Drawing Along The Way – Part 2

31 Oct

After my first year at Loughborough professor, Mario Minichiello, invited me to stay on, and I happily stayed there till I finished my degree. The second year of the degree course I was at a crossroads with my work. I had experimented in oil painting, pastel, water color and a variety of drawing media. I was not wasting my time noodling but fully exploring each medium.

abughraib.detailAt the end of the second year, Mario had us get all of our work out of our desk drawers. We figured we would be taking it all home with us. Instead a couple orderlies rolled in some big trash bins and we were told to throw all of our drawings into them. This was tough, of course, but we immediately knew what was going on. Our third and final year was to be devoted to the best possible work we could produce, and it needed to be started fresh, from a point beyond all of our previous work.

In 1997 I graduated from Loughborough College of Art and Design in the UK and moved to London. There I struggled–like all art graduates–lugging around my portfolio to every newspaper and magazine my roommates and I were able find. I’ll never forget flipping the large binder of original work across desks filled with half-full cups of tea and even ash trays! It was a great experience and I was actually making some headway. My work was a curiosity to art directors, some of whom gave me good advice. The art director at The Times told me my work was teetering on the threshold of true grotesque. He told me if I wanted to make great art I needed to dive deeper into the muck of human misery (or at least hypocrisy). That was amazing advice for me at the time, but it didn’t hit me how right he was until I left the UK for home in NY. There I found the sublimely grotesque all around me. Right in my own backyard there was a cultural artificiality that I hadn’t previously appreciated, just waiting there for an unflinching and, acute visual investigation. It was the start of a dark but fulfilling ride into the crass and bloated heart of America that was not only a revelation to me, but an important element in my creative education.

apeforcover.detailSketchbook in hand, I witnessed some amazing things in my ten years since college in the UK. We Americans tend to idealize the past, thinking it was an idyllic place of treasured memories and safe, comfortable sensations, a home that we someday may get back to. Of course this is folly but, nonetheless, a powerful idea. The volumes of sketchbooks chart an artistic and emotional journey, ultimately in search of a sense of home–as in home country, home town, home cooking–the home that I thought I knew. I can see how Michael Moore could be drawn back to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, the origin of his world view.

As an artist involved in exploring the extremes of contemporary American culture and politics, it would be easy to assume that I have little affection for my homeland. This is not true. On the contrary, I, like most Americans, believe in the ideal America that exists in our own minds. It’s a place that enables every American to be who they want to be and believe what they want to believe.

corporateinvestigators.detaThe paradox of America is that it is both the land of opportunity that exists in the collective unconscious and, a place that will seduce your hopes and dreams into a life you can’t afford. We are a bi-polar nation. This provides rich material for the artist , who walks the line between the real and imaginary. It is as if on one side of the coin we have Walt Disney and on the other we have Dick Cheney. I am often reminded of Norman Rockwell, an artist who could easily be dismissed as idealistic and naïve until, upon close inspection, you can see that the world he was creating was wholly imaginary. He chose the snow-globe version of America. I am buying the naked-lady mud flaps at Americas gift store. As an old professor once said to me, “You are like Norman Rockwell on acid.” Let’s hope it’s a good trip.    

Self definition is tricky for an artist especially in the 21st century. It is easier to just call myself an artist instead of rolling out illustrator, etcher, designer, animator and educator. I often think the best description would be draftsman because at bottom all the work is drawing. The most fulfilling —and most difficult–medium is animation. It is performance combined with drawing and, most significantly, it requires an immense amount of organization and planning. What I have learned from animation, is that all serious art is performance. After all, the composition on a zinc plate or even a piece of paper, is only as effective as the crystallized moment that is being represented. This is especially true in figurative work but applies equally to abstract work. An increased awareness of the performance factor has greatly improved my etchings. I now seek a kind of ecstatic expression in my work that I had previously understood as a mere component, and not the crux of serious work. My first animation Cakeaters was directly inspired by an etching of the same name. I imagined a world of an affluent future where people would subsist on cake, drooling over public executions, revelling in firearms, and drinking themselves into stupors. In the darkest days of the Bush administration, it felt right around the corner. My next animation is considerably lighter in tone but still reveals some strange currents in American society.

As an artist and illustrator, process has always been important to me. Before using printmaking techniques, I loved developing ideas, doing visual and contextual research and countless sketches to get the right composition and character expression. This process sometimes comes easy, but more often it’s fraught with second guessing and a lack of the chemistry. A more fully formed idea makes this process a dream. Often, if I am hitting the copper or zinc with a strong idea, I will even forego any visual references beyond my own clear idea for the print. A mixture of my own memory and sketchbook drawings are usually sufficient reference for a successful piece.

cityscapeoutsideapartmentSeen from the point of view of an etcher, process has become even more significant. Not only are there the added steps of applying ground and dealing with the plates, but the precious expense of working with zinc or copper adds another element. Paper is relatively cheap and although one always likes to avoid diving in blindly, working with copper or zinc demands a plan. Mistakes are expensive. This has improved my work. The pain of printmaking–I mean that in the best sense–is a powerful motivator for producing worthwhile work. Even with plates that I would consider less important, there is always the demand of the medium which was, after all, that of Dürer, Goya and Picasso. I can’t help but think of the history of the technique, what it demands from me, and what it does for my drawing.

There is of course the acid, the crucial ingredient that makes it all happen. I have often thought how fitting it is that my vitriolic work is forged in an acid that could just as easily burn my hand to the bone . Forget rock n’ roll, printmaking is a dance with chemicals that are far stronger than anything Keith Richards ever plugged into his body. A printmaker friend of mine used to dip his finger into the acid to test the strength. That is ill advised but I could understand the strange desire to connect with the magical acid that makes etching worth every ruined pair of jeans and every slightly worrying headache after a long day’s exposure to solvents.

Choosing etching as a medium for illustration is doubly painful. As a chronically underpaid illustrator, it is all the more ridiculous to make work in a manner that further thins the pay per hour ratio. Or is it? Do we have any choice if we are to be honest with ourselves and the best practices for our own artwork? I don’t think so and I have found some interesting outgrowths of my illustration work in etching. I am getting more comfortable as a printmaker and that has strengthened my personal work and given it a wider audience through exhibitions and publishing online and in print.

My work can be seen at www.louisnetter.com. My blog is at www.lifestooshortfornuance.com. My animation can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOZwa0th5q8

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