MFA Thesis

About the pictures that I make

A cartoon is really a picture demonstrating one thought in the guise of another
- Charles Shulz.
Generally I take note of the things that people seem to be talking about or I think of things that would carry strong associations in the culture that I grew up with.  I look for compelling images of those things and throw them into a file labeled Leviathan on my computer's hard drive and kind of try to forget about them.  At least, I try to forget the factual specifics of each subject.

When I'm ready to work I come back and, still pretending to forget factual specifics, look through the collected images and choose one that I think would make an interesting drawing.  I take that image, go into a dark room, project it onto a piece of paper, and trace it with hatch marks in the darkest places.  Not the darkest areas relative to the entire image but the parts that are darkest relative to others in a small area.  I go over the whole image with the same medium pencil making sure I get as much detail as possible.  Attention to detail is the most important thing.

This is more or less a way that I've made art since I was was a kid.  My memory says that I spent quite a lot of time engaged with the doing of the work, paying attention to details that really didn't matter relative to making a recognizable image.  I would create a shape, fill it in, create another shape, fill it in, and so on.  As I created and filled in shapes the most important thing was that they were different from any nearby shapes or tones.  I would spend hours intensely focused on these sort of endless drawings that often resulted in a piece of paper just about completely covered with varieties of marks and shadings.  

The resulting drawing, both then and now, is a collection of flat hatch marked areas that don't seem to want to lend themselves to being part of an image.  They're about the marks themselves.  They're very much about mark making and about visually interesting things that happen in some areas.  At the same time, the drawings hang together as images and manage to have a lot in common with the way photographs look.  Partly, this has to do with the photos that I tend to choose, the staged PR headshot in which the sitter looks meaningfully at the viewer or the media photo which tends to try to illustrate certain qualities in the subject, noble, confrontational, untrustworthy, etc.  Even when the tones in the image are flattened, the lightest areas still tend to have the fewest marks and the darkest areas still tend to have the most.  So, there is still this feeling about the way that photographs capture light.  The lightest areas might be overexposed and have all of the detail blown out.  The darkest areas might be the opposite, underexposed with all of the detail obscured.

When I began this series, in the light I would put the drawing next to an inkjet print of the source image and with a dark pencil start revisiting and making hatch marks over the darkest areas according to the source image.  I would pay more attention to the entire image and darken the drawing where the source image is darker.  I would go into the eyes and try to bring them to life, wanting to relate to the person in the image.  So the eyes would get whatever work necessary to make that happen.  Sometimes the source image would take over a little and I'd find myself filling in large areas with the same middle-toned pencil I used to trace the image in order to help the image hang together.  And then sometimes I'd let things get out of hand a little and a dark area will grow and deepen and begin to add a sinister aesthetic to the image.

That getting out of hand has gotten more and more interesting.  Now, I'm going back into the drawing without the source image.  I don't make new marks, I only go over the marks made by tracing the projected image, making them darker if I think they ought to be darker.  These drawings are lighter, more and more spare.  They're more a collection of marks that have something to do with an image rather than being there so that the image can exist.

William Tecumseh Sherman


About Thinking

Heidegger turned away from philosophy because he found it too bound up in academia, knowledge, results etc. He turned instead to simply thinking. The images that I make are heading in that direction.  My worst work has been made with a mind toward how art ought to look and my best work has been made with a mind toward focusing and thinking clearly.  The work is about a deep thinking through making. Because of the focus on detail, lack of concern for the gestalt of the image and that they are not made with a preconceived idea of what they ought to look like, they have become about the thought and choices involved in their making.

Wittgenstein wrote about the temptation to think of images as being as clearly definable as words.  I am very tempted by images in that way.  I'm even more tempted to think of images as being as complex as novels.  The best literature (I'm the decider.) attempts or deals with attempts to contain everything that ever happened and, most importantly, internalizes thought to the point that the work itself can't fully contain that thought.  Jacqueline Rose describes it as


In Proust's In Search of Lost Time a madeline, a cookie sends the protagonist into a domino effect of memories, pockets of thought and areas of feelings that takes up 3000 pages.

