New Painting: To Whom do We Owe Utopia?


To Whom do We Owe Utopia?, Oil on Panel, 24 x 36 in., 2016

A new large work has been completed, a 24 x 36 in. landscape depicting a crumbling utopia with clouds, mountains, stones, and other natural elements. Below is my philosophical defense of the picture. If you're not into that kind of thing feel free to skip the next paragraph and check out all the painting details and sketchbook drawings below. Also there is a new miniature painting at the end of the post.

This image and title were generated from my studies of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was critical of the fundamental promises of capitalism. Largely that each generation would be more prosperous than the previous eventually leading a perfect society (Utopia). For me the interjection of environmental destruction (by way of industry) adds an interesting element in which to think Benjamin. Climate change, for example, is a problem that he could not have conceived of in early and mid-century Europe. While my image appears at first bucolic, a peaceful and ideal scene of nature, there is much amiss within the tableau. The clouds, for example, are amalgamated from associated press photographs of Colorado wildfires. Additionally, the arrangement of stones throughout the composition closely mimic the ruins of ancient cities. The architecture of ancient Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and contemporary cities like Washington D.C. are built of stone as a signal of their status as permanent and eternal. While Benjamin (or Foucault, for that matter) were aware of the nature of civilizations to rise and fall, contemporary viewers have a much more definitive view of eschatology (the end of things) through science. Climate change may provide imminent destruction (the ozone hole got us real close as well), but we also have other events which we are aware Earth cannot survive. The sun will burn out in five billion years, and in half that time the Milky Way will collide with our nearest neighbor, Andromeda. Through these visual and verbal cues my painting could be read as a Benjaminian critique of utopia updated for the tumultuous present. Benjamin's critique of capitalism is also related to relativity, the idea that time does not move in a strait line (event after event after event). Science has already accepted relativity as fact, but history and art history continue to embrace discursive frameworks. They tell stories, albeit very long ones, about the human world. This is why I've come to favor geologic time with its awesome patience and indifference to human events. Its likely also the reason I like painting so much. The picture both freezes and animates time, and creates a placeless place: what Foucault called the utopia by proximity. The utopia in my picture looks old, as if utopia has been waiting for us for so long that its starting to fall apart.

The distant mountain borrows forms from architecture. The lower stones mimic Egyptian pyramids while the large central stone resembles a skyscraper. A small ember burns inside the central stone.

Two details of the foreground areas on the lower left and right of the painting. These areas contain flowers, monarchs, caterpillars, and lightening bugs. The lower right hand image shows my monograph carved into a stone along with the date in roman numerals (MMXVI).

To Whom do We Owe Utopia? Preliminary Drawing, Ink on sketchbook pages, 11 x 17 in., 2016

While sketches for this painting date back to 2014 the final composition for this painting is new. After a series of preliminary sketches I produced this final, more elaborate, drawing of the composition. This image is made with a pitt pen across two sketchbook pages (hence the seam). I began my artistic life as a cartoonist and animator and those skills (cross hatching, inking) show up in most of my drawings and preliminary work. The doodles to the right of the drawing experiment with different shapes for stones as well as other elements - though some are absurd. They are also present to balance out the two page spread, as the preliminary sketch is adjusted to the left to retain the aspect ratio of the maple board on which the image was eventually painted.

The Private Miracle, Oil on Panel, 5 x 7 in., 2016

I also painted a miniature this week, above. Its a painting from memory:

Each summer I head to a remote area of Montana to excavate dinosaur bones with the Carthage Institute of Paleontology. The work is hard, most of my time is spent shoveling rocks and dumping them by the bucketload down the side of a mountain. I found myself one evening, exhausted, waiting to use the outhouse. I was zoning out then, staring into a black swath of sky while I waited my turn, thinking only about the prospect of returning to my tent to sleep. Alone there in the dark, in exactly the area where I was staring, a meteor entered the atmosphere. It shot across my cone of vision, bright orange, and then broke into four pieces which streaked across the sky and then winked out of existence. Shaken from my exhaustion and indifference, I gasped. I have seen meteors before but this was an exceptional meteor, the most impressive one I had ever seen. In addition to the visual experience it occurred to me that the likelihood that anyone else had also witnessed the meteor was very low. The nearest town, Ekalaka, contains less than 350 people, and I was a considerable distance from there, with all of my paleontological cohorts inside. This was a private miracle presented to me and me alone, dispatched from the cosmic furnace which births the energies that animate our world. My painting of the event is a much less significant gesture, just a tiny gravestone for the death of a moment.


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