“I'm not one to buy into the idea that to be an artist you have to have a ‘gift.’ I also reject the notion of the idealized bohemian artist … one simply has to acquire the skills and tools … It's that simple. No snake oil or special divine dispensation required, just the will to try and try and try again. Anyone can be an artist.”
David Beers is a fantastic artist who lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and kids (including twins). His work covers almost every genre www.dbeersfineart.com and he has a lot to say about it. Here’s our chat.
MICHAEL: Hey David, You're clearly a complete artist. You work in various genres and your work is VERY cool. Let's start with your sculptural work. To me, it seems inspired by modernity yet it's contemporary, it's TODAY. What inspires you to create? Do you work mainly with marble and clay?
DAVID: Working 3D is probably my forte' although it does not make up the bulk of my work. After all, making a line with ink and quill is a swift and elegant thing, but in stone or metal? It can take days. I work in metal, clay, stone, plastics and wood. The approach I use in sculpting is to try to be very true to my aesthetic sense which gravitates toward the minimalist, contemporary flavor, but with a lot of its core coming from understanding of the figure. And, for the life of me, I cannot abandon my love for good craftsmanship and alluring composition. But I will tell you what is really important to my sculptural work - I would say it is the central driver, semiotics - the use of visual cues to convey meaning. To me, "art" is defined as anything that gives "form meaning." My challenge as a sculptor is to create a form that has content or meaning that conforms to my personal aesthetic ideals as a contemporary, minimalist and yet is both packed with visual cues that are open ended or non-didactic to the viewer. You can see the challenge - create potent content, in a minimalist form, that is neither preachy, didactic or completely ethereal to the point it has no meaning or is totally confused.
MICHAEL: You’re obviously a trained artist.
DAVID: I stumbled into the world of semiotics as an undergraduate at the Corcoran School of Art and Design. I was studying Charles Pierce's essays on semiotics and it resonated with me. I decided to initiate a project to see if I could take an existing, well-established iconographic image and change its meaning through the substitution of one or more visual cues without losing the recognition of the original object. I choose the white hood of the KKK as my baseline - a symbol recognized throughout the western world as standing for white American supremacist racism. I ordered an actual hood from KKK headquarters in Indianapolis, disassembled it, made a pattern and took the pattern and a piece of black and white checkered cloth used in the Kaffiyeh (the head covering worn by Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders) and sent it to a seamstress. When it came back it had the "shape" of the KKK hood but I assure you it gave off none of its original "meaning." It’s "content" had been completely transformed by the simple change in fabric. Such is the power of semiotics in action. I made a dozen hoods, including one in fine grade mink obtained from PETA.
My point is simply to convey to you how potent the idea of semiotics can be in the fabrication of art - so potent that it has the potential to eradicate or transform the original meaning of something beyond recognition. The articulate use of semiotic elements can truly open a piece up to the imagination and interpretive power of the viewer, making the art they view all the more alluring as it resonates something meaningful to them.
Let me give you one more example.
I just finished the base for a piece I made long ago called “Iron Lady,” which is an abstracted feminine form - simple, minimalist, with a patina of rust on its steel surface. The base is a 72" tall 4" wide by 12" deep piece of highly polished pauduk wood which is blood red. The top of the pauduk had been carved hollow to form a cavity into which the narrow base of the metal Iron Lady is inserted. Together, the Iron Lady stands towering upward, somewhat monumental in perspective. The cavity of the base is back filled with various materials depending on what I want to "convey." For example, I have ashes from 9/11, baptismal water and a mysterious white anthrax-like powder. Depending on what I put in the cavity as backfill, distinct yet subtle changes take place in how the piece might be interpreted by a viewer. In short, it serves as an "urn" and as such embodies meaning from the material choices and form. When properly lit, the tall narrow piece radiates shadows not unlike a sundial, creating yet again those subliminal elements of meaning through the use of interrelated visual cues. Anyway, you can get the idea - to use semiotics to create a rich environment of meaning yet one that isn’t didactic or "difficult" to discern. That's the beauty of the minimalist, contemporary aesthetic. If my work were hyper- realism, it would be next to impossible to have such fluid content. I love this aspect of my dimensional work.
