I was stuck at home the other day, so I decided to sketch my street.
It was another warm sunny day on the UC Berkeley campus. I stumbled upon the UC Jazz Ensemble on Sproul Plaza yesterday as I was trying to find a decent sandwich for lunch. My hunger disappeared and my desire to capture the moment went to work. I immediately sketched them as they were finishing up their set.
Water has always been a difficult mystery for me. As a young child I feared the deep end of the pool more than I feared the night. When the time came for my swim lessons, I would simply tell my mother, “I lost my bathing suit.” Naturally she knew my little trick and always found it. She then proceeded to drag me to the pool while I whimpered about how cold it was or of the sharks living in the deep end. Bedtime was a different story. I would boldly tell my mother that I wasn’t afraid of monsters and if they try to attack me in my dreams, I would hit them and kick them until they ran away. I always awoke the next morning to a wet bed. Somehow, in my effort to fight my own dream demons, to slay the sea creatures of my night, I felt the urge to empty my bladder.
I grew up in Houston, Texas and witnessed many many rainy days and flash floods. When I was ten years old, we prepared for hurricane Alicia. We taped up our windows and slept between two walls of mattresses as the storm pounded away at our fragile wooden house. And when the storm passed, we went outside and observed the destruction in the form of fallen pine and oak trees throughout the neighborhood. Some had fallen into streets while others fell on houses. The memory of Alicia returned to me as I witnessed the destruction of Katrina. My heart wept for the destitute and the dead.
I once spent a summer in Egypt with my uncle and his family. My cousins and I decided to take a Nile cruise to Aswan and hire a taxi from there to Abu Simbel. The drive was about two hours and the heat was intense. Along the way we passed a caravan of camels, abandoned homes and the occasional military outpost backdropped by desert and multiple mirages. After an hour we stopped at a mud brick building and I watched a boy no older than fourteen come out of nowhere, lift the hood, open the radiator cap and fill it with water. The driver must have driven this road several times over because he knew how far his car could go between each rest stop. I remember pouring water in my hand and watching it evaporate instantly before my eyes. Under such extreme conditions, water is like the precious moment in our lives that we want never to end.
I recently painted this photo because I wanted to explore the color of water once again in my life. I took the photo ten years ago from the view of the hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh. The color was absolutely intense it was like a dream. I remember feeling blinded by the whiteness of the balcony as I gazed down at the hues of cyan, ultramarine and cobalt below. The color and texture of the water was the most challenging part of the painting for me. I wanted to desperately recreate that short-lived moment during which I snapped the photo and simply walked away.
Shaun O’Dell is a busy person these days. When he’s not teaching at the University of California, Berkeley or the California College of the Arts, he’s travelling between New York, the Midwest and San Francisco working on various group and solo exhibitions. He’s currently preparing for an exhibition at the Inman Gallery in Houston, Texas opening on May 20th. Earlier this week we were fortunate to have have had the chance to speak with him about his work and his thoughts on the recent events in the Middle East and Japan.Shaun’s recent works have consisted mainly of drawings using a combination of ink and Gouache on paper. His recent work is more abstract now, but previous works embodied surreal forms and figures in either black and white or primary color palettes. His “Looming Sound” is one of many volumes in which he demonstrates a painstaking repetition of shapes, palettes, surfaces and textures that only a committed and seasoned artist could exhibit.His work also contains many philosophical undertones. Questions about the individual self, identity, society and culture are introduced immediately upon reading the titles to many of his pieces. This is commingled with a visual representation of instability in the physical objects and that of survival, whether it’s survival of the species or that of the nation state.
- [Shaun] My thoughts about the revolutions are focused on dialectics. There’s one idea that quantitative changes are occurring in society, nature, etc that ultimately evolve toward a qualitative change. We’ll see what happens in Egypt, but the revolution is clearly a qualitative shift. It’s not like they were thinking about wanting the regime to end (on a large scale) until recently.An earthquake is similar. It’s a geological dialectic process. I’m considering this in my practice right now, but I’m trying to stay away from any preconceived inspiration. I’m trying to pick random colors, but most come from leftovers that I have already. After that I don’t start making any marks other than simple brush marks from which I’ll continue to layer until I think something is working out. [In other words] if it speaks to me or if a qualitative shift occurs. But it’s interesting to me since I’ve been working in this way (in the last several months) that these events have occurred. I’m essentially modeling the dialectical process in the studio.
