Tuesday, March 25, 2014
FROM MUD TO PIXELS
tipis by Tom Gilleon
Recently at “The Russell” suite of auctions and showrooms that occupies Great Falls in this week every year, a video animation displayed via a flat screen player hanging on the wall was sold as a “painting” for $225,000 It was created by using a program called “PixOils,” by Tom Gilleon, known for his “eternal triangle” endless series of paintings of iconic tipis in romantic natural settings. Gilleon once worked for Disney.
Animated art by Tom Gilleon. That's Tom.
Whether this new art form is better or worse than what Rembrandt did sort of relates to what you think about the sentimental greeting card art of Thomas Kinkade who built a sales empire on pretty little cottages or maybe the video greeting card art of Jacquie Lawson with her big dogs and little birds. If you google popular art about cottages, you’ll see a thriving genre with a certain amount of variation but not too much. If you think of Gilleon tipis as “Plains Indian Cottages”, you wouldn’t be far wrong. There’s a fascinating discussion of Kinkade’s art at http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/06/thomas-kinkades-cottage-fantasy I do not think that the comments about Kinkade are exactly relevant to Gilleon, but they are suggestive.
by Thomas Kinkade
Animated video images are a hat trick not much different than the latest innovation in sculpture, which is laser-guided reconstruction of actual objects on whatever scale and in whatever medium is desired. But then what happens to the concept of the artist? The idea of seeing through another person’s eyes and skills is still there, but so dependent on technology that it loses some of the magic. Doesn’t it? Maybe not.
Basic to the child’s impulse to create is the manipulation of a squishy substance into a depiction of some kind, if only rolling out plastilene snakes. Many a rural child has found a deposit of clay, perhaps along a river bank, and used it to make little figures, maybe of animals (usually lying down or standing in tall grass so legs are not visible, since it takes a certain amount of skill to create a functional armature of wire or sticks in legs so the creature won’t collapse).
"The Right of Way" by Earl Heikka
Later some people discover paper mache -- or “papier maché” because if it’s in French it’s more artistic in many minds. This may be as simple as newspaper smeared with flour-and-water glue, or it might be the wood fibre reduced to bits that’s used, for instance, in taxidermy. Something similar was “marblex”, an air-dry clay, which was used byEarl Heikka over wire and fibre armatures. Usually treated as mixed-media because bits of string or metal are included, the figures are generally painted realistically. Since they are fragile, even in the process of construction, and require much experience to use without shrinkage and loss of integrity, they are usually displayed under glass. They are very difficult to reproduce in bronze, since mold-making generally damages if not destroys them. Certainly, the charming effects of the color and details are usually lost, which can reveal poor composition and proportion.
The point of a mold is to allow reproduction. In the early days of Euro-style sculpture, most creations were cut in marble, particularly a white stone found in Carrera, Italy. Using the skills of woodcutters, or in fact of any kind of carving whether in materials soft or hard, the figure is revealed by cutting away what is not wanted. From origins in sedimentation of tiny sea creatures, marble is metamorphized from softer limestone and plaster. A block of plaster, and likewise a block of wax, could be carved in the same way, but the fact that wax melts and melds means that wax is almost infinitely malleable. Charlie Russell is said to have kept a wad of wax in his pocket which he obsessively transformed from one animal into another: a cow, a pig, a bear or even a person. This sort of working with something by manipulating it is called “haptic.” Hands on.
Plaster has different qualities. When it is powdered and baked to get molecular water out of it, it can be mixed with new water -- and perhaps other inclusions -- and will stay liquid for a little while until chemical reactions cause it to turn into a solid again. The kind of “plaster” can vary from near-stone to a solid so soft that it can be incised by a fingernail. And its qualities make it ideal for casting: that is, to be put into a mold in liquid form, let set up, and then removed as shaped by the mold. A mold can be made of anything that will separate from the plaster and the separation is often helped by using some kind of liquid, maybe something as simple as dish soap. Molds are often made of something flexible so that they won’t get hung up by overhangs in the castings.
Wax can be used in molds just like plaster. But molds might also be made from solid objects, maybe plaster or maybe something else like wax. It’s possible to model something in water-based clay or oil-based clay (plastilene), make a mold of it, then pour in plaster or wax which will set up and create a new version. To some people, the realization that duplication is possible in this way is a mechanical addition that makes the object “lesser” because it is no longer unique -- it is multiple. To other people, the process of making duplicates -- whether carving a new version of a marble bust through measuring and careful observation or creating a series of bronze castings through the use of molds -- simply adds another dimension of skill and therefore value.
Plaster casting of marble bust of George Washington by Houdon
The great shift in sculpture from marble to bronze (stone-cutting based in Italy to foundries based in France) happened roughly coincidentally with the American Revolution. The impulse to immortalize heroes in an age preceding photography began with Houdon’s busts and gradually continued through Beaux Arts Paris-trained sculptors from America. By the time of the Civil War, marble was out of fashion -- bronze was the thing. Thus do the materials, techniques and impulses of art weave in and out through the value and actual creative skill of the artists.
