Thursday, November 23, 2006

Towards a New Folk Art

"The southern folk artist has particularly deep ties to place. In their more isolated region with its long, vivid history, folk art is an intensely personal expression. It is not conceived with the museum in mind. Its images appear as dreams and visions to artists who release them on canvas, cloth, and in sculpture. Artists often treat their pieces as children and share them only with family and friends."

So reads the introduction to William Ferris's fascinating book "Local Colors - A Sense of Place in Folk Art". Ferris is a celebrated historian of southern culture and art, and his book reads like a transcript of tape-recorded interviews with numerous folk artists, in various genres.

My 'take away' from reading this book is how different the approach to art is when it is not directly targeted toward consumption by the professional, gallery-oriented art world. To these folk artists, making their creations is a process inextricably interlinked with the continuum of daily life. Theirs is an art inseparable from the craft that produces it; the two are one. The inspiration for their creations comes just as often from dreams and visions as it does from memories of earlier days.

I have found myself musing lately on the theme of folk art. What we have come to know as folk art seems to be deeply rooted in the rural culture of the socially dispossessed Deep South. Yet I wonder if in fact the world of folk art is much wider. Could it be possible to find a genuine folk art in the hustle and bustle of the big city, or most importantly, within the middle class, docile suburb?

Here I speak of the importance of finding a suburban folk art if for no other reason than that's the condition under which I find myself residing.

If this hypothetical suburban folk art existed, what would it look like? What would be its similarities and differences with what we have come to know as southern folk art?

For one, it would take on the attributes of the culture at large. That is, its craft may not be identical to the hand worked crafts of the rural south; rather, we may find suburban folk art interested in the technological aspects of the modern, electronic home environment, for instance. Or, more traditional hand-worked crafts may be employed, but in novel ways, inspired by more contemporary issues or the infusion of popular culture.

What I suspect is common to folk artists of all cultures is the importance of memory and spirituality in their work. These are highly personal works that, rather than asking to be interpreted by the viewer, as is the norm in post-modernist western culture, they invite us into the intimacy of the artist's life, whereby we inquire of the artist for the work's interpretation and meaning.

With this as a background, I have begun to ask myself questions related to memories of my growing up years. Specifically, what are the visions that seem to be in the back of my mind when I think back on those years? As I ponder this, it amazes and surprises me that I have not consciously used these memories and visions previously as inspiration for creative works in the genre of photography.

Yet today I have begun to take a leap into that direction.

Take the image posted here, "Domestic Tranquility 4", as an example. This diorama set piece was inspired from the nighttime view looking out my bedroom door, into the dimly lit hallway, that was so common to my childhood. Whether it was lying awake after a bad dream, or the restlessness of sleeplessness, this view I pondered night after night for many years, yet have never consciously thought about before as an inspiration for picture making. I'm sure this scene differs little from that of many others who grew up in non-descript tract housing, whose doors, closets and hallways all looked similar.

What I have decided with this scene is to approach it with some of the same elements as a traditional southern folk artist would: the mutual aspects of deep memory combined with a highly personal spirituality.

I have chosen to use some stylistic cues from German Expressionism (inspired by "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), making the corners and angles skewed and kilter. I've also included a spiritual figure, so common to those long nights many years ago, as a counterpoint to the dark, mysterious shadows at the end of the hall.

It must be acknowledged that I wasn't raised Catholic, so the figure of the Virgin used here is not so much a direct reference to a particular denomination as it exhibits a duality referencing both my personal spiritual hunger at the time, and my troubled relationship to my step-mother, who would often pace the hallway floor at night, due to chronic insomnia. The reference earlier to Dr. Caligari is made more complete by the figure playing the role of the Insomniac, rather than the Somnambulist of the movie's plotline.

The craft employed in the making of this image is a result of years of working with pinhole cameras and the medium of photo paper negatives, coupled with an intense desire to explore the world of the diorama as a miniature stage upon which are acted out these stories from my imagination. Looking back now, I see a pattern develop that shows a long-term interest in staging reenactments in miniature of events in my life, and the lives of family and friends. Combining these stagings with pinhole cameras is an ideal arrangement because no other optical system can image in close-up a scene rendered with near infinite depth of focus.

I would acknowledge that this image is a mere first attempt at finding a solution to the problem of suburban folk art, and as such should be taken as nothing more than that. It is simultaneously indicative of deep psychological trouble, coupled with a highly personal, evolved photographic craft.

What I find in common with the traditional southern folk artist is that I lack the desire to label myself as an artist, nor do I refer to these photographs as works of art. These are pictures of distant memories, as if the camera were somehow turned inward, the pinhole aperture piercing my skull, letting in the fresh, early morning light of scrutiny.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Wither Goest the Avant-Garde?

Reading recently a book about the history of avant-garde art, it was posited that the future of art lies in the networked computer - the so-called "internet". Here, futurists declare, is the perfect medium for the convergence of all past forms of creative expression, and a near-perfect form of transnational, cross-border communication, able to break down all past barriers to human understanding.

The problem is, at best the Internet is a mere virtual visual medium. Implying that it can only reasonably replace some of the visual arts. What the monitor screen lacks is the ability to represent the tangible: the texture of oil paint on canvas; the luminous, nuanced surfaces of a sculpture; the smell and texture under foot of dry autumn leaves on a sidewalk.

