ABG ArtBookGuy
  Art For All PeopleŽ    We Talk Contemporary Art    April 2017
GEORGE KOZMON: EPIC GLADIATOR

George Kozmon is a brilliant artist who lives with his family in Cleveland, Ohio.  I think he contacted me one day on social media and when I looked at his website http://georgekozmon.com/, I thought, “Wow, I must chat with this guy!” His work simply speaks for itself, but not better than he does himself.  Read on and see what I mean.

MICHAEL: George! First, let me say that I totally, totally GET your work. While looking at your website just now, this term popped into my head ... "Epic Gladiator!" Your work is BIG, BOLD, graphic and bad-ass! It's challenging us to rise to our greatest aspirations. It's very cinematic and inspiring. What do you think about this?

GEORGE:Hi Michael, you're definitely getting the melodrama and even more so when you see the actual scale of the works. My last project was an 8ft x 80ft  canvas. I have a soft spot for some very romantic notions: using human achievements as metaphors, reflecting on historical architecture, the transient nature of all things, humanity's perception of the environment … There is a balance between the heroic archetype, the idea of aspiration and achievement and the bleak or futile notion that this too shall pass, like Shelley's Ozymandias or Smiths version.

The drama comes from my early attempts to see structures from unconventional, distorted perspectives, re-perceiving common classical architecture. In all of my work, I'm interested in the representational form, not the specific identity. So the architecture is symbolic simplification, pillars, arches, banisters, always stone (permanent?), and generally undefined as to time or place. Same with the figural work and currently the “Mountain” series.

MICHAEL: What is it that you like about Classicism? You could do the same thing with modernism or even contemporary forms.

GEORGE: What appeals to me about classicism - or how I interpret it - is the element of universality. All great art throughout history is simultaneously individualistic and universal. That's what perseveres through time. Shakespeare is still relevant today, because no matter when/where he wrote or where he placed his characters historically, the underlying principles and themes he explored are universal. That's why I return to elements like an architectural arch. The proportion or style is irrelevant, but the idea of bridging a span is universal. Since the Renaissance/Age of Enlightenment, the rise of the individual has become dominant and in the past century, originality has become paramount in the fine arts.

Contemporary art struggles with this. Developed societies have become so specialized in all fields that unless you're well versed in a specific discipline, you easily become lost in the jargon. I've remarked amongst my peers that when we're discussing/debating the art universe (over an undisclosed number of beers), a non-artist would sit befuddled and convinced that we're utterly irrational.

Worse yet is Art-speak that purposefully obfuscates to make itself feel exclusive. Modern classical music suffers the same accessibility problem. I think as a consequence of this dilemma, the art world has become much more event-driven, entertainment and publicity-stunt oriented, to stay relevant to the broader community.  I've veered far from your question about classicism...

MICHAEL: Nope, your good. Is Classicism part of your own personal effort to remain relevant 200 years from now? Or are you simply fascinated by it?

GEORGE: Like any artist, I have an ego that believes my contribution has relevance. It would be irrational to create anything at all if this weren’t so. But rationality tempers my attitude toward more objectivity. I have hope that my work has resonance beyond my lifetime. Not expectation or delusions, just hope. The journey to that end is a murky obstacle course on ever-shifting terrain and dependent on an infinite variety of factors out of the artist’s control. So, ultimately I focus on my work.

My interest in Classicism is perhaps due more to my upbringing. My parents arrived in the U.S. after WWII from Hungary, struggled through Displaced Persons camps for nearly six years before settling here in Cleveland, Ohio with a suitcase and the shirts on their backs. They raised my brother and I speaking Hungarian and exposed us to European culture. They encouraged my fanatical forays into the art world as a kid, took us to museums (Cleveland Museum of Art, a great one), Cleveland Orchestra (among the world’s best), Opera, Ballet, and so on. Cultural knowledge and engagement was an expected attribute of any civilized, well-rounded individual. Becoming an adult, I greatly appreciated their wisdom and attitude and I balanced the historical depth I was given by immersing myself in the contemporary art world as well.

MICHAEL: You know, I think that one of the great problems that has plagued mankind through history - and especially today - is that we have no contextual knowledge about things. We don't respect history, so why would we learn from it? It feels like we're not progressing. Our society is so busy bickering over everything. Technology is marching forward and yet we're ripping people apart on Twitter. I don't know. What do you think?