A madeline

The best way to illustrate that uber novel might be to make drawings of madelines and nothing else as you read it.  Maybe a drawing per page.  Or better, one drawing of one madeline that you work on the whole time you read the book.  What you would be doing then is almost exactly what the protagonist is doing, he's looking at a madeline and you're making the drawing of a madeline while each of you are thinking about something else.  What you'd have is your remaking of what Robert Fraser calls Proust's sensuous intimations of the everyday .., a drawing of a simple thing with the complexity of this deep thought that you've allowed yourself to be taken into.  

Nancy Pelosi

When you allow yourself be taken into the "sensuous intimations of another person's every day" it's not as simple as it sounds. Generally, it's much more complex and, generally, it's a really big, difficult, messy thing.  It's at least as big as Moby Dick.  Kurt Anderson describes Moby Dick, another "big, rolling, difficult novel", as a novel that itself "lies in the depths of the American subconsciousness almost all the time." That's a strange thing to think about, a novel that most of us haven't read yet that we collectively carry with us all the time. But I believe that's true for a lot of reasons.  Andrew Del Barco describes an important one. "There's a great chapter more or less at the center of the book called 'The Doubloon' which describes how Captain Ahab nails a shiny Ecuadorian gold coin to the mast and offers it for a reward to the first man to spy the white whale. And one by one the officers of the Pequod step before this doubloon and stare into it and what they see in it, of course, is a reflection of themselves."  This metaphor of confronting one's self is so ingrained in the text of the book that I think we implicitly understand it even when we only know the book anecdotally.

Again, this is no little thing.  U.C. Berkeley professor Sam Otter says that Ahab takes Moby Dick "to represent all that most maddens and torments, the object that if he fixed, if he caught, would solve his problems."  Ahab makes evil "practically assailable" by identifying evil with a thing in the world, the whale Moby Dick.  The grandiose nature of this confrontation with the self, that its metaphor requires the biggest animal in the world, that it becomes a confrontation with evil itself illustrates how profound this confrontation is.  In modern Hebrew Leviathan means simply "whale" and in English the word means any large sea monster or creature.  But in demonology Leviathan is one of the seven princes of Hell and is its gatekeeper.  In the book of Isaiah the leviathan is a serpent who will be killed at the end of time and fed to the righteous;
For, behold, the LORD cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain. 
In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea. 
By attacking his ego in the form of the leviathan, Ahab invokes these verses, and sets himself on a path to self destruction.  Believing he has free will he tries to determine his own fate and self indulgently seeks to destroy the leviathan.  However, his path is predetermined as is reflected in prophecy both in his own story and that of his biblical namesake, King Ahab, who also died through his hubris.


A Philosophical Detour

Know Thyself.

Jacques Lacan took some of Freud's thoughts on childhood development and turned them into a model that applies to everyone at every age.  He theorized that the mirror phase, when a child starts to be able to identify themself in a mirror and to have an epistemic experience of identifying the self in a thing outside of the self, isn't a phase at all. We never move beyond it. It is fundamental to the human condition to see the self in the surrounding world.

Lacan's idea is that identity is displaced. Our subjective idea of self is a falsehood modelled on the people and things that one interacts with in the world. Paraphrasing in Lacanian terms, one's sense of self develops through identifying with others (or the self in the mirror, as a kind of other). Humans then desire as or through others. We get a sense of this through looking at social phenomena like fashion or the squabbling of jealous children. It is common for an individual to desire an object because they perceive that others desire it.  
Slavoj Zizek builds upon Lacan's work and goes beyond Bragg's thought about a world in which there may be no people and describes the self as completely unknowable. Where Lacan uses the mirror argument to illustrate one's becoming aware of oneself, Zizek argues that one cannot know oneself as any thing more than another thing in the world. The self is a thing to be situated among the other things that one is aware of.
Johnathan Adler who is a narrative psychologist gives us a way to think about what's going on when we're looking for those clues.  He agrees that we understand the world and ourselves through people, things and situations outside of ourselves.  But, he adds the element of narrative.  He says that the average person, and certainly the average person in contemporary Western culture, lives in their stories. It's the way we make sense of the world, and it's really hard to get beyond that.  


