Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Semiotic Liberation Front

The Semiotic Liberation Orchestra was an actual band inspired by my imaginary band called the Semiotic Liberation Front (with a nod to Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra).  Scott and Mark did the music and I read from found texts and my notebooks. The texts were later put into a zine called SLF.

Semiotic Liberation Orchestra, Cleveland Public Theater, 1989
L. Swan, Mark Schaaf, Scott Williams

SLO at CPT, 1991

some pages from SLF1

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Scott, Dan, Perry

I forgot to post these pictures, not so recent and kind of recent.

1961 Revisited

More scraps from my life. In my last semester of art school my roommates and I mounted a show in our apartment. I wrote about these guys and this place last week in my post about Scott Williams:

We invited five other students and called the show Work by Nine.

Dan Brewer, Don Doe, Jennifer Dugan, John Hrehov, Patricia Kaschalk, Charlie Risselada, Lawrence Swan, Scott Williams.

 These Polaroids of our graduation party were taken by my father:

Scott, Perry, Dan, me


                                                                John Hrehov and me

with Julian and Barbara Stanczak

with Allen and Edyth Zimmerman


                                      Diana Kurz was visiting artist, my advisor, and friend.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

from March 1994 notebook

"Dispute over sacred ground stalls construction of Lawrence highway."
Kansas City Star

Who do you think you are not?
(describe your negative space)

3/2 Wednesday 6:14 AM 
This week I'm training a new driver. He seems OK. Yesterday he told me he heard that William Burroughs eats breakfast at a certain restaurant on Thursday mornings when he comes to KC for his methadone treatment. If we happen to be in the neighborhood tomorrow morning maybe we can drop in.
I've been neglecting my dream journal. What was I dreaming this morning?
Reading D.T. Suzuki about the "sanctity of menial labor," according to zen. Try to keep THAT in mind today. The zen view of labor as "religion," balancing meditation or putting it to work, is a good view but difficult or impossible to achieve as an "employee," where one's labor is not integrated with the rest of one's life. The kind of work may be the key. Can you practice work-zen as a store clerk, delivery driver, dishwasher, designer, salesman, etc.? On the other hand, the success of my "art" may depend on my being able to use all my work experience somehow or in the way I think of it. I mean, that it is an artwork that comes out of my everyday life.
My stupid little books form a context for the paintngs I do. I should not think about making paintings that are understandable. If I understand a painting, at least one other person will, and that's enough. Market concerns, "professional" artworld career concerns, are irrelevant or harmful. Everytime I worry about making something that can be in a show, or that might be sellable, I end up making shit and getting lost from the work.

Its 1:00 and I'm on my lunch break, sitting in the truck in the alley. The juice bar next door has discarded a big sign which reads "NUDE DANCERS FREE LUNCH" and it is broken in half and leaning against the dumpster. Maybe I'll take it home. Today is a sunny, slightly hazy, cool day. Took off my coat. I'm a man in black. Black sweater and jeans.
Does zen painting have anything to say to me? I'm eager to start painting again. Not "big" paintings. I think small paintings are more challenging to do. Big paintings are like loud music, maybe (compared, say, to Erik Satie piano pieces). I want to do Paul Klee size work for a while. 

3/5 Saturday 5:59 AM Dreamed I was going to have dinner with Gorbachev (and his wife and daughter). I see Gorbachev catch a housefly with his hand and I joke that this is a typical Russian thing to do. I mention that I've seen this happen three times recently on TV. Now I'm worried I've made a faux pas and I try to explain. Gorbachev, Raisa, and their pretty daughter and I are in their car. Gorbachev is driving. I think of saying, "Americans wouldn't catch the fly, they would just be embarrassed and then they would be embarrassed for being embarrassed."

"Because the spirit and the body die, we are eternal." I interpret this to mean that completeness is possible because we have a beginning and an end. Death closes the circle. This would mean that the Void is wholeness. Return to zero, beyond loss and gain, birth and death. Satori is the sudden insight of liberation -- nothing has changed. 
I'm just using words, making marks with a Bic pen. This "doctrine" of death has not freed me from anxiety and sorrow.

