Friday, April 4, 2008

the Brainstorm of the Century

If you've chosen to be an artist you're accustomed to setbacks. The very premise of this decision is a setback itself. From the moment we take notice of the world we realize that we've got to think about what we want to be when we grow up. Children are told to dream big, because with such long futures ahead they can be anything their hearts desire. The sky's the limit, yet an unspoken corollary assumes that most kids will eventually give up, accept life on more realistic terms, and just find something tolerable that will pay the bills.

For most people older than 30, even recalling their initial personal vocational inclination is quite difficult. Chances are it has little to do with their adult life, proven by society's lack of a problematic overabundance of firemen, doctors, ballerinas and princesses. These kinds of stereotypical role models don't stick for long, due in part to the fact that they're impossible for a kid to begin practicing immediately. Creative dreams, however, can be focused and honed from the start. Children, in fact, have more time to build portfolios than most mid-career artists, and all their expenses completely covered. I believe that the more encouragement a child gets while making art, the more artwork they'll want to make. Young artists become addicted to this approval, believe me, and it fuels you. Everyone was an artist at this point in their lives. That's what kids do.

Past childhood, if a person continues to practice, they become a teenage oddity. Most others by this age are pretending to be adults, and adults do not make art, so across the country, schools are filled with one or two people per hundred who actually learn how to draw realistically, thus generating the next type of addiction that the artist mind craves: respect. The moment that somebody else truly looks at something you've drawn, asks how long it took, then says "I could never do that," you're stuck. You need more.

Eventually you go to school, get your degrees, move to the city, and become famous. That's how it works, and that's where I'm at. Of course there are setbacks, yet I am accustomed. The best thing about a major setback in life is the next one, because in the time between you always advance. No setbacks might mean no growth, and that would suck. As an artist today, I believe a continually adjusting approach is necessary to explore the full potential of your possibilities, and setbacks maintain that adjustment. Without struggle, an artist runs the risk of stagnation, as they go through motions they've already perfected, rather than broadening their exploration. The following is an account of a recent major setback.

August 2007. After starting a new job, I found myself with much more freetime, and begin to ponder ways to make headway with my art career.
I was ready to lay down the groundwork for some longterm opportunities, so I skipped Craigslist and went straight to NYFA (new york foundation for the arts), looking for open calls or juried group shows. These kinds of things often have fees to enter, but sometimes, if I think I might win, I'm tempted to try my luck. Exit Art, a theme-based exhibition venue in Chelsea, was planning an exhibition dealing with brains, and I started thinking.
I have an unfortunate dilemma in my art career that I can't take full responsibility for, but am unable to deny: often times I use dolls.
Yes, that's right, I confess, I'm one of those strange dollparts artists to which the world has already issued countless collective yawns. I don't understand the problem with using dolls as a medium, to me it's like clay to a ceramicist. No one sees a Volkos and freaks out because it's made from mud. I work with what I have; I just like to make art. Circumstances at times put me in possession of hundreds of Barbies, so I use them. People have a strong reaction to work made entirely from dolls, and that can make using them powerful and difficult. I've made lots of artwork using dolls in many different ways, but the fact that the material is dolls has always dominated the viewing experience. It's like starting with stigma, and it can get in the way of letting people see the image. The challenge for me was to find a way to push the material in such a way as that it's attributes could be transformed into an image in which the use of dollparts makes sense to the degree that the connotations do not outweigh the impact. Exit Art's open call for work dealing with brains gave me an idea. I had hunch that with the right treatment, the dolls could become brains. I found some images online and cleared off my workspace. My doll ratio was female heavy, so my first decision was what to do with the 6 or 7 men that I had. I would use them to make the cerebellum, that reptilian part of our brain that dates to ancient times. Somehow the connection of the males to the animalistic, autonomic mechanism made sense. I chopped them up and began putting together a shape.

This was the beginning of August, and my birthday falls on the 8th. I turned 31, went out with close friends, and passed out late on a couch at my apartment. Apparently around 6 am one of my roomates tried to wake me up urgently but I resisted. I have no recollection of this. Apparently a freak storm had materialized, and was tearing a narrow path directly through Brooklyn.

Eventual weather reports would confirm that a tornado had hit. The majority of the destruction was limited to the south part of the borough, and I'm located as north as possible, so by the time it reached me it was just water, horizontally, depositing inches in minutes before streaking out to sea. When I did awake, slightly bleary and with an ache in my head, I saw why my roommate thought I might want to get up. My entire room had been drenched. My windows were wide open and not one thing remained dry. My iBook had so much water in it that I could have filled a pintglass. My portfolio was ruined, and I hadn't backed up my images for over a year. Massive amounts of photographs were simply lost. This was a setback in a world where most submissions require digital images. Happy birthday from God. What could I do?

Suddenly the Brain sculpture took on new significance. I decided that this was a sign to let go, stop trying to do something with artwork from my past, and create a new body of work that could lead to my future. After reading the prospectus a few more times, I opted not to plan on entering it in the Exit Art show. This one I would make for me, as a belated birthday gift to myself. I went to work quickly.

I chose to use 10 gauge steel wire, which is very difficult to cut and bend. It's the same thing they use to make chainlink fences, very durable and heavy.

I began by building a framework that mimicked the actual composition of a brain: bilaterally symmetric, with repetition of elements and orientation.
I drilled holes through the dolls to pass the wire, and I studied images extensively. The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain most associated with our human attributes, was created entirely from females.
Both hemispheres are similar, but not entirely symetrical.
I think I worked for a few weeks.
Eventually it seemed finished.
When I looked at it, I could see the image, but others could not, which led me to my next challenge. I needed to generate a transformation, whereby the first thing people saw when they looked would be a brain, and I realized the best way to accomplish this was to provide context. I went back to Google images, and came up with the following diagram.

I would produce the graceful curve of the spinal column and perch the brain atop it. This is something we all share, the biological machinery of our thoughts and actions. Reduced to the base common denominator, this becomes the human race. By being composed of many bodies the piece would allude to a collective conciousness, units working together, forming greater complexity, and eventual synergy. In the course of creating this I couldn't help but think about sea sponges, assembling from single cell organisms, learning about their environment, evolving, growing a shell and improving it over billions of years, until eventually it's so fancy that it's us, spawned from creativity at its purest potential.

I think about the world and the things that control it, and I wonder why power and intelligence seem so separate. We're all equipped with the same incredible problem-solving devices, yet we all seem to use them differently, if at all. The systems we've created have become so complex that they sometimes seem smarter than ourselves, but that's not possible. Money, time, corporations, and governments do not have brains; we do. That puts us ahead, I'd like to think, if we're smart.

Here's the final piece. It's entitled "Nervous System" and stands 6 feet.

Best Birthday Ever.

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