The Painting Whisperer vs. The Anxiety of Abstraction

May 25, 2008

Take for a moment the spectrum of Realism and the raucous jazz of Abstraction in painting and slide somewhere in the middle. Over to the left is realism flexing its technical prowess, and it is impressive— posing in the sun like a young Arnold Schwarzennegger. But once the painter leaves it, when reality is tweaked or cracked open and abstraction seeps in, the mind wanders inside the crevasses and when done right, it sets the viewer free, free to interpret or imagine something greater than even what the painter had in store. The longer I paint, the more I leave realism and revere painters who ride that certain edge in between. Arnold looks so silly in that bathing suit anyway.

I have long cultivated the thought of artist as Painting Whisperer; that the better artist possesses some secret frequency to channel the right moves. When one can tune in better, the paintings will just fly out like songs or messages from a distant galaxy. Or like a novelist whose characters develop minds of their owns and “write the rest of the story” themselves. This is also a common fantasy among the critics and viewers not in the trenches. Perhaps Irving Stone helped start it in The Agony and the Ecstasy when he depicted the young Michelangelo coaxing the figures out of the marble slabs, setting them free. But it’s not so simple. How many film students studying Godard revel in some bizarre effect, only to find later that something spilled on the camera lens? It was an accident, dammit! But a great one, like discovering penicillin from the mold on cheese.


Annie Lapin, “Cast Halving”, 2008, Oil on panel, 96 x 69 inches, Courtsey of Angles Gallery.

Annie Lapin is one such artist whose work lies somewhere in that amazing middle. Her recent paintings deftly disorient and bend the pitch of reality just enough to make you fall inside them. When I look at Annie’s work, I had projected that she must talk to her canvas, how else must these scenes come into being? I’m fascinated by what gets planned and tossed and when. But in talking with her, I learn, she is no painting whisperer— she is not the passive recipient of some canvas telling her what to do. No! She is Charlie Sheen starring in her own version of The Apocalypse, where every possibility is fraught with consequences, and each stroke, like Chaos’ butterfly wing, causes rainstorms elsewhere on the canvas. So the real conversation, then— the whispering— occurs less between artist and canvas and more between the viewer and the final work, which is exactly what great art should do. Her show, “Gruppology” opens tonight at the Angles Gallery in Santa Monica, CA.

KB: How do you start a painting, Annie? I see remnants of photographic imagery and reality but am not convinced that you’re looking at anything when you make it.

AL: On all of my larger works, I work from my head. It is a process of reacting to the image… layering, and allowing it to develop is if it were a photo in emulsion. I also do a lot of watercolor exercises, which tend to be diptychs on little pieces of paper. For these I often paint from photos of current events or other things that seem prevalent in the media. By doing this I get to recharge both my mind and my hand with the tropes of realism, quotations of photographic lighting and reformulations of the images that we all think we know so well. Then those things come out naturally when I compose my larger works on canvas, and I am more able to subvert them because I am not looking directly at a photograph.


Annie Lapin, “Couple of Narcissists”, 2008, Oil on synthetic canvas, 51 x 30 inches, Courtesy of Angles Gallery.

When you’re working on the bigger canvases, do ever get the feeling that the paintings talk to you while you’re making them and tell you want they want done to them? Like a novelists who invents characters that start having minds of their own? When does that happen? All during or never?

AL: I wish my paintings would talk to me, but sadly, radio silence. It’s a process of trial and error as I search for that unique solution which will allow it to resonate in the way I am after.

KB: No kidding. I have full-blown arguments, wrestling matches and make-out sessions. I’ve been aspiring to be a “Painting Whisperer” trying to listen to the next move as much as I want my mind to control it.

AL: I wish it were that way, but it is definitely not a “painting whisperer” process. I have way way way too much anxiety to be a “painting whisperer.” I always feel the painting could go a million ways, I choose one, and typically, after the initial high, I feel miserable about it. And even after it’s “done” I could see a million ways to destroy it or subvert it, which I often feel compelled to do if the image is too resolved. Once the painting is “done” I am always sure there was another way I could have taken a painting… but I comfort myself by looking at it and just superimposing those ways on the canvas in my mind.

Rather, let’s just say I am an “illusion junkie,” rearranging and recombining shapes and forms like a heroin addict searching for veins that haven’t been used in order to give myself the best fix I can manage of a satisfactory imagery. And that satisfactory image tends to arise from notions I have about the way the mind works and tries to settle questions about what it’s seeing. I relate more to neurological and cognitive experimentation than I do to a personal dialog with the work. The goal of my experimentation is not something I can readily put into words beyond saying that I strive to encounter the process of cognition through playing with the construction of meaning. That is where I get my high.


Annie Lapin, “The Players”, 2007, Casein and egg tempera on panel, 56 x 43 7/8 inches, Courtesy of Angles Gallery.

KB: That’s clearly some very good stuff. What is the source of inspiration for your show, “Gruppology”, opening tonight?