3/10 11:05 AM I stopped at that restaurant a couple of hours ago and saw W. S. Burroughs. As I was parking the truck I saw a man I recognized as James Grauerholz, his manager, come out and buy a newspaper. I went to the counter and ordered coffee to go and looked around. I saw Burroughs sitting in a booth looking like a feeble, elderly man. He was wearing a cap. The beat godfather, the George Burns of the avant-garde. In fact, he reminded me of Groucho in his later years. I didn't talk to him. What would I say? "Gee, Mr. Burroughs, your cut-up method has meant a lot to me."

3/14 7:47 AM Ive been doing some abstract drawings using squres, triangles, circles, and cubes. Basic elements put together in a sort of creation/destruction (or generation and degeneration) story. The beginning or end of the cosmos. I like using these "basic" shapes for improvising. Next drawing I will start from the center with a seed-image or archetypal figure, and work from that. I also want to try starting from the periphery. Draw a circle and work inward, borrow tantric images, use negative lines.

10:46 AM a strange chore for the boss.
I go to KCK to the Wyandotte County Courthouse and the County Surveyor office to pick up a legal description of a parcel of land Luke (my boss) claims was sold to the Indians by his ancestor - great (great?) grandfather - for use as a cemetery. The area is now the site of a political, legal money dispute. All I know about it is the little Luke told me and the cartoon inthe KC Star that joked that the Indians only consider "sacred land" to be such until they find a way to make a profit off it. In this cas, I'm told, they want to put a bingo hall on the land after they move the graves. The legal description I pick up says simply "indian cemetery". Luke believes that the original agreement was that it would remain a cemetery. The talkative guy at the surveyor's office said it may not be possible to get any other papers on it since Kansas was a territory when Luke's ancestor sold the land. He said the Wyandot tribe bought it from another tribe who supposedly bought it from Luke's ancestor. The reason this is a big controversy with non-Indians is there are a bunch of Union soldiers buried there and a lot of people don't want the bodies moved.

Does a living person "need" to be remembered after he/she dies? After I die I no longer "need" to be remembered, but maybe the living need to remember. But they also need to forget and put the dead in their place, the place of the dead. They moved Quantrill (the Confederate terrorist who led the raid that burned the town of Lawrence, Kansas, to the ground) a year ago, after deciding he was buried in the wrong place. They seem to have trouble keeping their dead buried in these parts.

3/19 40th birthday.
Drove to Lawrence and to Haskell Junior College (the Indian school) and looked for the sacred circle earhwork we heard was there. We had a guidebook that said it is on the south end of the campus. You park on S. Perimeter Rd. and walk to it. This is what we did. There was a teepee set up near the circle. Probably the sweat lodge. In the center of the earthwork and at each compass point were  stone circles for fires and short (2 1/2 feet?) square stones which visitors apparently use as altars or something, leaving offerings of pocket change, keyrings, a can of cat food, whatever. Tore a drawing out of my sketchbook that had circles, squares, triangles and put it under the cat food.. We take snapshots of each other, trying to find angles where you could get an idea of what the whole design of the medicine wheel looks like, but the idea behind an earthwork like this is that the totality cannot be seen at groundlevel (that is, as they were originally conceived, before aviation) by any human observer. We are in the design but can only get a sense of the whole by reconstructing it mentally. This circle was made only two years ago on the 500th anniversary of Columbus getting lost. The original lost tourist, losing himself and America.
The land on which this circle is located is now the site of another dispute between the school and the government over plans to build a highway through the wetlands, which the Indians consider sacred. There are many tribes represented by the students at the school. Some of these use the land for worship. 
Wind and dry prairie grass. A lit cigarette would have been dangerous. I don't know who uses the place for worship, if only Indians use it, if traditional ceremonies are held there, if local hippies also have neo-pagan rites there, if the offerings were vague superstitious acts (like tossing a coin into a fountain or part of a formal ceremony or a private spiritual practice), but there seemed to be a serious or even natural expression of trying to connect with the cycles of life, to identify the microcosm of the self with the cosmic order, to put oneself in tune.
The prairie wind, the singing insects. We thought we saw something in that tree. Are we being watched? No, nothing in that tree, but we are spooked.

