Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Brain on Art

This is not a Rembrandt! (Or is it?)

he French Art historian and critic, Jean-Daniel Mohier and I have been having quite a fascinating and impassioned debate on the topic of how a painting is experienced by the viewer. As I have asserted before, I think the aesthetic response is largely objective, that is: instinctual. This is based on the fact that we, as humans, share nearly all of our genetic material and that we, across all cultures, share nearly all the same fundamental kinds of experiences. However, we cannot say that the aesthetic response is completely objective, for then, how could we have different (though overlapping) ideas of beauty? My hypothesis was that the instinctual response we receive from a painting in the very first instant of viewing, is immediately distorted by subjective elements to varying degrees; such as learned culture, and individual experiences, which may not be shared by most people: such as experiencing war, rape, or starvation, etc...

Jean-Daniel responded by sharing this fascinating article entitled "How does the Brain Perceive Art?". It discusses a study conducted at Oxford University, which concluded that brains can't tell the difference between a real Rembrandt and a fake. They tried to gauge the response of viewers of both Rembrandt paintings, and students of Rembrandt, with the goal of testing this very question. Just how subjective or objective is our aesthetic experience? It addresses a question I've posed many times before: does it matter if "the Polish Rider" is a real Rembrandt, or a student? Is it not a masterpiece either way?

Before we go on, I have to point out that they only included 14 participants in this study, all of whom had no education in Art history nor any education in life drawing... so we can't really say that this study is conclusive, as it includes too few people and does not have a sufficient cross-section of people.

But, without further adieu, this was my response:
"I guess the question is whether you consider the physical object to be the truth, or the flawed perception of the observer to be the truth. Was the consensus correct when they believed that the world was flat? It just goes to show how influenced people are by false illusions. But, this all goes back to whether you believe the theosophy of Plato, or the scientific objectivity of Aristotle, or the irrational rhetorical tricks of the sophists. That's what we're really debating here! Plato, or Aristotle, or the pre-Socratic sophists (in the case that you follow Hegel instead of Kant).

As a representational painter, I have many years of training to be able to see what's actually there in front of me instead of the symbol or illusion of what people say is there. This is the only way you can paint representational work. Of course you have to be able to project your vision onto the reality. This is more interesting... but you have to be able to discern the difference between reality and a dream, in order to make such a work.

More than a century ago, art critics, historians, and the art viewing public all had studio practice in drawing and painting to some extent, so they all had some ability to see what's in front of them and form their own conclusions. So, this is perhaps the reason that today, they only follow the false illusions of fashion.

So, one can say that this is simply the way it is, this is the way the world works... and that I'm describing the way it "should be". One can conclude that it is very naive, or very arrogant of me to say that it should be any other way than it is. Who am I to say that the world is round? I don't know who " I am" in that sense... I don't know who it is that gives one the right to think for themselves, and relegates other people to the crowd of sheep, but I'm sure history will sort it all out for us. As for today, I can't accept "the way things are" and sacrifice the very fibre of my individuality to mass delusion. No, I must say again that the world is a sphere and is not flat.

I'm deeply sorry if this makes the clergy uncomfortable. ;)

But you asked an interesting question the other night: why paint like Rembrandt today? Well, why not paint "like Rembrandt", if you like? This is something Odd and I have discussed extensively. You could ask the same question about any modern painter or artist. Why paint like Francis Bacon, or Otto Dix, or De Kooning, or Koons, or Hirst, or Picasso? Yet most contemporary artists do. Those who know art history can see that 99.9% of contemporary artists are copying 20th century artists. And they are congratulated for it!!! Somehow to copy a "modern" artist is more "original" because it's a "modern" voice - which must be inherently more genuine. Apart from the faulty logic here, I frankly can't say I care whether or not someone wants to copy Otto Dix, and whether or not a critic likes it, but quite simply, why this double standard? Why is it not acceptable to be influenced by Rembrandt? (As an aside note, an honest look at either Odd Nerdrum's paintings and my paintings will tell you that we are not copying Remrandt, but simply influenced by him. And it's evident that I'm not copying Odd, but deeply influenced by him. You can just as clearly see the influence of Hammershoi, Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth, and Goya.) So, the real question is: why reject the Greco-Roman tradition?

The answer to the question of this double standard, is that the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) is modern....

But, you see, this zeitgeist idea is also a false illusion. Obviously my zeitgeist is different from Koons'. And Ai Wei Wei's zeitgeist is different from Lucien Freud, who's zeitgeist is different from Andrew Wyeth, who's zeitgeist is different from, though related to Odd Nerdrum's zeitgeist. So, exactly how many zeitgeists are there?

So, again. What we're really debating here is Plato vs. Aristotle vs. the Sophists. Kant vs. Hume vs. Hegel... and dozens of other incarnations of the same. If you look at philosophy, all philosophers are more or less regurgitating either Plato or Aristotle (or in the case of the German Idealists like Hegel, they regurgitate the sophists). I, for one, can't see any progress, only a wheel on a treadmill. "

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Varnish: Tips and Techniques

I have recently polled all my artist friends and researched extensively online to find the best method for getting a perfect finishing varnish on my oil paintings. After lots of practice, I finally have a method that gets great results every time…. Well, almost every time. Varnish is a notoriously tricky procedure!

What is Varnish?

Varnish is the final clear finishing coat applied over a “dry” oil painting. Varnishing seals the surface of the painting, protecting it from dust and dirt build-up. It also restores an all-over sheen to the whole painting, deepening shadows and restoring colors that may have gone matte as the paint dried.

How “Dry” is Dry?

Traditionally, artists waited 6 months to a year before varnishing. And that’s for thin paint! Thick globs of oil paint may actually take many years to dry completely. However, if you are actively showing or selling your work, or working on commission, this is highly impractical to nearly impossible. So, many artists varnish when the painting is “dry to the touch”. There is danger of cracking however, especially if the paint is thick and you are working on flexible canvas.

What Kind of Varnish?

