Friday, August 28, 2015

Street Legal

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Lodz, Poland

Some time ago, I stumbled out of my little bubble and came across the work of Etam Cru – a creative and talented art duo comprised of Bezt (Mateusz Gapski) and Sainer (Przemek Blejzyk). Now before you get all over my case about my sloppy typing, you should know that Etam Cru ‘s tandem artists are Polish – hence, their consonant-laden names.

The work of Bezt and Sainer is not only well-known in Poland, but can also be seen all over Europe, and is showing up in places like Montreal, Honolulu and Richmond, Va.  On top of that, it’s legal.

I’m talking street art – as in, graffiti. I realize a large chunk of graffiti is not legal, so I’m not endorsing the crap that shows up overnight in the uglier parts of town. On the other hand, some graffiti – tagging and moronic junk aside – is beautiful, clever and provoking. The West Coast barrios, for example, are prime locations for what can happen when artistic talent explodes under the radar.
Vienna, Austria

But the work of Bezt and Sainer is much different. Theirs isn’t the kind of crap you see on overpasses. You won’t find their work clogging the bottom third of a box car. In Etam Cru’s case, their art has been elevated out of the gutter of juvenile graffiti to a place of great sophistication and beauty. It is planned with care and executed from bucket lifts. It is sought after. And it is brilliant.

Using a slick, visual style that is more akin to illustration than muralism, their work most often combines three ingredients: conglomerations of visually dissimilar elements, large surfaces of otherwise boring buildings, and intense color. And one might add a fourth ingredient: playfulness.
Honolulu, Hawaii

On a wall in Lodz, Poland, a birdhouse perches on the blue topknot of a teenager, her image screaming with vibrant reds and blues. A wall in Vienna features a flaming redhead with fish swimming close to her demure, but classy, dress. On a building in Hawaii, an image of a girl  sticks out her tongue to catch – of all things – flakes of snow. On a wall in Richmond, Va., a sultry beauty can be seen bathing in a jar of strawberry-infused moonshine.

While the pair uses cans of spray paint, and while they can be frequently seen wearing hoodies and grungy jeans, don’t think for a second that they sleep under bridges or hustle a buck to make ends meet. They have a state-of-the-art studio filled with all manner of equipment to supplement their exterior work.  Prints of their murals and smaller work are available from their website, and videos allow a peek into their process. Art shows of their work have hit all the global hots pots. Business savvy oozes from their pores. If you’re interested in a 16-color litho print of their work, you’d better start saving your pennies, though, because their signed/numbered prints are in high demand and often end up in swanky galleries.
Richmond, Virginia

The artistic duo certaily realize, of course, that the ginormous murals they create must stand the test of time. Folks who actually live nearby must daily look at the visual behemoths and not grow tired of them. I can only imagine the surprise and delight when rounding a street corner and facing one of their murals. I also imagine that, even as the surrounding cityscape changes and grows dull, Etam Cru’s work will long remain brilliant.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trained Monkeys

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Wow! That looks just like a photograph!”

The official opening of ArtPrize is still weeks away, but that exclamation and others just like it are bearing down on us by the boatload. The compliment is coming as sure as shootin’ and, to be honest, it bugs the crap out of me.

On the one hand, I hate to chastise well-meaning folks who are kind enough to pay a compliment, and I know those compliments come as high praise – even if they aren't intended for me. I also know that compliments and encouragement are wonderful gifts, even if they are of the equine kind, and it’s not prudent to look that gift horse in the mouth. But let’s lay those gracious gestures aside for the moment and look at what’s in the other hand.

I have a huge beef with artists who take a photograph and, with very little brain at all, turn it into a carbon copy using a pencil, brush or 900 pounds of macaroni. The exercise of copying photographs and passing it off as high art is increasing, with pieces popping up like mushrooms. Most folks seem to be immune to the fungus and are simultaneously taken by its supposed skill.  But copying photographs is wrong on so many artistic levels.

Let’s address the first and most obvious problem with it – plagiarism. That ugly, little word that dogs writers is just as ugly when thrown on a barn-sized canvas or a nine foot-long sheet of paper. Unless the artist shot the photograph in the first place, it is NOT fair game. And please don’t think that because you used dots or squiggles or packing peanuts to reproduce it, you’re off the legal hook. You’re not.
Patron admiring “Frank,” by Chuck Close.
1969. (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
Photo courtesy of Tim Wilson

If an artist uses his own photos to copy as fine art, it raises some issues, too. Super-realists – most notably Chuck Close – did that very thing, but it’s been decades since the super-realists first got in our faces and there’s nothing new to it anymore.

