Phil Sylvester’s Interview On KBOO

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Being A Pragmatic Socialist Within American Democracy

I’m a socialist. However, I have a commitment even deeper than my commitment to socialism. I am committed above all to democracy. Democracy, for all its inefficiency and mediocrity, is the best system we have for maintaining community within a nation as wildly diverse as the US. And last but not least, I love America, I love being American, I love living in the US.

Holding all three of these allegiances simultaneously leads me to some choices within American society that are complex and not necessarily what one would expect. Though I feel the US would be a much better place for the majority of its citizens if its political policies were more socialist, my commitment to democracy as a political system and my desire to stay in America mean I cannot impose my ideology on the millions of Americans who don’t agree with me. For us to hold together as a democratic union, our only option is to come to a place of mutual compromise through the democratic process. Deep down, I feel the people on the far right are nuts and totally wrong, but they are a part of our democracy and have as much a right to influence our laws as I do. I hope they feel I also have a right to influence our shared society. The point is, democracy trumps ideology if one is committed to democracy. Whatever my ideology, the domination of American politics by my ideology cannot be my goal in a democracy. Democracy is the antithesis of a winner take all political structure.

Where this gets really complicated is in this season’s presidential race. I love Bernie Sanders. His ideology is probably closest to mine of all the candidates running. However, democracy works from the center and cannot function with ideological purity. If democracy is my first concern, rather than the authoritarian enforcement of my own ideology, then what I am really looking for is the candidate who can move the center more toward what I consider the best path. At this point, I believe Hillary Clinton would be better able to move the US toward the left than Bernie because she will be pushing from the center instead of standing for, as Bernie says, a revolution. Clinton, as everyone has pointed out, is a pragmatist, sometimes such a pragmatist that it makes me very uncomfortable, while Bernie is more of an ideologue. My best guess is that at this point, because of her great skill and experience as a left leaning pragmatist, she will be able to accomplish more, in practical terms, than Bernie. I may be dead wrong. Maybe Bernie can create such enthusiasm that he can create a major shift in American thinking. That would be great. But I will not support Bernie simply because his ideology is more in line with mine. This is not about what I would do as an authoritarian. It is about how to strategically strengthen the clout of my values within this democracy.

The trend on both the right and the left to excoriate candidates for their ideological impurity places ideology above democracy. If we choose to continue to live together in a non-authoritarian state, we need to radically tamp down the ideological self-righteousness on all sides. The self-righteousness stems from a winner take all, anti-democratic attitude and will tear, is tearing, this nation to pieces. If authoritarianism is what you prefer, then admit it. Say, “we want our side to take over and subjugate your side because we are right, you are wrong, and democracy is not important”. If, on the other hand, democracy matters to us, then we need to challenge our ubiquitous harsh and judgmental political behavior. The problems between the right and the left are obvious, but what is becoming just as bad is the name calling within the left and the right. It is all authoritarian in nature. I might be right or I might be wrong in my political judgements, but don’t call me the anti-Christ. I’m a participant in our democracy, as are you. I am not the enemy. Civility is the currency of democracy. Without it we strengthen the rigid anti-democratic politics that have brought American democracy to a standstill.

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Drawing Blind

IMG_0814In February, a show of my latest work will go up at Gallery 114 in Portland. Much has been made of the fact that these drawings are drawn to a great extent “blind”, that is, without looking at the paper. This is the story of how the blind work emerged.

About twelve to fifteen years into my work, I had a massive artist’s block. I had been doing figurative work from observation and the work was getting more and more detailed and explicit. Also, I was beginning to do multiple figure work. After a six month trip to Europe and interruption of my work, I found I couldn’t face continuing in this direction that had been evolving for so many years. Essentially, the burden of solving so many drawing details became overwhelming. I had the skills to solve the drawing structure, but it involved hours and hours of exercising established abilities and involved little new discovery. I wanted to get back to the feeling of my early drawing where new worlds of seeing were happening every day. However, I had no idea how to do that.

