On February 25, 2022, I had the privilege to meet with students and give a talk over at Missouri Valley College. It’s about an hour away from Columbia where I teach, and the talk was in support of my exhibition at the college, Digital Art: Exploration and Education. I gave a brief overview of my use of digital tools, from nearly 25 years ago through today. If you’d like to watch the talk, I’ve added in all of the visuals I used, but I also worked in supplemental videos and other support information to bring more background to the talk. Many thanks to Mary Linda Pepper Lane, Sarah Fletcher, and Mike McJilton for their hospitality and conversation during my visit.
Below are a number of the works I showed in that exhibition. Left to Right, Top to Bottom: “Young Joe,” “Cardiac ICU,” “Touched Pelvis,” “Color Figure Study,” “Hitt Street Parking Garage,” “Jesse,” “Self Portrait With Neck Girth.”
From a conversation between David Gracie and Matt Ballou on January 15, 2022 in Lincoln, NE. Editing for clarity and length.
Matt: The installation of this exhibition isn’t chronological. What was the idea? That there would be pictorial themes or color themes?
David: That’s right. It’s not chronological, but there are some pieces that are grouped together, you know? There are pictorial themes, and I think that kind of like went with the territory, with the type of painting he was doing at any particular time. So there’s landscapes, still life, portraits, and figures.
This exhibition is a little bit different because there are some older works that are kind of out of context, but I thought they were worth putting in just because of the spirit of the show. So there are two rooms of main, finished works, and then there is also the room of only unfinished work.
David: These two real highlights of his portrait painting. I love these two paintings. If I could have gotten the George Tooker portrait, it would have probably been my favorite one. I remember when I had him as a teacher, he talked about that George Tooker painting as being the best portrait he’d ever done.
I think the different conventions (landscape, portrait, still life), you know, they all kind of add up to the same type of thing. But this (show) is a result of the work that was available. And also, in some ways, this is the way he would have done it (a range of whatever was available at the time). Because, when he had shows, they would be called just, like, “NEW WORK.” And then there would be some thematic shows that the galleries would put on, like Alan Stone Gallery and those 57th street galleries that would do still life or portrait shows. Because this work is all coming from Gretchen, his widow, there are 16 portraits of his son, Rushton.
Some of these works he was doing when I was a student. He was talking about Van Gogh’s boots and that Diamond Dust Shoes essay, the Fredrick Jameson one.
Matt: I love the shadow here.
David: I love the fact that the boots can’t sit there. There’s not enough space. They poke out into our space because like that line doesn’t make room for the heels. The heels couldn’t live there.
Matt: There’s a simultaneous compression and expansion to it.
Matt: I feel like there’s like a luminous opacity in so many of these. It reminds me of some passages in Paul Fenniak’s work. There’s a sense of it being so thick but also almost phosphorescent…
David: You can see that it (Brown’s approach at times) was very much like Lennart Anderson. And then over the years, you know, he would [shift influences and interests], so he went through these different, completely different phases, you know? And he was part of a whole group of artists that were meeting together (in the 70s and 80s), the Alliance of Figurative Artists.
Matt: What’s the timeframe on making these works? Did he have them scattered around the studio and he was working on them over months and years?
David: Yeah, off and on like that. He would work on the paintings for a very long time. That’s how he worked, though; he would do forty paintings at a time. There’s a lot of on these, too.
Matt: I mean, the thickness of that! There’s so many layers of glaze… almost like it’s got the presence of light and flesh at the same time. That quality.
David: He would pile it on and then sand it off – power sand – the surfaces down. He worked in a barn, too. You can see it in the other room (featuring unfinished works), like, different stages of development. Also, on this Gillespie (portrait) in this room.
Importantly, he lived near Gillespiein Massachusetts, and he was really into Hans Holbein and Spanish still life painting. Towards the end of his life, he was really into self-portraits. He also painted a bunch of trees, like these weeping cherry trees.
When I was there (Hartford School of Art) he was the kind of guy who would get up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to play tennis. He was strapping, super energetic, and full of exuberance when I knew him. I knew him from ‘97 to 2002 and then kind of lost touch with him. Then he got sick. Some of the students he had after my time said he taught in a wheelchair.
