Happy Happy Joy Joy

A few questions about the intersection of art, design, and psychology.

Do you like your data:
[ ] Cheeky?
[ ] Data-rich?

Do you like your psychology:
[ ] Positive
[ ] Negative
[ ] Empirical
[ ] Practical
[ ] Experimental
[ ] Applied

Do you like your holiday cards:
[ ] Amusing
[ ] Informative

Do you want your ideas to:
[ ] Reinforce your brand
[ ] Enhance understanding
[ ] Enrich experience

GOOD and OPEN's Mean Happiness data visualization.

GOOD and OPEN's Mean Happiness data visualization. April 6, 2010.

“Today I’m Feeling Turquoise,' Pentagram's holiday cards.

“Today I’m Feeling Turquoise,' Pentagram's holiday cards, pairing colors with moods.

Art & Development

The Greatest of All Time

Few things impress me as much as discovering that champions are also genuinely nice people.

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall wrote about Scott Jurek’s constant encouragement of fellow runners. After setting records at 100-mile ultramarathons, Jurek would plop down in a sleeping bag and cheer on every last runner, sometimes for 12 hours or more. During a 50-mile race in sizzling Mexican canyons, as he pursued the lead runners, Jurek stopped to brief a fellow runner on the trail conditions and aid stations ahead of her. He increased the distance he’d have to reel in his competitors so he could help a friend.

I’ve had the pleasure of learning from one of the nicest and toughest people I know. Bunkerd Faphimi is a muay thai figher and trainer at Fight and Fitness in San Francisco. He has an astounding 350+ fights under his belt. He’s known in Thailand as the People’s Champion, and as soon as you meet him, you’ll know why. He’s incredibly kind, generous, and playful. Have a look at his fight videos. He likes to take a lot of punishment, and yet, he’s often smiling in the ring. Not a showboating smile, but one of enjoyment. Better yet, watch him spar with students. He offers a near-constant onomatopoeic commentary, delighting in an activity in which he’s mostly letting himself get kicked, punched, and put in the clinch. He’s the living antithesis of both the evil Karate Kid Freudian-father archetype sensei, and, with his sheer unpretentiousness and demystified approach to muay thai, of the ‘magical Asian’ Mr. Miyagi. His love of muay thai, and of life, is like exuberance embodied.

I often find myself defending fight sports from people view it as sanctioned brutality. What they don’t understand is that these are highly evolved sports that people spend years of their lives dedicating their lives to. You don’t get to that level without knowing, in your heart of hearts, that this is what you really want, and proving it over and over again. As Chris Cariaso, the other head trainer at Fight and Fitness (and a super nice guy who rescues dogs when he’s not training, teaching, and fighting in the UFC) said, he’s “living the dream.”

This gratitude for life experiences also extends to gratitude to other competitors. Though fighters and promoters hype fights as ways to settle personal beefs, fighters also experience profound gratitude and respect for competitors when the fight is fair, their skills are closely matched, and the fight is so enjoyable that the outcome becomes less significant. When you’ve witnessed your opponent’s skill and heart firsthand—when they’ve gained your respect and you haven’t compromised yourself or your performance in any way—you recognize that there is no shame or sadness in losing to such a worthy competitor.

This is very similar to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow: the activity becomes autotelic, skills are well-suited to the challenges, and participants lose themselves to the activity.

You can see this elatedness exemplified at the end of bloody battles when the fighters, after the last bell, happy and exhausted, embrace. They also often gently touch each other’s heads or draw their foreheads together—I’ve even seen a boxer wipe another’s face. You don’t have to be a social psychologists to recognize these signs of affection and intimacy. Their wide smiles are pictures of gratitude. (Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar, TUF1, is a classic example. I’m sure I was not the only fan rooting for both of them by the end.) Sometimes, one fighter will raise the competitor’s hand in the air, not necessarily to signal his own loss, but to acknowledge his opponent’s champion spirit. In a world of machismo, humility shines.

Premise #1: True champions express gratitude, humility, and generosity.

McDougall writes that people are born to run, and that we love running because we love being with other runners. We are part of a human pack when we run together. Though endurance running is often accompanied by pain and exhaustion, many top runners compete with smiles on their faces. The joy of the activity is self-evident; the urge to help others enjoy the activity follows.

Speculations: Art is highly competitive and individual artists often compete against each other for grants, residencies, commissions, exhibition opportunities, and teaching jobs. Who are the top practitioners in the arts who express profound generosity and gratitude?

How do artists—even as competitors—help each other? Share our joy? Express our pack-hood?

