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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An Artist Against the NEA, Part 1: The Case of Karen Finley

Karen Finley: This is what you get when art and politics mix

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“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

-Benito Mussolini

The wailing commenced as soon as the numbers appeared. After decades of threatening noises from concerned conservatives and fiscal hawks, a Federal government budget was produced that eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

As an American artist, I think this is a wonderful development, long overdue.

Defenders of the NEA make the usual accusations, conflating being anti-government intervention in the arts with being anti-art. They justify the expense by pointing out how little the expenditures are out of a budget now reckoned in trillions. And they make the great leap to define withholding state funding of the arts as censorship. All of these assertions dodge accountability for results. How has the NEA improved the artistic life of America?

The NEA was the creation of the corrupt President Lydon Johnson in 1965. One quick measure of the program’s success is whether the visual arts are in better condition now than they were then.

On the contrary, contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance, with hardly any interest and engagement from the public. I would suggest it’s the top-down direction of arts development encouraged by the NEA and its fellow traveler, grant-giving foundations which have helped cause this great alienation. Far from encouraging a vital, thriving culture in the United States, the handout and non-profit mentality is propping up a sick and decaying model of art as an elitist virtue signalling endeavor.

Make no mistake, the cultural institutions supported by such programs hold the values and founding principles of America in contempt. It’s key for acceptance. The long march was so successful that the entry to the establishment now requires allegiance with globalism, Post Modern relativism, and Cultural Marxist deconstruction. It’s the partisans of these ideologies that get the funding and support.

The art world has been warped by the priorities of the subsidizers. If you want their checks, better get on board with their agendas. Leftists have to taint everything with their politics, their own petty little version of God, and their fantasy of the all powerful state as a benefit dispensing Utopia. There’s no way I want anyone subject to such delusions in charge of recognizing artistic achievement.

Many years ago, I had my own special encounter with a NEA star, a typical example of what elitist culture has to offer.

She’s nothing but a historical footnote now, but in the early 1990s performer Karen Finley was big news. She was one of the so-called NEA Four. These controversial artists were up for the federal agency National Endowment for the Arts grants, and came under intense political criticism. The artists had their grants vetoed, although they eventually won a court case about it, and got paid.

However, as a result of the firestorm the NEA ultimately stopped funding individual artists. At least Finley can take credit for helping end that particular abuse of tax payer resources. But at the time I encountered her all the legal maneuverings were still in flux. When she came to speak in Richmond, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s  sculpture building, Finley was still notorious as a casualty of the Culture War.

Finley is a performance artist. Her claim to fame was hooting obscenities while smearing her naked body with yams. I wish this was a joke or an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Of course it was all about gender roles and social critique and whatnot, so that made it Serious Art.

We students didn’t know what to expect. Would we be spattered with tubers? Should we wear raincoats like we were going to see a Gallagher routine? Anticipation ran high.

As it turns out Finley kept her clothes on, and no vegetables were applied anywhere unusual. I suppose a group of mere students didn’t warrant the full Karen Finley experience.

She addressed the standing crowd gathered around her from a podium. I can’t tell you anything she actually said, as nothing she said was memorable. But we weren’t there for an insightful or intelligent lecture, we were there for a Serious Art Performance. And after her remarks, still standing behind her podium, Finley let us have it.

A Serious Art Performance, to Karen Finley, apparently meant yodeling, rolling her eyes and whipping her head around for a couple of minutes.

It was an annoying and mannered display. I felt the burning sensation of folly receiving the institutional stamp of approval. If that was art, then I’ve seen plenty of schizophrenic meth addicts hanging around convenience stores dumpsters that must be undiscovered geniuses.

Coming from her, it was all so phony. Her actions didn’t seem passionate or intense at all. It was clearly a ploy, a unconvincing simulation of being in a shamanistic frenzy.

My problem with Karen Finley’s art wasn’t because it was immoral; it was because it was stupid. There wasn’t an issue with obscenity, the issue was the failure to present a genuine and creditable work of art. And this is representative of the cultural experience our Washington elites wanted to throw money at.

As a bit of compensation for the dumb histrionics, Finley did show us a few nude video clips. She apparently liked to strip down in museums and pose next to actual art. That was kind of funny. The University was obviously putting all our student fees to good use, bringing in talent of such caliber.

During her fifteen minutes of fame, Finley got to play cultural martyr. She became a symbol, the fulfillment of the art world’s conceit of itself as an oppressed band of brave rebels.

The fact that what she called her art was a contrived, pathetic display was overlooked in the rush to the barricades. Her stated political agenda trumped any concerns about quality.