MICHAEL: Is it possible for you to apply this in your paintings as well?
DAVID: Yes, however I think the approach that works best is to concentrate on the creation of an emotional feeling that is a lot more direct and less diverse or nuanced than what I have previously described about my sculptures. In sculpting, I have found a very distinct voice and direction, but with painting, I have less immediate interest in the deliberate use of visual cues to create meaning. When working 2D, I am interested in the expressiveness in my work - the sense of creating an emotional feeling, especially with my portraiture and figurative work, through the emotive use of line, shape, color, etc. Additionally, because I can create so much faster in 2D, it really is my foundation for all things artistic: composition, use of color, shape, line, symmetry etc. I can educate myself about the figure, botanicals, etc. and whatever I work on is informing me in unfathomable ways that will gradually rise to the surface as I continue to make things. I can do a hundred times in 2D what I can do only once in the same amount of time when sculpting.
There are a lot of ways to create a "feeling,” but chief among them is the use of the line or "mark." When I was teaching my first year students at the Corcoran, I’d always begin the first few minutes of class having each student come up to me a make a charcoal mark on a sheet of paper. After all the students were finished, I turned the sheet around to reveal 20 or more completely distinctive marks. This was the basis for helping the students understand the diversity of language that is carried in a simple mark - that their mission as artists was to discover the language of mark making. It is in the mark itself that expression is found, not in the mark's ability to create a copy of an object in already in existence.
When I do figurative work, most often the figure is in isolation, much like my sculptures. The choice here is deliberate - the figure alone, stands aloof even forlorn. Even so, I do not incorporate actual objects as visual cues in my 2D work. For some reason, doing so tends to create a "narrative" that is more constricted in meaning - less open to varying interpretations. So the application of semiotics in my 2D work is an area to tread cautiously.
In fact, I am in the process of creating up to 50 large 4' x 8' Objective Abstractions (see "Machinations 1" for a sample.). I have about seven made. These paintings are almost anti-semiotic pieces. They have objects, shapes, color, line and composition, but convey almost nothing of any tangible meaning. Pleasing to look at, they do nothing in terms of creating an emotional response or conveying "meaning." The Machinations series are academic exercises in classical painting techniques, formal composition development and color theory - all very traditional approaches to art making. Yet, these techniques are employed in an abstraction that is as neutered of an expressive voice as I could muster. Even though I am using semiotic elements, I am attempting to create something that simply "is" with no real intent, purpose or "meaning." I can't say how this will help me understand how to better employ the use of semiotics in my 2D work, but I do think it is an interesting approach to take.
MICHAEL: I absolutely love large paintings. What do you like about working large?
DAVID: When it comes to making or viewing art, size matters. For both the artist and the viewer, it may be more a question of intimacy vs. intimidation. When I first took my children to the National Cathedral, I made a point to allow them to walk in front of me as they entered the interior structure of vaulted ceilings, elevated stained glass windows and massive upright pillars. The normally talkative children (an understatement) immediately hushed themselves as they were struck with the awe of their surroundings. Such is the power of massive scale. The children were somewhat intimidated by the experience – not in a negative way invoking fear, but in a way that made them realize they were in a place that commanded their respect. They saw themselves as small, perhaps vulnerable, perhaps even as intruders. Small scale works are by nature more intimate, one must approach them closely to see relevant details. They may indeed be awe inspiring, but not by sheer magnitude of their size until further inspected. (i.e., I was “awestruck” to see small paintings from Japan in which a human head no larger than my thumb actually had individual beard hairs painted on. Just how this was done is a mystery to me and unfortunately, the curator never addressed the materials used (ink? bat hair brushes? magnification lens? child labor?) or the processes. On the other hand, large scale works require the viewer to stand back and gaze at the overall image. There are exceptions of course, but as a general characteristic, this is true.
I think large scale works tend to create a sense of awe, reverence or simply intrigue. When I work large, I know I am creating something which by its sheer size will create a sensation that is very different than if I were to make the same composition small. This certainty can add an element of excitement to a piece as it is being created, lending me a greater sense of purpose and anticipation of what the final impact will be of the finished piece. To be honest, I also think there is a bit of ego involved as working large is more laborious, difficult in some ways and intimidating. To complete a project of size is gratifying and in a way places an imprimatur on one’s work or status as an artist. Truly an egotistic reflection I know, but artists are not always the humble servants of some profound vision. We sometimes really love the admiration of others.
