It Cannot Be Trivial

Entries Tagged as 'Print'


Please Keep Art Safe

July 29th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Please Keep Art Safe

Please Keep Art Safe, 1995

On the October 3, 1992 live broadcast of Saturday Night Live, Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was the evening’s musical guest. She performed an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War, changing the lyric of “racism” to “child abuse.” And while singing the final lyric “evil,” O’Connor held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II, tore it to bits, and declared to the audience, “fight the real enemy.”  Silence followed. Cut to commercial.

The producers of SNL were caught off guard and received over 3000 calls of protest. O’Connor defended her actions calling to task the Catholic Church for allowing the abuse of children by clergy to go unchecked (strangely prescient considering recent revelations of abuse in the church). Over the ensuing weeks O’Connor was generally vilified – three weeks later at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden, she was booed off the stage.

To Catholics and many others, Sinéad O’Connor’s defiling of a photo of the Pope was an act of blasphemy. And it may sound surprising, but if not for a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1940, O’Connor could have been arrested and prosecuted for inciting breach of the peace and criminal blasphemy.

Back in 1939, Newton Cantwell, a Jehovah’s Witness, along with his two sons were proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood in Connecticut. Carrying a portable phonograph and literature, the three went knocking door to door.  They played for two gentleman a record that described all organized religious systems as “instruments of Satan,” and called out the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Deeply offended, the men basically wanted to throttle the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but instead called the police. They were arrested and convicted for inciting breach of the peace among other charges.


Flammable, 1995

The Cantwells appealed and claimed that they were denied their freedom of speech and  prohibited their free exercise of religion under the first Amendment. The 1940 Supreme Court agreed unanimously and set a precedent that basically made any previous laws against blasphemy in the US a dead letter.  The 1940 decision explains, that “the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor.” And that in a democracy an individual’s right to resort to exaggeration and vilification are liberties “essential to enlightened opinion.” And under the “shield” of these liberties, “many types of life, character, opinion, and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed.”

That an individual has the right to offend someone, and even to do so deeply, to make their point – in speech, writing, art, performance, film, etc. – is a tremendous right. It protects from criminal prosecution, but it does not protect from outrage, rejection, and recrimination. The “Culture Wars” and “Political Correctness” of the nineties showcased how to better control unsafe expression. There was the gutting of the NEA’s budget and the addition of “advisory language” regarding decency in grant applications. Both in reaction to funding a retrospective of the sexual explicit photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix immersed in his own urine.  Or there was the prosecution of University of Pennsylvania student Eden Jacobowitz under the school’s speech code. He was accused of intending “water buffalo” to be a racial epithet yelled at some late night noisemakers who happened to be black.


Corrosive, 1995

A return to the days of prosecuting for blasphemous statements may not be possible. (In 1811 People v. Ruggles, the conviction of a New Yorker was upheld for saying “Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother must be a whore.” NY Supreme Court Justice Hale affirmed that the danger of of blasphemy lay in its tendency to “strike at the root of moral obligation” and called blasphemous “words and actions dangerous to the public welfare.”)  So the preference became to find ways to encourage self-censorship. If unsure whether a particular piece of speech may be offensive to some or most individuals, it’s better left unsaid.

Tags: Print


July 6th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Transport 01

1994, Transport

I feel lucky that in the four summers I was a lifeguard I only had to make one save. And it was an easy save. While guarding the pool known as the “middle pool” – primarily for 4-6 year olds and running only two to three feet deep – a girl was bouncing along toward the deeper end and lost her footing. A brief slip and her head was under and she did not know how get her feet back under her. And seeing the terrified look in her eyes I knew she needed help. It was simple, I reached in, scooped her up and passed her to her mom who was close by reading a magazine. It was a save though. And I didn’t need to use any of the complex maneuvers learned in lifeguard training. Just a watchful eye and long arms.

There are a number of moves that you had to practice to rescue a drowning victim – how to support them, transport them, and even defend yourself. Developing the ability to move yourself and the victim through the water fluidly and safely was what you were trained to do. This was of particular importance for a potential victim of a spinal cord injury, someone who was unconscious floating face down in the water. To minimize the amount of neck movement, you were to enter the water without disturbing it. Approach the victim carefully. Cradle the victim’s neck with your hands front and back and your arms bracing the chest and spine. And finally with a swift kick while maintaining this cradle, you would propel yourself underwater while gently rotating the victim face-up so that they might breathe again.

Transport 04

1994, Transport

Practicing this maneuver in the lifeguard training class required that we take turns and act as victims. It was always fun to act as the flailing victim who is so freaked-out you end up attacking your rescuer. Your partner would have to push you away, swim underneath you, and come at you from behind to start over. Between this and the spinal victim exercise, you made a lot of physical contact with your partner. And between a bunch of sixteen year old boys and girls there were a number of sexual undertones that went with these exercises.

