• oil paintings


Oil paintings by Saint Louis artist Benjamin Guffee


Phonaesthetics is the study of the sound of words or word groupings independent from their meaning.  

In the English language, "cellar door" is often cited as one of the most lyrically beautiful phrase.  If you've seen the movie "Donnie Darko" you may know this already. 

I love the band Radiohead.  I think Thom Yorke is into phonaesthetics, consciously or unconsciously (I'd say almost surely consciously because he seems very well read).

Just thinking of the album titles: OK computer. Kid A. In rainbows.  I could go into lyrics but that might take me all day.  

I think meaningful, "good" abstract art is kind of the visual parallel to phonaesthetics.  I love abstraction when the focus is still on the visual impact of the work, even though free from narrative or representation.  

Father John Misty and rising above the Bleakness

Ideas of a "post-structuralist" or "post-movement" era have been around for decades.  The thought that our modern world has become too fragmented and unstable for a single dominant cultural movement to emerge certainly seems more relevant today than ever before.  Given this cultural climate, it's especially interesting to that certain powerful ideas still seem to germinate and manifest simultaneously across diverse cultural platforms - often without interaction or direct connection between the adherents.  

Which brings me to Joshua Tillman a.k.a. J. Tillman a.k.a. Father John Misty, a young, extremely talented musician with many different names and an extraordinary sophomore album called "I Love You, Honeybear."  

The album, according to the artist's own description, is a non-chronological story that covers quite a bit of time in his life.  As such, there are some wildly varied ideas and perspectives that appear over the course of the record - sometimes even within one song.  But at least to my ear, there is one central theme that emerges throughout the lyrics:  the possibility of individual triumph over the bleak fog of postmodern thought. 

Not to say that the album is at all "cheery" in a Pollyanna sort of way.  We're not talking about the ostrich with its head in the sand... rather an informed and educated glimmer of optimism in response to the strangling, negative intellectual construct that has dominated the "enlightened" world for decades.

From the title track:

But don't ever doubt this
My steadfast conviction
My love you're the one I want to watch the ship go down with ...

Everything is doomed
And nothing will be spared
Oh I love you honeybear

As I mentioned earlier, there are a whole lot of ups and downs over the course of the album but this contrast, the idea of finding some brightness even while staying aware of the reality around us keeps peeking up.  It is most clearly expressed within the last two tracks:

Oh, and no one ever really knows you and life is brief
So I've heard, but what's that gotta do with this black hole and me?

Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me

The final track contains the most straight forward narrative of the entire album, telling the story of meeting his wife which was apparently the main event that introduced some optimism into the cynicism that comes across in "Fear Fun" and parts of "I Love You, Honeybear."  

For love to find us of all people
I never thought it'd be so simple


Overall  this album is one of the richest I've come across in a very long time.  I see some of the ideas emerging across various cultural platforms... song, writing, art, film.  One of the earliest references that clicked in my head was in the brilliant "Good Will Hunting."  Will had all of the book knowledge, all of the appropriate cynicism but none of the heart.  His psychologist, played by Robin Williams, challenged him:

"So if I asked you about art you could give me the skinny on every art book ever written... Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right?  But I bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling."

For all of the cultural movements that people have tried to give a name to and give life to (you can even find discussion of "post-everything"... c'mon now...), have any of these "posts" really offered a challenge or a counterpoint to the smug negativity that has hung over the academic & critical world since the 20th century?  

Maybe it's not impossible for another movement to come to the fore.  Maybe the right movement just hasn't come around yet.  I, for one, like to think that there's still room.  

One last lyric from the album.  This is from track two: 

"People are boring
But you're something else completely
Let's take our chances...

I haven't hated all the same things
As somebody else since I remember"

In the grand scheme of things today, it's a pretty sweet love song.  And maybe that says the most about where we're at.

What is art?

Last year I read a series of Leo Tolstoy's essays that were published as a group in 1898 under the title "What is Art?"  There are some quotes within that I think hit on lasting truths about art (truths that were often forgotten or pushed aside by critical voices of the past decades, but apply with equal force to the art produced during that time)... He focuses on art as a form of communication, not just of ideas but of feelings, experiences... of life itself.