They [artists] come up with questions and weave it into their practice. My thoughts just to finish up, have given me some optimism. It was difficult because I’m basically a Marxist and in the classroom students and my colleagues in the past have cracked friendly jokes as if my politics are naive or old fashioned. And then the revolution occurred and it’s like boom, what do you think about that? All the academic apathy around the idea of the revolution is all quieted. I don’t even have to talk about it. It speaks for itself. Now when people say what can we do, it’s like, look at Egypt. This is what you have to do. The power structure is not going to just hand you power because you voted for some liberal Democrat who most likely will be chumming up to every lobbyist in Washington their first week in town. That is not how democracy happens. If we want change we have to get in the streets and confront the police and tell them we’re not going home until the tyrant leaves the capitol – that you’d rather die than go home. From my vantage point it seemed like everyone was on the same page in Egypt. Even FOX news had trouble finding anyone to belittle or debunk what was going on. Doctors, Lawyers, students, factory workers all wanted Mubarak to leave.
What brings the uninformed viewer closer to Shaun’s work is his attitude. He’s a carefree individual who has faith in the curiosity of the viewer. Additionally, his teaching experience has helped him in this regard. His exhibitions, like his courses are premised with a set of questions that serve to set the stage of the class or group of pieces. Consequently, he also believes that his pieces are never finished and that they’re merely responses to a larger ongoing conversation, one in which he is also the viewer.
[ArtSHIFTING] Your visual and written work is very philosophical and nuanced. Do you often wonder (or care) if the acknowledgements embodied within your work make their way to the uninformed viewer?
[Shaun] Well, most people end up being curious especially if they see something they don’t initially understand, but something about it is captivating to them. I don’t really worry about it. If I’m doing good work, they’ll tell me. If somebody doesn’t understand they’ll tell me… Ultimately this is a larger question about what art can actually do. I spend a lot of time thinking about that very question. I don’t want to make didactic work. I don’t want to tell people things. So I just try to continue to resist this. Over time I’ve slowly concluded that art does not do politics. When you talk about Egypt… people were not going to leave the square. There’s no metaphor there. Everyone wanted Mubarak to leave. To me that’s pure politics. No ambiguity. No metaphor. A clear and direct message. Over time you will have to stand up for that message.
I cannot find anywhere in history where Art has done politics in that way. It does inspire people to get to that point. It inspires people to do politics. It’s happening all the time. As an artist you may stop making art, but the politics continue. I expect the work to communicate this, in some way., but I don’t expect it to go beyond that.
For example, I’ve done work on excavating American history, but it wasn’t necessary to me that people saw a painting and thought that there was a mechanism at work in American history which some have termed regeneration through violence – that regenerate our idea of national self through violent acts, whether it be the Native American genocide or Afghanistan and Iraq today. I always just figured if people were interested in what’s going on in the work that they have to do some work to see what [IT] is. And that’s what I do. I’m attracted to work that I don’t understand. If something seems odd or mysterious to me, I’ll look into it more to see what else is revealed. Sometimes it’s enriching, sometimes it a letdown (i.e. the artists statements are more interesting than the work). The whole effort is kind of in flux.
[ArtSHIFTING] What are your thoughts or opinions on works that are intended to evoke a response, emotion versus those that wish to provoke a response.
[Shaun] I don’t expect that it can provoke much. You can put acrucifix in a tank of urine and show it to a group of nuns, but what does it actually do? Banksy’s work is provocative, but it’s not doing politics. The fact that it’s on the street abandons the role of the institution/commercial gallery.
The revolution in the middle east came at a perfect time for this. It’s very clear. Do you want the response to be a revolution? Well art cannot do that. If you want to evoke emotions, then that’s something that art can do. I’m not trying to do either. I’m just trying to make work that is engaging to me. The process that I’m using has some conceptual elements along with political philosophy but I don’t think they’ll be transmitted into the pieces. I don’t start creating a piece with the preconceived notion that I’ll be evoking or provoking a response or emotion in some way. I guess in some way I’m hoping that some sort of engagement will occur, but I think in the context of larger political systems it never made sense to me that way. It never seemed like it was successful nor is it my style.