Damar is the traditional varnish used by artists, made from tree resin. However, it is known to yellow with age, and it is also very brittle. Gamblin, manufacturer of paints and mediums, has developed a synthetic-resin varnish called GamVar that has been designed to remain transparent, and also is less brittle. In fact, GamVar says you can apply their varnish when the painting is dry to the touch. Apparently GamVar allows the painting to continue to dry underneath the varnish. Personally, I find GamVar significantly easier to apply, as it stays “brushable” for some time, and does not get tacky within seconds like Damar. So, now I never use Damar, and I only use GamVar.

Removing Varnish

Varnish is made to be removable by anyone in the future cleaning or restoring your painting. It is designed to dissolve easily with odorless mineral spirits (OMS). It’s hard to imagine rubbing OMS or turps on your oil painting, but keep in mind, dry oil paint has a very strong film and won’t simply wipe away with gentle swipes of OMS. So the good news is, if you mess up your varnish, it’s easy to remove and re-apply.

You will need:

  • GamVar Varnish
  • Sponge brush (Buy several, they are cheap)
  • Small shallow dish (larger for a large painting)
  • Small soft paintbrush, like a #1 sable filbert
  • Low-lint cloth
    (There is no such thing as “lint-free” but do the best you can. I use floursack-style dishcloths, although I recently discovered soft auto-cloths, almost like baby diapers, which I am going to try next.)

Lint is your Enemy

Lint (and dust) will conspire to flock to your painting in massive unforeseen hoards. The largest airborne bits of debris you have every seen will suddenly appear to hover above your freshly varnished painting in a great, slow mating dance. Your job is to keep lint off your painting, and off everything else that might come in contact with your painting.


Never varnish the day you ship, frame, or deliver a painting! Give yourself a few days of extra time, both for the sake of the painting, and for your own sanity.

Varnishing with GamVar for the first time takes a bit of advance planning, because it comes in a box with 2 ingredients you must mix together in a jar 8 hours before you use it. The directions say to shake the jar every hour for 8 hours, but I have found this to be impossible - who could do that? So I just shake the jar once or twice over 8 hours, as I think of it, and it has always worked fine.

Once the GamVar is ready to use, take out your dry-to-touch painting and inspect the surface. Use tack-cloth or adhesive tape to remove any dust or lint that has accumulated. If there is a lot, you may want to wipe down the surface gently with a clean, low-lint cloth dipped in a bit of OMS.

Next, set your painting on an easel and shine a lamp on the painting for a good 30 minutes (don’t lie the painting down flat or it will just accumulate more dust). This will evaporate any moisture on the surface. If there is moisture on the surface, the varnish will “bloom” - a horrifying phenomenon, where you may think you have achieved a perfect varnish finish, only to find that within a few hours that the surface has developed a opaque white haze. Don’t let the painting get too hot, but it should warm a bit under the lamp.

Ready, set…. VARNISH

When you ready to apply the varnish, use SPONGE brushes. They are cheap, they don’t leave any stray hairs behind, and best of all you can just throw them away when you are done. I keep a batch of fresh my new ones in a plastic ziplock bag, so they don’t gather dust before use.

Pour a very small amount of GamVar into a clean, lint-free dish. It’s easier to dip the brush in a shallow dish, and also you won’t be contaminating your nice clean varnish jar with the inevitable dust or debris on your brush.

Dip the tip of the sponge brush in the GamVar, and then brush on a thin coat over the painting, using long, horizontal strokes to cover the entire surface. Then, blot (don’t rub) the brush on a clean, low-lint cloth.

Brush again with the slightly dry brush with strokes perpendicular to the first ones. Blot your brush on the towel again.

Repeat over and over, brushing and blotting, in perpendicular strokes, until the surface starts to tack up the tiniest bit, and “grab” the brush.

This is reducing the glossy shine of the varnish, which can make the painting look too wet, and will make it too shiny, especially under bright gallery lighting.

Waiter, There’s a Fly in my Soup!

What to do when you get lint in your varnish: Use the small #1 filbert to carefully “back brush” and lift the lint out with one swift flick, and wipe on the cloth. If you don’t dig around too much, the varnish should “heal” and there should be no sign you messed with it.

The Inevitable Do-Over

At some point everone has to re-do a varnish job. If you have lots of lint, or bloom, or if the surface was touched or damaged, you’ll have to remove the varnish. To remove, dip your clean lint-free cloth in odorless mineral spirits, and gently wipe (or even roll) the cloth on your painting. Be careful not to damage the painting, but keep in mind, it’s probably more resilient than you think. Dry paint film is pretty strong. Wipe until it seems like all the varnish is gone. If you are not sure, wait a few minutes for the OMS to evaporate, and then look for glossy areas. Start all over again, starting with removing any dust or lint.

Varnishing a smooth painting

My paintings have a pretty smooth surface, which adds another issue to varnishing: Beading up. Sometimes the varnish immediately beads up just like water on a new car. This is because the surface is so smooth that the varnish has nothing to “grab”. You need to get some tooth in your surface. Wipe off the wet varnish with a cloth dipped in OMS. Then brush on a generous coat of OMS, and keep brushing until there is no longer any beading up. You may want to let the painting sit for a while, to let the OMS “bite” into the surface.

Be gentle, don’t rub hard, and the painting should be fine. When a coat of OMS does not bead up, the varnish won’t either. Put your painting under a lamp to evaporate the OMS, and then go ahead and varnish. Now I always brush on a coat of OMS before applying the varnish, to test for beading before I ever try to apply the varnish. NOTE: use one brush for OMS and a different brush for varnish. You don’t want to dilute the varnish with the OMS left on the brush.

Varnishing is tricky, and it’s always a good idea to practice on a small painting you don’t care much about before varnishing your masterpiece.

Good luck! If you have other tips or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Thanks to Sadie Valeri for allowing me to post this great article.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Odd Nerdrum Sentenced to Two Years in Prison

I am saddened to be the bearer of such shocking news.

My mentor and dear friend, Odd Nerdrum, has been sentenced to two years in prison by a Norwegian court. He is a man who has dedicated his life's work to defending human dignity, a man who has given his profound knowledge freely to thousands of students without charging a single penny, a man who has inspired millions with his masterly and empathetic paintings - a man who generously opened his home and family to my wife and me when we lost our jobs in New York City, in the midst of the financial crisis, and were quite literally homeless...
This man has been sentenced to two years in jail for tax evasion for $1.5 million USD. Oscar Wilde never recovered from his two year imprisonment for homosexuality and died just a few years after his release, at the young age of 46. At Odd's age (67), and considering that he has tourette's syndrome, this sentence could kill him.