AL: I often think about an emotional experience I had when I was sixteen in response to the novel The Moon and Sixpence, by Somerset Maugham. It documents the life of a painter in his journey away from his entrenchment in bourgeois society to arrive finally and metaphorically on a remote island, completing his rift with “civilization.” There he ultimately contracts leprosy and spends the final two years of his life in a single room, alone except for occasional visits from his wife. He goes blind, but over those two years he fills the room from ceiling to floor with paintings. Reading Maugham’s description of that room basically launched me into a visceral and intellectual panic attack that lasted for about a month! Suddenly I found myself grappling with a sudden mistrust in my perception of the world. I saw this painter who created, lived in, and finally died in this painted room, as any human being, living in the world of sensation. I’m not sure how this happened but suddenly I felt like the world I lived in was also just a painted room! At 16 I’d never even heard of deconstruction or phenomenology, which allow us to intellectualize such concepts, so this was a highly emotional – and very strange – experience for me. I think the current work speaks to some of that same anxiety I had back then — that the vision of the world we think to be so stable is as thin, frail, and constructed as a painting and visa versa. On the flip side, there is an optimism if not a euphoria about painting: that it can reflect the whole world and more.

KB: Does the euphoria come from reflecting the world or discovering or being able to depict things you never imagined? I say this because your paintings have a surreal/imaginary quality to them.

AL: I am less interested in the depiction of “things,” real or imagined, than I am in the way certain images play with our minds at various points in history and culture. In my most optimistic moments, I sometimes believe that painting has the capacity to provoke a confrontation with the process of cognition, on both an individual and a societal level. The imaginary or surreal quality of my work probably is a natural bi-product of my experiments toward that elusive end.


Annie Lapin, “Land Gods”, 2007, Mixed media on panel, 14 x 11 inches, Courtsey of Angles Gallery.

KB: What was your inspiration behind “Land Gods”?

AL: I have a reverence for the constructs of visual illusionism, because I feel that they are constituents of a much larger mechanism, which connects each of us to what we perceive in the world. When I made Land Gods, I was thinking very specifically of the work as an icon to perception and cognition. It gains power and an air of the sacred through its layers of illusion. It is small, about 14” x 11”. And yet it contains a deep landscape. Additionally there are overlapping images in this painting. The deep space of the landscape also stacks vertically on top of itself to create another image, composed of large faces, that is on a plane that basically parallels the surface of the painting. This component of the painting, the face painted without depth, alludes to Byzantine iconographic space, which was reserved for holy imagery. I call the work Land Gods, because I think that this painting also reflects the multiple ways that people look at the land, as something alternately animated, sublime, or simply as real estate. All these ideas about the landscape haunt our minds any time we conceive of or look at the terrain around us. They are like ghosts… or gods.

KB: Is there a work of art that inspires you?


AL: Here is an image of a painting I had on my bedroom wall as a child. I spent years staring at this image as I lay in bed, never imagining that there was an artist behind it, or that it was meant to depict something specific. I didn’t think of it as a work of art with an intention. Instead, it was a constantly changing thing as I projected various interpretations onto it. I think most of the time I imagined the two large forms at the end of the road were two hulking monsters, lumbering along together, sometimes with good intent, sometimes bad. Other times I focused on the abstract forms and the symmetry of the image. Though it generated many stories in my head, this thing had no clear meaning to me. I suppose it scared me sometimes, but mostly it was just fascinating. I often feel as if I am trying to recreate my experience with that little landscape painting as I encounter forms on the canvass, and sometimes in the world around me.

Before receiving her MFA from UCLA in 2007, Annie received her BA from Yale University and a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She will have a solo exhibition at Grand Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, in June, 2008. Her work has been exhibited in group shows at Angles Gallery, Roberts and Tilton, Daniel Weinberg Gallery, and the L.A. Weekly Annual Biennial. Gruppology is Lapin’s first solo exhibition at the Angles Gallery, running from 17 May – 21 June 2008. Angles Gallery: 2230 Main Street, Santa Monica CA 90405

Artist Annie Lapin

Photography Undergoes A Sex Change: The Art Of Tom Chambers

May 17, 2008

Over the last ten years, the art of photography has undergone a sex change. The rather masculine act of capturing or “shooting” a moment (“the hunt”) with a sound subject and composition has evolved into one where the real art comes in the editing, not the capturing. The initial “kill” gets skinned, dressed and prepared for a meal by the wonderful witchy post production tool known as Photoshop. The photographer, like a woman putting on make up at her vanity before going out for the evening, edits reality: the best features and colors are enhanced and sharpened, and a new, hyper-realistic art form, with a nod to surrealism of last century, is born.

Of course, there’s no question that a digitally manipulated photograph cannot compare to the majesty of a single moment captured 4 x 5 or 8 x 10 film. In truth, manipulating images with lenses or the dark room has occurred since photography was invented. But the difference is that working in Photoshop overtakes the camera as the instrument of creation. Some art schools and galleries still hold a fundamentalist/purist view that such imagery is not authentic and therefore not art. But the reality is that labs are harder to find, Leica is out of business, and Photoshop’s sorcery are shaping a new aesthetic which is finally being taken seriously as an art form and is injecting itself into the mainstream culture. Limited editions by some artists such as Loretta Lux (below) fetch up to $100K per print and her style was happily ripped off by none other than Van Cleef and Arpels for their recent ad campaign.