Tons of artists also use photographs as reference, but they understand a photo’s limitations and proper use. A bottom line for an artist  who uses his own photos can be put in this question: If the original photo is so great, then why mess with it? A second question is like the first: If the original photo is not so great, then why mess with it?

Another problem is that very little skill is necessary in translating a photo into another medium – heck, even grade schoolers do it. One only need a grid to keep proportions under control before putting the brain on “Monkey see, monkey do” mode. Being faithful to a grid square, no matter what size, is child’s play. Further than that, it is mindless work. Cadavers could do it. For the life of me, I don’t understand why artists zombify themselves and lean on such a huge crutch.

The alternative, obviously, is to use the eyes and noodles the Good Lord gave artists. It takes so much more discipline and understanding to look at a free object in space and, without photo-mechanical aid, allow our faculties to interpret mountains of nerve impulses moving at light speed and translate the information into a reasonable facsimile via our hands. I use the word “understanding,” because the notion moves my argument into a different area.

Artists who progress through academia are educated in disciplines other than art. They are taught rudimentary physics through properties of light and how it governs our perception of the world. They are taught the delicate workings of the human body with its sophisticated mechanics covered by living tissue, and how gravitational pull affects its form. They learn  a bit about psychology and how artwork can evoke emotions and change attitudes.

Cameras – even smart ones – do not have any understanding of the world. They don’t give a rip. That is their beauty, that is what sets them apart from the artist’s eye and that is why they are no substitute for an artist’s mind.

A dear pastor once commented to a group of graduates that we are “educated” – not “trained.” “Training,” he said, “Is for monkeys.” Oddly, some art schools have trained budding artists through use of the copy-the-photograph method. At best, it is an exercise for the brain-dead. Unfortunately, the same exercise is dragged along, post-mortarboard, into the real art world, and we are the worse for it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Of Giants and Men

"Under Slottet Bron" assembled with its frame for the first time.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Everyone notices the tear.

Out of 30 square feet painted with dense detail and another 50 square feet of elaborate framing, people quickly pick out one of the smallest features that struggles to fill a quarter inch of space. I’m describing, of course, a work of mine – this year’s ArtPrize entry entitled “Under Slottet Bron,” or “Under the Castle Bridge.” It is a reprise of a theme I used two years ago when I painted an enchanted Scandinavian forest, “F√∂rtrollade Skogen,” for ArtPrize.

Like the former painting, this year’s entry is packed with lush detail and is populated by humans and folkloric creatures and natural fauna in a style that draws influence from illustrator John Bauer. There are insects for children to find and small animals that are warm and fuzzy enough to elicit the unavoidable “Awwwww!” There are also runes transliterated between a Scandinavian tongue and English with seeming abandon and lack of authenticity. The whole is meant to be an escape and an ode to the human imagination. But I also wanted a connection to reality, even if it was no more substantial than a gossamer. Hence, the tear.

That detail was a later addition which seemed more necessary as time passed and the painting progressed. The strange thing is that the tear is neither on a little girl, nor a lost boy, nor any other human – it is rolling down the cheek of a giant troll.

The painting’s imagery was inspired by visitors who viewed my 2013 entry, “F√∂rtrollade Skogen.” One gentleman of Scandinavian heritage pointed to a troll in that painting and related how he was so steeped in folklore as a child that he did not cross a bridge “vittout tinkink twice.” “Under Slottet Bron” is dominated by a bridge that connects the worlds of reality and imagination. Under the bridge crouches a giant troll. Among those crossing the bridge is a small boy who seems to be the only one aware of what lies beyond reality. And just outside of his view is the troll.

Perhaps the tear is not what the viewer expects. After all, the troll has a near-toothless skull hanging from his belt and a tree-sized club in his hand. There is a chain terminating in a morning star, and fingernails worn to points. Sorrow and pain do not fit the image of such a figure.

Trolls, of course, do not handle daylight very well and will turn to stone in the sun. Originally, the troll was simply sleeping in the shadows, waiting for daylight to fade into darkness. He wasn’t exactly menacing, but he wasn’t Mr. Congeniality, either.