Let's be clear here: the charges against him are not that he didn't pay his taxes. He has already settled that with the Norwegian tax authorities, and this was acknowledged by the court. No, the charges are that he intentionally hid money in order to evade taxes. Of this he is not guilty.

Call me biased, but Bernie Madoff, he is not.

For a little context, consider that Ai WeiWei was accused of tax evasion in China, a communist country, and released on bail after two months of house arrest and a fine.
"Xinhua reported that Mr Ai had offered to repay the taxes and would be released because of "his good attitude in confessing his crimes". " - from article in BBC above

Conversely, Odd has already paid his exorbitant back taxes, he is not allowed bail and must serve his sentence in full, without being allowed to paint, as well as pay a fine. If the sentence itself doesn't sound appallingly harsh for the circumstances, there's also the fact that they have no solid evidence, and have convicted him based only on some bureaucrat's "suspicion". Wait, doesn't that sound familiar? Why, yes, that's exactly what China did with Ai Weiwei. Yet, why is Norway imposing a more severe punishment than China, a country known for it's human rights violations? But of course, the Norwegian press doesn't present it that way. Why would they? Just as China controls it's press, the Norwegian press is funded by the Norwegian government.

Artist Pleads Not Guilty to tax evasion.

Odd Nerdrum Sentenced to Two Years in Jail

Here's what they don't tell you in the Norwegian press. First, they claim that a $900,000 fund in a safe deposit box, was placed there to evade taxes. Odd set aside the money for claims on large compositions that he made in the 1980's with an experimental medium of mastic and linseed oil. After several years, collectors complained that they began to melt if they got too warm. Though he generously painted 36 new paintings of the same images between 1989 - 2002 in order to replace the damaged paintings, many of the collectors wanted to be compensated with money instead of new paintings. This problem is quite well known and extensively documented, and the fund in question was stipulated in the contract with Forum Gallery. And considering the price of his work, this fund for potential claims is quite small.

Odd's explanation is backed up by documents. The courts case is built upon conjecture.

Secondly, Odd's bank keeps records up to ten years back. So, despite the fact that Odd provided all the necessary papers to prove his innocence for the years 2001-02, (just before he renounced his Norwegian citizenship and became an Icelandic citizen) he could not get any records for 1998-2000. They had no evidence to prove that he evaded taxes: no documents, no witnesses, no fingerprints, merely suspicion. Do you keep your tax records from over ten years ago? In the U.S we have what's called a statute of limitations, but apparently Norway doesn't. We also believe that it's the responsibility of the court to prove a man's guilt, not his responsibility to prove his innocence. Again, apparently this doesn't apply to Norwegian courts.

Is this worth a court case and two years in jail? Even if he were "guilty", why is this a criminal case to begin with, why not just a civil case?

It shocks me that this kind of persecution can be so blatantly pursued in our day, against such an international treasure. As this so profoundly effects our intellectual and creative community, I thought I must tell you. So, what is it that they want? Do they want Odd to demonstrate "his good attitude in confessing his crimes"? Do they want to make a political scapegoat out of him? I'll let you decide for yourself, but if you ask me, something is rotten in the state of Norway.

The vilest deeds like poison-weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate
And the Warder is Despair.
- Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

P.S. What can you do? Sign the Petition and contact your local papers and news channels. Spread the word!

Sunday, May 1, 2011


La galerie L’Oeil du Prince has the pleasure to invite you to the vernissage:
"L'Esthétique" de Richard T. Scott

Vernissage le mardi 10 mai de 18h30 à 22h
Exposition du 11 au 31 mai

" Not content to be merely a master in all the techniques of classical painting, each of the works of this young prodigy invite us to rediscover a part of the history of our culture - all the while, never forgetting to preserve his own part of shadow and mystery [...]

Before one of these paintings, blended with the greatest technical mastery and brilliance of composition, how can we not bow before the figurative genius of Richard T Scott - and celebrate, in advance, his next compositions? "

Frédéric-Charles Baitinger, art critic, Artension

Galerie L’Oeil du Prince
30 rue Cardinet
75017 Paris
Métro Wagram ou Monceau
du mardi au samedi de 11H à 19H30
et souvent le dimanche à partir de 15H00

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Secrets of the Old Masters

There's a common idea among figurative painters that the old masters were like alchemists... toiling away in their studios - discovering the secrets of the most durable pigments, distilling superior oils, blending fragrant mediums; that what made the old masters great were their secrets: a secret medium, a special combination of colors on their palette, a special kind of brush, a special preparation for their ground and pigments. They certainly did all of these things, and this profound familiarity with the materials is something that's lacking in most ateliers today. And so, many figurative painters today lead solitary lives. Spending much of their time holed up in their studios, slowly pushing their skills, reading old books, cooking up maroger's medium on the stove top, competing against all the other figurative painters with guarded envy.

But these secrets can be found in numerous books, can be learned in many great ateliers and academies around the world. So, they're not exactly secrets, more like very valuable knowledge. Though many great painters certainly did experiment with their materials, what truly made them masters was their skill, passion, brilliance, and work ethic...
well, and one secret.

This is a secret I've seldom heard anyone mention, but one I've known about for some time. It is the secret to the success of Rembrandt, Eugène Carrière, Rubens, and Odd Nerdrum, as well as many of the greatest painters in history. And it is also the secret to my success.

When I first began studying at The New York Academy of Art, I heard tales of how incredibly competitive the students were. Students would quarantine themselves in their studios, only letting in their closest friends, repelling anyone who came knocking. They would speak in whispers about their projects... it was every man for himself. I heard that the professors were equally secretive, more concerned with their own careers than teaching. People spoke of how one professor or another wouldn't answer their questions clearly and withheld certain information from the more promising students. After all, todays student is tomorrow's competition.

