Sunday, April 22, 2012

MMMM, By-Products......

The Unintentional By-product of Narrative Panels.  A recent development to some of my work is what I have been calling 'Narrative Panels' -which are separate raised panels attached to the surface of a canvas that either contain painted images and/or low-relief sculpture.  They are, at least in part, inspired by the separate panels in comic books and illustrative drawn diagrams from old encyclopedias and such.

Below is an example of a recent piece called Game of Chance Part II: Bone Dance.  The piece itself has three layers of painting, a carved frame, and two sections of 'Narrative Panels' (the most legible and topmost imagery).

Game of Chance Part II: Bone Dance started life as a completely different piece back in 2000 called Temple of Assimilation.  It has had three different incarnations prior to what you see here.  I'll throw in a couple of sketches so you can get a peek at some of the idea/image development process.

The top image is a sketch for the topmost layer of painting, and the bottom is a preliminary doodle for the narrative panel.

When I cut out a narrative panel, I found the scraps -the negative shapes, to be quite interesting in their own right.  The interaction between the positive shapes and the negative shapes form a visual tension that helps fuel the piece.  So I have been saving the negative shapes and reusing them on other canvases (turning them into positive shapes in the process).  Below are several examples of negative shapes (scraps) from other projects that will become positive shapes on future canvases.

The positive shape for this piece originally appeared on a piece called Nursery Rhyme.  For this example, the black shape is what would be called a negative shape, and the fabric-wrapped cardboard -the white shape, has now become the positive shape (the physical thing).  Originally, the white part was leftover scrap, and the center shape is what you see here in Nursery Rhyme (down in the lower right).

So here are a few other examples of how the positioning of the positive shapes changes/affects the negative shapes they create.

In addition to changing the negative shapes around them, the positioning and proximity of positive shapes helps create a visual tension.  In the series of images below, I simply moved two shapes closer together. During the progression you can see how their proximity changes the relationship between them.  At first they have minimal interaction, and as they get closer they approach a 'sweet spot' of high tension, and as they get even closer, the tension dissipates and almost morphs into intimacy.

Too far for much interaction...

Close to the 'sweet spot'.

Too close.  It has actually moved from being 'intimate' to almost suffocating.

Closer to the 'sweet spot' with the added bonus of some diagonals to create movement and tension.

When the interaction between the positive and negative shapes is really tight, you are left to scrutinize which is the positive, and which is the negative.  Or to phrase it differently, are these blacks shapes on a white background, or white shapes on a black background?

If you really want to see their relationship tighten up, hold your finger up to the screen and cover up the left side of the image above (just one finger's width).

That's enough egghead art jargon for awhile.  I will close with the pre-painted/pre-line work beginnings of Squishy Rumba (originally featured back in the 'Studio Mayhem!' post).  The completed Squishy Rumba will debut in Merican-Tastic! this August.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hey Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat...

Forming of the body for Twinkie is basically done, all that is left is the surface treatment and the constructing his hat.  If my studio was some sort of warehouse space with a large overhead door, I would have made Twinkie a 9' tall monolith.  Since my space has numerous old, narrow doorways, the hat had to be made separately -or I would have fallen victim to the classic 'artist blunder' of building something that you can't get out of the studio.  Hey, It happens.....

Making art is quite time-consuming.  Minor changes, reworkings, and/or tweakings may equate to an entire day (or even weekend) obliterated just to make one small modification.  I'm not sure that the ubiquitous montage sequence in movies and television do anything other than foster the expectation that progress comes smoothly and quickly.  I frequently underestimate how long it will take to do something in the studio.  I thought it would take me a solid 8-10 hour day to make a hat for Twinkie the Kid -including the first layer of fabric and priming.

5 days later......

I started with fitting/shaping a flattened-out cardboard box.  I would position it and then hold it into place with Duct tape and hot glue.

I should have known I was in trouble when it took me roughly three hours just to get the brim/base into a satisfactory (and stable) shape.

Here is a front view of the base/brim of the hat.  In case you are curious, it takes a while to achieve the proper 'upwards curl' on the outside edges of the brim.  If you weren't curious, don't read that last sentence.

The four-and-a-half hour mark!

 If you forward the hands of time to roughly 7 hours, you get the rough shape of a floppy cowboy hat.  It was time to apply several layers of fabric (old towels, T-shirts, rags, and 'retired' denim) and paint.  The paint stiffens up the fabric (which adds a great deal of structural integrity) and starts to smooth over the textures of the fabric.

By nine hours the hat was as covered as I could get without letting the hat dry overnight.  Here are a couple of detail shots of the beautiful texture created by the different types of fabric and an excessive application of latex paint.

You can see the textures from blue jeans, corrugated cardboard, and a long underwear shirt.

After several days of adding some extra fabric (for texture and reinforcement), priming it several times to subdue the texture, and then blasting the hat with a dust-caked oscillating fan, I was ready to attach the hat to the body and inspect progress.

