I’ve known Michelle for many years now. She’s been a central part of the local art community for all of that time, and a dedicated student of painting as well. Beyond this, Michelle is someone who always has a kind word, and her encouraging, affirming presence is something everyone in our town knows about.
She also used to be my friend Mike, who I drew for this series here. Obviously, I will not try to tell Michelle’s story. It’s not mine to communicate. But I did think it would be appropriate to place a new portrait here in the Becoming the Student group.
Since I’m an educator, I’m sure you can imagine that I come into contact with many LGTBQ+ folx. Particularly in the last decade I’ve worked with trans people in a few different contexts, but most often in the graduate program where I teach. Just like anyone else who is human, the trans people I’ve known have exhibited a wide range of personality and affect.
Everyone comes with their own traumas and triumphs, their own unique inflection on life. And the fact is that simply being human is hard. People have to come to an understanding of themselves for themselves, and my primary obligation to those around me is to be kind. While that strategy hasn’t always worked, I think it’s an important guideline. And it’s framed the way I teach and the way I interact with people. It’s not up to me to define anyone else; it’s up to me to be kind and helpful.
(That’s central to how I see education. My teaching philosophy includes the concepts of “facilitation, encouragement, and tact.” It’s important for my interactions with people – especially students – to function as opportunities to support and enliven them. I want to aid their ability to understand themselves and help them develop strategies for building creative points of contact. Art – or really any form of communication – is worthless if it doesn’t offer access points for others.)
So, I offer up this new portrait of Michelle in celebration of her humanity and her winsome, joyful presence in our community. I did interview her for this entry in the Becoming the Student series, but I have decided to let that conversation stay just between the two of us. There are as many ways of being human as there are humans experiencing being.
…all is transformed, all is sacred, every room is the center of the world, it’s still the first night, and the first day, the world is born when two people kiss, a drop of light from transparent juices, the room cracks half-open like a fruit or explodes in silence like a star, and the laws chewed away by the rats, the iron bars of the banks and jails, the paper bars, the barbed wire, the rubber stamps, the pricks and goads, the droning one-note sermon on war (…)
the invisible walls, the rotten masks that divide one man from another, one man from himself, they crumble for one enormous moment and we glimpse the unity that we lost, the desolation of being man, and all its glories, sharing bread and sun and death, the forgotten astonishment of being alive;
I’ve got a group of works on display at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. The show runs through October 6th, and I’ll be giving a talk that evening. For a preview, look below.
This is the third time I’ve shown this body of work, and I’d like to get the chance to show it again. The subject of the work – a “friendly-fire” bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. If you’d like to see more about this situation, check out my writing about it here.
I’m also pleased to have a small group of my collaborations with Joel T Dugan also on display at the gallery. These Phoneme works are some of my favorites, and there are a number of just finished works included.
A lot of people picked up a new skills and or hobbies during our collective quarantine. Some people got going with a sourdough starter. Some people began learning a new language. Others just worked on their alcoholism.
What I did was decide to watch as many Nicolas Cage movies as I could.
While I didn’t make it through his entire oeuvre, what I did do was see a good mix of older and newer movies, both good and not so good. From that exploration I’ve collected five below that I think demonstrate the recent best of Nicolas Cage. I’ll also rank them from #5 to #1.
I’ve got a lot to say about each of these films but I will constrain myself to just a few sentences, a few tasty bits of weirdness, to get you in the door. Why try to convince you? Because I really think that these are high-quality Nicolas Cage movies. You may have a sense that Nicolas Cage is not the greatest actor of his generation and, sure, there are some reasons why one might think that. He is a polarizing figure. Whether you love him or hate him, you can’t say he’s boring. I think that if you look at specific moments in the Oscar-winning actor’s career, you will see that he has moments of pure transcendence.
Given that, I’m always down for a foray into cinematic ridiculousness with him.
5) Pig (2021)
Nicholas Cage as a grimy, crazy, disaffected former-chief who goes all Fight Club in an attempt to recover his stolen truffle-sniffing pig. What more do you need? Best part: When our pig hunter shames the hell out of the hoity-toity world of fine dining.
4) Mom and Dad (2017)
This genre-bender reverses a lot of what you might expect from where you think it is headed, and that’s good. There are classic one-liners, great Cage rage sequences, and some fun camera work and editing. Best part: Selma Blair (i.e. Mom) in a great match up with Cage in a role that plays off his crazy with some crazy of her own.
3) Between Worlds (2018)
Ok, listen. This is one weird movie. It’s got an interesting sci-fi premise and would have been a much worse movie in less confident hands. Cage and veteran Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, The Borne Identity) anchor the film with seriousness and earnestness, in spite of how ridiculous parts of it are. And parts are really ridiculous. The scene where Cage’s character is being hosed down while dancing is just next level. And then there’s the scene where the character is having sex while READING A BOOK OF POETRY BY NICHOLAS CAGE. Ok? We’re getting meta here. It’s worth the watch just for the water hose thing.
2) Willy’s Wonderland (2021)
Imagine walking into an abandoned, decrepit Chuck-E-Cheese’s and being attacked by animatronic characters that have been possessed by evil forces. That’s the basic idea here. Ok, now imagine you’re Nicholas Cage AND YOU HAVE NO DIALOGUE AT ALL. No words are spoken by the star and top-billed actor in the movie. None. This movie is mostly just campy fun, but half of the tension it carries is found in waiting for and expecting words to come out of Cage’s mouth. This full-on indie project must have been someone’s labor of love that just happened to get Cage behind it. It’s so odd and off-tone in ways, yet it works. Come for the epic death blows to possessed animatronics, stay for Cage’s wordlessness.