Left: Loretta Lux “The Red Ball” ; Right: Van Cleef and Arpels, Advertisement

The rise of this aesthetic trend is wonderfully chronicled in last week’s New York Times article on Flickr, where the writer documents the exploding popularity of photostreams by artists who manipulate their photographs rather than the ones who upload shots taken “as is.” In fact, when one prankster uploaded a picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a bicyclist riding past a circular stairway as his own, unwitting commentators pilloried the “photographer” saying “When everything is blurred you cannot convey the motion of the bicyclist…. “Why is the staircase so ‘soft’? Camera shake?” and “Grey, blurry, small, add crop.”

As a painter, the first time I experimented with Photoshop, I thought I had entered a secret world where anything was possible at an unimaginable speed of realization. Articulating what I could see in my mind instantaneously and in any variation made me feel as if I was handed magical superpowers like becoming invisible or the ability to stop time. More than just an enhancer of images, like making eyes bluer or elongating a supermodel’s neck, Photoshop is an outstanding collage tool. Making collages is most painters’ first art school exercise— to cut images from a random stack of magazines and then assemble it into as a maquette for a painting. For this reason I find the name “Photoshop” woefully inapt, like it should be called “Painter’s Heaven” or “Wonderland’s Magical Cabinet of Potion’s Where Anything Can Happen,” but that’s perhaps too long.

But like any art and especially in this new “transgendered” form of photography, there is a fine line between over-manipulation, and a tilted authenticity. But when it’s done right, it opens the narrative field and transports the viewer into another reality where double takes are welcome. One such photographer is Tom Chambers. In his “Prom Dress” series of younger women donning tulle in strange and disjointed natural settings, he practices his craft in Photoshop to a haunting hyper-realistic extreme that warrants close attention.


Tom Chambers, “With the Pack,” 2006, Photomontage, 3 sizes, Image courtesy of Wall Space Gallery, Seattle.

Kimberly Brooks: Tell us about your most recent body of work and how you use photomontaging and photography to express it.

Tom Chambers: Most of my work is very influenced by Mexican religious art. Years ago I traveled through Patzcuaro, Mexico and came across a basket full of ex votos (or retablos) painted on tin.


“Ex Voto” Sample

Ex votos are Mexican folk art paintings often created on tin, copper or wood. They illustrate an occasion when in response to a prayer for help or guidance, the prayer was answered or a miracle occurred. These hand-painted miracle paintings honor the power and mercy of the saints. The subjects of ex votos range from common daily occurrences to truly dramatic events. All ex votos contain a picture of the miracle, an image of the saint to whom the ex voto is dedicated, and a brief description of the miracle. I had been working on photomontage photography at that time, but upon seeing the ex voto paintings, I thought, “Why not push my work in a similar direction, create photographs with magical or religious overtones.” Later, I discovered that this type of artwork is a genre commonly known as magic realism.


Tom Chambers, Prom Gown #3, 2005, Photomontage, 3 sizes, Image courtesy of Wall Space Gallery, Seattle.

KB: Can you show us an example of where you’ve used several different images to create one? I would like the viewers to see the source material and how it was turned into its final incarnation.

TC: Okay, below is an image derived from three different sources. I have been intrigued by Native American Indian burials, particularly ones using burial platforms in the desert. So I decided to create an image involving a burial platform which would have religious overtones. Because I wanted the viewer to feel the power of nature over humankind, I created a sacrificial image, as if the subject was presenting herself to the heavens. Using a prairie backdrop taken in Yellowstone National Park, I positioned a girl in a gown whom I had earlier photographed propped up on two stools. Then, adding photos of poles made it appear as though she was propped up off the ground. This final photomontage was fairly simple to create, but resulted in a powerful image which was selected as the 2007 Santa Fe PhotoArts poster.


Pieces of the Process: Chambers combines his photographs of water and salmon to create the finished “Plymouth Rock” below.


Tom Chambers, Final Image: “Plymouth Rock”, 2004, Photomontage, 2 sizes, Image courtesy of Wall Space Gallery, Seattle.

KB: How do you start the process? Does it always start with the photograph or do you draw first?

TC: I initially sketch out a concept or idea I have for an image. Then, I photograph each piece of the image using a medium format film camera, generally a Mamiya Pro TL or a Fuji Rangefinder, being careful to make sure the light intensity and direction are similar in each of these shots. This process may take as much as a month depending upon how quickly I am able to get all the shots and sort through them, picking the ones which work best together. “Pieces” of the final image might include the landscape or background, often shot in sections, as well as the sky, a human figure, an animal, or another object. The processed film is scanned at a high resolution, approximately 80 megabytes per frame. Then, using Photoshop software with a Macintosh computer I combine each “piece”, thus creating the final image. Lastly, the image is printed with an Epson printer using archival pigment inks and paper.


