Bitter Sweet

The candy-man inspected the work I had just placed on the easel, hands clasped behind his back. I opted to begin the private viewing with work from my ‘Scapes series; a body of work less descript than my other paintings in terms of content and more focused on energy and color.

He spent a few moments examining the work along with my friend who brought him in hopes of turning me on to a new collector. “Lobby art,” he flatly commented.

There was a time when I would have thanked him for coming and promptly asked him to leave, but I held my tongue. He took a step closer to the painting, head moving from side to side as he scanned the horizontal format of the work.

“Are those letters in there?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, “just part of the application of paint. I’ve developed my brushstroke technique to a point of rhythm where a sort of language is emerging.”

He remained fixed on the work with no acknowledgement of my reply, leaving me wondering if he even heard anything I had just said.

“Do you like sushi?” he asked suddenly.

“Excuse me?” my brow raised at the absurdity of his question.

“Because I think I see it written right here,” he said pointing to an area in the left portion of the sky. Indeed, I could see an “S” shaped brush stroke, but thought it was a reach to spell out the rest of the word. It was certainly never my intention and I couldn’t get over the fact that he would really think I would put subliminal advertising for fish into my work. I was beginning to think the candy-man was trying desperately to hit upon some gold nugget of knowledge to stroke his ego, but he was reaching too far and his commentary was awkward at best.

I bit my lip and remained silent. He continued to grasp for details, occasionally making comments to my friend as I accelerated the rotation of works to put our forced meeting to an end, fully aware he didn’t much care for my art. All the while, he continued making vain attempts to guess the motives behind my paintings. These were presented not as questions, but through cool assertions as if he had done the work himself. Eventually, he was able to say something complementary about one of my older works.

He was intrigued by the cubist approach in the composition and soon revealed that at one time he had painted. He went on to explain how he had set aside his creative ambitions to pursue his own candy company. It seemed to me, his stifled creativity was coming out in the form of criticizing others. Once I realized that, I began engaging him through his perceptions of art and sure enough, he softened up a little. By the time he left, I felt we had reached a common denominator, though I knew this mutual appreciation would never result in a sale… and I was fine with that.

What's In A Name: Part III

I take into account each element that goes into my paintings, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Sometimes, however, even after careful consideration, it can be difficult to anticipate the impact of a single brushstroke, let alone a signature. I hadn’t really thought about any of this until recently, when it was brought to my attention at a recent event.

Speaking to an audience of thirty-three, I felt confident as the subject matter expert of my own artwork which was displayed around us in the gallery. As I conducted the presentation, several members of the group let it be known they were also artists, or at least dabbled in the arts enough to bring up interesting topics for discussion.

One of the first questions asked was the difference and similarities between oils and other paints, particularly acrylics. I explained how I favored oils because of their drying and chemical properties in addition to their traditional and historical significance. One woman insisted the two were very similar and proceeded to share her knowledge of how she mixed the two on canvas. I clarified that acrylics should be applied first. Mixing the two in any other way causes the paint to warp or flake off entirely, due to the respective drying and chemical properties of each medium.

I continued my presentation, describing my approach to painting. At one point, I explained that I employ all six hues in my work. The woman was perplexed by this and stated there were far more colors than that. I replied that I was referring to the major colors of the spectrum.

When the presentation was over, the group dispersed to privately view the exhibition. I was talking with a friend when my new artist friend approached us.

“Your paintings disturb me,” she interrupted.

I asked her why that was, as the majority of the work shown was from my most recent Interludes Series, depicting solitary musical instruments. I couldn’t imagine what would be so disturbing about them.

“Your signature is too prominent. It gets in the way and destroys the illusion. It ruins the composition and frankly, I don’t like it at all.”

I was stunned by the comment. My signage had made an impact, as she truly appeared upset, but there was little I could do other than hear her out with a smile.

“You are supposed to sign your work on the back of the canvas- never on the front! When artists signed their name on the front, they’d find a rock or some clever place where you can barely see it.”

Really? I thought to myself. Maybe I should just put rocks in all of my paintings. I wanted to find a rock at that very moment… to hide under. What about Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, let alone my instruction back in art school? Though I understood where she was coming from, I found her argument to be a little slanted.

