Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Clearly, I have neglected my blog, and - to a lesser extent - my writing practice. For this, I am sorry, and wish to rectify the problem starting now.

Please note that this blog has a new name and look. "Differentia Critica" is Latin for "A Critical Difference." I suppose I could have named it the latter, but I have not only had a penchant for Latin titles in my work of late, I like the fact that it has the secondary translation of "a different (kind of) critique." This points up what I'd like to offer in this refurbished blog: a look at representational painting through a contemporary lens regarding art, philosophy, and socio-political ideas.

Before I launch into this idea more fully, let me get us up to speed since this thing has been on hiatus for over a year:

Things got awfully busy once I launched myself into my practice post-grad-school. I applied for numerous shows, grants, what have you, and ended up getting not a few opportunities to show my work -- not the least of which was the New England Collective show sponsored by Galatea Fine Arts, Boston. This was a juried show with 500+ entrants. 50 works were shown and one artist was chosen from that show to have a solo show in the next year. That was me. Suffice to say, this was an amazing chance to make new work with a purpose.

While making work for the show, I had work at Aucocisco and Greenhut (both Portland), as well as a fantastically curated Art Institute of Boston MFA Alumni Show (Objectified) on the Lesley U. main campus in Cambridge. But, the culmination of events was in my suite of 12 new paintings -- The Detached Muse Project at Galatea, which showed in Boston this July. You can go to my website (here) to view the show's images.

There's a lot I've learned along the way, and I will address it here on the blog. I daresay that the way in which all these things were handled was not that much different from my MFA program's thesis semester: it was a mental/ physical/ time-oriented struggle. But, I have to thank the AIB MFA people for preparing me for this very thing. If I was able to do it in the name of academics, I should be able do it in real time. Sure enough, I did it. It's equally difficult, but it is not impossible.

I have given an informal talk on the "DMP" and there is extant written research on the topic. However, I've yet to make it coalesce into an exegesis, but I hope to do so here. And, resultant of my painting and research efforts, I have developed a new perspective on representational painting in a contemporary context. I wish very much for the kind of art that I enjoy and practice to stay relevant in a progressive fashion. It is possible, but there are many mitigating factors -- not the least of which are modern painters who want this mode of working to stay fixed in the past, which is to say, be regressive. I cannot align myself with that. Representational painting has far more potential than to settle for being a kind of historical reenactment.

But more on this later.... Please keep watching this space, if you're interested.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Website is LIVE

Needs a few tweaks and additions, but it's up and running. Take a look.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Here at the End of All Things

Final Residency Summary:
A Master’s Thoughts on 
The Art Institute of Boston’s MFA Program

“Well, I’m back” (Tolkien, 1008).

And, like a Tolkien character, I have been greatly altered by my experiences. Expectations were such unknown quantities at the start of the program (save to obtain Master status in two years), all I could do was, as I’ve said in the past, remain as objective as possible. Admittedly, it wasn’t always possible, but I can say that I entertained new and difficult material with a great deal of consideration. This mindset helped enormously; it changed me. I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that it effected a maturation - one that occurred at a critical, personal, and especially - an artistic level. In hindsight, this was a very necessary transformation.

Before I begin in earnest, I’d like to share this little anecdote: “Journey,” as a word to describe one’s participation in our program, is an insinuated taboo for students, especially when you’re writing thesis and appearing as a Group 5 in the last residency (at least in its first few days). We all try really hard to not say it, for fear of reprisal: “You said the ‘j’-word, you noob.” It is a little trite, perhaps; a little new-agey for a program where critical language is employed. Maybe it’s because the word suggests more of a travelogue than sheer experience? Still, though I did hear the expression bandied about, albeit unintentionally, I always gave the speaker the benefit of the doubt. One can argue that such an excursion is one of the mind - traveling to places in your head that you’ve never been (let alone knew existed). And, truth be told, I personally logged quite a bit of actual mileage back and forth to New York in order to visit mentors, shows, museums and the like. So, despite the mildly illicit nature of the “journey” as a descriptor for one's time in the program, it is somewhat apt.