The challenge, as I have written before, was to let go of how I habitually approached things. One day, after perhaps eight or nine months of block, I had a break through session. I stopped looking to resolve the structure and shifted instead toward working very physically, very quickly,  and in a very large format, focusing on constantly exploring the frontiers of my seeing, larger scale relationships, more spatial and surface movement, geometric relationships. The key was to not pay much attention to the drawing itself, allowing the drawing to go out of focus, out of registration. That way, each new exploratory mark could just land where it landed, rather than being qualified so that it would line up with and not contradict earlier decisions. I could get to that place by working large and fast, but I had to work very hard to let go of registration in smaller formats and at slower speeds.

It was at this time that I started working with two ball point pens at once, held in one hand. I kept the pens on the paper at all times, moving continuously. That way no discreet edges could be created. The drawing was always out of focus. Not lifting the pens off the paper meant I was constantly leaving nonsense drag marks across the drawing as my eyes moved from place to place. The pen marks were so fine that no single mark could ruin the drawing. It was only how the marks piled up by the hundreds that had any impact on a reading.

Various ways of experimenting helped me develop, over time, the quality that I call independence, that is, where each mark has the freedom to land where it is seen regardless of how much it may contradict earlier marks. Cezanne is a master of independence. That is why his works often has a quality of being somewhat out of focus. Independence required that I not pay attention to what was already on the page. The easiest way to do that was to not look at the page much and to avoid looking at the moment the mark lands. As I became more and more comfortable marking without looking, I did more and more experiments suspending looking at the page at all while working. I loved working this way because it freed me to concentrate exclusively on observing and the expressive impulse of the mark, my two favorite aspects of drawing.

Well, one day, one of my blind figure studies actually ended up reading in a way that was very interesting to me and unlike any of my previous drawing. A huge amount of structure, especially spatial structure and surface, was implied, without anything being discreet or explicit. Everything was out of focus, but still, the drawing held a huge amount of implied content. That drawing haunted me. I wanted to make more like it but, for the longest time, couldn’t.

The next step happened while working on a portrait of David Biespiel, the poet. I worked from David for two months, going back and forth between blind studies and more explicit drawings. Eventually, I developed enough of a familiarity with his face that I could do blind studies that actually had implied structure rather than just being a pile of out of focus fuzz. I had tripped over the same territory as that figure drawing that I couldn’t repeat. The key was becoming extremely familiar with my subject.

About five or six years ago, I started drawing my friend Gary each week. I’ve drawn Gary now at least 400 hours. My studies go back and forth between fully blind and explicit, also hitting all the territory in between. Essentially, I am moving back and forth across a line of ambiguous implication, hoping to occasionally get close to the knife edge of ambiguous structure that so interests me. I would say that it takes me maybe one hundred drawings, each going too far toward either control or empty chaos before I find a drawing with some of the qualities I value. The Gallery 114 show gives me a chance to share some of this work.

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Exhibiting Again, After 17 Years In Exile


Seventeen years ago, I stopped showing in galleries. This is the story of why that happened and why I am coming back. I will be showing my portrait drawings with David Slader’s paintings in February at Portland’s Gallery 114.

My last show was in 1999 at the Mark Woolley Gallery. I approached Mark and asked if I could do a one man group show, that is, a show that filled his whole gallery that featured three of the four directions of my work at the time, my junk paintings, which were three dimensional  constructions composed of found objects and paint; my abstract paintings; and the guitars and amps I had begun making. I wasn’t including my drawings because many gallery owners had explained to me that drawings were nearly impossible to sell in Portland. Mark graciously accepted (Mark is the greatest) even though I wasn’t part of his gallery stable. Mark suggested just showing the abstract paintings and guitars because he had recently shown a group of my junk paintings. We did the show. It had tons of work, a real gang of paintings along with many guitars and amps. Mark sold a number of the paintings, but the guitars and amps were clearly just a weird fit for galleries even though the guitars were unconventional and very visual.

