Friday, March 28, 2008

Record Album Art: Sun Ra

My good friend Todd M. enjoyed the Sun Ra reference on my last post, so I thought that it would be fun to take a closer look at the great Sun Ra. (Todd is a veteran advertising art director in Detroit, a musician, and a general connoisseur of cultural coolness.)

Sun Ra (also known as Sonny Blount): In many respects, the strange and enigmatic Sun Ra operated outside of the main stream of jazz—yet, he is a major figure in the history of jazz and can not be overlooked.

Sun Ra was an innovative jazz composer, band leader, piano and synthesizer player, and poet who came to be known as much for his “cosmic philosophy” as for his musical compositions and performances. Ra claimed that he was a member of the “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from the planet Saturn. The “cosmic” orientation of his philosophy, poetry, and often-bizarre music, along with costumes that combined elements of ancient Egypt and outer space, caused many people to regard his as a crank, or “nut”. Still, he has been widely recognized for his immense musical talents.

Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer. His music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of more than thirty musicians, singers, and dancers, all in costume. His music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also a pioneer of electronic music and “free” improvisation, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.

As a synthesizer and electric keyboard player, Sun Ra ranks among one of the earliest and most radical pioneers. His live albums from the late '60s and early '70s feature some of the noisiest, most bizarre keyboard work ever recorded.

Although Sun Ra operated on the outer limits of jazz, he has been extremely influential on a great many musicians for his pioneering spirit, and willingness to take the music as far as it could go.

Ra recorded over 200 albums; some were on major or semi-major record labels such as A&M, Inpulse, and Rounder. Most of his releases, however, were on more obscure labels, and many were released by Saturn Records, his own label.

Here is a sampling of Sun Ra album cover art. I find the illustrated covers in particular to be very appealing. Stylistically, many of them could be described as being somewhere between surrealism and something related to folk or outsider art, and often have sort of a "home-made" appearance. Unfortunately, I do not have information on any of the artists. If anyone has any information about this, it would be nice to know.

I had the good fortune to see Sun Ra perform at least a half-dozen times. The first time, I was fifteen years old, and just kind of stumbled upon a performance at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, where I grew up. I had never seen or heard anything like this before in my life, and musically, it was a life-changing event that I will never forget.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

De Kooning Jumps the Shark; Elvis Has Left the Building

It’s after the end of the world; don’t you know that yet?—Sun Ra , 1970

As regular readers of this blog may have surmised, one of my favorite pastimes is ruminating on the state of things in the art world today. During my twenty years working as an illustrator, questions such as “what is art?”, “is there such a thing as good and bad art?”, “who gets to determine what is art and what is not?”, were far from my mind. Drawing and painting pictures for clients, I never had to worry about things like “what is the meaning of this piece—what am I trying to say?”. I was given an assignment, I did it, and I got paid (hopefully!). Pretty much end of story.

When I decided to become a high school art teacher, I realized that I would have to start thinking about some of these things. I was hired to teach drawing and painting, not commercial art or illustration per se. I went to Borders and bought a copy of Art in America, and sent in for a subscription… So what did I find in the pages of this august publication? A very heavy dose of “installation art”, conceptual and minimalist art, etc. Really, as I remarked in my Art Trends class at Wayne State University (a class taken for my master’s degree in art education), I had seen a lot of this kind of thing back in the early 1970s when I was attending the University of Michigan College of Art. To me, I said, installation art was nothing new—let’s move on already.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

Consider this: what we commonly refer to as “modern art” has been around for over a hundred years. The modernist movements of Fauvism and Cubism are from the early years of the 20th century. Same for the Dada movement-- Marcel Duchamp’s found object sculpture titled “Fountain” (a urinal) is from 1917. By mid-century, painting had come to the point of total abstraction, as typified by the work of Jackson Pollack, a.k.a. “Jack the Dripper”. Painting (“important” painting, that is) was no longer about representation; it had become purely about “paint on canvas”. Gone was any need or desire to represent three-dimensional space; to the contrary, it had become all about “the picture plane”, or “flatness”.

Pollock, No. 32, 1950

Clement Greenberg was, to many people, the most important art critic of the mid-twentieth century. Arguably, it was Greenberg who had the most influence on the way “people in the know” have thought about art for the last fifty years or more. Paint on canvas, picture plane, etc—all from Greenberg. To Greenberg, it was essential that for art to be ART, it had to be always moving forward, always something new and different. Here is an illustration of that point: Greenberg, initially a supporter of abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, abandoned de Kooning when he came out with his series of Woman paintings in the early 1950s. Greenberg argued that by deserting pure abstraction and returning to figurative painting, de Kooning was demonstrating “a failure of responsibility and, ultimately, of character.” De Kooning was, according to Greenberg, “making a major mistake by trying to reinstate the figure.” (Quotes are from the de Kooning bio by Stevens and Swan, pgs. 342, 350.) In other words, Greenberg declared that de Kooning had ”jumped the shark”. Keep in mind, the average person today would likely look at one of de Kooning’s Woman paintings as representing all that is bad about “modern art”, having no idea that this work had been rejected over fifty years ago as being essentially old-fashioned! The premise that art must always break new ground in order to be ART has persisted in the inner circle of the art world to this day.