Let's leave the lost tourist the at the center of the universe with his camera. He has no idea where he is but he's trying to catch something he can glue in his book of scraps. 

On my fortieth birthday, twenty short years ago, Lisa and I drove to Lawrence, Kansas and visited the medicine wheel earthwork at what is now named Haskell Indian Nations University that they made in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the European invasion of Turtle Island.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Scott Williams' painting of the studio sink mentioned in previous post, made when he was a third year art student in 1979.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sketch of an artist

                                                Williams painting in my studio in 2012 the

                                                    view outside my window and

his drawing on canvas of same view

"Scott Williams is an artist based in New York City. His work is done exclusively from observation: all landscapes are executed on site, au plein air, from conception to completion, or with live models."
(from the artist's statement)

My first impression of  Scott William's work, when we were students at the Cleveland Institue of Art in the late seventies, was that it was naively naturalistic, as if the 1913 Armory Show had never occurred, and as if the Renaissance and Rembrandt had settled things forever and the Ash Can School was the end of the line. I knew Scott had briefly studied portaiture in the two year CIA foundation program with Jose Cintron (who believed everything went to hell with Cezanne) and developed his skills with color. 
I was a year ahead of him in school, and five years older, so I must've assumed I was more advanced in my understanding of art, or maybe I was just stupid. I was excited about becoming an abstract artist and was studying the New York School, especially (at the time) Barnett Newman. When he started third year painting he set up his easel next to the big industrial sink where we all washed our brushes. The sink was a big grey plastic thing covered with the stains of many pigments, a readymade altered by aleatory application of paints into a 3D art object in progress which Scott, naively, I naively thought at the time, took on as an amusing subject of a traditional nature morte. This was typical of his approach. The perspective was a bit exagerated and the sense of spatial depth very effective and the presentation of a homely and familiar thing as a realistically painted image was kind of funny. He also did a painting of a desk in his bedroom. All the drawers were open, gaping and coughing out their contents like a drunk slob vomitting his breakfast. It was also funny and impressively realistic, but, after all, wouldn't it be better to exhibit the piece of furniture itself as a work of art? Why show off your skill? I guess I was trying to justify to myself what I was doing, in which my skills were not so evident, and Scott's discipline represented what I was not doing. We both had Julian Stanczak as a teacher and I know Stanczak was impressed with Scott's work. "You are a realist painter, but I think you are more than a realist," Stanczak said to him. Stanczak helped us open our eyes to each other's work, I think.                                                                                                                            Scott and I lived in the same old apartment building in University Circle and we occasionally ran into each other and exchanged wisecracks, if we talked at all. He was, and still is, tall and thin. His hair was long and he walked at a tilted lurch. I knew he was from California and was into jazz. He played acoustic bass in an ensemble of earnest young jazz snobs that played the standards from a fake book. They played at a party in the suite Scott shared with three other students. After I heard them do Miles' So What? I wanted to show I was hip enough to identify the number so I said to Scott, "That was very good, but So What?" ha ha. He also played electric bass in an obnoxiously noisy art school band called Redness. I eventually became a big fan of Redness, their music and their neo-dada collage xerox posters.
Our first genuine conversation was at a party in one of the basement apartments in our building, where we drank too many cups of punch made from grain alcohol. He was wearing a white T shirt with the phrase "Decadence - A Way of Life," printed on it and I saw that my cupful of punch with a piece of fruit in it would perfectly go into his shirt pocket so I emptied it there. We had been having a good conversation up to that point and I froze and thought, Why did I do that? and he also froze and then batted Dan Brewer's drink in my face. It is not a pleasant sensation to have alcohol thrown into your eyes, but it was the perfect and obvious response to what I'd done and we both laughed and have been best friends ever since. I moved into his apartment for my final year at CIA-- the Eliot Ness Suite, because we'd been told the Untouchable himself had resided there in his Cleveland years. We shared this place with Perry Kopchak and Dan Brewer and we all got to know each other very well and respected each other's work, and often collaborated on music and art.
I thought a few, but not all, teachers and students were confused by Scott's paintings and wondered why someone with avant garde sensibilities in music (Ornette, Sun Ra, Pere Ubu, and Redness) and knowledge of contemporary culture, etc. would be so devoted to naturalistic painting. I guess I asked myself this question, and assumed others did too. My take on this became - - he knows that the conventions of representation had been been demolished by modernism and that the presuppositions of art itself had been undermined by Duchamp and Dada and so on, but So What?
Now I think I didn't understand his work because he knew something I didn't. I've watched Scott experiment with various approaches that he could have developed further and been successful with -- allegorical paintings, wry assemblages, complex neo-Cubist painting -- but he put these aside and his attention always returned to a path toward what he is doing now, and what his heart is in. Scott's commitment to his craft and to the process of painting pictures of his surroundings -- ugly neighborhoods and toxic industrial scenes in Queens and Brooklyn selected by some chance operation, psychologically observant portraits of models enlisted through craigslist, natural landscapes near the cabin he built in the Catskills or near his mother's place in Arizona -- has given us works of great skill in which the kind of fine-tuned concentration and training required in the high wire improvisation of his music come into play in both his plein air and studio practice.
I have become more attentive to the visual nuances of the urban environs of the outer boroughs after seeing them reproduced and reconstructed hue by hue, observed and transformed into paintings. That he is a disciple of European painting from Northern Renaissance and Rembrandt to Cezanne is obvious to anyone who knows art history. That the view he gives us of the world is "more than realist" might not be so obvious to those looking for something "new" in painting. I haven't seen any other paintings of the New York we live in now that are as good as his. His eyes are open and his record of the world he sees is accurate and real, and more than that.

