Friday, December 19, 2014


"Untitled" Center panel triptych, 6'x4', oil on canvas
This week’s New York Times Science Section had an article by John Tierney called : “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying.” In it, he discussed a new book by Dr. Edward Slingerland entitled “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” based on the centuries old Asian philosophy of “wu wei,” the Chinese term to describe “effortless action” This is the kind of spontaneity we see in champion athletes, musicians, experienced speakers and so on. Of course, as we all know, to get to that point requires countless hours of initial effort and training. Tierney talks about the charismatic effect it creates when a public speaker goes with the flow instead of struggling; “Paralysis through analysis and overthinking” is the way he describes it.
Although the article doesn’t talk about artists and writers, I’d like to throw in a few comments. A number of years ago, I saw a documentary about Picasso at work; most of you have probably seen it. Picasso, who knew his craft as well as any painter alive, did not seem to preplan his work; he painted without any visible preconceptions, purely from the subconscious. Works literally poured out of him, painting after painting, unplanned, spontaneous.

"Gangsters" Overhead projector drawings  8'x6'
I find that after years of studying art and painting stilted student work; I am now free to paint from the subconscious. In fact, it’s the only way I can work. I didn’t know it was called “wu wei” (pronounced “ooo-way;” I called it an alpha State, reached when my surroundings dropped away leaving me with a clear, empty, meditative state of mind. When I think too much about what I am doing, try to preplan the work, it looks forced and unspontaneous and I have to erase what I have done and start over. Also, in order to reach an alpha state, I must have absolute quiet, no one around, not even music on the radio. It often takes me an hour or more of false starts, bad beginnings, erasures before the alpha state takes over and unplanned images begin to pour out. Sometimes, I have a theme, other times what shows up is often a surprise. Since I begin with a charcoal drawing on primed canvas, I can always change my mind, wipe out, add, develop a theme,  discard it. I spend many hours in this glorious state of creative suspension. When things go well, I dance around the room, charcoal in hand. I am an artist and all is well with the world.

"Lower East Side," Panel #4, 6'x4', oil on canvas
All creative artists, writers, composers wrestle with the difficulty of reaching this state of wu wei. For some people, it is easier than others; being out of control is too frightening to them. You often hear of famous writers and their “drinking problems,” (Cheever, Fitzgerald) which might have been their way of getting to the point where their subconscious took over and words flew out. The NY Times article speaks of drinking as “mental disarmament,” a way in which your inner self is revealed. As the article says “Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.” Of course, this leads me to Post #63 “Getting in Your 10 thousand Hours,” the time required to get really good at something. There’s no point “accessing your unconscious” if when you reach it, the skills you need aren’t there, or worse yet, you have nothing  to say. 

Friday, December 12, 2014


Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer
I recently invited a musician friend to go to a concert with me and was turned down. He claimed he hated to sit trapped in a seat, listening to other people perform when he wanted to play himself. After thinking about it for a while, I realized I felt the same way about going to museums or art exhibits; I want to spend time in my own studio, working, being a producer, not an observer. Besides, I’ve been looking at artwork for so many years now that everything looks familiar. If I haven’t seen that particular piece, I’ve seen a similar one by the same artist. I remember the way museums used to be before exhibit designers got hold of them: solemn halls of study, footsteps echoing, not cluttered decorator showrooms.

Click to Enlarge
Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer

Museums are packed with people who have no idea what they are looking at, but know, in order to keep up with the cultural expectations of their social circle, they have to be able to say they saw the latest blockbuster. The same thing applies to travel; culture vultures need to say they’ve been someplace, but when you start to ask them what they really got out of the experience, they answer in meaningless clich├ęs. They didn’t learn a goddamned thing!

On a recent visit, I observed someone using his camera phone to take a picture of a painting and another of its explanatory label. He was obviously going to go home and study the piece. At first, I questioned why he would substitute the real experience for the camera image, but then I realized, he was probably right; it was better to quietly enjoy the work when he was alone.

Click to Enlarge
Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer

The worst part of the present day museum experience is watching the hordes of schoolchildren invade a room: pushing, shoving, flirting, having a great old time out of class for the day, but learning absolutely nothing about art. I guess there’s something to be said for the museum experience, but it’s not educational.