In those travels (speaking of which) I was able to meet and talk extensively with artists who operate on the upper tiers of the contemporary art world. Some of them are now considered friends. I’d never dreamed of such a thing. By virtue of the program, it became a reality. I went to shows that, in the past, would have held no interest for me, but instead, I found great edification in critically engaging with the content. It’s true that I travel with my family every so often to New York, but these visits were nearly monthly, and the need for continued scholarship justified all these trips - otherwise, I would not have bothered... And I did feel that NYC was the only place, really. Yes, I was born, raised, and completed my undergrad work there, but I also knew - inherently - that there is no substitute when it comes to its great wealth of art and artists. For me, in order to complete my MFA work to the best of my ability, despite the 400+ mile removal and the difficulty such travel imposed, it was there or nowhere. It was the best decision.

Of course, those who set the tone for how to approach and participate in critical thought deserve the greatest amount of praise. I cannot stress the incredible pedagogical strength of the AIB MFA faculty. The diversity of scholarship, the way in which critiques were addressed, the sheer depth of information they all (individually and collectively) hold amazed (and still amazes) me. Their presence was a gift, no mistake. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done for me. If I can remit payment in any real way, it will be through the fact that any achievements of merit in my future shall sit as testament to the quality of these individuals.

Yes, I did learn a thing or two. But it was only through investing in the opportunities as presented to me by the artists and scholars I met along the way. Much of what I’ve gained can be found in the text of my thesis. The thesis is, in many ways, cumulative, though not necessarily an aggregate of the texts I’d penned in prior semesters. It marks more of a confluence and fruition of all the thematics I’d been exploring -- and some with which I had not yet come to terms. Research, writing, style, content -- it is all fully actualized in this final document. The latest paintings are reflective of this, too, and are but the inkling of the thesis project as a whole; a new platform upon which I can base many more paintings. This is, I believe, the crux of the thesis -- and any MFA program worth its salt. So, then, I developed: a new understanding of art (cumulating in the contemporary); a richer understanding of my own art as it relates to contemporary art; and through this, established a new and solid base from which I launched a project that reflects these understandings. In other words, the thesis acts as a touchstone to bigger things, post-Masters.

Since this is a pretty informal document, I will be candid here and let the reader know that this program - again, like any program worth its salt - makes high demands of the MFA candidate. That said, in the low-residency format, where one might hope (note the word choice) to fold the required work into one’s daily life, while not in-residence, instead, just adds to the challenge. It becomes an imperative to harness the self-discipline to NOT sink into domestic regularity. I realized that this required, of course, a great deal of effort, and I was familiar enough with the task, having spent a decade as a freelance artist for a New York illustration agency. The routine - or, at least, operating under an art-based sword of Damocles - came back soon enough. The more pressing issue was how to promote the idea that I was actually a full-time student. It is terribly hard for anyone save your AIB peers to understand the reality of the situation. Even close family and friends cannot really fathom the fact that, for two years, you have adopted a lifestyle of art and scholarship, as opposed to a part-time dalliance. But your presence (or perhaps conspicuous absence, since you might be trapped in your studio or library) at the table - yes, your very corporeality - makes it seem as if you are some sort of ivory-tower hobbyist, play-acting at something of tertiary importance. Now, I can’t say that this is the absolute truth of the matter, but, from my interactions with my fellow students, it is not at all an uncommon experience. Relationships can become strained, and feelings of guilt can encumber your process. Sleep gets to be luxury. Stress is your familiar. All you can do is put your head down and work through it all. It’s the only solution, because sublimating your difficulties through any other activity is ultimately a waste of time. Time is in extraordinarily short supply; it's the ultimate luxury. The warnings proffered by advisors and peers (like me, as a recent alumnus) - especially regarding the subject of time - seem like so much rhetoric. They are not.