Tom Chambers, Prom Gown #2, 2005, Photomontage, 3 sizes, Image courtesy of Wall Space Gallery, Seattle.

KB: Ah, it is clear to my eye from the quality of your images that you’re capturing your source material on film before going digital. What artist in history inspires your work?

TC: Andrew Wyeth… Although his work might be criticized for its overt beauty, the work contains strong emotional currents, symbolic content, and an underlying abstraction. I appreciate his color palette (browns and blacks), use of texture, and winter scenes as backdrop.


Andrew Wyeth

KB: I’ve always found it sad that overt beauty gets criticized. Indeed, I find your works beautiful. What mood do you hope to impart to your viewers when they see your work.

TC: I would like my work to elicit an emotional response, a moment when the viewer connects, and the story unfolds from within—based on one’s identity and feelings. I am not asking my work to be believable in any literal or representational way, but I am hoping it encourages the viewer to consider my work on an emotional level.

Tom Chambers was raised on a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and at age 18, he joined the Navy and was immediately sent to Vietnam. After his military discharge, he spent five years hitchhiking around the U.S. and Canada, as well as working his family farm with his four brothers. Later, he attended art school in Florida and eventually moved to Virginia, where he found work as a graphic designer. He began experimenting with photography using the computer equipment available through his work. For the past twelve years he has created photomontages, using photos taken during travels throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Recently Chambers’ work has been featured in large Expos such as Photo LA and Photo Miami and Art Madrid (February 2008). In 2007, he had solo shows in Santa Fe, Seattle, and L.A. Currently Tom Chambers is represented by several galleries including “Photo Eye” in Santa Fe, NM, “Wall Space Gallery” in Seattle, WA, “Chase Gallery”, and “Galeria Clave” in Murcia, Spain, exclusively for Europe. His current show in Boston is at the Chase Gallery and opened May 2nd and runs through the month of May. Chase Gallery, 129 Newbury Street. 617-859-7222.

The Nudist, The Chemist and Artist Ethan Murrow

May 17, 2008

As an artist, I consider art on a sort of spectrum in my mind by the manner in which it is rendered. I picture two opposing ends: one a chemist, who has a pristine lab and measures everything in the most precise manner, conducting experiments in a white coat with the thinnest of pipette, a Bunsen burner, and a notepad to meticulously record results. On the other end is the nudist, someone completely of the body who paints without a trace of inhibition, who never decides what to put on the canvas in advance but just instinctually slathers it on with a huge brush or spatula, perhaps even while sipping a glass of wine with the other hand, all while naked. In my mind I call the two types of artists “The Nudist and The Chemist.” With every painting, I fall somewhere in between—with “The Nudist” being my ultimate goal as an artist, like Howard Hodgkin or perhaps the elder Matisse, working in bed into his eighties with yards of fabric, sunglasses and a big pair of scissors.


LEFT: Ethan Murrow, “Lava Collection – Well I definitely heard something” graphite on paper 54”x54” 2005.

When I first saw the works of Ethan Murrow, I thought they were photographs. I loved the subject matter, the adventures of the people, often the portraits of the artist himself, in the midst of an unknown experiment. Upon second glance, however, when I realized that these are in fact extraordinarily large graphite drawings done with such precision, such sensuality, with a subject matter that deals directly with fear, ambition, and humility, I decided that, nay, he is both a nudist and a chemist and that one can very much be both.

Murrow and his wife Vita Weinstein develop plots and film their stories, and then Murrow searches for frames worth portraying by hand. His upcoming show “Dust Mining” debuts March 15th and is his most ambitious to date.

Kimberly Brooks: One of the elements that I find so intriguing about your work is the difference between content and medium. Your medium is highly controlled and photorealistic. Yet the subject is highly dynamic, people are doing strange things with ropes in holes, water and air. How does Marshall MacLuhan’s aphorism “The Medium is the Message” apply to your work?

Ethan Murrow: I think media effects and often controls the message more than most would like to admit, but I don’t think you can say that it always does. That said, media IS often the overarching structure and also the motivation so it’s influence probably outweighs content and concept a lot of the time. For instance, I began these drawing projects in part because of my pure satisfaction with paper, graphite, the atmospheric effect I can create with it, the meditative plodding process, the obsession required and the raw endless simplicity of this approach. But, those things are also very important to me because they relate to my content. Ideas of obsession, perseverance and pig headed-ness are key elements in both media and concept. I like to think the process/media and the content are integrally linked but I do not think one can exist purely without the other and maintain the same effect. In my work content also brought about the media. I aimed to create work that referenced historical documents, black and white photography, monumental glorification and so on. Large scale graphite drawings fit that bill. So the media is at the mercy of the concept too.


RIGHT: Ethan Murrow, “John McCarty, promoter of the mines and professional middleman” graphite on paper 74”x74” 2007

KB: What was the inspiration behind the way you approached this series, creating a back story in the first place?