His show at Sideshow opens March 22 and will be up through April 20.

                                                      2012 sketch of SW by me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Monday, March 03, 2014

hallucination verbal

"The words are never crazed (at most perverse), but the syntax is: is
it not on the level of the sentence that the subject seeks his place
-- and fails to find it -- or finds a false place imposed upon him by

translation by Richard Howard

'Le mots ne sont jamais fous (tout au plus pervers), ce la syntaxe qui
est folle : n'est-ce pas au niveau de le phrase que le sujet cherche
sa place -- et ne la trouve pas -- ou trouve une place fausse qui lui
est imposée par la langue."

Roland Barthes, Fragments d'un discours amoureux

Je veux fumer ma pipe et je veux boire mon cafe et etudier francais.

Today's phrase in French:
"il fait tres froid ici a New York."
"It is very cold here in New York." 

Maintenant je commence l'histoire avec mon ami imaginaire, l'auteur --
How do you say "co-author?"
Je ne compre pas comment parle Francais bien et je ne comprend pas
comment ecrit ... comment dire ... ecrite ... merde!
Mais parle-moi comment dire "Dire avec le Google translate"
Je parle avec ma laptop
Le monde sur ma lap
Comment parle "lap?"

Now I begin the story with my imaginary friend, the author -?
 "Co-author" How do you say 
I do not understand how to speak French well and I do not understand 
how writing ... how to say ... written ... shit!
 But tell me how to say "say with Google translate" 
I talk with my laptop 
The world on my lap 
How to speak "lap?" 

Vous avez une belle voix, mais vous répéter tout ce que je dis.
You have a beautiful voice, but you repeat everything I say.
Vous avez une belle voix, mais vous répétez tout ce que je dis.

Sketchbook pages 1995
Text co-authored by Google translate 2014