[ArtSHIFTING] Should artists have a role in society? If so, what role should they fill?
[Shaun] Artists are the ones who ask the questions. If anything the provocations are in the questions. Artists ask questions about all kind of things, about gender, the body, sex, the unknown, the sublime, outer space, genetic engineering. There are as many questions as there are artists. We spend the time contemplating and articulating that stuff. There are many artists also that romanticize their role and I think this gums up their work. We need many different types of workers in society and artists are among them. All those people are necessary for a healthy society. Capitalism is something that throws the balance out of all of this stuff. Some artists that become financially successful become part of the upper class. They’re making objects that the market has decided are quite “trade-able”. A lot of it has to do with the ruling class as voyeurs and the ruling class as consuming themselves. There are artists who demonstrate this: Damien Hirst for example. Andy Warhol played with this also but he was beyond all of this. He was doing this at the same time he was making mysterious, complex and amazing art. Just before Warhol pops on the scene you had people like Clement Greenberg stating that abstract expressionism was the zenith of what painting could be – that it was the avant – garde. And then Warhol started painting comic strips and products and it blew the whole thing apart. He was pointing out the hypocrisy of the art object as something that can be sacred. Ultimately it’s just a commodity – that it’s all surface. And at the same time he’s using industrial reproductive mechanisms to make those images. And he’s making tons of them.
[ArtSHIFTING] What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? And professionally, what’s your goal?
[Shaun] The best piece of advice I’ve been given is to be patient. As an artist there’s a lot of situations where patience will help you, such as developing you’re practice and how your doing it.Professionally, what’s my goal? Ultimately you just want to make work that is challenging and that is engaging for the viewer. I don’t think about professional goals so much. It’s not a good idea to do that. [laughing] Some people do and they do a lot better professionally than me. I mean you work hard, do what you can, and hopefully it works out.Making a living is nice, but it’s not a goal. Your work will always be framed in the context that it should generate money. That’s a whole different problem. But in the end I don’t feel like making money as an artist is somehow a compromise ethically. I mean artists should make money like any other professional. The idea that artists should somehow be ok not making money for the work they do is a naive and romantic notion that doesn’t understand or realize the reality of living within a capitalist economic system.[ArtSHIFTING] What are your thoughts on the recent revolutions in the Arab world, Iran, sub-saharan Africa (primarily lesser developed countries)? And how would you compare and/or contrast the effects of the natural disaster in Japan (a developed country)?
It’s no surprise that Eduardo Chillida chose a mountain for his magnum opus. His work is monumental because for Chillida the backdrop or context of his works were just as significant to his message as the piece itself. His work “Wind Combs” and his eulogies to water and the horizon pay homage to the elements of nature. While at the same time he emphasizes the harsh relationship between man and nature by placing steel and iron structures against the solemn backdrop of wind, water and the horizon.
Chillida is perhaps one of Europe’s most prolific sculptors of the 20th century.
His work is installed throughout Europe, Iran, Japan and the United States. His preferred medium was iron, but he also sculpted in clay, wood, plaster, alabaster and concrete. He was born in the Basque city of San Sebastian in 1924 and left only to study architecture in Madrid in 1943. Disenchanted with his studies, he decided to move to Paris in 1948 and work as a sculptor.
In 1984, he and his wife bought the Zabalaga farmhouse in the town of Hernani, just outside of San Sebastian. They would slowly expand the property and restore the farmhouse until it was ready for unveiling as the Chillida-Leku Museum in 2000. Unfortunately, Eduardo died in 2002 due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease.
Eduardo’s death and a sharp economic downturn in 2008 seemed to take the life out of the museum. The next two years would be difficult for the museum and the Chillida family. The museum appears to have made modest attempts at soliciting external funding, producing special exhibits and participating in public outreach. By 2010 the museum would be forced to close its doors even though over forty prominent Spanish artists demanded that the Basque government keep it open. Twelve of Chillida’s sculptures are on sale in an effort to recover the losses incurred by the museum.
