«Thesis presented to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Zurich for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Mark Staff Brandl of USA and ...»
Sonya Sobieski, a New York playwright, recommended a Virginia Wolf-like stream of consciousness account of various unnamed characters reactions to the work. This is an exciting idea, but beyond my literary abilities and would warrant more than a chapter of secondary comment. Viennese Jazz pianist and composer Martin Reiter suggested an improvisational collage, an idea I found very promising. Berlin artist Alexander Johannes Kraut felt that drawings alone would suffice. Rüsslesheim artist Martina AltSchäfer meanwhile discovered a book in the library of the villa titled Es war Einmal by a deceased caricaturist she had known, Olaf Gulbransson.2 In this book published in 1934, the Scandinavian artist relates much of his life in 200 humorous sketches with accompanying, hand-lettered short texts ranging from observational, to humorous and even tragic. The scheme of short anecdotes with images immediately won me over. I decided that the installation itself would indeed be the "official" chapter, but the text would be an impressionistic, improvisatory series of vignettes deliberating on the work: as if I were standing in front of it, contemplating the various elements, the thoughts I had while creating them as well as the associations they call up when completed and as exhibited.
The genesis of my installation began with three visual notions, in addition to the conceptual thoughts already mentioned. First, I knew I wanted to use an adaptation of the image above, which I had created of a merger of a comic book, billboard/sign and frame for the blending diagram of my metaphor(m), (figure 16 in Chapter Three, page 95).
Secondly, although I was offered the most impressive wall for my work, there was a door in the left third, which would have to be covered over or incorporated into the work.
fig. 27 Carried Away, Panels and Covers Installation oil, enamel and acrylic on canvas, acrylic on wall, oil and acrylic on rag paper, comic magazine rack 2008-2009, c. 426 x 426 cm / c. 14 ft x 14 ft.
While doing sketches and studies of the wall, brainstorming ideas for the work which I had quite early nicknamed My Metaphor(m), I recalled the beautiful image of José Nieto Velázquez in Diego Velázquez's amazing painting now called Las Meninas. I remembered that it has been disputed if the figure represented was related to the painter or not, but that it seemed to be agreed that he was the Queen's Aposentador (Chamberlain), the officer in charge of household duties. This meant he was most probably depicted as calling the King and Queen to an appointment, away from either posing for Velázquez, or dropping in for a visit as the Infanta posed for him. I have always loved the virtuosic economy with which this figure is painted, the white of the background bleeding into the room, yet defining the contours of Nieto.
The work as a whole is one of my favorite paintings from art history. When I visited the Museo del Prado with my wife a few years ago, I drank in Goya's Black Paintings, the Peter Paul Rubens works and much else. However, like many a painter before me I was utterly transfixed for hours by Las Meninas.3 I further recollected that Luca Giordano had famously
said of the painting that it a "theology of painting."4 I agree with this bit of justified hyperbole. Las Meninas also inspired Giordano to paint what I believe is his greatest work, the Portrait of the Conde de Santisteban (A Homage to Velázquez). Giordano's assessment of Velázquez's painting struck me anew: in my painting-installation I was aiming at an embodied work of philosophy, or at least art theory. The analogy I would use would not be theology, the study of divine things or religious truth, but rather, perhaps, an epistemology of painting; or a hermeneutics of painting; even a pragmatics of embodied cognition. Yet my approach's descent from Velázquez's sentiment is unmistakable, albeit not it's source.
fig, 29 The author posing.
I decided to use the existing doorway as an integral element in my installation. I would make reference to the image of Nieto, yet mix the self-portrait of the painter into the blend. I position myself in a pose similar to that of Velázquez in Las Meninas, yet clad in my typical attire of motorcycle jacket and jeans, with two of my favorite tools, a sign-painters brush and a squeeze bottle. This makes a pointed contrast with the courtly attire of the Las Meninas figures, and Velázquez's beautiful long brush and palette, while also making my figure a combination of two "prestigious servants" of the King. I was particularly careful to include a cross on my jacket, one I placed there myself due to my belief, not the red one of the knightly
order of Santiago, painted on Velázquez's image according to legend by the King himself.5 I drew this image as the basis for a painting.
fig. 30 Drawing study for painting, pen and ink on paper with Photoshop manipulations,
The self-portrait painting followed, painted using the implements shown in the work.
The figure is life-size on a slightly larger canvas. It was placed directly in the doorway, hung on the door, standing on the threshold. The exit sign would have been hidden by my painting.
I re-hung it to be visible, although I did not have to, as I thought it made a pleasing reference to the paintings at the rear of the space in Las Meninas as well as an ever-so-slight indirect suggestion, in my mind, to Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play No Exit, originally titled Huis Clos, the French equivalent of the courtroom term in camera, referring to a discussion behind closed doors.6 Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1989).
My Metaphor(m) 128 My installation, though, was not planned as an homage to Velázquez alone, although there are more details which associatively rhyme with elements in his great work. My piece embodies allusive play and interplay with my theory of central trope. Interestingly, this dissertation has caused me to make more self-portrait images that I had done in my whole career up to this point. Like Velázquez's work the arrangement across the surface is somewhat strange. Yet, there are a few key differences from the Spanish painter's masterpiece. Whereas, in Las Meninas the Infanta Margarita dominates the scene, the conceptual center of my work is the sequential series of five paintings inside the comic book representation, inside the billboard image, inside the colossal thought balloon.
fig. 32 Detail, My Metaphor(m), center sequence oil and acrylic on canvas, acrylic on wall Then there are the attendants, who to me are the true ideational center of interest: a maid of honor to the left of the Princess, the dwarf maid of honor to the right, another maid of honor to the right of her, the midget boy, a large Spanish dog, a lady-in-waiting in widow's weeds and a Guardadamas (chaperone). In Las Meninas the dog is most intriguing. Whereas most participants in this drama look at the viewer, the dog squeezes his eyes closed, seemingly detached, above this stage show of life, whether royal or artistic. I have replaced these genre portraits with life-sized paintings of a dog and a cat to the far left of my work.
