Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lewis Watts: a Photographic Artist and a Gentleman

The world needs photographers.  There are plenty of cameras, but that doesn't mean nothin'.  Making a photograph that matters to the general public is not an easy task, not by any measure.  What does a photograph need in order to live its own life?  The answer is simple: it has to have come from someone who dedicated vital time and energy to doing the work of a photographer.  It has to find its way into people’s minds and hearts.  This work divides into categories.  First of all, like William Blake's vision of art, it is a mixture of intellectual and manual labor, a marriage of heaven and hell.  Photography, like most art, requires the harmony between mind and body.  I’ll call this first work the achievement of balance.

It isn’t just a balance of mental and manual labor, though.  It requires an emotional, energetic, and spiritual equilibrium.  Making great photographs is not an easy task.  You gotta come wit’ it.  You have to have style and substance.  You have to show up with more than a camera.  You have to have heart.
You have possess the stamina to be in the right place at the right time whether that means traveling to Cuba during your time off, or staying up late to meet someone for a drink during a workday when you're down to your last dollar.  The photographer is like a private investigator.  You have to follow leads and make appointments.  It’s a rough gig, and the rewards are minimal.  It is no lifestyle for the timid.  You have to have confidence.  You have to believe in yourself in a world full of people who are quick to offer wooden nickels when you're handing them gold.  

The photographer is an explorer and embodies one of our most primary desires as humans.  The will to know, the will to see for one’s self what the world is like, drives this particular activity to its ends. 
I met Lewis Watts for a beer last week and had the chance to catch up with him a bit.  Since I last wrote about his work, he's made some major changes, including: working in Cuba, working with color, and working on a new book.  I’m excited to see his latest work, which he plans to exhibit again sometime early next year in the Bay Area at a location to be determined.  He also has a book soon to be released through UC Press, and will be traveling to Paris to promote it.  

Luckily for me,  Lewis Watts grabbed my camera and snapped this portrait.

I’ll be checking back in with Lewis Watts, soon!  He’s definitely a favorite artist, and I can’t wait to see his latest work.  In the meantime, you can look at some of his images online, here: http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/watts/pages/noalbum1.html

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Marciano Cruz: AKA "Chango"

            When I visited Marciano Cruz (nicknamed Chango) last weekend in Pleasure Point it was clear to me that art is an important part of his life.  He has a quiver of hand painted boards, and his living room is full of art with paintings and ink drawings on the walls.  We took a few quick photos, finding good spots of light, and then some friends came by to look at his art.  That was great because it gave me the chance to get some candid shots of Chango interacting with them.

            Chango seems to be motivated by three things: people, art, and surfing.  The surf was good while we were talking, so I wanted to keep our interview brief.  I see Marciano all the time at our local coffee shop, so I was in no particular hurry to get the whole story.  Getting to know people through interviewing them is an interesting process and it takes time.   The more time you have, the better, because it gives you the ability to be surprised.  
            This was the case when, after his friends took off, Chango pulled out a folder full of envelopes.  These were some of Cruz’s first drawings, rendered in black ballpoint ink, but done while serving time.  Incarcerated, Chango had been drawing birds and writing about dreaming as a way of willing himself toward freedom.  The progression and consistency in Chango’s work, along with his surfing, are inspiring as expressions of his eventual success. 

            It was cool to see a lot of the same imagery that appears in his paintings also done in black and white with ink.  Cruz’s art is labor-intensive it takes a lot of time to finish a piece. This relation to time, spending hours to make something valuable with inexpensive materials (a piece of paper and a ball point pen), is evidence of the transformative power of art.  Using the alchemy of art, Chango turns time into something valuable with lasting power.

            I met Chango a few days later at the coffee shop and conducted our interview.  It was kind of unconventional, though, because before I could ask him a bunch of questions on my list, he gave me the answer.  I guess it’s kind of appropriate considering some of the topics we covered, including: faith, the Mayan calendar, and prophecy.  

Chango: The Virgen de Guadelupe is important to me.  She always gives to us this time of year.  She’s our Mary; she’s our mother and we call her Lupe.  A couple of weeks ago, a woman from Mexico City had a daughter who was sick, but she had no money for medicine, so she walked to see the Virgen, where there was a shrine decorating her appearance somewhere in the jungles of Oaxaca.  It’s twelve hours by car from the capital to this place.  When she got there, though, her daughter miraculously recovered, and in the stroller there had appeared the image of the Virgen.  