I think, with my abstract paintings, I was probably moving into some of the same territory that led to Duchamp’s finally giving up painting. I had a very steep and exciting learning curve in my first basically twenty years of painting, but by the Woolley show my painting was degenerating into a sort of visual/formal/compositional chess game that I was losing interest in. With my guitars, however, I was right in the heart of constant discovery.

My guitars became the primary focus of my work, though I never stopped experimenting with drawing and painting. Because galleries were not a great fit for the guitars, I just stopped showing in galleries. I soon received a call from Cliff Cultreri, one of the great dealers in hand built, high end guitars. Cliff asked if he could represent my guitars. I was thrilled with the offer and accepted.

Not being associated with galleries gave me the freedom to move in ever more private directions with my drawing and what little painting I did. In fact, I really considered the guitars the core of my painting because each one involved color, texture, collage, and composition.

I began to use my drawings for two purposes. The first was social. Early in my drawing I had had to stay quiet while I worked, to maintain my concentration. As I became a more experienced drawer, I began to speak to my models more and more while I was working. In some ways the discussion kept my mind occupied so that my sensibility could function without interference. Once I could talk and draw at the same time, I started using sittings as a way of spending time with people I’d like to spend more time with. About five years ago, after the death of my parents, I asked my friend Gary if he would sit for me. Gary had had his share of losses in life and I hoped he could be a person with whom I could share my grief. Gary and I were friends at that point but didn’t yet know each other especially well. Gary and I have now worked together at least a couple of hours a week, most weeks, ever since then. By my calculations, I have drawn Gary at least 400 hours and feel I could easily study his face 400 more. He has a great, complex, and spatially difficult face that I can’t imagine ever exhausting as a subject. 400 hours in and I still feel I haven’t even come close to how I see him.

The second purpose has a long back story that I have discussed in other blog entries. Many years into my drawing I realized that the gap between what one could see and what one could capture physically through drawing grows over time rather than shrinks, that one’s ability to see into the nature of things grows faster than our physical equipment, the hand development and means of characterization through which we draw. As a neophyte I had just assumed that once I got pretty experienced at drawing I’d be able to draw what I saw. That presumption just turned out to be wrong, one of the many naive misconceptions that shatter with experience. Presented with the fact that I would never be able to capture all that I saw, I began to rethink my motivation as a drawer. What has meaning to me now is using drawing to experience the world in a deeper way. If I am wrestling with what I am observing through drawing, I notice and experience far more than I otherwise would. If the purpose of drawing becomes experiencing the subject, then the drawing itself becomes simply the residue of that process rather than the goal or purpose of the process. If the drawing as object is no longer primary, then one has the freedom to explore whatever means of making most enrich the experience. I find that what helps me most is “drawing blind”, i.e. drawing without looking at the paper. Blind drawing allows me to indulge in every way I can conceive of of breaking down or processing the subject, while also allowing each mark or realization or form of searching making to be acted upon in its full integrity without being compromised to fit marks previously placed on the page.

Now this is all slightly disingenuous because the more I worked on blind drawings the more interesting I found the residue, that is, the more interesting I found the drawings themselves. So now I work primarily blind, looking from time to time to allow movement back and forth between legibility and ambiguity, trying to find an ideal balance point, from my point of view, of ambiguous implication.

Having done hundreds, perhaps thousands of such drawings, I have begun to accumulate a handful that give some evidence of the visual quality I am interested in. A body of work has begun to form that I would like to share, simply because no one has seen it but me, with the exception of a few close friends and some of my students. Galleries are the vehicle for this kind of sharing so this year I started to contact galleries again and kept an eye out for opportunities. When David invited me share his show, the timing was right.

Actually, I don’t really like working with galleries. Art sales get too bound up with issues of prestige, and self-promotion takes more work than it has been worth to me. The act of drawing is all that I really care about. Even so, it will be fun to share what I’ve been up to all these years. See you at the show.

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A Few Reflections on our Europe Trip

We’ve just returned from three weeks in Europe. We went to Berlin first, where I had been invited to show my guitars as part of a world-wide invitational show called the Holy Grail Guitar Show. After that, we spent ten days in Paris and the evening of our next to last day the terrorist attack happened. I’ll get back to that.