Each represents family pets who had recently died. Each is on its own canvas, sitting on the floor. They gaze at my self-portrait, or more accurately at my thoughts. Only my self-portrait image looks at the viewer, but somewhat contemplatively lost in thought.
My Metaphor(m) 129 fig. 33 Detail, My Metaphor(m), dog left (Buddie) oil and acrylic on canvas, 2009, 90 x 130 cm / 35 in x 51 in
The Stroke and Agon The paintings of these two animals are portraits, yet they are decidedly non-naturalistic, due to the technique. I dripped the images, painting them quickly, based on preparatory drawings much like that of my self-portrait drawing above, using a ketchup squeeze-bottle filled with paint. First I had sprayed a rough "halo" for where the lines approximately would go, then I dripped them in a speedy application, finally meticulously outlining the lines twice, adding illusionistic shadows and highlights with sign-painter and comic artist sable-hair brushes. This was my technique for all the canvases, yet the "donor panels," as I nicknamed the two animals to the left, and my self-portrait are all three one step farther away from any form of naturalism by being in black, white and gray tones.
I had not planned it, but as I saw my work finished in situ, a reference to the mirror in Las Meninas struck me. I had a similar play with spectators in three elements: the presence of an actual door, and two stoops, one leading to the door, the other going nowhere. Each insinuating viewers could step into or through the work. I have created not a window into an imaginary world, but rather the world becomes a doorway into the art. My work is neither an epitome of representation nor a death of it (both of which have been proclaimed for Las Meninas), rather an embodiment of a contemplation and internal dialogue concerning embodied trope.7 Let me return to my painting technique: the dripping, outlining, spraying and adding of illusionistic highlights and shadows. The process came to me slowly through the process of painting, chiefly due the fact that I wished to become more clearly representational in my paintings and to come closer in painting to the freedom I felt when drawing. After-the-fact though I can see that it is my agonistic misreading of Jackson Pollock, through Pop, or more accurately through major popular art influences on me, my father's sign-painting, and the comic art of Gene Colan and George Herriman.
Pollock is "the artist to beat" ever since his radical compositional creation of the layered "all-over." Most development since then have either tackled this, such as Pop and Minimalism, or attempted to avoid it such as Conceptual Art. In Pollock's late works the artist himself engaged with the question of where it was possible to go next, the question of how to reintroduce imagery into this cosmic web of form. His attempts are generally judged to be unsuccessful, yet I find them stimulating. One can only wish he had lived longer in order to fight this good fight.
fig. 38 Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Cut-Out) oil, enamel, aluminum paint, and mixed mediums on cardboard and canvas, c.1948-50,
77.3 x 57 cm / 30.5 in x 23.5 in.
His experiments included the cut-out forms above, including the aptly named Out of the Web. Yet I find a few others more promising, such as Figure and, most of all Portrait and a Dream.
I arrived at this agon with Pollock, strangely enough, not by any direct consideration of the painter, but rather by absorbing influences from two comic artists, Colan and George Herriman. Colan is a renowned illustrator of superhero and other adventure comics from the 1940s until today; he now works in semi-retirement. The following image is of a drawing he did for me featuring a character for which he is known, Daredevil, and a character I created as a child and always drew in emulation of his style, Micro.8
The following image is a penciled page of a comic by Colan. He was the first comic illustrator to have his art reproduced directly from the pencils, without an applied "finishing" inking, as editors and fans quickly realized how extraordinary his drawing in graphite is.
The image below is a portrait I did of Colan, a study for a painting. It clearly displays his influence, that of Herriman and how it edges near Pollock.
Colan is a very unique artist in his field. He was always greatly appreciated in comics, but not an artist whose style was much copied, even during his various peaks of popularity.
While he has had a large number of fans and "students" such as me (without directly teaching classes), he seems to stimulate individuality rather than imitation. Colan's style is highly individualistic and was so at a time when "house styles" were the rule. Colan is self-driven, always experimenting, learning and improving. Even now, in his supposed "retirement," with greatly impaired vision, he draws better than ever. George Herriman is also an influence worth mentioning here. He is an American cartoonist, best known for his comic strip Krazy Kat.10 He passed away in 1944, and his strip was such a unique, personal work of art that the newspaper syndicate, which owned the rights to it, decided not to continue it with another artist, which is uncommon. Similar to Colan, it is his loose, fluid mastery of the stroke which thrilled me as a young artist and still does today.
This enlarged detail taken from a panel of Krazy Kat shows Herriman's amazing, rough virtuosity, the complete opposite of slicker styles such as that of Walt Disney studios. My painting technique derives from all these influences and more, to discover a method of using and going beyond Pollock, Pop Art and my vernacular sources. In addition to the metaphor(m)al integration of this into my method of stroke-making, the compositional metaphor(m) is equally important, wherein I blend installation, the sequence and the traditional "iconic" presence of painting.
Velázquez portrays himself in the act of painting a large canvas, one which appears to be the same dimension as that of Las Meninas. This is the trait that makes the artwork so obviously self-aware and which has attracted the attention of scholars for so long. The canvas is shown with its back toward us, thus promulgating the huge range of hypotheses about what the image could be he is creating on the surface. There is a charged visual and conceptual echo between the represented, half-hidden canvas and the actual painting in which it appears.
My comparable maneuver was to make this corporeal, to have the representations appear on individual canvases, which then appear "in" and comprise the whole: a merger of embodiment in a tangible sense and embodied trope; an image schema, image, metaphor and object in one.