#178 (from 2013) reworked.

#178 reworked Ox stucco

24×18″ Flakes of stucco from the Ox, acrylic on back of a Draino Sign.
Moving pieces around until they seem to slide into place. Three years ago.

The best scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: making that mashed potato mountain on the living room floor. You know there’s something there but have no idea what it is, and no single piece will ever bring it forth, whole and shining with afterbirth. You have to keep doing it. Over and over. Nursing the symptom.

Something had been troubling me–for a few weeks now. I wrote a piece in that mood, posted it… than deleted it (copied and pasted it below). Too raw. To close. I felt flayed. Looking at #417, I began to get it (See what I wrote on that post) –an insight…. a better understanding of what I’m doing when I’m making art.

What follows, is what I posted and deleted.

I may take this down by morning. I’m weaning myself from FaceBook, so this might be the kinda shit I’d post late late at night exhausted mind weary before giving up on the day and surrendering to inebriate dreams.

Though WordPress will post it on FB. Don’t matter. I ain’t there.

I make no pretense, claiming that my obsession with making art is healthy–least of all for me. Like the walking dead say… it is what it is.

I feel a need to link up with others so afflicted. Hard to find. Lotta peeps make art. The more the better! I’m not looking to throw sandbags around some privileged status! But not all who do… are like 19th C. obsessed. Have.. as good as traded their souls for it.

Oh yeah. I did. I gave it up–whatever that was, that soul thing. I said–you can have it. Let me make art. That’s all I want. Sometimes I hear this weird echo laughter… like.. but I’m doing it.

I have no idea what it means to anyone but myself. Whether it’s good or bad–or what good or bad could possibly mean in our time.. when we have no “posterity” to fall back on… living, as we do, at the edge of human self-extinction.

I’d like to think that what I do might lend itself to imagining a better world. But poets are probly better equipped for that–having words at their disposal. Ideas.

I just…like… see stuff. In my dreams. Play with things. Real things. Pieces of trash… arrange them. Or colors, lines. Maybe they look like stuff you see in your world… mostly, probly not.

Useless. I mean… the LAST thing I want, is to be USEFUL in this bloody horrid corporate fascist world! but it does leave me… feeling useless.

I’d like to live in a world where… there was a place for what I do.. for what I have become. I’d like to be able to make that better world visible. But you can’t “intend” that. It has to come from one’s engagement with the world. If you are. It will emerge in your art. Anything you “intend” will only show what already ‘is.’ To body forth what will … what might be… one can only let go.. .and let it happen.

I did… I made this deal with the devil, like I said. You want to be healthy, happy–or make art? If that’s the choice–which will it be? No hesitation. I want to make art. I always have.

Ok, said the devil. Have at it!

Like my mother said. One should always listen to one’s mother.

“Don’t be an artist. Artists are the most selfish people on earth. But if you are… an artist. There’s no hope for you. There’s nothing else you can do.”

Yeah.. .she really did say that to me.

That’s my curse.

and the worst of it… I don’t want to be cured.

I want to reach out to others so cursed… who know themselves damned, as I have been. We could have a lot to talk about.

Moving Forward by Moving Back

Bridge over Outlet Bass Lake

Bridge over the Outlet, Bass Lake

From December 31, 2012: The Ox

Okay–so it’s arbitrary. A change on the calendar that means nothing but what we want it to. But I like these marker times… not the holiday stuff, which makes me feel profoundly alienated, but days where I can check where I’ve come to on the ascending (or descending) spiral… where I… we… all of us, have come to occupy the same space again, a place–which is not the same at all.
Years ago… pretty sure is was Martin Buber (I was in thrall of him in my 20’s), said something to the effect that ones life is never over so long as one has the capacity to begin again. This year I made one of those life change moves… from a little too expensive efficiency at 13th & Morris in South Philly, to an old, unheated warehouse on N. 2nd St… sharing space and life with some 20 others… all many decades younger.

This was like… and has proved in one other profoundly significant way, a move back by moving forward… or the other way around. I lived in a commune from 1966 to 1970. Here I was again.

At that time, I was painting… in oils. Had many hours and courses in art behind me–from children’s classes at the Art Institute in Chicago… where (like the Nelson-Atkins Gallery in Kansas City years later, I was able to wander the halls and bond with the art as a child… with almost adult privileges. Sunday at La Grande Jatte … was like something in my second living room (all the museums in Chicago were like that, thanks to an unmarried Great Aunt who lived nearby).

I gave it up… for 8 years or so, to make pottery. And then… some dumb ass wish to be respectable (?)… merged with a genuine passion for intellectual pursuits… I gave it up.

After moving into the Ox… even before–the first view from the roof, I knew… that with space to work, and tools. I moved quantum leaps forward by moving back.. this time, without the pretensions, the inhibitions of what it meant to make ‘art.’

In June, I walked to New York from Philly with Occupy Guitarmy.. and everything I saw made me want to go back and start putting things together. THINGS. Objects. Street junk. It was an act of pure pleasure. With no sense at all of where this would take me. But I kept doing it. And found that I was .. surprised, startled… by what was happening. What I was making. It began to sink in… that yeah (still hard to use the word)… I was making ‘art’ … and it was, like .. ok. I mean… maybe better than ok

It’s become an obsession. On a day when I make progress on a piece, or finish one, or begin another… I’m happy! I mean… as happy as I’ve ever ever been in my life! And on days when I don’t… ?

So here I am. End of this arbitrary number (2012)… having begun again. Half way through my 72’nd year. Thinking… this time, it’s to the end. It’s all the way. Maybe… before 2013 has passed… I’ll be able to think of myself as an ‘artist’ without irony, without self-consciousness. Not just all those museum images.. it’s family. Really talented family… never felt quite up to snuff. Mostly, cause I was trying to do what I thought OTHERS judged worthy. Now… I’ve found my own way. I’m so glad I lived long enough.