1) Mandy (2018)
Mandy is a work of art. Italian-Canadian Director Panos Cosmatos continues in Mandy the qualities that made his epic Beyond the Black Rainbow so strange and powerful. Atmospheric space and light. Intense color. Aural compositions that influence the space and visuals. The use of chiaroscuro to force viewers to complete the dynamics of action and scenic structure. Absolutely one of the best movies I’ve seen a decade, Mandy embraces its heavy-handed narrative and unanswered questions. Yet the emotion that comes through is palpable and so important to how it remains re-watchable. Andrea Riseborough’s subtle and keenly-felt performance is a wonderful foil to the insanity mounting in Cage’s character. If you see only one movie here, see this one.
To conclude, I have to say that the movies Nicholas Cage has made in his mid to late 50s are bending toward a quirky and chaotic quality that can’t be easily dismissed. Yes, there are duds, and perhaps Cage himself is a dolt of a dude. But with roles like the ones I’ve listed above, he’s continuing to show himself to be a capable, if odd, actor more often than not.
Eric L. Sweet left us suddenly on April 6, 2015, at age 44. Sweet was a beloved member of the MU Art faculty, having worked at MU since 2012 as an Adjunct Assistant Professor, teaching Printmaking, Drawing and 2-D Design courses. He was an alumnus of the Art program, having earned both his BFA (1997) and MFA (2011) from the University of Missouri. In 2008, he received an MA in Printmaking from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Sweet was an active member of the Southern Graphics Council International and the College Art Association.
To celebrate Eric’s life and positive role as an educator, Sweet’s wife, Catherine Armbrust, established The Eric Sweet Exhibition & Speaker Series to continue passing on his gift. I have created a series of work celebrating Eric almost every Seize the Sixth, and this year is no different. I will be donating 100% of the sales of these pieces to the Fund. This program was created because he strongly believed in the importance of community accessibility to art and encouraged meaningful conversations about the state of contemporary art. Funding this annual exhibition and speaker series for the gallery is the perfect way to make contemporary work accessible to the MU and Columbia communities, and to honor this special man who made an impact on so many lives. In fact, the initial funding goal was met in 2021 and the very first iteration of The Eric Sweet Exhibition & Speaker Series took place on December 6, 2021. See the exhibition poster here.
Look over my limited series of CNC relief cuts, posted below. If you’d like one, contact me. You’ll get an icon of Eric’s life and students and community members will get to see art because of the donation I make from the sale. As Eric (and his 4th grade teacher) might say, “You don’t HAVE to, you GET to.”
I’ve made eight artworks for Seize The Sixth this year. There is one group of five CNC relief cuts that feature the classic “running devil” icon that Eric had embroidered on one of his work shirts. Below the devil is featured part of Eric’s axiom, “YOU GET TO.” It’s a proclamation of hopefulness and gratefulness. Here’s a detail of the Running Devil carving if you want to see a close up view.
How to get one?
I can take PayPal, CashApp, and Venmo (click each for a link to my info). If you’re local you can give me cash. The cost $50 each for these. Ones with text are 5.25×5.75 inches and those without text are 4.5×5.5 inches. Each piece is made on a PVC sheet and painted in gold spray paint. Each is signed and numbered. The ones with text are numbered 1 through 5 and the ones without text are numbered 1 through 3. First come, first serve. Feel free to email me if you have any questions – balloum (at) missouri (dot) edu.
Why no Sweet Audio this year?
Most of the time I’ve been able to put together a compilation of classic Sweet audio clips. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any more usable clips this year. There’s a chance I still have some in the depths of my files, but I just couldn’t locate anything for this year. In lieu of that, please head over to SoundCloud and check out the previous years’ offerings!
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.
His most recent podcast episode, linked below, definitely intrigues me and syncs up with a lot of the ways I’ve been thinking over the last couple of decades. Specifically, my wheneverWHEN and An Ensign For Miyoko Ito works are borrowing significantly from the kinds of ideas Professor Brandl is elucidating. My 2019-2020 collaboration with Joel T. Dugan, Phoneme, also deals with some of this.
This is how I talk about some of the motivational ideas for these series of works:
“…I seek out the compacted and the overdrawn; the enclosed and the layered; the transformed and the solidified. I look for shapes, colors, and spaces that go far beyond a simple tension between figuration and abstraction, trying instead to suggest a layered arena of observational and haptic information.
Miyoko Ito (Japanese-American, 1918-1983) – whose work has been a key influence on me over the last 20 years – was able to activate subtle surfaces with the illusion of space and an evocative sense of palpability. This is what I’m investigating: the experience of perception apart from particular, representational depiction. In my exploration, questions arise: Does flat form appear to move away from my angle of view? Will color resolve into both static surface and suggested movement? Can space and color align to reinforce both static structure and an expression of time? Might the poetics of silent, unmoving images actually produce phenomena akin to those found in dreams, memories, ecstatic sensations, and atemporal musings?”
Take a listen to the Dr Great Art podcast and see if maybe some of the things I’m saying resonate with how Dr. Brandl is thinking:
While there are many points Brandl brings up that are worth exploring (I greatly anticipate getting to read his book once it comes out), I find myself particularly drawn to the explications he makes regarding ambiguity and conceptual blending. In these areas he distills and clarifies a number of philosophers and intellectual traditions into something artists can really wrap their minds – and artworks – around.
It’s exciting for my own passion for these artists to dovetail with the serious scholarship that Dr. Brandl is bringing forward. I know that I’ll be incorporating concepts from his book into my teaching for years to come. I hope you’ll join me in listening to the podcast and exploring what these ideas can mean for making and experiencing artworks.