David: Gretchen told me how sometimes she would go out to his studio and say something about a painting, like, “Oh, I really like this part.” And then she’d go to bed, only to hear the power sander start… he’s just sanding that part off!
So, it’s like these things are so precious, but at the same time he’s so willing to just power sand that shit off! There’s such precision and detail but none of it was safe. On one hand he’s got all of this chaos going on – some of these look like they were laying on the floor and he’s stepping on them, you know? But then you go over into the other room and see some of those perfect portraits with incredible frames, and the contrast is so intense.
Matt: But then you think, did they exist in that (chaotic) state at some point? You know what I mean? I think they probably did.
David: Yeah, I would say they did exist in that state at some point. And you can see some that are almost there but not quite…
Matt: Because it seems to me that the cohesion that the finished ones have – some of these more refined ones – that cohesion is based on it having come through that unsafe process. I do like that a lot of these things require a sitting period. They’re not alla prima at all. The accrual has to happen.
Matt: Is this show kind of like a labor of love for you? The essay you wrote is great, and I especially like the title, the poetry of the title (“The Aching Beauty of It All: Paintings by Stephen Brown”). You know, it’s almost like something that he wouldn’t have done for himself. But that’s the way he talked about painting, right? Like, the feeling in the moment of painting, in the moment of observation.
David: Yeah. I mean, that’s what his painting was about. It was in the painting. He didn’t write shit about it. Writing was too literal. So I was self-conscious about [writing about it] because it is almost like, too much, too earnest or something.
Matt: But that’s kind of the way it all is!
David: Yeah, the whole thing is so earnest. But it’s not like some of the over-the-top, romantic painters out there taking themselves too seriously. He wasn’t self-centered.
Matt: It’s straight. There’s no affectation. That’s the difference. It’s not trying to be something other than what it is.
David: I just wonder if other people see it as if there is too much, of it being on the edge of too earnest. Perhaps there is some affect in that way.
Matt: Well, that’s half my problem over the last 15 years: with all the horrible things going on in the world, can I believe in the earnestness of this act (painting, art making)? But the sense of living in the work is so present here; obviously he’s worked on some of these for hundreds of hours, potentially. So much evidence of time and attention.
David: With the amount of sanding and number of layers going on we have no real idea how he got from A to Z. Maybe I have a closer idea of how they work than someone generally, but still, I’m not quite sure. I think his works are hard to unravel in terms of how they feel.
But that was his thing.
Matt Ballou is an artist and writer who teaches at The School of Visual Studies at the University of Missouri.
David Gracie is a painter and professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
“The Aching Beauty of It All: Paintings by Stephen Brown” will remain on view at Elder Gallery in Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Rogers Fine Arts Building at 5000 St. Paul Avenue, Lincoln, NE through January 30, 2022
More than 20 years ago, when I first came to Chicago to study art at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, the city shocked me. I was constantly in awe of the people, the exchange of pressure between the land and the lake, and the iconic architecture and spaces that mark this quintessentially American city.
I spent a good deal of time at subway stations and riding the L train rails. So much of what I remember about Chicago is from the vantage points the CTA afforded me. A lot changed in the years I spent there, and I witnessed a lot of those changes aboard the L or from the buildings where I took my classes at SAIC. I was always seeing through the modulating weather and variances of sunlight and season. It all kept my attention. Light, glass, rock, water, cloud, steel, snow, or asphalt; they all intrigued me.
My dad’s trusty Minolta was with me during those years, and I took many hundreds of photos. It was an attempt to understand what my eyes were being drawn to, and how my Eye – my aesthetic sense – wanted to see. It’s wonderful now, in looking back, to see how I was being developed (through education) and developing (through instinct and choice) the categories of judgement and intuition that would inform all of my work right up to today.
Among those photos is a series of pictures of empty signboards within subway stations. Often they would be left open for a while when advertisements were being changed out, but many times they stayed vacant for weeks on end. They had an austerity, and seemed to me to speak the language of modernist abstraction and abstract expressionism. What was interesting to me, beyond that formal similarity to intentionally crafted artworks, was that these were the result of the natural environment of the subway. The dust and grease and grime combined with blowing air – almost like a lung or the systolic/diastolic rhythms of the heart – to create strange inflow behind the placards of ads.