Berlin is an amazing city. What struck me perhaps most is that Berlin is a laboratory for the future in Europe and the US. The city is the most diverse I have experienced. The buses, particularly in the neighborhood where we were staying, were filled with as many people of non-Western European heritage as they were with people of German heritage. There were great numbers of Muslims. There were Turks. There were Africans. It felt like Berlin was a place where integrated world culture was taken for granted. Maybe not taken for granted. I know there are plenty of Germans who are as anti-immigrant as right wingers in the United States, but that train has left the station in Berlin. Cultural inclusion is inescapable and irreversible there.

One of the loveliest moments I witnessed was when a thirty something German man on the bus broke in on a discussion among three other men. The German said, “I overheard that you are newly arrived from Syria. I just wanted to welcome you.”

Another very interesting part of the Berlin experience is that there is a huge presence of information about the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi era. In Berlin, at least, people are openly facing their society’s failures through a great number of monuments, museums, etc.. As others have suggested, Berlin’s approach could serve as a model for how we could engage American bases for shame, the legacy of slavery above all.

Back to the issue of immigration. One of the most interesting conversations I had with a German was with a friend named Moe. Moe, a native Berliner, born and raised, though his father was Sudanese, was very concerned about the influx of immigrants, principally because they were not  primarily secular. He pointed out that the shift in European society toward the secular, was a hard won shift that emerged through a long history of experience with religious conflict and religious extremism. He worried that immigrants from more religiously homogeneous cultures wouldn’t understand the critical importance of secularism in such a diverse democracy. I definitely understand Moe’s concern but I think that these days the assimilation of immigrants from very different cultural backgrounds is an inescapable part of urban life. The question, I think, is how can the immigrants be truly included in the full society so that they, too, experience the advantages of modern society. That sounds kind of naive, but I don’t see what other sensible option we have. Isolation and de facto segregation clearly aren’t working in Europe. Moe also explained to me that there were areas of rural Germany where he couldn’t travel because he wasn’t “white enough”, that there was such xenophobic mania in these parts of Germany that even a German who didn’t look German enough wouldn’t be safe. What a sick and dangerous species we are.

On an entirely different note, the guitar show was great. I met many makers whose work I admire and, to my great surprise, found that most of them had been following and admiring my work for years. Many makers told me that they felt the non-traditional ground I am breaking with my designs is freeing up possibilities for all makers. To find that the stuff you are making in private in your little studio really means something to lots of people around the world is a wonderful thing to experience. It gives me even more license to go ahead being who I am. I was afraid that many guitar makers would be offended by my work because it is so rough, so outside the typical refinement of guitar building. But  everyone seemed to get that each way of making contributes on its own terms and that the variety and range of approaches is a good thing.

For years I have admired the work of an Italian guitar maker from the 1960s named Wandre Pioli. Wandre was a true one-of-a-kind maker and artist whose designs were wildly creative and unconventional. I’ve always secretly felt a kinship with Wandre as a fellow full out weirdo. Well, just by coincidence, the guitar show had a special table featuring Wandre’s work because a definitive book on his work, the first actually, had just been published. The author, Marco Ballestri, was there and we had a number of conversations. My greatest compliment of the show was Marco’s telling me that I was the 21st century Wandre.

