On Standing Where He Must Have Stood

The permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of the Arts has an enormous influence on me. Like most kids in Detroit, I first went there on a school trip. (This was back when education included things like art and culture.) I was spellbound by the building itself. I stood on the stairs with my mouth hanging open, reading the text carved into the facade. I was completely shocked when I found out that we were going to go inside such a place. I didn't know you could go inside such places. After that trip I was hooked on the place. I was 10 years old. Every chance I could, I would take the three busses (including the Cross-town) to go and wander through the enormous beaux-arts building. I never tired of it.

When I would go back to Detroit to visit my mother, one of the first questions she would ask me was “When do you want to go to the museum?”

So much of that collection is etched into my memory but two things really formed and continue to shape the way I make paintings today. One is the Main Courtyard, which contains the Industry frescoes of Diego Rivera. The other is van Gogh’s 1887 Self-Portrait. The former is important to be because it is such a total statement about a people and a place, right down to the cells that make up the rock strata of Michigan. The latter is important to me for much more.

The first time I saw the van Gogh I think I was about 12 years old. I lied and told my mother I was going to the library, which was about 4 blocks from our house. I took the busses (waiting almost 35 minutes for the Cross-town) and got to the Museum about shortly after it opened. It felt like I had the entire building to myself.

I should say that my favorite painting at the time was William-Adolphe Bouguereau's The Nut Gatherers (Les Noisettes), (1882).

It looked so real to me back then. The silky carpet of grass on which the little girls lay while they fed their pet squirrel was almost seamlessly photographic. There was a delicate haze over all the forms. It really looked as if the girls would move if I turned my back and I thought that was the mark of quality in a painting. Moreover, the subject and setting was so removed from my life and my situation at the time that it was like a window into some better, safer world. I had received a monograph on Norman Rockwell a few months before and I though Bougereau made Rockwell look like a scrub.

On my way to the section where the Bougereau was, I got side tracked into the “Impressionist/Post impressionist” room. In the center of the installation was the van Gogh. It was on a thin pedestal and in a Plexiglas vitrine, like jewelry. I heard myself gasp when I saw it and in a fundamental way, I felt like it saw me. Not just in the way “the eyes follow you around the room,” I felt like the painting was inhabited. Not that there was paint on canvas, but there was a man’s head in a Plexiglas box in the museum, and that it had acknowledged me when I came into the room. When I walked over to it, I realized it was a painting. I could not believe for quite a few minutes that it was but the little label said “van Gogh, Vincent, Dutch, active in France, Self Portrait with Straw Hat, oil on canvas, 1887.” It felt then, as it does to this day, that there is so much more than oil on that canvas. I began to cry.

Over time, I have tried to assign the effect of the picture to van Gogh’s mastery of complementary color as a device to create the illusion of plastic space. The yellow in that straw hat, for example, is modulated from white to yellow to orange to blue to purple and back to white. The color is applied in strokes, which separate as color only to merge as form. I also attributed it to the way it is installed and being very young when I saw it. This is all well and good and perhaps true, but it doesn’t really explain my tears and why they still well up in the presence of the painting.

The only conclusion I can come to that the picture carries the trace of him. It is a self-portrait so it contains van Gogh’s likeness, but it also contains a record of his touch. The surface is covered with those touches and there must be hundreds of thousands of them. There is a devotional quality to touching anything that many times and to me that touching is a record of tenacity of the maker. So when I stand in front of the painting and look at those marks, I have the record of the experience of standing where he must have stood when he was painting it. And I can feel myself making that picture, making those marks one after the other after the other. With that self-portrait, I feel van Gogh brought me into the world of painting and showed me how it was done. No tricks, no gimmicks, just the power of color next to color. And that facial expression, which was so arresting when I was a child, seems to say to me still, “I see. I know.”

Across time and territory, a Dutchman living in France at the dawn of the machine age reached out to a little black boy in 70's Detroit and delivered a message. Not the hopeful, bucolic escape of a Bougereau, but the ability to make sense of the insanity of the world, and the safety that can come from the courage of the gaze.

I left the museum that day and never saw the Bougereau. My mom put me on punishment me for 2 weeks for lying about going to the library.

Goodbye, Lucian

Honestly, I was never a big fan of Lucian Freud.

I learned to keep my mouth shut around most people. I nod politely when people start the "greatest painter" discussion around him. (This is especially difficult when people compare him to Titian, the mega daddy of all painters of the nude.) I think that a lot of people think that he does what you are supposed to do in painting. You have to try really hard. You have to show your work (or your "process"). You have to use a lot of paint to indicate that you are serious. You have to be in the presence of the model and really look. The fact that the amazing Philip Pearlstein does all these things is lost on most people because the paintings aren't as visceral as Freud's, although in my opinion, Pearlstein is a much greater artist.