Much to my surprise and displeasure, the side parts of the brim sort of drooped out and down.  This gave the hat much more of the look of a nun's habit -not quite what I was aiming for.

The edges of the brim were too heavy to support their own weight, so they were going to need some assistance.  I decide to curl them back towards the main part of the hat instead of inserting some kind of heavy, and possibly bulky, internal support structure.  Add a few more days, and here is what you get:

Ultimately, the hat and body will have a similar surface treatment, but for right now, they are primed and will hang out for several weeks to dry and be scrutinized.  The verdict is still out on the height of the hat.  I may round it off at the lower edge of that black portion.  After what happened to Metropolis, if I were the hat, I might be nervous.....


Monday, April 9, 2012

Lost Treasure: From Sketch to Finish Part I

When given large spans of time, my creative process is a loop of sketches on paper (doodles), sketches with materials (just making things with no particular end-goal in mind), and then the making of 'actual' pieces (being works I acknowledge on some level I want 'to finish').  I periodically revisit either the doodles and/or the 'sketches with materials' so they can inform the process of making a finished piece.

When I am under the gun to produce finished works for a show, I shift from that 'creative loop' into a list-making (and box checking-off) spazz.  In the next few weeks, I am going to have to shift into spazz mode to finish pieces for Merican-Tastic!.

Here are a few glimpses into pieces that grew out doodles/drawings/sketches.

This first piece is Carnival which I started in August of 2006, but didn't finish the frame until late Spring of 2007.

The frame and the painting really play off of each other in a way that energizes both.  The piece 'borrows' heavily from other cultures (cultural appropriation/assimilation is one of the themes in Carnival).  Here are a couple of sketches for the piece (please note that these were originally just graphite on notebook paper and so I have had to adjust the contrast to make them legible.  My sketchbooks aren't normally that frightening).

I like the energy/tension created by the diagonal 'Trojan Horse' figure falling into (lunging at?) the 'Earth Goddess Figure'.  In the final piece I chose to make it more mechanical/level/evenly spaced.  The multiple feet motif for the 'Trojan Horse' is repeated in my physical Trojan Horse sculpture that was part of Artifice, Artifact, and Allegory.

You can also see that I had an enlargement view of the pediment sculpture along the lower right of both sketches which was eliminated for the final piece.  In fact, I left the pediment (the pointy roof area above the columns of a Greek temple) just a black triangle and just changed the purple 'Underworld' area into a series of repeated figures (dancing/or being lynched).

A few detail shots:

Here's a quick peek at a sketch for part of the frame.

The 'One for a Nickle, Two for a Dime' disc in the center ended up in 'Domain' and all that remained in this frame was the '5 cents' in the corners.

Mr. Falcon Finds a Stranger in The Alps was created as a gut reaction to our national rampant stupidity over celebrity, consumption, and short attention spans.

I made multiple sketches trying to get the wording and spacing on the frame to my liking.  While carving the letters, I actually hit a weak patch of wood with my carving bit that sent large sections of several letters flying in different directions.  Fortunately for me, my studio is spotless so the pieces were easy to retrieve.......

Incidentally, anytime you see a large patch of dark black scribbling on one of my sketches, it was a place where I wrote down a phone number or some other nugget I don't want public, so I busted out the paint brush in Photoshop and 'redacted' that information.  Who Knows? I may like that look and start adding it to my final pieces.

Ahhh, Pop Song: Mystic Guru.  I actually haven't posted this image on either my ArtFeed account ( or SteveBanksArt ( yet because I sense it might still be begging for another layer of imagery/paint.

The frame is a done deal (and no small feat to carve all of those letters), but there is an 80% chance the painted part of the piece will get reworked once Merican-Tastic! is installed.  Here are a couple of preliminary sketches:

The 'Guru' had a body and multiple arms in the sketches which never made it into the final piece.  The target was moved, and somehow a banana split appeared.

I also haven't published Critical Mass Sans Polar Nuclei for the same reason as Pop Song: Mystic Guru isn't out there yet.  I have medium level of displeasure with how the bottom 20% of the piece turned out.  I was aiming for subdued, I think I got dead instead....

Here is an early version of Critical Mass Sans Polar Nuclei.  That is a diagram of the four chambered goodness of a Sky Bar.  If you have never had a Sky Bar, you are missing a slice of Americana, and you should maybe slam your fingers in a drawer as some kind of penance.  Don't look at me like that, I don't make the rules... 

You can also see on this next sketch where I was playing around with the carved-block wording that would ultimately be part of Nursery Rhyme.

I guess I am on a roll because this piece is also languishing in my vaults.  This is Transaction from PLAY! back in 2010.  It isn't going to get a new layer of imagery as much as just a tweaking of the colors.  I decided to use the same color palette for The Tower of Janus as I did for Transaction.  It worked for Janus, it fizzled here.

