What is “Active Randomness”

I have stated in previous essays that I am a seeker of what I call PRP, Practical Religious Replacement. Taking the longest possible view, that means that the most important theme in my work and life as an artist and a thinker is that it believe we, in our short lifetimes, should work toward leaving the generations ahead the best possible planet and aggregation of knowledge we can. This means living intelligently, advancing understanding of all kinds, and making reasonable choices about our environment. If, like me you accept these premises’, then it becomes something a personal duty to, if possible, contribute to the totality of human knowledge with the best tools available to us n our time.

To that end, a small contribution I would like to make is to share a method of experiencing serenity that I have come to recognize and utilize as a source of occasional happiness and productivity in my own day to day existence. I call it “Active Randomness”. I use the term “method” loosely, for it could also be described as temporary mindset, a focus, or even a prayer-like state. Active Randomness is not a itself an activity, but rather a way of describing certain productive activities and a way of recognizing the inherent  pleasure one can choose to derive from them.

Interracial Courtship, 1983

Interracial Courtship, 1983

Active randomness is a state of contentment that comes about when you actively engaged in a productive task that either offers or requires that a long sequencef seemingly random events contribute to the task.

What does that mean? Active Randomness describes activities where the hands are at work and the mind is fully engaged in low consequence decision-making, decisions that are perceived as being so low in consequence that no bad decision can be made. When you are engaged in a Active Random event, you can derive from it an experience of serenity and happiness that results from complete confidence that you are truly programed to succeed. It is a situation that occurs when the hands and the body are busy, the mind is fully engaged, and the outcome is guaranteed to be the desired one. And while they are usually brief experiences, I find such experiences to be both satisfying and sustaining.

I first found myself thinking about active Randomness while engaging in a classical suburban task, cutting the lawn. I have a complicated lawn with trees, shrubs, cars in the driveway and grass patterns that change with the seasons. As a result, in 20 years, I have never cut the lawn the same way twice. I decide a direction to start in and that begin to ride, making lefts and rights, circles and long lines at will and as the circumstances call on me. There are really no wrong choices, and in the end the task will be completed just as effectively and efficiently as it would have had I had a full plan and a map. Yet in applying an active random mindset to the task, I have found an inner peace with, and derived pleasure from the experience.

Now I know not many of you cut your own lawns, but this is but my grounding example. The experience is there for all of us to find and enjoy. Active Randomness is an outlook that you can apply to nearly any task that is otherwise mundane or repetitive, from painting a wall to selecting a path through the park. Can you think of task or events in your own daily existence to which this outlook may apply?

Active Randomness in Painting

Applying the concept Active Randomness to art is similar to the surrealist’s early notion of automatic painting. To create in an Active Random mode is to allow your hands and eyes to take over the part of your consciousness that wants to have a plan and follow it. However unlike finding Active Randomness in your daily life, adding it to the creative process must be deliberate. In designing an image, one must consciously allow the process of the feeling the emotion and circumstances of the moments to guide the hands in rendering patterns or colors. This can be accomplished and still adhere to the definition of being continual, moment-to-moment, low consequence decisions, but it must be noted that it is then an essentially different process from documenting isolated random acts, which is the process that was primarily employed by the pioneering abstract expressionists. Rather, an Active Randomness process seeks instantaneous input from what has already happened. Hence that actions can be taken again and again, repeated, amended, and re-guided as necessary. I apply this concept in my own creation of art regularly, but sparingly. During my early career, I allowed the concept to dominate a small collection of works, even referring to the category as Active Randomness. But as I work today, I choose primarily to seek a balanced canvas, where even my most abstract works present as visually lyrical, and hence are primarily the result of fully conscious design. At this place in my life as an artist, the consequences of most of my design decisions are simply not that low.

A final thought: Active Randomness is a mode of living…

To me, Active Randomness is a observed pleasure that increased one’s individual productivity. It is “making it up as you go along” made whole, and “whistle while you work” taken to a more reflective level. It is one of the outlooks that help me find serenity in our post-theistic world; a transcendence without prayer. You may choose to look for it in your own life, or not. It is an abstract way of thinking that will not resonate with everyone. Either way, it will be a low consequence decision.