The thing that annoys me most in this discourse is that none of that stuff is true and, just like than any other painter, Freud's paintings are filled with conceptual and visual gimmicks that have nothing to do with looking and have everything to do to enhancing some sense of drama or tension in the work. Benefits Supervisor Resting is indicative of this. The figure seems to be hurtling into the space at lightspeed, arrested by the edge of the filthy sofa. The flesh is an inventory of mark and surface, Cremintz white paint pilled and cracking across the body. Most people are attracted to and repulsed by the investigation of the flesh in the work, as it Freud is the first artist to investigate the body in this detail. "He's really looking," friends often say to me. For someone who is doing a lot of looking, the color in the flesh is remarkably similar across his later work. His corrections are almost exclusively additive. We are supposed to think that some connection between the body of the paint and the body of the model.

The floor and the curtain are the things that excite me in this picture. Things are tilted at an impossible angle, not because it is really like that, but because these distortions say something about the condition of the body. His achievement to me has nothing to do with "realism." It has to do with his painting a 300 pound woman somewhere between a mass of dun-colored mud and at the same time, using the space around her to make her seem weightless.

Early in his career, Freud made these weird, flat, elegant paintings that no one could figure out. Quince on a Blue Table is my favorite picture from a painter I don't like. It seems effortless. I don't know how this image happened. He doesn't show me how it's done and in the amalgamation of things, shapes, and colors I understand something about painting's ability to make something unreal appear more than real.

I know I'm alone in this. So I usually keep my mouth shut about him and let everyone say what a great artist he is. Now that he's gone, perhaps Matthew Collings will be vindicated in his analysis of Freud.

"You're black wherever you go."

I am getting ready to leave Istanbul.

In a lot of ways, I have left already.  I have sort of contracted into a ball here, walking around the city in the morning and coming back to the hotel in the afternoons to sleep for a few hours.  Then going out in the evening for dinner at a couple of kebap houses near Tunel Station.  It's really great food and it's very cheap.
I think I have exhausted my time here.  
So many things were greater than I expected.  To see the work of Sinan, tiles from Iznik, the multiple layering of cultures, has been beyond belief really.  I have so many ideas for painting that I cannot wait to get back to my studio.  I have started making drawings and some things are coming into place for the work.  I am developing some ideas based on the grid that were not really available to me before I came here.  I also am wondering about the Tablet paintings and if they need to be figurative at all.  I have been really rethinking how I make these paintings.  Is color and light enough for the pictures?  Even the Savannah paintings have started to change with the insertion of various portraits into the schema of the grid.  The tiling here has really brought out the idea of pattern as an end to itself.  I am not sure if I can make a picture like that.  The figure to me has never been a thing about a way to investigate shape, it was the content of the picture for me.  To start making pictures without the figure is a thing that is coming up very much in my thinking and I have to start to deal with it.
At the same time, the ideas that I was looking at in the Tongue paintings have REALLY come back to the fore.  Seeing people walk in front of a tiled wall has really impacted me.  It is such a simple thing really.  I just started seeing it in a new way.  That space between can be flat and ornamental at the same time.  It is something Gregory Gillespie has done and even someone like Christina Renfer is doing now.  It is really the difference between painting the atmosphere and painting an area.  I was always the kind of painter who if I didn't know what to do with something, I just made it flat.  Now that idea is not enough.  I think the tile is a way into this, a way to have a dialog with pattern, flatness, content and character in the work.  I have been thinking of a way to bring the Tablets and the Tongues together.  Istanbul is giving me that, I think.
The other thing, the hard thing, the thing I did not expect, is that I have not really been able to relax here.  Turkey does not have a very diverse population.  I really stick out here, and people stare - a lot.  At first it was interesting to me because it didn't seem weighted with the racism of home.  I was like "The Brother From Another Planet," or something.  I took photos with school children who were shocked that I said "Merhaba" when they said hello.  That was the nice part of it.  The not so nice part was the cops, the stares on the subway, people putting my change on the counter instead of my hand.  The accusatory way they ask "Where are you from?"
Apparently, I look like I come from the Arabian peninsula, and since the end of the Ottomans there is not a great deal of love between the Arabs and the Turks.  Also, I have been taken for a "gypsy" or one of the Roma people and let me tell you, there is not a great deal of love for the Roma anywhere.  In light of all of this, I walk down the street feeling very uncomfortable and very vulnerable here.  I know that I am safe, but the looks on people's faces are not exactly welcoming.  I don't think I could ever get used to being looked at that way.  You might think that all of that kind of prejudice is the same, but it really isn't  In America, you get looked at like a criminal or a danger. Here it is like you are a freak or something.  It is very unsettling, especially since the Turks are such nice people and cannot understand American-style racism at all. But when they think you might be "arap" or from Iran, or gypsy, it gets a little weird.