There's a saying that I picked up somewhere that says telling the story of a place means telling every story of that place. I believe that's true. If you tell one story your listener will get an anecdotal kind of one dimensional idea of the person, place, thing, or whatever you're telling the story about. But, if you tell more than one story you begin to round things out. Your listener will at least begin to be aware of the many layers of stories that lend meaning to your subject. 

A friend keeps reminding me that all meaning is relational, that things only have meaning in relation to each other. I believe that's true too. But, it's hard to reconcile that with the saying about telling every story. It would seem to make sense that these two ideas should snap right together. Learning a culture seems to be about learning the stories of a people. The more you learn, the more nuance you understand and the easier time you have with directions that might include things that don't exist any more. And if you stay in a place long enough you begin to have a role in some of the stories and derive personal significance from them and in relation to the others. The slope gets slippery when we have to say that if we want to understand a thing we need to keep every related story in mind as we think about that thing. Of course, that's impossible. 

The best description of the culture that I grew up in may be that it is a collection of stories.  Southerners definitely identify themselves in relation to stories.  And those stories are long and ongoing.  Hernando de Soto is still looking for El Dorado in our back yards.  You go into homes and see plaques made by sons in shop classes that read "Tradition: hallowed by usage and consecrated by time" or that list all the important people from history that the family claims as kin.  Southerners wear their Sunday best to cemeteries on decoration day to picnic and maintain the graves of relatives who they may never have seen even in a photograph but feel every responsibility to.  Obscure events that would have been long forgotten anywhere else are discussed in hardware stores and beauty parlors as if they had happened within living memory.  And the outcomes of those discussions are brought to bear on events in the present.  

There's a lot to learn in a culture like that.  And it's extremely important that you learn everything and that you get it right.  Otherwise you won't be able to communicate with anyone.  It might seem like you're communicating but Southern people speak in metaphors, allusions and double entendres.  The real meaning will pass you by.  Not only must you get it right, but you have to get your mind right about it.  You have to have the right inflections, emphases, body language and reactions when you interact with people.  They can tell that you don't have your mind right in the same way that you can tell when you're being lied to.  People you've known your whole life will size you up and test you and you have to pass or you won't be accepted.  

The thing that I didn't mention earlier about those discussions in hardware stores and beauty parlors is that they aren't discussions. They seem like discussions because everyone keeps interrupting each other and quibbling over little points, but that's really comparing notes.  They're kind of a discursive story telling in which the tellers are really doing Adler's interpretive and reconstructive thing, reformulating history in their own words and comparing it with their own lives.  And they're doing Zizek's thing, defining themselves in relation to these stories.  Interjecting with I remember it this way keeps the story within the lines and ensures that although it may not always be told the same way, it's always the same story. At the same time interjecting is a way to demonstrate a relationship with the story, to show that it has meaning for you and that you have meaning in relation to it. It's a way of telling both others and ourselves who we are, how the world works and how we fit into it. 

It seems sensible to assume that the same stories keep getting re-discussed and re-told because over time they have risen to the top of the heap as the best stories for interpretation, reconstruction and making sense of our lives. They have the strongest association with positive cultural cohesion. It is important that we spend enough time comparing our lives with those stories and their consistent outcomes that they become part of us, that we become part of them, and that when we go looking for some way of growing or learning a lesson we get the same outcome as everyone else. We may or may not end up with what Adler calls positive mental health, but we do end up with a decentered sense of self that is completely built upon identification with others through interconnected stories.

So, to combine Zizek's and Adler's thinking, when a person has learned and internalized the stories of the culture around them that person might be said to effectively be those stories.  Through repetition and re-enforcement the stories of my community have worked their way into my unconscious mind and if Robert Fraser is right about Proust and memory, about voluntary and involuntary knowing, those stories are me in the most stable sense.  He says,
Proust's view actually was that the involuntary memory (read knowing), which you might call the unconscious memory ... is in some way much more patterned, much more orderly, much more coherent, ... , than the deliberate memory is.  Now, this is the opposite of what most people think.  Most people don't trust their unconscious minds.  They trust their conscious minds because they need their conscious minds to get them through the day.  But Proust, I think, had an immense faith in the involuntary memory and what it conjured forth.  Just before he published Swann's Way, the first volume of his great sequence, he published in a magazine called Etrand in Paris an interesting article which actually is an interview with himself.  ... The interviewer says now what is this about the involuntary memory?  What's so important about it?  And the interviewee who is also Proust, Proust the novelist, says when you remember something in this involuntary way it comes clothed in association ... it brings an entire world with it.  And therefore in a way, the unconscious memory, random as it may seem, accidental as it may seem, is far more coherent and artistically wholesome than conscious memory.
I find this to be absolutely true.  When I read, watch t.v, have a conversation or just think, all of my a priori understanding is on the terms of the culture I grew up in.   

