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He Left A Paper Trail

Core Matter, Subject Matter and Object Matter

UA Little Rock, 2007
Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, 2021

David Bailin

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© David Bailin • The written and video material presented on this site is the intellectual property of the respective authors/publications
Mocking of Christ detail
Fra Angelico, The Mocking of Christ (detail), with the Virgin and Saint Dominic, 1439-1443 fresco, Cell 7, Convent of San Marco, Florence(1439-43)
white painting
Fra Angelico, The Mocking of Christ (detail), with the Virgin and Saint Dominic, 1439-1443 fresco, Cell 7, Convent of San Marco, Florence(1439-43)
Still and Guston paintings
Still, 1948-C, 1948 Guston, Voyage, 1956
sketchbook page
translation of different formats
Theater Script
Apparition drawing image
abreaction theater stage
Keaton in Steamboat Will Jr
Kafka photo
Buster Keaton Franz Kafla
Sioux Falls 1950s
Cossacks
four drawings
String. 2007 Missing. 2012 Papers. 2014 Red Tie. 2015
pit drawing
a drawing in process
Passover drawing image
white painting
Graduation drawing image
What makes us artists, what drives us to spend hours in the studio, what brings us to manic highs and depressive lows? Warren Criswell calls it our addiction - the art drug. The art drug results in the high we get when we complete a solid piece of work. It's the low we experience after a show is hung. It’s the ever increasing need for storage and money for supplies. But that’s just the psychological and physical affects of the art habit. The real frustration of art isn’t the work per se. That’s because as we become more accomplished, we can forget about technical issues. We can push the material to do what we want and get what we want.

No, the real frustration of art is the realization that we can’t escape the schema and the epiphanies that have constructed our vision of the world. What neurologists have characterized as bottom up and top down processing that are ingrained into our synapsis. Those processes comprise our core matter. And art production is a search through subject matter for a link to that core. As much as we make progress in technical mastery, the core is elusive every time we pick up a brush, a piece of clay or realize that the exhibition we have worked towards isn’t an end to our addition.

An artist friend of mine mentioned that as artists we really paint the same painting over and over again. Patterns of work, approach, organization, deep themes appear over and over again.

Schema & Epiphany: You never know what will lodge in your brain and stay with you.
Two events shaped my concept about what is art and about making art.

55 years ago, I saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Bugs, dressed in artist smock and beret, and dipping a large brush into a bucket of paint, paints the Mona Lisa in two passes of his hand. I was enthralled. Every time I lifted a brush it appeared to be so limited. But later I realized that every stroke had to have significance. An artist must create a work of art using the greatest amount of significance with the least amount of effort. You see it in the brush strokes of great masters. When you look at a great piece, it just seems like it appears fully formed and effortless because every element has significance, and none is out of place or redundant.

Later, while studying art history in Italy, as a very young man, I visited the Convent of San Marco in Florence. Walking into a dark cell from a long sun-drenched corridor, it took a while my for my eyes to adjust. As I waited for the image to fully appear l was able to make out a crown of thorns, and then a stick, and a bloody gash. And then, when my eyes fully adjusted to the dark, to my astonishment, I realized that there was no complete image. I had filled in the spaces with my own version of the picture- a picture that wasn’t there. Fra Angelico had created a painting (The Mocking of Christ) that every sister could complete in her own way. He had produced the most devotional piece of art I have ever seen.

Both of those events came to define my approach to art. For me, that meant finding out what was extraneous to image making, and discovering how far I could go towards developing a story without losing an image.

Déjà vu
I was looking over paintings I had made in 1976. Typical student work–attempting to make something original by negating every thing I had learned about good painting and combining two disparate styles: Clifford Still and Phillip Guston. But what struck me was how close those paintings looked and felt to my current thumbnails. The same self-enclosed stories, the diagrammatic elements of the work and the space between each idea or impulse. This was an aesthetic epiphany.

As artists, we change the subject matter (the story) and the object matter (the elements) but we can’t change the core matter - the indescribable and intangible chemical, electrical, biological makeup of our psyche - the conglomeration of memories and emotions that require expression. We may never come to grasp or even understand what that core is but it remains stubbornly fixed and reenforced throughout our lives.

The frustration, therefore, is how important that core is to creating our subject matter and how insignificant our subject matter is to expressing it. The art drug is the need, the compulsion, to express the core through our work so well and completely so as never to have to experience it again.


Subject Matter: Translation creates Inspiration
When I arrived in NYC in the 70s, an artist wanting to tell stories was stuck with performance or theater or relegated to irrelevancy. I had to find a way to translate what I wanted to do into another form.

This was my mind set when I came to NYC: an anti-technique, anti-intellectual, anti-compositional aesthetic–where self-contained stories are piled up as blotches on the canvas. In NY, the blotches became sections on a large carpet designated by furniture and spot lights. A year later, the written sections of my Performances become individual collage elements that linked one line with one image with an attention to the imagined space between both one line of text with another non-sequential text and one found image and another. And one year later after that, the projection of that collage into a theatrical space. What may appear to be a giant leap may in fact be just a change in materials and a similar process or method can produce extremely different outcomes. Translation is inspiration with methods.

Object Matter: Do not confuse Subject Matter with Object Matter
This concept comes from Shapiro via Newman: There is a difference between subject matter and object matter. The subject matter is the story or theme you want to express to the viewer. Object matter are the plastic elements used to convey the story or theme. The theme or story can be similar and still take on different forms. Once you understand the difference you open your work to possibilities. View how this is evident: On the left, the script. On the right the translation into theater.

The subject matter is the story or theme you want to express to the viewer. Object matter are the plastic elements used to convey the story or theme. The theme or story can be similar and still take on different forms. Once you understand the difference you open your work to possibilities.