I thanked her for her point of view before she walked away, and continued to discuss the matter further with my friend. Frankly, the whole exchange bothered me. It certainly has never been my intention to allow my signature to detract from the painting itself. My friend brought up an interesting point that really made sense to me. She said I should let my style become my signature. After spending some time since then considering her point of view, in addition to everything else discussed in this blog series, I have come up with a new way to sign my work that I believe successfully integrates this concept with an actual signature on my canvasses. Feel free to ask me about it next time you see me.

On a side note, after the event ended, the group invited me to lunch with them. As luck would have it, my new critic was the only ride available to the restaurant. Once we finished lunch, the group dispersed to head home with their rides. I looked around for mine, but could not find her. I walked down the street where we parked the car to find it conspicuously absent. As I walked home that afternoon, I chuckled to myself, thinking my signature had really offended her that much.

What's In A Name: Part II

I must admit, I was a little surprised when I heard the comment, "Oh, you’re the artist who signs his work in different places.” After I was able to push my ego aside and let the words sink in, I began to consider both my motivation for signing paintings the way I do and the impact that ultimately has on my work.

I majored in studio art at Arizona State back in the early nineties. During my time there, I learned a great deal about the fundamentals of art composition, not to mention a plethora of information rounding out the curriculum. As a college student and young artist beginning to seriously consider a career, I allowed the influences of other established artists to serve as a guide for my emerging style. Elements of Picasso, Monet and some of the Bay Area Painters (from the 1940s to the 60s) influenced my use of color, composition, subject matter, and even my signature. While studying and learning from work by my favorite painters, I did not have a difficult time finding their name residing on the front side of any given composition. Though some were more boldly marked than others, all the artists seemed to integrate their name into the design itself, either as a stamp of approval or a cleverly disguised element within the painting.

Recalling the times when I began to consider how this all factored into my work, I remember a particular class where the instructor was speaking specifically about signatures. She told me to find interesting places to put my name and “just go with it”; there didn’t have to be any consistency for placement, just make it interesting. Based on her guidance, in addition to what I had observed through other artists, I began to sign my work in strategic places within the composition, where it was noticeable without being obtrusive.

After I completed college, I returned to Denver and played in a rock band for awhile. My art took a backseat and it wasn’t until a few years later that I began painting again. In reestablishing myself as a visual artist, I felt both my skills and focus had atrophied from my hiatus. Thus, for a while, I opted not to sign any work, going the route of Michelangelo who rarely signed his pieces. This brought about criticism from those who misunderstood my intentions as being ego-driven; as if a twenty-something painter who had never shown his work publicly would think his work to be instantly recognizable without a signature. I was also prodded by those who believed in my work to begin signing it again. They would ask me, “How will somebody know this is a Jared Steinberg if there is no name on it?” Eventually, I realized they were right. After I regained my artistic confidence, I began to add my signature again in the mid-nineties.

Since then, I have continued to find “interesting places” to sign my work, at times fusing my name into a painting so it is barely noticeable while other times allowing it to be more conspicuous, thereby serving a more important role in the composition. The prominence and positioning of my autograph has always been contingent on the painting itself. Sometimes, however, even after careful consideration, it can be difficult to anticipate the impact of a single brushstroke, let alone a full-on signature. I hadn’t really thought about any of this until recently, when it was again brought to my attention at a recent event.

To be continued…

What's In A Name: Part I

The giant row of evergreen trees cast long triangular shadows over us, spilling onto the street, as JQ and I observed from behind the table of our display booth. Being in a Colorado resort town for an art festival was initially a hopeful prospect, but after three days of slow traffic and casual observers, my hope faded with Sunday afternoon’s waning light.

The three-day duration of the festival yielded a trickle of pedestrians milling up and down the street lined with artist tents. Walking in the company of friends and family, the tourists greatly outnumbered serious patrons. Many tended to fixate on a single work or wall of work, with little regard to anything beyond their acute perspective. Some were curious enough to walk into a tent to observe a particular work more closely, while fewer still sought to indulge in a conversation with the artist. The woman selling jewelry across the way from me seemed to be the only exhibitor doing any consistent business while the rest of us interacted with one another, exchanging stories of other shows and sharing various insights about our experience as artists.