Jake J. Thomas:  What ‘s the subject of your latest work?  What are some of symbols that are important to you and why?  (Turns out, it’s a black and white drawing of the Virgen, which I already knew, but you didn’t.  I was asking the question for you.  See how he anticipated my inquiry?  That’s not quite where he started, though.  Let me go back to the beginning… Chango had received a call, and when he got off the phone he was talking about an event he’s planning.)

Chango: I’m organizing the 20th anniversary Posada for this December 16-23rd, but there’s no budget for it this year, so I’m looking for donors.  We’re hoping to have Aztec dancers perform along with drummers to commemorate the last day of the calendar, the 21st of December.  We’re also trying to collect toys for single-parent moms.  It’s going to be tough to pull it all together, but the reward for helping other people is that you gain knowledge and understanding of others’ struggles, which is necessary in order to understand the world.
     We’re waiting for the appearance of Quetzcoatl, a goddess bringing knowledge, in the form of a serpent that will reveal the truth about how we are recycling through time.  There’s going to be a lot of chaos and fear if people don’t work to understand each other.  It’s all there in the calendar: tsunamis, the wars we’ve had, the ice disappearing.  Some people are busy preparing, too.  But, we’re trying to help out around the holidays.  The Virgen is important to me.

(It’s key, when you have an interesting subject, to get out of the way in order to let their material breathe.  At the same time, you need to assert yourself a little bit, or it wouldn’t be much of an interview.  So, next, I partly gained control of the interview, for a moment, and asked him a question before he could answer it in advance.)

Jake J. Thomas:  Why do you like to work with ballpoint pen and paper?  (Ok, it’s not rocket science.  Still, I wanted to know.  I wanted to share that information with you.)

Chango:  I like the fine line.  I learned it inside.  The best painters in the whole world are inside.  I like the hatch, the intense mind-hit.  Your mind and hand have to work together perfectly.  It takes a lot of time, though, and it’s hard to finish a piece.  

Jake J. Thomas:  What influence has surfing and the ocean had on your work?  (Ok, that was a decent question.)

Chango:  I had a view of the ocean from San Quentin.  I remember just before 4pm each day a ship coming from Alcatraz would pass by, and I always dreamed about getting out and being out there.  The ocean heals and cures you.
     The ocean is scary, too, though.  You have to treat the waves with respect.  I have a great curiosity, and the ocean is a mystery.  I think that, the ocean and I, we have something going on together.  The sections always seem to be good to me.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Neon Dreams: Robbie Schoen and the Felix Kulpa Gallery

Robbie Schoen is a true American artist, for better and for worse.  How many people are there in this country that have devoted their vital energies as entirely to art as the guy who’s responsible for keeping the Kulpa alive?  That’s the thing: not only is Schoen an artist, but he’s also the Creative Director for one of the coolest galleries in Santa Cruz, if not in all of California.  Part Marcel Duchamp, part Alfred Stieglitz--Robbie Schoen has been a critical piece of the thriving art scene, here in Santa Cruz, for most of the last decade.

He deserves some credit for having achieved and for maintaining this dynamic dichotomy.  Those things don’t go easily together.  Duchamp’s indifference gave him an edge that he used to challenge assumed notions about art.  Along with the technique of using found objects, Schoen carries this Duchampian spirit close to his core.  Never quite nihilist, his indifference is Schoen’s response to the public’s reluctance to support difficult art.  While this might help the artist to weather rough conditions, it’s not the most useful trait for someone operating a gallery.

For that task, Schoen has to have qualities more aligned with Alfred Stieglitz, who ran one of the most important modern art galleries in New York during the first couple decades of the 20th century.  Stieglitz also managed two other important galleries that started the career of many a famous artist, including Georgia O’Keefe.  Here in Santa Cruz, Robbie Schoen performs a similar task but in a place with scanter resources for art.  Santa Cruz may be one of the best places in our country to make art, but it’s not an easy place to run a gallery.  It requires Stieglitz-like stoicism to stick with it when there’s so little promise of reward.  It’s because he believes in the work, his own and others, that Robbie perseveres.

