The Struggle: Absurdist Art in a Post-Fact World

A country road.  A tree.

Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before. Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON:(giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR:(advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

I don’t like to over-philosophize or politicize if I don’t have to, but sometimes we are called to do things we don’t want to do. I’ve always felt that “truth” within the political spectrum was amorphous at best, and should be treated with whole helpings of skepticism and humor. Such views lead to my interest in the existentialist and absurd writing of Camus, Beckett, and even the more contemporary Lemony Snicket (whose books were recently given the Netflix treatment). The Dadasists and Surrealists also presented such circuitous topics through their readymades and poetic paintings. Ernst, Duchamp, and Maurizio Cattelan probed questions of existing on this earth through wit and cynicism.

In our current political climate, this absurdist attitude seems even more viable as one of the world’s “greatest” countries is taken over by a group of circus clowns (coincidence that Ringling Bros. is shutting down after 146 years?). In the face of adversary, where logic, reason, and “fact” are thrown out the window, a similar absurd attitude only seems logic, though the very logic used to validate it also condemns it.

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“Untitled,” Maurizio Cattelan, 2002

Philosophical-political musings aside, I have begun a series of portraits reflecting the current milieu.

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“My sister called as I drove thru Nor Cal,” charcoal on newsprint, 2017.

The series started, as most good projects, unintentionally. With three canvases, I began three paintings, and three portraits emerged. Each portrait combines pop culture, painting, and the self to reimagine personal images. As facts are deconstructed and presented through various media, personal identity is similarly deconstructed. Our different personas on different media abstract any true identity, leaving us to question if there is any true identity under any of the obscuring layers.

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“Perspective Bacon” 2017 – oil, ink, acrylic, and charcoal on canvas

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“Unnamed, Uninspired” 2017 – watercolor, acrylic, and oil on canvas

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h”Ernst the Rapper” 2016 – charcoal, ink, acrylic, and oil on canvas

I’m not sure if these paintings are actually finished, or if they ever will be…

 

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
― Albert Camus

 

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Finishing Up…

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My lack of updates here has not been from lack of work, but rather the opposite. This final semester of school has been one of the busiest of my life, and I proved to myself and to my school that I have both the skills and the work ethic to produce successful pieces of art.

The main focus of my semester has been my senior thesis, the final piece of which you can see above. For my thesis I decided to provide an institutional critique of education through the lense of the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program.  My thesis was broken down into a solo show and a final group show with all of the other seniors.

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Senior thesis solo show

My solo show consisted of seven hanging sheets of acetate containing text related to education. The end pieces were the definition of a student and a university, respectively, taken from the OED and printed onto a sheet of acetate. Moving inward, the text was taken from school and student group mission statements as well as faculty and student interviews. This text was hand-inked onto the acetate and became messier and less discernable toward the center. My goal was to present the two sides of education and show the struggle between them.

I also included paper on the wall for viewers to share their thoughts and opinions on various related topic. This way, viewers were invited into the space of work and could add to the piece. In doing so, the work became more social and opened a necessary dialogue within the institution.

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This piece hung in the halls of DAAP for the three days of my solo show and transformed throughout its short life in that space.

 

For the second part of my senior thesis, I presented a variation of the above work in the DAAPWorks show, an exhibition of all the DAAP senior’s work. For this, my work was hung in a gallery, so I reimagined and added to it.

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Thesis piece in DAAPWorks gallery

With this piece, I rehung the acetate in an ascending fashion, with a final empty bar, and a painting on the wall. The piece was titled “Raising the Bar,” which was my call to the School of Art students and faculty to improve our overall quality and effort. Whereas my piece in the solo show was an objective view of education and DAAP, this piece involved my own thoughts and feelings on the subject.

 

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The struggle of education is a Sisyphusian task

 

My piece also won the Director’s Choice Award. Not too shabby.

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And after this, I still managed to graduate, go me!

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Me and my lovely sister, who recently graduated with her Masters degree

Of course, I made a lot of other art during the semester, and hopefully I will get around to posting more soon!

Studio Visit with Jaybo Monk

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Jaybo Monk in the Studio

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with artist Jaybo Monk at his studio in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin. I arrived not exactly knowing what to expect, and I left with my mind buzzing with new ideas and information shared by this wizened raconteur.

I first saw Jaybo’s work on Instagram. I was immediately attracted to the abstract image which, upon further inspection, was made up of realistic renderings of body parts.  After more research I discovered his studio is located right here in Berlin and emailed an inquiry to visit. Surprisingly, he responded quickly with confirmation that I could indeed stop by and see what he was working on. Even through his emails I could get a feeling of a genuine, honest man with a passion for art. Our interaction reaffirmed this, and I was able to pick the mind of a true artist.

Jaybo Monk was born Jeremy Baudouin in a small village in southern France. As a child, he worked on a farm and drew. He loved Mickey Mouse and would copy complete Mickey Mouse magazines (including the ads) that he would receive every week. This exercise foreshadowed his creation of Berlin’s first independent magazine, Style & the Family Tune, in the 80s. The magazine, with its name taken from funk band Sly & the Family Stone, offered an eclectic mix of music, fashion, art, and more (More info of the mag here). After the magazine, Jaybo transitioned into studio art after an artist dropped from a show at a friend’s gallery.

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Newest piece, yet unfinished

In his cozy, though mostly unheated studio, we chatted about art, books, music, and the world, amidst the mass of materials yet to be turned into art. Jaybo’s work mostly consists of paintings, but also includes Dada-esque sculptures made from found objects. When I arrived, Jaybo was pulling a bad Renior flower print out of the gaudy framed that enclosed it, with plans on painting over it. His work develops from one step to the next, usually started with Surrealist mark-making, be it smearing material on a canvas or creating an etching of his studio floor. By the time his has completed a painting, the expedition of art has allowed him to create a figurative collage hinting at but revealing no complete figure. As he says, his works are about absence. The loss of a friend, which he seems to have dealt with all too much, a wallet (all to real in my case), a painting, whatever. These things are what he wants to represent in his work.

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One of the many Dada-inspired objects scattered throughout his studio

Though I had questions prepared to ask him, our conversation flowed freely and ranged a variety of topics. I peppered him with questions about his background, art history, and technique, but we veered into topics of philosophy, hip-hip, and gentrification. The beauty is that all of these things are encompassed in his work, and hopefully someday, mine as well. He presented his influence from heavy-hitting figures such as Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and Francis Bacon, as well as the more elusive names like Ray Johnson and Andy Goldsworthy. In terms of music, his roots begin with hip-hop, which he helped spread in Berlin during its genesis, but have now spread out to more avant-garde names such as John Cage. Philosophers like Camus stir his imagination during early morning readings, and we both agreed on the honest, bleak, yet sympathetic work of Bukowski. His love of poetry comes through in his word choices and phrases, which would hit me out of the blue like a stone thrown by a friend. When I expressed to him my worries of my post-graduation art career, he responded:

“You need things in your head and your heart to put on canvas, and its not paint.”

I discovered from our chat that Jaybo Monk participated in a group show, a solo show, and two art fairs (totaling to a sum of 28 pieces) in the last 3 months. He is indeed a busy man. Yet, at the end of it all, he has the time to let a complete and random, albeit charming, stranger come to his studio and take some time away from his work. Beyond my appreciation and interest in the painted collages and sculptures that he makes, I now have a definite gratitude for Jaybo Monk himself. We developed a connection between our interests, traded names, and he even gave me a small drawing. A true artist; a true man.

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Joseph Beuys: Under Construction

Joseph Beuys, by Andy  Warhol

Joseph Beuys, by Andy
Warhol

As a native German and trailblazer of contemporary art, Joseph Beuys is very well represented in Berlin. The Hamburger-Banhof has three large rooms full of his work, which includes pieces of basalt, huge chunks of tallow, and a stage full of blackboards from his famous lectures.

A certain professor of mine has a profound love of Beuys and piqued my interest in his work. Though I can’t say I fully understand everything about Beuys’ pieces or performances, I am always moved by the way Beuys engages his audience. He is famous for saying that everyone is an artist and that teaching is his greatest work of art. I am lucky to have a lot of exposure to his work, especially while staying in Berlin, and it is leaving a great impression on me.

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Remnents of his performance “I Try to Set (Make) You Free” which ended in a near riot

Currently running at the Berlinische Gallery is an exhibition featuring work from Galerie Rene Block. Artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Nam June Paik, and Joseph Beuys were represented by Rene Block. There were many posters and recordings from these artists, but not much actual work. However, they did have a video taken of Beuys’ seminal work, “I Like America and America Likes Me.” It was Beuys’ first show in America. The performance included him locked in Rene Block Gallery with a coyote. I sat and watched the whole 37 minute video (watch an informative video of the performance here).

The performance is an incredible thing to watch. The separate forces of man and nature coming together as one in an art gallery. At times Beuys and the coyote are friendly. Beuys feeds it and tosses leather gloves that the coyote catches. Other times, especially when Beuys wraps himself in the felt, transforming himself into an ethereal creature, the coyote attacks him and rips the felt.

However, there was something else in the gallery that I focused my attention on. The museum is preparing for a Max Beckman show opening soon, which means that it is pretty much a construction site. Certain galleries were closed off, and you could hear power tools at work behind the curtains. In the main hall there was a man painting the large wall grey using a roller on a large extended pole. I watched him paint. Mesmerized. Long straight lines of grey industrial paint layering over each other in flat sheets. Done with precision. The man, with earbuds firmly in place, looked at me confused. I could tell his wasn’t sure why I was there watching him. I looked at him, not sure if he realized he was the artist. 

Also, as I watched the video of Beuys’ performance, I could see a man painting a makeshift wooden door. He worked on a felt dropcloth to catch any paint. Felt, the same material that Beuys covered himself in during his performance. To me the actions are essentially the same, just that one performer did not realize he was performing. I stood leaning on the temporary wall in the exhibition space, watching the Beuysian felt monster fend off a coyote and a professional painter work in his element.

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The tools of an artist, lying in anticipation of the action

After, I went upstairs to see the other exhibition, but not even caring for the paintings I was looking at. There was art happening in the space that had grabbed my attention.


As far as my own artistic production is concerned, I have made the painting you see below. It is a painting of a picture I took of Beuys’ Capri Battery: a lightbulb powered by a lemon. The piece was in a display case, so when I took the picture, there was a reflection of my jeans. While painting, I was reminded of the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers. The cover, bursting with innuendo, shows a male crotch complete with working zipper, an idea formed by Andy Warhol. So I gave my painting a little pop culture pizazz by adding a painterly textured zipper. I wonder what Beuys would think….

Sticky Beuys

Sticky Beuys, oil on canvas, 2015

Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Wow. What a city! I only got to spend two days in Amsterdam, but I did as much as I could while I was there. Right out of the train station I was met with an incredible view of the canals and buildings of Amsterdam. I stayed right along one of the canals and was within walking distance of everywhere I wanted to go.

My first stop (of course) was the world renowned Rijksmuseum, though on the way I ran into a good Dutch friend of mine. Maybe you’ve heard of him

Statue of Rembrandt

Statue of Rembrandt

This statue sits in Rembrandt Square and is modeled after his painting, the Nightwatch, which resides in the Rijksmuseum.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt

The painting is enormous. The figures are life size, yet they tower above you. I stood in front of that painting for a long time admiring the precise detail and various textures among the different clothes and objects in the painting. The play of light in the painting, which Rembrandt is especially known for, is very unique, and plays an important role in the painting. You’ll notice that two figures are illuminated: the girl at left-center and the man to the right. These bright figures frame the central figure, the general, who gives orders to the rest of the militiamen. Though there had been many previous paintings of groups of soldiers, Rembrandt was the first to create such a dynamic and active painting in honor of the guards of the city.