GEORGE: I think context is ever-changing, but the biological basis of human nature evolves much more slowly. Our long-term thinking is always subservient to the immediacy of the moment. Evolutionary biology would indicate that throughout several million years, we've successfully balanced the two opposing time-frame perceptions. Our species dominance of the planet is a reflection of that success. But our biological core is fundamentally the same. We developed the capacity to create moving images (TV, film, YouTube...), but our attention span is dictated less by content and more by the hard-wired retinal response to movement. Our ancestors' survival (hunting/fleeing/hiding) depended on acute observation skills focused on detecting movement, so after thousands of generations of honing that skill, we retain the visual response, though our context is completely different.

It FEELS like we're not progressing, but I would posit that we are: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a 2011 book by Steven Pinker argues that violence in the world has declined both in the long run and in the short. Bickering on Twitter is better than slaughtering the idiot that disagrees with you. Another example is environmental awareness. Only societies at a certain point in their development can afford the deeper consideration - and actual addressing - of humanity’s interaction with and impact on the earth. If your tribe's survival depends on knowingly gutting the last wildebeest or its kind, so what, no hesitation. Because of our technological/agricultural development, we can make conscious choices and explore alternative solutions.

True that we (the U.S. in particular) are somewhat uninterested in both history and geography and as a consequence, have misconceptions and distorted views, mostly driven by politics and media. The short term dialog is easily manipulated because of our susceptibility described above and because we're emotionally-driven. Critical thinking skills are rare, are actively discouraged, and today's glut of information makes discernment challenging. Ironically, it seems to me that though we have an infinite feed for diverse information, we tend to distill down into simplified worldviews of right and left.

MICHAEL: Uh, Yuh think?

GEORGE: There’s not much nuance. I think this is also driven by a biological imperative to belong to a group. Societies formed out of tribes because the success rate of the solitary hunter-gatherer sucked. This *need* to conform to a group, also helps diminish critical thinking; don't question your group, but diminish the viewpoint of the other.

MICHAEL: Absolutely.

GEORGE: Where art fits into all this, I'm not sure. As individualistic creators, one would think we reject “group think,” yet I find the serious fine art realm almost comically one-sided in its sociopolitical views.

MICHAEL: Yes indeed.  Given all of that, what do you think about the art world/art market and how they function? Even in death Picasso, Rothko and Warhol are selling like hotcakes while living artists are struggling.

GEORGE: The irony of my previous statement is that despite artists' general rejection of the commodification of art and general rejection of capitalist principles, we all bust our asses trying to "make it" and receive big-time compensation for our brilliance.  

Perhaps the most relevant aspect of being a creative artist is the decision on whether to aggressively build an art career. To me, these are two distinct things. The first involves making stuff. The second is being an entrepreneur, sales-person, grant writer, marketing coordinator, manufacturer, distributor, chief financial officer ... Ultimately it means building your life around the priorities of career demands. It DOES NOT mean changing your art to suit the vagaries of the marketplace. Integrity and your creative content should never be compromised. Just like any good business. Everybody finds their own personal balance in this dichotomy which fluctuates through different stages of your life.

If somebody chooses to make art as a hobby, great, enjoy the therapy and satisfaction that comes from self-expression and creating something. If one chooses to exhibit with prices on the work, that is a foray into the business of art. If you're in the business of art then it's your responsibility to be knowledgeable in your field. You are a small business, with limitless options on the development of that business. Part of your knowledge-base needs to be the understanding that most small businesses crash and burn - repeatedly. If you can't deal with that idea, don't go into business.

Without a doubt, the market seems insane, the high-end inaccessible and unaffordable to most, with dubious aesthetics dominating the scene at any given time, the “who-you-know” principle run amok, writing that is purposefully unintelligible and pretentious (present company excluded), elitist, unregulated - the diatribe could be expressed by any artist. By the same token, it's dynamic as hell. Yes, there is manipulation and even downright fraud. People do get prosecuted and jailed – regularly just like in any other industry. But I've found that most of the individuals involved with the art market - dealers, collectors, curators - have a genuine love and respect for art and artists. I'm not sure how many fields of endeavor could make that statement.

The ridiculously challenging nature of finding a level of "success" in the fine art world serves as a disincentive to many. We want to be nurtured, discovered and appreciated because we're artists. Historically, artists didn't behave with that kind of expectation. The Van Gogh mythology does living artists a disservice perpetuating the idea of suffering for your art, misunderstood by society, an activity and identity apart from society, the idea of art for art’s sake and hostility toward business practices. We forget that van Gogh struggled for success; he wanted for people to buy his art. He was just a crappy businessman with no demand for his product at the time.