EM: In The spring of 2004 I had a chance to do a three-month residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska. When I arrived there I was in the midst of projects that dealt with landscape painting and, truth be told, I was somewhat bored with the direction of my work. I spent a lot of time talking with and watching some performance Artists who were also in residence at the Bemis at the same time, particularly the group Bushwick Farms whose work revolves around an extended fictitious genealogy. The simple truth was that they were having a blast, using stories from their own lives to help construct scenarios, events and narratives that engrossed both them and their viewers and participants.


LEFT: Ethan Murrow at Pinto Brothers shoot in Manzanita Oregon 2005.

KB: What led you to the subject of experimentation?

I have always been obsessed by flight and that became my first subject. I began jumping off of cars fences, ladders and chairs, flying through the air in Nebraska wheat fields in front of cameras, embarrassing myself in front of some local farmers as I documented the body in motion. I then brought this imagery back to my traditional processes and used it to create drawings and paintings. The new work was exhilarating because it was chaotic and unknown. At the beginning, I wanted to create pieces that documented my prowess at flying through the air. It took me a good year of fits and starts and mistakes before I realized that the work was at its best when it captured my weaknesses, mistakes and innocent moments, instead of fictitiously glorifying what I could not achieve. I began to create narratives that dealt more with failure and the overpowering and blinding need to succeed rather than success itself. Many could have told me this from day one, but it took me a long time to realize that I am at my best as a performer and storyteller when I am making fun of my own ego. At the core, my characters are self-portraits, craving glory, yet eternally doomed to make mistakes.


Ethan Murrow, “Off of Gaspé, ready to dive for the elusive whale”, graphite on paper 60” x 96”, 2007.

KB: I am a big fan of mistakes. It’s the most exciting and critical part of making art. What is the story within this particular film and how does it illuminate these themes for you?

EM: The Freshwater Narwhal Hoax documents the exploits and downfall of the fictitious marine biologists Banvard and Barnum Orson. Banished from the scientific community due to fraudulent methods and suspect motivations, they are determined to rebuild their reputations and achieve the fame they have always desired. The brothers delve into highly suspect whale research and begin to weave a complicated and fraudulent tale for the press. They focus their attention on Narwhal whales and assert to anyone who will listen that they have located a pod on the St. Lawrence River. Hefting gear of unknown provenance the Orson brothers attempt to prove their bald assertions. Their story is one of obstinence and drive in partnership with chicanery. Like many of my characters their insistence on success at all costs becomes their ultimate downfall.

The things I keep returning to are failure and obsession. It seems to me that there is a fragile line between reckless obsession and brilliant success. My work resides in this area, applauding ridiculous pursuits and cringing at ill-fated experimentation. To examine these issues I have created fictional narratives rooted in the historical fact that humans will attempt anything. I attempt to give credibility to the ridiculous pursuits of my characters by creating a pseudo documentary world full of black and white photo-realism and fake documentary films about their exploits. I want the work to be believable, insane and humorous all at once.

KB: How did this particular story arise?

EM: Working with my wife, Vita Weinstein Murrow, a frequent collaborator, a story began to arise from our discussions in early 2006 about two people who had been driven to the edge of their profession and so turned to desperate measures. The characters we had dealt with up to this point were obsessed by fame and glory but rarely had this caused them to swindle anyone. We wanted to dig deeper into failure and investigate what happened to people who had nowhere to turn. The Orson’s aren’t horrible people, they just use their drive and grit in inappropriate ways.


Ethan Murrow, “Cloud Collecting with the Pinto Brothers: at the moment of launch, the quick release jammed and Huffaker lost his cool.” graphite on paper 72”x144” 2006.

KB: What is your process and how do you collaborate with Vita to create your work?

EM: Half of my time is spent on project development, reading, thinking, researching and planning. Much of this process includes discussions between Vita and me about different story lines, scenarios and logistics, all leading up to performances. The performances are planned yet disorganized. When we began they were two person affairs with Vita shooting video and stills of myself in a variety of costumes. We usually shoot in remote and difficult settings. The entire Cloud Collecting With The Pinto Brothers for example was shot on the Oregon coast over five weekends in 2004 and 2005. Four of those five weekends it was pouring and windy, the fifth it hailed. For that one Vita was in a tent to protect the technology while I tromped around in the sand with various props getting hammered by the hail. I have always felt like these moments of ridiculousness connect me directly with the characters, who all are depicted in equally problematic scenarios. Once the performance imagery has been collected I begin to cull through it on the computer and think about which images connect best to one another to help tell a full story. I then use the collected imagery to create large-scale graphite drawings and short video pieces.


RIGHT: Vita Weinstein Murrow directs two actors for Dust Mining shoot in Dorset, Vermont 2007.

Now some of this process is changing. Working with Vita and Harvest Films we have crafted a new storyline about a group of miners harvesting dust for profit. We are working with a wide array of actors and media professionals to craft a short film with Harvest for my March show at Obsolete in Venice. This piece will be shot over the next few weeks. It is a big jump, forcing us to more carefully consider every step in story development and opening doors to tools and collaborators we have never had access to before.

KB: Indeed, has there been an artist who has inspired you in both your interest in film and drawings?

