I’ve always been aware of the preconception that people who choose to be artists are, well, not quite normal. However, I got a chance to judge this for myself when I visited artists in their studios in Manhattan and Brooklyn along with my drawing class. The trip seemed like a good deal, especially since my teacher mentioned that the day would end with free food in her own studio. I enjoy food.
The first artist we visited is fairly well-known: Kim Jones. Of course I managed to miss the Princeton Junction train and was forty minutes late to his speech. After I finished stammering out my apologies, I lifted my eyes and was instantly drawn to his works hanging on the wall of the cozy studio space. Jones uses a variety of materials to create his images. One appeared to have begun as a photo of himself smoking a cigar and wearing a sculpture of wood and mud. This photo was then partially painted over with acrylic paints, creating a new landscape, and then defined with ballpoint pen. In this way, Jones shows his wide mastery of art media including sculpture, photography, painting, and drawing. It seems he can make anything into a work of art – even the toy truck encased in a silk stocking under the table is a “work in progress.”
Both the subjects and technique of his drawings are captivating. Many feature a pattern he painstakingly draws with tiny units of squares. These units are his war drawings – they reflect back on his experiences as a marine during the Vietnam War. In his drawings of people, he often exaggerates the figure’s features until they become expressive caricatures. He also sometimes incorporates several images into one work which can become completely different scenes when looked at in different ways.
The effort that goes into Jones’s work is amazing. He offhandedly mentions that he covered an entire room in his detailed war drawings for an exhibit, even though the walls were painted over only a few months later. In his younger days he believed that sculptures needed kinetic energy, so he covered himself in a structure of mud and sticks and walked through Los Angeles for 18 miles as this living sculpture. All of his various “performances” testify to his complete dedication to his artwork.
The next stop was a backstage visit to the Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn. This small gallery exudes friendliness. Art patrons are welcome to walk in, don a pair of white gloves, and flip through various works for sale by artists. The homey feel was especially present during our visit as the gallery owners were in a last-minute scramble to ready the gallery for an opening that night. (Who said procrastination ends after college?) As our teachers showed us around the gallery, people were everywhere drilling holes for photos and tidying up. Even Lucky, the blind gallery dog, seemed aware of the energy, barking and whining at random intervals.
After browsing through the art, we were off on a long walk to the studio of Geoffrey Chadsey. We walked right by it at first – there was no indication that the brick building, coated and re-coated with graffiti, was an art studio. Geoffrey, who exuded a vibe more grad-student than nearly forty-year-old working artist, led us up the stairs, apologizing for the aroma of the feral cats upstairs. The corridor to the studio was dark with raw wooden slabs covering the floors, so the brightly-lit studio with large colorful drawings on the wall came as a surprise. Multi-colored gender-neutral figures that looked strangely familiar covered the walls. Geoffrey’s work, like much of New York, is a mix of hip-hop and gay culture. Celebrities from Jay-Z with flowing locks to George Washington in a Speedo became recognizable. He works by combining images from the Internet and skewing them. For example, he might take that picture of you and your drunk friends trashing a hotel room, turn your female friends into male, put your male friends into strutting diva poses, and add some of Snoop Dogg’s facial features. He draws his final image with lots of little lines (picture a topographic map) in watercolor pencil. He then paints water over these lines to give the work a painterly effect. Voilà.
After speaking about the techniques he used, Chadsey began asking us questions about our own experiences at Princeton – including the somewhat sensitive topic of whether we felt we had to defend our interest in art. He himself was a Harvard undergrad, and often felt stigmatized or embarrassed by his decision to become a fine artist.
If we had any lurking doubts of the validity of an academic entering the Fine Arts, they were extinguished by the next studio visit. The journey to Phong Bui’s studio was like traversing a canyon and climbing a mountain to meet the Shaman meditating at the summit. The small, energetic Vietnamese man who answered the door shook each of our hands, found us seats, offered us coffee, and informed us that anyone who used the bathroom was required to read at least one poem from his collection of poetry books while on the throne.
Phong Bui’s stature was misleading – he contained enough knowledge on the tip of his tongue to overwhelm any Princetonian. One simple question – “Why did you begin The Brooklyn Rail? – prompted a forty-minute evaluation of trends in art and how they have impacted our perception of the world since the 1920s. He made constant references to things and people at which we could only nod our heads and pretend to be familiar with. He had an eternally deep well of wisdom to offer us: “Action is Passion;” “No painter is a true painter without also being a Poet and a Philosopher;” “Don’t be a boring person – you need to associate with all types of people, not just artists;” “You can always sleep later.”
Phong Bui himself only gets four hours of sleep a night. He spends most of his time editing The Brooklyn Rail?, a publication for criticism, opinions, and happenings in the Brooklyn community. How he has managed to put out such a well-put-together paper is beyond me – the paper is free-of-charge, the writers are unpaid, the entire project is funded by a few grants and his own funds, and yet it continues to be one of the most highly-respected publications in the city. His artwork, which he considers a meditative practice, has remained successful despite his focus on The Rail. His works in progress include colorful canvasses with a pattern of symbols reminiscent of little radioactive caterpillars crawling around, left-handed paintings inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, and photograph-like drawings of people for The Rail. His 3-D works range from small mobiles to gigantic installations dealing with color and perspective.
We spent over two hours visiting with Bui before heading over to Dawn Clement’s studio to view her artwork and eat her food. Walking inside felt like walking onto a movie set – detailed drawings of rooms from movies were tacked all over the wall. They were so realistic that it really seemed the room was even bigger than it was – that you could walk right through the walls onto the Titanic.
The free food was… interesting. Sardine, onion, and olive pie, rosemary walnuts, and some sort of dried fruit that tasted like green tea Craisins (if those existed) were among the selection. After a day of having my brain completely twisted by the artists, I chose to gorge myself on the hideously conventional brownies. I can’t say I came to a judgment about the character of artists – it’s something that escapes definition. However, I can say that unlike some of the accepted and heralded nine-to-fivers, they seem to have discovered something in their work that keeps them alive and interesting.