Tiger Woods


Way Over Yonder in a Minor Literature
It is in language that expectation and fulfillment make contact. - Wittgenstein 

Barry Schwabsky calls an image "an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support."  Images are loose from any moorings and are free to move from one medium to another and from one context to another.  The same image might be seen on a computer screen, in a magazine, a tattoo, a movie, as a sculpture, and so on.  I would add that the image has the same basic function in each of these manifestations, it's indexical, it points to its subject.  And that an image is always indexical relative to the stories that it's viewer relies on to define their sense of self. 

Wittgenstein described language as allowing us to picture things, each word in a language calling to mind an imagined picture.  I mentioned before that he also wrote about the temptation to think of pictures as being as clearly definable as words.  Looking at an image often comes with an epistemic feeling that the world is the way the image shows it to us.  I would add that while words do allow us to picture things, they more importantly allow us to story things.  When we look at an image what we see is our stories.  If we have to we'll make a place for the subject of that image in our stories.  That episetmic feeling about words and images comes from having developed an epistemic feeling about ourselves through our stories.

I, on the other hand, have not often felt that epistemic feeling about myself or about things in the world.  While my immediate understanding happens on the terms of the culture I grew up in, I can easily step out of that set of stories.  I am the product of two different cultures.  When I was four my parents moved us from socially liberal suburban Minnesota to socially conservative rural Alabama.  At home we were one way and out in the world we were another.  Over time, Southern culture became the dominant influence and I would say that I am most comfortable navigating that culture.  It's just that I don't fully define myself in relation to it and I question it all the time.  I don't agree with it most of the time.  This means I am at odds with my culture and therefore in conflict with myself.  It may not be as cataclysmic as Ahab's but that conflict is at the center of my work, or at least my thinking about it.

According to Jana Braziel, when Deleuze and Guattari say that "There isn’t a subject, there are only collective assemblages of enunciation.", they are saying that no matter what is said on any subject, the thing that comes across is a kind of collective expression that, as Proust would say, brings an entire world with it.  When a person is making that collective expression yet at the same time can or must think outside of the stories of the collective, they are communicating "from a marginalized or minoritarian position."  As the individual can only have meaning in relation to the stories that contextualize it and vice versa, anything that individual says or does brings all of those stories and contextualizations and meanings with it.  Even as I am marginalized and at odds with my stories, Braziel says, my work re-enforces "an active solidarity" within my culture by continuing to make use of it.  At the same time, because of my deep involvement with it, my work becomes a way to think about and critique my stories from within.  

A Mexican

Now, that's not the aim of the work.  It's not about me displaying or invoking the idea of a struggle with my self.  It's about me thinking about these images, re-making them and trying to be faithful to the photograph within a set of rules that I've created.  As I do that and as I make choices in following the rules, the conflict comes out and is illustrated in the making.

As I move forward with this work, I find that some of these images need a lot more thought than the making of one drawing allows.  I don't want to just make the same drawing again.  That image's ability to move from one medium to another allows me to think about an image longer and also in different ways through printmaking.  When I make a painting or drawing the simple set of rules that I follow comes between me and the image.  The work is as much a result of the rules as it is of the choices I make as I follow them.  However, I don't want to keep making the same images from scratch.  That makes printmaking an attractive option for helping me think about these images further.  The printing matrix that comes between me and the resulting work provides another obstacle between myself and the finished work.  Through the matrix there's a kind of forced indirectness and a forced re-interaction with the rules that allows me to draw out the process of thinking through these images, thinking about the culture that I grew up in and thinking about my stories.