Painting

January 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”-Picasso

I’ve recently taken up painting. For those who know me that may come as a surprise, due to my overall lack of ability when it comes to drawing or the visual arts. For me, however, it is merely another step forward in exploring and encouraging my creative and artistic spirit. I know I can’t draw, but having been recently inspired by abstract work from artists like Makoto Fujimura and Scott Erickson (painted paintings for Derek Webb’s recent instrumental work Feedback), I decided to try my hand at some abstract art.

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Yes, I painted this.

Needless to say, I have learned a few things about myself and art already. Painting is difficult. Especially if you are trying to create something that is more than just slapping some colors on a canvas. Art, even abstract art, is not something done recklessly. You have to have a plan, and even if you deviate from that plan, if you sit down to paint without a plan, it doesn’t work well. It’s so important to know what you are doing and do it.

Being a perfectionist, painting can be deadly. Every line I paint that isn’t straight or that blends with the wrong color makes me wince inwardly. It’s been good for me to have to let go and realize that if everything had to be perfect I would never get it done. I just have to do the best that I can and be satisfied. Painting with acrylic is fairly unforgiving, especially when using a darker color. I can’t go back like I can with writing and fix my mistakes; I have to accept what I did. Painting forces you to take your time and make your decisions deliberately, something that is refreshing in this fast-paced world.

However, what I love the most is the peace that comes from sitting down and painting. There I sit, jamming to Girl Talk or Derek Webb’s Feedback and I let the colors cascade from the brush to the canvas. I juxtapose red and blue, I mix red and yellow, I create something new. And even if my paintings never touch anyone but me, I am confident that in exercising the creativity that comes from being made in the image of God I am constantly growing in a better understanding of the world and myself.

The Mashup: Art?

December 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

In this technological era, the opportunities to create new forms of media are virtually endless. The tools of production have been democratized and with this anyone, regardless of their skill level, can create video or music and share it with the world via the Internet. These tools have spawned a new form of media, which I would hesitatingly call art, known as the mashup. The mashup combines elements from other, previously published works to form a hybrid, a synthesis of these pieces into a completely new thing. The mashup is primarily associated with music, although it can be seen in film as well, and while its origins can be debated, I would argue the most artful appropriation of elements from songs to help create something new is found in the hip-hop genre. Here artists use “samples” of other songs as a definitive element of their new song (think Kanye West and his use of outside material in the many hip-hop songs he produces).

One of the most famous mash-up artists is Pittsburgh’s Greg Gillis, who goes by the moniker Girl Talk. Gillis mashes up pop music from the past 40-50 years and often generates surprising results from conjoining 70’s pop ballads with club-bangers from the 00s. His newest album, All Day (which can be downloaded for free here), showcases Gillis’s talent for finding commonalities among many different genres of music and lyrical content. Some of these such moments are shockingly fun, such as when Simon and Garfunkel meet Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz or when I Want You Back meets with Lil Kim’s The Jump Off. Needless to say, these auditory nuggets are scattered all throughout All Day and make the album, if nothing else, an extremely entertaining listening experience.

Another well-known mashup artist is Steve Porter, the man behind the Press Hop video, or as it’s better known the video where Jim Mora and Allen Iverson verbally duel back and forth between “Playoffs?” and “Practice?”. Porter creates his own techno mix backgrounds, but overlays them with press conference sound bytes and their corresponding video segments. The results are often hilarious and quite catchy for being an amalgamation of press conference sound bytes. Once again, like Gillis, Porter’s talent lies in combining these phrases and videos into a coherent whole, smashing together different time periods and different sports to make something not entirely related to sports. I find myself returning, time and time again, to these videos when I need a laugh.