Perhaps it was the special blend of my class, the class of 2007. Or perhaps we marked a generational shift in the way we thought. Or perhaps all those rumors were completely false to begin with - all of my professor were incredible. But, many of the professors told us we were different. (Maybe they say that to all their students.) Nevertheless, by the time I was well into my studies at NYAA, I found that secrecy certainly was not the case - certainly not with the professors, and arguably not within the student body. Competition, yes. Secrecy, no. There was an open spirit of sharing: anyone could walk into my studio at any time and I would gladly explain how I did a certain technique, or what medium and palette I used. And I found that everyone else reciprocated. I don't know if it was just me, but it seemed like it was true for everyone. And consequently, a surprising number of my classmates from that time continued on to have successful careers.

But, this openness was nothing new for me, in fact this had been my practice since undergrad at UGA. I don't know what put the idea into my head. I would begin each semester by seeking out the best student in whatever class I was taking - someone whose work inspired me, someone who had the skill and vision that I hoped to acquire. I became friends with them and would analyze each piece they created, searching for something I didn't know. Soon, we began borrowing ideas and techniques from each other, improving upon them... always trying to out-do the other. And when one would ask how something was done, the other would happily explain it, demonstrating the technique. Between this open sharing, and the friendly competition that drove us to always try to best the other, we would quickly leave the rest of the class behind ,who for some reason didn't seem to grasp the concept, or just weren't interested. The amount of development that we made in one semester was so great, that several professors asked us to teach their classes for them (our peers) sometimes when they had pressing issues to take care of.

If we had simply kept our ideas to ourselves, or decided "oh, that's Kathy's technique - I don't want to step on her toes", we would never have gotten half so far. The truth is, that together we drove each other to excellence. (Not surprisingly "Kathy" a.k.a Gyun Hur, went on to become an award winning installation artist who recently gave an incredible talk at the TED conference.)

At NYAA, I continued this practice on a higher level. And even after graduation, when I worked for Jeff Koons, I met a man who now is a dear friend and colleague: Adam Miller. We became friends in a matter of seconds and when he showed me his work, I was absolutely intimidated! I found that he too had been practicing the same kind of collaborative competition for the past 15 years and we soon struck a bargain. We were allowed to steal any idea, any technique we wanted from each other as long as we improved upon it and gave it back. We would freely share any information.... and over the years, Adam and I came to trust each other so well that we began sharing other opportunities with each other: exhibitions, showing each other's work to collectors, introducing each other to important people. Imagine how effective this would be for an entire group of like-minded painters! And here, you begin to see why the great ones always come in groups - why they seem to cluster together in time like a nebula of stars swirling in eddies around one another.

This is not dissimilar from Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, who actually developed Rembrandt's textural techniques together. Robert Henri shared everything with his students, inspiring the formation of the Ashcan school. Odd Nerdrum asks all of his apprentices to critique his work, and sometimes he takes their advice.

Here you see the spirit of brotherhood that permeates inspiring movements and schools such as Novorealism, the Kitsch movement, and the most successful groups from the Grand Central Academy, Florence Academy, NYAA, PAFA, and too many notable others to mention. All of them sharing the same fundamental principles of humanity, skill, beauty, emotional sincerity, passion, intellect and knowledge.

This is the spirit in which I have freely shared so much of my hard won and valuable knowledge with you here. So, in this spirit, I leave you with a single secret. A secret that, if you embrace, will propel you to a much greater progress in your work than you ever thought possible. Collaborative competition.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

NY Times: Facebook Censors Art School

Here's a little update on the Facebook censorship issue.

But, before I continue.... here's the New York Times article.

Art School Runs Afoul of Facebook's Nudity Policy

This post is more of an open dialogue with myself about this issue, which the more I think about, the more it reveals itself to be quite complex. But I'll try not to get ahead of myself.

Many people have pointed out that the specific word "censorship" only applies to the actions of a government. In this case, I would argue that Facebook largely governs the world of social media, according to their own laws, which they selected and they enforce, with no possibility of feedback or input from the users.

But, FB is not a government, it is a private business. And of course, in a pure free market, we could simply choose to go to another social network. Or, we could set up our own website. But the simple truth is that if we did that, the number of people viewing our work would drop precipitously and so would our sales. With over 500 million users, Facebook has revolutionized the way painters, collectors, galleries, and the public interact. FB has indeed been a democratizing force, equalizing the power between the artist, the collector, and the gallery. It has made itself indispensable as a marketing tool. In fact, as a small business owner myself, (being a painter is also a business) it's very difficult to compete if I do not have a presence on FB. Yet, that's exactly why the deletion of some of my best work has been such an issue: "Hermetica" and "What Remains" (featured above: incredibly offensive, right?) Many other painters are allowed to present their best work and fairly compete for the 3-5 second first glance that will determine whether a collector will investigate further or keep searching. Yet, those of us who paint the nude are not.

But, it's even more subtle than that. I think the analogy of the high seas would be appropriate. Both the British Empire and world trade benefitted from keeping the seas open for free trade. But if you were invited to board the largest ship on the ocean (Facebook), would it be the captain's right to duck tape your mouth, while remaining anonymous and unreachable to the passengers of the ship? You can't just jump overboard, and you wouldn't survive if you just built your own raft. Well, no-one forced you to get on the ship in the first place. That is true. But bear with me as I explore a train of thought.

With FB, there IS a gray area because there are two conflicting "rights" here. Many have said that FB has the "right" to decide what they allow posted there and I agree. But we also have certain rights, which are discussed in The Bill of Rights: rights which are considered unalienable under the constitution... that is they are natural to the person (or entity) and are not simply tied to the land in which the person (or entity) resides. This is why FB, an entity residing on U.S soil, can exercise their rights on the open seas of the internet and why I can as well.

The specific rights in question are free speech and the right to access the same free market that others enjoy. But, there's a point where each party's rights, if given full reign, will inherently impinge on the rights of the other party. And the case here is that FB's right to decide has impinged on my right to speech and the free market.

9th Amendment:
"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

If I'm not mistaken, this is largely upheld by international law.
(Interesting text on the 9th amendment)

The rights of a corporate entity (a non-person) should not supersede the rights of a person. Or if you prefer to look at it this way, I am a small business and Facebook is a huge business. Regardless, if either of us exercise the full extent of our rights, we will impinge on the rights of the other party.

