Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sacred art

Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
Two weaknesses leaning together create a strength. Therefore the half of the world leaning against the other half becomes firm. 
Leonardo's Notebooks, edited by H. Anna Suh, pg 166

My artwork revolves around my conviction that religion and science are means to the same end. I use the word "religion" instead of "spirituality" intentionally. We are social beings; religions serve our spiritual needs from a social perspective. In my art, I look for what the highest purpose of science and religion is. I look at the two as parts of a whole.

God knows that both science and religion have led to untold tragedy upon us and the earth. Like their creators, they both have deep flaws. Yet, just like their creators, they contain unfathomable beauty, warmth and compassion.

I look at my body. What if my musculature and my skeletal system each had their own consciousness? They would see the world from polar extremes; the musculature would say that one has to be flexible, with the ability to tighten and loosen, change shape. The skeletal system would scoff and say that one has to be rigid, unyielding. What we know is that without either of these two systems locomotion would be impossible for us. We need these two elements. From a very narrow perspective these two elements are at odds with each other, but when you look at the human as a whole they serve their purposes and work together in concert beautifully.

I believe that religion (or in this case, spirituality, if you prefer) and art are closely related. Bill Viola said that museums are the modern world's houses of worship. I'm becoming less and less interested in art for art's sake. I like this idea of artwork serving a function. Just about all my favorite art is related to religion, from Michelangelo's first Pieta to Buddhist thangkas, to Bach's sacred music.

Last weekend my friend Jeremy Mage asked me if I wanted to present some of my video projection art at a church he's the choir master of. It's a beautiful old church on 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It was a perfect fit; I've been thinking that my work does in fact belong in a church-type setting. As I wrote, there's a spiritual side in my work, and I see my work as an aid to meditation. So Jeremy, Priska and I went up to the church on Friday to play around with the projections to see what could work. Jeremy wrote a song that we played duo during the projection. It's called "Vessels." He's playing piano and I'm playing tenor saxophone.

I videotaped the presentation:


One of my goals as an artist is to give people a deep sense of peace when experiencing my art. So I was very happy to be a part of the service on Sunday.

Friday, October 28, 2011

New work on display

Four of my pieces are on display at the William Bennett Gallery, 65 Greene St., between Spring and Broome:

The pieces are a bit of a departure from what I have been concentrating on recently. They are images of water towers, removed from their environment, drained of all color so the functional architecture and design of the towers is most apparent. In the real world these structures are visual afterthoughts. They are completely built out of necessity. Yet there is a grace and warmth to them. They strike me as loyal servants to us, supplying us with water, not demanding much in return. They have an anthropomorphic quality: the spindly legs holding up a torso-like vessel of water.

I've been interested in urban decay and cast-off architecture for a while now. The interest began to develop in my childhood when I would take the bus from upstate N.Y. to Manhattan to visit my father on the weekends. The bus would go through rundown areas of Paramus and Hell's Kitchen. All these industrial structures along the road just looked so lonely to me; I wouldn't know what purpose they served. This strange sense would fall over me: a feeling of sadness and empathy for these cast-off structures, these rusted, dirty, decaying heaps of metal. I would picture what they might have looked like when they were first built, and imagine their slow journey into neglect and disrepair. The fact that people weren't taking care of these objects would make me sad.

These images are lovingly rendered meditations of the cast-offs of our culture. They are an attempt to embrace and love the neglected, ignored structures of our daily lives.

Monday, October 24, 2011

New works

I want to share a couple of pieces I just finished.

The first one, "standing_aphrodite_v034 triptych":

Here's the other piece, "standing_aphrodite_v034":

I finished these images about a month ago. I was unhappy with them so I didn't print them and they sat on the server. My associate Priska Wenger was looking through my files a couple of weeks ago and these caught her eye. She asked me to print them and she mounted them on board. She presented them to me and I fell out of my chair. I find it odd that these may have just disappeared on the server if Priska hadn't noticed them. We've created a work flow in the studio in which we don't listen to my opinion once the imagery has been created. It's a interesting process; I go through tears where I make literally hundreds of pieces. When the dust begins to settle Priska sorts them out. As Molly told me, "You need an editor." And I have a great editor in Priska.

I do this overthinking, giving myself a headache, taking myself waaaay too seriously, coming up with grand schemes for what my work is about. And then when I actually do the work I forget everything and just try to make things that are beautiful. What I find interesting is that the pieces above speak to transformation, metamorphosis and evolution—the very things I've been reading about lately in science books. Yet I created these pieces before I started reading these books. It's as if the artwork I was creating was informing my thinking, rather than the other way around.