So are mashups just a form of entertainment, or can they be art? To be sure, they take talent, and I’m sure anyone who has actually attempted to make a mashup is aware of the time and skill it takes to make a good one. The creativity present in the music of Girl Talk and videos of Steve Porter is evident and manages to exude a certain sense of joy as you listen or watch their work. I think the mashup is an example of the kind of art that has begun to pervade postmodern culture. Instead of just drawing inspiration from past, artists are beginning to draw directly from the past and are using the past to create new content. This is known as pastiche, and reflects the postmodern individual’s fragmentation in this world, as there seems to be no historical referent from which to base his historical position. Therefore, as we don’t feel at home in history, music from the 70s can be seamlessly combined with music from the 90s without it seeming out of place.

The mashup reflects our current cultural state. Often it is played for humor, and it accomplishes this well by conflating the past and the present in an ahistorical manner that lends itself to parody and humor. In that sense, the mashup could be considered a postmodern form of art, one that comes from a new way of thinking and that is gaining steam. These artists are taking our meaningless bits and pieces of pop culture (pop songs and sports) and recreating them into things that live and breathe with an energy that wasn’t there in their original state. Whether you consider the mashup to be art or not, it’s something worth paying attention to as we consider the cultural climate we live in.

Press Hop 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffJvDgBrwMI

List of samples on All Day:  http://www.fastcompany.com/1707948/girl-talk-all-day-infographic

The Mystery of God and Art

November 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

Note: This was originally supposed to be a guest blog somewhere, but the author of that blog never got back to me. So I thought I’d post it here.

They are the most wonderful mystery, body and blood.”- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I remember the first time I took Communion at the Anglican church that I now attend.  It was a revelation to me. It was a grave, joyful matter, and as I swallowed my bread dipped in wine I felt blessed by that bread and wine in a way that I never had before. It was more than just a way to remember, but it was charged with a certain energy because it was being taken seriously as a Sacrament.

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Why hadn’t I ever experienced this before? Was it because my previous church was so afraid of appearing Catholic that we didn’t ascribe any significance beyond remembrance to Communion or is it a symptom of a deeper problem in many churches? Sometimes it seems as if there is a fear in the Church of using art or symbols that we don’t understand or can’t control because we don’t know what they will reveal to us. It seems to me that a lot of churches and Christians have carved out a canyon between art and symbolic actions and church and Christianity and then burned the bridge that spans this gap.

We have art and symbols to point us to deeper things. We have church and Christianity to point us to deeper things. It seems to me as if they are on the same team.  Art, as mystic poet Kahlil Gibran puts it, is “a step in the known toward the unknown.” Good art can transcend the here and now and touch our emotions in ways that words can’t. Art, like God and his ways, is a mystery and that’s why it can show us God. It reveals things hidden and sometimes hides things already revealed forcing us to look deeper.

Another thing art and symbols do for our faith is to ground it in its sometimes forgotten physicality. As the great Creeds and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 remind us, the Christian’s greatest hope is the bodily resurrection, therefore making the physical presence of the body very important. The symbol of Communion or making the sign of the cross, by involving our body, reminds us that the Christian faith is a faith that radically affirms our physical nature as being a good creation of God.  There is no Gnostic split between spirit and flesh in Christianity. This is constantly reaffirmed when we taste the bread and wine and know that they speak of a deeper reality, of Christ’s body and blood. Our physical senses, by means of a physical symbol, are drawn deeper in a spiritual reality.

Artwork is Bonfires by Chuck Hoffman and Peg-Carlson Hoffman.

The Age of Adz

October 14, 2010 § 5 Comments

When Sufjan Stevens announced a new full-length album after several years of side-projects and silence, indie fans everywhere rejoiced. Here was Stevens, the poster boy for high-brow indie folk-rock, finally returning to blow our minds again. And if the critical and popular response is a barometer, The Age of Adz has either exhilarated you or confused the crap out of you. Departing from his usual orchestrated, quirky folk-rock, Sufjan has replaced the banjo and acoustic guitar with a dazzling array of electronic effects and dark, soul-searching lyrics, which in turn has alienated some of his old fans.

