In the summer still life is hot, sweaty work — something of a struggle against diminishing returns: Every time you have to move something and lean in over the camera to inspect the effect, you decrease your eagerness to repeat the operation. You keep trying though … moving things a little here, a little there. What makes a picture work? I couldn’t say. Most of them don’t.
It’s almost time to eat the pears… I had dinner last night with my painter friend, Tim Rice, and two of his friends — one an actor and the other a collector. The conversation was lively — we’d just been to an opening, and talk was about changes to the gallery world (the magaritas helped buoy the mood, in spite of the subject). This morning when I got to the studio, Lisa, the collector, had left a bag of Asian pears on the stoop. I must have told her that my Boscs were nearing their end.
Tomorrow, maybe another run to the junk shop. There was a brass candlestick I wish I’d gotten last time.
More postings on the Caprichos soon, too. The hand lettering is coming along, slowly but surely.
Turning to the world inside the studio at the moment — and there’s a lot going here. I’ve submitted a portfolio of the Ohio Woods work to Photolucida’s 2014 Critical Mass. This is my first time doing it, so I’m not sure what to expect or how fruitful it’ll be. Meanwhile, the Caprichos are undergoing intensive changes and each one requires hours of focused work. Sometimes I need a change of pace — so I’ve been doing some still life. It sounds easy, or at least easier, than many types of photography, but it in fact it’s a mysterious and exacting discipline. I’ve been an admirer of Jan Groover’s work for some time, and still remember a Morandi show at SF’s Paul Thiebaud Gallery that I saw years ago. I’d always meant to set aside the time to work at it.
We’ve got a great junk shop here in Berkeley — Urban Ore; it’s where I bought the trunk this group is sitting on. It’s not too heavy (the trunk), and I can move it around the studio, following the light. One thing I’ve learned the hard way: every object has to contribute vitality to the picture.
One printing project has come to an end (a digital restoration and palladium copy print of a portrait (ca. 1913) by Gertrude Käsebier, and now I’m planning the next few weeks’ worth of printing. I’ll be working on Caprichos, of course, and also some new still lifes — this is one.
New work for Los Caprichos: after Goya: the caption can be translated as “so many followers”. The original Caprichos contain a number of images that show dubious authority figures and their fulsome adherents, either emphasizing the blind slavishness of the latter or the fatuous pretensions of the former:
Here I give you a contemporary riff on that theme.
The first post in a long while: I’ve been working intensively on the Caprichos. The lettering has been the hardest part: my aim has always been a simulacrum of the 18th-century round hand script used by the master calligrapher(s) who inscribed Goya’s legends. (For a sample of the elegant fluidity of the original, click here.) When I first encountered Goya’s plates years ago, I naively assumed that he’d written the legends himself, on each of the images. Subsequently, I realized that would have been impossible: he produced thousands of individual Caprichos during the brief period of their production, and hand-lettering them all would have been staggeringly difficult for all the reasons I’ve already encountered: you simply can’t afford to make mistakes! Last year, I had the chance to inspect one of the British Museum’s bound presentation albums, prepared by Goya for a patron/friend. With the chance to hold it in my hands and eyeball it in a raking light, I could see clearly that the lettering was part of the plate, something Robert Hughes also notes in his study Goya (New York: Knopf, 2003), but which I’d somehow overlooked in my reading. So that explained a few things—yet knowing this didn’t diminish my admiration for the skill of the calligrapher; in fact, it increased it, because I can’t imagine how it was done (drypoint directly on the plates?).
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing my legends out by hand (this is the laborious, somewhat nerve-wracking part) and then scanning them so they can become part of the negative, which is ultimately printed in platinum-palladium. The one you see above is a recent one. The translation in English would be “every man for himself”.
Note: in “Goya’s Caprichos” (Print Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, June 1993, 187–189), Janis Tomlinson questions Juliet Wilson-Bareau’s position that Goya was responsible for making the captions to the Caprichos. The fact is that the orthography is varied—and this has always made me wonder about the calligraphic aspect of production. Tomlinson also emphasises how little we know about the origins of the project: “Despite the seeming familiarity of Los Caprichos, our knowledge about the series if very limited. [...] [W]e in fact know very little about the artist’s motives or intended audience.” What we do know is that it was the first of Goya’s works to be offered for sale to the general public, and that it was a financial disaster.
The latest in a collection of platinum palladium prints in homage to Goya’s great eighteenth-century album Los Caprichos (1799). In Caprichos 23 and 24, we see victims of the Inquisition’s authority being subjected to the humiliation of the autillo, the privately conducted eighteenth-century version of the spectacular medieval ritual of the auto de fe, in which the accused stood trial in a public square. In her readings of Goya’s Inquisition drawings (see Goya and the Spirit of Englightenment, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989, pp. 217–236), Eleanor Sayre writes that in the artist’s day the Inquisition was no longer the scourge it once was, and that many of its judgements on matters of dissent (religious or political) were pro forma, involving settlements in private or penalties of “spiritual penance”.
