I was in my third year of art school making perfectly awful paintings, like I had the year before and the year before that, when I had a simple idea: to put an object in one of them. My thinking went something like this: if I put something good on top of something not so good, that will make the whole thing slightly more good. Or slightly less bad, depending on your perspective.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I liked making things, and I thought that adding something I liked would be a good start. At this point an observant reader might wonder why someone interested in object making would try and become a painter in the first place – a square peg in a round hole and all that. But logic was never part of the equation. My skeletal understanding of art had somehow made painting it’s true representative, which meant that if painting wasn’t for me than very probably art wasn’t for me. I needed a spark, a miracle, a moon shot, and little did I know that my moon shot was about to come in the form of a smallish carved head.
Before I get to that, it’s probably clear that I was misinformed about a couple of things when I went to art school. The first one obviously being that painting was the true story of art. But the second one was even more deeply embedded in me, and it’s what I now think of as the Myth Of The Artist. You probably know the one. It’s the perception that artists are the irascible, (but lovable!) creative firebrands, who inevitably give society fits, even as they expand our perceptions of the world. I didn’t know much about art, but I thought I knew about artists, and artists were a bunch of rule-breaking libertines. Fuck yea! I wanted to be one too. What I found out when I got to school however, was that the above description really described a modernist artist, when art was about art, and pushing boundaries was the thing. By the time that I got to school however, all of the boundaries had gotten pushed already.That meant that the firebrands were out of a job.
If the task of modernist artists was to seek out the cutting edge of art, then what do you do when there are no edges anymore? What you do is realize that modernism is over, that’s what. That meant that the postmodernists took up the reins with all of the enthusiasm of a clean up crew after a really good party. The modernists had such a clear mission, such a purpose. The postmodernists didn’t. So what was the way forward for us?
It was around this time that I remember going to a Dave Hickey lecture, and during the Q & A immediately following, a young art student asked him what he thought the next thing in art was going to be. He looked off into space for a few seconds. Then he said slowly, “Well, all the easy stuff has been done…”
To which he could have added “And all the hard stuff has been too”. But his point was clearly understood. Art making had gone from being technically rigorous, and decorative, to intellectually rigorous, and very self-consciously non-decorative. Which is to say, it was mostly devoid of special technical skills. Art’s former life as eye candy was tossed, in favor of a far more intellectual approach. People began to refer to De-skilling not only as a philosophical starting point, but also as an aesthetic goal. Other terms like ‘Non-objective’, and ‘Conceptual’ were used and thought of in similar ways. The old school craft associations were strenuously pushed away, making words like ‘Craft’ and ‘Mastery’ sound laughably retrograde. The pendulum had swung in a complete arc, from one pole to another.
There is a funny thing about revolutions though. No matter how they start, they all end the same: the radical fringe becomes the new normal. After awhile, the new normal starts to seem like the old normal – the old Hegelian model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. And so it was with Modernism. The academic hierarchy and monetary excess that made the Beaux Art possible, quickly adjusted to their new modernist equivalents. Now of course, our new academy is bigger than ever, the gatekeepers more credentialed and numerous, and the prices paid for the most expensive art enough to make any pope or king blush.
Aesthetically we fell in line too. The new orthodoxy that modernism instilled was to seek out originality at all costs, a paradox that seemed to bother no one. (Didn’t catch it? Orthodoxy and originality in the same sentence is conceptual whiplash). In fact, Modernism was so broadly successful, and for so long, that soon enough, ‘new and improved’ was a way of life. Those very words in fact began to appear on pretty much every product out there, with a metronomic regularity, and CEO’s started dropping terms like ‘disruption’ and ‘creative destruction” all the time, further reinforcing the idea that constant and propulsive change was the highest good.