In other cases, workers who routinely painted around the frames designed to hold the placards, would inadvertently create dynamic fields of shapes via over-spray. This was a rhythm, too, a movement of maintenance and service reflecting the attempt to keep these arterial passageways operating. The spaces within the ad frames were a different kind of arena, moving at a different pace from the rest of the L train structures.
Thus that area behind the ads became a kind of palimpsest of the subway, but also of the city itself. The deposits of dirt accumulated in swaths of gray scale gradients. Intimately connected to the subway tunnel textures and layers of paint, the dust-fields were allowed to stick, protected behind ad boards for who knows how long.
Once revealed, these delicate, dirty paintings, which had been made by the trains and the people and the detritus of Chicago, held (it seemed to me) beauty. I loved them. I rode the L looking for them at every stop. I took dozens of photos. Perhaps one day I’ll try to publish them in a better form – I still have the original negatives, after all – but for now, I present a few of them here.
There is a wonderfully restrained, diverse group show up at Tiger Strikes Asteroid through December 11, 2021. I was able to swing by to see the work on November 6th and take the photographs posted here. If you’re in the area you should go as well. The exhibition has a website with a lot of additional information here.
Below are some photos I took while in the space for roughly an hour. I was there alone. It was an amazing experience to be with Ito’s work again after so long. Previously I had seen it while living in the Chicagoland area in the late 90s and early 2000s (I earned my BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2001).
These images above are details of an untitled work left incomplete when she died. Miyoko Ito. Untitled, graphite and oil on canvas, unfinished. 1983.
It was wonderful to see this unfinished work. It reveals much about Ito’s late working methods, making the way she approached the development of composition, mark, and surface apparent. Her effort to manifest both deliberative control and extemporaneous invention feels clear here in this piece; it functions as a kind of key to help decipher certain aspects of the complete works. It really surprised and delighted me, and made me re-think how I had understood her work previously.
The presentation and lighting of these works really allowed for close viewing. See the details below (click on each to open to full size) to see more of Ito’s surface and mark quality.
I love the translucency of the color gradients in 1948.. As with all of her mature work, Ito maintains the original charcoal marks while also methodically, and with dedicated gracefulness, produces dense swaths of interrelated color. There is a feeling of epochal time here, slow and calm; almost beyond human.
In many ways Miyoko Ito is a conductor of visual dynamics. She finds elements that lock or pinch, such as the simple geometries of circles or triangles (as seen in the detail above). These are almost always staged in linear structures that rise from the very base layers, tuned by charcoal and adjoining brush marks.
One of the most special moments of the show for me was catching a glimpse of a little smeared mark in The Ken. It feels to me as if Ito has reached out with her pinkie finger to flick that earthy red, dissipating it into the surrounding field of neutral grayish-tan.
Another wonderful moment in this painting is show in the detail below. The spatial interplay between the gray-blue ribbon/band form and the red-orange rectilinear box shape is astounding. The choreography taking place here is so precise and poetic, and the eye bends and twists around the piece, flipping from surface to space to, from edge to texture. Miyoko Ito leads us in an unnameable spatio-temporal dance.
These moments all seem like intimate disclosures. Miyoko Ito still speaks, even as we approach 40 years since her death. The work of curators like Nicole Mauser and Jordan Stein has done much toward keeping the legacy and influence of Ito alive. I still resonate with that day more than 23 years ago when I first saw Ito’s work hanging at the Roger Brown Study Collection. It was nice to experience that reverie once again at this excellent exhibition.
Recently, my friend Aarik (whom I haven’t seen in person in about two years, which is a travesty) made an intriguing post on Twitter. He was musing about the idea of publishing an anthology of reflections regarding an important single line from some song, film, poem, or other source. He suggested calling this journal Hold The Line and I’ve been thinking about the idea every day since I skimmed my eyes over his tweet.
It goes without saying that each one of us could offer many dozens of lines from the treasure trove we carry in our minds. Lord knows I’ve been moved by everything from scriptures to contemporary internet memes. When I glide back over my life, though, it’s clear that some lines are held more closely to my core – to the experiences they influenced – than others.
Lying in bed last night I decided to make an entry in Aarik’s theoretical journal. My Hold The Line for today (for right now, since probably it would be something else in 20 minutes), is from Mazzy Star’s 1993 masterpiece, So Tonight That I Might See.