When do we help each other find the flow?

Is art practice like endurance running? Can artists find the joy even as we slog it out for miles in the rain alone, as well as when we assemble and compete?

When our skills are evenly matched how do we raise another’s fist in the air, recognizing their spirits?

Is there a lesson for artists to be learned about becoming a contender before becoming a champion?

Read the abstract of a fantastic profile of Bunkerd by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker.

Watch a video interview with Bunkerd on, an excellent resource for all things muay thai by a true practitioner.

[Added October 16, 2011] Read a recent blog post by Jurek on running with others.

Art & Development

Two Brothers named Design and Art

To be considered a “serious” artist, there’s pressure to downplay one’s non-art practices — even visual ones like graphic design. Art professionals need to distinguish between dabblers and lifers, but that shouldn’t be hard. It’s perplexing that this dissociation persists.

Consider art since 1960, and the typographic sensitivity of many Conceptualists.

on kawara, lawrence weiner, yoko ono, barbara kruger

So you think you are a typophile? Faces named below.

Consider how aspiring artists and designers learn. My early creative interests were unbounded — drawing horses and floorplans as a kid, making zine collages as a teenager, studying printmaking (AKA graphic arts) in college.

Further, my making skills — whether tinkering, bookmaking, or print and web design — enhance my art capacity, especially now that I’m making text-based installations and producing multiples. It seems obvious that design is a useful skill set for artists; fellow artists and art institutions need graphic design, too.

Good design conveys risk-taking and visual sophistication. For example, Stripe‘s print and signage design for the Wattis and Cinthia Wen’s/Design at Noon’s identity design for YBCA* are innovative, flat-out gorgeous assets.

So I’m excited to have the chance to bring my design skills to a contemporary art context. After a terrific experience creating new work for Southern Exposure‘s Bellwether exhibition, I was invited to design the poster for SoEx’s next show. The alternative arts organization has a history of working with award-winning designers like McFadden & Thorpe and Post Tool, so I earnestly accepted. The poster will be arriving in mailboxes and shop windows in the coming weeks. You can’t miss it.

In the meantime, worlds (art and killer typography) collide: Emigré is having a show at Gallery 16.

EMIGRE at Gallery 16
December 18 – January 29, 2010
Opening reception on Friday December 18 from 6 – 9pm

Emigre, Inc. is a digital type foundry in Berkeley, whose magazines were an inspiration since year zero B.M. (Before Macintosh). You can bet that there will be gorgeous posters, publications and, quite possibly, some hand-thrown pots. Because designers can be artists too.

An outro in the rock ballad of this blog post:

I’m not so idealistic as to pretend that there aren’t differences between being a graphic designer and being an artist. Last week when M, a workaholic early-bird designer, started staying up late to obsessively photograph his design portfolio, I told him that he’s becoming an artist. His response:


(*Disclosure: Occasionally I work at the Wattis and YBCA doing design/vinyl/preparator work.)

Avant Garde Medium, DIN Cond Bold, American Typewriter, Futura Bold Oblique

Art & Development

another joy of teaching

M and I were talking about sharing knowledge; he teaches design and I teach drawing/mixed media at the ASUC Art Studio. We both love to encourage our students to be extreme in their embrace of tools and techniques. He articulated one of my new favorite pedagogical mottoes:

This is the level of nerdiness you should aspire to

The pocket in the back of my Moleskin sketchbook has finally found its true calling: home to an ultra-precise metal triangle.

Art & Development, Values

Criticism v. opinions

I really wish I was in NYC right now to see Charles Ray’s show at Matthew Marks. It sounds amazing.

I also appreciate Jerry Saltz’s write-up of Ray’s installations:

all brilliant examples of post-minimalist/conceptual sculpture, each created in the late eighties and new to New York, rattled my perceptions, jangled my faculties, and made me go “Wow!” … Ray’s sculptures, part of a long tradition of minimal installations, are also forerunners to much of the theatrical Festivalism of recent times (e.g., Maurizio Cattelan and Olafur Eliasson). Each piece is nearly invisible and formally economical. Yet each is outrageously labor-intensive….

–Jerry Saltz, “Dude, You’ve Gotta See This”, New York Magazine, June 7, 2009

Brilliant! I’m impressed with how concisely Saltz formally and historically situates the art, and conveys his viewing experience, enthusiasm and rationales.

And, I love that Saltz seems to be taking a stand. The public (including artists!) can harbor so much skepticism (if not outright antipathy) towards postmodern/minimalist/post-minimalist art, it’s nice to see a critic try to bridge the gap, and say, Yes, this is art, even if it looks like nearly nothing. And it’s hard work to make this kind of art.