It seems to me, however, that this isn’t that radical departure that some have said it is. These songs are still packed with sound, except this time it is electronic noise, not layered guitar parts. Sufjan’s lyrics have also carried their dark side (John Wayne Gacy Jr. anyone?), but in the past the music surrounding this darkness has softened it, not intensified it. Yes, for those accustomed to Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, Michigan and Seven Swans, The Age of Adz feels like someone has replaced their best friend with a strange facsimile of him. But I think if they keep listening they’ll find that their friend has not been replaced, but only been changed by his experiences over the past few years. This is an album created from a deeply personal place, and while Sufjan does take inspiration from artist Royal Robertson (the album is named after one of his paintings) and his story, this album is more an exploration of Sufjan’s psyche than it is anything else.

To some this album may sound like a disaster, like it was created without form. To think that Sufjan, a meticulous musician if there ever was one, would have just thrown Age of Adz together without thought is a preposterous assumption. Now, some may say it is over-indulgent or pompous, but that doesn’t mean it is unorganized or sloppy. It is a chaotic, bewildering ride, but I think it is like this for a reason. What is Sufjan, who is an artist obsessed with making grand statements about life through his music, trying to say with The Age of Adz? This is the question before us as we listen to this confounding, glorious mess of an album.

Opener “Futile Devices” closes with the line, “And words are futile devices.” As the delicate music fades, we are abruptly forced into the harsh, electronic landscape that constitutes “Too Much.” I think this is a deliberate move on the part of Sufjan, and by forcing us to confront this new sonic texture he is placing the music/style of album above the “futile devices” of language. This isn’t to say that the lyrics don’t play a major role on this album, but that perhaps they play, and always have played, a subservient or complementary role in Sufjan’s music.

So onward we venture, into the noise that is The Age of Adz. There are big questions everywhere on this album, sometimes voiced very subtly. Sufjan is contemplating aging, fame, relationships and ultimately life and love and he’s doing this within the framework of the album. He’s asking us to concentrate, and in recent interviews, he has wondered if the album means anything anymore with people downloading music as much as they do.

“When I die, oh when I die, I’ll rot/but when I live, when I live, I’ll give it all I got,” sings Sufjan on the title track. The Age of Adz seems to embody tension throughout its running time. There is a tension between the electronic elements and the horns and strings, a tension between death and illness and life and love and a tension between Sufjan the artist and Sufjan the person.  On “Vesuvius” Sufjan refers to himself in the third person with these lines, “Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame or fall on the floor/Sufjan, the panic inside/The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” This is Sufjan revealing his thoughts to us, and possibly giving us a clue about his departure from his previous style of music.

It seems as if Sufjan is trying to follow his heart, answering his own question from “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!” of, “Are you writing from the heart?” On “I Want to be Well” Sufjan confidently declares, “I’m not f—ing around.” This comes as a shock to us, as Sufjan normally never uses profanity in his songs, but I think it is a necessary shock. It’s Sufjan letting us know that this album isn’t the result of him screwing around, but that it is a cohesive statement about life and his desire to live it in the right way. It is also fitting that this line comes right before the album’s 25 minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” an exhausting, overwhelming, yet truly triumphant song if there ever was one.

“Impossible Soul” deserves a blog post in its own right, which I will save for another time. The Age of Adz also deserves more than this slight write-up. It deserves your time, concentration and contemplation. There are parts that confuse me and that I don’t appreciate musically, but I think the musical vision that Sufjan is bringing to the table here is something that hasn’t been heard before. Is it the defining album of our time, as some of the more extreme hyperbole has stated? Is it even the best album of the year? We’ll have to see how well it holds up, but what I can say is that it will definitely be one of the most challenging and also most potentially rewarding albums of the year. So what is Sufjan trying to say? I think he’s asking us to filter through all the noise in our lives, mirrored in some ways by the noise on The Age of Adz, and find the meaning underneath it all.

