Friday, May 29, 2015

The Box, Outside the Box

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Creating art is a process. An idea forms. The artist chooses tools and materials, and then attempts to turn the idea into some kind of reality. Once the artist is satisfied with an outcome, the process ends.

Obviously, that is an oversimplification. For some artistic endeavors, simplicity is close to the truth. Drawing, for example, need only an idea, some pigment-laden tool, and a surface on which to deposit both idea and pigment. For other pursuits, however, the process can become much more convoluted and tool-laden. Printmaking can make use of metal plates, tools for carving metal, ink, tools to handle ink, complex presses, water baths to moisten special paper, acid baths to etch metal plates, and solvents and cleaning agents – all this for just one type of print; all this before an idea is even conceived.

"Untouchable (HIV)" Camera. Undated. Wayne Martin Belger.

I enjoy the process of creating art. I also appreciate the concept of messing with conventional methods to the point at which art is pushed, kicking and screaming, outside the box.

Artist/photographer Wayne Martin Belger is the kind of person who must relish having a process that is way off the reservation. His images may be well within bounds of normal artsy-fartsy photography, but if that is the only thing a viewer sees hanging on a gallery wall then they would be missing the point. Thankfully, his cameras are most often hung next to the photographs. It is then that the importance of his process becomes evident.

I first encountered Belger’s work during an ArtPrize competition a few years ago. I was wending my way through one gallery space out of hundreds showing thousands of pieces, when I stumbled on his entry, “Untouchable (HIV).” I was dumbfounded. I still am – but not so much by the resulting photograph he produced as by the mind-boggling work behind the same image.

Belger builds custom cameras to suit the subject. None of his camera bodies are pulled off a shelf, and each one has extensive thought put into its purpose. In the case of ‘Untouchable,’ the pinhole camera was designed to photograph portraits of HIV-positive individuals and no one else. And here’s why...

This particular camera is constructed of aluminum, copper, titanium and acrylic, and has a sealed system of pumps and tubes that move the subject’s own HIV blood through the camera and across a membrane in front of the pinhole. The membrane acts as a #25 red filter, giving the resulting photograph an eerie red glow.

The camera is gorgeous. Materials were carefully chosen and components were machined with precision. In appearance, the whole is a beautiful marriage of Steam Punk style and NASA engineering. The viewer cannot possibly miss the concept that what this camera contains is at once precious and dangerous. And the HIV camera is but one of Belger’s elaborate cameras.

The subject of his work is often sensitive, and Belger’s camera components usually have strong relevance to the project. Sometimes they contain elements not recommended for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Insect bodies, dried flowers, deer antlers, $5,000 rubies, a fragment from a Koran, a 150-year-old skull and an infant’s heart all found places in Belger’s cameras. His projects deal with such far-ranging subjects as infant mortality and cultural conflict. These are not your aunt’s Kodak Brownies.

Of course, the photographer could have used a much simpler box camera and a bit of Photoshop magic to achieve similar results, but that would have negated the process. And Belger needn’t explain his method in detail. The massive amount of thought invested in each project is evident in the elaborate tools he builds to facilitate the process of creating a single photograph. In this case, the process is as much art as Belger’s haunting images.

"Roadside Altar" Camera, and two images created with the camera. Undated. Wayne Martin Belger.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

An Ode to Carl

Portion of the Lascaux cave drawings

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Like wine, we all have our favorite vintage. 2005 was a pretty good year for wine, I’m told. So was 1990. 1975 – not so much. How about the year 15,300 B.C.? Well, you know, that’s the number smarty-pants scientists put on the cave drawings of Lascaux, France. Whatever the number, that was a superb year.

I’ve always been a fan of Lascaux’s cave drawings, and have sometimes wondered about the person behind those exquisite images. Paleontologists and anthropologists and lots of other ’gists have loaded us up to the gills with clueless insights regarding the artist responsible. I don’t think anyone really knows anything about those caves, and that’s the charm of it.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I’d like to give the cave artist a name: Carl. I only think of him as a man because cool pictures from book-learnin’ tomes always show a uni-browed, knuckle-dragging chap and I simply can’t put those features on a woman, no matter how talented she might otherwise be. So Carl it is – with a “C.”