Vulnerability, when given to monsters, makes them lamentable – even pitiable. It makes them approachable. It makes them human. In a way, the troll is a portrait of me – the Curmudgeon. People who know me understand that I can be harsh and exacting and demanding. I can be ornery and ugly. But those who know me well also know I can be very brittle and fragile. Gender doesn’t matter, neither does outward bravado. Or size. The hurt is simply bigger.

Telling comments about the tear range from, “Why is he crying?!” to “I don’t WANT him to cry.” For an artist, getting responses like those are golden. Artists want to affect viewers. Otherwise, we fail in visually expressing ourselves.

“Under Slottet Bron” is rather like an unfinished story without beginning or end, and the viewer’s reaction to it is important. The title of the painting comes from an ambiguous, poetic string of words I wrote for the piece. Runes, running around the frame, transliterate the verse, “The tale is told of a sleeping troll under the castle bridge...But his tears that swelled the oceans were all but forgotten.” Somewhere between those small words is a very large story.


“Under Slottet Bron,” by Edward Riojas, aka The Art Curmudgeon, will be hosted by DeVos Place Convention Center, in Grand Rapids, Mich. ArtPrize runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 11, and is a public vote/juried competition with a total purse of more than $500,000. For more information on the event, go to

Friday, August 7, 2015

Artists, Artists, Everywhere

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Apparently, there are way more artists at ArtPrize than previously thought.

For those of you who don’t know, ArtPrize is the best artistic thing EVER to come to West Michigan, certainly the Midwest, and quite possibly the entire U.S. of A. It’s a ginormous contest in which hundreds of venues host thousands of artists competing for a purse of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yes, it’s colossal. It’s impressive. It has grabbed the attention of the art world. And I hope it never goes away.

While not being a fault of the event, ArtPrize does seem to be an effective catalyst for some really dumb things being said out loud regarding the fine arts, and here’s a doozy: “Everyone is an artist.” I heard that not-so-brilliant line uttered on air by a local DJ, and two other DJs immediately agreed. Ignorance must be highly contagious, because I’ve heard similar comments by the pedestrian crowd during ArtPrize.

Here are the facts: I’m sorry, but not everyone is an artist. Neither is everyone a brain surgeon. Here are a few more related facts: A box of band-aids doesn’t come with a medical license. Having a socket set and a couple of pliers doesn’t make you a mechanic. You might have been dragged into court, but that doesn’t make you a lawyer. Your flag football injury does not make you an expert on the NFL. And throwing a few words like these on a goofy blog page doesn’t make me a writer.

But I do know a thing or two about fine art. I’ve been producing art professionally for close to 35 years and producing art non-professionally for another 10-15 years. Call me crazy, but I think that might make me an artist.

I realize that definitions of some professions are sort of fuzzy around the edges. I also realize there is a massive spectrum of talent and proficiency among all professions – even brain surgeons.

Even though a Fine Art degree is lurking in a musty box somewhere in my house, conferred degrees like mine don’t necessarily define an artist. I’ve known exceptions to both sides of that argument. I know an artist who barely has any art education at all, but there is no doubt he is an artist. In his case, a single finished piece is proof enough. His portfolio makes it undeniable. I also know of others who have plenty of art education under their belts, but can’t draw well enough to save their own lives.

Even in this murky world with its ever-deteriorating view of art, most people with a brain at the end of their neck have an idea of who really is an artist and who is a wanna-be. Those folks who have a doorknob where a head should be are the ones who say stuff like, “Everyone is an artist.”

Now I’m not telling you to refrain from painting or drawing or sculpting. Dabbling in art is good therapy for folks with heavy emotional baggage, which includes a sizable chunk of society. The simple act of moving hands around a complacent surface tends to even out emotions, and provides a vehicle for self-expression – the good, the bad and the ugly. What is more, I encourage you to try your hand at an artistic discipline, if only to make you better appreciate those who work hard at honing their artistic skills. And don’t forget that creating art is fun. I don’t want to keep all the fun stuff to myself, and I encourage you to go for it.

The sad, but honest truth is that not everyone is an artist, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that. I’d kick this dead horse a bit more, but someone is coming over for a lobotomy and I best get at it.