“Come so close that I might see the crash of light come down on me.”1
There’s something so powerful in the idea that when we come together we approach transcendence: come so close that I might see. It’s a proposition, a hope. If/Then. If this other entity is close enough to my core, then perhaps I may experience a charged glimpse of something beyond me. Then it would also be within me, a kind of multiplicity that blows out me-ness with all-ness.
Even so, my perspective – my sensate awareness – is also central. This is like Annie Dillard’s “tree with the lights in it”2 or Moses’s burning bush; the intimate presence, both terrifying and awesome, brings astonishment. Come so close that I might be more than me. Ego death. Samadhi. A disappearance of masks and pettiness in lieu of some true (if only momentary) unity.
Let there be light – and it crashes.
There is a bit of an out-of-body charge to the order of operations in Hope Sandoval’s mumbled words, in the “gothic hallucination”3 of Roback’s droning guitar tone. From closeness to sight to the mystical crash of light. Closeness catalyzes an outside, transmundane experience. I see the light come down on me in that moment. Sharp, electric, like an accidental brush against a live wire or the vertigo of a hypnic jerk.
I have felt that pulsing disorientation a few times. With Robin, her blond bob, and the small of her back all those years ago. With Miranda, born like a bomb, a modern Minerva bursting fully-formed into new reality. Even last week, suddenly seeing a former student after years and almost bursting into tears over it.
Maybe the crash of light always carries tears along with it.
Cliché, I suppose. But also real experience and astonishment… moments of enlightenment brought on by the presence of another real person.
1) Mazzy Star. “So Tonight That I Might See.” So Tonight That I Might See, performance by Sandoval, Hope and David Roback, Capitol Records, 1993.
2) Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York, NY: Harper, 1998. Page 35-36.
I’m pleased to present some installation images for the exhibition I’ve curated at the Riverside Arts Center. You can learn more about the show and included artists here.
Here are the installation shots. If you’re local and want to enjoy a nice drive into a beautiful neighborhood (with some Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and good food), head over there. Many thanks go to Anne Harris and her partner Paul D’Amato , who made me feel so welcome in their home and swapped stories and laughs with me. Anne, a longtime art hero of mine, helps out at the RAC and gave a lot of guidance and aid along the way.
I hope you’ll take the time to see the show in person if you can. Riverside is a great place to spend a few hours.
One thing I do as an educator is take images of my students’ works as a record of their greatness and as a kind of research for myself… what worked, what didn’t. Periodically I peruse the database and come across examples that really stick out. Today I’m sharing some images of drawings – and a number of details – that highlight a former student and his attention to surface quality and chromatic density.
Kevin Moreland took Color Drawing with me many years ago but he’s consistently stayed involved with the Art program at Mizzou and every once in a while peeks into my exhibitions. Its great to see him every time he’s around. So enjoy his drawings. These were pretty large – just about the biggest any student of mine has ever made – up to 6 feet on the long side. He went all out on the pastels, too. Really fun to look at.
Like many kids I was I influenced by the work of Beverly Cleary. She died today at age 104. That’s a solid life.
Perhaps as important as her writing were the illustrations and book designs that went with them. This one in particular has stuck in my mind for more than 40 years:
This particular edition – put out by William Morrow & Company – was in my home. I think the font, the colors, and (obviously) the illustrations by Louis Darling made a huge impression on me. I recall thinking about how the motorcycle that Ralph rode was depicted to show speed, how the idea of “small” was presented, and how the story could be shown with such subtle, one-note clarity.
After Bernie’s mittens and folding chair pose at the Inauguration went viral in January, many people tried to memorialize the tableau in their own ways. Many, many memes followed.
As a part of the online LEGO MOC (My Own Creation) community, I’m always looking out for cool creations that touch on moments in popular culture. One of the best MOC makers out there is @ochre.jelly – click that handle for more of their work.
Anyway, ochre.jelly made an awesome version of Inauguration Bernie, and I liked the design, so I decided to do a version myself. Here’s ocher.jelly’s version:
Below are some shots of the two versions I made. I tried to make some different choices in regards to the hair (wilder!) and jacket arms (more puffy!) in particular.
If you’d like to see more of my LEGO MOC works, check out these links here: