Empty Promises

At the bar, I’m looking at a just-installed show of collaborative paintings, wondering aloud to a friend how it can even be possible to let anyone else anywhere near your own canvas. It’s never ever occurred to me to do that. Within that rectangle no one’s hand but mine has ever been allowed so much as a scribble, but up on the walls here are yards and yards clearly worked on in tandem. It’s baffling.

There’s a long tradition in Western painting of art studios run by a master with a bunch of assistants. Sometimes these assistants do all but sign the master’s name but it’s understood that they are carrying out another’s orders and wishes rather than expressing anything of their own. That’s not what I’m looking at in the bar. Here, two artists take turns or build off one another, mark to mark. Like a conversation or simultaneous singing. They must know one another so well to trust each other this way.

I’m sort of doing that too but with earlier versions of myself. Marking up and reconfiguring things I made ten, twenty, thirty-plus years back. I rarely recognize it as anything to do with me, this old shit. But now and then a mark or a word will open up a trapdoor and I’ll fall in for an hour, sometimes a whole day.

It’s that way living in this town too. So many streets are full of landmines and gravestones. I have to swerve around them to avoid getting blown up or worse. It’s probably inevitable if you keep living. Maybe that’s why people like to travel out of town. To get away from the recurring memories.

I don’t really want to escape. I wallow in it. Some days I can see past it, other days, it weighs me down. I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s new Seven Psalms on repeat. It’s about coming to terms or acceptance with his fast-approaching end. I hope when my time comes, I can face it with half as much grace.

My pieces are going up next at the bar. I’m happy the stuff up now is good. It’s not the same as mine but there are connections. A mixed-media collage thing. A sort of graffiti/defacement aspect. I wrote a review for the Reader that should go live sometime this week.

I made a stencil and have been cranking out postcards. I’ll mail some out soon. Maybe you’ll get one. Don’t let the death/destruction talk worry you. I’m in as good a place as I’ve been in awhile. The work is coming together and that’s all that matters to me.

The rest is just icing on the cake and I should be cutting down on desserts…

I don’t recommend this comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus pretending to be a writer but do recommend this play which may or may not be about David Bowie.

Looking forward to my show at Firecat.


One of the happy rediscoveries of painting on the sidewalk and in the alley around my house is how transitory and unstable even the most mundane, unremarkable view can be.

One day the neighbor’s back gate is open so I can see all the way down the gangway between houses to the next street. When I go back out there again, the gate is closed. Roughly a fifth of my painting is what I can see past that closed gate. Do I paint in the wooden slats where the walk and steps were or leave it as is?

Unlike a photograph, a painting always acknowledges and often incorporates the passage of time. There’s no way not to grapple with change if for no other reason than standing outside the light will change from minute to minute. There are artists, of course, who go outside only to gather information for reproducing some ideal picture in their heads. I have nothing in mine so I depend on what comes in through my eyes.

I’m not saying I’m a machine coldly recording and reproducing whatever crosses its path. Hardly. Only that the subject-matter always comes from without rather than within. Once a place is chosen, there are endless choices to make, and each one taken negates dozens of others. I can’t claim any sort of objectivity or impartiality, but if I do my thing right, other people will see something they recognize in my pictures. This is as true with the collages as these plein-air streetscapes.

Aside from the stray dumpster diver, dogwalker, or illegal construction trash dumper, I don’t have many personal interactions in the alley. The people who go there don’t often want to socialize. The alley is about doing business away from prying eyes. Half the people who went past my easel don’t even acknowledge my presence.

The front walk is a different story. The neighbor across the street waves and yells out that my painting looks great, even though he hasn’t seen it. Some dogwalkers will cross the street when they see me out there; others will let their pets sniff around. The guy next door whose yard is filled with bikes he refurbishes and sells always says hello. I don’t know what he thinks of what I’m doing. Whether he thinks about it at all.

Being out there reconnects me with something I didn’t know I missed. Stepping out of my house and trying to catch a bit of what it’s like to live on this street at this time gives me a sense of belonging. It makes me appreciate the roof over my head and even the sun burning my face. Lets me know that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

A talk with Matt Grimm about his quarter-life crisis and with Mallory about Alien.

If you wanna buy one of the recent paintings done around my house, they’re up in my store.

First & Last

I went to the museum the other day and saw some ink paintings that pissed me off. They were from the 60s and 70s but done to make sure even a casual viewer would know they reference traditional Chinese painting. Not awful just mediocre. The kind of stuff that might decorate a therapist’s waiting room. What pissed me off was they were in a world-class museum.

I don’t entertain these thoughts too often because they would stop me from continuing but the crappy ink paintings made me wonder out loud why my work wasn’t in the museum. Who decides what gets in?

Art has been used since forever to make political and economic deals go down easier. The only way I can accept these ink paintings’ place in the museum is as tokens of diplomacy. I don’t know the particulars nor do I want to.

What if some billionaire politician came to me and said I could have a show at the museum to help him promote his slave colony in outer space? Would my ego allow me to refuse? I’ve spent my whole life doing a thing that’s been largely ignored. Now a guy comes and offers me more exposure than I ever dreamed of. Could I say no?

What if I say yes and the exhibition is a success. Can I show my face in the museum after, knowing what the success cost? At this point, I’d welcome such a problem but have no clue what I’d do.

It’s a weird time for museums in general. People are asking about how and why they show what they show in ways they didn’t used to. I read an article about some new museum in Germany filling rooms with looted Chinese art. How can the public get anything out of it, no matter how beautiful it is, knowing how it got there?

I guess I can feel thankful that my anonymity keeps my pictures ethically pure. But does it really? Is that even a thing to aspire to? I’m not making objects of devotion likes Buddhas or Christs. There’s no morality test as part of my creative process. What makes me so sure I’m on a more righteous path than the guy in the museum with his crappy ink paintings?

The thing I thought looking at them is that given those same walls I could fill them better. This may be sour grapes or delusion but I don’t think so. The result of a long and deep engagement with a thing gives a person the right to discern good from bad in a pretty unilateral way. You get to know a thing from the inside. How it was made, what it took, and you can judge it at a glance. This doesn’t mean anyone else will agree or even listen. It’s not like I can take my certainties to the curator and she’ll throw these paintings in the dumpster out back like she should.

I’m busy taking out my own trash. I hauled a bunch of art-school-era paintings and drawings from my parents’ basement back to Chicago. I’m trying to breathe some life into them. It’s weird to look at this stuff after thirty-plus years. Some are no better than the thrift-store castoffs I salvage for frames; others have a few square inches worth keeping, surrounded by yards of dead space. A few contain history that’s best rubbed out and forgotten.

They aren’t bound for the Art Institute. Not right away anyhow. They’ll hang in a bar and the front of a frame shop this summer and my conscience can stay clear and clean. Few people will question whether they belong on those walls except painters even lower down the food chain. They’ll look and wonder why my work is up instead of theirs like I wonder about the ink painting guy in the museum. It’s an endless cycle.

I’ll hope that somebody likes a few of them and takes them home so I don’t have to bring them back here.

Listen to a talk in Russian with my father.

RIP Sam Gross.