engaging conversation and a question-and-answer session, I found myself pulling out something I had written a number of years ago titled “Words of Advice to the Young Artist.” In the list, number 10 stated, “Stay away from art fairs, kid. It’s like walking in on your parents having sex. You know it happens, but it’s ugly and you don’t need to see it.” In a community of lemmings, I reinforced the absolute importance of being an innovator, not a follower in the art world, of knowing when to look forward, and more importantly, when to look back, to history, for inspiration, reason and enlightenment.

I tell the same things to my senior high students… daily, and I have watched them develop autonomous and original thought. I have nurtured in them an innovative aesthetic soul and a respect for what can still be gleaned from the wisdom of artists who came before them. I feel like a good parent, that I have raised self-sufficient artists, and yet, I have the same fear of a parent as I watch my seniors leave for college; how long will they retain this self-sufficiency? How long before they are tempted by this vapid, shiny neo-Mannerist art fair cult(ure)?