Though the Nightwatch is not a great example, Rembrandt was also one of the first painters to paint texturally. When you look at his paintings, you can see globs of paint that he built up on the painting. God I wish I could touch it!

Detail of a Rembrandt

Detail of a Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum

After the Rijksmuseum, I meet up with some friends and wandered around the streets and canals to enjoy Amsterdam’s famous nightlife.

Nighttime canals

Nighttime canals

My second day of Amsterdam included the Van Gogh Museum, which I was most looking forward to, and the Stedelijk Museum, which houses modern art.

One of Van Gogh's many self portraits

One of Van Gogh’s many self portraits

I wondered how many actual van Gogh paintings the museum would have because there are so many throughout the world. Answer: a lot. And they are all amazing. You get to see his progression from muddled landscape painter to an artist who depicts all the highs and lows of the human condition. The museum also does a great job of incorporating the work of other artists, who both inspired and were inspired by van Gogh.

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A work by Jan Fabre in response to letters from van Gogh to his brother Theo.

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A Crab on Its Back, 1888

My favorite paintings in the museum were the ones above and below this silly writing. The pictures I have here do not do them justice. The colors in the crab and in the background are unlike anything I have ever seen before. Even after over a hundred years, the colors are electric. The subject itself is all too similar to the struggle of the artist, the struggle that van Gogh dealt with all his life. On the other hand, his painting Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette is hilarious. I love this painting. Its so goofy. I have no idea how Van Gogh thought to do this, but through this painting, he was able to bring the dead back to life. 

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Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885-1886

A Richard Serra sculpture between the museums

A Richard Serra sculpture between the museums

After the Van Gogh Museum, I went to the Stedelijk Museum nearby to see more contemporary work. The museum ranged from post-Impressionism all the way to performance art and work from the 21st century. My highlights were Max Beckman, whose paintings I thoroughly enjoy, Martin Kippenburger, whose work I had never seen in person before, and Roy Lichtenenstein. He paints comics, its great! The museum also had a special exhibition on Zero, a group of mostly German avant-garde artists who worked in the 50’s and 60’s.

Max Beckman Self Portrait with his Wife

Max Beckman Self Portrait with his Wife

Three Buildings with Slits by Martin Kippenberger (1 of 3)

Three Buildings with Slits by Martin Kippenberger (1 of 3)

Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein

The museum also had a special exhibition on ZERO, a group of mostly German avant-garde artists who worked in the 50’s and 60’s. There was much sculptural and minimalist work with a conceptual spin. Below, the artist fuses a TV and a stool into one worthless object via a fuckton of nails.

TV with Nails, Gunther Uecker, 1963

TV with Nails, Gunther Uecker, 1963

I got to see a retrospective on ZERO at the Guggenheim last year, where I was introduced to Yves Klein. He was a brilliant painter, sculptor, and artist in general. I was most amazed at his fire paintings, where he basically used a flamethrower to burn canvasses, which he presented as paintings. A video of this process was included in the show, and it was badass. Below is one of Klein’s blue paintings. He became famous for these paintings, which usually only included this same hue of blue and sponges, painted blue. In fact, the specific hue has been named International Klein Blue.

One of Yves Klein Blue Paintings with sponges

One of Yves Klein Blue Paintings with sponges

After the Stedelijk Museum, I took a quick rest at my hostel, then wandered into the hazy streets of Amsterdam and made some friends. Though I saw what I wanted to see, there is still so much for to do and see in that incredible city. Amsterdam, one day I will come back to you, and once again we will celebrate the grand mystery of life in a way that only you can provide, you crazy sonuvabitch.

Goodbye, Amsterdam

Goodbye, Amsterdam

And tomorrow (and by tomorrow I mean in five hours) I’m off to Budapest!

Art?

I was mindfucked by art.

