Focus

Back to trying to find a word to reflect on as part of an update. Thinking about this one- focus- because the intellectual exercise of drawing my way through Oblique Strategies has already shifted from my last update. After a scattered start I am finding it easier to use the prompts to think my way through my practice of drawing the cubes. I’ve also given the practice some “rules”: 1 drawing per day; pick drawing materials before the prompt; 15 minute time limit; photograph each drawing with the prompt and the music I was listening to while drawing; and journal briefly about the thought process immediately after.

Also, my work got to be in focus for the local scene this last week. I’m so excited by the work I have up at Attic 506, I hope those of you in NC are able to check it out (they are open on second Friday art walks, by appointment and most Saturdays 1-4pm, announced via their IG feed). Time lapse of one of these wall drawings below!

And, action!

So no, I’m not planning to start action painting (although*…). I am excited that a new year is underway. Yes I understand the passage of time and human history aren’t impacted by the construct of a calendar that we pastiche on top of our lived experience, and marking the passage of time, as well as reflecting (see my favs from ’22 post if you haven’t) and looking forward can be meaningful. And there you have it- my ongoing interest in the idea that two ideas which seem to contradict can both be true continues.

I do have a couple of new things in the works. In part based on the last, small body of (small) work that I completed (which I found also influenced by the hard edge work I was making 2 decades ago), as well as having a go with shaped canvases or at least containers (most of which have actually been discarded), I’ve found myself moving towards even more graphic painting elements. In particular, there is a small green and pink and purple study I’ve wanted to revisit. The main shift in direction is and will be rooted in my recent reflection on a specific condition of painting- that an implied light source is important (critical?) to understand the illusion in (a) painting, even in the case of an unnatural, fictitious space or place. I like the contradiction/duality of making work also appear to be a source of light, much the same way the stacking of cubes that rely on and deny gravity can be arresting. In addition, there is a pleasing and engaging duality created by having more than one appearance or set of visual characteristics for a painting, given different lighting. Plus, the need to change the lighting to view a work (turning on a black light, or in the case of photo-phosphorescent work, turning off the light) requires participation by an audience which, I think, emphasizes the experiential element of seeing art. Additionally, there is the duality that black-light art is not typically “high art” and gives a gentle entry point for more audiences (I’m totally good with “that’s cool” from the non-art crowd).

I’ve also started a new, (what I will strive to make a) daily practice of drawing, based on Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. The end goal of this part of my practice will be some source material for another body of work that will incorporate black light and fluorescent paint. *Right out of the gate though, it looks like trying to open up by responding to word prompts and also to be more “automatic” in my approach to mark-making is going to lead to some quite divergent forms…

Triangle favs from 2022

I am not even sure how to write a sentence that expresses how lucky I feel to live in the Triangle. The community that I have been able to experience here is certainly thing 1- and thing 2 is that the art this community (hopefully some of you all!) has shown this year is fantastic! This list of shows will certainly not be a “best of” and clearly is going to be biased towards non-representational work with a few (I hope) surprising exceptions. Ten seemed like a good number for one of these year-end count-down-type lists.

So first and foremost, Clarence Heywards’s UNSEEN at CAM was hands down the best painting show in the Triangle in 2022 and I will gladly catch you outside if you disagree. Not only was the cavernous, main gallery at CAM the ideal siting for these ginormous works, they have a deft combination of sleek yet unshowy craftsmanship and timely social commentary (BIPOC people shown with green screens for skin so that we can all think about the things we project onto blackness that amount to not actually seeing black people, are you kidding me- brilliant!!!). Yes it isn’t abstraction but awesome is awesome.

The rest of these are in no particular order.

My favorite show at Anchorlight was Mike Geary’s Hidden Entrance. The body of work Mike has made probably straddles a line- are they really abstract, or abstractions (there’s a lot that’s biomorphic going on for sure)? There’s an element of automatism in the work which comes through strong- an obsessive development of forms. While a lot of choices are clearly conscious if you read Mike’s statement for the show, there is (they are?) space which Mike creates for impulse and spontaneity, which I vibe with.