In the end Beauty is my main motivation in creating art. I believe Beauty heals. I believe Beauty is Truth. Beauty is a much maligned word. I'm reading The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich. As I read his introduction, a paragraph jumped out at me:
It is infinitely better not to know anything about art than to have the kind of half-knowledge which makes for snobbishness. The danger is very real. There are people, for instance, who have picked up the simple points I have tried to make in this chapter, and who understand that there are great works of art which have none of the obvious qualities of beauty of expression or correct draughtsmanship, but who become so proud of their knowledge that they pretend to like only those works works which are neither beautiful nor correctly drawn. They are always haunted by the fear that they might be considered uneducated if they confess to liking a work which seems too obviously pleasant or moving. They end by being snobs who lose their true enjoyment of art and who call everything 'very interesting' which they really find somewhat repulsive. 
He also states:
I should hope to help open eyes, not loosen tongues. 
The essence of these quotes is on my mind whenever I walk through Chelsea galleries.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


The evolutionary biologist and paleontologist G. G. Simpson has estimated that 99.9% of all species ever to have evolved have gone extinct. To put this visually:

Okay, let's look at this; from a Moneyball/sabermetrics perspective, we have a 0.1% shot at survival as a species. 

I was discussing this 99.9% extinction number with Joe Lertola, our information graphics director here at the workshop. He feels that that number is rosy. He thinks it should be more like one in a billion (0.0000001%.) Joe and I have charted it out in case you have a hard time visualizing this:

I got this 0.1% number from a wonderful textbook I'm reading on vertebrate anatomy by Kenneth V. Kardong. Peering into our past from an evolutionary standpoint brings up many feelings. Feelings of mystery, feelings of wholeness, of completeness. It also brings up fear, feelings of the unknown, existential unease. That every bone, every muscle, and every organ has a lineage of millions of years blows my mind. There's such a story in evolution. It's so poetic. The story is ripe for artistic interpretation.

I've known for a while that feelings of a similar nature rise up in me when I go to an art museum, when I read a good science book, or when I meditate. This fact has been coming to my awareness more since I've been working hard at my art and spending so much time thinking about what it is I want to achieve and accomplish with it. Einstein said that the main purpose of art and science is to awaken and nurture a sense of wonder and amazement of the world. For him this sense of wonder is a true religious feeling.

When the Rothko exhibition was at the Whitney about 12 years ago I went often. That beauty of this magnitude could plainly and simply exist on canvas gave me such hope and belief in the purpose of humanity. Everything made sense in the world as I looked into those canvases.

As I read this vertebrate textbook the evolutionary and morphological diagrams bring forth the same sense in me. They aren't quite as operatically grand as the feelings I had at the Whitney, but the seeds are there. That there is visual evidence of our interconnectedness from one species to another gets to me. There's also something to having a logical understanding elicit these deep, religious feelings of connectedness. Here's a diagram from Vertebrates: Comparative Anatomy, Function, Evolution by Kardong.

A few weeks ago I mentioned the arm I'm building with Joe. Here are a couple of versions of what it is looking like:

To the best of my ability, everything is anatomically correct and true in this piece. It is a anatomical visual document of our arm's circulatory and skeletal system.

I'm coming to an appreciation of how science informs my art. In fact, "inform" isn't the right word. My art is a form of science. Is there artistic expression in this piece? Depends on what your definition is. I'm not sure if you can even call it very creative. All I've done is draw out the circulatory system of the right arm. I'm not really interested in telling any kind of story other than attempting to show the incomprehensible order and beauty of the body.

Here's a video I created. In it I shot the arm model we built. I wasn't exactly sure what the animation was going to look like when I set it up to render. I had an idea, a sense. I had a sense of pacing. But it's not like I painted or animated every line you see in this video:

What's becoming more evident is that my art owes its existence to anatomical truths. My art is a conversation with our bodies, about what we are made of. I'm interested in directing this conversation into a discussion of our origins now.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Workshop notes

Two weeks ago we got a call from Chris Dixon, the creative director at New York Magazine. He asked us to illustrate a cover on Twitter. The story was about how Twitter is at a cross roads; it's gotten large internally, and is poised to take the next step, or potentially sink. This is the first New York Mag cover we've done. It was a challenge. The brief was to make the twitter bird look like it's overstuffed, crammed in the magazine. Jeong, our lead artist started the project. He dimensionalized the bird. Here's the logo we were working from:

Here's the start of the model Jeong created:

From here we had to cram that sucker in the cover. This was a lot more difficult than we expected. I was acting the pissy creative director for a couple of days. I got Jeong to go out and get a couple of plastic toys and smash them in a box we had at the studio to get a sense of how the folds would work. The problem we kept on coming upon was that the bird looked like a deflating beach ball: It didn't look like it was expanding, it looked more like it was shrinking. Here's a work in progress:

A day before the issue shipped Jeong had to take off for Korea. I took over the project from him. I realized that the more wrinkled the bird looked, the more it looked like it was deflating. So I smoothed out the bird a bit. Here's what the final cover looks like:

I've mentioned before that I have a two month rule. It takes me two months (at least) to see a job clearly. I wish I could say that I love the way the cover looks. But I can't. Right now all I see are things I would have done differently. I am really happy with the composition, especially the upturned head.

In other Luke Hayman related news, I just finished a small illustration for Atlantic Monthly. Luke at Pentagram has taken over for a bit till they find a new AD. He asked us to do a diagram on a new camera that takes pictures using multiple focal lengths at once. Here's the final art:

Luke and his associate Shigeto were happy with the art and picked up on the Bauhaus reference immediately; the primary colored sphere, cube and pyramid.

I read Johannes Itten's "Art of Color" in the late 90's when I was an assistant AD (art director) at Scientific American. Check out of this picture of him when he taught at Bauhaus:

Touch my monkey?

Anyway, according to Itten, these three primary shapes (sphere, cube, and pyramid) have inherent primary colors associated with them. The sphere, blue, the cube, red, and the pyramid yellow. Yellow is the most vibrant color, and the triangle has this same quality geometrically. Blue is the least vibrant, coolest color, and the sphere has these same qualities geometrically. The cube is in between the two and so is red. As I have mentioned, I am pretty lost in the realm of color. So learning, or at least getting exposed to his color system was enlightening.

Speaking of monkeys, I'm currently reading this:

(Why are textbook covers the ugliest god awful looking things in the world? This book is beautifully and elegantly written. It is, well, sophisticated. And the cover does not in any way what so ever live up to the contents.)

I'm reading this for a National Geographic story we are working on. I'm learning about postanal tails. Postanal tails. Needles to say, I am beyond excited about this project. We're working on about ten illustrations. And the kicker is that I pitched the story idea. My self love knows no bounds. I think of the Larry Sanders episode in which Hank Kingsley guest hosts when Larry gets food poisoning:

Hank Kingsley makes me very happy. I relate to him on a fundamental level. This scares me. I think I'll save this train of thought for another post. Or not.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Where I'm at, part 2

This post's subject is of a personal nature. I've decided to publish it because it speaks to how I wish to look at the world and live in the world as a person and artist.

A month ago I took a trip down to Bethany Beach, Delaware to visit my family who were on vacation. After four days I continued south to Florida to visit my recovering Grandmother, Sofie.

I did a lot of thinking on this trip. Let's start with Delaware. Molly and the kids had already been there for a day or two and were hanging out with some friends at the beach when I arrived.

After about an hour I felt the urge for a cigarette and began to roll one. My friend looked at me and said, "What are you doing? You're still smoking that shit?!?" He had recovered from throat cancer this last year. He had had a really close call. What I was thinking rolling a cigarette in front of him I honestly don't know. At times I'm sure I have a stupid gene. How I can be so plainly obliviously stupidly ignorant at times scares me. Anyway, he tore into me; telling me stories of some of the people he saw on the ward dying from smoking related cancers. There wasn't much for me to say or do, other than wait a few minutes after the barrage, then slink about 100 yards away from him and light up.

So mortality was on my mind when I headed south on I95 to visit my grandmother in Florida. The place people go to die. That said, she is a walking tank; an unstoppable force. My happiest memories of my childhood involve her. She taught me how to cook. She has informed how I use and make money significantly. I have never, ever heard the timbre of her voice in someone else. Molly described it as Elmo (yes, the red Elmo) speaking through some kind of voice synthesizer or distorter. Actually, she doesn't talk; she shrieks.

She was in rehab, recovering from heart surgery. She has nine stents in her heart. Miraculously, she should be heading home soon. Getting face to face with our eventual fate, of dying, of spending our last days in a hospital, if we are lucky, was sobering. I would spend a few wonderful hours with her in the mornings, then go out and take a walk around Boynton Beach and do some thinking.

