Subway Abstractions, Chicago

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.

Miyoko Ito in Chicago, 2021

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.


Detail of Miyoko Ito – 1948. Oil on canvas; 22 x 30 in. 1978.

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.

Detail of Miyoko Ito – Tanima or Claude M. Nutt. Oil on canvas, 45×32 in. 1974.

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.

Detail of Miyoko Ito – The Ken. Oil on canvas; 46 x 34 in. 1976.

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.

Detail of Miyoko Ito – The Ken. Oil on canvas; 46 x 34 in. 1976.

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.

Come so close that I might see…

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.

Album cover for Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See.

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.

3) Moreland, Quinn. “Review – Mazzy Star: So Tonight That I Might See.” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 14 June 2020, pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/mazzy-star-so-tonight-that-i-might-see/.

Installation Images for Restraint and Limitation, 2021.

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.

Restraint & Limitation Returns

Finally, after some serious delays because of COVID, the Chicagoland iteration of my curatorial effort Restraint & Limitation is taking place at the Riverside Arts Center.

The exhibition features the work of Anna Buckner, Sharon Butler, and Magalie Guérin. Click above to read more about the show and its themes. To see other included artists, look below:

Sarah Arriagada

Dugallou Collaboration

Michael Hopkins

Erin King

Elizabeth Powell

Elise Rugolo

Sumire Skye Taniai

Simon Tatum

Jennifer Wiggs

I’m very proud of this show and thankful in particular to Anne Harris for helping me to bring it to fruition.

Featured image above: Detail of Wiggle Room by Elise Rugolo.

Kevin’s Details

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.

RIP Beverly Cleary

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:

Cover of the 1970 edition of Runaway Ralph.

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.

Time to break it out to show my kiddos.

Rest easy, Beverly.

Inauguration Bernie

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:

LEGO on the left, Classic Inauguration Bernie on the right. Click here to see ochre.jelly’s original post on Instagram.

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.

And here he is in his acrylic case. This is one I made for my friend Allison for her birthday this year. I also made a second copy, which has some slight differences, that you can see below:
I used more curved pieces on the arms, and tried a different plate for the “mask” area. Below you can see my alternative chair design as well.

If you’d like to see more of my LEGO MOC works, check out these links here:

My LEGO version of Stephen Hawking, also based on a design that went around the internet years ago.

My LEGO sculptures on display at The George Caleb Bingham Gallery at The University of Missouri (where I teach).

One of my favorite LEGO Star Trek ship designs, of which there are many.

Traumaversary

Five years ago today I suffered cardiac arrest. Every year I pull up the imagery and look at things – I was completely out when these images were made and it’s strange to see my ghostly, unconscious face in some of them. I have all of my various scans and catheterizations from the event, and I also have the placement of the stent, which I’ll share short clips of below.

Early morning of 2/18/2016

Thank you to Alison, Mechell, and the EMTs and cardiac folx who helped me survive those initial hours. Thanks to Danno and Mr. C, Christopher and Julie, Daniel and Sharon, and Sarah (among many others), for coming to visit me. Thanks to Mom Bourgeois for much aid through her own time of grief. Thanks to my dad who gave me two aspirin 30 minutes before my heart attack and thus probably saved my life. Thanks to Bobby Schembre who flew out and drove us back after it all. Blessings to my students, grads, and fellow faculty who helped maintain all of the school things, and mad props to the cardiac team at University Hospital (including my drill instructor cardiologist) who helped make me much healthier today than I was when it all happened.

It’s a weird life.

A Proposed Array of Pedagogical Modes in Fine Arts Education

I’ve been teaching in some capacity for almost 20 years now. In that time I’ve had the opportunity to not only evaluate my own modes of teaching but also to look back and analyze how my favorite (and otherwise) teachers approached the central tasks of instruction.

The core of that reflection is contained in my Teaching Philosophy (I’d be happy to send you a copy if you’d like to read it) as a three-fold charge: Facilitation, Encouragement, and Tact. I’ve tried to live out those values in my teaching, and I think that the best teachers I’ve had have demonstrated each in unique, powerful ways.

From Mrs. Ebensperger and Mrs. Goodwill (1st and 2nd grade) through Mrs. Carpenter (8th grade) and Mrs. Dudley (Middle and High School Art), most of my teachers could be said to embody thoughtful, encouraging modeling of concepts and strategies for learning. I would say that most of my early teachers functioned as allies and guides.

Once I got into the specialized realm of art school, though, there was more of a continuum between those who taught their own particular praxis and those who taught a broader, more generous approach. This is when I started to think about a tension between The Gatekeeper and The Advocate. I wonder if we end up teaching from a context of our own traumas and learned experiences… perhaps those who have had mostly positive and affirming experiences are often most able to extend them to others. If, however, person’s central project is to ensure the validity of their own perspective it is certain that their teaching will favor their values, their aims, and their sources of knowledge.

Of course, this kind of implicit bias is not limited to people in the arts nor is it always bad. But I think it makes sense to be aware of it. When I first sketched the graph below 10 years ago, I was thinking about these issues.

A proposed array of teaching modes in Fine Arts Education.

I think the continua expressed here are fairly obvious. It makes sense that The Gatekeeper would be invested in maintaining the integrity of particular theoretical and conceptual details while The Advocate would probably be more interested in a gestalt openness and investment in the potential for broad exploration within intersecting contexts.

In every instance where I felt most seen and understood as a learner, it was because my teacher heard me openly and talked to me as if I were like them – a student and artist and explorer. Lisa Gregg Wightman, my drawing and printmaking professor at Pratt, was just like this. She did not scoff at my novice ideas or weak technique; she facilitated my growth in strategies and skills. She asked me serious questions and drew out my self-reflection. This demonstrated “generosity of spirit,” a concept later described to me by Barry Gealt (my main professor in graduate school at Indiana University). You can read more about that here.

If you’re a teacher, where do you think you fall? Here’s a link to my chart – feel free to play around with it. I don’t think that one way is inherently better than any other way, but I do think it’s good for us to pay attention to our own proclivities, asking ourselves what works and what best serves our students.