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September 2011
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 7   
24 Hour Portrait of Joe Ostraff by Lee Cowan
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Exhibition Spotlight: Orem
24 Hour Portraits
Lee Cowan explores the color of one day in the life

When Lee Cowan asks if he can paint your portrait you won't have to worry about what clothes to wear, whether you need to lose weight, or if you're having a bad hair. You won't even have to show up at his studio. But that doesn't mean the process will be easy. For you, or for him.

You'll have to fill out a worksheet consisting of one long column (record of event) and four smaller ones (time, duration, impact, summed term). The instructions for the worksheet make the project feel more like a medical procedure than an aesthetic one: "Record every experience you have within a 24-hour period. Include positive, negative as well as nocturnal events to the best of your ability. Dreams, if retained, and effect, may be recorded. Record the event being as descriptive as you can. List the time the event took place and its duration. Using a scale of 1-10, 1 being low impact and 10 being high impact, describe the impact this event had on you. Finally, please sum up the event in a descriptive term or terms from the list provided. At the bottom of this worksheet, sum up your 24 hours in one or two descriptive terms that describe the period as a whole. Use additional worksheets as needed."

Accompanying the worksheet is a vocabulary of over 200 terms -- nouns and adjectives -- describing a gamut of emotional states from aggression to relief, and jealousy to vitality. The commitment Cowan asks from his subjects can be daunting, which makes sitting still in a chair for a couple of hours at a time seem relatively painless. The seeming tediousness of the project and the dryness of its presentation are belied, however, by the results -- what Cowan calls his 24 Hour Portraits, 'color field' paintings filled with shimmering blocks of hazy color that pulse and hum.

Cowan, former owner of Cowan Gallery in Springville and now a professor at Utah Valley University, began this series of portraits as part of his MFA thesis. Early in his artistic career Cowan's interest in color theory led him to investigate color profiling in psychological studies. When he took the profiling tests multiple times and found significant variances he realized the profiling system itself wasn't necessarily flawed, it was simply giving an unexpected result. Rather than giving the subject a color profile based on their absolute self, the color profile was telling them something about who they were right then. What they ate for breakfast, who they had last spoken to on the phone, how bad the traffic was on the way to the exam -- all this influenced how they were feeling that day and determined their color preferences.

Cowan decided to create a model that would allow him to create color portraits based on people's experiences over a 24-hour period. The square format of the works is a carryover from the original personality tests, where color choices were presented in square cards. Time of day determines placement of the squares, duration of the experience the size, and the terms that subject uses to describe the experience the color.

Cowan says engaging in this process can be daunting for some. If the amount of attention required to take note of one's state of being from one moment to the next isn't enough of a burden, apprehension about sharing personal and potentially embarrassing experiences can make some balk. Cowan counsels his "sitters" to take it easy. He says to jot down the moments quickly, as you go about the day, and come back to them in more detail at the end of the period. And if something embarrassing happens, all anyone will see of it is a color.

People have been surprised when they see the results, Cowan says. "Wow, I didn't think I looked like that," they will remark. "Well, you did that day," he'll tell them, "but another day you might look different." As proof of the point, Cowan has done a number of self-portraits, none of which looks the same.

Others are as surprised as much by the process as by the result. When Jason Lanegan, an artist and BYU professor, engaged in the project he remarked, I had no idea how I really spent my 24 hours until I filled this out. And it alarmed me.

The 24 Hour Portraits offer the possibility of almost limitless variations. A "sitter" could choose to have portrayed a momentous occasion, or a mundane one. A patron -- one either very narcissistic or very masochistic -- could commission a portrait every day for a year and have an entire suite of different works. For one pair of paintings, Cowan and his father kept the worksheets during the same period of time to see what their respective portraits would look like. One patron did something similar with her two daughters and has hung all three works together.

"The Gospel According to Ralphael" PREVIEW from OHO Media on Vimeo.

Video Bytes
The Gospel According to Ralfael
A documentary explores one Salt Lake artist's idiosyncratic vision

Travis Low was still a ways from the middle of his life when he made his descent into hell. Instead of a classic Roman poet, his guide was a mysterious outsider artist named Ralphael. Hell was his creation. It was in the bottom of a warehouse on Salt Lake's State Street.

When a friend told Low about Ralphael, "who was creating heaven, earth, and hell in a warehouse on state street," the young filmmaker couldn't believe something like that was happening just a mile from his home. "I was timid, and Ill admit, a bit scared, when I went there, knocked on the big wooden front doors to the unassuming warehouse, and Ralphael greeted me and proceeded to take me down in the basement that he had burrowed down into. He took me through 'the mouth of Sheoul,' into 'the watery depths of Hell,' and on into a concrete spirit prison."

Low wondered at first if Ralphael was insane, but it turned out he was "a kind and gentle craftsman, a good natured and nice man with an inquisitiveness and genius that is hard to come by these days. He was friendly, and I warmed up to him rather quickly."

Like a twenty-first century William Blake, Ralphael told the filmmaker his idiosyncratic ideas about long-forgotten versions of Biblical theology and the mother goddess Lady Wisdom. Then he brought him through his elaborately constructed "Garden of Eden." They eventually ascended to heaven, a "constructed" interior replete with stringed instruments and paintings of the artist with his family on a naturally-lit vaulted ceiling.

