ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished artwork or project. This week Sean Capone discusses the evolution of Sunshine/New Paintings, his commission to beautify a luxury hospitality environment and the perils of being self-employed.
I thought it would be interesting to look back and sort out what I experienced during the course of production on a large commission I received, not only to reveal my studio process but also to pull back the curtain a little on what it’s like making art ‘professionally’ outside the gallery system. Certain disclosures prevent me from being too specific, but I’ll do my best. This commission was a unique but daunting opportunity to make over 30 videos that would be installed on monitors in corridors of a ‘luxury hospitality environment’. It was clear that even among projects of this sort, it was a generous one, in terms of ample financial compensation and (more or less) complete creative autonomy. Most importantly, it meant that I wouldn’t have to seek out commercial work for at least a year, allowing me to shift life-gears into a full-time solo studio practice.
That all sounds good, but I quickly discovered that I am the worst boss imaginable, especially when I’m also the only employee. Also, I was being asked to make more videos– for a single project — than I’ve made over my entire body of work. Yes, I’m slow. Plus, experience told me that finishing 32 videos meant that something more like 50 had to be made and then culled out.
On top of that, there were some aesthetic guidelines from the commissioning agent (let’s just say ‘client’ and get that out of the way). The installation corridors were each designed according to a ‘color mood’ and ‘inspiration theme’. So right away, as an artist, I get nervous thinking I’m gonna end up doing little more than designing committee-approved motivational posters, color-coded to match the carpet.
However, aside from having to figure out how to manifest in visual form such abstract concepts as ‘peace’ or ‘hope’ or ‘challenges’, the only real directive was that these works had to be “uplifting and beautiful”. This might mean different things to different people, but in my work, I was already critically engaged in ideas about public art and the role of ambient moving imagery in the built environment … and more generally about the very concept of ‘beauty’ in contemporary art. This commission came to me, in fact, as a result of public work I had done of my so-called ‘wallpaper videos’ … soundless looping mural-size projections of animated florals, decorative motifs, and evolving patterns. They tended to be crowd-pleasers.
So, it was decided that each of these 32 videos would be on average two-minute-long seamless loops, about an hour of content (with no audio, thank god), which seemed manageable. I was flying blind, though, without any renderings or photos of the site I was making art for.
To begin I spent a couple weeks putting together various ‘mood boards’ and collecting images, trying to kick-start my brain into thinking my way around this diabolical task. Everything I collected — pictures of art I liked, screenshots from Instagram, fashion ads, random shit I would shoot around town — went into the ‘INSPIRATION DUMP’ folder on my desktop. I also expanded upon the creative brief in text form, hoping that writing out the ‘statement’ before the ‘art’ would get the juices flowing, and help eliminate many of the potential bad roads I was prone to go down.
After dicking around the first month or so, I realized I was going to have to re-engineer my workflow. I needed the ability to iterate the visuals quickly and change them around on the fly, which wasn’t possible with the traditional, fixed 3D animation I was doing in Maya. I began to experiment with realtime 3D generative software that operated as plugins within After Effects, my primary tool.
The more intimate I became with these tools, the more liberated I felt, being able to play with form and pictorial space in a freer way than was possible using my usual animation methods. It felt more like painting or sculpting, because I could set up situations and see how they resolved themselves, intervening only at key points, non-destructively, to adjust the composition or tempo. It felt much more like manipulating a material process, even though it was all digital…something I’d been after for a long time working in video. For this reason I unofficially named the whole series ‘New Paintings’, since for me painting is about an engagement with process, field/form relationships, and compositional space that is bound by some kind of perimeter– in my case the ‘frame edges’ were temporal as well as spatial. I’m sure most painters will disagree, which is fine.
At the same time, I’m not interested in tech-art, and it wouldn’t have been satisfying to simply exploit techno gimmicks. These tools may have introduced new creative possibilities, but I had to make some art, not a demo reel. So I decided to throw away my over thinking about ‘deep content’ and allow this work to exist on purely formal, pictorial terms, following the sage advice I once swiped off Facebook: “Art doesn’t reproduce what is real: it IS real. An image doesn’t represent a supposed reality; it is it’s own complete reality.”
It’s not like I was making cinematic or socially conscious conceptual work to start with, anyway. My point of view is more aligned with what Brian Eno or Erik Satie call “furniture music”. It’s not work with a narrative development that you have to sit through to experience — any one moment represents the whole.
Gradually the Inspiration Dump images organized themselves around workable concepts: Travel, Love, Elegance, Celebration etc. One might read these stimuli-loaded words and instantly, certain visual situations will come to mind. Now, as an artist, one would never say “Duhh, this painting is about Travel”… but you would likely accept a response like that to your work. I think it’s the task of the ‘public artist’ to reverse-engineer upward from that base point of innocuousness. So there’s always more there if you choose to think about it, and look deeply… but if you don’t, it’s still entertaining. That’s show biz!
These early sketches show my first attempts to sort out the project into different creative buckets, using shorthand thumbnail go-to’s that drew on earlier work of mine, and referred me to unrealized, back-burner ideas. There’s also some references to research I was doing based on spirituality in early modern abstract art, for a show I was going to be in that used the Garden Of Eden as a theme.
My work process bounces back and forth between the computer and sketchpad. It’s hard to tell where one piece starts and at what point it’s refined to a final piece. When I’m working on the computer, a couple small algorithmic changes can set me going down a whole other path. So more often than not I would abandon the original ideas in favor of something I hadn’t imagined in the first place. it gets pretty messy. These images show the reverberation between the notebook thumbnails and the look of the final pieces.
Around the midpoint of the project delivery, I was really in a positive flow where things were taking form faster than I had time to work on them all. My mind had rewired itself to the point where I was waking up with lucid-dream images that I would sketch up and go to work upon immediately. These pictures show the clarity of vision in the before and after from concept to realization.
This process carried on for months. There was not a lot of oversight from the client during this period, so I would let it languish for weeks at a time. A couple review sessions were very positive: full steam ahead. Fortunately there was only one person I had to deal with as far as creative decisions were concerned, and this person was very laissez-faire & trusted me implicitly, despite the brusque and sometimes frustrating communication process.
The last 90% of the project was when it finally started to feel like a job. This is when I had to do the final culling, resorting, color correction, editing, looping, refining, and maintain the patience to look carefully at 40+ video pieces in various stages of completion with a hard critical eye. Some pieces, I just couldn’t make work. Most ended up getting reshuffled or remixed several times. I accepted from the start that they weren’t all going to be gems, but I was now convinced that the whole body of work was SHIT. I’ll spare you the tormented-artist agony column, but here are just a couple pages from my notebook during this period when I was struggling to tie up all the loose threads.
To wrap this up, I thought it would be fun to share some production stills from videos that DIDN’T make the cut for whatever reason, as they’ve never been shown and probably will end up in digital oblivion. Then check out the video montages of excerpted clips from the final series.
SEAN CAPONE, SUNSHINE/NEW PAINTINGS (2014)
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