Eduardo’s death also came before he was able to begin work on his dream project, a mountain cave roughly 40 meters (131 ft) on each side that would be accessible from an 80 meter long tunnel. He started planning this project in the mid-1980’s and had several offers from Italy, Finland and Switzerland before he settled on Mount Tindaya on Fuerteventura (poulation 103,492) in the Canary Islands. He called this project a “Monument to Tolerance”, which seems rather ironic because there’s nothing ecologically, culturally or archaeologically tolerant about it. The project, if completed, will destroy about 64,000 cubic metres of rock from within the mountain. The mining rights alone cost 250 million euros. If that’s not enough, it will also threaten the integrity of roughly 100 podomorphs(foot carvings) that were discovered in 1978 and date back to the Majoreros who were a Neolithic people that arrived on the island sometime between 1,000 and 300 BC.
In fact, Chillida admitted that the project had caused him nothing but depression and insomnia as the controversy over the Tindaya
mountain project progressed. Ironically, Chillida claimed that the podomorphs resembled his signature when he saw them for the first time. He also noted that they were neglected and sometimes defaced because the local government was not protecting them. It retrospect is seems that Eduardo Chiilida’s effort to honor tolerance by excavating a mountain created a backlash of intolerance towards his work that “worships” the environment.
In January of this year a protest against the project was held outside the Canary Islands Parliament. Participants held banners saying “Tindaya no se toca” (“Do not touch Tindaya”). Similar protests were held in Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria. The Facebook group Cadena Humana Tindaya is also encouraging people to form a human chain around the proposed construction site and defend the mountain.
Salma Caller was born in Mosul, to an Egyptian father and an English mother. She spent her childhood in Africa and then moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia as a teenager. Her multi-cultural identity has become a great asset to her creativity and is seen throughout her work. She started painting, at the age of six, while living in Kano, Nigeria, when she discovered the her neighbors drawings using pen and pencil to startling effect. Her work has been in exhibitions in London and Oxford since 1996.
ArtSHIFTING: What is the official title of this painting?
Salma: This painting is called The Body of Music. I affectionately call her hybrid musical instrument creature. She comes with a text piece that does not explain her but relates to her meanings. The painting is 114cm tall and 33.5cm wide.
ArtSHIFTING: When was The Body of Music painted?
Salma: I started researching, sketching and outlining concepts about five months ago. I used a 16th century collection of musical instruments at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as inspiration for some of her forms and patterns although she is a creature of the imagination. I completed the painting at the end of March, but there are a few final touches to be made.
ArtSHIFTING: Where do you do most of your work?
Salma: I painted her in my studio in the conservatory at the back of my house in Reading.
ArtSHIFTING: What type of medium was used for this painting?
Salma: I use a type of water colour paint, St Petersburg White Nights, as they can be very translucent or very opaque, they lend themselves well to being built up in fine layers and are very intense and luminous pigments. The paints let me work in washes and put in very intricate detail that can be either brought forward of faded back. I use 300gsm (140lb) rough water colour paper and a range of sable and synthetic brushes.
ArtSHIFTING: Do you work in other mediums?
Salma: I also work in pencil, pen and ink and have worked with acrylics on canvas.
ArtSHIFTING: What are your paintings about?
Salma: Much of my work uses the hybrid and the ‘grotesque’/fantastical/imaginary and ornamental forms. My theoretical dissertation also explored this group of intricately related forms as being transgressive, disrupting boundaries and not allowing fixed ideas about ourselves, our bodies and identities. These forms allow transformation, ambiguity, flux. They are both concepts and visual forms that are shifting, not absolutes. They incorporate paradox and contradiction.
I am also interested in relationships between a physical/material world and a non-material/spiritual/emotional one, and how we are hybrids of these worlds. Our consciousness is in and via the material body and extends into objects (like musical instruments) beyond our actual body. I am interested in how the imaginative ‘mind world’ extends out into a supposedly separate and ‘real’ world, transforming and altering our perceptions.
