Semi Permanent: Unpacking Pro Artists’ Mixed Messages

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Portland Photographer Holly Andres’ lush images often explore “feminine introspection and the complexities of childhood.”

SEMI PERMANENT PORTLAND

Cue a babble of youthful friendliness. Flashes of casual finery. Subtle smartphone-checking. Last Wednesday morning, the faction of Portland artists best dubbed “creatives” milled into the Armory for Semi Permanent, an Australia-based visual artist speaker series devoted to “spreading art and design inspiration.” In its eleventh year, SP has long since installed itself New York and LA, rotating venerable culture-makers like Banksy and Shepard Fairey through its roster—but this year marked its first stop in Portland. Cue eager tweets and furtive program-flipping.

Semi Permanent PDX featured two Portland artists, ten total speakers, and nine total talks. For those who missed it—or were too busy updating their Tumblrs to tune in completely—here are some crib notes:

Holly Andres, photographer, Portland

Dead-serious little girls, Nancy-drew-style mystery scenes, and fiercely protective church mothers abound in Andres’ earlier photo series. The youngest of 10 in a staunch Catholic family, Andres used her initial works to reinterpret her own childhood experiences, maximizing her memories’ dramatic impact with actorly subjects who affect “mannered” gestures (spread fingers, furrowed brows) and off-frame gazes in pristine retro 60’s settings (think Wes Anderson). Andres’ more recent commercial work retains, at turns, the retro aesthetic or the fascination with the world of women and girls. An engaging speaker, Andres used her photos as visual aides for personal storytelling, her authenticity and humor only enhancing an already-impeccable portfolio.

Rei Inamoto, CCO of AKQA, New York

Recently tasked with hyping mega-game Halo:Reach, Inamoto described his company AKQA’s unique innovation: an interactive social-media forum that let users prompt a virtual robot arm to sketch constellation-like star-scape “monuments” of game characters, one point of light at a time. (Follow all that? No? Well, at least 162,000 facebook users did.) Though lasers and starscapes hold some undeniable allure, the game launch’s wild success probably owed more to Inamoto’s instincts about a present-day hunger for community and hero-worship.

Sean Petersen, Instrument, creative director, art professor, Portland

The PNCA and PSU educator admitted feeling a little lost without his teaching partner, but soldiered on with a surfing metaphor: A wetsuit is something its maker invented purely so that he could keep doing what he loved. “Passion + Tinkering = Innovation.” Briefly indulging his core audience with inside jokes and reminiscences about defunct fonts and design platforms, Petersen proceeded to a sales pitch for Instrument, his rapidly-expanding local design house. “We’re kind of like a cult,” he admitted while spewing group-speak about the firm’s shared hobbies. “We build tipis,” he said, sharing images of hand-cobbled forts whose space-within-space concept mirrors Wieden + Kennedy’s legendary nest. We ride Googley bikes. We like to have fun.” Specializing in guerilla youth marketing campaigns, the firm is undoubtedly drinking the Red Bull (a client) rather than the Kool-Aid.

Bradley G. Munkowitz, Design Director and motion graphics designer for GMunk, San Francisco

Of the many presenters who got their big break at a young age, GMunk is apparently the last to grow up. His impressively intricate, luminous CAD graphics including a hologram sequence from the recent remake of Tron were unfortunately upstaged by his frat-boy persona and offensive jokes. GMunk’s projects may be futuristic, but his attitude’s clearly in retrograde.

Chuck Anderson, NoPattern, designer, Grand Rapids (w/ Terry White, Adobe, San Francisco)

Anderson’s colorful works often immerse sports figures in rainbow motion blurs and exuberant paint splashes, and his portfolio typifies the kinetic, ribbon-y flow that’s dominated the last few years of commercial design. (Was he an innovator or imitator? Hard to say.) NoPattern could as easily be called NoEgo; Anderson, looking sporty in an oversized black t-shirt, is accessibility personified. No wonder Adobe chose him as a pitch-man for their new user-friendly web-design software, Muse. Alongside Adobe spokesman Terry White, he let images from his portfolio serve as visual aides for an infomercial-style demo.

Gary Baseman, cartoonist, toy designer, LA

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Gary Baseman’s skewed cartoons help the artist grapple with difficult emotional processes. In this case, the oozing, squishy figure represents intimate self-sacrifice.

Sometimes you don’t appreciate the art until you meet the artist. Basemen’s repeated motifs of naked girls and twisted teddy bears could dismiss him as a less-disciplined Mark Ryden’—similar madness, sans egg-tempera lushness. But as Baseman paced the stage, a painfully earnest presence as ill-at-ease in his own skin as his fashion-forward red jeans, any cynical take on his work became impossible. The conference’s closest associate with “outsider” ouvre, Baseman uses his cartoons’ complex mythology to process love, loss, and his parents’ Haulocaust survival. Like Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, Baseman’s naïve apparitions of creepy, cuddly creatures have evidently become his foot-soldiers in an internal emotional war.