Complicating this issue is that FB has become a near monopoly as social networks go. Yes, they have the best product and I'm not saying that they should be regulated. But the point is that it's become incredibly inconvenient for a business/institution to compete without using social networking. If I start my own website, or even use the many other websites that don't censor classical nude paintings, it will largely be a waste of time, because very few people will see my work. Therefore, it is not precisely a free market.

For the moment, it seems FB is legally within their rights. What they're doing is bad business and, ethically speaking, is absolutely wrong since their policy is prejudicial against artists. But they are a private company, and I was not quite forced to use their services. If it were because I was a racial minority, that would be illegal, but since it's because I paint classical nudes, it is not. To be fair, there is a difference.

However, does that mean that we should simply accept it and allow a minority group to be unfairly silenced by an artificial market? I won't answer that question for you, but will simply raise a few more. If we project into the future it gets even more complicated.

Facebook is governing a commodity that is becoming increasingly more of a necessity (especially in my field) as the trend towards self-employment grows, as internet marketing grows, as well as the specific use of social networking as a marketing forum for businesses, institutions, and even corporations. At some point Facebook could have over 1 billion users... 2 billion... with no real competition. This is feasible. And the more users they have, the more powerful FB is as a marketing tool, and the harder it is to compete without it. This is because right now they offer the best product. BUT, the question is, if one private corporation controls access for enough people to a necessary commodity, (take for example: education) and demonstrates prejudice against one specific group in regards to that access... at what point do we do something? At what point does it become a legal issue?

Consider this: Walmart, in 2005 grossed more than the GDP of all but the 25 largest NATIONS in the world. All they need is a police force, and they are pretty much their own country. I'm not being anti-corporate here, but I'm pointing out the trend that trans-national business is taking. Now, imagine that Walmart was the only place you could buy milk. Would they have the "right" to kick you out for reciting a poem? I'm being melo-dramatic, but only to more clearly illustrate the point.

There is a point where private property will intersect with public rights on a societal scale. We haven't reached it yet, but if things continue as they have been, we just might.

The answer for now, is that I hope FB will be more clear about the parameters and fairly enforce them. Maybe if we raise enough commotion they will take the hint. And it would be quite simple to address this problem with some kind of adult content filter similar to flickr. PROBLEM SOLVED. But, as of yet, nothing has changed, and the administrators of FB have given no signs that we should expect a change.

So, what's the next move?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Concept to Composition Part 3: Odd Nerdrum's Painting Process

And now for the long awaited finale to Concept to Composition: Odd Nerdrum's actual painting process.

This is by far the most complicated to explain. Especially because Odd's techniques aren't precisely a "process", more a massive collection of principles. There is no formula. There is no magic medium. There is no "trick". The first and most important thing you have to understand in order to comprehend his approach, is that he is constantly experimenting, shifting approaches, completely obliterating and changing the compositions even when any other sane person would consider that they are "done". The trick is not sanding. The trick is not scraping. The trick is not glazing or velaturas, or the palette, or the herringbone linen. It is not his use of mirrors, nor the dark lens he looks through. The trick is simple: he uses all of these instruments, and more, as if he were both the composer and the conductor of a great orchestra. All the while rewriting a note here and there, in the middle of the performance, repeating a phrase, going back and rephrasing a melody, alternating the emphasis on the brass or the strings, smoothly accelerating the tempo.... all as if each and every musician and each instrument were telepathically communing with him and could adjust their performance immediately according to his wishes.

I know how frustrating this sounds to the young painter searching for the secrets to great painting. But the truth is that there is no process or formula for great painting, in general, no matter how your working. There are only principles, knowledge, experience, and above all: inspiration and passion. The key does not and cannot lie in materials and methods, but within yourself and how you utilize them, how you orchestrate every element into a coherent visual language. If that's not intimidating enough, then read on, intrepid friend.

Contrary to the methods that most learn in academies and ateliers, and contrary to the way I learned, Odd's process is audacious, fearless, even reckless. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is safe, and anything can change at any stage of the painting. I've seen him completely finish a large painting and then decide that an entire, nearly life-size figure should be two centimeters lower, and so he simply scraped it down and re-painted the entire figure. I've seen him flip a painting entirely upside-down or side-ways and decide that it looks better that way.... then proceed to change half of the painting to work with the new composition. I've seen him decide to change the lighting at the last minute, invent shadows that aren't there, and make them look completely convincing.

And this is what I love the most about the way he works. There are so many people risking their lives everyday to keep us safe, so that we have the liberty to do what we do. The least we can do is paint like we have a pair!

It's all about principles, and understanding and applying principles is all about knowledge and practice. For a simple crash course, see my other articles on the subject: Oil painting techniques: grisailles. Oil painting techniques: glazing.

On larger pieces Odd typically begins by transferring a loose compositional sketch onto the canvas with a very simple grid. And when I say loose, I mean loose. It's simply about getting the basic compositional proportions right. Next, he will put a wash of perhaps brown ochre, mixed with linseed oil and turpentine onto the area that he'll be working for the day. Typically, he starts by loosely massing in the abstract shapes of the light and shadow areas using a simple palette of yellow brown, a red earth like venetian red or flesh ochre, mars black, and titanium white (See part 2 for more details on the palette.) while refining the drawing, proportions, color, and value at the same time. He's not so concerned with exact likeness or anatomy at this point, but more with the gesture, value, and color. He also applies the paint thickly and liberally with very little or no medium - in accordance with the rule "fat over lean". That is "fat" paint has more oil and body and "lean" paint is straight out of the tube. Your first layers should be in lean paint, and for Odd, that means perhaps the first two or three layers. Only then does he commence to add significant amounts of medium in principle. Though, as I said before, he does often break rules such as this, because he knows how.

He uses models, but not always the same one. Often times a student will model for him for a few months and then another will model for the same figure. He also works a great deal from his imagination and great stores of anatomical and aesthetic knowledge, so nearly every figure becomes a conceptual form, an ideal, which is perfect for his work as they are vessels embodying the content of the work: the spirit and dignity of humanity as a whole. His overarching message concerns the universal and timeless qualities of human experience, though specific pieces may be diverse variations on the theme.