I had a moment at Topkapi's Hall of Relics where I got a little worried.  I was in line to see the mantle of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) when I felt this man looking at me. I turned and he said "Where are you from?"  I usually start speaking French at this point (and I thank my mother for making me take 5 years of the language) but this time I answered in English that I was from the United States.  He glared at me said "I hate your President."  I said that I understood.  "Bush wants to kill all the Muslims," he said.  "Well, we won't let him," I said.  Then we both stood in front of the window that looked into the golden room, with the golden stand, holding the golden box in which was a piece of cloth worn by Mohammed.  We shook hands and departed each other.  My friend Michael made me promise that I would stop telling people I was from the United States after that.  I didn't, but I did speak french in public a lot more.
I think I was chasing the experience that James Baldwin had when he went to France and got treated like an American.  Not as a negro, or colored, just some knucklehead writer from the US.  I didn't get that in Istanbul.  I got a real reminder about being different, being outside. It is the position of the constant observer, really, the flaneur, the "Painter of Modern Life."
My father used to say, "You're black wherever you go."  It was a warning about the way the world saw my brother and I.  

Rauschenberg is dead at 82....

Michael Kimmelman memorializes him in the NYTimes (and actually mentions his partner, Darryl Pottorf).  
For me, he is so incredibly important because he could do whatever he wanted.  He exercised complete freedom in his work.  When I saw the Guggenheim Retrospective in 1997 (so large that it filled the museum's midtown and SOHO locations), I was completely blown away.  It was then that I realized all the stuff that people were crowing about in the 90's (collaboration, performance, expanded painting, technology, mediated imagery, working outside of the rectangle, graffiti, symbolism, painting as language, politics, multiculturalism) had been part of his practice from the beginning.  And the "Erased deKooning Drawing" is still one of my favorite works of art of all time. 

Magic carpet ride....

OK.  I think a sufficient amount of time has passed since the purchase of my Turkish carpet to begin to talk about what happened.