Stephen Smith, Neasdon Control Centre, visual artist, London

Despite being a Londoner, Smith’s visual sensibility would be equally at home in Portland: an exploratory, intuitive approach combining quick sketches, zine-like sharpie scribbles, and graphs to imply linear thought as skewed through a right-brained lens. “The subconscious never lies,” he mused, sharing pictures of prominent London installations, including one that presented him the unique challenge of drawing directly onto the walls of a mirrored hallway. Having recently joined a group of artists on an inspirational trip to explore the ravaged Chernobyl site and view a rocket launch, Smith shared the resultant snapshots and abstract minimalist sketches. The gestural deconstruction of a tattered noticeboard and a burst of rocket fire could hardly be traced back to their source images—but these things, it seems, needn’t be over-explained.

Holly Wales, illustrator, London

A pragmatic marker-pen illustrator whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, Wales ranges from well-composed, photorealistic WYSIWYG to “work that looks like it’s made by someone who can’t draw.” Descended from 2 generations of art teachers, she seems a natural and advises from that perspective: “Do stuff now; don’t wait and don’t think about it.”

Michael Muller, Hollywood/wildlife photogapher, LA

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LA Photographer Michael Muller expressed excitement about his latest underwater lighting techniques and mentioned “tickling” sharks to get better shots for Shark Week.

“Actors, musicians, they’re all so scared,” confided Muller, a longtime student of human nature thanks to his 27-year career that has dually focused on celebrity portraiture and action-sports capture. Himself confessing but not displaying nervousness, Muller revived some early shots he’d taken of actor peers in LA (a coltish, brooding Leo DiCaprio, a coquettish young Drew Barrymore) breezed through his strikingly star-studded portrait collection, and landed on his latest passions: wildlife preservation and humanitarian documentary work in refugee communities. Having recently wrapped a Shark Week shoot, Muller also nerded out about underwater lighting, gleefully anticipating a time when he can shoot surfers against internally-illuminated waves. “I can already see it in my head, so I know it can happen,” said the self-assured, surprisingly mellow 42-year-old.

A MIXED BAG

Unified by their world-class credentials, the speakers diverged in all other possible ways. Some were timid, others cocky. Some rhapsodized about their past, while others reveled in their present projects or evangelized “the future of” their various media. With no discernible formula, speeches ran the gamut from concrete to abstract, from emotional to cerebral, from fine art to commercial craft. Listening all day and comparing notes, I tucked the following takeaways into my Semi Permanent branded tote-bag:

Trade Secrets

Should artists demystify their processes, or protect them? The jury’s out.

Inamoto asked that the specifics of his talk “not leave this room, or I could be out of a job tomorrow. For real.”

On the other hand, Adobe spokes-artist Anderson was completely forthcoming, demonstrating several of his processes and sharing the Photoshop settings he applies to his paint layers. He even provided the audience with a url where they could share his Photoshop file and “play with” the layers.

RIP, Music Industry

Is the music industry dead? Three speakers seemed to give its eulogy:
Smith, who showed his work for rock band TV on the Radio, grudgingly reported, “I don’t do as much music stuff lately since the ass has fallen out on the budgets.”

Muller, having recently snapped Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and Rihanna, echoed him: “In the last five or 10 years—until really recently—I haven’t done a lot of work in the music industry. You guys know what happened to the music industry, right? It will be interesting to see what happens with the other [entertainment] industries in the next few years….”

Inamoto described an interactive musical platform AKQA proposed for a joint YouTube and Coldplay venture. A seeming unattributed variant of Eric Whitacre’s much-beloved virtual choir with less universal appeal and a mercenary twist, the platform invited undiscovered musicians to chime into Coldplay’s hit song “Fix You” with their own flourishes. In the project’s demo reel, gutsy (and obnoxious) young self-promoters piled on, rapping and shredding all over the ideally minimalist pop tune. The spiritually-bereft project was thankfully scrapped on the drawing board. “We just got a call that he band wasn’t feeling it,” was Inamoto’s wisely restrained summary of a work that had obviously put social-network schmooze before artistry.

Special Effects

How much should photographers rely on reality, versus their capability to “fix it in post” via digital photo editing?
“If there’s, like,fire involved, I’ll really light it on fire!” exclaimed Muller, showing off an image of Joaquin Pheonix lighting a cigarette with a flaming guitar.