The next stage is reductive. He will use a palette knife or steak knife to remove heavy texture that he doesn't like. He'll use sand paper if he wants an area to be smooth - he has several different grades from fine to rough depending on the purpose. But, and this is important, he's also using these tools as drawing impliments, and not simply for removing paint or revealing underlying layers. About the texture, there is an organization about it. This is the biggest fault I've seen with students trying to copy his effect: they typically will apply the same texture across the whole canvas without variation. But if you actually look at the surface of his paintings, you'll see that the texture tends to correlated with light masses, and the shadows are more scraped down and transparent. Opaque and impasto in the light, transparent in the shadows. This is another rule of thumb that he typically follows, but often breaks.

After scraping, he moves on to applying paint again - sometimes scraping it off or sanding it while it's wet, sometimes letting it dry, sometimes glazing and then sanding, etc... This is the stage where he moves fluidly back and forth between additive and reductive methods. Again, because of the fat over lean principle and because of the way that light functions, glazes and velaturas are typically reserved for the last stage, though there may be many different layers of these as well, allowing each one drying time in between and perhaps some sanding or scraping. He will often look through a dark lense at the subject to condense the value ranges, or he will look at the painting in a mirror (sometimes clear, sometimes blurry) to see the composition and general effect. And he spends long hours throughout the whole process, just working on the painting from his head: responding to what he sees, adjusting here and there, and perhaps changing the lighting or position of the subject.

Then, rinse and repeat until satisfied... but this is the funny thing, my friend Alexander Rokoff once asked Odd how he knew when a painting was finished. To which he replied:

"In the beginning you find the likeness. Many painters can find the likeness, but this is not enough. You must destroy the likeness to find the essence, which few are able to find. But, when you have found the essence, you must destroy it also, in order to find that which is beyond words. Only then can I be satisfied. Even then, it is not enough. I will work the painting again and again until I am even more satisfied, and this may continue for years. I think the painting is never finished, but some day I must move on so that I do not become crazy."

I'm sorry that I must leave you with perhaps more questions than answers. Much of this knowledge is simply hands on, and can only be acquired through experience and genuine searching. But, if you've come here looking for the secrets and find this article daunting instead, don't loose heart. There is inspiration here as well. Consider this quote by Charles Dubois, one of the most profound quotes I've ever heard, and one that resonates with me on the deepest level:

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to give up who you are for who you can become"

For me, this quote embodies the essence of painting, and the essence of life. No, in fact, it embodies much more, even - it embodies that which goes beyond words. And that is something words and paint can sometimes do. And that is why, in painting as in life; through all the struggles and failures, we continue intrepidly on.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sublime or Shameless: Facebook Censors Nude Paintings

The question of freedom of expression vs. censorship is an old one, and a topic that has again reared its ugly head with the controversy and subsequent arrest of Julian Assange, over certain top secret government documents being released on Wikileaks. I think we can all agree that it is not the place of the state to limit political speech, and it is certainly arguable that in order to hold political officials accountable in a representative democratic republic, this kind of information must be available to the public. And yet at some point there is a line where certain information may endanger innocent lives and a very difficult compromise must be made.... or must it?

But, it's not my niche, nor is it my intention to definitively answer that question. No, in fact, I have smaller fish to fry. Or bigger fish, depending on how you look at it... well, let's just say "other fish".

Recently, I was the host of an art competition on Facebook organized by Odd Nerdrum. It was the second of four competitions organized by Odd and administrated by three other painters: Odd ran the first one himself. The goal was to highlight the great number of incredible but unknown painters on Facebook, give them a forum to meet each other, to build community and potentially collaborate. At the conclusion of these competitions, we will put together a book.

A few weeks ago marked the start of the final Nerdrum Facebook competition holding the theme "The Beautiful Nude" consisting of paintings and drawings of nudes. And I bet you can see where this is going. In an article by John Seed in the Huffington Post about an incredibly talented colleague Daniel Sprick, entitled When is a Nude OK on Facebook, a Facebook administrator was quoted as stating:

Our policy prohibits photos of actual nude people, not paintings or sculptures. We recognize that this policy might in some cases result in the removal of artistic works; however, it is designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users.

Yet, the administrators of Facebook have, I'm assuming based on the flags by FB members, deleted many paintings of nudes, including my own piece "Hermetica", even though we took the precaution of including in the rules that submission to the competition must blur or block out any genitalia in order for it to be included in the folder - as a gesture of respect for other Facebook users. Odd himself followed these guidelines, submitting the piece you see above "Look at Me", which I must say is much better in the original state, yet has quite an ironic humor with the censorship bands festooned across the woman's more delicate parts. Nevertheless, over 50 paintings have now been deleted, some that only depicted female breasts, some that actually were already censored, and some that depicted nothing more than a bare back. Yet, others that revealed much more were spared.

This begs a number of questions: who is flagging this? Why would they "friend" painters of nudes if they found nudes offensive? Further, did they not see that this is an Art competition about the beautiful depiction of the nude? Here are the guidelines listed on the folder:

I, Hélène Delmaire, am hosting the final painting competition organised by Odd Nerdrum, "The Beautiful Nude"

"Beauty was executed in 1907. Since then, it has been ostracized as the devil's tool. Now beauty is a subhuman cliche. Perhaps it should be enlightened with mental spirit." - Odd Nerdrum

To enter please post your work on my wall, including title and format. One entry per person. A popular vote will decide the winner. Each "like" will count as one vote. The deadline is February 15th. After this date the number of pictures will be narrowed down by number of votes and a final vote will take place over a two week period.

Important note : In order to respect facebook policies and help the contest run smoothly, please blur out genitals or crop your painting accordingly. If not, your image will not be added to the folder. Images selected for the final book will not be censored, this is simply a measure that must be taken on facebook.

One could argue that Wikileaks has the potential to compromise national security and endanger innocent lives, but can one make the same argument about paintings of nudes? If people are offended by a painting of a beautiful nude, meaning specifically not pornographic, why don't they just not look? Are people afraid that a painting of a nude with censored genitalia is going to pollute their children's minds? Since a large number of Facebook users are under the age of 13, perhaps this is the case. Are these the same people who wouldn't let their children see Michelangelo's David for moral reasons? Is this yet another form of the iconoclasm that Odd Nerdrum mentioned?

