Amish “Keep On Truckin'” Dude Goes to New York

8 07 2011

Throughout this blog, I have been advocating a shift in the presumed purpose of art from that of communicating meaning based in language to being something more based in experience.  Two weeks ago I argued that if we accept the place of beauty in art, we can accept most any beautiful experience as art, whether it is object-based, as we now think about “Art,” or not.  I plan to address a new method of thinking about art—one not based in an object at all, perhaps not even something we could call “art”—in later blog posts.  Today, however, I want to examine some of the history of the object of art and the relationship of the object to the motivations for making art.

Even before what Arthur C. Danto refers to as the “Age of Art,” craftsman and artisans already attached a monumental nature to their decorative works.  The paintings on the walls of caves in Lascaux or the dragon-headed prows of Viking ships were not made with the purpose to be “art” as we now understand it—something autonomous, an object created with the sole purpose of being art—they were created for communicative, decorative, and in many cases ritual purposes.  However, whatever the motivations of the artisans creating these objects, they have ultimately served as monuments to the cultures they came from.  These cultures have lived on through these objects that we now hold as venerable artifacts of history.

A culture is immortalized by what art remains.

Monument and immortality are more apparent as motivations for artists during the “Age of Art.”  The works of great artists act as memorializing objects of their accomplishments.  In a sense, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol live on through their works as they hang in museums and are reproduced in textbooks.  Their impact on society was temporary in their physical lives, but infinite (or at least seemingly infinite) in the fabric of the history of our culture.

If I argue, as Allan Kaprow does, for a “Life-like” art—one that abandons the notion of art as object and substitutes instead “meaning-making interactions,” how does this affect the immortalizing power of art?  Even if the experience is somehow documented, its existence becomes immaterial in the fabric of memory rather than artifact.  Memories become distorted over time; memories fade.

David Saling was a friend of mine.  We earned our BFAs together at Eastern Washington University in 2002.  David died on July 2, 2011 due to complications from acute promyelocytic leukemia; he was 51 years old.  His paintings (at least as an undergraduate) were rife with sarcasm and irreverent humor.  He also has two public artworks to his credit in Spokane, Washington, and taught at Spokane Falls Community College.

Maybe it's a joke that only David and I would get, but how can you not laugh at this album cover?

I remember my experiences with David:  blasting Loverboy or Blondie records in the second-floor painting studio while the two of us played air-instruments with comic fervor, passing jokes back and forth during our graduation ceremony, and a road trip to Moses Lake for an exhibition installation, during which we gave names the rock outcroppings in the otherwise bland Eastern Washington landscape.  David was an intense painter and it wasn’t unusual to hear him muttering, or even yelling, at his paintings when frustrated or throwing brushes at them from across the room.  We hadn’t spoken for quite some time, but a friend of ours put it best, saying that the absence of “such a big, distinct personality creates a vacancy in life.”

Another friend pointed out that we have “the work of his hands and heart to live with.”  This is true.  With David gone, we do have our memories, but we also have his paintings and his public sculptures to help to reinforce those memories.  These serve as his monument—maybe not on a grand, societal scale like a Mondrian or Murakami, but he is nonetheless immortalized in his work.

Jaques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

For me, his personality was the strongest part of any visual composition.  In one massive painting, he quoted Jaques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii.  The figures are painted in David’s loose, flowing style in bright, cartoon-like colors.  Instead of swords, the paternal figure is holding giant dildos, to which the brothers are saluting.  In another, we see a city skyline from a very low angle—the skyscrapers rushing away from our view.  In the distance, very small, a plane heads toward one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  However, in the foreground, a man clad in black wearing a wide-brimmed hat carries a fishing pole with a fish at the end of the line.  The fish is swimming through the man’s massive shoe.  In Amish “Keep On Truckin'” Dude Goes to New York, David Saling takes a traumatic incident fresh in our minds (the painting completed in 2002) and puts a comic, almost hopeful, spin on the matter.

All I have to remember David is a slide of that painting.  Sadly, at the moment, I don’t have access to a working slide scanner to reproduce it here for you.  Perhaps this is fitting.  Memories and slides can fade and get lost in the wash of time and technology.  That painting, wherever it is now, is the lasting monument to David Saling.  It is the concrete artifact through which we can hear his laughter for years to come.

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