Back to my reluctance to see the latest, hottest, blockbuster exhibit.  How in the world can anyone give a work of art the time and attention it needs with crowds at their backs? You need peace and quiet to study art. The only way to actually get something out of a museum visit is to pick some out-of-the-way room i.e. medieval enamels or the paintings of Paul Klee, and hope that you can look at the work in peace. On my last visit to MMA, I came away high as a kite over a tiny 8 1/2"x6 1/2" 15th century Flemish Virgin and Child by Dieric Bouts that I found purely by accident; it stayed in my memory for months.

Click to Enlarge
Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer

And last but not least, money! Entry fees! All museums should be like the Met, a suggested donation. They might have to lower the million dollar salary for the Director and the pricey exhibit designer, but that’s ok with me! If the admission is too high, it drives away the people who need the experience the most.

The truth it is, I’m getting older and the time I have left to do my own work is running out. I’d rather spend the day in my studio than see the umpteenth version of something I’ve seen a zillion times before. I applaud museums for reaching out to expand their audience; but in the gain, something has been lost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

POST #67: MY LOVE OF CARDBOARD (and other impermanent materials in a throw-away world)

"Factory Dreaming"
black gesso on wrapping paper  48"x34"
I’ve talked about the advantages of using cardboard for art work in previous blogs; cardboard and brown wrapping paper are great surfaces for artwork. There’s nothing like a cheap, easily disposed of material to encourage experimentation. An expensive piece of primed canvas is intimidating and costly; (you don’t want to waste it). My artist friends turn up their noses; “it’s not archivally stable,” they warn me. At the risk of repeating myself, neither am I.

I am acquainted with someone who owns a cardboard warehouse, or, I should say, “ a warehouse filled with cardboard.” It’s called Commerce Packaging and it’s located in a huge shed in an industrial section of South Norwalk. The building is filled from floor to ceiling with cardboard; all sizes, thicknesses, varieties. I am the proverbial kid in the candy store when I go there. I try to get someone with a pick-up truck to take me since the sheets are around 4’x7’ and won’t fit in the standard station wagon. Most recently, I discovered something called “triple ply;” an amazing material: cheap, sturdy, doesn’t collapse, yet is light enough for someone like me to manage. It’s not good for cutting-out figures since I would need a saw, not an Exact-o knife, but I have come up with a perfect use that I’d like to share with you.

Canvases mounted on cardboard panels, 6'x4' each
As anyone who works on canvas knows, you need to stretch it, a fairly expensive process that requires brute strength and neatness, neither of which I possess. My alternative is to roll the canvases up after I have finished painting on them. I have a couple dozen rolled up canvases in my attic; they don’t take up much room but I have no idea what’s on them. Out of sight-out of mind. Now, with my triple ply cardboard, I can tack finished work up (plain push pins, no hammer needed) and tuck the panel in a corner, easy to pull out and show visitors. Cheap, convenient and stackable and only 1/3rd inch thick.

If I want to do cut-outs, there’s no material like cardboard. Foam core works but it doesn’t have that tan “middle ground” color that I like. Another good surface is brown wrapping paper; again, sturdy, inexpensive and subtly colored. It invites experimentation as failures can get crumpled up and without regrets, tossed into the garbage. About a year ago, I did a pretty successful series of charcoal drawings with white chalk highlights on wrapping paper. The problem is that when the paper creases, unlike canvas, it cannot be ironed out. Both cardboard and wrapping paper work especially well with children; inexpensive, disposable and much less inhibiting than a clean sheet of white paper. Do you really care if it’s “archivally stable”?

"Thrift Shop Half-Price Sale"
 Installation: gesso on wrapping paper with metal hangars
A year or so ago, in a rash moment, I ordered a huge, four-foot high, fifty-pound roll of brown wrapping paper from a commercial packaging catalog. There’s no way I will ever live long enough to use it up, so if you’d like to try some, come on over and I’ll cut you a few yards. You’ll be amazed at what you can do with it. Also, I’ll show you my movable, cardboard storage panels and how they work. I love them