These were the kinds of things that you knew everyone in the class was thinking about but no one wanted to talk about. “Yes I know that I’m putting my forearm between your breasts while gently placing my hand on your chin. I’m fully engrossed in pretending your back may be broken. That’s all that I’m thinking about, really.”  You were supposed to be asexual and everyone else was asexual.

Transport 02

1994, Transport

I imagined that in an actual emergency situation hopefully my training would take over. All the physicality would be a means to saving a person from drowning. And all the nuances of body language would disappear behind the shear terror of being responsible for saving someone’s life.

Tags: Print

Cross Symmetry

June 14th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Sameness Difference Cross

Sameness & Difference Cross , 1995

My mother would implore me to hold the cross higher, “You’re so tall, you can hold the cross higher than anyone else. Use your height.”

I was an acolyte for an Episcopalian church for a number of years. I started as a torch bearer for the youth procession after Sunday school. Three of us would run after class to the back of the church, put on our frocks and blouses, and lead the other kids into church with a cross and two torches. I eventually became the cross bearer for the main procession at the start of the service, leading in the way for the pastor and clergy. The height to which I lifted the cross was a point of pride for my mother.

As an acolyte, you never actually sat with your family. The six of us, cross and torch bearers for the service and for the youth procession, sat in the front pew alone. We often got  into trouble for not being the model Episcopalian youth we were supposed to be. We would stand, kneel, and sit when asked, but we rarely read from the prayer book or sang from the hymnal when we should have. We’d open to the pages we were supposed to, but only to check them off a list of the various portions of the service. I would actually use my fingernail and “strikeout” each part of the mass listed on the weekly program.

I also spent grades 1-5 in a Catholic school and four years as an undergraduate at a Catholic college. I didn’t intend to surround myself with so much formal religious culture given that I’ve never felt comfortable with all the rituals and symbols, and was never a deep believer in what they were to represent. That there was a system of belief certain of “the way,” just seemed silly. How could you know for sure?

Maybe it was the science side of my brain, which would question, “show me the proof!” And I wasn’t looking for someone to prove to me that God exists, but that these religious words, symbols, and actions were the answer, the only answer.

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross, 1995

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I spent a year in a chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. By the end of the year I knew I would leave for art school and would not join a research group.  But I was still required to take a research course to finish my Master’s degree. The chair of the department suggested a mini research project that he felt would be appropriate given my change in academic pursuits. The final project was titled Quasicrystals, Ancient Building Science, and the Golden Mean. It was followed by a quote from the mathematician Roger Penrose:

It is a mysterious thing in fact how something which looks attractive may have a better chance of being true than something which looks ugly.

Penrose was speaking about the researcher’s desire for the more aesthetically pleasing solution to be the right solution. This was how I introduced the presentation’s survey of examples in art, science, and religion where symmetry is used to find “perfect” answers. In the process I was introduced to molecular symmetry based in group theory that is a system used to classify molecules by their symmetry. Molecules fall into different symmetrical groups and each group reveals various fundamental properties.

Cross Symmetry analyzes the symmetry of different crosses, as an ancient architect would use the “perfect human form” as a guide to build the Parthenon.

Canon of the Six Foot Human Figure

James A. Kane, Ancient Building Science, 1940

This new cross symmetry system became a way to affirm, deny, or qualify the value of each crucifix.

Tags: Drawing · Print

Moment Study

June 10th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Moment Study – 'The Past'

Moment Study – "The Past" , 1997

In the summer of 1996 I was returning from Lake Lanier in Georgia where the Olympic Rowing Trials for the 1996 Olympics were hosted. I had competed in the single scull, finishing 7th,  after disappointingly not making a two person boat which had a real shot at making the US Team. It had been a year of training full-time and struggling to make ends meet.

It had also been a third straight year of drastic change since college. A year of studying for a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Chicago, was followed by a year of pursuing an M.F.A. in fine art at Tufts University, and then the rowing. I was emotionally spent and did not know what to do next.

I decided to work full-time for a moving company that I’d worked for part-time while in art school. Moving furniture was about the only thing I was comfortable doing, there was no career choice involved, not a lot of thinking, just humping heavy objects around. Each day ended with a call to the office to find out if there was work the next day and what time you were to start. Days would start usually at 6AM and finish whenever you were done getting everything off the truck – 3PM, 5PM, even 8PM – exhausting.

Moment Study – Whenever I Sit Down My Knees Will Hurt

Moment Study – Whenever I Sit Down My Knees Will Hurt , 1997

In the year that I was a full-time mover, I made the choice to finish art school. And I would commit to art school completely, leaving behind chemistry and rowing. I sold my boat and bought my first Mac with the money. This way I could work on projects at home.

