EXPLOITS: The 1990 Still Life That Changed My Life

Richard Bledsoe “Still Life 1990″ oil on canvas 12″ x 9” 

I spent too many years in college. Not because I didn’t know what I wanted to do; because I didn’t know how to get there.

I thought I wanted to be a film maker. So in 1987 I enrolled in Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, the in-state school that offered the best artistic programs. The introduction year was called AFO: Art Foundation. We students called it AFO: Artists Following Orders.

AFO was intense and demanding, made to weed out those who weren’t serious. They exposed you to a little taste of all the disciplines: drawing, painting, sculpture, design. We even got to make a little animated film. I found I really took to art, and made it through the freshman year.

The problem was I found out during the foundation program, film classes were part of the Commercial Arts school. This was before digitalization had taken over everything design related. If I went into Commercial Arts I would have spent years working on designs with Press Type transfer lettering, a methodical hand-done system that required exacting precision. Not my skill set.

So still trying to get into film, sophomore year I changed my major to Theater Tech. I thought I’d get into the movies from learning how to create theatrical productions. Not a bad idea, but I quickly learned how hard it was to work collaboratively with all the dramatic personalities drawn to theater. Also not my skill set.

I was only 19 years old, and still had my options open, especially since my family was supporting me. So in what should have been my junior year, I started over again, in the English program. I’d write my way into the movies. Still not a bad idea, and I did well in this program.

These were still pre-computer days for me personally as well. I had a bulky electric typewriter, fortunately with a correcting ribbon built into it; this was my workhorse for my writing intensive courses. I set myself up at the kitchen table of the apartment I shared with roommates, drank beer and typed for hours, alternating between bursts of frenzied writing and periods of tense review and contemplation.

By the spring semester, I had turned 20, and my academic results were good, except for math class. Unfortunately I was still feeling frustrated. The words were coming, but were they enough?

Apart from my assignments, I was trying to write creatively, on my own. When I tried to write expressively, I felt the visions inside me were not being set free, but being trapped in cages of words. Language just felt so limited, not capable of the nuance and impact of visual imagery. The most important aspect of any vision is the part of it that can’t be reduced to words.

The authors I most enjoyed reading were craftsmen, technicians of language who still managed to tell a good story. This was a very different approach to the epic rushes of sublimity I yearned to evoke.

Hunched over my typewriter, pounding out yet another three page essay, my mind turned back to my early days of college. I remembered what satisfied me the most, moments that had little to do with my fantasies of film making. Pouring over library books of visionary artists. The spontaneous joy I felt coaxing big images to appear by the application of brush and pigments. A hands-on, tangible process compared to endless calculations and ponderings. Actions instead of words.

Unlike film, painting provided a combination of self-directed creativity with the graceful, ineffable presentation of visual imagery. I’d barely touched on the practice of painting, only had a glimpse of the possibilities, before practical careerist plans had led me elsewhere. Now I wondered if I hadn’t overlooked something very important.

I performed an experiment. For the first time in a few years, I made a painting. I bought a small pre-stretched canvas; I don’t even remember where I got the rest of the supplies, the oil paints and brushes I used. Maybe I borrowed them, or had them laying around from my freshman year. I set myself up a little still life: a candle, a rock, some folds of cloth. And in an afternoon, I made a painting, working to make the objects look as realistic as I could.

Even though the candle was white, I painted it as pink. That and the position of the stone I arranged ended up being super suggestive. After I was finished I didn’t need Freud to identify what I ended up creating was an unconscious phallic symbol. I took this to be a positive sign.

While making this small piece of art I managed to get paint on the wall, on the floor, in my hair, even on my underwear somehow. But even though it was only a small canvas, the fascination with the process quickly reemerged. I was creating objects that looked like they had volume; they cast shadows, occupied space, were illuminated with an imaginary light. Summoning these illusions felt magical.

The outcome was simple enough, a nice study in blue, pink and gray, a bit sloppy. But that plain little painting held vast implications. By the time I was finished, I knew I was going to have to tell my long-suffering parents I needed to change my major again.

My life as a painter had begun. The work hasn’t stopped for going on 27 years now.

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“A true art is the visible manifestation, evidence and facilitator of the soul’s journey. “

The Remodernism Manifesto 

 

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ARTISTS: Joseph Cornell

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Joseph Cornell “Untitled (Hotel Eden)”

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“Beauty should be shared for it enhances our joys.
To explore its mystery is to venture towards the sublime.”