William Kentridge, who creates stop frame animation films about the history, politics and culture he grew up amongst in segregated South Africa, has probably had the biggest effect on my career. His haunting depictions of characters struggling between dream and reality and cause and effect are all rooted in his own experience and figure (meaning he loosely depicts himself as the protagonist in his films). I admire the way he examines his own role in history through his work and formally I can never get enough of his crude yet completely full and confident drawings. Kentridge collaborates with puppeteers, actors, musicians etc etc. and he has served as a model to me in that realm as I have worked to create healthy collaborations with my wife, Vita, and others in different projects.


William Kentridge, Drawings from Mine charcoal on paper 120x150cm each, 1991.

About the Artist
Ethan Murrow was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1975 and is presently based in New York City. He received his B.A. in Studio Art from Carleton College in 1998, and his M.F.A from The University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina in 2002. Ethan’s upcoming solo exhibition will be at The Obsolete Gallery in Venice, California, opening on March 15th 2008.

Rock Stars, Orphans and Rescue Missions: Preparing the Solo Show

April 13, 2008

As I write this, I’m sitting on a stool in the middle of my studio. My solo show is less than five weeks away. I have over fifteen canvases of all sizes strewn about, the finished ones hanging on the walls, the rest facing the walls. I’ve divided the paintings into three categories: Rock Stars, Rescue Missions and Orphans. There’s nothing like a deadline to align all the atoms of the universe so I can see with crystal clarity.


Kimberly Brooks Studio Five Weeks and Counting

Unlike a typical triage unit on a battle field or hospital where you attend to the worst first, I do the opposite. First I must recognize and admit when a painting is not working and kill it or let it die. This is never easy. So I focus on the Rock Stars— the ones that fly out of my mind (my heart) and onto the canvas with ease. Even if I hit turbulence I know I can still get out of it and it will make it on the gallery wall. I’m jamming when I’m painting them. I’m confident about what’s happening, the palette, the composition, then surprises that always happen in painting are bonuses. They make me feel like a Rock Star. I focus on these first.

Next, the Rescue Missions. They were Rock Stars. What happened? That hand doesn’t look quite right, the palette needs fixing, the detail not enough or too much. But there are Rescue Missions and then there are Rescue Missions. I have one Rescue Mission that I’ve been painting on and off of for five years. It was once the basis for an entire show. Someday, it still will be, but now I work on her in between. Leonardo Da Vinci carted the Mona Lisa around with him for twenty years, touching it up until his death (and to think it started as a commission!). Like Jean Le Feo’s ongoing and never finished painting “The Rose,” or Jacob Wrestling the angel, I don’t know when she will be ready for the public, but I’m not giving up.


Jay De Feo’s “The Rose”

How many times in my life have I spent too much time on a rescue mission? With the wrong relationship or a lousy job? Relationships, work and ideas— they are all things we have to nurture. I take note of what’s going well. Life is short and I don’t want to spend all my time fixing things.

There’s a common misconception that artists are focused on process and it’s all about “the journey.” Certainly the journey’s great (and challenging and circuitous and rewarding, etc.), but I want beginnings and endings. I want results. Nabokov wrote that there can be no art without facts and no science with out fancy. There’s nothing more satisfying than fact of a finished painting and the dream that it will somehow embody an ultimate aesthetic self.

But truthfully, thinking that any painting might represent the whole vision or spirit of anything is as impossible as attempting to hug a tornado. Rather, each painting or idea represents a single moment and angle of that tornado in motion— it’s early crosswinds, it’s fury, the occasional flying cow or car— it’s just just one piece in a life time of work.


Detail from “Technicolor Summer” Oil on Linen

Yet the urge to strive for the ultimate “Hero” painting is irresistible. My artist friends and I joke about the “Magic Painting” that we’re going to put on the postcard for a show. As if one painting can summarize an entire show and bring more people in. Which reminds me, I have a solo show in less than five weeks. Time to get back to work. Back to the studio. I have a jam session to attend.

The Nudist and The Chemist

March 21, 2008

As an artist, I consider art on a sort of spectrum in my mind by the manner in which it is rendered. I picture two opposing ends: one a chemist, who has a pristine lab and measures everything in the most precise manner, conducting experiments in a white coat with the thinnest of pipette, a Bunsen burner, and a notepad to meticulously record results. On the other end is the nudist, someone completely of the body who paints without a trace of inhibition, who never decides what to put on the canvas in advance but just instinctually slathers it on with a huge brush or spatula, perhaps even while sipping a glass of wine with the other hand, all while naked. In my mind I call the two types of artists “The Nudist and The Chemist.” With every painting, I fall somewhere in between–with “The Nudist” being my ultimate goal as an artist, like Howard Hodgkin or perhaps the elder Matisse, working in bed into his eighties with yards of fabric, sunglasses and a big pair of scissors.