Finley has drifted into obscurity now, safely cloistered away  in New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts (annual undergrad tuition over $53,000.00), still trying to spark some interest in her sagging shock art. Museums are willing to throw her an occasional opportunity. In 2014 she did AA one better, and came up with a 13 step program for artists whose “lives have become unmanageable because of art.” Here’s a helpful hint: I wouldn’t blame art for the need to seek attention through grotesque displays.

Finley serves as a nice bit of trivia and nostalgia, a walking wounded veteran of the culture wars. The establishment takes care of its own. What they haven’t been taking care of is our society’s need for real art.

The NEA has failed in its mission. They’ve squandered their credibility. We will be better served by trying to find new ways to express an authentically American culture, one than the bureaucratic ideologues of the NEA never believed in.

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“It is quite clear to anyone of an uncluttered mental disposition that what is now put forward, quite seriously, as art by the ruling elite, is proof that a seemingly rational development of a body of ideas has gone seriously awry.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

“I was not expected to be talented.”

Karen Finley

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please see other articles here for more commentary on the state of the arts.

STUDIO: Stretcher Construction

Stretcher 2

A stretcher support for a new canvas, 36″ x 36″

I’ve written before on starting a new painting from scratch: Creating a Canvas.

It’s an elaborate process, involving lumber and quarter round, wood joiners and brad nails, a miter saw and a staple gun, gesso and sandpaper. It’s a big savings over buying prepared canvases, but that’s just one facet of it. There is a sense of thoroughness and craft I get from working on a support I built myself. I will use store bought canvases as well, but my most significant pieces were done on stretchers I’ve constructed myself.

This time I’m taking the process back a step further, and showing the underlying framework.

Today I’ve built another stretcher for a major painting, another 36″ by 36″ piece. The key to the way I build stretchers are these vicious looking little metal plates, which are called wood joiners:

Wood joiners

More than once in my painting career I’ve carelessly knelt on one these while building a stretcher; I don’t recommend it.

These days I’m using poplar wood for my supports. It’s an inexpensive soft wood which takes the wood joiners well, and it’s usually straighter and smoother than the pine wood I used to use. After using my chop saw to cut 1″ x 2″ lumber to the correct lengths, I use the wood joiners to fasten the pieces together. Then I nail quarter round molding to the outer edge on one side of the frame.

quarter round

Quarter round molding

This will elevate the stretched canvas material off the wooden supports, creating a smooth surface to paint on.

Stretcher 1

Detail shot: quarter round nailed on 1″ x 2″s, held together with wood joiners

This was the method I was trained in when I went to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’ve experimented with other methods in the years since, but I never found anything else that worked as well.

I intend this new canvas to be a companion piece to the painting I covered in my last series on a work in progress, “A Tale of the Forked River.” It was enjoyable to share the developments as I worked out painting issues of the course of many weeks, running from March 15, 2015, to July 1, 2015. See the entries here:

Creating a Canvas

Painting in Progress 1

Painting in Progress 2

Painting in Progress 3

Painting in Progress 4 – Completion

A Tale of the Forked River

The finished product, completed June 28, 2015:

“A Tale of the Forked River” acrylic on canvas 36″ x 36″

I have the vision for the new painting. For the moment it exists only in my mind, so there is nothing to show yet. But the title will be “What Does It Take to Make a House Haunted?”

I can’t wait to get it going, so everyone can see what I was shown.

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!

STUDIO: Creating a Canvas

studio1

A new world, waiting to be discovered

I received a Bachelor of Fine Art in in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University. Even while I was going through the program, I often stated I was educating myself, in opposition to the ideas many of the instructors presented.

These days Academia is not so much about education as it is about indoctrination, the training of young minds to embrace the warped perspectives, distracting self-regard, and paralytic sophistry of the elitist class. It’s doubtful whether there is any true value left in most higher education under the precepts of today’s politically correct university model, especially in the arts. However, I was able to take a few tangible lessons away from my college years which have continued to serve me well. One of the most important things I learned as a painter was how to build my own canvases.

It’s an elaborate process, involving lumber and quarter round, wood joiners and brad nails, a miter saw and a staple gun, gesso and sandpaper. It’s a big savings over buying prepared canvases, but that’s just one facet of it. There is a sense of thoroughness and craft I get from working on a support I built myself. I will use store bought canvases as well, but my most significant pieces were done on stretchers I’ve constructed myself.

I’ve just completed a new one, a three foot by three foot square. Over the coming weeks I will post periodic pictures of the work in progress. Since I paint based on visions that are revealed to me, I know the image I intend for this canvas. However, as an intuitive painter, exactly how that image will get created will be a journey full of surprises, missteps, corrections and sudden inspirations.

Artist Maurice Denis is famous for stating painting “…is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” This simplistic and materialistic view, while technically correct, manages to miss the point and power of painting. A real painting creates a whole new world to explore.