Does it not seem ridiculous that our western culture parades violence and death in front of our eyes as entertainment, but a non-violent, non-pornographic, life affirming nude body, is somehow dangerous? Why is violence and death perfectly acceptable as popular entertainment, while nudity is not acceptable even as Art?

For the moment I'll put my own irritation aside, as well as my own judgements about the relevance of morality regarding aesthetics (which I've written about many times before). I do not define what's appropriate to society, so it's really a moot point. Instead, let's address these questions from a larger perspective. When (if ever) is censorship appropriate? What kind of censorship is appropriate and in what forums? Assuming that censorship is necessary in public places, even if simply because it is agreed upon as being desirable for the political correctness, then where does Facebook fit in to this? What is the purpose of Facebook? Is it just for children and friends? Is it for networking and business?

The short and unsatisfying answer is that Facebook is what its users make of it. Yes, it began as a social networking site for college students, evolved into some kind of mega myspace without the obscenity, and in the past year or so has evolved into an incredibly powerful business networking tool. In fact, two of my galleries and several collectors have contacted me through Facebook, and several more through other social networking sites. Yet, other networking sites do not offer the huge audience that Facebook does, simply due to its number of users. But this is a double-edged sword. More users means more exposure (no pun intended), but it also means more diverse opinions and views that may infringe on your own freedom of speech.

I am a figurative painter, and as such, I have paintings of nudes, and I have the paintings on my profile. Often a prospective gallery or collector will decide if they like your work based on nothing more than a quick glance, and in the throngs of painters in the world, and the thousands upon thousands of painters on Facebook, you have to have your best work easily viewable to capture their attention. Many of my best paintings depict nudes, so censoring those really limits my ability to have my work seen by those who would appreciate it.

Is this evidence of another iconoclasm in our society or is it simply a return to wholesome morality? Is this evidence of a clash of cultures or religious views? Is this an over-reaction to the way our contemporary society and advertisement relegate the nude to unromantic and vulgar kinds of sexuality? Philosophically speaking, is obscenity really a problem? Though I have my own opinions, and personally believe that obscenity certainly can be destructive, and I believe that we should respect people's cultural and religious views even if they clash with ours. And believe that artistic expression should be equally protected. Yet, protecting the rights of one group can inherently impinge on the rights of another, and that other happens to be me. So how do we balance all of this? Is it even possible?

I can't answer all of these questions for you, and though John Seed's article so articulately presented an excellent discussion of the topic, and I think raised a very compelling argument on behalf of censorship on Facebook, I don't believe he has categorically answered any of these questions either. I think these are questions that each and every person must ask for themselves. And maybe in a round-about way, that's the answer. If each of us knows where we really stand on this issue, we will better know to address it in our own lives... we can better navigate ourselves to the kinds of places where our own ideals are protected, and where our ideals don't infringe on the ideals of others.

Maybe Facebook is not the place to display our work as figurative painters. But in this difficult economy, and truly at any time, it's hard to accept a limitation on your potential success based solely on a handful of people who don't understand what you're doing. It's hard not to be angry when someone seems to blindly attack the thing that you hold so close to your heart... labeling it vulgar and obscene, when you see it as a thing of beauty and human dignity. You see it as a gift to them, and they see it as a threat. The issue with Facebook seems to be the same as the issue with the work itself: each of us has different definitions of what it is and what is should be... and for now at least, we'll all have to agree to disagree.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Nude Ascending: by Donald Kuspit

Ever since she descended Duchamp’s staircase in 1912, the nude has had trouble climbing back up. With one destructive dictatorial gesture, Duchamp undid the beauty she had in antiquity, and, even more nihilistically, her body: Duchamp turned her into a cubo-futurist wind-up toy, a mechanical doll he sardonically manipulated at will. The divine nude of antiquity, her body at once graceful and seductive—an astonishingly seamless merger of the ideal and the real, the transcendent and the erotic, the dignified and the desirable—was gone forever in modernity. No more Aphrodite of Cyrene, ca. 100 B.C., or Aphrodite of Melos, ca. 150-100 B. C., but Archipenko’s 1918 Walking Woman, with a large hole punched in her flattened torso, wounding and hollowing her, and Picasso’s 1930 Seated Woman, her body also a hollow construction, not to say a malfunctioning contraption. They are just a few of the female monsters—the avant-gardized woman’s bodies--that seem the sadistic rule in modernity: the female bodies brutally sacrificed on the altar of so-called art.

These avant-gardized females are sad excuses for femininity, and suggest the male artist’s troubled masculinity. They convey what the psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer called the fear—and finally hatred—of woman. Perhaps her misrepresentation is an attack on the omnipotent phallic woman—Magna Mater—or an expression of castration anxiety. The violence done to her body may be revenge for her power—the power of the model--over the male artist: a way of empowering himself by disempowering her—empowering his art by de-eroticizing her. Or he may be envious of the creative power of her womb—the power to give birth innate to her body--and try to rip it out of her or spoil it with his art, a secondary creativity compared to her primary creativity. Whatever the unconscious reasons for it, the hateful misrepresentation of woman in modern art can be traced back to Baudelaire’s view, in his Intimate Journals, that “she should inspire horror” because she’s natural rather than artificial, that is, “artful.” Projected into her, this horror made her look horrible—altogether inhuman. She became a container for what Baudelaire acknowledged as his “horror of life.”

The massacre of the female nude was carried out by an art that lost its innocence when it decided it was more important than human beings—when it abandoned what Harold Rosenberg called “the tradition of the human being as ultimate subject of painting,” more broadly, of art. This “liberation”—for so it was thought to be--made art “modern,” more particularly, “avant-garde.” Privileging art above humanity--severing art’s ties to everyday human life, a declaration of independence from human affairs suggesting a certain contempt for them (thus the avant-garde critic Clement Greenberg’s contempt for politics and religion)—is the gist of avant-gardism. The purification of art was a grandiose act of self-inflation disguised as an assertion of autonomy. It was a self-deception that led to self-defeat: uprooting itself from human experience, art became vacuous and futile, finally only able to “tell the story of its own barren soul,” as Zbigniew Herbert said, “gesticulating in a void” and forfeiting “the possibility of interhuman communication.”