Lump exhibited a fantastic if small group of paintings by Zach Storm, along with many of his drawings, called Say What You See. Similar to Mike, I picked up a strong surrealist influence in Zach’s work, commenting to a friend that they felt like Wolfgang Tilmans had a dream of Yves Tanguy and woke up and decided to be a painter. There’s a world building element too that is utterly fascinating and absorbing to me. Yeah for good painting!

One artist I know for sure utilizes automatic drawing is Jason Lord, who, along with Linda Cato, put together Landmarks at DAG’s Golden Belt space. There was an element of belief in something almost magical that I can’t put my finger on- Cato’s journey being more outward and Lord’s inward. Call it a belief in something… greater which makes it no surprise they’ve both abandoned language and embraced abstraction. File under “pairs nicely.”

Readers will know that I have a relationship with Charlotte Russell Contemporary (being included in Experiments in Form was a personal ’22 highlight for me). Bias aside, Charlotte curated In Proximity back in May, which was an amazing two person show of 2 of the best colorists in the Triangle, Kelly Shepherd Murray and Peter Marin.

Speaking of Peter- Diamante Arts and Cultural Center upgraded their space this year and their game with the selection of Peter as head curator. His first show in their new space was a hit- Rosalía Torres Weiner’s Mi Gente , Un Refleio. I had the pleasure of talking with Rosalía at the opening and her paintings and pallet reflect the energy of her personality.

There is probably no more appropriate venue in Raleigh for a show of Pop Art than 311 gallery, given it is the space in town where commerce and culture collide and the fact that Pop is and should be exactly what it appears to be on the surface. OMG WOW is also perhaps the best show title of any other I saw this year. Perhaps the best part was, with 80 (!) artists, you had to hunt for your favorites- kind of like, well, popular culture!

I think I can speak for all painters in the Triangle when I say we appreciate the shows that Ashlyn Browning curates (she ain’t a bad painter herself) and Color/Form at Block gallery was a certainly a gift. Jerstin Crosby‘s loopy geometry never disappoints and Martha Clippinger regularly unravels (I’m hilarious right?) many of our silly ideas about what is painterly- together, even more fun.

A-Piece A-Part at Artspace is one of the only shows on this list that readers can still get out to see (up till 2-12-23). I do enjoy seeing something I’ve never seen before (I am an American artist after all) and this show delivers. Regina Jestrow’s and Allan Rosenbaum’s delight with materiality makes this a really tactile show.

And last but definitely not least (and up through January 8), Nasher Museum’s Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948 – 1960 is the most instructive experience I had in an exhibit this year (fitting for a museum). The story we get is one of a young Roy attempting to find his voice by synthesizing Modernism and the idea of an avant-garde. There’s so much to process and think on- our definitions of Modernism and what it was like to ivnvetigage that epoch as lived experience; to digest European ideas about the relationship of archetype and myth to form and use that energy to transmute the stories Americans tell themselves about who we are; and certainly not least of all, that he did have a period where he made abstraction prior to his Pop brushstrokes.

Pacing

Since one of the themes in my practice is contradiction, I thought I’d chose a word that can be a noun and a verb. I do pace a lot. I mostly pace during my day job- in the studio, not so much. I think the energy that instigates pacing is a part of the source of my work. The parts of my practice that are contemplative are not done while pacing, however pacing is often useful for contemplating all the things and my practice definitely encompasses a lot of time in thought (as an alternative- this activity is not opposed to action).

Pacing the noun- as in the pacing of my practice- comes to mind because while the core of my practice is making work I find that the many parts of my practice also have to stay “on pace.” This blog- which is a daily practice; networking and expanding opportunities for myself; Instagram (started a new feed btw); and making sure I am teaching when I can (and I am teaching color theory again starting in January). And all of this without “falling off pace” (yes I used to run a lot) with making work.

So what is the ideal pacing (for me)? There isn’t a destination like a condition or state for my practice to occupy… or a timeline to get there (I mean, I already have a practice ffs). And it’s different from momentum. The answer is, I think, in the definition of pacing: the act or result of setting the rate of movement or progress, as of a story, movie, lesson, etc.

