Tag Archives: Norman Rockwell

Torture – Through the channels

22 Apr

This is a piece specifically created for a book about torture. The idea came from a well known Norman Rockwell painting called Gossip. In Rockwell’s painting, a juicy bit of gossip is spread through a town and eventually the source found and chastised. In my version, the directive to torture is passed through several people and the result is…well, torture. I was interested in the bureaucracy of torture. It has to start somewhere and likely, it was a decision that shocked, thrilled and dismayed different parties. Still, it went forward and still does to this day.

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

Drawing Along The Way

30 Oct

Picasso said that it took him his whole life to learn how to draw like a child. It has taken me 20 years just to learn how to draw like myself.

dogfightoriginal.detailI drew from a young age. Whether it was battle scenes or characters from films, I loved to conjure up things in drawing. I clearly remember having a vivid picture in my head and biding my time until I could go up to my room and get it down on paper. From a brain filled with MAD Magazine and daytime talk shows I was drawing up a cast of original characters from spies to drunks (yes they make an early appearance). I was also taking private lessons with the illustrator Stephen Douglas and getting a supplementary education in drawing and watercolor painting. He was a tremendously positive teacher who treated me like an artist and told my parents that I had a special skill. To this day, I credit him with convincing them to send me to art school (a decision that must have been hard for an IBM analyst). Teachers matter.

Another early influence on my art and character was going to church. Ours is a staunch Catholic and we went to church every Sunday. I initially resisted, mostly upset at the prospect of putting on a tight fitting blue blazer or itchy sweater. Church was usually worth it, though. The theater of a Catholic mass is something to behold and when you are lucky enough to have great priests who can deliver thoughtful homilies, it can be an education in a moral philosophy. Artists are uniquely equipped to separate ideas and visuals they find interesting. At least from my own perspective, I rarely swallow anything whole.  Instead I pick at the parts that appeal to me or bits that I can store for later. I even became an altar boy mostly to be a part of the action, an actor on the stage so to speak. I really enjoyed it. I even told my father one Sunday after mass that I wanted to be a priest. He beamed with joy.

Sitting in the back of class drawing through middle and high school, I realized that my art was much more than a pastime. It was a way of thinking, a more perfect way of thinking for me. I saw it clearly as the road to success. My collections of MAD magazine, superhero comics and my brother’s large format French comics were a great inspiration to my artwork and gave me an idea of how artists can make a living. Fortunately for me, my brother’s comics were mostly by the French artist,Jacques Tardi. Adele et la bete was the one I liked most. Tardi is a master of the bizarre. His exceptional drawings of turn-of-the-century Paris and his cast of goofy police officers, crackpot scientists and, of course the feisty Adele, made for a surrealistic fantasy that was a more inventive departure from reality than normal comics. That appealed to me. I could see early on that American comics fell too easily into the trite mold of the super hero and that the “Marvel way” felt like a style dictate more than a genre. The result was a limited scope for the possibility of original narratives that don’t revolve around super-muscled people who wore leotards. Though I could appreciate the art in these comics, I was more engaged with the unique world that Tardi created. That was a world that felt more like my creative home.

conscience.detailAnother important influence on my artwork was my time spent in Donegal, Ireland. My mother came to New York from Donegal when she was seventeen and lived up state in a convent with her Uncle, the Monsignor of Olean, New York. She was a good student in Ireland and, as was typical in the day, was sent to America to get an education. It is hard to imagine how she must have felt being sent away at that age, taken away from her sister and three brothers to a place she had never been, with an Uncle she hardly knew. It is not a positive immigration story but nevertheless she has lived in US ever since.

Ireland immediately felt like home to me. As anyone with family there knows, the first words out of your relatives is “how long has it been since you were home?” I spent every summer from the age of 7 till about 17 in Ireland. I played all day in the hills chasing animals, playing football and hurling till the sun went down. It was an amazing time to connect with a place and my large extended family. It had a profound effect on my image of myself and it was a place that I grew to love and cherish.

My trips as an adult were sometimes taken with caution. A fear that the place I loved as a kid no longer existed. Fortunately, my beloved Ireland is still a source of inspiration for me. It’s place that is part of my DNA, a place where values family and friendship come first. Expressed that way it sounds ordinary, but it is radical in practice.  A love of life and a love words are truly great cultural exports of that small and diverse island. Though not quantifiable, I like to think that the blend of brashness, mischievousness and lyricism that exists in my best work is a product of my Irish roots.

thirdpoliceman.detailGoing to art school was something I didn’t consider essential to a career in the arts, though I realize now that I was wrong. In 1993 I went to Hartford Art School, mainly for its beautiful the campus and what seemed to be its conventional students and faculty. Even with my interest in all things subversive, I was not interested in a “wacky” art- school experience. I thought of myself as serious, at least when it came to making art. The idea of rubbing elbows with the hair-dyed dopes of suburban America bored me. And pretending to be interested in a humorless nihilistic worldview, was to me the academic equivalent of being water boarded..

Unfortunately, that was largely what I was getting into. Subjected to Barbie dolls in jars of urine, tortured drawings done in the medium of mascara, and tired old professors touting the heyday of the minimalists, I was sleep walking in a visually pointless world. One professor, Pete McLean, an artist for whom I have great respect, talked to us about his experience at Loughborough College of Art in the UK. He mentioned that there was an exchange program available and that I should at least check it out. With his help, I was able to get off the tradittional American art school rails and into something more serious.

Loughborough’s focus on developing a drawing language and a personal vision was just what I needed. They gave me the space and encouragement to put together a way of working that excited me like nothing before. Once, in the early stages of my sketchbook drawing, we were in Amsterdam in a café by a canal. I had a small bound sketchbook with fine cream paper and I was barreling through quick sketches of people outside enjoying their coffee, or bartenders looking out the windows. The drawings were quick and crude but something was emerging. I was learning that the line, especially the gestural line, is intrinsically interesting. I was learning that if we can pay attention to what we naturally do in our drawing, we can capitalize on those strengths and sharpen our vocabulary, not unlike good writers.

In a bar late at night a group of friends and I we were drawing the characters around us which included prostitutes making what looked like house calls. Two middle aged guys said they would buy us beers if we drew their portraits. It seemed innocent at the time. So, they posed and we drew them in profile. I sketched in private and when I was done, carefully ripped the drawing out of the sketchbook. The “client” took one look at my drawing and his face contorted into that of a wounded child. He got his friend who was less riled and they stormed out. I think he felt I was making fun of him. It seems the drawing hit a little too close to home.

cover.nuanceThat was another learning experience. Drawing does matter; it does have power. Years later, in a friend’s drawing, a female model told my friend that she was glad when I left because my drawings made her uncomfotable. Now that is praise! She was right of course. Looking at those drawings, I had clearly brought out some imaginary Weimar-era prostitute in my drawing and given the model a tired, and lipstick smeared face. I was clearly having too much fun!

Though I made many pages of sketches on that Amsterdam trip, none of them were great drawings. In fact many were frankly bad. But I learned that there was magic in the process and I had to explore it further. Contrary to my American art-school teaching, speed in drawing can be as important as slow, deliberate work.

Part 2 coming soon!