On to Paris. Paris was lovely. We were in an absolutely beautiful apartment in a stunning part of one of the oldest and smallest scale parts of the city. The best part of the trip was just taking walks in our neighborhood. Our apartment was so old that the owner had no idea how old it was. From my research it could have been built in as early as the 1400s. The 1600s is probably more likely. The construction was heavy timber framing. The joists and beams were all hand hewn, and held together with wooden dowels rather than metal. Access to the bedroom was via a tiny spiral staircase that I was surprised could even handle our weight. Access to the apartment was through two courtyards and up six short flights of ancient stairs. The construction of our apartment was very approximate. By that I mean that the joists in the ceiling were not consistent widths and not consistent distances from each other. Everything was similar but far from exact. Everything was “in the ball park.” It struck me as the physical equivalent of the sense of time when the building was built. As I understand it, bells would ring for major divisions of the day, but time had nothing to do with our modern notion of judging time by the exact minute (or hundredth of second on my smart phone). Now, in construction, each joist is exactly the same depth and exactly the same spacing as every other joist. In general, I feel we are slowly and progressively being consumed by meaningless precision in modern culture. Of course, that very precision is the basis of the construction of the Eiffel tower. It has advantages under some circumstances, but I think we have begun to compulsively see exactness or uniformity as innately valuable.

Our next to last night, Joan and I went out to dinner in our neighborhood. After dinner we went walking. We thought about walking one direction, which would have taken us right toward the Bataclan theater, about twenty minutes’ walk away, but we decided we were too tired and walked the other way to shorten the walk. The moment we got home the sirens started. There were hundreds of sirens that continued throughout the night. I was watching TV when the reports started coming in, gunfire in a Paris neighborhood, then in two locations, then that the guns were kalishnikovs, then ever rising numbers of dead and wounded, then explosions, then more locations and hostages. There was a huge amount of time (two hours) between the early reports of deaths and hostages at the Bataclan and the eventual storming of the theater by Paris police. We were very worried about the fate of those people the whole time and very little was known about their circumstances. We were frantically trying to figure out what was really going on by checking English news sources on the web. The president announced that the borders would be closed and we had no idea what that meant, whether it would have any impact on out return flight. It was horrible. We finally went to sleep. The next morning, I checked the news then went outside to get some bread. Authorities had said to stay inside the night before, but I felt trapped by the whole event and felt I had to reclaim my freedom to be in the world. Many Parisians felt the same and it was very reassuring to see so many people defiantly back out on the streets of their city the following morning. Even so, there was an obvious sense of sorrow everywhere.

The whole experience really shook all three of us terribly and is still very much a part of my mood a week later. I am haunted by all of it, in fact, terrorized, although I refuse to let it keep me from my life. The grief however is profound and just as with 911 will take time to come to terms with.

All in all, it was a magnificent though very challenging trip. We are so grateful to all the people who contributed and made this trip possible. I know that with time the positive parts of the trip will no longer be overshadowed by the momentous events of its ending, but for now my mind is on Paris and its loss.

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The Power Of Screens

Imagine feeling the first minor tremors before the San Andreas Fault finally makes the big shift, the premonition, experiencing the first whispers of imminent disaster. I had an experience today that felt a bit like that. On the surface it was pretty innocuous, but maybe not. I was sitting in a coffee shop and in came a healthy, intelligent looking young woman with her maybe ten month old son. Once she had ordered and settled with her son at a table, she shifted her attention to her cell phone. For fifteen minutes she focused on the phone, only occasionally and briefly engaging her son to move some food within his reach or maybe to wipe his mouth. The child actually seemed pretty content. Perhaps he was used to this behavior and expected little more.

I am quite familiar with screen addiction. I often experience feeling neglected as my wife obsessively entertains herself with Facebook or solitaire. My adult son often has to fight for my attention as I stare at the computer. I often wonder if my dog is jealous of the computer because we spend hours focusing on it while he is right there on the couch next to us hoping for attention. That is, I am not immune, nor are my loved ones. But a baby? How far will we all go with this stuff? I thought watching bicyclist texting was the limit. I was wrong.

As one of my students suggested, maybe the mother was just taking a break. But I have seen that fixed gaze at the screen. I know that gaze. The very fact that a person could become so transfixed even in the presence of their own infant shows the power of our screen worlds. What could be more fascinating than one’s own young child? The answer… a smart phone. And what is the child’s experience. I know the petty jealousy that wells up in me when a loved one is magnetically attached to a screen and I am experienced as an interruption. What if I grew up always feeling secondary to these mysterious screens, screens that were somehow more important to my mother than I was. What kind of human would I become?