If you heed all this, you will get through it. As with anything, it sounds easy on paper, but the real-time execution is something else. Personally, however, I wanted far more than to merely “get through it.” I wanted to know how far I could push myself without throwing the positive aspects of my art (i.e., my painting skills) under the bus. Holding on to representation and skill was, in hindsight, a harder road -- and I’m glad I took it. But that was not the driver. The driver was, oddly enough, the intellectualization of art and its relation to the world at large. Again, my thesis explicates this more fully, but I still marvel at my naivete coming into the program. When I was introduced (immediately) to all I had missed (the sociopolitical, theoretical, and philosophical components of art), I became extremely disturbed at my lack. This super-motivated me to remedy the situation. I daresay I almost overcorrected in my second semester, but some well-placed admonition set me to rights. Again, in hindsight, I think if I had cruised along semester to semester with little issue, it would have meant I was doing something very wrong. As creative thinkers, we need to go off the rails in order to see where the track lies. Once you re-orient, there is far more clarity and trust in future judgement.

If I can give, with this brief essay, some sense of closure to my own experience, then I must conclude with some remarks about my “people” - my peers. Realistically, we do not spend a great deal of time together as compared to perhaps any other program - only 20 days out of the year. But, the crucible of the residencies are truly white-hot and the bonds we form are hard and fast. I’ve gotten to know some incredible people who also happen to be incredible artists. The last residency is truly a gift, in that I was able to be with members of the other groups in the formal settings of critiques and seminars. Also, it needs to be disclosed that the social activity at the bars in Kenmore Square after an ever-long day of residency is an integral part of the experience. This decompression is vital. To suss out, over various libations, the sheer density of the 12 hours of theoretical art discourse in which everyone had just engaged, is perhaps the only way to stay balanced. Without this, I would have hit the wall of non-receptivity pretty quickly. Now, to speak specifically of my own group, the 15th graduating class of the MFA, is to speak of family. We underwent perhaps the greatest personal transformation of our adult lives, and, as mentioned earlier, we were the ones who most fully understood how much it meant to one another. In the loneliness of the semester, physically separated from my art companions, I could still rely on their understanding, compassion and sheer want for my success (as the feelings were mutual) to get me through any dark period. We were all in it together, though apart much of the time. It made the times we were together that much sweeter. I’ve said it before - in fact, I publicly announced it in our final ceremony: I could not be more proud of us, nor be more proud to call myself part of the 15th AIB MFA Graduating Class, January, 2012.

This is not the last of my writing. Not that I am an essayist, but I am also, as it turns out, not merely a painter. I am an artist. The written word is another function of my creative vision, and I will engage in writing when it is prudent to do so. In fact, as long as I am painting, I will no doubt also be writing.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 ed. Print.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

MFA Final Statement

Robert Sullivan
Artist's Statement - 2012

Religare – (from L.) 1. To reconnect. 2. Lactantian root word for 'religion.'

I believe there is a contemporary and profound import in reconnecting to “faith” – that is, faith as a dimension of trust in art, self and society – through a traditional artistic practice like representational painting. The original connection between painting and faith has been slowly worn away since the Renaissance. What was at first religious became romantic, then prosaic, and ultimately, the subject of an ironic cynicism. There is now a conspicuous absence of the faith/art parallel in today's secular discourses. My project is to syncretize painting and its native religious impulse without the burden of the ideologies that have diminished its significance.