Maybe it’s because I’m on the other side of the aisle with art folks, but science-types sometimes cheese me off. Not only have they put Carl a few centuries before Adam and Eve with their goofy date, but they’ve loaded up his resume with all kinds of garbage. “He was a shaman,” sez they, “trying to bring good luck to the coming hunt, and therefore put images of what he wanted for din-din up on the cave walls.” Whatever.

I think it’s interesting that apparently no one  ever thought that maybe he was one of Noah’s kids. Those rug rats knew a thing or two about animals, and the Lascaux caves are all about animals. Or maybe Carl was closer in lineage to old-man Adam. At any rate, he lived during a time when animals were greater in number and size.

Just look at the images Carl the caveman left us: Dun horses and long-horned cattle commingle with shaggy bison, rhinoceroses, caribou, and other animals so faithfully reproduced that it is mind-boggling – and laughable – that a pea-wit could accomplish half as much. In some places, the artist approached his subjects with scientific accuracy, delineating individual specimens and articulating joints with exacting detail.

What is also amazing are the colors used in those images. Sure, he was forced to use a limited palette based on available colors, but the result of expertly using blacks and umbers and siennas and ochres shows sophistication exceeding a lot of crap shown down the road in hoity-toity Paris. And to think Carl probably dug his pigments out of the dirt!
"Birdman" detail of the Lascaux cave drawings

There are hints, too, that Carl didn’t work alone. Variations in style exist, and it is evident in the image of a “bird-man” figure about to be gored by a large bovine. Both figures in the tableau do not have large swaths of ground earth color as are used in other drawings, and the poses are stiff and lack the elegance found in other images. I’m no scientist, but my guess is that it was Carl’s cousin, Bob, who had a hand in the “bird-man” drawing. I also think Carl probably got pissed-off at Bob because, collaborations aside, few artists like other artists messing with their art.

No human bones were found in the caves, however, so we can assume Carl didn't kill his cousin over the defacing of some rather nice art. I guess that's how nice guys behave. So let’s all pour a glass of our favorite vintage and raise a toast to all-around, nice-guy, Carl. Thanks to him, even a hole in the ground can age nicely over time.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Artist: Part 2

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I take a sip of coffee kept hot by a blanket of chocolate-drizzled foam. It’s a small concession for painfully-early hours. My watch, sitting mournfully on a drawing board, tells me it’s 3:35 a.m. Time is slipping. I turn back to the painting.

A line of paint issues from the end-hairs of a brush. My hands are ignored. They take orders and put up with anything. Everything. Maybe they aren’t what most expect an artist’s hands should be. Winter isn’t necessarily kind to my hands. Summer brings woodworking duties, when painting panels, frames and crucifixes are constructed. It also brings plenty of splinters, some of which are too deep to bother. I’m told my hands are too rough and I am told they are big, but they rarely have paint on them.

I detest sloppiness. Brushes booby-trapped with paint are my worst nightmare, and I never understand why anyone would want to paint with blobby, colorful brushes that, in my world, are barely useful as stir sticks. The only paint on my studio floor is in a can.

Again the lines blur between reality and a world inside the painted plane before me.

Needs more dead leaves on the forest floor. More needles and twigs. Would maple seeds make sense? Hmm, not in a pine forest. Pine twigs, sans needles. They have those little rows of knobs where the needles were. Hmm, do the knobs alternate? I need to go get a twig... Paint deep negative space. Umber, with a touch of white. Moldering leaves. November rot, crisp in the air.
(Photo courtesy of 'The Mudge.')

The details of forest detritus began years ago with a faint wisp of thought, as do most of my projects. While working on a far different piece, I began toying with the idea of a Scandinavian forest populated with characters from the hinterlands of my imagination. With a Norwegian stave church as a visual counter to fanciful characters, I created tension with an untold story on the verge of telling. Eventually the painting was laden with rich texture and details of flora native to Scandinavia. But I knew that painting – even before it was finished – was only the beginning.