I feel sort of fortunate to have witnessed the behavior of this young mother. It felt like a warning of sorts, a warning of how powerful the pull of these devices is and how destructive our succumbing to that pull can be. Next time I’m thinking, oh just let me check a few things on Ebay, then we can talk, maybe I’ll stop staring at the machine and actually place greater importance on interacting with a loved one. Next time I look at something related to guitars on the web, maybe I’ll play an actual guitar instead.

One thing we have learned from the study of mirror neurons is that humans can have the same experience, from a neurological perspective, watching an activity as they would have actually participating in that activity. As our technological tools become ever more sophisticated, the potential of leading a purely virtual life becomes more and more real. I know teenagers and young adults who lead primarily virtual lives and have a fairly reasonable daily sense of satisfaction with life. The problem is that both for us as individuals and for us as a society, virtual behavior contributes nothing and builds nothing. It is neutral, non-constructive entertainment. We all love having time to veg out, time when we’re done being productive for the day, but as screen access becomes ubiquitous and so powerfully attractive, more and more time during our days goes virtual. Seeing that young woman with her child and her oh so much more important smart phone just reminds me that we need to be careful about this stuff. It is not innocuous and it is not neutral. It is a powerful drug that is pulling many of us away from life. I don’t know how successful I will be at challenging this addiction or at least finding an appropriate limited role for it in my life, but the stakes are, I believe, larger than we are admitting. It very much like we as a society are quietly dropping into a mass heroine addiction. It actually feels great, so what could be the problem? As with a heroine addiction, how does one react against it while experiencing the pleasure of it? I don’t know. Perhaps we still have enough awareness to see what we are doing while we are doing it.

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Why I Like Being A Mutant

Pheo Artist's Model

This October, my guitars are going to be exhibited in a show in Berlin called the Holy Grail Guitar Show. 115 guitar makers from all over the world have been invited to exhibit in this show. The show purports to be the best guitar show in the world, exhibiting the highest quality contemporary work. Well, being in this show is scary for me because all the other participants make exquisitely crafted guitars, while I make really weird guitars with lots of scrapes and scars, guitars that challenge exquisite craft as the most important standard in guitar design. Showing among these makers evokes my deepest personal doubts.

Where does my approach toward guitar making come from? From those very same doubts, the same place my approach to drawing comes from. My choices in making are grounded in my challenging my own perfectionism. Why? Because my perfectionism makes me absolutely crazy. When I approach territory that kicks in my sense of perfectionism, I start to tighten up, I second guess my every choice, I become so hesitant that I can hardly act. When I do act from that state, my work sucks because my actions express, above all, fear and self-doubt. My choices have no power because they are halting, stuttering, neurotically careful, and indecisive. There is no confidence in my behavior. I express the human spirit in a state of nothing but apology. It is an ugly state to experience, personally, and the resulting work is even worse than that.

My pathological relationship with perfectionism has very deep and personal roots, but those roots are not my interest in this entry. My question is, if I could erase my problem with perfectionism, would I? Do I want to?

The interesting thing is, this question is not hypothetical. A few years ago, I was prescribed a drug called Vyvanse. Vyvanse is a time release stimulant, prescribed in my case for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There is a big OCD dimension to my perfectionism. Well… on Vyvanse, I can go right into the middle of the territories where my perfectionism would typically strangle me and stay perfectly comfortable, doing what I can do without freezing or becoming self-conscious, without becoming perversely careful in an attempt to avoid mistakes. It’s really quite strange. On Vyvanse I can do obsessive craft guitar making and I do it pretty well, you know, as well as the next guy or gal. Plus, it is so nice to be out from under the anxiety associated with all that.

So why did I stop taking Vyvanse? I’d like to say that I was so wise that I chose to stop. Actually, I started developing side effects that forced me to stop. However, upon reflection, I’ve come to feel that stopping is, perhaps, a good choice independent of side effects.