The two “Moment Study” pieces were an effort to reconcile these different paths chosen and to “measure” what happened.

Moment Study – Whenever I Sit Down My Knees Will Hurt, is a vectorization of a video still of two men trying to bend steel bars behind their heads for the “World’s Strongest Man” contest in the 1980s. This vectorized image has a lot visual similarity to the print outs from various spectroscopy used to identify the composition of chemical compounds. When working with spectra, identifiable peaks at specific moments are signatures of parts of compounds. I used this process to identify “peaks” as memories and moments.

Moment Study – “The Past”, uses similar techniques to look at a drawing of a spectra. Certain parts of the spectra were exploded to a higher resolution and different vectorization techniques used to attempt to find more information. Both prints were manually fed through a large format inkjet printer numerous times to layer the images on top of drawings and collage. As a process I’d liken it to feeding a chemical compound through some spectrometer at different points in a reaction.

Tags: Collage · Print


June 4th, 2010 · 1 Comment

PSI “Oh that’s interesting. So what are you going to do? Illustrate science textbooks or something?” This was a typical response to my choice to major in chemistry and fine art. My answer varied from, “Yes. ” (easiest and least confrontational) to “No” (not in the mood and likely off-putting) to the truthful “I’m not really sure.” I really had no plan at the time, but I did make attempts to marry the two.

There is a lot of visualization in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry. An organic chemist colleague of mine, Stephen Fearnley, and I chat about chemistry a bit on the LIRR from Brooklyn to Jamaica. I’m definitely very, very rusty but one thing he said recently reminded me how art and organic chem do relate.

“Organic Chemistry is still a very pencil and paper subject. Lots of drawing of chemical structures, arrows pointing to where electrons are going, showing changes in molecules, etc.” I would often  put structures in my art notebook and began to qualify chemistry statements and rules with my own authoritative interpretations. These word plays on the rules of chemistry lead to a lot work related to science, art, and safety.

PSI, ψ (pictured above) is about the mathematics used to describe an electron in orbit around a nucleus.  It was to be part of an installation I proposed for the Holy Cross science building atrium between Swords and Haberlin Halls. It was rejected by Father William O’Halloran which I discussed in my first post to this blog.

PSI, ψ  is a 47″ x 60″ block of painted plaster adhered to gypsum board mounted on a two by four frame. It’s like a relief painting with deep grooves and ridges, so I decided to use it as a printmaking block rolling white acrylic paint and pressing black paper to make a white “thumb print.” I made about eight prints with the goal of using the block and prints for the installation. None of the prints remain.

This mock-up for the installation was attached to the proposal, but shows how the suspending block was to be the nucleus, with the prints surrounding to create the electron cloud.

PSI Proposal P3

Tags: Installation · Print

It Cannot Be Trivial

June 1st, 2010 · 3 Comments

It Cannot Be Trivial

1992, Intaglio print on paper.

It resulted from an argument I had with a Jesuit Priest. “Michael, art cannot be trivial. You cannot make art from trivia. Art cannot be a trash can.”

This was how Father William O’Halloran let me know that my proposed sculpture installation for Swords Hall would not be allowed. Fr. O’Halloran was Vice President of Holy Cross in the spring of 1992 and he had, earlier in the semester, allowed me to install a sculpture temporarily in front of Hogan Campus Center. That success inspired me to try again.

In retrospect, I understand that every proposal made by an undergraduate seeking attention for his art cannot be indulged. But it was how he said “no” that was disturbing to me. The dialogue drifted into a polemic on the definition of art and its value.

I documented Fr. O’Halloran’s statements about art in my journal at the time. “It must be lasting. It must be exquisite. It must be magnificent.” I admit I did provoke him by asking if he believed Jesus was an artist. To which he answered, “Jesus Christ was not an artist.” Why not? “He didn’t paint anything, he didn’t draw or sculpt. Art may be directed performance, written word, music.” But he spoke freely about his beliefs and affected millions. “Jesus Christ was not an artist.”

This was an argument that I wasn’t going to win. The piece would not be displayed.

Though I couldn’t install the work, I didn’t let the conversation end there. I made 18-20 intaglio prints of a trash can on paper and stenciled each with one of Fr. O’Halloran’s statements in red ink. I posted them throughout Fenwick Hall, the main academic building on campus and home to the deans (mostly Jesuits) and Fr. O’Halloran.

After about a week, only a few remained, which I decided to take down and save. Fr. O’Halloran and I didn’t discuss art ever again, but it got back to me that a few faculty had taken the prints and put them up in their offices.

The words and definitions of  “it” as “art” stuck with me. They became the seeds of inspiration for many future works about art, religion, and safety.

Tags: Print

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