I had just come out of the Basilica Cistern.  I had gone there at the suggestion of my friend Cecilia because she said it was one of the things in Istanbul that had a great impact on her.  I have to say I feel the same way.  The cistern is so incredible (despite the music they play down there) that it is really like descending to another time, not just a different space.  I was trying to get my bearings and let my eyes adjust to the light when a tour guide started to talk to me.
He was handsome and charming and, like the majority of Turks, very friendly.  We chatted for a bit and I told him I was on an extended visit in Istanbul to look at art and design.  He mentioned that he worked at a store nearby and that he would be happy to show me some carpets and kilims for my research. It was early in the day, around 10:00 a.m.  I told him I was on my way to Topkapi Palace, but I would love to come by another time.  I gave him my card.  He said that he had his cards at the store and that it was on the way to the Palace, so I went with him to get his card.  I was not interested in buying a rug.
When we got to the store, there was a lot of talk in Turkish and the guide gave me his card.  He offered me a seat and introduced me to another gentleman named Hakim.  Hakim got me a glass of apple tea and the three of us started chatting about nothing really.  Then I noticed that the guide was gone, and Hakim and I were alone in the showroom.  Hakim spoke to one of the men in the store and suddenly rugs were being rolled out in front of me.  The most beautiful designs and colors and textures.  Hakim was really great at explaining the differences, how they are named for the region, why Turkish rugs are better (the double knot) and details about color and dyeing and all sorts of things.  It was really an education.  I was looking, but still I had no plans to but a rug.
More tea and more tea.  Hakim asked me which one I liked best and I told him there were so many that it was impossible to choose.  He told me he would make it easier for me.  He asked me which ones I did not like.  It did make it easier to eliminate some.  Hakim kept saying "Which is your champion?"  I was really enjoying myself looking and deciding which I liked. It finally got down to a really beautiful rug.  I told Hakim I was not interested in buying a rug, certainly not one for so much money.  He was very friendly and said "Didn't you come to Istanbul to see beautiful things?"  I agreed and he told me that this rug, which was from Cappadocia, he would sell me for half of the price that was on the tag.  I gasped and thought, well, that is a really great deal.  So we shook hands and I gave him my credit card and I thought that was that.
Now Turkey is often blocked by credit card companies.  I called my bank before my trip to let them know I was going to be in Istanbul for an extended stay.  Still, there had been some trouble with my bank with daily limits and such.  Also, I had only been in Istanbul for 2 days at this time.  So when one of the men told Hakim my card was declined, I really thought nothing of it.  "Please try again," I said.  "This has happened a couple of times."  
More tea.  And more Turkish conversation.  Hakim tried to call the number on my card but said he could not get through.  I offered to try but he said not to worry.  "Banks are a pain," he said.  He asked me if I could go to a bank machine and I said sure.  He had one of the employees walk me to a machine, but, because of my daily limit, I was unable to take out the entire amount.  He walked me back to the shop.
"Let's go up to the office," Hakim said.  I followed him.
From the colorful airy light of the showroom we went upstairs and around a few corners to the office, which was dark and low ceilinged but well appointed with a sitting area and a large office desk.  The lights were localized around the desk area.  One man in an Italian suit sat smoking on a sofa.  Another man with white hair and a knit sweater sat behind the desk.  Another large man with a doughy face in a suit was standing behind him.  Hakim offered me a seat at the desk with the Sweater Man.  He handed the Sweater Man my credit card and said something in Turkish.  The Sweater Man looked at me and started bending the card.  He picked up the phone and dialed the number on the back.
"How are you?" He asked.
"All right," I said.  "You?"
"Banks." He said.
"I don't know what the problem is,"  I said.
"We'll figure it out."
He dialed a few times and then put the phone down.  He looked at me, bending the card in his hands.  He said, "This card is bullshit."
"Excuse me?"
"This is bullshit.  This is a bullshit number on this card.  How do you call a number like this?"
"What do you mean?"
"This B-A-N-K.  How do you dial that?"
"Use the key pad to spell out the word."  I showed him how.  He dialed it and held the phone to his ear.
"Do you want some more tea?"
"We have a bathroom."
"Thank you," I said.  "But no."
The Sweater Man laughed and handed me the phone.  I heard the recording from my bank asking to call back during normal business hours.  I had forgotten about the time difference.  It was about 4 a.m. in Boston.
It's hard to remember, but I think now is when I started to feel frightened.  Hakim was gone. The door was behind me and I was pretty sure it was locked.  The man on the sofa was staring at me and the Doughy Man was somewhere behind me.  The Sweater Man was glaring at me now.
I looked past him to the monitors on his desk which I had not noticed before.  It was closed circuit television - camera in various parts of the store, and on the street.
"There's a time difference," I said.  "There's no 24 hour service at my bank."
From behind me, the Doughy Man said something in Turkish.  He went to a phone and got out an olde time charge plate slider.  He called Visa and got the purchase approved the old fashioned way.  I surmised this from watching him take my credit card and slide it through the machine, writing an approval code on the sheet and giving it to the Sweater Man.
"It's all set.  We had to do two transactions to get it in right," the Sweater Man said. "My cousin," he said, indicating the Doughy Man, "he does a lot of business in America.  He knows how to get around all this."  I thanked the Doughy Man in Turkish.  He nodded.  The sweater man put the receipts and a small card on how to care for the rug in an envelope.
"The monitors," I said.  "You can see everything."
"You need to," the Sweater Man said.  He glared again. "People try to rob you sometimes, gypsies pretend to be customers."
"Gypsies?  Roma?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.  "You have to be sure."
Hakim reappeared and patted me on the back.  I almost jumped out of my skin when he touched me.  "It's all right," he said.  "Everything is ok.  Come and get your carpet."
In a stupor, I went down stairs with Hakim.  He packed up the rug and put it in a satchel with handles. He put the receipts inside and told me to carry it home in my luggage.  He shook my hand and thanked me for being the first sale of the day.  I stepped out into the cold air of the street.
Everyone tells me what they would have done.  They would have gotten up and left.  They would have told the guys to fuck off.  They would have done all sorts of things.  Maybe they would have.  I don't know.  I do know that everyone handles situations better than you after you have had to live through them.  A pleasant moment turned very ugly very quickly and I cannot explain how.  I was probably swindled and probably paid way more for my rug than it was worth.  Because I was alone in a foreign country, I didn't think I had any recourse.  I felt (feel) very stupid about the whole thing.  They were probably looking for American suckers on their closed circuit TV and were waiting for me the minute I came out of the Cisterns.  I was shaking all the way back to my hotel.  I completely forgot about my plans for the day.  I put the carpet in the wardrobe of my room and went to bed.  I didn't even want it anymore.
I had to go back the next day.  For reasons too complex to explain, the Doughy Man charged me in YTL instead of dollars, so I needed to pay the $60 difference.  I could have blown it off and kept my money, but I wanted to be ethical even if I felt like they weren't.  Hakim was very sweet and very kind and showed me more rugs and gave me more tea.   He told me about his favorite piece (the guy is holding it in the photo).  This is the rug in his office.  I told him about my website and showed him my paintings.  He was impressed, or at least he pretended to be.  He wanted me to buy a silk rug that was created as a dowry piece.  He asked me to come back tomorrow to have lunch at the store with him and his family.  I said I would.
I went back to my hotel.  I haven't returned to that carpet showroom.  When guys on the street say hello to me now, I smile and keep walking.  I wear my sunglasses all the time to avoid meeting their gaze.  When I leave the country, I will post the name of the place.
The artist Pippa Bacca was found dead outside of Istanbul a few weeks before I arrived.  She was trying to prove that trusting people was key to human understanding.

The Six-hour dinner party...

When I told my friends back home I was going to Turkey, I asked them if they knew anyone there. I was prepared to spend my time alone, but I thought it would be nice to have a contact in country.  Elise, who works for Skowhegan, put me in touch with here dear friend Alina, an artist and teacher here in Istanbul.  After many attempts to connect (many of which were frustrated by my not having a phone) we finally had tea at the Londra hotel.  She invited me to her place to have dinner with her partner Faruk and some of their friends.  I liked Alina immediately and told her I would love to come.

