26 February 2015

A Real Fake: Final Image

Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent.
—Jeanette Winterson

Final step: A removable veil to cover the image.

Watercolor woodblock print with gold mica, rubber stamp, and removable printed veil
11.5" x 7.5" (29.2 x 19 cm) image on 18" x 12 (45.7 x 30.5 cm) shin hosho paper
edition: 22

The last two steps in this print were to add a removable 'veil' (above) and some rubber stamp text (below). A couple of articles I read recently noted that even in countries where images of Muhammad are frowned upon in mosques and other public places, they are often allowed for personal private use. I realized that this image is basically a private image, since it will be part of a boxed portfolio of prints, but I wondered if there might be a way to make it even more private, so I decided to add a veil. I used some lovely and extremely thin Japanese paper that I've had for a while and never found a use for, and it worked well for printing a single color. (I printed with the paper dry rather than damp.)

The final print, with rubber stamp letters added. The text says "this is not Muhammed."

I don't have much to say about the veil, another culturally fraught symbol in conflicts between the so-called west and the so-called Muslim world, but obviously I'm referencing that practice by creating a veil for this print. Also obviously, with my rubber-stamped text I'm referring to Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images, on which he wrote "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe), a work that addresses the distinction between the representational and the Real. A Real Fake.

25 February 2015

A Real Fake: Mica and Magical Objects

Some objects have a certain aura that might be described as magical or somehow otherworldly, and some objects of that nature are art objects. I think some magical art objects, for example The Mona Lisa, acquire their power through accretion and historicity. Some acquire magical qualities through the activites, real or imagined, of the artist – the works of Agnes Martin, say, who lived as a recluse and who is thought of as a kind of mystic. Other art objects, like Warhol works for instance, acquire at least some of their magical properties through their commercial value. And some magical art objects are magical because of the spiritual/religious meanings they carry. I've been thinking about this a lot as I've worked on my print of the Prophet Muhammad. I've especially been grappling with the question of whether or not the magical properties attributed to the original miniature that I'm copying would or could transfer to my reproduction.

I'm deviating from the original miniature quite a bit in this next step in the process as I add gold-colored mica to the flame-halo around the Prophet's head. This is a distinctly Japanese technique, where a glue of some kind (I used rice paste) is printed onto the paper and then mica powder is sprinkled on and lightly brushed. Here are photos of my mica application in process.

Rice paste is applied to the block with a regular te-bake (hand brush) and the impression is taken with the baren.
Immediately after the paper is removed from the block, mica powder is sprinkled on and a soft brush is used to cover the glue with the mica and brush away the excess.
Sheen of mica seen in glancing light.

If you'd like to see a video of the process, check out a demo by Keiji Shinohara at this web site. (Note: Click Enter Site, then Techniques, then Kira Zuri (Mica Technique)).

My studio is full of magical objects; magical because of what they mean to me and remind me of. Here are a few of them.

I do so much research in my work, I was drawn to this little scholarly Buddha.
Sarasvati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, wearing a rosary I made.
Zuni fetishes I collected while I lived in New Mexico: horse, bear, fox and snake.
Nataraj (Dancing Shiva), the primal energy of God, whose dance is both creative and destructive.

24 February 2015

A Real Fake: Colors

After a fair amount of research about the color of Muhammad's robe, I've concluded that Muhammad is most often, but not always, depicted wearing a green robe. In his book Islam and the Heroic Image, scholar John Renard states, "that robe is one of relatively few specific items in the heroic religious iconography of Islamicate painting," so I'm going with green.

Thirteenth color pass: green robe.

Yesterday a friend wondered how many blocks were carved for this print and how I broke down the colors, so I thought I'd show you the 6 blocks that I used.

A couple of notes. First is that the halo I carved on the upper right block is for applying glue for gold mica (next step). Second note is that in order to economize on wood, I used a single block for the two different magenta colors on the rug and back wall. I carved a thin line between the two areas so I would know exactly where to ink. The white line isn't visible in the final after everything gets printed over it. The third thing you might notice is that sometimes if I've ganged up a lot of colors on one plate I carve away portions of what I've already printed so that the inking is easier for the next color. On the keyblock for example (lower right), you can see that I carved away some of the line work that had printed blue so that I could more easily ink the gray lines around the figure. Of course, this means that I can't ever re-print this set of blocks.

23 February 2015

A Real Fake: Key Block Printed

The line work in the original miniature on which my reproduction is based has the look of graphite. It's kind of gray, or blue-gray, rather than black, so I decided to print my keyblock in gray to match. I'm still not sure whether to deviate from the original and keep the robe white, or to make it green so the reproduction is more exact. I'm leaning toward going with the green, since I'm a little nervous that there could be meanings attached to the various colors that I'm not aware of.

Twelfth color pass: gray line work.

19 February 2015

A Real Fake: Purity

“No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”
― James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

If there's a God I can't imagine why God gave us, wholly imperfect human beings as we are, the ability to imagine purity. When we're faced with contradiction and failure, notions of purity and perfection are like a built-in torture mechanism with which we can oppress both ourselves and others: I'm not good enough, this thing I made isn't good enough, you didn't measure up, you've let us down, you're a loser. Conversely, when we think we ourselves are pure, we become self righteous and arrogant: I'm on the right side of this thing, my country is exceptional, my logic is irrefutable, I know what God wants, you're a sinner, you're a moron, you're unclean, you deserve to die.

Fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, is a quest for purity. Fundamentalists regard the world as impure and corrupt, and according to author Richard Antoun (Understanding Fundamentalism), there are three basic strategies that Fundamentalists employ in order to deal with this perceived corruption in the world: migration (eg. the Pilgrims coming to America), separation (Christian colleges such as Bob Jones University), or militant struggle (Al-Qaida). Large organizations like ISIS as well as small groups of terrorists like the Charlie Hebdo shooters have chosen the third option.

Tenth color pass: linework on back half-wall.

Meanwhile, I'm dealing with purity issues of my own regarding this print. If you think about it, I'm trying to make a 'pure' image of Mohammed. But now part of me doesn't want to make the robe green as it appears in the original. I like it white, but the rules I set up at the beginning of this project include making a close reproduction of a 16th century Persian miniature, and I don't think I can wiggle out of that without messing up the purity of my premise. Muhammed is wearing a green robe in the miniature painting I reference, and he is shown wearing a green robe in most historic depictions. The green color is said to be associated with Islam, for which I found a myriad explanations. If you're truly interested, here's an article I referenced about color in Islam. According to this article, it would not be out of place for me to use white for Muhammed's robe, as white signifies purity and harmony. There's that purity thing again.

Eleventh pass: red lines in flaming halo.

Since I can't decide what color to make the robe, I think I'll print the keyblock next and see how I like it.

18 February 2015

A Real Fake: OMG Religion

Seventh pass: blue linework on the left.

Religion is a problem. And I say this as someone who actually loves religion. I've been interested in religion since childhood. I have a proclivity toward spiritual or mystical experiences which I can't seem to help, even as I find lacking the intellectual underpinnings of most philosophies/religions that provide language for such experiences. I'm no anti-theist; not an atheist either. Maybe an agnostic, with a dash of humanist optimism and a lot of interest in the ancient spiritual technologies that the world's religious systems hold. In spite of my interest, though, the rules and regulations and lists and arcane details embodied in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Buddhism are overwhelming and boring and frankly make my eyes glaze over.

Eighth pass: brown vertical lines along the gold trim.

Islam seems to me to be one of the more rule-bound of the world's religions. I've had trouble making sense of what I've been reading as I've worked on this print. The rules about depicting Muhammad seem conflicting, but here are a few articles about depictions that were written after the Charlie Hebdo shootings:

- Drawing the Prophet: Islam's Hidden History of Muhammad Images (The Guardian)
- How Images of the Prophet Muhammad Became "Forbidden" (Washington Post)
- You can't draw Muhammad — unless you're one of many Muslim artists who did (PRI's The World)

One key point seems to be that there were, or are, different rules in different regions, with stronger prohibitions in the Arab states and fewer in non-Arab places like Turkey and India.

Another key point for this project of mine is that I can't win. I've been trying to make a beautiful and respectful image of Muhammad based on history, but today I realized that it doesn't matter how beautiful or how true to the original I make it: it will be unacceptable. What happened today to make me realize this? I read a verse from the Hadiths. Second in stature only to the Qur'an, the Hadiths are viewed by Sunni (Arab) Muslims as detailed records of what Muhammad taught and did. Here's what I read:

Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5271 (p.1161):
‘Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens [inhabitants] of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures...'

Ninth pass: Linework on rug.

Nothing could be clearer. It's not just pictures of Muhammed, but all pictures that should not be made. And it's not just infidels who make pictures that are condemned, but anyone who makes pictures. Artists, all artists, condemned to torment in hell by Islam.

So here I am, embarked on another quixotic adventure.

17 February 2015

A Real Fake: Cartoons (Manga)

noun  cartoon  \kärˈto͞on\
1. A two-dimensional non-realistic or semi-realistic drawing or painting intended for satire, caricature, or humor.
2. The artistic style of such works.

Fourth pass: a gold color

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this "real fake" will be fake because it's a Japanese style woodblock reproduction of a work I found online that was originally a painting. It is not a cartoon. Cartoon images of Muhammed have caused much uproar in recent years among Muslims, but this is not a cartoon.

Fifth pass: magenta floor and half-wall

Or is it? I plan to give this image the full ukiyo-e treatment: the figure will be defined by thin lines with areas of color underneath and shiny gold mica powder in his halo. Interestingly, ukiyo-e prints are historically connected to cartoons, called manga, in Japan.

Here's a comparison of manga and ukiyo-e from the Lavenberg Collection web site:
Like manga, ukiyo-e were affordable and made for a mass audience… In content, both manga and ukiyo-e employ themes of sex, violence, tales of the rich and famous, the supernatural, and heroes and villains, to feed popular tastes.  In form, the simplicity of the use of line and the convention of flat space is favored.  Both rely on picture more than text to tell the story and use “a variety of pictorial conventions that are mutually, wordlessly, understood by the artist and reader.”
Sixth pass: Darker magenta on back wall and stripes on scarf.

So am I inadvertently making this 16th century painted image into a cartoon by using ukiyo-e techniques to render it? Even if it ends up looking just like the painting? This project raises more questions than it answers.

On another note, I'm at a point in the printing process where I really like the image just as it is and I'm tempted to just stop here. This often happens. I think that the project needs me to keep going, though.