Saturday, January 6, 2018

Reflections on a Vinyl Record


This winter, having finally replaced my old boombox with a proper music system (new amplifier/receiver and decent speakers, coupled with my 40 year old turntable on which I can play my ancient vinyl LPs,) some random thoughts. I find myself listening to music with renewed intention after years of passive digital indulgence. Over the past two decades I've joyfully embraced each new technological breakthrough, from CDs, to iPods, to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. But it seems to me, considering the attention-deficit-disordered state of most of us these days, that our technologies have played some part in it.

 Once upon a time we used to amass vast physical collections of recorded music. The downtown record store was a place of discovery. My friends and I would buy records unheard, based only on the instrumentation, the cover art, or something in the liner notes that seemed to hold promise. The 12-inch format allowed for massive amounts of information to embellish our enjoyment of the music. We knew the names of all of a band's members, who wrote what songs and what qualities each individual contributed to the whole. We studied the instruments. We came to appreciate the sonic differences between an ARP synthesizer and a Moog, or a Mellotron with its mysterious tape loops. This all may seem a bit quaint today when a simple Google search accesses more information, including live videos, than thousands of album liner notes. 

The shufflings of the iPod and the streamings of the internet changed the way music was enjoyed for decades, and other things as well. Before the advent of these digital devices, the song orders were set by the artists as if to say, this is how you fully grasp what the music is about. (Of course, song orders were just as often set by the record label for not so lofty reasons.) Double lps, or box sets would often feature side four on the back of side one so that the records could be stacked and played in a particular flow. To play a record was to enter into a mood, which, to me, always seemed like a kind of landscape one journeyed through; a foreign country with its own weather patterns and geographical features. The songs would lead you first to one place, then to another, with the resonance of the first acting as a background to the ever unfolding vista. While painting I would listen to a particular artist and when one record was done, more often than not, I would reach for the next album by the same artist, so reluctant was I to leave that landscape. The downside, which at the time it seemed to be, was that at most you got about 25 minutes of music before you physically had to change the record; or if you had a stackable turntable, 45 minutes. When long-playing cassette tapes appeared we could revel in 45 or 60 minutes of unbroken music. The development of auto-reverse machines expanded that to  as much as 120 minutes, or more if you chose the infinite replay mode. But even then, unlike today's passive listening, we made those tapes ourselves, choosing and recording what went on them, and copying out the "track lists by hand. Reel-to-reel tapes remedied these interruptions, allowing us to compile enormous amounts of music to be played in an unbroken way. Entire days might be devoted to imbibing the complete discography of Frank Zappa, in chronological order, with only 3 or 4 interruptions to change the reels. Today we "binge-watch" television series on Netflix. The reel-to-reel tape allowed us to binge-listen.

 So, after many decades now of enjoying all of these newer ways of listening, I find myself returning to the old vinyl paradigm with a new appreciation, not only of the warm, analog richness of vinyl recordings - like suddenly discovering the nuances of flavor in well-prepared "slow" food - but also of how it returns me to intentional listening. It does this first by eliminating the third-party mediations of the ipod shuffle, or the impersonal algorithms of the streaming internet. Alone in my studio my record collection and I are a closed system in which I relocate my identity, my history, and my particular relationship with the music and the artistry of the musicians that I found through my own investigations. Choosing this closed system, I admittedly forego the serendipity of new discoveries and linkages with unknown artists that often come to us through the "salads" of Pandora or Spotify. I also sacrifice the possibility of those felicitous re-awakenings to the musical content of familiar recordings that the iPod shuffle makes possible through the random breaking of the set sequencing that we all become accustomed to when playing records, tapes, or CDs. I don't intend to forego these new wonders forever. Different moods demand different ways of listening. But, having lived through and experienced these alternatives, I return to an older order with refreshed appreciation for what it uniquely has to offer.

There is also this, the not insignificant pleasure in the beauty and craftsmanship of these old electronic devices that were crafted to serve the purposes of what used to be called "high fidelity" musical reproduction. My forty year-old Technics turntable remains an enduring work of art. Its precision shapes and lines, the sinuous curve of its metallic tone arm, the neat arrangement and organization of its controls, and the gliding revolutions of its sculpted platter, still hold their own against any modern standard of beauty in design.

For years we have assimilated the ever increasing miniaturization and de-materialization of musical devices. Case-in-point, the iPod or smartphone, which allows one to carry a collection of hundreds of albums on a player the size of a credit card. But some are beginning to understand the cost of this miracle. What makes this "advancement" possible is the sacrificing of the full audio spectrum. Thousands of details are lost through digital sampling which reduces the nearly infinite curves of analog sound waves to a series of steps. Returning to the landscape analogy, it's as if we are wandering through the countryside with our eyes out of focus. The large, general shapes are all there but the details are lost. We've acclimated to this new sonic landscape, valuing novelty and portability over the richness of sensation that we once took for granted in listening to recorded music.