The avant-gardization of art came to mean its heedless aggrandizement of the lifeworld for its own artworld purposes: they seemed more important than those of the lifeworld. It is no doubt why Duchamp felt free to ride roughshod over the nude, degrading her body into a mechanical device. Programmed to descend the staircase, she is incapable of ascending it again, becoming the goddess she once was, a higher being worshipped by all of humankind as a symbol of its own aspirations. Duchamp’s mechanical nude—emblematic of the de-organization of the human body in modern art in general—belongs in the junkyard. Duchamp’s artistic practice, which involved junking the human figure by dehumanizing it into a machine—confirming his admiration for American plumbing, which is what the Large Glass, 1915-23 is all about (and more broadly for technology, as the Rotary Disks, 1920 show)--indicate that when he spoke of enlisting art in the service of mind rather than instinct he meant using instrumental reason to eliminate instinct from art). It is emblematic of what Adorno called the indifference that pervades modern society, a climactic manifestation of its much acknowledged alienation and dehumanizing effect. (It is worth noting that Greenberg thought that “Courbet, the first real avant-garde painter…paint[ed] only what the eye could see as a machine.” Duchamp, it seems, only had eyes for machines, and saw everyone as a machine, preparing the way for Warhol’s remark that he wanted to be a machine. Maybe he was. )

“For me,” Léger wrote, “human figures, bodies, have no more importance than keys or bicycles.” The folly of modernism—its degradation of the human being into just another “plastically valid object…for handling as I choose,” in Léger’s words--is epitomized in this statement. It endorses what Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of General System Theory, called “the model of man as robot.” It has its uses, but it is a fundamental error: man is not a “living machine,” that is, a closed system, automatically functioning in pseudo-autonomy, its mindless insularity creating an effect of self-sufficiency, but a “metabolizing organism,” that is, an open system, inseparable from his environment, which he mindfully and constantly metabolizes in mutually influential intimate interchanges, and thus with no pretense of self-sufficiency. For von Bertalanffy, “the image of man as robot” bespeaks “the zeitgeist of a mechanical and commercialized society.” Its goal is to make “humans ever more into robots or automata,” “engineering” them to serve “pecuniary and political interests.” It is “metaphysics or myth, and its persuasiveness rests only in the fact that it so closely corresponds to the mythology of mass society, the glorification of the machine, and the profit motive as sole motor of progress.” Duchamp misread—wishfully?, ironically?—automatic as autonomy, and Warhol turned himself into a money-making machine, making art--what he called “business art”—to make a profit. It is no doubt why he seems the perfect living machine.

As though in repudiation of the robot model of human beings in modernity and modern art, the Neo-Expressionist figures of Baselitz, Clemente, and Cucchi, among other painters—noteworthily German and Italian, that is, from countries that had experienced the disastrous consequences of the robotization of human life under Fascism—convey a freshly organic vision of human existence. The figure also returns in the United States, in the imagery of Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, among others, although it still has a certain robot-like—mannequin-like—appearance, as though it was indifferent to its own humanness, even as their imagery engages the dehumanizing and de-individualizing effect of mass media society by more or less deconstructing and ironicizing it. There is no beauty in the figures of the European Neo-Expressionists or the ironic American “social realists” (as I see them)—or, for that matter in the Neo-Expressionist figures of Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel (also “socially critical,” if more openly engaged with the all too human pathos in the American lifeworld). The figures of Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein have what I would all a tendency to beauty, even a certain abstract beauty, a consequence of what might be called their descriptive formalism, that is, their use of modernist means to articulate the figure. All too human beauty had to wait for the post-apocalyptic human beings of Odd Nerdrum. Nerdum is among the key New Old Masters—artists who integrate and re-interpret traditional and modernist methods and iconography to renew and re-assertwhat the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson calls the “human aesthetic” grotesquely mutilated by modernism. The figure has once again come into its own.

In sum, the nudes in this exhibition repudiate the machine model of the human being and of the human body. They inaugurate a return to the “human aesthetic” that prevailed in art before the modern period, when the mechanical model of the body took over, artists being fascinated by machines that seemed to function more efficiently—and automatically--than bodies. The body is not merely a “plastically valid object” but subjective in import—its “plasticity” is innately subjective: convincing art is not merely a matter of plastic—formal—engineering but of subjective validity. The nude reveals the body ego—the most fundamental and indispensable ego, as Freud said—in all its expressive glory, conveying its unadulterated sensuous and sensual power, in contrast to the clothed body, which is emblematic of the socially controlled and engineered body ego—the body as a social robot, its innate sensuousness and sensuality muted, indeed, denied. The nude cannot be engineered into social conformity, but always remains uncannily nonconformist however ideal and beautiful its form: indeed, idealism and beauty are always nonconformist, even when they seem to conform to reality, as the ideal and beautiful bodies of the ancient Aphrodite do—not despite themselves, but because the ideal and the beautiful always contain the real and ugly, like the piece of dirt that irritates and stresses the oyster into producing an artistic pearl, uncannily irregular and regular at once, and thus dialectically poignant, like the body, which is both raw and refined, instinctive and proportioned, like the human mind. Many of the nudes in this exhibition are amazing pearls of art and life.

“Life,” von Bertalanffy writes, “is not a comfortably settling down in pre-ordained grooves of being: at its best, it is élan vital, inexorably driven towards a higher form of existence.” The same can be said of art--at least before it lost its élan vital, that is, became Duchampian and Warholian, and forgot that its purpose is to celebrate life, overcoming our fear of it by making it seem less strange, and so unconsciously estranging and hateful. The nudes in this exhibition do not comfortably settle down in pre-ordained grooves of art, but convey the élan vital of the body, promising the aesthetic perfection of ideal beauty—the sensuous and sensual subtlety of the body sublimated in epitomizing form--without denying the vulnerability of the all too human living flesh. In other words, they are as full of mind as they are ripe with matter.

By Donald Kuspit

written for The Great Nude Invitational, NY, NY, May 2010