Something else that is important about working large is that it really paves the way for working small. Having completed numerous fairly large scale works, I am very confident when I decide to delve into something on a smaller scale. This is a natural beneficial byproduct of working large. Another benefit is that when I create a large scale work, I will sometimes find that only a portion of it “works.” Rather than labor endlessly to fix the entire piece, it is sometimes a better idea to cut out the good parts of a composition and essentially “shrink” the work down to one or more smaller pieces, throwing out unusable areas of the work. From a productivity viewpoint, this can make a lot of sense and redeem a painting that might otherwise never be finished or finished poorly. Finally, working large helps sales. Usually in a show with qualified buyers, large scales tend to sell first and get the most attention. Again, speaking more as a marketing person than an artist, this is simply the power of scale working to one’s advantage.
Usually when I work on a large painting such as the Machinations series, I have two or more going at the same time. This is mainly because I need to give a layer of glaze time to dry and yet have a sizable amount of paint or medium already prepared that cannot be used for several days. Rather than let it go to waste, I can apply it to a second painting. Making more than one large work at a time helps keep me from becoming over invested in one work, which can lead to uncertainty or “tightening up” and being afraid to make decisions that will alter the work significantly. By being able to move to a second or third work, or even begin a sculpture, I free myself from becoming captive to one work, increase my productivity and end up creating derivative works that have more coherence as a “body of work.”
By the way, on an earlier issue regarding sculptures and children, have you ever noticed how children in a museum will naturally gravitate toward sculptures rather than flat work? I think sculptures are imminently more “accessible” to the human psyche than most paintings. We know that baby’s can perceive depth at a very early age. Perhaps that in part plays into why the kids love to see and, if permitted, touch sculptural works?
MICHAEL: How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
DAVID: My family has a lot of people who are quite accomplished in terms of craftwork and being very creative with their hands, but there are no actual artists in the literal sense. My father is a skilled draftsman, my mother an award-winning amateur ceramicist and my older brother is very talented in drawing. All my brothers and sisters, there were five of us, work with their hands instinctively and have some pretty strong creative juices.
But, I have to tell you the last thing on earth I ever thought I would do was be an artist. I did not begin until I was 48 years old and it was my wife Barbara that pushed me in this direction. My career was well established in hi tech, with nearly twenty years under my belt and some pretty commendable accomplishments. I had just finished the successful launch of an online electronic commerce website I had designed for the federal acquisition marketplace. The company grew quickly, was bought and I had finished my required period of working for the aquiline firm during the transition. Coming home from work, I joined Barb on the deck outside and we talked about how hard the last few years had been at work. She suggested rather than going out and getting another job in high tech that I should go to school, to college, and get the degree I had never had time for. I thought she meant I should go to law school and responded, "why should I go to law school? I'd just be the same ass in a different tie." She said, "no, not law school, ART. School."
The only time Barb had ever seen me draw was on our honeymoon in Greece. I was writing a journal for my children and once in a while embedded a sketch from the surrounding area that was relevant to my writing. When Barb saw this, she went and bought me a watercolor set and some good paper with instructions to "get busy."
That was 7 years before our conversation on the deck and I had not done a lick of art the entire time. So, I think it’s fair to say that I pretty much stumbled into becoming an artist. Left to my own devices, I would have taken a deep breath and dove right back into high tech. Financially, it would have been much better deal for us as my income in high tech was promising.
My wife's family has some artistic bones. Her father's father was JB Neumann, an art collector and representative and gallery owner. JB brought many well known German Expressionist artists to America from Europe right after WWII. Art has always been very dear to her heart as has architecture. I think she saw that I had some basic ability in art, but more importantly I think she had a lot of confidence in me and in my ability to figure something out. I hope she's right. I think she is, but we have decades of work ahead of us before we will truly know.
As you may have guessed, I'm not one to buy into the idea that to be an artist you have to have a "gift." I also reject the notion of the idealized bohemian artist as a necessary disposition to truly unleash ones creative force. Such romanticized ideals are passé and do more harm than good.
