This is a series of 12 3×4 foot (91×121 cm) paintings I did in 1989/90, so, about 25 years ago. I had a goal to complete a series, which I thought ideally should consist of a dozen paintings, and to do it before I was 25. I was surprised that I accomplished it. Only one has been shown in a gallery, and they have never all been seen together, until now.
I’ve just turned 49 (about a month ago), and I want to see if I can do it again, this time with digital images, and reflecting what I’ve learned in the last quarter century. I’ve already got some solid new work, but let’s see if I can do a dozen in a relatively consistent style (say, the pieces have imagery largely from my imagination and are more or less traditionally painterly, or look like drawings). More on that later. Now back to these early works.
Significantly, except for the last two, the paintings done BEFORE I went to UCLA as an undergrad, and AFTER I did a couple years of community college. The community college gave me the drawing/painting foundation I needed to attempt doing my own work. Earlier I’d dropped out of college, and then when I decided to return, I was determined to get an “A” in every class I took, just to prove to myself I could hit any ball they threw at me. I stuck with that for a couple years, and that’s pretty much how I got a decent foundation in liberal arts.
But I wouldn’t have done this series if it weren’t for my aborted enrollment as an art major at CSUN, in L.A. I was having a hard time with the workload, because it included an astronomy class I had little interest in, and an algebra class which confirmed all suspicions that I sucked at math. I put all my energy in my sculpture and drawing classes, and fell behind in everything else. Then I had falling outs with both my art teachers. The sculpture teacher blew up at me in class for missing classes, which was purely the consequence of the difficulty of my commute (I took the bus), and having to get rides if I needed to transport supplies. And in the case of my drawing teacher, well, he was killing me with his boasting that he could see people’s auras, and so I thought not only was his instruction antiquated, but he was off his nut. At the same time I was becoming more interested in contemporary art, and dreamed of going to a school like Cal Arts or UCLA. So, I dropped out of CSUN, and applied to UCLA (Cal Art was out of my price range).
It was in the period after leaving CSUN and before starting at UCLA that I did most of these paintings. This matters because it was a period where I didn’t have to answer to anyone, and could do what I believed in.
The artists I most admired at this point were Francis Bacon, Van Gogh, Max Beckmann, El Greco, Edvard Munch, Emile Nolde, Frida Kahlo, Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, Chaim Soutine, and Egon Schiele… What those artists had in common was that they filtered reality and then expressed it in their own style, so that it became like viewing the world through their eyes. I was also a huge fan of the Impressionists, the Abstract Expressionists, and Picasso, but stylistically I was more in league with the others.
My method was just to brush burnt sienna and white pigment on canvas, and look at it to find images. I’d rotate the canvas, but always chose a “portrait” format. I never had a premeditated idea what I was going to do, so it was always a process of discovery, which helped keep it from every getting boring. After images started to materialize, I’d realize them to my satisfaction in brown and white, and then switch to color. I didn’t want to get bogged down in any tedium, so would NOT try to articulate things in a realistic way, but rather suggest them with the textures and permutations of paint (a technique I mostly got from Bacon).
I relied completely on my imagination, and would not look at any source material, or borrow color palettes… If I needed to paint a gun, as in the first image (below), I’d just use whatever my memory and imagination could conjure.
I used dinner plates as my palettes, and mixed and stored paint in margarine tubs, so it wouldn’t dry out. I was using Acrylics, which dry fast, so always had a spray bottle handy to keep the painting moist, and a hair drying for drying it faster. For brushes I used cheap, stiff brushes. The quality of the brush was largely irrelevant. And when I was finished to my satisfaction, I coated them in a few layers of semi-gloss medium, to bring out the colors (like when a painting is wet) and protect the painting.
The content was always on the dark side. At this stage in my life I sought to come to grips with reality by facing hard truths and looking under rocks to see unpleasant things and deal with them. My leisure reading included uplifting gems like Martin Gilbert’s book on the Holocaust (the atrocities documented in which sometimes made me so upset I wanted to throw the book across the room), John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”, and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”. There’s also a lot of influence coming from sci-fi and horror movies I saw as a kid, and of course my favorite artists.
The art was flawed and immature in some ways, but it was a serious attempt and I had my own style going on. I was hoping that when I got to UCLA I’d be able to switch to making my paintings in oils, and get technical help, suggestions on art to look at, and other guidance. Nah. I got shot down. My art was considered anathema, and I had to do all sorts of other art, basically anything OTHER that what I had been doing. I did manage to “beat them at their own game” and garnered a $10,000 fellowship, but any boost that gave me was completely demolished in grad school, where I was only permitted to do conceptual/political work, which had absolutely nothing to do with what I was about when I was 25.
Nowadays I can do whatever I want artistically. I reject much or most of my art education, because essentially I always wanted to make images, and conceptual art has about as much to do with that as does landscaping or dentistry. I wonder if it would have been better for my career if I had just stuck to what I was doing and skipped geting the BA and MFA. Art school rather put me off of art, and stopped me from doing the kind of work I was already good at. But at least I did this body of work BEFORE walking the art school gauntlet of having to conform to what was popular art at the time, and now I can look back and see that I had my own voice and conviction, at least enough to do a series of a dozen 3X4 foot paintings, which are more relevant to me now than anything I did subsequently for my BA or MFA.