Theoretically, good, dead artists' work should demand higher prices. They're not making them anymore. Living artists are. I can put a positive spin on anything and say that the more prices rise for contemporary art in general (living or dead, though contemporary implies living), the more collectors get into the game and find things to discover. Not everybody can purchase a Bacon triptych...

Michael: Very well said. I hear that a lot of New York artists are migrating to Cleveland. What's going on?

GEORGE: Cleveland rocks. Seriously, it does. The list of reasons for the attraction for artists is long, so here's a start: Affordable real estate, one of the top art museums in the world (Cleveland Museum of Art, just completing it's incredible expansion), one of the top 5 orchestras in the world (Cleveland Orchestra), one of the best art schools in the country (Cleveland Institute of Art), one of the best music schools in the country (Cleveland Institute of Music), the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in their awesome new building, a long shore-line with beaches on a big-ass lake (Lake Erie), awesome Metropark system, easy access to New York, Toronto, Chicago, ever-growing award-winning breweries (should be first on the list), well-endowed with foundations, cool friendly people, a rich arts community of artists (really good ones), galleries, non-profits...

I expect some big $$$ for my civic booster-ism, but seriously, I forced myself to stop listing things because Cleveland has a lot to offer. I was born here, lived abroad, traveled the world, but ultimately chose to stay here. The only thing missing is mountains. I love and need mountain terrain.

I have artist friends in New York and elsewhere who salivate considering my 2000 square foot  studio (and its cost) in the woods, within a half-hour of everything I just listed. Of course, there is something to be said for living in New York. I hear there’s some culture there as well.  Galleries too.

MICHAEL: When you're actually in front of a canvas and painting, what's going through your mind? Is the process more physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual? What's moving you to paint and/or create?

GEORGE: My ideas develop by working. One project stimulates thoughts about the next one. It starts with having a space dedicated to the making of art. I'm blessed with a spacious studio, but when I wasn't, it didn't matter. Even if it was a table in the corner of the room, when at that table, only supplies and thoughts for the making of art are allowed. It's like a gym membership; once you're there, what else are you going to do, but work out? It helps keep me focused, un-distracted.

I'm a big believer in honed instinct. My definition is that if you if you want to become proficient at anything, you need to commit serious amounts of time to it. That commitment leads to an intimate familiarity, a deep bonding. This hones your instinct. Someone who goes hunting once or twice a year won’t know the woods like someone who hunts there every day. Which brings me to context.  You can know about hunting animals, but if you’re relatively ignorant about the larger woodland environment, then your success will be limited. This is explored in Malcolm Gladwell's, Outliers: The Story of Success. He talks about 10,000 hours and the context (context more tied to the luck of when/where/from what genetic pool you happen to be born). So in an art practice, there are elements you can control and awareness of elements you can't, so you can take adaptive measures to compensate.

Whats going on in my mind? I could list family and friends who would enthusiastically agree if I say: nothing.

MICHAEL: Funny!

GEORGE: Though my work seems anally detailed, planned, precise, it's a cultivated illusion. I may start with a vague image in my head based on the current ideas I'm exploring, do multiple thumbnails - literally 2"-3" scribbles undecipherable to anybody else - make a decision about scale and materials, and jump right in. Doesn't matter whether it’s a 16" paper work or a 15ft. canvas incorporating numerous materials. What I mean about mindlessness is that after the process of developing the general concept, once I touch the surface of the material I'm working on, my instincts take over. I make decisions that feel right. Only when I step away from the work does my analytical side kick in to question or affirm what I've done. The right-brain left-brain dichotomy. And even then I follow my gut. I was fortunate to have a great high school art teacher Vincent Ferrara, and I remember him saying something like "if you ask yourself - is that red too intense? Then somewhere deep down, your instinct is prompting the question you already know the answer to."

Another book that puts it well into words is flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes the Buddhist or Zen notion of being in the moment, spending time on artists specifically. Unconsciously conscious.

This obscures any boundary between physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual. All four aspects drive me to create. The fifth may be ego. I don't mean being egotistical, but feeling your creative contribution has inherent value beyond only self-expression which is pure self-indulgence. Art is a medium of communication and if you didn't think your words matter, why speak at all?

For a little kid, none of this pontification has any meaning. I drew and painted because as a child, I was pretty good at it and received positive feedback. There is a weird duality even now of feeling you're pretty good, but at the same time acknowledging that most of your work isn't great, it's only a stepping stone to the next one which may be better.