"Every work of art results in the one who receives it entering into a certain kind of communion with the one who produced or is producing the art, and with all those who, simultaneously with him, before him, or after him, have received or will receive the same artistic impression.  

As the word which conveys men's thoughts and experiences serves to unite people, so art serves in exactly the same way.  The peculiarity of this means of communion, which distinguishes it from communion by means of the word, is that through the word a man conveys his thoughts to another, while through art people convey their feelings to each other.  

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, as he receives through hearing or sight the expressions of another man's feelings, is capable of experiencing the same feelings as the man who expresses them.

The simplest example: a man laughs, and another man feels merry; he weeps, and the man who hears this weeping feels sad; a man is excited, annoyed, and another looking at him gets into the same state.

...On this capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of other people, the activity of art is based."

Later in the same essay: 

"And therefore the activity of art is a very important activity, as important as the activity of speech, and as widely spread.

As the word affects us not only in sermons, orations and books, but in all those speeches in which we convey our thoughts and experiences to each other, so, too, art in the broad sense of the word pervades our entire life, while, in the narrow sense of the word, we call art only certain of its manifestations."

And in a later essay:

"The business of art consists precisely in making understandable and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reasoning.  Usually, when a person receives a truly artistic impression, it seems to him that he knew it all along, only he was unable to express it."

I think that this idea of a quality artwork producing a special resonance with a viewer is important, and that resonance is so crucial for a work to be lastingly important, no matter what era or style is under discussion... and I do think that history will (eventually) look back on the fixation with ideas of "removing the artist's hand" or isolating the viewer as an understandable but frivolous detour that really overstayed its welcome.  

Art museums today usually only show the end product or the most extreme expression of the 20th century art movements.  It's like there's a need to surround the works with a mystique that elevates them and isolates people from really understanding the context and meaning of the works.  And I really think it does a disservice to the viewers... Many of the great artists from the 20th century went through journeys that were really about stripping down or distilling visual language and ideas.  Much like the Impressionists that paved the way for modernism, they were departing from strict representationalism and expressing themselves in simpler ways.  By simplifying things, the Impressionists (and many early modernists) were creating works that actually heightened the level of engagement for the viewer.  Earlier "classical" works were often very formal and light years from anything the typical viewer could relate to.  And a photorealistic, formal painting contains far more detail than the human eye and brain would process if you were standing right in front of the scene.  By moving to plein air techniques and focusing on the feel of a scene rather than being tied to every detail, the Impressionists made paintings that in a way recreated their view of a scene more 'accurately' than a photorealistic rendering would... the paintings passed on the actual experience of the artist in a very special way.  It seems that many of the early modernists were expanding on these ideas... a "less is more" approach and a high level of interest in how the viewer would relate to piece as certain elements were reduced or eliminated.  It's ironic, then, that what is often remembered from the 20th century is a group of works that are cold, mysterious and exclusionary.  How that came to be is a whole other topic and ties in with the extraordinary pressure exerted by the commercial and critical elements that were pushing these movements along.

One final quote from the Tolstoy essays... 

"Whatever follies may be committed in art, once they are accepted among the upper classes of our society, a theory is at once elaborated to explain and legitimize these follies, as if there had ever been epochs in history where certain exceptional circles of people had not accepted and approved of false, ugly, meaningless art, which left no traces and was completely forgotten afterwards."

Art as a voice of reason

When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famed mountaineer George Mallory simply replied, "Because it's there."  Mallory's words reflect mankind's tendency to tackle a challenge simply because of its existence - often without full consideration of the consequences.

We live in a society driven by this tendency.  We make our cars faster, our buildings bigger and our computers smaller.  Mankind is currently at a point in history where we are often only constrained by actual laws of nature - never by a lack of ambition or imagination.  

A perfect example is the iPhone, which will surely be remembered as the iconic piece of technology that defined our generation.  Throughout the 90's and the early 2000's, computers kept getting smaller and sleeker.  Phones kept getter bigger and more competent.  The "golden spike" of this convergence was the iPhone.   