-Joseph Cornell

After I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 2000, and spent some time absorbing the local art scene, I noticed something very different than what I was used to. I had come from Richmond, Virginia, where at the time painting was the predominant art form. In Phoenix I saw lots of assemblage. Assemblage Art is like making three dimensional collages, creating composed groupings out of just about any object imaginable. I’ve become a huge fan of this technique, which can be utilized to create such poetry: visual fragments shored against our ruins.

On thinking of assemblage art I think of Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972), the undisputed master of the genre. Looking at the mysterious little worlds he evoked out of dime store trinkets, you would never imagine the seemingly mundane life the artist lived. He spent his entire adult existence in a tiny suburban home in Flushing, New York, which he shared with his mother and invalid   brother, for as long as they lived. His workshop was in the basement. Here he created the shadow boxes that described his romantic dreams about legendary ballerinas, faded Continental hotels, contemplative aviaries, and the celestial heavens themselves. This painfully shy self taught artist was accepted as a colleague by the Surrealists during their War World II exile in New York City. They recognized true vision when they encountered it.

Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935 - 38 Box construction 10 x 9 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches (25.4 x 23.5 x 5.4 cm) The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman, Washington, DC Photograph by Mark Gulezian/QuickSilver, Washington, DC © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York

Joseph Cornell “Tilly Losch”

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joseph-cornell-untitled-celestial-navigation

Joseph Cornell “Untitled (Celestial Navigation)”

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Joseph Cornell Naples, 1942 Box construction, 28.6 x 17.1 x 12.1 cm The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman (c) The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015 Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Press use is considered to be moderate use of images to report a current event or to illustrate a review or criticism of the work, as defined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Chapter 48 Section 30 Subsections (1) - (3). Reproductions which comply with the above do not need to be licensed. Reproductions for all non-press uses or for press uses where the above criteria do not apply (e.g. covers and feature articles) must be licensed before publication. Further information can be obtained at www.dacs.org.uk or by contacting DACS licensing on +44 207 336 8811. Due to UK copyright law only applying to UK publications, any articles or press uses which are published outside of the UK and include reproductions of these images will need to have sought authorisation with the relevant copyright society of that country. Please also ensure that all works that are provided are shown in full, with no overprinting or manipulation.

Joseph Cornell “Naples”

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Observatory: Corona Borealis Casement, 1950 Box construction 18 1/8 x 11 13/16 x 5 1/2 inches (46 x 30 x 14 cm) Private Collection, Chicago Photograph by Michael Tropea, Chicago © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York

Joseph Cornell “Observatory – Corona Borealis Casement”

EXPLOITS: The Anonymous Show, 1994

Screed

Over twenty years ago, and all is proceeding as I had foreseen

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The once clear packing tape used to hold it together is yellowed and peeling now. The white paper is crumpled and curled from being rolled up so long in my closet. But I’m looking at a piece of “art” I made in 1994, the year after I graduated college.

I was living in Richmond, Virginia, the same place I’d gone to school. I’d been invited to show in a guerilla art space known as Citizens Gallery, which ran as a sort of an open secret in an abandoned store front near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. The theme of the show was “Anonymous.” Not only would the pieces be displayed without name labels, we were encouraged to create works outside of our normal mediums. I love a challenge, so even though I wouldn’t get to show one of my paintings, I accepted the invitation enthusiastically.

As far as making a piece went, I imagined a kind of the-end-of-world-is-nigh screed that some kook might feel compelled to disseminate. In this case the kook happened to be me, and the rant was my true feelings.

It would have been a cool thing to make a sandwich board I could have worn around at the opening, but that would have undermined the whole anonymity thing. So instead I imagined my message in the form of a broadside one might encounter plastered to the wall in some little used and disreputable alleyway.

I now refer to this as “art” because a sociological statement is not really art at all. The establishment art world would not agree; they are heavily invested in proselytizing, propaganda, and indoctrination. It’s a big part of the crisis of relevance in the arts, and why most people are content to ignore and/or despise contemporary art.

I typed it up on a regular sized sheet of paper (still on my old typewriter; no PC yet!) and blew it up section by section at the local copy store, taping all the pieces together to form a 36” x 30” poster. Looking at it now, over 20 years later, the words still ring true. It states:

ARTISTS, be brave. The end of our world is near.

Contemporary art has lost the culture war. Thank God.