The first painting, “F√∂rtrollade Skogen,” was popular enough to encourage a second painting of a series. My mind had raced ahead with ideas even before its popularity peaked. Bits and pieces of thought became suspended in a mental whirlwind.

What did the Norwegian say? ... “Ven I vas leetle...” “A troll unter da bridge.” Or was he a Swede? Legends crossing cultural lines. French trolls. Even Dutch visitors told me of trolls. Stone. Water. Ships. A boy. A boy? Why are children the only ones? A pipe.  Roof lines. Fluttering. Noises. Clattering of hooves on cobbles. Ebb tides. Neap tides. What is a neap tide, anyway? Sunset. Birds. Raking light. Why would the French have trolls? Nasty trolls. Big trolls turning to stone. Detail. The sound of feet too small for thistle down.

It almost seems a shame to make something concrete out of so many fragments of thought swirling about me, but what is left to blow around my diaphanous train of thought will be saved for the future. They will be a savory reward for hard work; monotonous work. And they will be a third piece – maybe a fourth.

A triptych. But what size? It could be 12 wide. Then it would have to be 52 tall. Even panels. Big. I don’t know if i like even panels. Why do they even WANT to know how long a painting takes to paint? Does it matter? A thousand hours? 45 seconds? ... White with snow.

This is the sometimes-lonely world of an artist. There is no one to tell me what to do except the guy inside my own cantankerous skull, and no one else to blame save the body beneath. What I now lack in company while I work is countered by the knowledge that I might touch countless people with the finished piece. They will hear the whisper of my thoughts through the voice of paint.

Now, where was I?

More pine needles. Ochre is getting low. Another tube in the wings? No, I’ll have to pick up another tube. Add more detail in the shadows. Layers of detail. Add more Prussian blue. More now. Ugh! Paint is getting stiff. It’s already drying. Needs a tou
ch of Liquin. Cut that edge. That’s it. Another. Another. Load the brush. Snow. Flying snow. Tomorrow  I’ll work on stone texture. A field – a vast plain. ... Sigh. The sound of snow falling...

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Artist: Part 1

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s morning, I think. The alarm says 3:00 a.m. I don’t really want to get out of bed, but the alarm clock has already pulled me a few feet away from the warmth of seconds ago. Cheated, I stumble in the darkness and search for thick socks, black sweatshirt, and jammies – the uniform for this artist. My head refuses to go into an arm hole. A T-shirt scrunches awkwardly inside my sweatshirt. I’m sure it’s backwards. Grunts and groans leak out of my mouth.


A jumbled mess of dream recollections evaporate into foggy reality. Eyes don’t work – even in the dark. Robotic feet shuffle a cold body out of the bedroom, through the black living room and into the kitchen. A switch flips on blinding lights. One eye refuses to open, and the other takes the hit of lumens too numerous for grumpy vision. But I am awake. Sort of.

I did not always do this. There was a time when I existed as do normal people. There was a time when I stayed up late and got up later. There was even a time when I slept as much as I could and cared little about what got done, but the passing of time has a way of reminding me that the sum of things left undone in life is growing into a mountain. To make matters worse, these hands – obedient as they are – simply cannot keep up with the demands of my mind.

Start the vineyard in a week or two. How long... Crucifixes in summer. Gotta get that print shipped.

I have a long list of art pieces I’d like to see to fruition. Each one can chew up the better part of the year. I don’t want to do the math. So I get my butt out of bed in military fashion, and lie to myself that sleep is highly overrated.

In the kitchen, I force down some cereal and promptly forget what I just ate. Confronting an underpowered espresso machine, I coax it to life and walk away with a concoction that is more dessert than coffee.

Gross. Needs more sugar.

This routine is repeated daily, and I mentally flog myself when I fail to do it. Days off are time lost, and it eats at me.

A door opens to a stairway and a light switch gets flipped.