Alina and Faruk live in Beyoğlu not far from the Londra Hotel where I am staying.  Alina met me and we had a short (and BEAUTIFUL) walk to her flat.  We got there and Tom and Chris, their American friends were there.  Oliver, an ex-pat from Louisiana came as well as Ahmed, a colleague of Faruk's.  Faruk was working on dinner and had a smile for all of us.  It was a really fun time.  We ate an amazing meal and then had ice cream with maple syrup (who knew?).
Faruk works as a carpet dealer in the Grand Bazaar.  I think he may be the only scrupulous carpet dealer I have ever met.  He is not interested in haggling over prices and will tell you exactly what something costs without any crap.  I told him about my experience buying a carpet and his responses went from laughter ("You are what we call a very good customer.") to rage over the way I was treated.  (Dear reader, I will elaborate on my frightening experience buying a carpet later.  Suffice it to say I wish to GOD I had met Faruk earlier.)
It was one of those evenings where the conversation is rich and lively and fun and serious and difficult and easy all at the same time.  We talked about everything from masculinity in Turkish culture, the upcoming elections (Faruk thinks that John McCain is going to be the next "President of the World" and I am inclined to agree with him).  I thought Faruk's head was going to explode when I tried to explain American style racism.  And he had me laughing out loud so much that my head began to hurt.  The man can tell a story that is so funny and he can do it in two languages at the same time.
Tom and Chris have both been lovely.  They live in Brooklyn and visit Istanbul very often. They are big fans of Faruk and Alina.  Chris and Alina are going to work together on some design and fashion projects in Istanbul and the US.  The market for this is wide open here.  There are so many buildings being "rehabbed" in Istanbul that the need for competent structural and interior design is great.  Also, given Turkey's westward focus, modernist ideology is very much at the forefront of what is going on here for better or worse.  Alina also makes these incredible silkscreen prints onto t-shirts that will no doubt be walking down the streets of NY and Istanbul.
So we all talked and talked and then when I saw Ahmed's watch I saw the time was about 3:45 am.  I was shocked that we had been there for so long but it really was an incredible evening.  I made amazing friends.  Tonight (Friday) we are going to a party at Tom and Chris's before they leave for America on Sunday.  It should be a lot more fun.

My city of ruins....

Nothing prepares you for Epheseus.  

It really is a place that seethes with life.  Not just the thousands of camera-toting, sunblock-applying, child-chasing, photo-opping, cell phone-chatting humans around you.  You are really catapulted into the past.  You walk the same marble sidewalks as people thousands of years ago.  You are under the same hard cerulean sky.  Your eyes hurt from looking at so many beautiful things.  Every time you turn a corner something more incredible awaits you.  You think, "Well nothing can be better than this!" and then you turn the corner and see Trajan's Gate, or the Celsus Library, or the Agora Gate.  It is hard to believe that one can see so much and still remain standing.
Turkey is essentially an open air museum of culture from major periods.  It's truly astounding to be here and to see these things.  The thing of it is that there is a strong presence of the Republic here.  You go into Epheseus and the two things that greet you are the Turkish flag and a picture of Ataturk.  You realize that you are in an Islamic country (secular, true, but you do hear that call to prayer, don't you?), that is the custodian of places sacred to the Christian, Pagan and Antique.  The Turks are clear on this: every sign says that this place is being maintained by the Republic.  It is a really interesting way to diminish the power of what you are seeing.  Even our tour guide sort of made fun of us for coming all this way to see stones.  I said to him, "Omer of course you must think it is beautiful."  He smiled and said that they are just stones but "these stones, unlike the ones we will leave, tell of the history, the personality and the mythology of a people."  I wonder what people will think of the ruins of the Trump Taj Mahal?
We saw the House of the Virgin Mary today.  Strange being there.  I went through quickly and was going to make my way back to the bus.  Then I started to think about my Mother and how she would have loved to see the house and how happy it would have made her.  So I went back and got in line to see it again.  I was going to light a candle for her, but I felt very awkward and stupid buying one, as if I was trying to look like a pilgrim.  There was a Christian Turkish woman and her children and she was explaining things.  I sat in a chair in back on one side of the door.  On the other side was a friar (a Franciscan I think from the robe).  He looked at me and nodded and I sat on the straw seat of the chair.
I miss my mother desperately.  I wish I could have brought her with me on this trip instead of bringing her memory and half of her DNA.  I tried to say a prayer, but it all felt rote and stupid, like I was trying to prove that I could.  So I just sat there and thought about my Mother in the house of Jesus's mother and started to cry a little.  It never really leaves you, you know.  It just gets smaller and more intense, like a mushroom cloud inside of that tiny silver ball.  She would have really loved being there so it was the least I could do to sit there and be a little uncomfortable and miss her with my whole heart. 

Dust in the Wind....