Andres, a former film purist, admitted that her switch to digital processing made her “go crazy” with effects. Her dabbling was especially evident in an image that places Jerome Kersey in a pumpkin field full of digitally copied basketballs. But a more recent photojournalistic shoot of womens’ tumbling forbade touch-ups, bringing Andres’ approach back to basics.

Wales, who recently edited a booklet about simple special effects, reported that she and her boyfriend had had a blast buying matchbook cars, setting them on fire, and superimposing a blue fade background for a “How to Fake a Car Fire” feature. The result—with hilariously oversized flames engulfing the tiny cars—proved less realistic than playful.

Social Media

Seemingly oblivious to how alien he’d sound to non-industry ears, Inamoto uttered the following: “The words ‘digital’ and ‘social’ are the most-used words when we talk to clients. Those words are interchangeable these days.” (In what universe does “digital” = “social?” Well, he’d already admitted to working with some robots….)
GMunk traced his inspiration to a practice of “constant exposure to images” on Pinterest and other forums. For him, drinking from the proverbial fire hose is tantamount to creativity.

Smith expressed worried fascination with the phenomenon known as “bit rot”—a form of digital data degradation. Some of his recent work speculates about what happens when supposedly-essential information gets lost in translation through successive software updates.

Social Conscience

Do commercially successful artists retain higher-minded motivations than money? And do they keep in touch with the less fortunate? It varies vastly:

Inamoto and Muller have both worked on campaigns for wildlife preservation, and Muller has gradually shifted more of his creative focus toward humanitarian concerns, shooting African refugee camps to build awareness. Despite trading in traditionally masculine images (sports, X Men, sharks) Muller was also up-front about his feminine influences: “I have three daughters, so I’m surrounded by feminine energy; a lot of emotion, a lot of talking.”

What Muller expressed verbally is Andres’ aesthetic wheelhouse. Her validation of “female introspection and the complexities of childhood,” is feminism in its purest form.

In stark contrast, GMunk, despite his relative youth, repped for the old boys’ club, punctuating his talk with internet images that were intended to be humorous, but weren’t really. The crowd was expected—nay, encouraged, to laugh at an animé orgy (ha?), blow-up dolls (haha?), nude Asian women (hmmm…) the overweight (um…) the deceased (uh…), and a black man with possible mental retardation (hurl). In all cases, the joke seemed to be simply: Look at these inferiors! We win, fellow successful white Guys! (Gross.) A domineering, leering sense of “humor” poses a figurative if not literal liability to a designer’s talents, as evidenced by a more recent scandal with Ford ad creators.

THE FORBIDDEN ARGUMENT: COMMERCIAL v. FINE ART

The tension between the commercial and fine art worlds is inevitable, even as battle lines are constantly crossed by thinkers and makers who—however reluctantly—have to live in a material world. The cruel truth is, every artist has a client.

Purely personal art is a myth. From the boldest gallery strokes to the most obscure cave doodles, almost all art intends to communicate with an audience—an Other. At the very moment that Other experiences the art, the project ceases to be purely “personal” for the artist.

From there, both commercial and fine artists seek patrons, intermediaries who can expose their work to a broader audience. In both sectors (yes, both) these patrons weigh artists’ work against their perception of public demand. But where commercial gatekeepers ask, “What does public WANT?” fine-art curators posit, “What does public need, but not KNOW it needs?” To secure a place at either tastemaker’s table, an artist’s work should fulfill one or both of these parameters.

But, hey, tastemakers can be fickle. Sometimes they wrongly assess their artist’s capabilities or their public’s wants and needs, and sometimes they get it spot-on. Sometimes they favor well-connected artists with experience and pedigree, while other times they whimsically embrace mysterious outsiders—the less known, the better.

Regardless, these parties decide what the public will HAVE, and cut the checks to make it happen.

Because public “want” can be roughly gaged by stats, commercial art providers find themselves on the hook to meet numeric goals. Because “subconscious need” is slipperier, fine art providers tend to put less credence in number-crunching and hinge their work’s value on their perceived contribution to a cultural conversation.

But neither the commercial nor the fine art sector has a lock on artistry, power, pleasure, or philosophical profundity. Hell—neither sector even has a lock on its artists! The perceived dividing wall between worlds is very porous, with many of the most active artists traveling freely between fine and commercial modes. It’s only natural, then, for fine and commercial art to cross-pollinate. Why, then, is the stuff that originates in the commercial field considered “pollution,” and the stuff from the fine-art field more often credited as “inspiration?” Idealism? Social snobbery? This is the question that baits the snake that swallows its own tail—but make no mistake: every artist has a client.

 

 

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