Blake the Woodcarver's "Hungry Horse"
Bob Scriver, as well as “Blake the Woodcarver,” Ace Powell, Albert Racine, John Clarke, and a few other North Central Montana artists made plaster figurines from molds to sell in shops meant for tourists. Blake, Albert Racine, and John Clarke all employed a studio machine, a kind of belt-driven pantograph, that would duplicate an object on a lathe system. This machined blank would then be touched up and finished by hand so as to represent it as hand-carved. Blake and Scriver did more plaster casting. Blake’s figures of Indian faces and the “Hungry Horse” were simple but Scriver’s little animals required antlers and sometimes his humans required accouterments.
Scriver's Breyer horse
While completing an MA in Chicago at Vandercook School of Music, Scriver went searching for a material to make antlers that would survive a certain amount of handling. He found a material called P-300, a combination of kaolin and latex that was liquid but set-up into a material that had a little forgiving spring to it, so it would return to the same shape. It was cast flat in a plaster mold, but with a little heat could be formed into the curves of antlers. In those days latex was the main material used for flexible molds, so Scriver was used to it. The antlers, once formed, were attached to the plaster animals, which were then painted with lacquer from an airbrush. The result was a little “slick” and manufactured-looking, rather like china figures, but to the general population this was attractive. They sold well. Later Scriver’s style worked out well for the Breyer horses, made of plastic, which had some of the qualities of Kinkade sentimental art, shiny and brightly colored.
The bison diorama from the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife
Two discoveries improved the manufacturing process, both of them discovered by one of Bob’s students with a bent for invention and materials. (He was originally intending to animate the miniature dioramas of Montana animals that were in a room at the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife and are now “moth-balled” at the Montana Historical Society.) The first was what was then called “parachute cord” but now is known as bungee cord. The great advantage was that it could hold together the plaster shell that supported the flexible mold so tightly that nothing in liquid form leaked.
The second discovery was koroseal, a rubbery material that had to be heated to be liquid and poured over the figure to be molded while the sculpture sat on a vacuum table, having been carved out from inside until it was a shell that air could pass through. Koroseal came as ground up bits and was melted in a turkey roaster. It was red so it looked like jam. The stuff clung and, if spattered, burned badly. But it made excellent and durable molds that took small details, reproducing them accurately again and again. Using it was nerve-wracking and took major skill. It’s a kind of synthetic rubber related to teflon.
Using koroseal molds meant that the quality of castings was much higher than those cast from latex molds -- which had been a huge improvement over the original agar-agar (gelatin) molds of the Beaux Arts foundries. Agar-agar disintegrates and both it and latex can easily distort if misaligned with the plaster shells that supported them. Koroseal is so durable that when, as Scriver’s will required, the molds were taken to the dump and crushed under a bulldozer, I suspect that some survived. Destroying them would mean putting them through a grinder.
When I googled to find out more about koroseal, I was taken to a Starz series about Leonardo da Vinci, called “DaVinci’s Demons”. Art is a very “DaVinci” sort of thing if one goes beyond marks on paper. Digital animation, as produced by Gilleon, or technical advantages likekoroseal would have appealed to da Vinci very much. But I’m not sure his subjects would be so bright and iconic as Gilleon tipis. Perhaps other CGI artists would have a darker and more “scientific” sort of vision. Perhaps they should explore “Montana Gothic” as well as “Indigenous Disney.” On the other hand, dark subjects might not be so appealing to the middle-class prosperous folks who buy art. In the end, the point is to sell.
A rather over-zealous journalist arrived in the studio in the early Sixties, on the hunt for a spectacular story. Bob knew her, because she’d been there before, and she was the little peppy brunette type he liked. Somehow she got her notes a bit scrambled (or possibly she never took any) because she announced in the article that the secret of Bob’s success was a fabulous new substance he used called “Petrolane.” That was the name of the gas company. She enthused that this stuff would harden, by-passing molds, but took excellent detail and wasn’t fragile. There was no such thing at that point. It was what everyone would have liked to have had.
A doll-head and the mold for it.
In fact, Bob was still using the old-fashioned method of creating a figure in plastilene, making a hard mold around it out of plaster, pulling the hard mold apart -- which destroyed the plastilene where it had to be pulled out of overhangs -- then filling the hollow with hydrocal, a much harder form of plaster. The mold that had been against the plastilene was tinted blue and sealed with a mix of shellac and bear rug dye which soaked into the mold a bit, so you could tell if you were getting close to the casting. Then the tense precision task of cutting the blue mold off with small chisels and scrapers took hours. Bob was very good at it, just as he was at the other ticklish little techniques of transference. He didn’t want people around. Very few other artists were patient enough to do this and, in fact, specialist technicians did it where there were enough artists to make a living at it -- and keep their skills sharp.
A formal bust and the mold for it.