"A thousand years ago hed be a monk or a hermit studying illuminated texts, or a commissioned sculptor and builder of temples," Low says. "That first visit stuck with me over the seasons and I often went back to it in my memory. I returned again periodically and came to the understanding that I had to make this film."

Low is in the middle of creating The Gospel According to Ralphael, a fifteen- minute documentary about the artist and his visionary creation. 15 Bytes is helping to produce this film, which will also appear in its finished form as an Artist Profile in a future edition. To finish the film we need to raise $500 to aid in production costs. Donate through Artists of Utah and your donation will be tax-deductible. Then we'll all go to hell together.

also on this page: The Gospel According to Ralphael

Exhibition Spotlight: Springville
Drama of the Land
V. Douglas Snow in retrospect

Doug Snow has been credited with bringing the New York School to Utah. While he was not the only artist to study the AbEx artists in situ and bring their techniques and outlook back with him, he was certainly one of the first; and, with the early recognition he garnered and the teaching position he held at the University of Utah, one of the most influential. Two years after his death, his long-time friend Frank McEntire has curated a retrospective exhibit of Snow's work, installed in two Salt Lake City locations. At the UMFA, the vibrant colors and dynamic compositions of Snow's canvases, dating from 1977 to 2004, hold their own in the expansive space of the museum's Great Hall. The Salt Lake Art Center's street level gallery provides a more intimate setting as well as a broader perspective: you are forced closer to the canvases so that they surround and overwhelm, while the chronology of the works begins with some of his early pieces from the 1950s and continues throughout his career, including the canvas left on his easel at the time of his death, now titled "Final Light: October '09, 2009."

What Snow learned in New York served him well for his long painting career, but it's evident from this retrospective that the most powerful and enduring influence on the artist was the landscape of the West. In Snow's early work, the mark-making techniques and compositional methods of the New York School -- and their antecedents in Europe -- are evident.|1| These are the years when he discovered the expressive qualities of black, and when his hand learned a visual vocabulary that could be stretched and transformed to fit his needs. In these early works, a band of painterly activity strides across the center of the canvas,|2| or comes rising up from the bottom to fill the painting. These spangled passages sit atop or are wedged in by more open bands of color. Sometimes the latter are previously applied grounds, but they are also frequently achieved by masking a heavily worked substrate (something he would have picked up looking at Pollock's "She Wolf" at the MOMA) so that his process may have been a form of automatic drawing in which "random" marks were eventually developed into masses and forms by a process of exclusion.|3| In later paintings these loops and scrawls take on more concrete forms, becoming masses of paint that coalesce into the imagery of the western landscape: folds, cliffs, fins, monoliths, rock falls, hoodoos, and hogbacks.

Snow's work avoided the knitted picture plane that artists like de Kooning and Pollock inherited from the cubists. Form and ground remain separate in most of his work, and the horizon line, that most basic element of landscape painting, plays a dominant role: it can be an implied line, as in a magisterial block of forms that thrust themselves into the picture plane without entirely engulfing it; or a more explicit line, usually placed in dramatic positions -- high like a looming canyon wall, or very low, evoking a lone line of rocks beneath a desert sky.|0|

V. Douglas Snow (1927-2009), Reprise, 1994, courtesy of Susan Snow and the Stremmel Gallery.

As Snow's works progressed and took on more overt aspects of the landscape, the bands of color that were once abstract grounds now become masses of sky and cloud, full of atmospheric drama. These color fields wash across or come crashing down on the crusty, intricately worked surfaces evoking ridges and canyons. For an artist who lived in and painted from a desert landscape the prevalence of storms in Snow's work may appear incongruous, but it is precisely the desert dweller that pays the most attention to the weather. Moisture is desperately needed, but if it comes at the wrong time -- when you're hiking a slot canyon -- it can be disastrous. The full palette of the desert comes alive in the brief moments when a storm saturates the stone and fauna and a shift of clouds dramatically lights a hillside or mesa.

Snow's undergraduate studies at the University of Utah were in theater, and there is certainly something theatrical about his paintings.* His paintings can be violent and moody, majestic and thrilling; with their outrageous forms and stormy skies there is always something dramatic going on. For someone who's never been to the west, Snow's paintings may even seem like stage settings for imagined worlds -- akin to the fantasies of the Surrealists, or the jagged rock formations the artists of the Lowlands inserted into their narrative paintings. But to anyone who has spent time in Rabbit Valley or the Waterpocket Fold, or stared for hours, as Snow did, at formations like the Cockscomb,|6| Snow's paintings are masterful evocations of a landscape that must be lived in to be believed.


Doug Snow StudioOur November 2009 edition of 15 Bytes included to features on the recently deceased Doug Snow: a studio space feature showing the artist's studio as it was at the time of his death on October 18, 2009; and "To Be In This Country," a tribute to the artist by Frank McEntire, who has curated Final Light. A review of Capitol Reef: The Inner Landscape, an exhibit of works at the Gallery at the Main appeared in our June 2004 edition of 15 Bytes.

*The drama in Snow's work made him a sought after public artist and most of the public knows his work -- even if not his name -- because of the large- scale work he created for Pioneer Theater, the Salt Lake Airport and Utah State Courthouse (where his work has been deemed too dramatic and consequently curtained during official proceedings). Another public work, the three-story painting inside the old Salt Lake City library will again be on display when The Leonardo opens its doors next month.

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