Using quotidian images that recall the notion of flight, I endeavor to reframe them as  symbols of spiritual yearning and transfiguration. These recontextualizations do not exist merely as representational surface idioms, but also signify an engagement with the transcendental and how it might be expressed in a contemporary vernacular. The construction of my paintings employ a simple rather than a more baroque presentation, promoting a contemplative space where speculative thought and objective observation might happen. It is in this space where that inherent principle of spirituality in art can still resonate, free from dogmatic doctrines, and offer a reclamation of faith.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Knee Deep in The Final Stretch

Well, there's been a good break in posting here, but it's essentially because I am now in my Thesis semester and all my energies are being dedicated towards that big 'ol document (there is very little studio time to be had at this point). I had considered posting it in installments here as a WIP, but that seemed a little foolish, considering the major alterations that will take place until the final is released in November.

I do have some images to post that I didn't get around to before the last residency. Those will be forthcoming.

There will also be new paintings that will accompany the thesis, but they are only in development right now, and will manifest only after the writing is near-completed.

In the meantime:

(apologies to for the appropriation -- though it IS appropriate)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Group 3 to 4 Transition - Semester Summary

[note: I am actually in Boston posting this - my Group 4 residency starts tomorrow. I have new work, but was unable to get decent photos of the paintings. I will post them when I return to the studio and can take some good shots.]

Semester Summary
January-June 2011: Group 3 to 4 Transition

It cannot be stressed enough that these last 6 months were an incredibly important time for me as an artist striving towards his Masters. As I had stated in the Residency Summary in the beginning of the semester, this period needed to yield a high level of production and focus. I'm happy to say that I think I've achieved that.

Of course, this remains to be seen as a fait accompli, as I will get many comprehensive critiques on the work at my Group 4 residency. Nevertheless, I feel like I've accomplished something of value in my painting and research and that those two things have meshed in a way they hadn't before. And, the other thing to which I'd alluded in the Residency Summary – the importance of the studio work as a springboard to the thesis – was foremost in my mind. With an amazing assist from my mentor Peter Rostovsky, I was able to craft a series of paintings that have both formal and conceptual cohesion; individually, and as a group.

I can recall the difficulties of my Group 2 to 3 semester – the lack of surety of direction, the soft-pedaling regarding exploration, and the sticky written work. It wasn't as if I produced poor work, but it lacked true focus technically and thematically. That semester's forays into getting more facture on the painting's surface was something I definitely wanted to take along into the new work. The binary tension between painting's tactility and the photographic gesture certainly lent new interest to my surfaces. But this technical narrative was not fully realized: the painted gesture was too prosaic, existing as it did outside the conceptual directions with which I was experimenting. The conflation of these things needed greater consideration. In many ways, my success this time around was due to looking back while simultaneously handicapping myself to get ahead.

An introduction to Lars von Trier's film, The Five Obstructions, was a fantastic object lesson, showing me that operating within a set of proscribed constraints yields more thoughtful and directed work. As I had discussed in an essay produced this semester, “The End of Art and What To Do About It,” Foucault drives this point home:  “Only creativity is possible in putting into play of a system of rules; it is not a mixture of order and freedom.” (Chomsky-Foucault, 29). Not only did this put me in a better frame of mind with regard to the already-shrunken space of painting within contemporary art, but it also gave me the motivation to excise the non-essential in my work. Therefore, based on responses to previous monochromatic works (Pteronychus [the small seagull piece] and All Natural [the mint ice cream cone]), I decided to execute each painting with a single-color theme. In the same vein, I realized that, in past works, my striving towards opening the vectors of meaning was failing against the didactic nature of the subject matter and/or its conflation with add-on devices (weird backgrounds, collage-like elements, etc.). Again, I was guided by my mentor to strip away all but the fundamental aspects of the reference. For example: In the case of one of the last pieces I executed, Magisterium, I had painted in a background in front of an unfurled duck wing. It consisted of a photographically blurry view of the pond as told by the reference material. This made the piece, as a conceptual whole, far too prosaic and lyrical, closing down the reading. When I overpainted a flat value on top of it, it moved into a realm where I could see a Ribera, a Caravaggio or an Orazio Gentileschi rather than a recontextualized photo.