There is an irony in the idea of forcing change to happen though, which is this: it happens whether we want it to or not. Change is the one thing that is unstoppable, and requires no special prodding from us. Imagine, for example, exerting a great amount of effort to try and get the tide to turn more quickly – even if we were successful at doing it, which would definitely be an achievement; the result would be redundant at best. The one thing that modernism brought us with relentless efficiency was a constantly changing tide. That meant more of everything, faster – a lot of good stuff to be sure, but also plenty of useless and disposable crap right along with it. Suddenly, new and improved didn’t feel like it was either, and the thought of getting disrupted, much less creatively destroyed, just didn’t sound so good.
Consider this: when I was a kid, we couldn’t wait for the future to come. It was going to be the logical fulfillment of human possibility, and it was all so achingly, agonizingly close. Now the future seems to fill us with dread, and a surprisingly deep sense of nostalgia has replaced that once pervasive sense of possibility. Modernism may have institutionalized revolution itself, and in so doing turned freedom and rebellion into a brand, but the shift to postmodernism made it clear how tainted, and filled with dystopian overtones that approach had left us in the end.
My brain fogged over when I thought of this stuff. All I was trying to do was make something halfway decent in art school, and school had responded by telling me that shit was complicated. A certain amount of paralysis by analysis set in, and like a lot of younger artists who see the big picture for the first time, I became creatively constipated. Postmodernism, that vague philosophical construct, had all of a sudden became personal.
So how to break the log-jam? Dumb luck, that’s how.
It’s a curious fact that inspiration only seems like inspiration in retrospect. At the time it occurs, it can feel a whole lot more like just grasping at the very last straw out there. For me that last straw was buried under some clamps in the tool room in sculpture class. It was some carving tools that I had unearthed mostly by accident, and seeing them there made me realize that I wanted to try my hand at making something with them. I was lucky that I had a teacher named Ed Wicklander who carved from time to time, because seeing his carvings had uncorked a secret desire in myself that I hadn’t even really known was there.
My reluctance to give into my impulse to carve probably had something to do with the fact that what initially inspired me about it was how it operated independently of sculpture, or maybe even art. It just seemed more like architecture. In Europe I had seen the way that entire cities were carved from stone, but not just into simple blocks stacked on top of each other, but into crazy, interlocking organic shapes, figures, gargoyles, patterns, and so on. This was utterly foreign to me as a kid growing up on the West Coast of the US, surrounded by pressure treated wood decks, vinyl siding, and generally crap construction that wasn’t meant to last. I found it impossible not to become enraptured looking at structures that refuted that familiar clap-trap disposable premise in every way. Any doorway, or window, or fence was an opportunity for a craftsperson to go bananas, to one-up all the other doors and windows and fences out there.
What was even more amazing, aside from the technical wizardry, was the sheer practicality of it, the basic problem solving, brilliantly realized. Great effort was expended to make sure that the windows didn’t leak, that the buildings could withstand fire, and that the stairs didn’t creak, all with incredible flair. And all of it was done by what came to be my favorite artist: The Anonymous Craftsman. Yes, I know some of their names now, but whether or not they were remembered or forgotten, the training and attitude of all of these carvers seemed the same: to make things as good as possible. The way all of that effort and love added up to this incredible tapestry of stuff, meant that simply walking down a street became an adventure. It was hard not to come away without feeling energized, and filled with a sense of possibility. Every surface of every building seemed to be asking the same question: What if we all just tried to make the coolest shit imaginable?
As I looked at the motley collection of carving tools in the shop, I thought that I too could add to that tapestry. I could almost see, and smell, the fresh wood shavings falling like petals all around me, as I brought forth sensual forms from the wood. Gripped by this image, a Zen-like spiritual reverie seemed to descend, the very same reverie that was certainly the default work mode of every wood carver out there. Incredible! I also wasn’t mad at the prospect of not having to share the tools with anyone, because for some reason nobody else in my sculpture class seemed interested at all in carving. Again: incredible. I smirked to myself inwardly, I just had stumbled on a sure fire way to crack open the art game in a way that nobody else out there saw coming. My journey to artistic relevance had begun.