JQ and I spent the majority of our time evaluating, rearranging work, and planning for the next event. On the final day of the show, another exhibitor entered into my booth. He observed my work a little before he spoke. He came to inform me of another show coming up, and encouraged me to apply. The conversation meandered into the topic of mutual acquaintances when he suddenly recognized my name.

“Oh, you’re the artist who signs his work in different places,” he said. A little surprised by the comment, I nodded in agreement, as if that was what distinguished me from other painters. After he left, I continued to mull over his remark, not entirely sure how I felt about it. On one hand, it’s nice to be recognized by something distinct; on the other hand, my goal as an artist is to be known for things like uniqueness of style, composition and palette… not a signature. Until that moment, I really hadn’t given much thought to the matter since my college days when I first considered where and how to sign a painting.

To be continued…

Unforeseeable Future

Every year around Mother's Day, I go to the neighborhood plant-nursery to buy flowers for two giant pots I have in the front of my studio. This is my garden and I revel in tending to it, watching it grow, and admiring the colors that burst from its soil like thick brush strokes projecting outward from the canvas. This year has been a challenging one for me. There were too many things going on, preventing me from buying the flowers this spring. Lack of time and money, while obsessing about not having enough of either, kept me away from my annual ritual of the season.

The summer months quickly passed, as they always do, and I was reminded of my situation every day as I stepped outside, on to my patio where I saw brown empty pots, void of any color. But somewhere in the middle of the summer, I saw life had indeed returned to my garden without my help. I am not really sure what is growing in my pots, whether it's a weed or perhaps a flower that managed to germinate on the behalf of an artist open for change, but it doesn't matter. It gave me hope. Furthermore, it clearly illustrated that life doesn't always happen the way you want it to, yet it continues to flourish in wonderful and unexpected ways.

Waiting Game

The good doctor finally turned to one of my newer works. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back; intense focus penetrating the frames of his glasses. I sensed genuine intrigue.

"So this is what you've been working on," he said, with a level of enthusiasm I had long been hoping for.

"Yes." I smiled, attempting to stifle my germinal optimism.

His interest lingered for a moment longer as he paced the length of the wall to view several accompanying pieces from the series. Soon enough, the conversation shifted and we began to discuss other matters which were of little consequence to me. The point was- I finally had his attention.

A "D" POV

Back in highschool, one of my English teachers used to give our class a short list of novels to choose from, for a reading assignment. Upon the due date, he provided us with a quiz tailored to the book we chose. I remember reading My Name Is Asher Lev, a work I rather enjoyed as it is about a young artist coming of age. Though I can't recall the specifics, there was one question from the quiz that asked what symbolism was represented behind a particular passage in the story. I thoughtfully wrote down my interpretation along with my other answers and handed in the quiz.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I got the quiz back and looked at the top of the paper to see a rather large, red D glaring at me. As I skimmed over my answers to find where I had gone so completely wrong, I came upon the aforementioned question of symbolism, to which another question was scribbled in the margin of the page- "Did you even read this book?" The incredulous words sent a surge of pins and needles up my spine. I felt like I was living on another planet, where the language abruptly changed and the new one was only known by some secret society which I was clearly not a part of. Hurt and angered by the remark, I thought to myself, "How dare he question me for having read the book, simply because I did not interpret it the same way he did!" Afterall, my experiences were my own and thus shaped my understanding of what I had read.

When people look at my art work, they often want to know the meaning behind it. When asked in the past, I would unhesitatingly offer my point of view, but I never felt completely comfortable in doing so. My paintings are narrative pieces using colors and symbols to tell a story, instead of words; it is a different, personal language. These days, I find myself less inclined to readily offer an answer regarding my art. I believe if my work cannot be understood the way I intended, I don't want to ruin somebody else's imagery with my answer (as I felt when I got the quiz back). Even more, I want people to spend time with my paintings, returning to the work because they are intrigued and compelled to further contemplate it. If you are willing to take the time to look at my art, you'll be rewarded with something you hadn't noticed before, either through color or perhaps an obscured detail, but not necessarily through words. And I promise I'll never give anyone a D for deriving their own meaning.