He goes on to tell the viewer You have to look closely and think before you get your rewards.

All three of Ray’s pieces … are more than Merry Prankster sight gags. Each makes you ultra-aware of spaces outside the one you’re in, of rooms above and below you, the things that make these rooms and effects possible, and how your own body relates to all of this. They put you back in the realm of the unknown, of double vision and oddity.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for great art and arts coverage is sometimes marred by readers’ comment boards.

It takes a lot of time, work, consideration and nerve to make art and to write art criticism. So when it’s met with knee-jerk reactions from people who are convinced they could do the job better, I’m reminded of drunken ringside smack-talkers. The reality is that few people have the heart to wake up for 6am runs, much less step into the ring–not just once for their fantasy Rocky moment, but again and again, in spite of the anxiety, exhaustion, injuries and the constant availability of easier paths in life.

Likewise, in art, anyone can make an expressive gesture, but few have the nerve to dedicate themselves to a lifelong creative pursuit.

And in art criticism, any yahoo can have an opinion, but few have the patience and skill to form thoughts into well-reasoned, timely essays.

Recently, I’ve heard from artists who believed that MFA programs are scams, grad students are mindless sheep, and if they leave with anything, it’s how to regurgitate trends. Attacking participants in order to critique a system is lazy and immature. I attribute this attitude to learned helplessness and inadequate self-actualization. When you see the art world as a separate entity from yourself–rather than a group of people that includes yourself, in which you participate and shape with your words and actions–you cease to be accountable for it. You’re free to bash it, thereby legitimizing your own disappointments.

As one of my esteemed professors liked to ask,

What’s at stake?

When it comes to offering knee-jerk reactions, I’d like to see more armchair critics toe the line. You think you can make better art? Write better criticism?

Game on.

Art & Development

Art and Recession: Outlooks

Following Holland Cotter’s “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” (, February 12, 2009), several more articles on the intersection of art and recession have cropped up.

Overly-optimistic authors suggest that a recession can be good for art and creativity.

In “Creative buds can bloom in a recession,” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 2009), Marcus Westbury reiterates one of Cotter’s vague predictions:

[In a recession, artists] can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again. (Cotter)

Higher levels of unemployment can mean that talent has more time to experiment and innovate… (Westbury)

I don’t know how other people feel about being unemployed, but I find being on a tight budget oppressive, not liberating. While I might have once romanticized Dumpster-diving as a rejection of over-consumption in my youth, I no longer idealize the “poetry of poverty” (author Marlon James on Studio 360), or subsidizing my practice with credit card debt.

So it grates, because when unemployment figures for the general public rise, politicians, the media and the public are obsessed with the stress, risk and instability. But these writers suggest that artists enjoy a magical, innate virtue that transforms penury into dreamy studio lives, with few consequences — financial, professional or personal — to pay.

In “Getting creative to survive” (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2009), Melanie Cox McCluskey wrote about creative agencies:

Being inventive comes in handy in a bad economy, and creative people are finding solutions to sluggish times. They are taking on every project that comes along.

Wrong! For a creative agency to accept every job that comes through the door — even if the client or project is a bad fit for the agency — is not being creative. It’s being desperate and financially conservative.

I think these authors are overestimating the power of creative traits like flexibility and spontaneity. As Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd explain in “The Time Paradox” (Rider, 2008), these traits are helpful in art-making, but they are present-oriented. And too much present-orientation can lead to imbalance and unhappiness:

In a society that is politically and economically unstable, you cannot predict the future from the vantage of the present…. Political and economic instability also causes instability within families…. The less people can rely on the promises of government, institutions, and families, the more they eschew the future and focus on the present, creating a world of yes and no, black and white, is and is not, rather than one filled with maybes, contingencies, and probabilities.

Zimbardo and Boyd advocate a more balanced time-perspective, which includes healthy past- and future-orientation. Planning for the future is related to hope, ambition, health, well-being and a sense of personal efficacy.

I think these realist writers, who argue that artist’s already-fragile positions become more vulnerable in a recession, would agree.

Charles Fleming, “For artists, the picture is bleak.” Los Angeles Times. March 10, 2009.

Matthew Shaer. “Artists in survival mode as market crumbles.” Christian Science Monitor. March 13, 2009.

Despite their optimism, it seems like Cotter, Westbury and McClusky believe that artists belong at society’s margins, where they can happily make work in spite of dire economic circumstances.

I differ.