Judging The Campaigns By Their Colors: Shades Of Red And Blue

March 21, 2008

I have election fever and everything else I had intended to write is out the window. It has been an all out Red and Blue assault–everywhere the eye can see. Not Prussian or Cerulean blue, mind you, but a pure, pungent royal blue. And the red–the purest cadmium deep– not a touch too orange or blue, the color of a bullseye, the color of blood.
These are the colors of our patriotism. Red is the color of power, passion, aggression, and war. It’s the id that overpowers all colors. Blue is the color of wisdom, calm, hindsight and thoughtfulness. In this light, I love the design of the American flag. Admittedly, I’d love to update it (another post), but it captures what I view as the colors of America. Furthermore, the colors assigned of Red=Republican and Blue=Democrat, undoubtedly by some anonymous graphics editor, seem seem totally apt.
“Three Flags” Jasper Johns 24″ x 16 1/2″
Artists are constantly thinking color: which ones to use and when, when to make one or two dominant, how they change next to each other. As a painter, the colors form an entire language both spatially and mood-wise–for example, warmer and darker colors push forward on a plane. Cool and lighter colors go backwards, etc. They start to become friends with frequent use and then they hang around in your palette and the studio becomes a never-ending party.
For more than a decade in the nineties I didn’t own a television. Yes, I might have seen it occasionally at friend’s houses, but it wasn’t how I got the news. I read the paper in black and white–“Just the facts, ma’am”. But the first time I saw BBC News on television I was traveling in Europe. I put my hand to my mouth in shock that its branding and backdrops were mostly bright blood red underscoring every story and interview. In my mind’s eye, when I heard their cool objective accented voices on the radio I thought of blue! I wrote a letter to the president telling him it was all wrong–a terrible choice. Needless to say, they didn’t change it.
Even though blue is typically considered cool and recessive, there exists a hue that has essentially no right to be considered in the blue family. The closest I could replicate it with paint would be Pthalo Blue which is so obnoxious that even a drop will overpower any painting. It’s so hot it rivals red. It was synthetically created in the last century as a replacement for Prussian, a great deep blue pigment favored by Matisse, but Prussian is considered less reliable in that it changes over time. (They call pigments like this “fugitive” and I always picture the color escaping off the canvas and going into hiding.) As a painter, I try and stay away from Pthalo. That said, add a little white and you have something quite divine.
Unfortunately, TV video editors like to bathe themselves in it every morning and this makes my retinas bleed. Fox News is one of the worst offenders, given their hawkishness it’s no surprise. They always use the the strongest most condescending ALL CAPS Pthalo blue and red together–their swirling graphics so spastic it more resembles a drunken peacock then a television station.
CNN, even if it can be just as hawkish, thanks to touches of Cerulean, seems tad more objective and sobering.
Barack, who never voted for the war, is the candidate for peace and his website is in various shades of blues. The blue use is respectful and doesn’t talk down to us. Given the red hot passion he inspires, he’s smart to counteract it with his sensible branding, although I do wonder if I can open a checking account.
Clinton, a Democrat, but slightly more hawkish. She uses a Prussian blue. Note that jacket and the blue screen behind her. It’s not her fault, but once again, shame on those television editors!
Hillary Clinton’s Website Homepage
John McCain, who rides the “straight talk” express, uses black and white, and doesn’t want too much color getting in the way. Although the effect has more in common with the consol of a late 1990s video game with the handy logo serving as crosshairs. In case we might be blind, McCain’s website displays the branding not twice but three times, the ultimate sin. Bang bang! Fire the web designers!
This is in stark contrast to Mitt Romney who rivals Fox in Pthalo-abuse along side a swooshing logo which makes me want to ask the price of overnight delivery. [Since writing this column, he suspended his campaign.]
Let’s not talk about Bush. I think he might be color blind. Too much red isn’t good for anyone.
The election is not close to over, but this artist looks forward to seeing green and yellow and brown, yellow and turquoise again.

Artist Stefanie Schneider And The End Of Polaroid Film

March 21, 2008

Last week, Polaroid announced that it would be discontinuing the beloved Polaroid film. Even if it was expected, I became instantly saddened by the news. With today’s digital “take 50 keep 2” picture-taking mentality, I know fewer and fewer people who even keep photo albums because the sheer editing task is so daunting.

Stefanie Schneider. Untitled 40.2 x 39.4 inch Limited Edition

I will never forget when my parents brought home their Poloroid SX-70 Camera. After “say cheese” we would grab the photo from its mouth and flap it around like angry chickens with the misguided belief that this would help it develop. Then, we watched the image appear like a magic trick before our very eyes. Little did we know then that the real magic would occur decades later, when the colors would fade in a yellow green haze and offer an aesthetic aftertaste even richer than the instant gratification of seeing it develop.
During my last show, “Mom’s Friends,” about my mother and her friends in the 70s, I foraged through old family albums and found page after delicious page of distorted photos that to me signified nothing less than the new born freedom of a generation redefining itself.