The musical instrument painting is about a body that is both physical and non-physical. It is about how emotions, thoughts, ideas, feelings, spiritual experiences, that are all so intangible, are yet inseparable from our tangible and material bodies. In this work I explored the idea that our bodies are metaphors of the musical instrument and that musical instruments are also like embodied presences. Many of the old instruments in the museum I looked at suggest bodies and have carved heads. The intricate rose part of the musical instrument and its strings suggest bodily elements. They are like vocal chords or nerves, or maybe strange complex sphincters or valves, that mediate between some secret inner ‘empty’ space inside us (like the space inside the instrument) and an outer world. Music/emotions/creativity/song/things hard to describe, emerge from this inexplicable ‘empty’ space and alter our perceptions and transform us.
I studied science, medicine and pharmacology for my first degree, and think this feeds into to my work. I find of particular interest the notions in Western thought, of a separation of the body/mind or body/spirit, art/science, hand/mind, art/craft and so forth. So I explore these relationships. I am also interested in synaesthesia and overlap of the different senses. For example, when I listen to music I see/feel substances that are like fabrics or patterns that are like a kind of lace or embroidery. Non physical experience manifest as material.
ArtSHIFTING: What training have you received?
Salma: I am self taught and have built my techniques and skills slowly over many years. I spent many hours drawing plants and natural forms while living in Africa and in the Botanical gardens in Oxford and think these organic and natural forms are the basis of the forms in my work. I have recently completed a Masters of Arts in Art History which has enhanced my conceptual thinking and the contextualization of my work.
ArtSHIFTING: How did the training influence you?
Salma: Although the training in the Masters was theoretical, my creative process involves a strong relationship between images, words and ideas. Postgraduate study enabled me to more fully understand what my work is, and in what ways it carries meanings and in what contexts it might be understood. It has helped to formulate my ideas, and helped me to express myself and my thinking and to communicate this to others. I was always interested in making sets of work accompanied by networks of words or concepts. The philosophical and theoretical aspects feed back into my work in strange and indirect ways that often surprise me, and vice versa.
ArtSHIFTING: How would you describe your creative process?
Salma: My creative process is a strange mixture of looking, dreaming, thinking, drawing, writing and reading. Sometimes a seed of a painting will come from having seen a shape, or from a dream like picture of some indistinct thing in my head, reading a tale or a passage or an idea in a book. All these aspects are interlinked but influence each other in very oblique ways. Words may give me ideas/images that are not related in any direct way. It is very key to then spend a lot of time doodling, sketching and scribbling or just looking inwards or having space.
ArtSHIFTING: What artists have influenced you and your work?
Salma: At an early age I spent a lot of time looking at the work of a female artist, friend of my parents, who lived next door to us in Nigeria. Her work was intricate, complex and mysterious. The shapes she would create were rich, abstract and patterned yet contained with in them naturalistic elements. Faces and houses could be found hidden with the forms.
At home I was surrounded by books about Picasso and Van Gogh, Persian illustrations/illuminations of the life of the Prophet, and African art and carving. I also loved illustrations of fairy tales such as those of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen. I’ve always loved the dreamlike and fantastical quality of these illustrators and their use of nature.
More recently, some of my favourite artists (and therefore I assume they must have some influence over how I think and see) are William Blake (the spiritual, other worldly fire in his work), Samuel Palmer, Kai Fjell, conceptual artists like Cornelia Parker, Joseph Cornell, New World Baroque, Renaissance grotesques. I also spend a lot of time looking at crafts, Islamic ornament, embroidery, folk art and carving. So I think I have a rather strange and multicultural set of influences.
ArtSHIFTING: What role should artists play in society?
Salma: I once heard an African artist explaining how he thought that artists were philosophers, valued members of society who help explain the world, help make meanings, assign and inscribe significance to events and objects in the world, how ever chaotic it might all seem, for the enrichment of his own life and those around him/her.
I very much agree with this view and feel this is what I get out of other artists/writers work and what I would like people to get out of my own work. I think that artists should provide ways to over come cultural and other barriers, to help people see/think/feel in new ways about the world and others they share it with and to challenge conventional thinking, and provide deeper more enriched understandings of what happens to us in our lives.