So what is the result I’m seeing? When I ask myself that question, I smile: I have work up in public; I am teaching; I am learning what’s involved in proposing and curating exhibits; I’m meeting new people whose work I want to celebrate*; and I’m pushing myself in my studio.

*if you want a good list of NC artists to celebrate start with the book on the top left of the gallery below.

Thankful

Been trying out giving my update blogs a theme and this is the word that comes to mind today. I hope you’re all reading this (whoever you are) on Friday because day you are reconnecting with family, or friends if the former are not able to part of your day today for whatever reason. I am thankful for all 258 of you, for supporting my journey and making my practice real by seeing it.

One of the things I’m also grateful for is good art writing and critical discourse. I’m a big fan of Two Coats of Paint as readers will know, and this “blogazine” exists due to the immense creative energy of Sharon Butler. You should totally give Sharon’s newest release a listen- a conversation with the insightful Raphael Rubinstein. Their conversation has inspired me to re-read his important essay about a sensibility in the first part of this century which he called at the time Provisional Painting. One of the primary notions he addresses is “the impossibility of painting” and (I think) it relates to the notion I advance with the title of this blog- that Art is dead and we (painters at least) are creating in a time where this is no mission, goal, or destination.

So I wrote recently that I ran into a wall and rather than beat my head on it I let it go. First couple of images below are included because I am reflecting lately on line and edge- focusing on the things that happen as the trapezoids interact. Also some progress shots. I (sort of) war in my mind between the idea that starting a painting from a raw canvas with no sketch can reveal things I wouldn’t discover if I had a set plan, and the idea that this is some grand, heroic gesture which is pretty fraught with historical weight that I don’t wish. Which, is one of the reasons that I talk about the theme of contradiction in my practice (two ideas which can simultaneously be true). “Yes” this practice can lead to unknown and fruitful places AND unpacking the problematic portions of the predominant narratives of Modernism and abstraction generally can be important to how I position myself in society as a creative.

Also, been thinking a *lot* lately of the relationship between developing a system that generates compositions to what Sol Lewit said:

All in your head

We’ve all heard this phrase. Its meaning, generally/culturally, is that some challenge one is experiencing has taken on significance that requires an exaggeration of that challenge’s existential implications. People might also use the phrase “beating yourself up.” I don’t think Artists are immune to this. In fact, I’ll posit in this particular update on my practice that I find a lot of the Art in my Art (my practice) is in my head, or at least takes place in my thoughts. Meaning, there’s an element of making Art (with a capital “A”) that requires one to be in their head, “beating up” an idea or three.

A few things happened since my last update that motivated me to produce this short blog, using words rather than images (“yes,” as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a bit stuck “in my head” and the physical aspects of my practice have slowed down for the moment). So that’s thing number one of course- 1) “beating yourself up” as a creative when work isn’t just pouring out of your finger tips. You’ve probably guessed the “answer” to this- that the intellectual, academic, word-based part of making art is actually what distinguishes a practice from a hobby so don’t… yeah, you get it.

“Sterling, what happened?” In addition to making a small body of work recently that I acknowledged was a departure and then following it up with a smaller piece that further explored line/edge (point- I was “in my head” already about a possible new direction for my painting), in the last week I had a piece that was underway (end of the linked blog) fall to pieces on me. The epiphany moment for this piece, which was literally invaluable but at the time felt like failure, was when I realized that what the painting was teaching me was recognizing that this thing went somewhere I didn’t want it to go and stepping away (not following it, in this case). So, I pulled it off the wall, turned it over and re-stapled it to the wall where it will serve a better purpose, which is exploring some things that have happened in some smaller studies, but at scale. In fact, immediately after it came off the wall, 3 other potential substrates went up on various surfaces in my studio, with the intent to spend less time constrained by a goal and more time released to explore new things without a goal (and that’s thing #2- committing to resolving the tension between head and hand by spending time in what psychologists would call a state of “play”).

The shape I’m in

So first things first- go see the 68th annual Durham Art Guild juried show. I’m really happy with this piece (wish I had taken a pic that shows some other object for scale reference- this one is roughly 5′ from top to bottom).