More lumens. The stairway gives me time to adjust to daylight-balanced track bulbs as I ascend to my lair. On the way up I pass walls of dusty, forgotten awards – some stacked on a ledge; all ignored and meaningless. I turn the corner at a landing holding a Norman kite shield overshadowed by a grumpy self-portrait, and I ascend a few more steps. I enter a ten by ten-ish room crammed with trappings of my craft. I flip two more switches – miss-matched drawing table lights that allow me to see the colors on my palette. Now the extra lumens are welcome. Another switch brings a radio to life with a near whisper. The cup of coffee finds a home, and the mighty warrior – full-time artist and sometimes workaholic – surveys his battlefield.


Parking on the lone seat – a reconditioned office chair without a back – I look up at the painting again, scan recently-worked areas and refresh my memory of where I wanted to work on this particular morning.

Ah, yes.

With the morning’s detail before me, I turn to an organized jumble of paint tubes and an encrusted palette, and start choosing colors to use. It’s a shopping trip using a mental list of ingredients. But I’m not making lasagna – I’m painting pine needles on a forest floor.  Yellow ochre, Naples yellow and Titanium white for the highlights; Burnt umber and Prussian blue for the deep darks; Burnt sienna for variations. For reflected light I’ll use Prussian blue and Titanium white, with a touch of umber to tone down the blue. I won’t use green. These are old needles, bereft of their color, and brittle. All this for a bit of detritus.

Small dabs of the paint are squeezed on the palette. I pick up a tiny liner brush, mix a bit of paint with the brush and get a measured amount of color on the hairs where I want it. It is a loaded weapon. Warily handling the brush, I reach for a long mahl stick. Holding the stick in my right hand, I gently put its cloth-covered knob on an area of the painting – to my upper left – where the paint is dry. The stick will be a rest for my left hand. That is its only job in life.
The artist at work. (Courtesy of the 'Mudge')

In early stages of my projects I ignore the mahl stick and paint “from the shoulder,” but that changes once the painting is blocked in. Purists might say that qualifies me as less of a painter and more of one who draws with color. I don’t care what they think. My work necessitates working at close quarters in measured detail instead of lobbing massive amounts of pigment from a greater range.

With the edge of my left hand resting on the mahl stick, I begin. This is when the walls of reality dissolve around me. This is when I enter a different world ruled by the tiny business end of my will. This is when colors are told where to go and what to do. They obey me. They are forced into an enormous illusion that has neither depth, nor form, nor reality. Colors bend to the rule of countless brush strokes. In the process, I drag the viewer’s mind along with me.

People can stand for the longest time looking at a flat plane. The blind wouldn’t have a clue what I’ve done.

While I work, my mind and hands delicately dance between reality and layers of consciousness. Random thoughts, fractured memories flying between semi-autonomous instructions to hands and mental tinkering with future projects. I think and I don’t think. For the most part, I just do.

Needs to be a little thinner. More ochre. More.  Closer to the edge. Taper the edge. A celesta and snow. More Naples yellow. A tower – a church tower. A German church. NO! TOO MUCH BLUE! Counter with umber. Maybe a touch of sienna. Pull the edge. Yes. YES. Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. The sound of snow kissing a roof. A German tower. Needs more ochre. The third one will have to be a triptych. That’s the only way. With snow falling. Reload the brush. A November morning. A touch more ochre. Perfect. No. Needs more umber. A song. What was that song? Sackbutts. Krumhorns. A bit less blue in that reflected light.

My hands march uncomplaining on, oblivious to ramblings of a brain lapsing into auto-pilot. These hands have trudged endless miles on this project that began long ago....

(To be continued)

Friday, May 1, 2015

When the Customer is King

Foreword by the author: This essay originally had a different ending that was far more indulgent, but I sometimes tire of my curmudgeonly self. For reasons that will be clear to the reader, I think I made a better choice of words, even if they take an abrupt turn.

“The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo.
1536-1541 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s every artist’s nightmare: The specter of micro-managing of a project by committee, client or patron.

Rarely are artists able to create work without interference and still earn enough to live. The ugly reality is that we must work to eat, and we are more often than not dependent upon the artistic desires and demands of others.