Several months ago the idea occurred to me, "What if it wasn't physically possible to make an iPhone?"   The technologies that we hold in our hands every day were science fiction - impossibilities - a few decades ago (in fact, when you watch sci-fi movies from the 80's most of the technology imagined back then looks incredibly clunky next to what the average US consumer has access to today).  There is still a surreal aspect to all of it.  So what if it simply hadn't been possible to create these technologies?  What if the physical properties of the metals and elements used in microprocessors were slightly different, and the gurus of Silicon valley hit a wall somewhere along the way?  What if computers simply couldn't get small enough to fit in the palms of our hands?

There's not much of a point to all these "what ifs" because the fact is that these technologies were and are within the realm of possibility.  So the question is, was that possibility the main reason behind their creation?  

I still remember an article entitled "A Letter to the Year 2100" that appeared in the January 1, 2000 issue of Time magazine.  I kept a copy of the article and some of the quotes have been echoing around in my mind ever since.  In it author Roger Rosenblatt mused as to whether the "emerging technologies that purport to bind people together" could actually be a divisive or isolating factor.  

Rosenblatt continued, "I wonder if we really want to have as much to do with one another as we have always claimed to want.  Connectedness - that was supposed to be the desperate cry of a world frightened by modernity... Inventions were concocted to bring us closer to one another, the machinery of communication especially... Historically, there has never been as much communication as in our 20th century, or as much mass murder.  Communication, mistaken for a virtue in itself, has been substituted for sympathetic, beneficial social existence.  If living with one another merely means living in touch with one another, no wonder so many people feel closer to their computer screens than to other people."

That was January 1, 2000!   

I would add to the thoughts above the question:  Were these technologies ever truly designed to "bind people together?"  Or were they the inevitable product of a capitalist system?   An eventuality - a combination of the "Because it's there" phenomenon and possibility - the allowance of such devices by the physical properties of the materials available?  And what are the implications if possibility be the primary decision-maker on such influential, world-changing inventions?

Whatever the case, the technologies that currently shape our culture certainly are not bringing people together.  If anything, they promote a distracted, self-absorbed lifestyle.  

How does all of this impact art and shape the context of how artworks are viewed today?  For one thing, artworks have more noble and interesting reasons for being created beyond capitalistic possibility (hopefully!).  The passion and vision of the artist, a message to convey, or the desire to create a certain feeling or impact on the viewer all come into play.  Secondly, the experience of viewing art in person, while it has been impacted by the information age, remains essentially unchanged.  It is a moment of complete connection, whether you view it as a connection with the artwork, with the artist, or with yourself.  There is something wonderfully real and impactful about viewing a piece of art in a space created expressly for that purpose... especially in contrast with the disposable fluff our minds are constantly flooded with in this information-glutted age.  

I believe that artists who realize the impact of thoughtfully created art in the context of the digital age will become increasingly important as years go by.  If the role of art as a reminder to slow down and be present in the moment becomes more highly valued, then work that truly engages a viewer visually will be increasingly appreciated.  I don't want to present this as an issue of "representational vs. abstract."  But it absolutely is an issue of thoughtful, engaging artwork vs. smug, slick and inaccessible work.  It is an issue of substance - effort and technique, being favored over style and attitude alone.

Can art fill a role, not just as a reflection of a confused and overwhelmed society, but as a guide, a beacon, a voice of reason?  Can art be a reminder of what real communication is about?   


New studio series

I am proud to share the first images from a new studio series that I began last year in the late summer. I've uploaded the images into the "current" page on this site.  These paintings are all large scale - 48"x48" and up - and feature stripped down, simplified compositions and a muted color palette.  The first four paintings are water, but I will be moving on to some tree and sky images.

It's been a labor of love, and an extremely time-consuming process as I began this series.  As the spring turns to summer and I realize that it's almost a year since the ideas behind this series first crystalized in my mind, on the one hand it's a little discouraging that I'm only four paintings in but on the other I hand I think of all the work that went into this series so far and the "learning curve" as I explore new techniques in mixing and applying paint, a revised color palette, and really an entirely new approach... and I feel the momentum starting to pick up (finally!) as I work in the studio... and it feels better. 

"Grey Day 01," oil on canvas, 48"x60"

"Grey Day 01," oil on canvas, 48"x60"