I enjoy the physicality, the visceral, tactile sensation of mark-making. I'm intellectually challenged - wait, that came out wrong - the challenge of intellectual content is satisfying to explore, to understand what and why you make what you make and what it means. The emotional side perhaps is tied to the ego and identity. I'm an artist. I need to make art. Spiritually, art connects you to the human condition. We've been making art for over 40,000 years, probably much longer. How cool is it to add to a tradition that defines humanity?

MICHAEL: As I said earlier, I love large scale art. There's nothing like it, but it's also impractical unless it's for a museum space or wealthy collector who owns a 50-thousand square foot art barn and even then, they would run out of space. Still, I'm always encouraging artists to work BIG. Thoughts?

GEORGE: Rationality has never interfered with my art decisions. I encourage artists to explore whatever aspect of scale makes the most sense for their ideas. For me, monumentality is a conceptual part of my work, at least most of it. For a while, I was exploring figurative images and drew nudes on intimate 8" x 5" paper; soft, delicate, sensual. Some of them I re-configured into large-scale compositions, the largest 14ft. x 35ft. The same image small was precious; on a grand scale, it was heroic and melodramatic. Scale is tied to the content of the work. As is medium.

Practicality is definitely an issue. Most of my giant canvases I roll up, (I paint mostly thin layers of acrylic), ship them as circumstances present themselves, sometimes hang them like tapestries, and build stretchers only when necessary. I've also designed large steel frames that I build a wooden backing for and can mount paper or stretch canvas into. This gives me the flexibility to re-use the frames and easily switch paintings.

These are serious issues, as the walls of my previously spacious studio keep closing in on me with each and every completed painting. Every artist becomes a creative problem solver, both in regards to their work as well as studio/space/storage/shipping concerns.

An hour before I wrote this, my two teenage sons were helping me roll up a huge canvas.  Thank God they’re big and strong, and occasionally listen to me. I painted an 8ft. x 80ft. image for INGENUITYFEST (as an on-site performance), Cleveland's premier international arts and technology event with attendance exceeding 45,000. The Cleveland Institute of Art produced a cool video on the event, http://vimeo.com/75583148 (I appear at 2:40 in the 4 minute video). So now, I'm working on a video of my own about the evolution of the project, from start to finish and hope to find a permanent home for the work as well as create future opportunities for similar scale projects at museum venues. A shameless plug for curatorial attention...

MICHAEL: Many, if not most people are suspicious of contemporary art. They sometimes question whether or not what they're seeing is art or they simply mock what they see. Thoughts?

GEORGE: I had the stressful, but rewarding experience of owning and operating a beautiful, high-end, 5000 square foot gallery in downtown Cleveland for about three years in a high-traffic business area. We held lunchtime artist talks, gallery talks, hosted tons of benefit events, big opening parties for hundreds of people, live music, food and expended great effort to make the gallery accessible to the general public, without compromising the quality of the art. One of my disconcerting memories is that during any given day somebody would walk into the doorway and upon seeing that we were a contemporary art gallery, would turn and leave. There is a fear of feeling ignorant, insufficiently cultured, and downright intimidated by fine art. And we need to admit, we in the rarefied atmosphere sometimes nurture that exclusivity.

The comment I made earlier about classicism touches on the idea of universality. 40-thousand years ago, speculatively, the whole of the tribe understood the symbolism of the cave paintings. Same with the religious iconography of the Renaissance, the still-life paintings of the Dutch, certainly the sweetness of the Salon.  I'm focusing on the Western roots of contemporary art.  In the last century and a half, we've specialized and personalized to such a degree that there is little universality. The touchstones have become pop culture because that's the only common vocabulary or iconography. Even internationally.

And let’s face it. We've all walked into some slick, new contemporary museum to see a show, read the statement on the wall, looked at the work, and went back to re-read the statement because there was no discernible correlation. So the pseudo-intellectual art-speak of the text puffed up the content of the work to unsustainable expectation, thereby deflating it to irrelevance and bringing our attention to the hollowness of the words. Emperor’s new clothes indeed. Contemporary classical music struggles with the same dilemma. There is a great deal of information you have to understand to get the full appreciation. Visual art is no longer about pretty pictures and contemporary music is no longer about pretty melodies and hasn't been for generations. Some methods of compensation, to reach a larger audience aren't always successful in giving art more gravitas either. Giant extravaganzas, art stars, expos, auctions - these can serve to distance people who shake their heads in befuddlement at what seems like utter bullshit from their viewpoint. On the devil’s advocate side, hey audience! Step up your game! Think Kincaid was an artist? If you have a vague interest yet don't have a clue, get off your ass and learn!

