Classic trilobite: referencing, gazing and Mitochondrial Eve

[Originally posted September 21st, 2008.  Hat tip to Jeska Corena for quoting the post.]

This week, I've been thinking a lot about social-consciousness in art. Y'know, being political and having a message for the public sphere.

There's some reasons for my preoccupation.

Tyler Handley at The Edger wondered how to classify atheist art. Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera shows the tension between illustration/photojournalism and fine art, and how poorly played it can both enhance and upset a career. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has an interesting round-up of articles about art about science; I'm struck by how many are about global warming, but not surprised.

Social activism and controversies are always a part of the fine artists' agenda. It's not surprising. And it's a good thing the global warming crisis is a part of the agenda! I remember in university about 10 years ago, some wag put up a list of "10 images to be an art hack" too high up on a support pillar to take down. On it were things like, "Coca-Cola logo" (to signify evil corporations), "Kate Moss" (to signify male-controlled body image), "fetus" (to signify the abortion debate).

My friends and I used the term, "shake and bake" for this type of art; by putting an image on canvas of say, Kate Moss you were automatically addressing bulimia, women's body image, the perpetuation of the male-gaze in art, heroin chic (Trainspotting was a big movie when I was in Uni) and being "ironic" and "conflicted" by both showing her and "referencing" her. Ooo, edgy, a half-naked painting of a photo of Kate Moss.

Referencing was a big buzz word in Fine Art back then. It meant copying something, or including it in there. It was supposed to be a dialogue, while perhaps being vague on what you were saying.

It meant you didn't have to come up or reveal a new conflict to the viewer, you simply added to the dialogue. Shale and bake. Truly new conflicts were hard to smash through with. In my own small way, I tried. After reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins over and over, I tried numerous pieces about the Mitochondrial Eve concept. It enthralled me that we could figure out things like this bottleneck in our prehistory. But it wasn't new of the day, so it was hard to spread the wonderment. Frustrating.

Here is that painting, Mitochondrial Eve:



Not perhaps my strongest work back then, and I've almost painted over it a few times. This one was painted on an antique wood panel to prevent warping, using traditional materials (rabbit-skin glue....eewwww) so it will likely look at me with it's not-up-to-my-standards look for quite some time.
I had roommates also in the Fine Arts, one majoring in dance, one in theatre. We'd joke a bit that in both their disciplines, collaboration is essential; whereas in visual art, you're expected to stand smoking in the corner saying, "They're all hacks, no one understands my genius. puff".





But back to social messages. Are they all shake and bake? All instantly microwaveable into some sort of painting/sculpture/installation that everyone brings their own political/social/media-savvy background to?


No. There can be something strong enough to break through and galvanise people. But I think the world of visual Fine Art is tough. We are surrounded by astounding images every day, so standing still and letting a painting perform long enough to affect one's mindset as it unravels and wraps up a viewer is a difficult thing. I try it from time to time.


And once, I was so overcome, I simply sat down in the middle of the gallery, on the floor. I stretched my legs out, and just enjoyed the still oil painting on the wall and let it affect me. Security didn't mind this gothy-punk just sitting there; I was causing no harm and others could walk around me. And the painting was marvelous. I consider it now my very favourite. Science and myth thrown together on a canvas. John Atkins Grimshaw's Iris. (The science comes from the part you cannot see in a photo: thin glazes of oil forming a rainbow following the tragic arch of Iris's body).


Try it. Find an image about a current issue like global warming. Perhaps it's a block of ice in a gallery kept at temperatures cool enough to drip only slowly, or tiny plastic polar bears on the floor of the gallery. Perhaps something on the computer screen, something from antiquity, something in your local museum or art gallery or a book.


Ponder it slowly.


Be unafraid to find it shallow.


Be unafraid to say, "that's it?"


Be willing to enjoy the art of the small message for its small message.


And keep moving on, and slowing down to look until one commands your gaze. Let it mesmerise you with its memes and forms. My hope is that it will provide a rallying point for rationality in its beauty.


[Comments on original post here.]
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Artwork Mondays: referencing, gazing and Mitochondrial Eve

This week, I've been thinking a lot about social-consciousness in art. Y'know, being political and having a message for the public sphere.

There's some reasons for my preoccupation.

Tyler Handley at The Edger wondered how to classify atheist art. Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera shows the tension between illustration/photojournalism and fine art, and how poorly played it can both enhance and upset a career. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has an interesting round-up of articles about art about science; I'm struck by how many are about global warming, but not surprised.

Social activism and controversies are always a part of the fine artists' agenda. It's not surprising. And it's a good thing the global warming crisis is a part of the agenda! I remember in university about 10 years ago, some wag put up a list of "10 images to be an art hack" too high up on a support pillar to take down. On it were things like, "Coca-Cola logo" (to signify evil corporations), "Kate Moss" (to signify male-controlled body image), "fetus" (to signify the abortion debate).