Art and Capitalism: There has to be a better way


The first time I visited the Ox, late Spring of 2012, to see police films of our arrest at Wells Fargo, I knew, standing on the roof and looking across the vacant lot, the warehouse and brickscape, the Frankford El like a toy train in the distance, that this was the place where I would begin to make art again.

An unfinished, unheated warehouse, home to a collective of not quite 20 activists, queers, musicians, artists… and a soon to be grad student in particle physics who slept on top of what had been an elevator shaft that opened to the roof—here, I thought, there would be space and freedom to work, a return to where I left off some 40 years before.

The streets around the Ox were a rich source of materials, broken glass, rusted metal, torn sheets of roofing, weathered composition board, scraps of wood, cardboard. I had long been fascinated by found things—patterns, colors, forms of abandoned objects, invisible to those who passed them by without seeing. I began to drag in trash from the street, spread pieces out on an old dining room table, arranging them, observing how they came together to form new objects that freed them from their past identities as objects of use, from their place in the capitalist Empire of Money and Death.
I had no pigments, no brushes, only rusted nails and screws from the street, wire and string to tie things together, planks of wood or Masonite I would find to mount them on. I went to Utrecht and asked the art student clerk: what would could I use to bind such a diversity of materials—that would dry transparent, remain flexible to hold objects that would expand and contract at different rates in reaction to heat and cold? That’s was how I discovered Modpodge!

Here was a way of making art without grants or institutional support. Art from the streets—literally. Those great pieces of public art, I thought—cast bronze, welded steel beams, no matter how pleasing—what were they, but bound slaves, there to decorate and embellish the institutions of power, useful propaganda. You see! they proclaimed, this is civilization! Without the generosity of the predator class, where we would be? How would it be possible to have art like this? What public art has always done, these monuments of beauty and culture!—the equestrian statues of generals, heroes of conquest, genocide and patriarchal tyranny—no matter that they had been replaced by elegant abstractions, perfect representations of faceless corporate power. Art in chains. Artists as servants of the corporate police state.

I bought brushes. An easel. Pigments. Added color to my assemblages, worked on recovering my drawing skills. Began to make paintings. I had a show at a little gallery in Port Richmond—and put prices on my work.

It felt dirty. Wrong.

Where was this taking me? What was the logical path for this? O.U.R. Gallery, was not dependent on sales, but if I wanted to sell, if I had been a young artist hoping someday to live from their art, that was the route I’d have to take—assemble a fine expensive portfolio of photographs, find galleries that would take my pieces, give me shows–galleries that did depend on sales, and on buyers whose interest in art was for investment, or the prestige of owning—owning work that might someday be coveted by collectors, that would decorate the walls of the wealthy, that might one day hang in museums—the mausoleums that house the remains of dead creators–the artist’s dream-equivalent to winning the lottery. Or the field slave whose highest hope is to work in the house of the master. For those who make it, become part of a system of oppression that forces all but the very few to live by commercializing their skills, or find other means to support themselves and their work, a system of exclusion that has little or nothing to do with aesthetic merit. The artist: submissive servant of the Empire.

There has to be a better way. Capitalism, like abusive relationships, traps by maintaining the illusion that nothing else does, or can exist. Take your lumps, it’s all there is. And maybe—maybe you’ll be one in a million… or billion, who is selected for the dubious honor of rubbing elbows with the predators, thieves and killers who manage the levers of power.

Think about it.

Of related interest, Picasso’s granddaughter scaring the shit out of Big Dealers by threatening to sell his stored up work.

First Art from the Ox

I moved into the Ox in July, 2012. A queer-safe unfinished warehouse in Kensington (Philly), occupied by an assortment of some 20 or so weird people: activists, queers, musicians, artists (and one subparticle physicist– who slept on the roof), a place I’ve never in my life felt more at home.  For the first time in more than 40 years, I found myself in a place where I had room to make art. For years, I’d been fascinated by found things, junk left in the trash, things I’d come across on streets and vacant lots and nursed dreams of assembling these objects–maybe together with drawings, painting–what Rouschenberg called ‘combines.’

The Ox itself was full of stuff–I put a board on a large table in an open space by an open loading space for light, and began arranging things, moving them this way and that. I wasn’t thinking of re-making myself as an artist. It was something I could do without words–visual thinking that felt like ice breaking on a river after a very long winter.

After coming back from a week long interruption, walking from Philly to New York and Zuccotti Park with the OWS Guitarmy, in honor of Woody Guthrie’s 100’th birthday, I bought Modpodge, found some old cans of house paint, borrowed some jars of acrylic, and put this piece together.

#1 88x64cm
88×64 cm. Assorted trash, branch & twigs, glitter, house paint and acrylic on wood. And poems. For my Poem Tree on East Passyunk in South Philly.

The next piece, a piece of rusted steel, glass, wood scraps, washers and a rusty nail on cardboard and a frame from an antique photo album. 30x24cm.

Called it Sexuation, and signed it ‘Willard,’ my legal birth name, which I’ve never used. Named for my maternal grandfather, who died two weeks before in I was born,I thought it would be a way to honor this man I’d never known, and my uncle, an artist and mentor, who I’d recently learned has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The next day I went to Utrect and bought brushes, pigments and more Modpodge.  We made one of the rooms in the Ox into a studio. As of this day, January 25, 2015, I’ve finished another 301 pieces,  assemblages, ‘combines,’ drawings and paintings.

x#2 Sexuation

I’ll be posting both old and new work on this blog. Stay tuned.