Instead of encouraging artists to espouse scarcity and self-sacrifice from the margins, I’d rather see artists expressing leadership and generosity from the center. Professionalizing and de-marginalizing artists inspires good ethics, values, and sense of agency.

Art & Development

some art highlights

First Thursday openings in San Francisco. Some highlights:

Lynn Hershman Leeson
Ant Farm
Gallery Paule Anglim

Cheers to Anglim for consistency: local notables, nice work, a smartly paired exhibition.

Leeson, of course, is a significant figure from early Feminist Art, has been in and around San Francisco for decades, and has continued to make new work in new media. I really loved her museum show at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, which showed off her facilities in multiple media. At Anglim, she’s showing mostly large, impressive photographs of a female mannequin with a look of surprise; the mannequin has also been placed behind a digital projection of Manet’s Olympia, and there’s also a wholly digital, multivalent media presenting another female avatar. The odd, cold distance between viewer and subject (mannequin, avatar) is an important part of the work, so there’s lots of “meta-” to mull over.

Detail of slides at Ant Farm show (Gallery Paule Anglim)

Detail of slides at Ant Farm show (Gallery Paule Anglim)

Detail from drawing/print on vellum by Ant Farm (Gallery Paule Anglim)

Detail from drawing/print on vellum by Ant Farm (Gallery Paule Anglim). Text: As if to steer the future.

In the small room, Ant Farm presents fantastic dreams of a media van via architectural prints/drawings on vellum, with some supplementary media (such as digital photo collages and a completely conceptually honest lightbox displaying slides from 1977-78, when Ant Farm initiated their first van project). Of course, the van itself will be on view at SFMOMA (whose site has finally undergone a cleaner, crisper re-design) in The Art of Participation exhibition, which opens Nov. 8. It’s great to see how these art elements take form in the public sphere after seeing the van in production for months at the building next door to my studio.

David Huffman at Patricia Sweetow Gallery

David Huffman at Patricia Sweetow Gallery

David Huffman
Jefferson Pinder
Patricia Sweetow Gallery

Another nice pairing of good art!

I never met David Huffman, though our stints at CCA overlapped quite a bit: me undergrad, Huffman grad; me grad, Huffman professor. So I’ve seen his work a bunch. His ‘bots continue to evolve, and his paintings are staying a few astral steps ahead of those of many Bay Area painters. In this exhibition, washes of paint and glitter verge on sublime, still, they’re paired with tightly rendered, pointedly racial people, places and things, such as the pyramid of watermelons in the picture above. In lieu of a firsthand account of the artist himself, I offer in congratulatory spirit this favorable account of the painting professor’s words: “You’re a painter! You have to be a vampire of paint!” For sure! The teacher shows an insatiable drive to forge ahead…

Jefferson Pinder covers his photogenic face in shaving cream — a whitening-out reversal of Zhang Huan’s self-drenching in ink — in a series of self-portraits with butoh-like results. In fact, an Asian stringed instrument accompanies the riveting video of still images of the whitened-out artist behind a projection of a rocket launch. The juxtapositions are quite tense, and result in some brilliant images captured in additional photographs. It’s an interesting bridge between video, photography and performance, with much in kinship with experimental theater that incorporates video, like the work of Sarah Kraft and David Szlasa.

Vik Muniz
Rena Bransten Gallery

Gilson inspects a photograph of a paper cut by Vik Muniz (Rena Bransten Gallery)

Gilson inspects a photograph of a paper cut by Vik Muniz (Rena Bransten Gallery)

Awe-inspiring. Muniz makes pictures out of food, garbage, and now, puzzles and cut paper. The sheer feats of craftsmanship are engaging, and the photos perfectly executed. The prints have an uncanny depth. As Gilson pointed out, it’s a common art school assignment to make a collage from gray paper or found objects. But Muniz proves that you don’t have to be the first one to do an idea, you just have to do it best. I’m starting to wonder what can’t he do?



There were also some nice pictures by Richard Avedon at Frankel Gallery, rare perfections from Life Before Photoshop. The Dustin Fosnot show at Steven Wolf Fine Arts was poetic, edited, and personal — in contrast with his last, which was quirky-quirky-quirky. I find pathetic art appealing. Ironic, distanced pathos is common and easy, but the new Fosnot pathos is restrained, uncomfortably intimate.

I missed two shows that are probably good — Diem Chau at Mark Wolfe Contemporary and Tiffany Bostwick at Gregory Lind — but I was already crossing Market and going back in time to 111 Minna, which manages to be forever young. At their group show of figurative painters and draw-ers concerned with fauna, I saw old friends with new beards. So goes 2008.