My friends and I used the term, "shake and bake" for this type of art; by putting an image on canvas of say, Kate Moss you were automatically addressing bulimia, women's body image, the perpetuation of the male-gaze in art, heroin chic (Trainspotting was a big movie when I was in Uni) and being "ironic" and "conflicted" by both showing her and "referencing" her. Ooo, edgy, a half-naked painting of a photo of Kate Moss.

Referencing was a big buzz word in Fine Art back then. It meant copying something, or including it in there. It was supposed to be a dialogue, while perhaps being vague on what you were saying.

It meant you didn't have to come up or reveal a new conflict to the viewer, you simply added to the dialogue. Shale and bake. Truly new conflicts were hard to smash through with. In my own small way, I tried. After reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins over and over, I tried numerous pieces about the Mitochondrial Eve concept. It enthralled me that we could figure out things like this bottleneck in our prehistory. But it wasn't new of the day, so it was hard to spread the wonderment. Frustrating.

Here is that painting, Mitochondrial Eve:

Not perhaps my strongest work back then, and I've almost painted over it a few times. This one was painted on an antique wood panel to prevent warping, using traditional materials (rabbit-skin glue....eewwww) so it will likely look at me with it's not-up-to-my-standards look for quite some time.

I had roommates also in the Fine Arts, one majoring in dance, one in theatre. We'd joke a bit that in both their disciplines, collaboration is essential; whereas in visual art, you're expected to stand smoking in the corner saying, "They're all hacks, no one understands my genius. puff".



But back to social messages. Are they all shake and bake? All instantly microwaveable into some sort of painting/sculpture/installation that everyone brings their own political/social/media-savvy background to?

No. There can be something strong enough to break through and galvanise people. But I think the world of visual Fine Art is tough. We are surrounded by astounding images every day, so standing still and letting a painting perform long enough to affect one's mindset as it unravels and wraps up a viewer is a difficult thing. I try it from time to time.

And once, I was so overcome, I simply sat down in the middle of the gallery, on the floor. I stretched my legs out, and just enjoyed the still oil painting on the wall and let it affect me. Security didn't mind this gothy-punk just sitting there; I was causing no harm and others could walk around me. And the painting was marvelous. I consider it now my very favourite. Science and myth thrown together on a canvas. John Atkins Grimshaw's Iris. (The science comes from the part you cannot see in a photo: thin glazes of oil forming a rainbow following the tragic arch of Iris's body).

Try it. Find an image about a current issue like global warming. Perhaps it's a block of ice in a gallery kept at temperatures cool enough to drip only slowly, or tiny plastic polar bears on the floor of the gallery. Perhaps something on the computer screen, something from antiquity, something in your local museum or art gallery or a book.

Ponder it slowly.

Be unafraid to find it shallow.

Be unafraid to say, "that's it?"

Be willing to enjoy the art of the small message for its small message.

And keep moving on, and slowing down to look until one commands your gaze. Let it mesmerise you with its memes and forms. My hope is that it will provide a rallying point for rationality in its beauty.

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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Please visit my blog, gallery and reproduction store.

Richard Dawkins Portrait Revisited

Back in June (has it been that long?) , I began a portrait of one of the sources of my artistic inspiration as an adult, Richard Dawkins.

I did not pick Prof. Dawkins because of
The God Delusion, although I do think that is a tremendously important and well-written book. I picked Richard Dawkins mainly because of River Out of Eden, The Ancestor's Tale, and Unweaving the Rainbow.

River Out of Eden, as I've mentioned before, was the first book by Dawkins that I read. I was struck by how intelligently the armchair logic strung together, and how much sense it all made. The world could make sense, with the right mindset and tools to investigate. Even the mistakes along the way could be valuable. It is a beautifully written book, and there is more of the sublime in wondering about 'Mitochondrial Eve' than the Biblical Eve, in my opinion. It's a short but nourishing read, and if you are wondering about Dawkins' "voice" in his books and are feeling trepidation about The God Delusion, start here, and you will quickly find that there is nothing 'shrill' or 'strident' about his writing.

Back to the portrait. It has stalled somewhat for me at the moment. A while ago, I reported that is was in its Ugly Phase, which most of my paintings go through. I was trying out a new material to draw and paint on, and I am not happy with the result. Oil paints sometimes suffer from what is known as "sinking", when they absorb into the surface enough that the normally glossy oil becomes dull in some places, giving it a patchy look. There are retouching varnishes on the market that can fix this problem, but I feel I may have to abandon that painting and print out another copy of the drawing above to carry on from.