Now the technical means began to make life simpler and easier. One of the first inventions was “cold molding compound” which came in several varieties but was most usually black tuffy, a kind of rubber with a carbon filler. “FMC 200 is the strongest of the polysulfides, can be used for casting almost any materials and is widely used by foundries. Ideal for wax or plaster casting. (Not to be used with resin or silicone casting.)” http://www.sculpt.com/catalog_98/RUBBERS/polysulfide.htm It was nasty stuff, but nothing like the difficulty of Koroseal. The quality of the mold wasn’t quite as good. The stuff was stretchy but also would tear, and sometimes distort if it weren’t stored exactly right. Bob began to use straight pins to keep things in the right place. Someone said we could keep the rubber more flexible if we rubbed them with Vaseline, but that turned out to deteriorate the surface. A chemist who came through told us of another substance that would work for sure, but it was so carcinogenic that Bob wouldn’t let me use it. Not that he thought of gloves.
A Work by Lyndon Pomeroy
Readers of the Great Falls Tribune in recent days have seen a photo of a Lutheran church with a big abstract Jesus over the door. (The church has had a schism over gays, which is the content of the story.) The work of Lyndon Pomeroy, it aroused competition in Bob who was then asked to make a bison in that style for Great Falls High Schooland a rustler for CMR High School. The technical angle was that these were made of Corten steel, AKA “weathering steel” which would form a rusty crust or patina that prevented corrosion, meaning it didn’t need painting. Abstract artists make huge welded pieces from the sheets it comes in. Pomeroy was a grassroots guy in bib overalls who turned out a LOT of work.
The Guardians of the North. Chief Mountain in the background.
Later this genre of sculpture became very popular on the rez because of the huge number of junk cars to be stripped for material. At that point chrome and the car paint became part of the use. Also the government’s idea of what rez folk should learn to do was welding. Now there are “guardians” at the compass points of the rez, plus a large assembly of totems (elk, wolf, bison) at the Indian Health Service Hospital, and other spots, plus a jingling set of icons on the street light posts. Most ranchers and farmers have learned to weld and often make joke sculptures out of junk.
Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Saint Gaudens across the street from 25 Beacon Street.
But as much fun as it was to create such things, Bob Scriver’s prime work was realistic figures, well-cast and patined in the classic style of the Beaux Arts bronzes we know best as heroic-sized monuments and as the Western bronzes in the Oval Office. As long as casting took enormous skill, strength, and resourcefulness, the objects held their value as beautiful and precious.
Then came ceramic shell casting, which I call “chicken fried bronze” since the way one prepares the wax is by dipping it into a kind of batter or slurry, then rolling it in crushed glass over and over until when it dries it has formed a shell strong enough to hold the molten metal. There is no need to fuss with some of the difficulties of Roman Block casting because there are not so many feeder sprues or vents to figure out and place. Gases vent through the shell. This was developed for machinery in the space age, strange alloys and miniscule tolerances for gears and housings. At this point it became possible to buy a “kit” for bronze casting for a few hundred dollars, another kit for patinas, and be a foundry caster practically overnight. A lot of bad sculptures got made into bronzes. It was the equivalent of replacing diamonds with zircons -- the same general effect if you didn’t really know.
Most customers of bronzes depend upon the gallery to know. The same as they depend upon the gallery to know the difference between a Russell painting and a Seltzer painting, though their work was so similar that even Seltzer’s grandson was only sure it was a Seltzer because he had a print of the original painting that included the part at the bottom where the original signature had been cut off. The usual Russell experts had said it was Russell’s. Cutting the signature off the bottom first added a zero to the value of the painting -- then finding the proof of the artist dropped the zero back off. Maybe more.
Gordon Monroe and his work on the right.
Fiberglass had been around for quite a while but mostly for things like boats, big fabricated objects like -- oh! Monuments!! Much cheaper than bronze. But heroes are far more ephemeral these days anyway. Gordon Monroe, enrolled Blackfeet and sculptor in his own right, had begun as Bob Scriver’s fiberglass specialist. At Bob’s death the two huge rodeo sculptures Monroe made in fiberglass were moved to Babb Public School near St. Mary’s Lake. Then the bucking bull was moved back to what had been the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. In the process, it was dropped and broken. Monroe was able to repair it, which is another advantage of fiberglass.
"An Honest Try" by Bob Scriver
The wonders of plastic continued on until at last it was possible to buy little blocks of stuff called “Sculpy” that were indeed just like the wonder material that the peppy journalist had described thirty years earlier. It will stay soft until baked in an ordinary kitchen stove. Mostly used by hobby doll-makers or jewelry makers, Monroe uses it to make Blackfeet figures, slightly bigger than the ones Scriver made.
“Sculpey is a brand of polymer clay made by Polyform Products in the United States. Sculpey was first created in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s it was then discovered that this compound could be molded, baked, sanded, drilled, carved and painted. “Sculpey closely resemblesFimo, another brand of polymer clay. Sculpey is a less rigid composition which better suits modeling, while Fimo is better suited for twisting into cane and bead making because the colors do not blend together as readily.”
Even I can make figures of Sculpey and Fimo, though I always make animals lying down to avoid the need for armatures.