I thought about my drive down I95. The same signs for the same franchises over and over again. From the perspective of I95, every town I passed seemed composed of the same collection of chain stores, hotels, and gas stations. I thought about my friend who had tore into me. He had come close to death. My Grandmother has been close to death about twelve times over the last ten years. In the rehab I'm walking past people in wheel chairs that look like hollowed out husks of themselves. 

"What's it all about?" Yup, that question entered my consciousness. In those hackneyed words. Really. I imagined myself on my death bed. How would I feel about the life I have led so far? Would I be proud? Happy? Disgusted? Disappointed?

I thought about my age: 38. I decided to assume that I'm at the half way point of my life. I reflected on what my life has been about. What themes have there been? What successes, what failures? Oddly, the biggest feelings that came up for me were pride and sadness. I am proud with what I have made of myself in the world. Yet I am sad when I reflect on how I have felt internally these 38 years. I have spent most of my 38 years clawing my way through life, honestly in a pretty sad, anxious state. I have gotten sober, I have gotten married, had two kids. I run a vibrant studio. I'm currently working on my passion; my fine art. I'm separated from my wife, but see the kids and her almost everyday.

What I noticed is that I've really been just focused on what I want, what I desire these last 38 years. I've been caught up in my internal world. Maybe this is appropriate from a developmental sense. I thought that this isn't great place to come from as a father or partner though.

I thought about what I want my life to be about for this next half. I came up with a list:

I want to be the most positive source of energy for my kids as possible. I want to be fully present for them.
I want to be the most supportive source of energy for Molly.
I want to create the most beautiful, moving art possible. (Then get that damn art in front of people.)
I want to be the best, most energizing, leader of my studio as possible.
I want to continue to strengthen the friendships I have developed over the last year and a half.
I want to stop smoking.
I want to somehow reconnect with god, with spirituality.

So, all these things were on my mind when I drove back up to NY. I did the drive in one day. Twenty hours of driving. It was a vision quest. On I95 in North Carolina nature put on a show. Rain, clouds, pinks, purples, light blues, lightning, thunder. After this a rainbow appeared dead ahead of me for what felt like a half hour.

I had never scene a rainbow for so long so clearly. Something clicked in my consciousness. Something about color being ordered, that the hues we are familiar with actually belong on a scale of sorts, similar to how tones of sound can be arranged on a distinct scale. Color has always been something I've felt a bit lost in. When it works it is astounding. But getting color to sing is the hardest thing in the world for me. Seeing the colors arranged in this scale, and seeing how damn beautiful it was was eye opening. I'd look at the rainbow and then look at the trees. And then I'd see that the greens of the leaves on the trees belonged to a part of the rainbow. I'd look at the blues of the sky and see that that blue was contained in the rainbow. Each color I saw was part of a harmonious whole.

There have been a few times when nature has kicked my ass in it's awesome, incomprehensible order and beauty. After these experiences I tend to feel a depression fall over me. "What's the point?" I think. Why do art? All you got to do is look at the damn clouds, at the human form, at nature and all the beauty and poetry in the world is right in front of you, unadulterated. I want to hold on to this experience I had on I95 though. And I think by creating art I can remember this experience, it's a form of remembrance of nature's grandeur, perfection and beauty.

When I got into Pennsylvania I reached for my smokes. I thought about the beauty I had just witnessed. I thought about all the elderly I saw in the rehab. I thought about my cancer surviving friend. I thought about the list I had made. I looked at the smokes in my hand. I decided I was done. I left the cigarettes in the glove box of my car. A month later I'm maybe five-ten pounds heavier. I'm not saying I quit. There's a finality to using the word "quit" that I'm not comfortable with. I'm saying I haven't smoked in 30 days. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Where I'm at

I've been thinking about the connection between what we call the workshop and the fine art I have been working on the last year.

Let me back up a little: the workshop is the information graphic and illustration part of my studio. I am the creative director of it. We have about 6 employees. About 90% of the work we do is science or technology related. Along with being the head of the studio, over the last year and a half I have focused on creating fine art. This fine art is what I have been blogging about recently.

Let me back up a little more. I have been a illustrator for fifteen years. Most of the work I do as an illustrator deals with science. I started at my father's illustration and animation studio, Slim Films, in 1996. In 1997 I took a job as an assistant art director at the magazine Scientific American. At Scientific American I fell in love with, well, science. After a year I left to try to finish my college degree in music. I was freelancing as an illustrator at this time. After half a semester I dropped out of school (again) and kept up with the illustration. I grew more and more successful as a illustrator. Over the last five years I've been hiring people and growing the studio. There are now seven of us.