Materials became an issue of even tighter focus this semester. Both Peter and Tony (Apesos, my advisor) made me more sharply aware of the need to understand the historical nature and practical application of oil paint and its adjunct mediums. Originally, I had been using a fairly standard procedure in my painting, thinning with only linseed oil, and more recently, with Galkyd products from Gamblin – synthetic alkyd resins with a syrupy feel, but a self-leveling quality. Peter had suggested trying mediums that might give me more lift and stiction to the brushstrokes, so I employed Gamblin's Neo-Megilp. It sure added body – almost distractingly so. But, this wasn't the solution he was hinting at. In our second mentor meeting, he brought out some very traditional mediums: a Venetian medium the likes of which was used by Velazquez; and a glass medium, with glass dust suspended in the polymerized oil. They were beautiful in their own right, and I could see how reflecting painting's history through using these historical mediums was a sophisticated way to expound on the technical narrative. Moreover, in a visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with Tony, he proceeded to point out the use of egg-oil emulsion in much of the Flemish painting – especially in highlight passages. He drew my attention to the nature of how the paint not only had a wax-like sheen to it, but pooled in such a way that made it more of a creamy consistency rather than a spiky, impasted passage or a layered, chalky-cool paint buildup. After seeing these examples, I made an effort to employ polymerized oil in my medium mixture as well as the introduction of walnut oil, as opposed to linseed. It was a struggle at first to produce the results for which I normally strive. I wasn't fully understanding the feel and balance between medium, pigment and surface with these new ingredients in place. But, I pressed on, and I have to say, it made a great deal of difference in how the paintings resonate optically.

After completion of my first work this semester – a quasi-drawing/painting on frosted polyester called Catastrophe Paradox – I shifted my naming convention for the subsequent full oil paintings. The fact is, I had come into deep conflict with my Catholic faith beginning back at the start of my MFA pursuits in January of 2010. I hadn't written about it to this point, because I had no inkling of how or why I should make it relevant to my art nor my Master's experience. However, it is a deep-rooted discord, and I felt that now, since I began feeling more comfortable in my formal approach, that I should fold this internal discourse into my concepts. The titles reflect Catholic doctrines and rites that, in some discrete or oblique way, sync up with the image depicted. Many of these pairings strike a dissonance once the relationship is recognized, and this is purposefully done, as it is relevant to my disquiet over contemporary Catholic issues. However, I do not wish to delve into a full explication of these meanings at this time. If the relationships are not fully realized by the viewer, it does the work no disservice; there are many other meanings to be had when these paintings are presented.

With this in mind, after this next residency, my task will focus primarily on the development of my thesis. The nomenclature direction will be further explicated with regard to my personal experiences and development, but again, perhaps not with specific meaning in mind. I have submitted the outline for my thesis, an the thematic focuses on the re-presentation of the quotidian. “The quotidian” does not necessarily mean banal, everyday objects or images only – the contemporary idea of the quotidian has broadened to contain a plethora of images that stem from oft-repeated tropes within high and low media alike. My typical jumping-off point of manipulated photographic reference (from numerous open sources, including my own photography) gives me a huge cache of predictable imagery from which I can paint. I have already made this gesture in the work I've generated this semester (and I'll undoubtedly produce a few more in the coming months), so my premise is established enough physically to write about it as my thesis platform.

The next level towards which I have been striving is here already. It is, for all intents and purposes, the final level in this stage of my artistic growth – and will no doubt serve as a springboard for the rest of my life's work. There are another 6 months ahead in which I will engage in the written aspect of my constructed visual components. But also, there will be new work that will be a direct evolution from these recent pieces. Since I made the point of being particularly reductive this semester, I will become additive from this point. A re-introduction of the figure will be a component, as well as the addition of more color. However, it will be vital to keep my current conceptual principles intact without being circumscribed by something stylistic. In other words, I must stay true to the spirit of the current body of work.

Chomsky, Noam and Foucault, Michel. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature. New York: New Press, 2006. Print