This combination (Duchamp and Stieglitz) is already very rare, but there’s still another important dimension to Schoen that shows up in both his personal work and in the shows that he exhibits at the gallery.  Schoen has a pop-art sensibility that makes his work accessible along the lines of Andy Warhol but with a witty sense of humor that celebrates absurdity like some of our best stand-up comics.  Duchamp presented a signed urinal as a work of art and this act introduced the ready-made (later morphing into found-object) as a technique, but while it expanded the discourse of art, it also alienated large portions of the public.  Schoen’s work, like the phone-booth fountain, builds off of the tradition initiated by Duchamp, but also gives the audience something fun to think about and to look at, like the sculptures of Claes Oldenberg.

Next at the Felix Kulpa, Robbie Schoen is showin’ one of his favorite artists and one of his favorite media: Brian Colmeman’s neon art.  This is the gallery’s third annual neon show, and Schoen is excited.  When I talked to him about the work he said it was fuhfreakin’nominal.  So, if you want to see for yourself what this dynamic dude is up to, then you should check out the new show, opening the day after Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lode Street Studios: Jake J. Thomas

            My name is Jake J. Thomas and I’m starting this blog to show you the real deal when it comes to rad art.  Why am I qualified to rip this task to shreds like a rat making bedding from a napkin?  Good question.  There’re the degrees, sure, and they authorize my expertise, but that’s wacked.  Knowing I obtained my Ph.D. in Literature from UCSC and that I did a B.F.A. in painting at Lewis and Clark will impress you, sure, but is it reason enough to read my blog?  Yes.  It is.  Still, there’s more.  Much more.  Listen to the music and look at the magic.  That’s all I have to say, but I’m going to say it a thousand and one ways, again and again.
           Let me state it simply; art saved my life and there’s a good chance it's saved yours, too. I'm thinking of doing a series of of stories about a character named Art who goes around saving lives because it’s so fucking true to say that art saves lives. The thing is: your life has to be saved over and over again—not just once. It’s a good thing that art’s fully up for the challenge, huh? What a trip: art. It manifests a secular belief in some form of reason or purpose behind our intelligence and feelings. That’s one way describing its effects, anyhow. I'm not going to try and limit what you consider to be valid as art. Instead, I plan to write about stuff I find to be rad and try to explain why it’s meaningful to me.
              Why do I think we need to be saved?  Why do I think art should be celebrated?  Where do these questions come from?  Valid and intriguing, there are always inquiries surrounding every supposition.  The second you make a claim about art you are encountered by doubts.   At least I find myself in such a besieged position but I cruise through the voids like I was floating across dark asphalt on a skateboard, because I have practice working with uncertainty.  I'm comfortable with paradoxes.  Art saves lives, but, ironically, access to the experience of art almost always has to be defended and justified, because it’s not yet part of most people's daily lives, therefore it's value is not widely understood.
            One defining thing about art, the kind that I consider to be rad, is that you have to experience it in person.  The necessity of proximity makes the task of the rad art blogger more challenging, but the value of seeing artworks in person is hard to overstate.  Seeing art is an experience, and it has a different time-span than other forms of culture.  Reading a book is a process that has a more linear and flexible timeline to it.  Sure, you might skip around and read some parts more than once, but generally you read a book from start to finish.  How long are you supposed to look at a series of photographs?  How do you know when you are finished?
            The openness of art is one of its strengths, but it can be a limitation, too.  All too often the task of interpreting the work is left entirely to the viewer.  Without enough guidance given through structure, however, the public can be alienated by this seeming emptiness.  Minimalism can easily be mistaken for laziness just like expressionism can look like madness.  How do we consider art within a context that allows for the value of the work to be realized?  Well, this blog is one modest attempt to bring art into a discourse that is discerning and energizing.
            I started this blog with a series of self-portraits not because I’m overly concerned with my looks.  Narcissism wouldn’t be a great reason.  No, vanity has little to do with it.  I wanted to give you an image of me so that you can imagine where I’m coming from.  I’m 36 years old.  I live with my dog in a house just off of 26th Ave. with three amazing women as housemates.  I go get coffee in the morning just a few blocks away.  I live surrounded by surfers and in the heart of one of the world’s surf capitals.  I don’t surf, yet, because I've been busy learning my craft as an artist and writer.  I’ve always seen surfing and skateboarding more as an art than a sport, though, so it’s definitely a goal to cover some of the rad and expressive action arts happening around these parts.  If I can find the scrilla to get a board and a winter suit, then I’m planning on getting myself into the water soon, too.
            You should follow my blog if you appreciate great writing and photography about art.  I’m going to try and post once a week, on Wednesdays, so keep checking back and let me know what you think.