Paul McCarthy

I have experienced similar feelings when watching movies that blew my mind and left me wondering who, what, and where I was, but today, it happened at a Paul McCarthy exhibition. I will tell you the story…

In early September, there were countless gallery openings for Berlin’s Art Week. I went to a few, but one that I missed was Paul McCarthy’s at the Schinkel Pavilion. I am familliar with his work, having seen his uncanny and offputting movie “Painter” (a clip) and recent “trees” that he displayed in Paris. I cannot say I ever really understood, appreciated, or liked any of his work. I can’t even say I’ve ever really even given his work a chance. I only accepted it as part of the institutional theory of art and know he was mentioned in more than one undergrad art class. But, I know I wanted to see his exhibition.

From what I had seen on the Schinkel Pavilion website (http://schinkelpavillon.de/exhibitions/current-upcoming/paul-mccarthy/), the show included a reproduction of the artist himself. Basically, Paul McCarthy made a copy of Paul McCarthy and laid him on a table, naked. That’s what I was going to see. That’s what I expected. Just a naked Paul McCarthy on a table.

This is what happened:

On a rainy Berlin Thursday, after leaving the school where I am teaching, I headed to Schinkel Pavilion in Mitte. Though the road is blocked by construction, I take a right onto Oberwallstraße and look for the entrance. I see a small sign that reads “Schinkel Pavilion <—–” pointing to the left. There is no door to the left. I keep walking between building and area blocked off by construction, and finally arrive at a door and a sign for the Schinkel Pavilion. This must be the place. The door is locked, so I buzz for Schinkel Pavilion. The door unlocks, and I enter. Unlike most museums or galleries, I am not greeted by white walls and a desk, but a winding staircase and an open door. I walk through the door, into what appears to be some sort of old, decrepit building, not the Schinkel Pavilion I had imagined. I proceed into a rotunda of sorts, with a table in the middle and TVs on the surrounding walls. There was no naked artist on the table. Only black lines that seemed to outline a body, and playing on the TV was a video showing men tracing a naked woman sitting and laying on the table. And she was laughing, hysterically, and for no reason. The room smelled like a sauna and was reminiscent of abandoned prisons. Through the window I could see a construction machine picking up garbage. It’s bangs and crashes added to the noises of the woman. On the other side of the room was a door. I walked through into the hallway you see above, and into a room in which hung neon close ups of a female face. The room was dirty and abandoned, in contrast to the gleaming photographs. There was a rusty sink and a spot where some sort of machine used to sit. It reminded me of a storage room in a carnival warehouse that I used to work at. Through this room I entered into an unlit hallway and peered into empty, dark rooms. Each time I was sure something was hiding inside, waiting for me. I walked through a room, through a swinging door, and back into the rotunda where the table sat and the videos continued to play.

The Rotunda

As a stood in the room, staring around at the different videos showing the same thing, a woman entered the room and looked at me, saying nothing. I was not sure who she was. A confused visitor? Part of the scam? Eventually she told me there was more upstairs. I followed her, where the naked artist and white-walled desk awaited like I expected.

One of the many definitions of art is that art is aesthetic experience, a situation where you become acutely aware of your senses. From the moment I started walking down the construction laden street of Oberwallstraße, I entered into the artistic experience. It lead up to entering what seemed to be an abandoned building, where I questioned if I should have been there, yet almost recognized it as if I already had. Art should challenge and confuse, yet excite and entertain. It should question, entice, arouse, and bemuse. All of this happened during my experience of Paul McCarthy’s show. All of this and more.

a few new artists….

I found a great blog on WordPress called Rembrandt’s Dog’s List that I will definitely be looking through for a while. It has already given me some great painters to look at that I have not seen before.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung (http://www.mollyzuckermanhartung.com/) is doing some fascinating things with mixed media, and has one of the most extensive sites for an artist that I have ever seen, including her 95 Theses on Painting.

Rayk Goetze (http://www.raykland.de/) is yet another fantastic German painter with a good mix of figurative and abstract painting.

Lastly, through one of my many internet-art-browing tangents, I found Pierre Alechinsky. He is an older painter, but his paintings include graphic black and white areas that remind me of comics.