So, given all of this, where have we come to? After passing through the Pop Art movement of the 1960s (Warhol, etc.), Post-painterly abstraction (term coined by Greenberg) and minimalism, we have gotten to the point where to some in the art world, we are now beyond any use for “the art object” altogether. In the 1980s, philosopher Arthur Danto declared “the end of art”, citing Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) as the point in time where art became indiscernable from anything else. Since then, the history of art can no longer be seen as linear; the art of the last few decades has been dominated by a broad pluralism in which in which just about anything goes. The history of art, traditionally viewed in a linear manner, has come to a grinding halt.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1980

The art world today, in what is often referred to as the Postmodern Era, is not, and has not been for some time, defined by any dominant school or movement. Rather it is defined (if that is the right word) by a complete and total lack of consensus as to the question of “what is art”. Much of the “important” art of today exists largely to deliver a political, social, or ideological point of view and frequently has little or nothing to do with aesthetic value. Much of this work is, to the public at large, unrecognizable as art and in fact, is not even on their radar screen.

Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995

Norm Magunsson, The I-75 Project, (ongoing)

Happily, however, there does seem to be, within the pluralistic art world of today, somewhat of a resurgence of figurative painting, and of realistic painting in general. Some of this work appears largely traditional (cardinal sin!), but some of it could be described as postmodern, typically by virtue of subject matter that is anything but traditional. Art critic/philosopher Donald Kuspit has referred to some of this work as “New Old Masterism”. Artists such as Odd Nerdrum, Steven Assael, Vincent Desiderio and others are painting with the technique of the “old masters”, but the imagery is “new”-- typically strange, often bizarre. Other postmodern realist-leaning painting (realist in terms of realistic rendering, not necessarily in thematic content or subject matter) would include the art that is often referred to as “Low-brow” (this term being a satirical stab at “high brow” art), also known as Contemporary Pop, and the related “Pop Surrealism”. This work is generally inspired by pop culture, and many of these typically very skillful artists come from an illustration background.

Steven Assael, Bride, 1993

Todd Schorr, The Spectre of Cartoon Appeal, 2000

Really, much of the art of today defies labels or easy description. People are working in so many different ways, it’s hard to keep track of. Much of what is being produced these days can be hard to swallow as art. Still, there is a heck of a lot of really great work that is being produced.

David Salle, Angels in the Rain, 1998

Aleksander Balos, See No Evil, 2000

Dana Schutz, Death Comes to us All, 2003

Is art dead? Hardly. Nobody seems to be able to define it, but people still keep making it, whatever it is.

Art as a linear progression? Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.

Friday, March 21, 2008

"Hidden Agendas"

Jacobi, Hidden Agendas, acrylic, 24"x30", 2008 (click on image for larger view)

This is my latest painting. I am not 100% sure that it is finished, but I think that it may be. After spending so many years doing carefully planned and executed paintings for my illustration jobs, I now like the idea of working in a more spontaneous, intuitive manner. Kelly's Ghost (see previous post, Feb. 19) was painted that way, and this one was as well. In fact, when I started this piece, I didn't have a thought in my mind--not consciously, at least. It just unfolded on its own, in terms of the subject matter, composition, and manner of brush strokes. The color palette is something that I have used on a number of other pieces--that part was a conscious decision.

I like the idea of working "in the moment". As such, although part of me wants to go in and tweak this painting a bit, my inclination is to leave it as it is, as an expression of the moments that it was painted in. I have been sitting on this one for a few weeks, trying to decide. I think it's done-- enough so as to post it here on my blog, at any rate.

Monday, March 17, 2008

1995: My Brief Foray into the World of 3D Computer Graphics

As usual, life is very busy. I have an essay that I have been picking away at, but it is not ready yet. In the meantime, I thought that I had better post something so that my readers don't totally lose interest...

Back in 1995, I started dabbling around with doing some 3D CG. I thought that there might be a possibility for me to head in that direction career-wise. As things happened, through a series of events not interesting enough to bother with here, this was not to be. It occurred to me that perhaps some of you might be interested to see some of this stuff.

These pieces were created with Strata Studio Pro, on a Macintosh Quadra 660 AV, which featured a whopping 350 MG hard drive, and as I recall, 24 MB of RAM. Hard to imagine doing much of anything on that equipment, much less 3D work. These things took hours for the computer to render. Actually, Adobe Illustrator ran just fine on that machine, and the file sizes were pretty small. The fifteen-inch montior I was using at the time was kind of a drag, however.

This would be challenging to paint, but it was really easy to create as a 3D model.

Was I playing Myst at the time? You bet!

Influenced by Myst and Memphis furniture.

(click on image for larger view)

Bridge (click on image for larger view)

Lizard-man test

Lizard-man under the bridge

Head test for a bird-like dino-creature. No further work on this one.

Working in 3D was really fun, but again, my life just went down a different path so I never pursued it beyond what you see here.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Detroit: City of Dreams

Here are some photos I have taken while roaming around the D.

(Click on images to zoom in and see Detroit in all its glory.)



A Sunny Day in Detroit


Front Porch


King of the Hill

Kill Them All


Hope Springs Eternal in the Morning Sun

Have a nice day.