Yet in popular memory, Sayre notes, the fear of the Santo Oficio de la Inquisición was vivid, its secrecy notorious — and in intellectual reform circles, questions about the proper limits of its authority warranted continued argument, particularly during the Constitutional debates of 1810–1812. In the condensed visual language of the Caprichos, the Inquisition symbolized the abuse of power and the hypocrisy that fueled its excess. Goya’s focus is clear: the deliberate psychological destruction wreaked by corrupt zeal.
The legend for this image can be translated as: We want to ask you a few questions.
The Caprichos project has been an abiding interest, and recently I started exploring exhibition possibilities — for a collection of, say, 20 prints. This has involved looking into grants, competitions and the like, and as anyone who’s ever done this sort of thing knows, you can spend a lot of money in pursuit of an oasis of opportunity. So you have to be choosy. I did see something that caught my eye not long ago, and it meant I had to sum up the project in a few paragraphs — the dread artist’s statement. Here’s what I wrote:
Los Caprichos: after Goya is an artist’s book of 80 platinum-palladium prints, based loosely on Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’ album of the same name from 1799.
I’ve been intrigued by the harrowing eccentricity of Goya’s aquatints since my student days, and in 2011, began to explore using their satirical impetus as a springboard into a photographic project. I was interested in how images from familiar sources could acquire an unexpected, dream-like potency when transformed and re-imagined in a new context, and the idea of composing an extended sequence — one, moreover, with a textual element — was strongly appealing.
My fascination with Goya’s work had to do with the way his cast of characters seem beset by the chaotic energies of a parallel nightmare world. The boundary between the sphere in which people conduct business as usual and the threatening nightmarish one is never terribly clear in the Caprichos; indeed, the implication seems to be that we, the viewer, are situated in both.
To imagine the ordinary as a version of nightmare (and vice versa) became a central concern in the photographs. My subject matter is varied, like Goya’s, and is rooted ostensibly in the social realm, drawn from the ballooning, online repositories of digital video. I photograph stills from moving footage on a computer screen, shooting with a deliberately slow shutter speed. This way I can efface details and trigger tonal distortions, and so distill visual ideas into their graphic essentials. Though the resulting images are distinctly contemporary, I suspect the dreamer in Goya’s best-known print, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”, would recognize their unsettling phantasmagoria.
Like aquatint, platinum printing — my medium of choice — can convey the velvety depths of an engulfing darkness. I use it because I wanted to let the nocturnal desolation that seemed to lie at the heart of Goya’s prints come flooding into my prints as well. Platinum has the advantage that it allows me to work directly on paper — that is, without any resin or gelatin substrate, which tends to smooth out appearances.
Goya’s voice in the Caprichos is unmistakable: by turns cryptic, mordant, and darkly funny. He included captions, engraved directly onto the plates, which were printed as part of the image — a device adopted in making my photographic negatives. In some instances, I’ve preserved his captions verbatim; in others, I’ve written new ones. The legends, and the language, are, in effect, a mask: a way to speak in a transformed voice, one that’s not merely my own.
A reception for the artists represented in the Berkeley Art Center’s Local Treasures show, curated by Anne Veh, will be held on Saturday, 3/22, 6–8:00pm. The show includes work by Linda Connor, Hiroyo Kaneko, J. John Priola, Unai San Martin, Klea McKenna and Richard Whittaker.
I remember seeing Unai San Martin’s prints at Kala about a year ago; I left with a case of printer’s envy for the subtle grays of his photogravures and the slight residual footprint of the copper plate. I look forward to seeing more—and to seeing the others’ prints.
The Berkeley Art Center is located at 1275 Walnut Street, Berkeley; phone: (510) 644-6893.
I’m back to the Caprichos (based loosely on Goya’s album of the same name), after taking some time off to do a solo show (Ohio Woods) in San Francisco last fall. The website has been updated: there’s been a lot of editing going on behind the scenes and — slowly — I’ve been adding legends (captions) to the images. For those who don’t know Goya’s work (of 1799), you can see the full set of 80 prints online here. The prints were an experimental series of aquatint etchings that ranged in tone from satiric to grotesque, and which cast a jaundiced eye on late eighteenth-century Madrid. Goya’s paintings and prints (including work from other series like Los Desastres de la Guerra) have inspired artists as varied as Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, the Chapman brothers, Enrique Chagoya, and William Kentridge.The legend above translates as “unexpected kiss”.