After reading an article in Art Scene International, featuring the stellar Donato Giancola, I tried a few tips. Drew out the portrait as you see above, and then painted a clear gesso primer over top so that if I felt it was not going well, or I accidentally gave Richard Dawkins a huge handlebar moustache, I could use a small bit of solvent and scrape back the painting to see the original drawing underneath.

Scraping it back to the see the drawing underneath didn't really work. *sigh*

So, at least I have the scan. I am currently working on another piece that is occupying a lot of my attention (I'll be sure to crow about it if it works out), and I am trying something new. I drew the piece out on my favourite Strathmore Bristol vellum finish, scanned it, and printed the piece (with heightened contrast) onto canvasette paper (aka canvas paper). Now if I mess it up, the drawing still exists. Much better.

Richard Dawkins' books on evolution contain so much beauty and wonder in them that I know I will attempt this portrait again very soon. Besides, there are other scientists and sources of inspiration I'd like to paint as my own little egotistical tributes. Hmm, I can already think of a diptych companion to Dawkins...perhaps Sagan...

A Peek at my Dawkins Portrait



Just a tiny peek.

This is a portrait I am doing of Richard Dawkins. Much of my work for many years has been inspired by his science writing, particularly River Out of Eden. I hope to have the finished work completed soon. (Soon being a loose and playful term.) It is an unauthorised tribute.

I welcome comments.

"Painting is the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critics."
-
Ambrose Bierce

Knowledge Pupates Part 2: how I left paganism for science

Part 2
(Read Part 1 here if you want to know about me as an arrogant youth).
I call this drawing Anthropomorphic Gestation. The caterpillars are gathered around the central one who seems to be coming out of human clothes. I feel it represents the mixed-up sense of the world of my early twenties: if I was an arrogant teenager, I was busy trying to be a very unusual university student, in a Fine Art faculty of many others all trying to be weird and unusual also.

I love books, and the ones I love I read over and over again. University was a heady time for me, and I was trying to soak the world in like a sponge, and figure myself out with each gem of fact that came my way. While taking a history of western art, a history of scientific discovery, and a humanities course of the renaissance, I was almost overwhelmed by the leaps and bounds of that age, in art, writing and science.

I was coming up against walls in magic I believed worked. Some of the coincidences still had me fooled, sure, (a popular book on astrology showed Gemini with a blue-fronted Amazon parrot, and I had one...) but I was finding holes. I had been impressing myself and other friends with The Celtic Book of the Dead cards for a number of years. I am no cold-reader, and sometimes it was almost eerie what the cards said. (Fantastic artwork on those things too.) Every once and a while though, I'd by stymied. Couldn't read the cards so they would make sense of the situation. And then I discovered one of my favourite artists, Brian Froud, had made a Tarot-style deck of his own. Anyone could make a deck. I simultaneously began to doubt diviniation by card-reading and wanted to make some of my own, with my own designs based on my renewed interest in science.

"(Percy) Shelley had been an inadmissable mix of species, like a baby bird who has been handled by humans and now carries their smell; ...His heart still embodied the appalling mix, and was therefore a tangible offense against the inherent separateness of the two forms of life."
Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard, 1989

Tim Powers is an author who writes about the historical, magical events that were never recorded. He does it incredibly convincingly. He uses pseudo-scientific concepts for magic to explain how Shelley, Keats & Byron could be plagued by lamia-vampires, and each of his books is a well-researched, historically accurate work of fantasy. Absolute dynamite. I thought this was great, reading about magic, and he explains things. The artistry of his writing left an indelible stamp on my thinking. I know it sounds very basic, but from these stories of Powers' vivid imagination, I realised that things could be figured out.

As I say, it was a heady time. I was studying Symbolist Art like Jan Toorop ("O Grave..." pictured below), Fernand Knopff, & Odilon Redon, the influences of which can be seen in my drawing above, (the Symbolist eye on the left chrysalis looking inward toward the soul, and the maiden soul erupting out of the weird rock-moon thing). I was reading David Brin's Earth and saying it changed my life, (even though I spent about 6 weeks pronouncing the word "paradigm" with a soft-g.) I was living with a blue-fronted Amazon. I was speaking fluent sign language. The martian meteorite ALH 8001 was being scrutinized. I began drawing trilobites.

Enter Richard Dawkins.

River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins slowly grew on me, "doing good by stealth". I began drawing images of Mitochondrial Eve, and re-read chapters again and again. The prose was so beautiful, and so clear at the same time. "...we shall follow it back through a time scale incommensurably older than the legendary Eve's thousands of years and African Eve's hundreds of thousands. The river of DNA has been has been flowing through our ancestors in an unbroken line that spans not less than three thousand million years."

Beautiful concepts, inspiring ones, and the best part is they are true. My mind was pupating.

In Part Three of Knowledge Pupates: A new painting! Fashion crimes!