On occasion, I have had the pleasure of creating art without strings attached and with free rein, but those pieces were not my sole source of income – in fact, they were a tiny fraction of it. It is somehow comforting to know that I am not alone in being bridled, to some degree, by others. In fact, many of my more-illustrious artistic forebears often found themselves in the same boat – or worse.
“The Coronation of Napoleon”
by Jacques-Louis David.
1805-1807. (Louvre, Paris)

Michelangelo certainly had his detractors. “The Last Judgement,” a  Sistine Chapel fresco finished in 1541, was commissioned by Pope Clement VII. The artist avoided convention by depicting nudes and partial nudes in a vision of heaven and hell. Seems reasonable enough, depending on what side of the church you sit. The Pope defended Michelangelo’s work, but Cardinal Caraf and Monsignor Sernini, among others, took umbrage at the scandalous painting. Never mind the fact that the artist’s colossal “David” had been standing around in the buff for nearly 40 years with its patriarchal junk only a few feet above eye level. It took the heavy guns of the Council of Trent to finally smudge over family jewels depicted in Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement.”

The French master, Jacques-Louis David, also had to deal with a bit of micro-managing from someone who suffered from a deplorable Napoleon complex – Mr. Bonaparte himself. While painting the ambitious “Coronation of Napoleon,” the emperor had David make several changes to the canvas to suit his royal fancy. We can assume the artist was only too glad to comply, after reinventing his political leanings from friend of Robespierre to supporter of the Napoleonic court. Funny how a guillotine can change one’s mind.
“Man, Controller of the Universe”
by Diego Rivera. 1934.
(Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City).
This is a near copy of “Man at the
Crossroads,” renamed and painted
by Rivera, using photos of the
destroyed original.

Muralist Diego Rivera, too, got a taste of politics vs. art when he inserted a likeness of Lenin in his mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” painted for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933. Oops. The mural was removed in a furor. It didn’t matter that Rivera was expelled years prior from Moscow and lost his standing in the Mexican Communist Party because of his involvement with anti-Soviet politics. if you say you’re no longer a Communist, you should probably avoid playing the Lenin card. Ever.

I’m sure that even prehistoric artists had their micro-managers. Carl, the caveman artist, probably had a svelte figure in mind when he first envisioned the “Venus of Willendorf.” But the local shaman with a weight problem threatened ill-will on the uni-browed artist. Thus, we have been handed down a herd of Venuses who appear to weigh more than their namesake planet.

To be fair, artists sometimes don’t have brains enough to preempt the handling of a project by a shaman, let alone the handling by a whole nation or a leader of the same.
“Venus of Willendorf” Older than dirt.
(Scientists have assigned an ambiguous
“28,000-25,000 BCE” to the piece in order
to cover their own ignorance.)

Occasionally, though, that special customer is no shaman or emperor or national leader. Sometimes the patron trumps the Pope by a measure of infinity. When confronted with such an assignment, I turn off the snarky attitude and get very serious about the work at hand. I don’t presume to work directly for Him, but sometimes The King of Kings uses my talents – in spite of who I am.

The Lord has a penchant for using the most lowly of things and the most imperfect of folks, and I certainly fall into both categories. Some time ago, when I needed a little absolution and a massive dose of encouragement, a dear pastor told me that The Lord needs me to paint His portrait.

That came as a bit of a shocker, and I had not thought of sacred art from that angle. One does not lightly consider such a commission or trifle with the sitter who rules from a heavenly throne. In all honesty, I need The Lord’s micro-managing. I need His input, I need His direction and I need His every help. An artist venturing into the realm of sacred art exchanges the wealth of the world and the hollow honor of flawed men for something far more precious and fruitful and rewarding – even if that reward won’t come in this life. The artist then assumes the role of servant and asks to be bridled so that The Word may have free rein. If The Lord does indeed need me to paint His portrait, I know it isn’t for His benefit – it is for yours. And it is definitely for my own.
Detail of “Ecce Homo,” by Edward Riojas.
2014. (Collection of the artist)