Stefanie Schneider. The Princess, 128 x 125cm, c-print, edition of 5

It was around this time when I was researching my show that I discovered and fell in love with the work of the German-born artist Stefanie Schneider. Schneider uses expired Polaroid film and lets the medium’s natural distortions and milky opalescence infuse every frame. She creates narratives with a cast of characters who sizzle in what appears to be imported thirty-year-old California sunlight. Like old film stills, the ensuing dreamscapes provide an ideal stage to watch a story unfold. I caught up with her in her studio in Berlin where we discussed light, love, her new film and the reality of obsolescence.Kimberly Brooks: How are you mourning the news that Polaroid is discontinuing your medium? Stefanie Schneider: It’s an era ending again. No more family pictures developing in front of the children’s eyes. A piece of beauty disappearing….a piece of culture. Polaroid material has the most beautiful quality — the colors on one side, but then the magic moment in witnessing the image to appear. The time stands still and the act of watching the image develop can be shared with the people around you. In the fast world of today it’s nice to slow down for a moment. At the same time Polaroid slows time, it also captures a moment which becomes the past so instantly that the decay of time is even more apparent– it gives the image a certain sentimentality or melancholy. Because of that intensity of the moment it seems to change the interaction of the next moment. The Polaroid moment is one of a kind, an original every time.
Stefanie Schneider, The Days I Saw Him Last, 125 x 150 cm, c-print, edition of 5, 2007.

KB: You’re from Germany, yet you in many ways capture such a California essence. Did you spend time in California before you conceived of your first show shot there? What was your first California experience?SS: California always had been a dream to me. I guess growing up in the 70s with movies like Vanishing Point, The Getaway, and Badlands formed the need for me to leave Germany for California. I’d never even visited before I moved there. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1996 right away I felt at home. Everything was in place and the dream was alive. California looked it and the Polaroids made it even more real.
Stefanie Schneider, Untitled, triptych 60 x 70 cm each, c-print, edition of 5, 2007.

KB: In Hollywood, it’s a truism that all the best cinematographers are foreigners because they can see a place the way a native can’t. You capture the essence of California better than most Californians do. At what point did your work with Polaroid start your journey as an artist?
SS: It was all a coincidental life source. When I started taking polaroids I didn’t even have a gallery. But I met gallerist Susanne Vielmetter about half a year after I started working with Polaroids and when I shuffled them out of a box onto the table. She loved them right away and we planned a show together.
Stefanie Schneider, 29 palms lot, 60 x 60 cm, edition of 10, c-print 1999.

KB: I recognize California beaches and Joshua Tree, in your work. Is it all in California or did you venture out?
Almost all my photographs are taken in California, a few in Nevada like the Vegas series and the photographs for the movie Stay have been all taken in New York, of course. Most of my work is being shot in 29 Palms in the California Desert.

KB: I saw the photos from Stay (featuring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor). Even though I recognize them as actors, the sequence still allowed me to get lost in the narrative –What were they doing on the top of the building? Why does he grab her arm?”, etc. Have you ever worked on a movie?

SS: I am working right now on a feature film on Polaroid. In it I explore and document the dreams and fantasies of a group of people living in a trailer park community in the California desert. It will be finished in about five years and is developed online at“. Every year we are having an exhibit to show the bits and pieces already shot. I hope I will be able to finish the film. Due to the closure of Polaroid this project might be in jeopardy. Because I’m working on outdated material I have a little bit more time. This is the first and only film ever made on Polaroid. Right now in Berlin I’m showing the very first exhibition of the project. It’s still on till March 15th.KB: What is the ultimate subject for this medium?SS: Love. There is no past, no future, no present. All seems to be happening at the same time. It breathes a senseless pain that has no place in the present. The ex-lover experiences the residues of love as an amputee experiences the sensation of a ghost limb. It is the tangible experience of “absence” that has inspired this piece below.
The Princess’ Brother, 128 x 125cm, c-print, edition of 5, 2007

KB: In terms of artistic inspiration, who are some authors or artists you look to?SS: I am more inspired by film, music and books. Like Days of Heaven, Badlands, 2046, The Last Picture Show, The Flaunder by Guenther Grass, the songs by Hildegard Knef and Serge Gainsbourg or Coco Rosie. I am also inspired by the 29 palms, California Group. We inspire each other.
“Badlands” Movie Still from featuring Sissy Spacek

Stefanie Schneider received her MFA in Communication Design at the Folkwang Schule Essen, Germany. Her work has been shown at the Staedtische Ausstellungshalle am Hawerkamp, Muenster, the Kunstallianz, Berlin, the Institut für Neue Medien, Frankfurt, and the Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden, Kunstverein Bielefeld, Kunstverein Recklinghausen, Museum für Moderne Kunst Passau. Upcoming shows includeBerlin: “29 Palms, CA” <> ), Galerie Spesshardt-Klein, Berlin – 10th of February to 2nd of March 2008 – also shown at the Berlinale / Forum expanded
Les Rencontres d’Arles – Photo Festival South of France, 7th to 13th July 2008, curated by Christian Lacroix
Frenzy, Salzburger Festspiele, Sujet of the year presentation
Sidewinder, Galerie Robert Drees, Hannover, Germany
Sidewinder,, Bregenz, AustriaStefanie Schneider is represented by Scalo Guye in Los Angeles, California and Galerie Robert Drees in Hannover, Germany.