Underneath, Around, & In Between: Notes On An Image Practice

by Anthony Hawley

July 14, 2017

It’s coming up on almost six months since the US presidential inauguration & I’ve been making a drawing a day every day for Donald since January 20th. I’ve been pretty good about sticking to this. Granted, sometimes I miss a day, but I have too much Protestant upbringing and Catholic schooling not to feel guilty if I forget, so I try to double or triple up when I miss them. I post them on Instagram, sometimes Facebook, and have been doing a really poor job of archiving them on my website. In any case, this has been a daily way of staying engaged, thinking through the strangeness of the current global political climate and getting a different kind of language out in the world.

But how do you keep up a daily practice without it getting stagnant? 

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I once taught an Advanced Painting Studio at a large university and for a midterm assignment I asked 14 students to make 10 paintings in two weeks. Now to some that might not sound like very much (how about 10 paintings in three days?), but to these students this seemed virtually impossible. They were all juniors and seniors who saw themselves as “painters,” not artists, and had come to rely heavily on technique, but no vision. They each had an over-inflated sense of signature style and they were pretty sold on there being a right way to make a painting. I wanted to break all of that. They were horrified by the idea of making 10 paintings in two weeks because they’d been used to making 2 or 3 in a semester. Needless to say, they were even more up in arms when I made them sign a contract that said, à la Baldassari, “I will not make any more boring art.” In their eyes, nothing they’d ever made was boring. 

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All the Drawings for Donald use text and, so far, every one of them begins with the words “Dear Donald.” When I started the series, I used black Sumi ink on 9”x9” paper from a Fabriano notebook called quadratto. Squared. Occasionally, I added a bit of red ink, cake gel, glitter, or switched to the vermillion Sumi ink. A dash of cake gel or purple glitter felt like the perfect confectionary touch for an immensely confectionary presidency. 

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Not all, but many of the students in the Advanced Painting studio produced the best work of the semester for 10-painting project. Repetition and temporal constraints forced them to produce things in ways they never had. One student who had a lot of figurative chops painted a series of 10 self-portraits. They were still pretty boring at first, but once he loosened up and decided he didn’t have to glaze every piece and do an underpainting, he began to see both himself and the idea of a portrait in new ways. The last one he did was the best. He had a very hard time with that idea though because it took him almost no time and it was just a “quick, easy” piece (his words) that wasn’t as serious as the others. 

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When you practice something every day (or almost every day), you evolve. Be it yoga, meditation, portraiture, prayer, sobriety, martial arts, an instrument etc., a part of you morphs. Inevitably, a part of you develops as the practice deepens. This could be muscular, mnemonic, or the ability to see or hear something you hadn’t before. 

But repetition in practice is funny. For me, and perhaps for a lot of people, I think it’s two-sided. On the one hand, I crave patterns and structure. The limitations free me. On the other, the shear boredom of repeating the same things over and over keeps me wanting to reinvent the process. It’s a fine line. Repetition lets you deepen the process and allows for unforeseen discoveries, but how do you also deepen repetition?

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When I got tired of ink on Fabriano paper, I started drawing on dark room prints. 

The whole time I was making my Donald Drawings, I had been working very intensely in the darkroom. For two months, I used just two negatives, fragmenting, layering, and manipulating the printed image. I was less interested in making a “perfect print” and more so in making something that was about discovering all the possibilities in a negative; like pulling out all the hidden stories. 

Repetition again, but the lack of total control in tweaking and layering the image was very exciting. How long could you keep reinterpreting a single image?  How many new spaces could you extract?

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I know plenty of people who never want to reinvent themselves or their practice, but as a mentor and friend said to me recently, the people who grow the most are the people who diversify their work in life. 

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I had had a dream in which my daughter’s flute teacher was giving a multimedia presentation to an audience on Goethe’s book on color. It was extremely vivid and for awhile I had no idea what it was trying to tell me, other than reminding me that my daughter and her teacher talk a lot about color. 

But the dream seemed to be guiding me to do something with that book. Goethe wanted to see and know everything. His book on colors is no exception: he writes extensively on color in things like beer bubbles, or in the prismatic, oily surface of a just-poured cup of coffee. And then I thought, if Goethe is the pinnacle of joyous knowing and careful observation, our president is the strict antithesis. 

I started incorporating bits of Goethe into my text to Donald

“For me, practice has a different meaning. It is the consistent willingness to open to life in all its pain and joy." -Judith Lasater. How could you create an image practice that aspires to this idea? What would it mean to open up the photographic image in this way? I don't mean to capture a moment with a camera, but to open up the image itself; something against the purity of the image. 

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Quadratto, squared. The square is where the Drawings for Donald started and recently, I’ve returned to it, but this time a smaller one. 

I like the medium format polaroid as a final product for a number of reasons. That little frame. How far can it be pushed? And aren’t we saturated in squares? While a Mamiya’s polaroid back produces an image bigger than the Hasselblad CM, the CM will give you something just about the size of your phone’s Instagram feed. That’s interesting; analogue Instagram. 

Also, the vacant space. That space between things that matters as much as the things themselves. 

In a sense these Polaroids are a combination of the blank paper drawings and the darkroom remixes, but flipped. They’re also finite, unlike the darkroom prints, which present a refreshing problem to repeat. 

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I think you can also practice things that we don’t always associate with traditional notions of consistency associated with practice. Like you could practice eclecticism. Or practice mobility and transience. Or you could practice shape-shifting. It’s interesting to think about cultivating a practice of these kinds. Different kinds of consistency might evolve and get us elsewhere.