Core Matter: What Haunts you is more important than Inspiration
These pre-concepts provided a way to form my subject matter but didn't explain the continuity of the type of themes and stories I was telling. There was something deeper working on my art - a fundamental matter in my work that would never change regardless of the subject matter and the object matter. This core matter, ever present, would only be consciously realized with experiencing Keaton and Kafka's work. As a part of the audience and as a reader, I was drawn into their work. I found a connection to it. More importantly, Keaton and Kafka provided me with a visualization and verbalization of what I could never on my own identify. While I was expressing this core through my subject matter, those artists gave me a way to understand it.

As such the characters inhabiting my subject matter don’t contain the proactive and defiant stance of Max Beckman’s Modernist character of which he says “Nothing remains to him but protest - the only inner freedom - and with that one is to live;” but the hapless Post-Modernist figure left with only persevering no matter how absurd that action may be. My core held a character combined of Keaton's heroic comic figure situated in an environment created by Kafka - a Goofy-Existentialism.

Why this particular core matter is a mystery to me. But I'm sure growing up where and when I did had something to do with it.

Sioux Falls, SD was a mid-western city of 60000 people in the early 1960s. I was one of the approximately 500 people that made up the population of Sioux Falls. I grew up hearing about the fights my father and his brother had during the 1930s with the children of the local German American bund. My grandfather owned several stores (called the People's Store) that catered to those same Nazi sympathizers and that actually saved a number of family farms during the depression with his generosity and business acumen. By the time I was in school there was none of that prejudice, only patronizing and ignorance about what being Jewish meant.

My grandparents had moved to America to escape the pogroms in the Ukraine and Russia during the late 1890s and early 1900s. I had heard about the Cossacks and the pogroms and, of course, the holocaust probably more than anything else affected me. Knowing that the venue of order, of society, of the contract between a people and its government could so easily be broken occupied my work. Richard Foreman wrote that only by experiencing hysterical moments can we really know who we are. In many ways, the expression of my core matter seeks that visualization in my subject matter.

So in a sense, all the various series have clear links to my core - the Keaton character trapped in a Kafkaesque situation. As such the characters inhabiting my subject matter don’t contain the proactive and defiant stance of Max Beckman’s Modernist character of which he says “Nothing remains to him but protest - the only inner freedom - and with that one is to live;” but the hapless Post-Modernist figure left with only persevering no matter how absurd that action may be.

The core requires an outlet by the artist. Its outlet resolves in subject matter - themes, ideas conveyed through the organization of object matter.

The Pit: How you know you’re in one
When the connection between core and subject matter is strong, the artist produces what he/she considers valid work. But when that connection is blocked or severed the artist experiences the horrid and feared PIT. This drawing is one of the many drawings I destroyed during a two year period beginning in 2010 while experiencing Resnick's Pit.

There's something peculiar about artists. They have ups and downs... After a while everything you do is just wonderful... then you slide back. If you're a good artist you're going to go down. And then it's up to you. You always have the memory of the bottom, and fear of the bottom. And when you start going to the bottom you panic. There are people who can't stand the pain. What happens is they begin to develop some kind of technique to keep out of that hole. Once they do that, they're finished. They never go any further. They're done.

How do you know you are in a pit? You repeat your self, recirculating old ideas without adding anything to the story, contriving ideas or stories that have no hook to them or you create work where you are completely in the zone - where you are no longer engaged in constructing the work but just executing it. And nothing feels focused.

We’ve all experienced it. After a period of incredible production … nothing. Completely frustrating, maddening and gut wrenching. And, the most maddening and frustrating part of the pit is that you can tell when you are stepping into it but can't do anything about it. I was in the pit for years throwing out and destroying work left and right

But confronting the pit is the only answer to relinking the core matter with the subject matter - the only way to remain an artist. Ironically, while I was dealing with the ‘pit’ - trying to find my way back to a subject and my core, my father was dealing with Alzheimer’s and slowly losing his.

Searching for a way out
My constant erasing and remaking, searching for a hook - a subject. This is my last major series. And all the frustrations I experienced in the pit seemed to mimic my father’s frustration experienced with his fading memory and personhood.

I have never thought about memory and personality. While one of my early performances dealt with aphasia and the inability to communicate and another the attempt to reconstruct a lost relationship, I never considered how much memory plays in personality and the preservation and continuity of that personality in lived space. As an artist and as a son and grandson who has and is witnessing this shattering of personhood, the question is how to convey this without relying on visual cliches (such as foggy spaces or translucent overlap or collage, etc).

Looking over the drawing failures gave me my visual and technical cues─the layers of partially rendered scenes and gestures that populated the skin of the paper. All the frustration of trying to define what was not yet formed yet intimated by what went earlier. This back and forth process of drawing in and erasing out, from having an idea or image revealing itself one minute only to fall back into obscurity the next mimics what I see happening to my father in his attempt to recognize in the moment his own personal narrative and memories.

It also serves as a reminder that we make the same work over and over.

With my father’s death, my Erasing series came to an end as the drawings themselves become nearly completely erased to the point where I was invited into several abstract museum shows.

I began a short lived series called the Fire Cycle which was mechanical, repetitive, Meditative. A style completely foreign to my aggressive and rigorous Erasing series. These drawings, created with short, wrist-based lines that focused on the minutia, allowed me to reflect on my father’s death and artistic process. It retained the Kafka/Keaton feeling with the main character fleeing or searching through a landscape laced with sticks and needles, But there is so much you can stand with this kind of concentration, how ever mediative. I began to repeat myself with out adding to the subject matter - the narrative. The pit returned.

But falling into the pit was to be expected even as it has taken its toll on my art. As long as the art drug pushes us to express our core matter which is never satiated by exploring new subject matter and using new object matter, we will continue to face the pit and work ourselves out of it.

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