I usually paint the frame and the piece in close proximity and roughly around the same time.  For whatever reason, I just didn't do that for Transaction.  I finally brought the piece and frame together about a week before Play! opened and was mortified at how the painting and the frame visually neutered each other.  When I put them together for the first time, it was less than a day before our taping of ArtTalks with Bruce Carter (local artist, poet, philosopher, and interviewer)  I was still fairly despondent about the utter mess of Transaction when we showed up to tape the interview.  I hadn't 'whiffed' on a piece that thoroughly since Undergraduate School.

After the interview, I hurriedly went back to the studio and tweaked a few areas of the painting and the entire frame that day (oil paint takes days to dry so if it wasn't done that day, it would still be wet when the show opened).  I have left it in that emergency repaint state for two years now.

Here is a sketch from the top layer of imagery, and then one from the middle layer.

I was hoping to use a vintage image of 'Billy Boneless' from Long John Silver's back from the late 1970s early 1980s.  I couldn't find one online.  I got skunked on the internet!  How often does that happen?  So, My second place choice was the pirate from the 'Art-School-Draw-a-Pirate-brochure'.

I also included the Lego-guy Pirate face to ease my separation anxiety from the Billy-Boneless of yore.

The top sketch has yet to be used in anything, but you can see the letters at the bottom turned up in the frame.  The 'fortunes' on the sides of the frame came from a McDonald's Happy Meal featuring a Pirates of the Caribbean toy skull that told fortunes much like one of those 'Magic 8 Balls' do.

So there you have it.  Three lost gems and a classic.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Carving Part II

Reality Check!  I started to do the math tonight on how many carved frames I am hoping to create for Merican-Tastic! and an optimist might say my future looks 'Carv-alicious', while a pessimist might say 'Sayonara, sucker'.  There are roughly 12 pieces that I hope to create carved frames for.  This gives me roughly 11 weeks until our 'teaser show' (more on that later) opens, and 15 weeks until Merican-Tastic! proper opens.  All said and done, that's roughly a completed frame every 9 days.  My trusty Dremel Tool, my back, and my inadequate patience are all going to be pushed to their limits.

There are no hard and fast rules on what pieces get a carved frame and which ones don't, but a general rule of thumb is that I have to feel fairly strongly about the image on a particular canvas.  Canvases can change.  It's hard to un-carve wood.

I usually have the canvas portion of the show 50%-80% completed before I entertain frame ideas.  I brain-storm with images and words, and then crank out a series of drawings like the ones below for an upcoming piece which will be called Delivery Especial....

The sketches are just a starting point.  Next I figure out roughly what I am going to need for wood/boards to pull off a particular composition.  After I have picked out boards that will 'work', I drill a series of holes in one of the boards and squeeze in some wood glue and insert dowel rods into the holes.

I round off the tops with sandpaper, and then drill corresponding holes in the next board I am going to attach.

With any luck the holes line up closely enough that I can just push the two (or more) boards together.  More often than not, I either have to apply the gentle caress of Mr. Hammer, or Mr. 'C'-Clamp to persuade the boards to come together.  I am confident that the stellar Italian restaurant directly below my studio finds the sounds of Mr. Hammer equally as therapeutic as I do.

Then I layout the composition on the raw boards in pencil (taking into account the natural knots, pits, nail marks, and imperfections for the composition).  I make any needed adjustments prior to using a felt tipped marker to 'ink' the board.

Then I start carving...

I would be lying if I told you this was anything but profoundly boring.  However, every now and then, I happen to slip into the right mindset and I can spend hours and hours blissfully carving away.  Usually, I spend hours and hours disgruntled-ly carving away.

I still make design modifications while I am carving (mostly intentional) if I see new/interesting possibilities.  I also have to periodically open up the Dremel Tool and blow-out/brush-off all the sawdust that magically finds its way inside.  I actually burned up my first Dremel because I was not as fastidious as I should have been when it came to cleaning that bad-boy out.  It now resides in an EX-CH-AN-GE piece that Terry Rathje completed back in 2008 called The Cabinet of Doctor Dremel  (

Here is the start of the frame for another Merican-Tastic! piece tentatively called High Noon on the Streets of Reason.  You can see some areas by the cactus on the right that are not carved out.  When I first laid out the 'Wild West Town' I completely forgot to put in the areas where I drill holes through the frame so I can bolt the frame to the piece itself.  The cacti shapes will be those drill areas.

Carving out letters takes more patience and precision.  On any given design, It's difficult to determine if a cactus or a window isn't quite the shape I intended.  However, if the carving bit gets pinched and then zips across the board and turns an 'E' into an 'F', my attempt a carving the perfect 'Earthling' could turn into a 'Farthling', and who in the hell wants that?  (with the exception of maybe Doug?.... Matt?..... Gary? .....John? sister? .....former students? ......random internet strangers?).

So here is the original base image for Delivery Especial.  It was a piece from 2001 called Wall Motif: Without.

This is Delivery Especial waiting to have line work added.

Finally, here is an old carving called Processionalization.  I carved it in a board taken from the back of a built-in closet that I snagged while completing a demolition project (you can see the 'hangers' are still attached to the board).