Here I am in the lobby of the Perissia Hotel in the Cappadocia Region of Turkey where the lounge entertainment is a young Turkish Man singing with an acoustic guitar.  He just finished a version of Kansas's classic and a significant number of the multinational crowd joined in with him - some in earnest and some in what I can only guess is high school reverie.  It's great to know that culture travels.  All of the culture, 70's anthem rock included.

I was in Ankara yesterday, on a group tour.  The first place we went was Anitkabirthe mausoleum to Ataturk, the man responsible for what Modern Turkey is.  (His image is in every place we go, humble or extravagant.)  It is an incredible place, over 200 acres dedicated to a single man.  (I just want you to know, that the guitarist is going into the Eagles HOTEL CALIFORNIA right now, completely without irony.)  It is a masterpiece of modernism, elegant, simple, severe and challenging.  It is said that a modern man should have a modern monument.  He got it all right.  The wall carvings of workers are clearly influenced by Soviet posters and the ornament is elaborate on the inside but is completely subordinate to the rectangle.  It is more a temple than a palace and like most temples you want to kneel the minute you come in.
I have noticed this a lot in Turkey and I am very glad that my friend Daniel Bozhkov recommended this country when I was writing the grant to the ART MATTERS Foundation.  The country is very focused on the future in a way I have not experienced.  The tropes of Modernism are all over the place here.  The gridded streets, the apartment buildings in the International Style, the obsession with technology all abound.  But these ideas are never really assimiliated.  For example, you will see a house that looks like something Le Corbusier himself built, but there will be the stuff of life all over the building completely destroying the Modernism form.  Satellite dishes, laundry rigging, abandoned furniture. barbecue grilles and rugs of every hue become the ornament of these buildings.  It is as if what is inside of the elegant box, the evidence of human activity, is forcing itself out of the architecture.  Even the signs for businesses add a garish vitality to the boxes on which they rest.  The failure of the modern ideal is all over the place.
That is not to say that it is not beautiful.  Quite the contrary.  Plus the people are lovely and very kind and thrilled to hear about Boston.  (To hear a Turk try to say "Parking the car in Harvard yard is really an amazing thing.)  They are very proud of their country and its achievements and really believe in the future, in things getting better, in the promise of Modern living.  This synthesis of modern austerity and Turkish ornamentalism has bred some amazing visual moments.
After Ankara we drove to Cappadocia, important for its connection to early Christian communities.  St. Paul began his missionary work here and legends of him abound.  Seeing all of the rock churches and catacombs where Christian his from their Ottoman and Roman oppressors was sublime.  You can see evidence of the very end of the Byzantine kingdom and the birth of the Turkish nation in Anatolia.  It is all over the travertine stone and the volcanic fields of wind and water shaped tufa that create a landscape out of Jules Verne.
Turkish turquoise, frescos from the Byzantine era, natural and man-made architecture side-by-side, oppression and salvation, catacombs and carpets and souvenirs everywhere.  It has been uncanny.  I feel at home and completely out of the world.  It's incredible.

The Architect of Dreams

Peter Doig. Peter Doig.  OH MY GOD! Peter Doig. 

The show at Tate Britain was amazing.  I really have a hard time believing that one person has the abilities that Doig has with a brush.  He does things in painting that serve the image and frustrate it at the same time, allowing you the pure joy of looking at a painted surface.  The paintings are beautiful, tactile, haptic, and strange.  At the same time, they have the quality of dreams; that specificity that an image has when you are between being awake and being asleep.  Something concrete collides with something inchoate.  The connection between the two opens up a space of possibility and excitement.  This is beyond some of the silly notions that people have about abstraction and realism.  ALL PAINTING IS ABSTRACT.  What Doig does is work with illusion and substance and surface.  He is really making paintings on the edge of what painting can be.  All of this without compromising a sense of connection to a place, be it Canada or Trinidad.
The other thing I love is his complete irresponsibility in the use of photographs.  Sure he gets ideas from them, but he is perfectly free to invent and redeploy the images as he sees fit.  Too many artists get so caught up in what a photo is that they just end up reproducing a reproduction of reality, as if that is enough of a new conceptual trope to sustain the work (Ever hear of Warhol, Richter?).  Rudolf Stengel's paintings as awesome as they are fall into this trap.  "WOW!  It looks just like a photograph!"  In 2008 is that enough?  Is that even a compliment?
Doig uses photography as drawing material.  He translates the photograph through his hand.  This is part of what makes his work so amazing - his alteration of the source material and commitment to drawing through an idea. The photo is a schema or a plan, not a goal. 
I have to add to all of this that he is quite simply one of the most beautiful men I have ever laid eyes on.  The video they showed at the exhibition reminded me of his soft spoken confidence and seriousness about his practice.  It also showed the sparkle of a jester in his eyes.  It brought back the generosity and openness of his Skowhegan lecture last year.
I hope he keeps painting for a long long time.  As long as this guy is working no one needs to worry about the state of the art.