What is the art of our time? A freak show, a temper tantrum; Perversion and envy rendered with sewage, carrion and debris. Desperate acts by frightened people. Our era ends with neither a bang nor a whimper-it chokes on its own bile.

Many artists are guilty of presenting their personal foibles and fetishes as the nature of reality (for what is art, but the recreation of a moment of profound insight?). These artists are not inspired-they have an agenda. They are self-conscious without being aware. Art schools are cranking them out by the dozen. They are the Salon Painters of Post-Modernism.

And like the Salon Painters, they will become an historical footnote: the reactionaries left behind by the new order. Future generations will judge us. Perhaps pity will dilute their scorn.

The new way coming is not a revolution, but a return. It will be like moving out of darkness and feeling the warmth of the sun. Artists will not use strife and disruption to communicate, for those are methods of obscurity. Their work will need no explanation or argument. It will be love made visible.

So said my twenty-five year old self, expressing ideas I have continued to defend, ponder and expand on ever since.

During the opening I stood discreetly near the piece and tried to eavesdrop on reactions. Most just read it quietly and moved on; some murmured appreciation. My favorite was one of the guys who got offended.

“It’s well written, but it doesn’t say anything,” he huffed to his incredulous friends. He was probably one of those desperate acting frightened artists, so he felt called out.

This anonymous message was written for an audience I knew would be full of art students, so it was aimed directly at them, criticizing their assumptions. It was intended as a warning not to follow artistic trends into oblivion.

I didn’t know what would happen next, or what form it would take. However, I already was feeling the change in the collective unconscious I’ve watched unfold slowly over the last two decades.

Even as I was writing that statement, over in England two men were thinking similar thoughts, and preparing to take significant action. I wouldn’t find out about them until many years later though.

In the meantime, in Richmond Virginia, being in this show only increased my determination. I applied myself with new intensity to locating venues to show my paintings.

EXPLOITS: The Unexpected Reappearence of an Early Painting

Dissolve with Veil

Richard Bledsoe “Dissolve with Veil” oil on canvas circa 1990(?)

In 1987, I left my home to go to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It was a natural transition for me, as I had spent my entire youth enjoying creative expression in various forms: drawing, writing, reading, and watching movies. I wanted to not only be a consumer of culture, but a producer of it as well.

While I was there I shifted majors several times, trying to find the best fit for my interests and talents. I went from art to theater to writing intensive English courses, working hard in each discipline, hoping to find the way to best to express my vision.

Finally I realized that of all the things I studied, it was painting that intrigued me the most. I finished up with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in Painting and Printmaking, and I can honestly say I have never stopped painting in all the years since I graduated.

While I was studying at VCU I became friends with a girl from my same hometown who was also attending the college. Christy was a talented actress and writer, and just a fun, warm person in general. We had many classes together, and shared many adventures outside of school too.

I don’t remember the occasion or the time frame, but at one point I gave Christy one of my student paintings as a present, a small canvas in oils. “Dissolve with Veil” was painted in my room from a still life I set up with a clamp light and a crumpled white sheet. Even though the fabric was white, I rendered its shadings and highlights in moody blues. In front of this backdrop reproduced from observation, I added an element of my own invention: a series of suspended colored spheres, subtly decreasing in size.

This was an important piece for me. When I showed it in class my professor praised it, and even announced he was going to steal the idea of the items hanging in space. He did too-in the incredibly elaborate and detailed paintings he did of ruined buildings, he started include pieces of debris in mid air, as if the image caught them in the moment of falling.

Of course there is no theft in this at all, just the passing on of inspiration. I was inspired by other art when I made my painting. Probably there is some Magritte unpinning this work of mine, with his surreal floating fruit and businessmen.

Later I repainted a larger version of this same drapery and spheres image. It became the first piece I ever sold.

After graduation I lost touch with Christy, and I probably hadn’t heard from her in 20 years. But just recently, though the omnipresent outreach of Facebook, we friended each other and sent some nice updates on our current lives.

I was blown away when Christy sent me a picture of my painting, which she still has. I find it to be a beautiful and mysterious piece. And I can see elements in it already that continue to factor into my work now.

It is wonderful to see something from the early days of my attempts to reconcile ideas with execution, and vision with skill. That is what painting does so effectively: it creates a visible record of the human quest for cohesive expression.

I am grateful for this experience, getting to see a moment from the beginning of my journey. Thanks Christy!