“The Craftsman” at the Newark Museum

I think back to 1983 and the New Jersey Emerging Artist Show at the Newark Museum. I entered “The Craftsman”, and it was a big effort for me. I had to build a roof rack out of 2x4s on top of my 1978 Volkswagen Diesel Rabbit. I had heavy rope going under the car to hold the platform in place. In order to protect the painting, I framed it with 1×3 pine, which made it a bit clumsy, but it would be safe going to an from Newark. It was a bright and sunny Tuesday in late spring. I drove 30 miles of highway and on to the rather treacherous streets of Newark, paying to park just across the street and unloading the first and only painting I would ever submit to a jury. I was thrilled and yet scared of what might occur, how would they, a jury, react to this rather autobiographical work. I carried it in through the front door, explained myself to security and was directed to the stairs and the appropriate office. Up on the third floor, I followed the dark hallway to what to my surprise was a rather mundane working office with stacks of paper and rubber stamps on the desks. It was very average, not the kind of “artistic” environment that I expected, but no matter. I had worked in theatre; I knew what back stages looked like. Mundane was good. Mundane was what real professional art locations were really about, or so I choose to tell myself. I walked into the office, a big room with six or so well lived in desks, but only one of which was currently occupied, the one directly in front. The neon lights were all on, but it did not feel bright.

DSCN1326 The Craftsman

The women in the office was holding a phone to her ear, but not speaking. She was staring up, looking rather disinterested and probably on hold of some sort. I was carrying my painting in a large, homemade cardboard packaging that had the show submission form clearly and correctly attached to the top right side of the front of the container, as per the extensive submission instructions. I must have been hard to miss as I carried this large box through the door because she noticed me quickly enough. She looked over and stared just long enough for me to think she was saying to herself “Geez, another one”. She pulled the mouthpiece up, keeping the earpiece glued to side of her head and told me to put the box up against the wall out in other hallway, around the corner from where I came in. I nodded dutifully and carried the package back out the door and around the corner to what was and even darker, short little hallway. The floor was dusty and dirty, filthy really, and yet there was a stack of cleaning supplies and old file boxes only a few feet away. Did she really want me to leave my painting here? There were no other art works or any thing else of “value” out there. This was a hallway to nowhere, partially a storage space and partly a drafty echo chamber, with pealing paint and yellowing marks on the walls left by that old kind of cellophane tape that hadn’t been used anywhere in decades.

I paused for a moment with a fear that was new to me. This was my work, my painting, my Craftsman. I previously admitted that it was autobiographical, but I didn’t know how much it was till then. This was a portrait of the real me, the young man deep down inside. I had grown attached to this work in a way I not done so with a painting before. And now I needed to leave it, leave him, behind, and trust I would see him again. I put the package down at a careful distance from both the hallway corner and the cleaning supplies. I briefly pulled aside my carefully constructed panel board that was protecting the front of the canvas. I checked the canvas, the framing, and the rest of the packaging. I had to assure myself he was still there. And it was almost as if I need to reassure him that being left in this awful place was okay, it was for our greater good.

Looking back in the office, the woman was still on hold and was now impatiently tapping her long colorful nails on the desk. I asked her, “do you need to take a look at my painting”… as if I were fulfilling some sort of logistical mandate. I wanted her to see my friend, I wanted her to take responsibility for him. I wanted someone in that place to acknowledge that this inanimate object, this oil on canvas image that come to mean so much to me, would be safe here in the hallway. She didn’t look at me, but she did answer, saying “no that’s ok, just leave it there”.   While it wasn’t the answer I was looking for, her response did give me a moment of comfort. It was human interaction that I told me she knew it was there, and I was leaving.

I walked off back down the first dark hallway toward that stairs. I had a strange sense of loss and aloneness, which was appropriate because I had left something special behind, trusting its safety to strangers. Sure I knew I would get the painting back, but this was now more than just a painting to me, it was a piece of me. It would be years before I truly came to understand what I felt that day. It all came back to me the first time I dropped of my 2 1/2 your old son at preschool. He cried as he was lovingly pried away from me because it was parent’s time to go. I cried the moment I sat down in the car, knowing that he was out there without me. For the first time as parents, neither Jane nor I were with him every moment. The tim
e had come to begin learning how to let go. The echo of that day 14 years earlier at the Newark Museum could not have been clearer.

Three weeks after dropping the painting off, I received a letter saying that I had not been selected for the show, and that I had 10 days in which to come and pick up my work. The next morning I refitted my homemade roof rack to the Volkswagen and made the 30-mile journey to Newark. The packaging looked like it had hardly been opened. Either they took great care in re-wrapping it, or they never took much of a look at it. It didn’t matter, I was glad it was only slightly exposed to the world. And because it was not in the show, I would not face the choice of entertaining a offer to buy. I was glad to have my Craftsman back. My statement to myself about who I was, was back where he belonged.