Why hats are popular in Trafalgar Square

You know, I like animals as much as anybody, probably more.  But I cannot stand pigeons.  It has a lot to do with living through the first part of the AIDS epidemic.  There is this parasite that causes an infection called toxoplasmosis that killed a lot of PWAs in the 80's and 90's.  There is a moment in the AIDS chronicle AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, where a young doctor finds a sheep farmer who has some experience with toxoplasmosis.  You see, this was an illness, carried by pigeons and cats in their excrement, so the young doctor was thrilled to find someone who dealt with it on a regular basis.  He asked the sheep farmer what one does with the sheep who are infected with the parasite.  "We shoot them," he said.  

That is why I don't like pigeons.
But, in Trafalgar Square, in almost every language spoken on the planet (I think they missed Latin and Esperantu), it asks you not to feed the pigeons.  It's pretty clear and posted everywhere. And yet all over the Square there are morons giving food to these carrion animals. I don't really understand it.  Are these people thinking it is all right for me to feed them and no one else?  Do they think they are invisible and no one sees them doing it?  Do they not see the CURTAINS OF PIGEON SHIT COATING THE SQUARE?  Honestly, I don't know what to say about this.  I am glad they found a treatment for toxoplasmosis.
I went to the National Gallery and saw so many things that I had only seen in books.  I came very close to  succumbing to Stendhal Syndrome from looking at too many incredible moments of art.  Carravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, Piero della Francesca's Nativity, Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding, Rembrandt's Final Self portrait and Balthazar's Feast, and Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks.  All of that in one day.  Plus the Vermeers, the Rokeby Venus, Titians, Raphaels, RUBENS!  It was an incredible day.  I started getting back spasms from looking.  There was nothing to prepare me for what it was like to be in the room with these paintings that I had seen only in reproduction.  The copies are NOTHING compared to the real things, man.  It was an exhausting day, but I saw some amazing things.  Seeing some of the Degas made me reconsider him.  To see Rembrandt's change in paint handling over THIRTY YEARS!  I can see why so many people come to London to study.  There are so many masterpieces in the National Gallery.  Painters I love like Parmigianino and Bronzino are in the collection.  I could live in that museum and still not see enough.
Michael took me to his place in Brixton (I know what you've heard and it is a very nice neighborhood) and I watched a bad BBC quiz show and fell asleep for a bit.  We went to Brick Lane for dinner and hanging out.  Part of the toxoplasmosis rant had to do with Michael telling about his partner who died.  So many people are gone and it is hard to get your brain around it at times.  

There's no place like LONDON....

Well, now I know why Sweeney Todd cut so many throats....

I'm kidding.  Really, I am loving London.  First off, I have never been here.  There are over 300 million people in England and I think I rode on the Underground with all of them today.  I was not prepared for the sheer press of people that you can get caught in here.  Everyone is on their way some where and I have heard so many different languages spoken it boggled my mind.  I had a great moment when a couple of people wanted to interview me about my feelings on the National Health Service.  I had to tell them I was not British, so my opinion didn't really count.  I guess I look British.
I know this blog is about Istanbul and believe me I am very nervous and excited to go.  But since it is a long trip and I have the time, I thought I would spend a few days in London coming and going.  First because some of the greatest art in the world is here and also because my greatest friend is here, Michael Mullen.
I want to say something about the way the English speak and what it does to you.  First off, they are convinced that they speak the right way (it is called "English") so when you are over here and you are speaking it, you are saying everything wrong.  Think of the way you say "Worcester," or "Holyoke."  Now the way you feel about people outside of Massachusetts pronouncing those words incorrectly is they way the English feel about you and the entire language.  You can't compete with it, so you have to start pronouncing things the way they do.  This accounts for what people think is Madonna being affected with a fake British accent.  If she doesn't talk that way, no one here will understand her.  They look at you like you are a freak if you don't talk like them.  It really forces you to assimilate.
(Note: The above does not allow ANYONE in the Americas to say things like "Happy Christmas."  Now THAT is an affectation.  It is positively sick making and should be stopped. )
We went to Tate Modern today and saw the permanent collection and an amazing Juan Muñoz retrospective.  I can only imagine the work he still had in him when he died.  It was a haunting and beautiful show.  We just missed the Doris Salcedo installation in the Turbine Hall.  Tate Modern really is an incredible building.  It was an old powerstation that got repurposed into the most incredible museum.  We also went to the National Portrait Gallery (Sir Thomas Lawrence... so GOOD!  Who knew?) and tomorrow we are going to Tate Britain to see the amazing Peter Doig's exhibition.  

Wall work

My studio here at SCAD has a wall that is about 22 feet long.  It is great inside the studio and I have plenty of room to work.  The wall on the outside of the studio is blank, painted with the ubiquitous gloss white paint that I guess art schools everywhere use.  I am confronted by this wall (what I guess Melville would call the "whiteness of the whale") each time I go into my studio.  I felt like it was confronting me to do something with it.  In his essay "Whitescapes" in his book, Chromophobia, the artist David Batchelor talks about a kind of whiteness that is accusatory.  This has been on my mind as I pass this wall.