So it's easy to imagine what somebody not deeply versed in the mind-numbing conceptual evolutions of contemporary art feels. There is a lot of art out there and a lot of text. It's extremely challenging and demanding to "get it," even when you're in it. I think that's why there has been an ever-growing movement in academic painting. It's grasping at accessibility and elevating the simplicity and purity of craftsmanship. I respect the technical facility of it, but for me that's not enough. Bouguereau's paintings are awesome to behold when studying the masterfully painted surface, but if you seek content...

So somewhere there is a middle ground that balances conceptual heft with technical execution. And a lot of work does. Contemporary works in any of the arts demand more from their audience. From a depth and richness perspective that's great. From a marketing perspective that sucks.

MICHAEL: Indeed. Finally George, Why should people even care about this? Can art save someone's life or get us out of this economic turmoil that we're in? What's the point of art?

GEORGE: I see you really want to encourage my political-philosophical bent. Okay, I'll bite. Can art save someone's life or get us out of this economic turmoil that we're in? No. Okay, so I'm a cynic. Let me elaborate. Can it enrich a life, give life meaning, purpose, identity, direction, significance, joy, productivity, accomplishment, challenge, beauty, therapy? I could go on, but YES it can. Absolutely. So if you equate terms like these with "saving a life" then we are discussing semantics.

Now, for economics, a loaded subject in which I proclaim my politically incorrect arguments and make myself a pariah in the contemporary art world. A tremendous amount has been written about the arts as economic drivers in a community. The pitch distills down to "for every public $1.00 spent there is $1.35 increase in economic activity, or return on investment." The numbers are variable, but it's the same argument made for public funding of sport facilities, tax incentives for the film industry, unemployment benefits, even for the SNAP (food stamps) program.

Seriously? If you build on the logic of that argument, then it would make the most sense to make every single dollar of privately earned income a public dollar, thereby generating $1.35 in economic activity. Economists that make such arguments usually leave themselves a fair amount of wiggle room to accommodate reality, but what we end up reading in the media usually doesn't include the wiggle room. Why make things more complicated than necessary? Plus it doesn't have to make sense if it feels good emotionally, and makes you feel like a good, empathetic person.

It's relatively easy to demonstrate public money benefits, impossible to show what would've been the economic impact if that same money were spent by private choice.

Admittedly, there are clear short-term benefits from public art funding. I've received several grants over the years, have exhibited in numerous public venues, which make my arguments sound hypocritical. I'm not 100% against public funding or tax breaks, just don't bullshit me with convoluted arguments muddling public worthiness with economics. Earlier, I mentioned the Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Orchestra. We could debate whether they are economic drivers or not, but only an uncivilized cultural boor would want to see them die. I don't care if it costs the society $$$ because their value is not measured in $$$.

So no, art can't get us out of our economic turmoil. I'd rather see a dynamic, growing, risk-taking market based economy that generates long term employment opportunities and actually raises the standard of living, which will create opportunities for artist in the long run. And for those of you shaking your heads in dismay, no I don't watch FOX news or listen to right-wing talk shows. I read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and listen to NPR all day long, other than the numerous books I devour. I just read between the lines, ask questions, look at the lessons of history and unintended consequences, try to think critically, and resist group-think of any political persuasion. Try it.

The other aspects of your question on why people should care and what's the point of art, is touched on in an earlier sentence "I don't care if it costs the society $$$ because their value is not measured in $$$." Great, now my ego has run rampant and I'm quoting myself.

MICHAEL: Hahaha.

GEORGE: We assess cultures by a variety of values and arguably art is at the top of the list. Anthropologically, Neanderthals were elevated by the realization that they buried their dead with flowers and that they carved flutes from bone. Music and art. Our highest aspirational values. No society has ever existed without art. We artists generally don't think of our role as, you are responsible for adding to and enriching humanity's highest aspirations. No pressure. Yet cumulatively, that's what we're trying to do.

That's the point of art, and that's why people should care.

MICHAEL: Thanks George. Your are brilliant in more ways than one.

GEORGE: It was a stimulating pleasure. Your questions were simple, but offered rich possibilities for me to expound upon. I hope I didn't abuse the privilege.

MICHAEL: Nope.  This is ME you’re talking to.

Check out George Kozmon at http://georgekozmon.com/.



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