My decision, our decision, to become an artist is predicated on one simple truth - that we were all made to create. One simply has to acquire the skills and tools and, through a process of education, trial and error, can become an artist. It's that simple. No snake oil or special divine dispensation required, just the will to try and try and try again. Anyone can be an artist. They just have to want to be one. Or, as in my case, have someone else who opens a door that I never would have opened on my own. After that, it’s all about hard work and patience.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Are there any themes, concepts or principles that inspire you to create and that show up in your work?
DAVID: I don't believe so, at least not consciously. I do have a distinctive way of approaching my life that seems to "trigger" the creative act. It boils down to a triangulation between three things: learning, making and teaching. At first, things usually get started by simply learning about something that makes me inspired, confused or eager for more understanding. I get to a point in this process of accumulation of information where I simply feel compelled to fabricate the ideas or unresolved issues into a physical form. Finally, after one or many pieces are made, I "teach" others about my creations - I verbally share with those interested just what my work is addressing and in doing so bring the piece(s) to a point of final resolution (for me). After a while, I start getting bored repeating my lessons and/or discussing the ideas. At that point, it’s back to learning something new and the cycle repeats itself. So, I learn about something, I make an object related to what I learned and I tell others. In the real world, these operations are going on concurrently, but I can clearly see the "triangle" at work on my most important work. I get a kick from this interaction between making, teaching and learning. It keeps me honest and pretty humbled. There are a lot of things I know little about and I really get excited when I think I've reached a minor degree of intellectual enlightenment regarding something that may have previously been obscure to me.
In many cases, my art acts as a physical "marker" that becomes a placeholder to me for something very important on a personal level - both emotionally and intellectually. It is an anchor that gives physical materialization to ideals that I think are really important. Here's an example: my first sculpture, Primitive Art came about as I was studying the fascinating cultural aesthetics of the Incas, an ancient Asian dynasty, and the Yoruba tribe (in what is now present day Nigeria). I was particularly impressed with the Yoruba. It was about 50 years ago that the U.S. sent a team of scientists to study this "primitive" tribe with no written language or laws. Part of their research included documenting how these people "defined" their art as "good" or "bad." When their research was published, Western art critics were astounded. The 18 cultural aesthetics of the Yoruba matched one for one with the methodology by which "sophisticated" western art critics evaluated art. Line, shape, texture, asymmetry, etc., were all there in the Yoruba aesthetics. They went by different names, "displeasing angularities" and "glistening surfaces" but the criteria were rock solid. I found this amazing. I had similar experiences with the Inca and the Wang dynasty.The education process was so stimulating I felt absolutely compelled to create something that would capture my newly acquired knowledge and impressions - I wanted my "marker." The piece I made is titled “Primitive Art” because I saw my efforts as primitive in the attempt to capture some very sophisticated ideals of these ancient cultures.
You can check this piece on my website. The base is Inca, the front view very Yoruba-ish and from the back and profile view you can see the beautiful flowing grace of the Asian aesthetic. I also throw the pose into an abstraction of the "one foot forward" found in depictions of royalty in ancient Egypt (another culture I was studying, only much earlier). When I am not in a state of compulsive creativity as described previously with Primitive Art, Iron Lady or my KKK hoods, I work on my drawing, painting etc., looking at new approaches, trying to improve in some small way, challenging myself with new compositional approaches, different media or making progress on my machination series. There's always a lot to do and never enough time to get to it all. Why?
Kids! ... We have twin 8 year olds and they have 12 non school related functions every week, from piano, tutors, gymnastics, diving, football, swimming etc., that's before play dates and does not include my 17 year old son - a great kid in his own right. Life is busy. But I rise at four most days and in the evening after dinner the kids play a game or read in the living room while I paint or read nearby with my wife. I wish I could live forever. But as the saying goes, ‘Ars longa vita brevis (art is long, life is short).’
MICHAEL: You wish you could live forever. Is your art an attempt at immortality?