Growing the studio has been a painful, exhilarating, exciting and rewarding process. I feel I have made every mistake imaginable.

In 2007, before I started hiring people, I did a couple of illustrations that ignited my career. I was commissioned to do the cover for WIRED:

After the issue hit the newsstands my phone would not stop ringing. I was getting phone calls from producers in Hollywood. Ad agencies called. Guys with pony tails driving convertibles were calling.

Shortly thereafter I was commissioned to do the opener for the New York Times Science section. The subject was on diabetes. They gave me a huge canvas to work with and said, "run." Here's what it came out like:

Now the phone wouldn't stop ringing for reals. Up until this point I was working on one job at a time. I would have complete focus on one piece. But as the phone calls and emails increased I felt like I couldn't follow Nancy Reagan's advice and just say no. I started working 16-20 hour days, six through seven days a week, on many jobs simultaneously. One thing that I struggled with (for better or for worse) was this notion that I was now known as the guy who does transparent bodies. I started to feel like my work was commoditized. I began to feel like I was flipping burgers.

When an art director would say, "Just make it look cool," I would die a little inside. It was my love of science, and my love of Classical and Renaissance art that had brought about these pieces I had created. I wasn't looking to create something "cool" to show off with. There was a reason for every line in my work. Unbeknownst to me I was a fine artist.

As you might expect, one year ago I was hospitalized for depression. After the week-long hospitalization I was in a intensive outpatient program for two months. Over the last year I have examined every aspect of my life I could summon the strength to look at. I have questioned everything.

Personally I have learned that my past has shaped me more than I would care to admit. I have learned that up until this point, my life has been shaped by running away from the demons of my past. I have come to accept that for most of my life I've been a miserable guy. I have learned that being a good father and good partner is the most important thing for me to do.

I have thought a lot about what drives me artistically too. Two key words come up: Truth and beauty. The most successful work we do as illustrators in the workshop is truthful. The anatomical work we do is all based on truth. There isn't anything made up in it. I believe that truth communicates itself to us through beauty. The fine art I create is based in truth too. There is nothing made up in any of the imagery. I pose anatomically correct figures in virtual 3D space and render out images of these poses. The abstraction is all based in real-world objects and things. That is crucial to what I do. The super-abstract video installations are all based in internal systematic truths.

So I've learned that what the workshop does and the fine art I create are much more related than I thought. Out of the truth of the anatomy I create close to abstract images that are responded that I respond to as art. In the workshop we create images that are truthful in what is communicated. The beauty happens when the truth of the communication is made evident.

I have also come to realize that from the end of 2007 to 2010 I have not been growing creatively within the workshop. Now, during this time there was indeed a lot of growth--the growth of the studio and the staff I was hiring. There was financial growth, both in revenue and expenditures. There has been tremendous growth within the employees and artists I've hired. But on a base level I feel like we have been recycling pieces that I did in 2006-2008 over and over again. I used to approach jobs with the attitude of trying to find what was best going to convey the information. Now my impression is most clients are looking for that "glass guy" look or the "white on white" architectural stuff. And unfortunately I have let that feeling direct my attitude when starting a job. It's a sad state of affairs.

For all intents and purposes I have taken a sabbatical from the workshop these last twelve months.* I am feeling a strong urge and desire to reconnect in a visceral way to the workshop's commissions. I am encouraged by this desire.

I've expended a lot of time and energy trying to prove to myself that I am in fact an artist. And after doing this for a year what I'm left with is just a feeling of not giving a fuck. Let me explain. This sounds apathetic, but this is not the place I am coming from at all. What I'm letting go of this self-imposed dichotomy I have created between my illustration and fine art. My goddamn work moves people. My work is visual. My work tells a story. You want to call it illustration, fine. You want to call it art, that's better. Moving forward my intention is to let my work speak for itself. That said, I will continue to write about it, I will continue to think about it a lot. But I have come to the conclusion that the most import thing for me to do right now as an illustrator and as a fine artist is to make the damn work without thinking at all about what stylistic/aesthetic box it can be put in.

* After posting this I've thought about this choice of word, "sabbatical." It's not accurate. I have been involved in what the workshop has created these last twelve months. My actual hands haven't been involved much, but my eye has been on all the jobs that have left the studio. This year has been about transitioning me to a true creative director of the workshop. Of turning me into a disembodied eye. What I have learned after this year is that it is necessary for me to smell the dirt. My hands need to be involved in order for me to grow within the workshop.