Jerry Saltz’s abandoned illuminations for “The Divine Comedy”

The following is a combination of quotes from the critic Jerry Saltz’s article “My Life as a Failed Artist.”

“Before I became a critic, I was an artist, and for about ten years, beginning in the early 1970s, I feverishly devoted myself to a single, gigantic project: illustrating the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy — starting with Inferno.

“These are the gates of hell. The famous inscription appears above the portal, the one that begins, in first person, “I Am the Way Into the City of Woe, I Am the Way to a Forsaken People.” There are no doors on the Gates of Hell because anyone who ventures too close can easily enter. Around the gate are ten diagrammatic spinning spheres, one for each of the levels of hell.”

[Why Dante?] Dante is a paradigmatic figure of the canon — therefore a perfect picture of the dream of artistic canonization — but he’s also a weirdo Boschian fantasist and so satisfied my obsession with hermetic traditions, indexes, myth, archaic cultures, and mystics and visionaries like William Blake. This late-medieval universe freed me from making choices; the story and structure told me exactly what to do, what to draw, where to draw it, what came next, what shape things should be, everything, even sometimes governing colors, as with making Virgil blue and Dante red according to past art. Without knowing it but in desperate need, I’d contrived a machine that allowed me to make things that I couldn’t predict; I still think of this as one of an artist’s first jobs.

“These are the gates of the citadel of Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, the Virtuous Pagans. Here Dante meets Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Hector, Aeneas, and many others whose only punishment is to live without hope. The gold, silver, and bronze spheres represent the souls of those who Dante meets there.”

The project was meant to take me 25 years, but I only made it to the fourth canto by the time I quit; nevertheless, in that time I had developed an unbelievably intricate language that would allow me, a technically poor draughtsman and even worse painter, to depict Dante’s complex narrative.

“A large diagrammatic drawing of the Opportunists being blown in all different directions in the tempest of hell.”

[Oscar Wilde] wrote that art that’s too obvious, that we “know too quickly,” that is “too intelligible,” fails. “The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious.” This sort of art tells you everything in an instant and can only tell you the same thing forever. My work had the opposite problem. It was vague, arcane, and therefore obsolete. Only I could decipher it.

I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work….Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.”

You can find more images from this project here.

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Saturday Studio Shot

Painting on the back of the mylar

Untitled, acrylic and ink on mylar

The back and front of an element that will be cut out and included on the 4’x2′ cathedral painting I’m working on.

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Thursday Thoughts: How a painting works

Proteus, Cy Twombly, 1984

The following is paraphrased from Roland Barthes’ The Wisdom of Art.

Whenever we look at a painting the question is, “what is happening here?” The picture is a kind of theater, the curtain parts, we watch, we wait, we receive, we understand, and when the scene is over and the picture gone, we remember. In a painting there occurs a fact, an accident, an outcome, a surprise, and an action.

The fact is the tangible substance we see. We imbue everything we see with meaning; the alchemy of painting is that despite the meaning the materials also remain stubbornly things (facts). Even if the painting is a result of precise calculation, there is still the impression of accident. We sometimes call this inspiration, a creative force that is the euphoria of chance. The fact and the accident together created an outcome, which is the overall effect of the work. This effect can not be located or described in a series of details. The outcome creates a surprise. In the Christian tradition we would call this illumination, a kind of mental shock which grants access, regardless of all known intellectual means, to truth. Last is the action, which is the viewer’s engagement with the painting. One can engage the painting from a place of culture (a familiarity with the references contained), from a place of specialization (an awareness of the historical and technical tradition), from a place of pleasure (aesthetic or conceptual enjoyment), from a place of memory (the ghost that follows the viewer long after they have left the painting), and from a place of production (the desire to re-produce the work that arises from an awareness of how the work was made).

 

 

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Saturday Studio Shot

WIP-Cathedral [working title]

Working on a 4’x2′ drawing constructed from layers of cut out paper, mylar, and plastic. At the moment nothing is glued down and everything is subject to change.

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Thursday Thoughts: Art as Alchemy

I was looking through Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols and found this description of Alchemy:

Alchemy is a symbolic technique which seeks to materialize spiritual truths. It is a poetic, religious, and scientific endeavor. The goal is to experience material phenomena as symbols which point to a complete theory of the universe and the destiny of the soul (the secret of discovering gold would be a mark of divine favor and thus success). [paraphrased from my notes and memory rather than quoted word for word]

While it’s not a perfect metaphor, the notion of Alchemy is a helpful model for my own artistic process.

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Saturday Studio Shots

WIP, Pen, ink, and Acrylic on Mylar

WIP, Pen, ink, and Acrylic on Mylar

Mixing on glass over a sheet of white paper is the easiest to quickly clean

I’ve discovered I like applying paint by dabbing masked-off areas with a sponge. This creates a flat, slightly textured area of color with no brushstrokes. Once the paint dries I will flip the frosted mylar over and you will be able to see the color through the layers of drawing.

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Reality Fields

Reality Fields, 18"x12" Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18″x12″ Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18"x12" Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18″x12″ Jacob Rowan

These minimal drawings made with white ink on black paper were inspired by Andrea Zittel’s Dynamic Essay About the Panel. In this short video she describes various conventions and notions connected to the plane and panel. She also outlines the differences between horizontal and vertical planes. A horizontal field is an energetic accumulator–it receives action. A vertical field is an ideological resonator–it communicates ideas. I wanted explore these functions by depicting traditionally horizontal planes in a vertical panel.

Reality Fields, 18"x12" Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18″x12″ Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18"x12" Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18″x12″ Jacob Rowan

Limitations are what makes things relevant and useful. A plane or panel can constitute an individual field of reality which uses limitations to inspire creativity. I define creativity as the imposition of some kind of order within a system. A person most successfully plays a game when they restructure the limitations within the system more effectively than their opponent.

Reality Fields, 18"x12" Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18″x12″ Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18"x12" Jacob Rowan

Reality Fields, 18″x12″ Jacob Rowan

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