DAVID: I don't think so, at least not anymore than my having five children. We were all made to create. This core attribute of humanity is compulsive and inescapable. I happen to now be an artist, so I create art. When in high-tech, I created software that solved things I believed needed solving. My entire life has been like so many others - saturated with creating. Sure, I like the idea that I am creating something with my artwork that will live beyond my time, but even if it were not to be the case, I would do little differently. Art is the embodiment of an idea, it is "giving form to meaning." So long as my life has meaning it only makes sense to attempt giving that a form.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world today and how it functions? Dead famous artists are doing great, but living artists are struggling.
DAVID: I sometimes kid about needing to fake my death as part of my marketing plan. But seriously, the art market is pretty dysfunctional for the emerging artist. And the blame can be shared between artists, jurors or curators, museums and galleries because they are all working at cross purposes in pursuit of the prize: collectors and patrons.
Historically, the art market, largely defined by who determined good art from bad, was led by one group or another. Sometimes it was the Medici's who decided what "art" was and which artist would be prominent, at other times the power shifted - as when Jackson Pollack and others came onto the scene, clearly shifting the definition of good art to the avant-garde artists of the day. Regardless of who was "in charge" of determining what art or artist was relevant or hot, the important thing was that there existed a certain degree of clarity emanating from one group that made it a simpler task to succeed as an artist - assuming you had baseline competencies as an artist. Sadly, this is not the case today.
Not only is there a lack of any single clear focus in what is relevant today, to the detriment of all, each group is vying to establish themselves as the defacto leader in the market. In my opinion, this competition for relevance is misplaced and indicates a lack of appreciation for where the art world is really at - an age I referred to earlier as trans-modernity in which many "isms" or types of art are simultaneously relevant and equal and in which artists, critics, curators, galleries etc., have an equal say in what determines good art.
But let me narrow this down to two groups: artists and the curator.
The problem among artists are that there are so many of them, due in part to very low barriers to entry - materials are cheap, it cost next to nothing to put up a "shingle" on the web, and there are no licensing requirements - literally any person or hobbyist can call themselves an "artist." Unfortunately, numbers do not equate to quality. The very low cost to entry in the art market makes it a certainty that there will be a great number of very weak products being made. Buyers cannot easily differentiate a pro from an amateur resulting in doubt and in the suppression of sales in what could otherwise be a more kinetic art market.
Additionally, artists are very dysfunctional as a group, some selling directly, some through galleries or other forms of representation and still others who do both. When an artist sells directly, they immediately create a conflict with gallery owners because the buyer will attempt to go around the gallery in hopes of securing artwork less expensively. Obviously, even the work of an excellent artist will not be acknowledged by a gallery if the artist's works can be obtained more inexpensively by buying direct rather than through the gallery. Again, this conflict only makes it harder for a potential art buyer to be separated from their money.
When it comes to critics, curators and jurors the issues are a bit different. With these groups, there’s always the need to find and promote work that is a little bit edgy, controversial and unique. This is not necessarily bad, but it often results in works being selected for their ability to distinguish the person making the selection rather than the artist. Things become less about art and more about self-promotion of the curator.
If I want to win an award in a fair or show, I have been told to make something really edgy - that the conventional works, no matter how well crafted, are rarely chosen by "professional" judges. Though not always the case, you can see how this can work to push artists to make things that do not come from within. The end result is the creation of a lot of work that seems lacking and impersonal.
Let me make one observation about America's art market that is pretty frustrating to admit to. Unlike in most of eastern and Western European countries, Americans have no problems with and perhaps even a preference for purchasing copies of past works rather than original pieces. Considered as uncouth or "cheesy" by Europeans, many Americans will not even ponder purchasing original art, preferring to select their art from the safety of that which was previously defined as a "great work" back when the market was less confused and conflicted. What a shame. There are so many good works at reasonable prices, but so few people are even aware of this. Again, if artists, critics etc. were working together to help change this cultural predilection for the "copy" we might actual see a resurgence in strong and innovative work by as yet undiscovered artists. In the meantime, we are stuck. We end up with a lot of artists, a lot of low quality work, an industry whose disparate groups are ill defined and working at cross purposes, and all that in a massive global economic meltdown. Not a good recipe for forward motion in the art world.
MICHAEL: David, you’re right on when it comes to so many things. This has been great. Thanks.
Check out David Beers at www.dbeersfineart.com.