I’ve also been continuing to explore the shape of the container for these containers- in a couple of cases, the shape of the canvas. Previous iterations are below, all of which I’ve written more about (here, here and here).

Below are some images of the work in progress. Relying a lot on the projector for this one. I am enjoying the way my process for generating paintings has distinct elements of fabrication, like taping off lines, that allow me to just be in the studio and execute.

Momentum?

I recently wrote a blog centering around the word devotion, and I think perhaps the exercise might be useful to repeat, so this time I’m choosing momentum. Mostly because I feel good about the cube installations staying on people’s radar. In addition to having work in a show recently at Lump in Raleigh (Strictly Voluntary), I’ll also be installing a piece for the next Durham Art Guild annual (68th edition) juried show (up at Truist Gallery in Durham from 10/15 to 12/3), and a friend also forwarded below to me which I wasn’t even aware existed!

I also like the idea of momentum- above I’m referring to “the impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events,” but, with a practice that is formalist in design, momentum is given a sort of twist where the driving force is a commitment (devotion!) to development. I.E., the process is the purpose.

So where is my process taking me and to what purpose? Well I’ve finished up a small series of small paintings that I think will show quite well together at some point (first image below). I also took this body of work as impetus to veer slightly. Keeping scale small, I shifted the focus from color and line to shape and edge. I am pleased with the way the shapes are in tension with the eye’s tendency to create a cube out of them, creating a good presence at a distance, and the small scale of the (small) things that happen at their edges require the viewer to view the work from very close as well.

Numbers

9- days I spent in quarantine since my last update post : (

3- paintings I finished since the last time I made an update post : )

6- the opportunities y’all have remaining to see my piece in Strictly Voluntary at LUMP Gallery in Raleigh (below is my piece and one to the left by Jerstin Crosby). I’ll be gallery sitting 10/7 so come by and say hello if you’re a local!

Here’s a big one- 1,140 (the number of artists catalogued on this site).

Here’s a really big one- $20,000. It’s the amount of money I made trading bitcoins. Not… so we’ll end with a smaller one- 3 (the number of attempts I’ve made to get Instagram to unlock my account which has clearly been hacked).

Devotion

We’ll get to the loaded noun above in a minute, all good stuff. I have been making smaller pieces and also, with different intent, working through some ideas or desires really by doing some small studies. One of the studies (top left of the top left photo) inspired me to start a small piece (even smaller than the ones referenced above, and close to but not square in format). I hope to take what I’m learning from working smaller and trying to do more with less, and combine these lessons with those from a couple of larger works which, while focused on tone and surface, used variation in chroma to move the viewer’s eye as well.

The composition and the application feels definitively Modernist to me, which is totally fine. I often think about the parallel between this moment in human history and the changes that society went through as it became clear that the way to live in a new and changing world was not going to answered by looking backwards in time. Perhaps it seems like I’m saying I’m looking backward in time and deciding to react to this moment in a similar way. That’s not entirely it though.

My day job in clean energy is also part of how I am reacting to this moment in time. Because of this work, I have a set of professional contacts who are not creatives. And I spent a good bit of time reading the parallel to criticism from that space- policy. A friend shared a Charles Eisenstein article from Substack with me this week. It’s about clean energy but meanders into an exploration of the idea of devotion, in the context of examining how important our intentions are in determining whether we can really leverage green/clean technology to build a new world, or if we’ll just end up building a new industrial order. By the way, “devotion” means “love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause…”. Anyway, here’s the line that did it for me- “An artist is one who does something better than it needs to be done for any foreseeable return to herself. Thus she is in the spirit of gift.”

How does this square with my practice? Well first of all, I’m not about to try to shoehorn a bunch of metaphors about climate change or late capitalism into my iconography. Also- I don’t think devotion needs to be present as an explicit intent to be content for the audience. The point, I think, of the article is that devotion is an attitude that one adopts that guides one’s actions- in the case of my practice, it is an enthusiasm for an activity. In the framing Eisenstein presents, devotion is, at its best and most altruistic, a commitment to doing the right thing the right way. I feel like this is an idea that has Modernist roots- certainly devotion to nonrepresentational painting as a way towards uncovering some type of truth was a facet of many practices in that era. And while I don’t believe in some of the silly ideas about what was universal that too many Modernists held, devotion to one’s practice is a gift in that it is better than it needs to be.