Painting Review: FILM SCHOOL

This painting is called Film School. It was started in Manasquan toward the end of that amazing summer of 1983. I was still very much in an exploratory mode and had begun this as an abstract and technical exploration of color, which of course is code for I was simply playing with paint.

Film School

Film School

I’d been reading about Matisse that week and it lead me toward experimenting with the orange neighborhood on the color wheel. One Saturday night, some young guy, maybe a year out of high school, shows up. That place was an unending house party every weekend and there was always a new cast of characters cruising through. Most were very un-shy about expressing their opinion on whatever recent paintings were visible. It was always entertaining. So this kid started asking about my work, but it was quickly clear that he was not interested anything I had to say. He was not interested in my opinion on my work, he was only interested in his opinion of my work. Truth be told, I met a lot of “kids” from the suburbs like that, though I think it was more due to our “know it all” age (20’s) that it was to the suburban geography. Soon enough he made it clear that he does not like contemporary art, or much of any art for that matter. He admitted that he liked film, and that he was directing his whole life to getting in to NYU film school. For him it was all about the story and, the emotional ride a film would take you on. He insisted that film was the only medium of the future that mattered in terms of complex artistic presentation. Needless to say I disagreed and we ended up exhaustively arguing about the medium, the message, and his version of what should be considered a classic. He tried so diligently to bring Marshal McLuhan into it. He was desperately trying to come across as an intellectual, while at the same time burdened with the affliction of clearly enjoyed hearing himself talk. He was definitely a noisy boy. But then he would just stop and give me this long sarcastic look with straight and had eye to eye contact. Then he would go back to disparaging all art, including my paintings. Was he trying to pick a fight? At one point I thought about hitting him just to shut him up, but of course I didn’t. I just let it go on for a while. That’s when I realize what was really happening… He was hitting on me! Well this was new! I was not a sheltered person but this completely caught me unaware, especially when I found myself thinking (briefly) that this guy, annoying as he was becoming, was pretty easy to look at. Somewhere between afraid and flattered, I told him the posse he had arrived with (five girls, go figure), was heading out to the bars and that it was time for him to go. He went silent and his shoulders dropped. I felt as though I had hit him. He make eye contact one last time and say, very slowly, “nice meeting you”.

The orange was anger, but something noisy boy said in his unending dissertation on film made me think and relate all that color to the chemical process of film. I liked my own knowledge of film and all those very analog processes, and so the painting became about that chemical and technical process. Yes, the technical side, the place where most film school grads ended up working, if they ever found their way in to the business at all. The randomness of the silver bromide that morphs into the linearity of an image. A film can in a dark room. A negative chain. For me, the word “Film” means all of these, not just movies or framed prints. And film school should mean learning about and deeply respecting the analog process, because that is what film was. Of course this is all especially poignant now that it has gone away, gone digital.

How ironic that the word “film” will eventually be all that remains of all that the word “film” used to mean… But such is progress.

It started so Innocently

And essay on how it all started… Pt1

Room 233, St Mary’s Hall at Villanova.stmarys
St Mary’s was an interesting building. I had been assigned there as a freshman in September 1977. I was 17 and about as emotionally unprepared for college as one could get. The building was huge, a nearly 1/8 mile long. It was a wholly contained institution complete with 240 rooms, a pool, a theatre, a gym and weight room, and the finest cafeteria on campus. It also contained the entire college of nursing and a chapel, which was actually the size of a small gothic cathedral. I loved the pipe organ. The place had been built as a Seminary in the mid 1960’s when the Augustinian order saw a massive surge in interest in young men seeking to join the priesthood. Funny how that surge quickly dried up when the Vietnam war and the draft ended. I hated the place my first month of freshman year, it off the main campus, literally on the other side of the tracks. It had little crosses etched into the staircase walls and a multitude of 1960’s stained glass that were of limited artistic credit. However, it didn’t take me long to begin to appreciate the quite, thick walls, the convenience of a sink in each room, and all those nursing students who were actually pleasant to even us freshman. Clearly they were practicing compassion.