The computer monitor screen lacks the tactile experience of holding - and smelling the ink-laden pages of - a real book, with the paper's peculiar roughness and pliability, the particular cut of the pages' edges, the quality of the binding and cover. The manner in which books tend to age, their pages yellowed and dog-eared through much use, their bindings cracked and worn, much like people, wrinkled and crazened through the things that life presents to us. Sure, we can download reams of text via the Internet; but it's no substitute for real books.

Which brings us to the supposition, by some, that the Internet will be the medium that brings mankind together, capable of erasing millennia of carnage, slaughter and hatred. This assumption is, at best, naive, and at worst, deceptive. The Internet was created by the United States Department of Defense as a system to interlink various research and development sites. It's original purpose was to facilitate the creation of ever more powerful weapons of destruction. Then, it was transferred to the so-called 'private sector', where today we find it the primary media for popular culture and consumerism. The Internet is decidedly western. It is an invention of western culture at its apex. Which begs the question, given the carnage, mass-starvation and slaughter in the rest of the world, how this peculiarly western, American media will rid the world of all that divides it, and usher in perpetual mass peace?

The preposterous nature of the Internet utopia model is laid bare by considering the possibility that television, an invention of the deceptively naive 1950s, could have been seriously thought of as a media to link all of mankind together in some Edenic ideal. Of course, looking back on the history of the television media, we know it for what it is: a vast wasteland.

The Internet is supra-television. It offers the deception of interactivity as a replacement for what many of us have been missing for so long: real life experience. As such, it can no more bear the standard for what the future of art may be than can television, its predecessor. It, like TV, is a mere huckster's medium, shilling patent medicines and cure-alls. It has more in common with the carnival barker of the 19th century than it does the future.

The Internet, like TV, is dead. What is apparent now is that what western culture needs most is a heavy, hearty dose of getting back to reality, for its roots, its foundations, they are a crumbling. ~

Monday, November 13, 2006

Half-Frame Madness

Today I make note of a major personal milestone, by having taken a step backwards in technology.

I remember sitting through a science lecture in high school, back in the early 1970s. Geology in fact. It was a large lecture room, one of those assemblies where a hundred kids were crammed in together, from various individual science classes, to receive a common lecture on the earth sciences.

The lights dimmed, and the large screen was suddenly filled with the glowing colors of a filmstrip frame. A loud, booming voice from the tape player began the geology lecture, interspersed with an odd, high pitched beep, whose tone automatically advanced the filmstrip projector's frame.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. Mixing with an eclectic group of film buffs, of all ages. The lights dim, and the screen behind the stage is filled with the glowing colors from a filmstrip projector. The performance artist on stage uses the backdrop of color slide frames, with accompanying sound track and beep tone that automatically advances the frames, as counterpoint to his dialog.

It was at that moment that I refound my lost memory of that distant, high school science class presentation, and suddenly realized that here was a lost, despised, discarded multimedia format.

I tinkered with the thought of finding a half-frame camera with which to expose a roll of slide film, to make my own filmstrips, but only realized that I had no filmstrip projector with which to display the results.

Fast-forward fifteen years. This morning, I projected a filmstrip presentation in my living room. Of course, it was absent a sound track, but that's only a temporary setback.

You see, several years ago I was given a filmstrip projector, complete with built-in cassette tape player and speaker. It was a surplus projector from the local schools. I had tested it out on a section of 35mm film, just to prove that it worked. Playing a cassette tape of Pink Floyd music, the film would advance seemingly at random, as a particular musical tone would activate the auto frame advance of the projector.

I packed the projector away, knowing I had no half-frame camera. But in the back of my mind I had high hopes.

Then, several months ago, a neighbor of mine died. I didn't know him at all, but another neighbor, who had visited the house while it was being cleaned out, mentioned to me that the gentleman had been a camera repairman, and had a collection of old cameras that I may be interested in.

I ended up with two cameras: a Kodak Retina IIIc, and an Olympus Pen D.

The Pen D is a half-frame camera. It included the original box, instruction booklet, UV filter, lens cover and leatherette case.

So I loaded up a roll of Fuji chrome. The mechanics of the Pen D's half-frame feature means that the 24 exposure roll of film is actually 48 exposures. Since I wanted to test the full functionality of the camera using the built-in selenium light meter, I would not be able to tell if the whole affair was bogus or not until the roll was finished. Yet, I didn't want to blow the shots on junk compositions. I didn't want to rush it, but I also wanted to know as soon as possible if my dream was going to be realized.

This last week I finished the roll, shooting interesting window displays in a colorful, eclectic shopping district. All the shots came out fine.

One more aspect to this technological step backwards: I have had, for several years, a Tascam 424 Mk2 4-track cassette porta-studio. That means I have the ability to produce the cassette tapes to accompany my future filmstrip productions.

I am sure you can see where this is going: with this odd triad of half-frame camera, film strip projector and cassette 4-tracker I will be soon forcing friends and relatives into indulging my own eclectic multimedia tastes.

So, if you happen to get an invitation to come over one evening for a presentation, you may want to first ask 'what's on for tonight?’