I've decided to use this wall as a site for drawing.
I am going to make some drawing installations on this wall, short-term projects of a week or so. My goal here is to expand my practice to include works that are specific to a location and have a limited means of execution.  I also want them to have as their main focus the formal essentials of two dimensional art.  I am not interested in making sculpture, but rather I am interested in the consequence of a mark on a surface, the evidence of the tool being used, and the duration of a mark in relation to a body.
Miwon Kwon's lecture on Felix Gonzales-Torres has really stayed with me.  Specifically the way Felix's work comes into being based on the certificates of authenticity and how the transmission of the certificate allows for the manifestation of the work.  Since these wall drawings are specific to the wall outside of my studio, it might be necessary to document them in writing in addition to photographing them.  I am not certain if these drawings can be done anywhere, but if someone wants me to recreate one how do I do it? Can I make the flexibility of location a part of the work?  Do I have to be there to install it?  All of those questions that Dr. Kwon posed in her lecture interest me a great deal.  

New Work...

I have been thinking a lot and drawing a lot this past few days.  The thing that has occupied me for a while has been this idea of ecstasy.  Bernini addresses it in his sculpture of St. Theresa, but I have been wondering about it in my own work.

At this stage of my life, I am barely a Christian.  I do have a long personal history as a Catholic so I do have access to ideas and models of trasformation, the miraculous and so forth.  I can call to mind many stories of the lives of the saints, for example.  But in my practice these have not been helpful in determining aesthetic frameworks for this project. 
I remember seeing a movie when I was a kid about the Rapture.  Essentially, this kid and his mom had a fight and she sent him to the store.  While he is there, the Rapture happens, when the faithful are taken bodily from the earth.  There is a terrifying, slow motion bottle of milk falling and smashing on the floor.  The holder had been "raptured" and there was only a pile of clothes where she had stood.  The kid rushes home and finds a pile of clothes in the kitchen where his mom used to be. Needless to say, this scared the shit out of me.  
I have been thinking a lot about that while in Savannah.  The possibility of being taken away in religious ecstasy.  Can that happen now?  What does it look like?  And really, since I am gay and an abomination in a cosmology that contains the Rapture, I know I will be "left behind." Who gets to go?  Who has to stay?  And since the sinners create the opportunities for the saints, is there a way that I am helping the faithful get to Heaven?  What sort of service can I provide for the faithful?  Similar to the service gay men provided to people of faith like Ted Haggard. (FYI if you see the movie Jesus Camp, there is a scene of Pastor Ted exhorting the children to hate gays.  It's edifying.)
As I keep making these drawings it is becoming clearer to me. 

Meeting people....

I've met a lot of people this week. I really think I may have met too many people. I am really exhausted.

The first week of classes is over and it was really great. I have 2 fine cohorts of students and they are really excited about getting to work. The rosters and working with the Registrar has been difficult, but I am hoping the sailing is a lot smoother here on out.

The high point of the week, besides the teaching, setting up my studio, and meeting Hung Liu, an amazing artist from China, was the Visiting Artist Lecture from Steven Yazzie. I met Steven at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture when he was a Participant in 2006. The work he created there became a large scale, multi-media project called Drawing and Driving. He showed this work and all it its various permutations and also showed work he is making with a collaborative of artists called Postcommodity. It was a really far reaching presentation and he talked very generously about his practice and how he allows his work to grow out of itself. He is a very exciting artist to keep an eye on.

After Steven's lecture, we went to dinner at a restaurant called local11ten, where all the the food on the menu was locally grown. It made me think of Sarah Beth, she would have loved to see a fine dining establishment that was committed to the local environment and area growers. Plus the food was amazing. Steven, and I got to talk and I also got to speak at length with the amazing Hung Liu. Her show is at SCAD right now and there was a very large speaking event for her the same night as Steven's. I wish that I could have heard her speak as well. Since she grew up in Communist China and I grew up in a leftist family, we had a great time singing old party songs and talking about Paul Robeson. Her exhibition at SCAD is called Memorial Grounds. You can see images of her work at her website.

We also had a sort of pep rally/faculty meeting this morning for the entire faculty. SCAD is essentially staffed by adjuncts at the Savannah campus, so this means that there are a huge number of people teaching here, just like MassArt. At this all faculty meeting, we had a speaker named Peggy Maki, an Education Consultant and Assessment Editor who talked to us about how to assess students and how to figure out how they are doing in class. I have to tell you, I was so glad that I knew about the Studio Habits of Mind because everything this woman was saying was an affront to what I know about making and teaching art. She was so focused on rhetoric and rubrics that she lost sight of what and how one learns in the making. It was so results oriented that she never saw what artists learn from error or mistakes. Lastly, it was so concerned with metric evaluation that it did not move the student from problem solving to problem creating. You can bet that as soon as the presentation was over, I gave her my card with the name of Lois's book on the back. I have to order another copy of the book from Amazon. I gave my copy away.