By junior year I had scored a single room down the hall from the extensive freshman wing, where we had been packed in on bunk beds. I was still on the 2nd floor, which meant ceilings high enough that I could build a loft, essentially raising the bed to the ceiling level and creating a reasonable living space down below. I had a few tool, borrowed a few more and headed down to scour the sub-basement of the building for material to “recycle” (a relatively new concept back then). As it would turn out, some recently graduated student had left behind a small mountain of lumber, much of it precut to the exact size I needed. After a few trips up and down the many stairs and a few hour building, the build was complete and I was ready to decorate,

Dorm room decor of the day was not much different that it is today, posters, flags, album cover art, etc. I was not going to put up a Farah Faucet poster, that just wasn’t me. Not that I was a particular fan of his music, but I did have a poster of Beethoven up. I was now an upper classman, and that meant as certain faux sophistication on display was justified. But I needed something on the other wall, and so I joined my peers looked to my record collection for inspiration.

I had just spent my third of five summers at Streeter, one of two municipal swimming pools In Morris Township. I had worked my way up to the best possible job that an overweight, easily sunburned teenager could ever have….   Pool Maintenance guy. Better hours and pay than the guards, and total autonomy as to how and when I did things done, all while enjoying the benefits of working around college girls in bathing suits. The down side was having to deal with a filter system that used chlorine in the gas form. The extent of my safety training was this statement from the town engineer, “if you think it’s leaking out of control, hold your breath while you get it shut off and then run the hell out of there”. To this day, the only ambulance ride I’ve ever had was a result of a chlorine tank leak the following summer. At the hospital I was given a few hours of oxygen and then sent home. I was “given” the next day off.  Fortunately, that system has long since been replaced, but when I think back on it, oh the lawyers that could have, maybe should have, been involved.

But during that summer of ’79, I was having a rather enjoyable time. While I was mostly checking out the girls, I would also spend time cutting the grass, weeding the flower beds, and repainting the benches. Having pre-planned my dorm-decorating project, I took the liberty of collecting a small jar of each color I was working with. They had great, lame names like Canary Yellow, Fence-Post Brown and Postal Blue. Those colors became my first pallet.

In my first days back at Villanova that September, I declared his major as economics, surprised my family by signing up to take a minor in religious studies, and built that loft. Ready to decorate, I got a roll of masking tape and decided I was going to do as so many others had in dorm rooms around the country: Recreate that ubiquitous 70’s Pink Floyd icon, the “Dark Side of the Moon” prism.

And that’s when it happened. It was literally in that moment, with a brush full of paint and a white wall in front of me, I changed. My mind connected with my hand, and images and color began take up that wall. Over a couple of hours I cover that wall and covered it again, first with color, then with more color and line drawings and simple images. I painted and drew the familiar and the abstract, and then changed it and change it again. I never finished the prism, but that didn’t matter. That day stopped being about décor, and forever became about me painting. What I was painting was secondary to the fact that I was painting. Maybe it was the mixing of colors, trying different brush strokes, or creating stencils, but I had somehow found myself in that process. Painting somehow, lifted me. Over the next few days, I covered several walls, in my room and others. I painted landscapes, abstracts, floating fruit and flying pianos. I painted until I ran out of paint, which was lucky because I need to start school. It had started so innocently, but that experience changed me.

Over the course of the next 15 months, I dabbled in my new found passion when and where I could. I began taking the arts seriously, aggressively visiting art museums and galleries’ in New York and Philadelphia. I did what I could to learn about paint, paper, brushes and canvas. I experimented with sketching and using watercolors. I drove a 1966 Volkswagen that I did had to do body and engine work on, learning how wonderfully fine was the line between industrial and fine art. I made the move off of walls and started doing works on paper and packing board.

Slalom, 1980 20x24

Slalom, 1980 20×24

I purchased my first real canvas and brushes at an art store in Ardmore PA, and did what I consider my first “real” painting. I called it “Slalom”. I was a happy image that was inspired by the sadness that I felt not having the money for a weekend ski trip that several friends had gone on. I completed it there in room 233 on Dec. 8, 1980. Later that evening comes the news of the death of John Lennon, and I was somehow changed again. Now painting wasn’t just going to be about personal satisfaction, but rather I knew then that it had to be about finding a voice for myself. If I couldn’t be confident in what I had to say, maybe I could find confidence in what I could show. Whether of not I could be called an artist from that moment on I do not know. But from that moment on, I understood what it meant to be an artist. An Artist must express something of value, whether through words, music or images.  Upon that realization, my journey began.


Next installment: Painting Class, Utrechts, and the job market for 1981 Grads.