Questions

October 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

“Questions are not scary. What is scary is when people don’t have any. What is tragic is faith that has no room for them.”-Rob Bell

Recently, I made a video for my Rhetorical Theory and Criticism class. We were supposed to take a quote and visual it. Above are both the video and the quote which I based the video off of. I think it’s a decent little video considering the equipment and time I had to do it. The music is England by The National. I picked a song by The National, because I wanted to capture a sense of longing inherent in us whenever we ask questions. We are asking questions because there is a hole in our knowledge, experience or emotions. This longing is something we should embrace.

List of questions (some are hard to see):

Who are you? Who is God? Why are we so afraid…of everything? What if you gain everything and then lose…? Are we just consumers? What if? What is truth? Is there truth? What is love? Who is my neighbor? What if nobody is ordinary? Why do we miss the glory?

I made the signs of out various newspapers, pieces of colored paper, a Sprite bottle, really anything I found lying around my room. Making the signs easily took five times as long as making the video.

The National: Exposing a Need

September 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day over lunch. We talked about normal things for us: music, film, school and life. In the middle of all of this talk, however, we started talking about the role of art in faith and evangelism. While this is a topic I’ve touched on at times on this blog and will do so in the future, what stuck out to me was something my friend said. He said, “I think art’s purpose is to reveal a need,” and from there we went on to talk more in depth about that. However, I want to focus on just that statement, which verbalized something that I’ve thought about but never said in quite that way.

In this same conversation I brought up The National’s newest album, High Violet, and how adept The National is at evoking emotion not just through their music, but through occasionally obtuse and nonsensical lyrics. I think these two things are related.

If art shows us a need inside of us that we can’t ignore or sometimes even explain, I think it has done its job. I think this need is probably different inside of each of us, but it comes down to the fact that we are scarred and broken in this world looking for answers and often not finding them. Sometimes we want to give up looking for the answers but good art forces us to confront these issues time and time again; it gives us the strength to keep pressing on, because we know that someone out there is feeling the same thing as us. I think The National excels at evoking this because there is something emotional and worn about their music that is immediately identifiable.

On Alligator, their third album, the chorus of opener Secret Meeting says this, “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/it went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” Immediately I’m hooked, feeling the same way I do after spending hours in thought, never coming to any concrete conclusions. The National’s lyrics bring to mind images and then these mental images seem to project emotion. Alligator’s closer, Mr. November, is much the same. Lines like “I wish that I believed in fate/I wish I didn’t sleep so late/I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” are juxtaposed with the chorus, lyrically and musically, of “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” to create a very visceral feeling of disappointment and longing for days before failure.

This metaphorical, almost poetic language is very apparent on High Violet as well. In one of my favorites from the album, Conversation 16, the chorus goes like this, “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city to all the silver girls/everything means everything.” Using colors like silver and black place an image in the mind and invests this image with the emotions usually associated with silver and black. So, even though these lyrics are straightforward, they are charged with an extra emotional intensity due to their poetic nature and Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery.

One of the overwhelming senses I get while listening to The National is that there is something just out of reach. It feels like the words are trying to tap into something bigger, reveal something deeper. I often feel a profound sense of longing when I listen, a longing to be known in this fragmented world. There is a deep sense of alienation in many of The National’s lyrics, reflecting the way many people feel as they try to understand and live in this world. They do a great job of showing this, revealing this need.

The National is making artistic music, revealing the need for true love and intimacy, in a world where it is very difficult to be known by others. Sometimes this can be depressing, because they offer no solutions to these problems. They tell us stories of looking for meaning through drugs, sex and success that have all come up short.  But The National is here to expose the need, performing an important service by not handing us happy stories of true love around every street corner. They leave us with a question: how will you meet this need? Where will you go, what will you do to truly be known?