The haps

So first and foremost, the thing I am most excited about is an upcoming artist talk that Jaclyn Sanders and I are conspiring to do this Wednesday, 8/31, at 7pm EST over on Instagram.

Another cool going on that I have to tell you all about is one of the current exhibits at the Nasher Museum. Titled Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948 – 1960, it’s a great example of really good programming. The story we get is one of a young Roy attempting to find his voice by synthesizing Modernism and the idea of an avant-garde. There’s so much to process and think on- our definitions of Modernism and what it was like to investigate that epoch as lived experience; to digest European ideas about the relationship of archetype and myth to form and use that energy to transmute the stories Americans tell themselves about who we are (and what are those stories…). And his later brushstrokes were not the only time he explored abstraction (see below).

As far as paintings go, I stretched a couple, and started a sixth piece that may or may not plug in to the series of small paintings I’ve been doing. In addition to trying a smaller, horizontal format that’s also closer to a square, I’ll be using canvas with layers of sanded gesso to try to get the weave-less texture of Muslin that I enjoy about the other pieces.

Doing a Stanley

I think this is what I’m gonna start saying when I recognize a moment where I realize that what is happening on the canvas is pointing a different direction than my intentions. Stanley here is Mr Whitney, one of America’s greatest living painters and a wise man.

So, after iterating on the dilemma of wanting to have a drawing not be forced, I realized that there aren’t painting rules that say you can’t address two things at once. As the trapezoid re-emerged as a line and not a shape, it became clear- again- that a rectangular canvas has much less potential. Below are the sketches I did (just on the old phone) to explore potential canvas shapes.

So then I had to make the shaped canvas, which gave me the opportunity to practice and use some new word working knowledge. All these years and I didn’t even know I was reading my miter saw wrong.

Interesting to see the canvas shape that I delineated with tape (left) didn’t actually have 2 parallel edges- the eye can be fooled, of course (the measurements for the final shape were taken off the taped edges and the angles measured using the digital angle finder pictured above). Need to do a little more taping and do one more pass with a lighter red/pink and I think we’re good.

Something about eggs and chickens…

As I’ve followed where the painting takes me… I’ve made an interesting discovery. The drawing for a piece, when approached as a response to a pre-drawn polygon, might not be the right approach to get the most dynamic composition. I think… sometimes as an artist it’s hard to put a finger on why an image isn’t quite coming together for you, and below definitely was at that point for more than a week. The polygon might be a useful container (as an alternative to a rectangle), that creates more energy within a piece, AND (not BUT) the original impetus for both my first shaped canvas and the prior piece with a painted trapezoid that motivated me to do others was that such a non-rectilinear shape was a reaction to the drawing (rather than, as I started on this one, trying to cram a drawing into a non-rectilinear shape).

In addition to the lesson above, an implied lesson, I think, is that figuring out the relationship of a composition to a polygon/trapezoid container makes sense to figure out before proceeding with more shaped canvases (which I had sort of started on as you can see below).

Also got a few more of the small pieces started- I think the one in the first image might be done.

Staycation rules

So I love my day job, partly because the company I work for is pretty progressive relative to the rest of US workforce options (yes, I’ve made efforts to specifically be in this space and I’m glad to talk with any of you about how to go about it yourselves). Anyway, one of our policies is a mid-year break which we’ve decided to schedule during the week of Independence Day (when lots of people are off anyway). Therefore, I am in the process of staycationing.

Which involves time in the studio.

A prior update had some context for the pieces above with which I’m quite pleased. There are some nice subtle things happening, and the scale allows individual cube “surfaces” to be much more important to the entire piece. Choices become a lot more critical for sure. I’ve also decided to revisit the idea of painting a polygon “container” for the cubes directly onto the canvas (first attempt is top image below). Simplifying the paint application (I know, the list probably belies that statement) and chroma range on this one, and also scaling down because why not change several things at once. Oh and planning to have the trapezoid shape be a taped edge rather than a painted line.