Bringing this wandering thought stream back to what I've called intentional listening, it strikes me as having a curious parallel to how we look at art and images today. Digital technologies, the internet, and the ubiquity of LED screens have made access to images easy, both the making and the viewing of them. Virtually everyone now carries with them a miniature camera. We can collect vast personal catalogs of images on Pinterest or Tumblr to view with ease. With the snap of a smartphone, we are able to turn our lives into Instagram documents as if, in doing so, we impart some solidity to our transient passage on earth. But all of these glowing images, however seductive, can never substitute for the actual heft and material presence of an actual painting, or that of a silver halide photograph intentionally crafted by a sensitive photographer. To take the time to stand, physically, before a great painting, to track our eyes over its manually sculpted surfaces, and to absorb the vibrancy and nuanced ranges of its colors with the miracle that is the human eye, is, today, almost an act of defiance. Much is made today of the disruptiveness of technology. But going to a museum or a gallery is also disruptive. It disrupts the attention-deficit-disordered way we have come to live our lives. To look at real paintings, in real time, demands not just attention but intention. And the rewards for committing this modern day heresy are not unlike those of taking the time to go to a concert with actual musicians playing in real time. Or intentionally choosing a 12-inch vinyl record from a personal collection and listening carefully to it on a really nice sound system.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

An Absence and A Return

Frank Hobbs: "Summer in Scotts Addition, Richmond, VA," oil on panel, 32 x 48 in. 2004-2017.

The studio work that I did in the year and a half leading up to my solo exhibition at Page Bond Gallery in May of 2017 returned me with new eyes to a place from which I'd been absent for ten years - Richmond, VA. Searching for an appropriate title for this body of new work, a phrase kept haunting my mind: "notes from an absence and a return." I couldn't remember where I'd heard it. Google was no help. All it dragged up were various corporate policies on "absence," and "returning to work after an absence." I was pleased when my old brain, like a slow computer, finally chunked out the source: Wendell Berry, poet, teacher, and farmer.

Through the years, Berry's writings have more closely expressed my feelings about art, and my relationship to my own practice, than just about any other.  "Notes From an Absence and a Return" is the title of an essay in a dog-eared and heavily marked volume of mine called "A Continuous Harmony." Berry wrote it after a return to his Kentucky farm following a period of work somewhere else. The essay addresses the lives that we make for ourselves in those places we call home.

For me, Virginia is that home. It's my birthplace. It holds the graves of many generations of my ancestors; and it's where I spent the first 50 years of my life. With such a freighted history the Virginia landscape could never have been, for me, just another scenic view to paint. It was a familial presence from which I drew sustenance and identity. When in 2007 I moved to Ohio to begin teaching painting at Ohio Wesleyan University, the hardest adjustment I had to make was removing my Virginia license plates.

My work as a painter has always situated itself in the particular environments that I've inhabited. Painting has a way of connecting you to your experience, as Fairfield Porter noted. It's how I process my place in this world and living and painting here in central Ohio has been no different. Ten years have passed since I began my new life here, and that's ample time for one's forward trajectory to slow; enough time for memory to begin eddying back in. This new body of work on an older theme is, I think, more reflective and circumspect than my paintings usually are; more about memory than the breaking edge of new experience.

Adding to the new work are a few older pieces of Richmond that first saw the light of day more than ten year ago when I was a resident of that city, but I've reworked them extensively. The younger man who painted these things first stood before them possessed of a very different sense of himself and his place in the world than the older, wiser one who reworked them. A part of me knows they are better paintings now, and also that they are no less true. Like an older civilization, the earlier layers are just there, under the fresh skin of paint, quietly informing and shaping the present.

Images of work in the exhibition




Friday, March 10, 2017

Preparing an Exhibition in Italy



One checked bag full of Rosy's small, framed paintings, and a carry-on with my unframed work sandwiched between shirts and pants was all that was required to get Rosy's and my work to Italy for our show in the Chiostro Sant'Agostino of Cortona. Framing was another matter. I spent several weeks before the opening strategizing and acquiring old frames and tools to do the framing. In my best Italian I implored the next-door neighbor to please excuse the noise as I sawed and hammered away for another two weeks.

For the works on paper we managed to find a lot of beautiful old frames in thrift shops near Magione, and even some acceptable new ones that required only a bit of punishment to make them suitable. For the rest of the work I designed a floater frame using mouldings from Italy's version of Home Depot, "Obi." About the coolest thing I've ever seen was a small combination miter and table saw that cost only about 100 Euro.

Set up on the small patio of the medieval house that is our home during the summer, surrounded by the Italian families that are our neighbors, I imagined myself back in time - a medieval or renaissance craftsman in a small shop carefully making frames for an altarpiece or some such thing. Of course the whine of the electric saw made it difficult to maintain the illusion.
















Nuovi Occhi / New Eyes

"The real journey of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  -Marcel Proust

Our poster for the 2016 show in Cortona with the above quote from Marcel Proust, from whom we took the title.  On the left, a detail of my painting, and on the right, one of Rosy's.



Sunday, July 31, 2016

In the Cloister of Saint Agostino


My wife Rosy and I just opened a show of our paintings in the majestic cloister of Sant'Agostino in Cortona, which was built in the 13th century. It is now the headquarters of Cortona Svillupo, a civic organization that hosts conventions, exhibitions, workshops, and other events. Every day I come in to man the show and greet any visitors who come. Most days it is very quiet and it isn't hard to imagine the monks who once walked these sacred corridors, or tended the gardens beneath the sky so many centuries ago.

During the day I pass the time working on paintings of the interior of the cloister. Because the light and shadow changes so much from hour to hour, I work on different paintings at different times of the day, spending no more than an hour on each one.

Most summers we spend our time going here and there across Tuscany and Umbria to visit and paint in the many small villages or in the surrounding countryside. This summer is very different from others but I'm not unhappy at being sequestered in this sacred space for two weeks. The cloister is a microcosm of the world beyond its walls. Small things take on grand importance - the movement of light along the walls, the passing of clouds in the sky above, the wind rustling the leaves of the few trees there, or the song of birds sheltering within the walls. Making art is, for me, a sacred calling, demanding attention to the humble things of the world and of the spirit, and so it seems fitting to be here for a time, working in a space that once was dedicated to pursuits not so different from mine.