Churches Making Movies: A Few Thoughts

September 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

I found myself browsing the Internet and ran across an article from July 2010 in USA Today entitled, “Churches Making Mainstream Movies”. The article focuses on Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA, the force behind movies such as Facing the Giants (2006, Kendrick) and Fireproof (2008, Kendrick) and the reasons why other churches are beginning to follow in the same footsteps as Sherwood. As I was reading I was bothered by some of the statements quoted and by some of the things contained in the article. Now before I begin to explain why, I want to say I’m not discounting God’s ability to use anything and everything for His glory and I know people who have been touched through these films. I don’t want this to be a hate-fest on my fellow Christians. That being said, there are several troubling implications of the marriage of art and faith offered by these films.

“And every ending is on an up note: Once characters start to peacefully, prayerfully trust God in adversity as well as success, all their prayers are answered. They win the big game, pay off the bank, have the long-wanted baby, reconcile with loved ones.” This quote from the author of the article is one of the most troubling parts of the article. Can God do miracles? Yes. Does He always do them? No. When a “Christian” movie purports that everything will work out as soon as you start trusting God it is veering into “prosperity gospel” territory which stands in stark contrast to the Bible itself (read Luke 9 to see what Jesus tells his disciples about this life). The Christian hope is not a perfect life in this world, but one in the world to come. Paul’s life was not fun or great in terms of his physical existence. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Are we bringing people into the Church by lying to them, by confirming our hopes and dreams in this age instead of the one to come?

“Movies are an escape. They offer hope. And Sherwood is stepping up to claim that the only hope that matters is Christian,” says Michael Catt, senior pastor at Sherwood. While I take exception to his assertion that movies are primarily an escape from life, I agree that the Christian hope is beautiful and worthy of being told to everyone. But in light of the films that Sherwood is producing, what is this hope? People are going to identify the “Christian” hope with what is said by the film. They will begin to identify the “Christian” hope with peace and prosperity in this life. This is not the Christian hope as I and many leaders of the Church throughout the ages understand it. To be sure, there is a peace that comes with knowing that you have a purpose in this world, but the Christian hope is the world (and human beings within it) being restored and reconciled to God. The picture is bigger than just what happens to me or you, and even if this is what Catt believes it doesn’t come through in the films produced by Sherwood. Do we want a very individualized version of Christianity (regardless if this is how we actually think about our faith) being presented through the screen?

Later in this article comes this: “Every movie has an agenda,” says Catt, citing James Cameron’s Avatar, widely noted for its vague eco-spirituality theme. “Clearly, (he) had a spiritual agenda there, and he’s out to reach his audience. So are we. We have lost this culture, and we have to fight back.” What he says is true: every movie contains an agenda or purpose, even if it is unaware of it. It is frightening, however, that he is proud of the overt agenda in these films. The best films I’ve seen are the ones that subtly introduce their points and quietly subvert other stories. Avatar was not a good movie, due in part to its glaringly obvious agenda. Also worrisome is the fact that Catt is proposing a battle over culture, when perhaps Christians are no longer vital parts of the culture because of films like Facing the Giants. I firmly believe that Christians need to be making culture, but the only way that we can actively participate is if we make good culture. That is how we “fight back”.

The rest of the article talks about different people making other Christian movies and I wish I could be excited about that. I’m glad Christians are making movies but if the movies aren’t good, then is what they’re doing really good? If our faith has to be simplified to put in a movie, is it still our faith? What is really being said about the Gospel in the name of evangelism? These are questions anyone who is a Christian making film (or art in general) must ask themselves. The way in which we present the Gospel effects how it is perceived and thought about. A serious responsibility rests upon us as artists and creators created in the Image of God to think critically about how we present the Gospel story in art. Presenting the Gospel as an “escape” from this world and its problems and using art as a way to sell the Gospel is a dangerous proposition.

All quotes taken from this article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-07-19-churchmovies19_CV_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

A movie made by a Christian that serves as a great example of how I think Christians should approach film is The Sensation of Sight. You can watch it on Netflix instant or get more info at http://www.thesensationofsight.com/

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