The Berlin show helped throw all of this into relief. I was thinking, “Oooh, it’s going to be scary showing my weird guitars among all those perfect guitars. Vyvanse will let me make my guitars as perfectly as all the others in the show.” Then a voice in me asked why I would want to do such a thing? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my difficult relationship with perfectionism has everything to do with the uniqueness of my voice as an artist and with the joy that my peculiar ways of making bring me. Without my debilitating perfectionism, I would never have needed to make guitars or drawings the way I do. Years ago, one of my mentors suggested that our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses emerge from the same personal thread. Change one and you change the other. If I were to subtract the issue of perfectionism from my work, the clarity of my present point of view would evaporate. I’d make guitars just like anyone else. Where’s the fun in that?

I know that, in fact, my nature would not actually disappear were I to make significant progress with some of my psychological challenges. I would probably still make unique guitars, just unique in a different way. However, I am challenging the idea that everything would be better if we had no problems. I think our responses to our problems (Maybe problems isn’t even the right word. Perhaps I am just talking about emerging from any context of experience) are the basis of identity and choice. I once wondered how one would do yoga without having a stiff body to respond to. It would be impossible. One would have no sense of orientation, no motivation. There would be no reason to do yoga. Same with life and identity. Would we really prefer to live in an ideal state where we aren’t all twisted up with traumas and difficulties? I wouldn’t. My challenges are the drivers of my learning and expression and I absolutely love learning and expression. Really, what do I want with Eden? Give me the damned apple and all the crap that comes along with it. In for a penny, in for a pound. Sure, I’d like to cut the crap by half, but that doesn’t seem to be an option in the contract. The options are, are you in, or are you out? Yes, it’s hard, but I’m definitely in. I know I don’t actually have a choice, psychoactive drugs notwithstanding, but even if I did I’d be in. Thinking about whether I would choose my difficulties and deciding yes, even that softens the whole situation just a bit.

That being said, it is an awful lot of work and becomes overwhelming fairly often. So I also value temporary vacations from the challenges and any tricks or tools that allow such vacations. As they say, moderation in all things. As go the hard parts, maybe I am simply rationalizing an inescapable situation, but I think there is a little more truth to it than that. I think as the years stack up I am beginning to begrudgingly appreciate the horror of it all. I guess it’s no coincidence that Beckett’s writing is reading more and more to me as joyous and honest comedy.

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Another Gary


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Recent Portrait


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The Artist’s Block

Recently, a friend asked me for advice because she had begun to dread going into the studio. I took the question very seriously because while a musician, I had a full on, catastrophic block that led ultimately to my putting my instrument away for fifteen years. Later, about ten or twelve years into my career as a visual artist, I had an equally rough block that I eventually got through. Blocks are natural. They happen to everyone. Unfortunately, people don’t talk about blocks much. I find it particularly distressing that experienced artists who have been through blocks don’t often share their experience with younger artists facing blocks for the first time.

Let me begin by describing my two blocks in greater detail. Soon after leaving music school, I moved close to New York. During that period I would listen to the best avant-garde jazz composers during the day and work on my own compositions at night. I became more and more aware of how naive my compositions were in comparison to those of my heroes. I ultimately became depressed about my work and began to freeze up. Hoping to get some good advice, I called Chick Corea, the great jazz pianist. He, of all people, could have given me genuine advice about blocks, learned through personal experience. Instead, he just tried to talk me into becoming a Scientologist. Apparently that would solve everything. I didn’t become a Scientologist, my block became catastrophic and I stopped being a musician.

Many years later, after I had been a visual artist for at least ten years, I took a five month trip to Europe. From my beginnings as an artist until that trip, I had been working on a consistently evolving direction in figurative drawing and painting. When I returned from that trip I tried just picking up where I had left off but found I couldn’t. Doing more of my familiar kind of work was like pulling teeth. I had lost all my motivation for that direction. I didn’t know what to do. I tried all sorts of things to no avail. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was no longer an artist. I had no ideas, no motivation, no momentum, no enthusiasm. I decided it was over, that I had come to my end of my line as an artist. So I decided to quit, but I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t quit for nine months.