The first clue that my plan had some flaws was when I began to actually use those dull and forlorn carving tools. There was so much pushing and pounding and cajoling and wincing and wheezing involved, that I truly wondered if they were bought from a practical joke store, like where you get fake poop and fake vomit. Maybe these were fake chisels, bought by the shop techs to punk little sculpture kids like me. But I was forced to conclude that they had actual metal blades, and actual hardwood handles, which I had to admit, made them real. As I looked around at all of my fellow students, (none of whom were carving, and had absolutely no plans on doing so), I was also forced to conclude something that should have been as obvious as a flashing neon sign: carving was hard.
It was about then that all of my idealized visions of carving quickly crumbled. I experienced for the first time what I now call the ‘Two P’s’: pain and panic. New carvers bump up against these two devilish hurdles without fail. The pain part is obvious; it starts with the hands, and works its way up to the wrists, the elbows, the biceps, the shoulders, and finally down the back and up the neck. Getting cut is part of the pain equation as well, but except for a few spectacular whacks, that always takes a back seat to constant muscle and joint pain. Meanwhile, the second P (panic) is the more surprising of the two, and therefore the more mentally crippling. It is the feeling that all of the time and effort being spent is all for nothing, that the piece being worked on is not turning out, or that it’s a bad idea in the first place. This slow seepage of doubt, and dread can be an abyss that claims your soul. No other medium I’ve worked with has an equivalent.
Experiencing the full force of the Two P’s didn’t happen right away - it never does. It’s always on the second or third day, after a real commitment has been made, before it sneaks up and wallops you. By that time, Pee Pee mode is in full flower. Years later, I would actually design a Panic Tamper carved from the hardest wood, as a talismanic object designed to offset the Pee Pee. It basically rams down one’s gullet, forcing the panic into a hard nugget that lodges in the gut. This was one of a number of talismanic objects I designed, that every wood worker out there wishes were real: the board stretcher, the joinery healer, the self-sharpening blade. If that panic tamper was real, I would have worn it out by the end of my first year of carving.
That’s right, I did keep carving. You do know how the story ends – pretty much all the work I’ve done since then is carving. In fact, after I finish writing this on my computer, I am going to go carve. Most of my days, and a lot of my thinking, involves carving to a very large degree.
So the question is, why did I keep going? What made that initial experience, filled with frustration and failure, ultimately feel like success? And I have to say that it had to do with re-adjusting my interior clock, to a slower pace. The pace inspired a slow but steady conversation with it - I realized that I was making the occasional suggestion, rather than forcing my will upon it. This upended how I was used to making things, where I started with an idea, and then expended just enough effort to illustrate that idea, which in effect became stenography, or a form of dictation. Carving, in contrast to that, was a relationship, where I could see possibilities, rather than a singular forgone conclusion that I could impose. The resulting piece was at best a surprise. It wasn’t exactly what I had imagined; it was something else entirely, like it was made by someone else entirely. I wanted to know about this thing, to study it - my original idea had splintered into various avenues that lead to other places, which I now saw in a beckoning, fragmentary form. I wanted to see more.
It’s incredible that so much came out of a very rudimentary little portrait of a bald man (I skipped carving the hair, because that seemed too hard), especially because the final result was so bloody awful. Despite that, I still felt an odd sense of accomplishment, tempered a bit by the crap outcome naturally, but fueled by an inescapable sense of possibility. The pragmatist in me split the difference between this mix of emotions by not throwing my little carving away, but instead lighting it on fire until it was a barely recognizable lump of charcoal. I then dangled it in front of my painting, and something magical happened: the painting got better. It bumped up to maybe even being pretty good. And so it was that I saw the future, which was carving, and the past, which was painting. The little lump of charcoal seemed to egg me on; I knew I could do better, that I would do better. I felt pulled forward, into this new place, a place I’m still exploring even now.
Art is hard, under the best of circumstances. It’s probably out of reach for most of us entirely. Carving, which is my chosen medium now, seems to break that bald fact to me everyday, which I appreciate. But getting better at it makes me think less about making Art with a capitol ‘A’, and more about just being better at things – carving, sure, but also baking bread, writing, friendship, really almost anything. The moon shot might not have gotten me all the way to the moon, but it sure widened the view.