I wrote “Nine Months” on the wall of my studio. For nine months I forced myself to work every day, to do something, anything to keep my hands moving. Many of the things I tried were idiotic. I tried landscape drawing (not so idiotic). I made illustrated journal entries. I created ridiculous board games with primitive cartoons. I even traced other drawings just to keep busy. Most of those days in the studio were truly excruciating. Finally, I arranged a marathon figure session with one of my favorite models. The session was to be six hours, though three was my typical limit. At about four hours in, something broke. I was too tired to do my usual thing any longer, so I just started swinging my arms around on great big paper, using a huge marker. I didn’t look at the picture while I was making it. I just moved physically the way I wanted to and let hundreds of marks pile up, contradicting each other, crossing each other, not lining up, not making sense, not building on one another. It felt good to work this new way. I had no idea what would get made, what what I was doing would look like. I made a bunch of these huge, ambiguous, perhaps senseless drawings, then looked at them all. They made a new kind of sense, very different from my old work, in fact inconceivable from the framework of my old work. While my old work moved consistently toward clarification, this new work avoided clarification and developed implied structure through intentional ambiguity. I was excited about this new direction. My motivation started returning and building. I got so I couldn’t wait to make more work each day. I have been riding this new direction for over twenty years now and my enthusiasm for it has only grown. I may have another block at some point but I have confidence that I will be able to move through it if and when it happens.

Here are my thoughts on blocks. I think each direction an artist takes has a shelf life. The direction begins. The artist learns more and more. The work develops a degree of sophistication, a consistent language that the artist knows how to manipulate. The expression gets better and better, clearer, more expert. These things are getting pretty damned good. Eventually the work becomes repetitive. It feels to me at that stage like the work becomes self-parody. It gets stale and it becomes hard for the artist to keep making this crap.

Now the real problems begin. The old work has lost its appeal but what shall the new work be? For the longest time, the artist tries to formulate the new direction as somehow an outgrowth of the old direction, but that won’t work. The new work has to come from an altogether new conception, something inconceivable from the framework of the old direction, something that is not implicit in the old work, something truly new, actually different. I think the hardest thing is letting go of the old framework and embracing something unformed, not known. The only guide one can have at this point is how it feels to work, not what it will look like because one doesn’t know that yet. Another challenge is that this new work will be inescapably primitive compared to the old work. The old work was at its point of greatest maturity, in full bloom. The new work is in its infancy and can’t yet stand up to the maturity of the old work. However, as this new direction matures it will eventually reach a greater richness than the former work allowed.

I see this cycle in the work of many artists who have inspired me. The most obvious example to my eyes is Cezanne. If you ever get a chance to study an oeuvre complete of Cezanne’s drawings, you will see over and over the cycle of a direction maturing until it is in full bloom, then becoming repetitive. At that point Cezanne lets go of the old direction and embraces a new one that is comparatively primitive. The new direction, though primitive at first, eventually surpasses the sophistication of the previous direction. This cycle happens time and time again over the course of Cezanne’s career.

To conclude, as I said at the beginning of this essay, blocks are natural. Each direction has its own lifespan. Often an interruption in one’s work will expose the exhaustion of a direction. After that, the process of finding the next direction can often be painful, partly because one is so fluent in the dead direction that it is difficult to think any other way. The birth of the new direction is often painful. The important thing is that the new direction can only emerge through work. Thomas Edison was quoted as saying that great ideas come from the muscles. What he was getting at, I believe, is that problems get solved not by thinking about them in the abstract, but rather through making work, wrestling with the problem through making. I don’t think for a moment that my personal experience resolving a block represents the only way or even the typical way. I’m sure there are plenty of variations of my experience and plenty of paths through blocks that were nothing like mine. The main thing, though, is to understand that blocks are OK, that blocks are common and solvable. The solution won’t necessarily be easy. Often, probably usually, the solution is excruciating, but don’t give up. I would have been a far better musician had I fought through that first block. I know I became a far better artist by doing battle with and vanquishing my second block.

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