Skill and Subtlety: A Conversation With William Bailey

William Bailey's current exhibition at the Betty Cuningham Gallery in Chelsea covers a lot of ground. Although it emphasizes recent paintings created both in the U.S. and in Umbria, it also includes works made in 1963 and 1977. Examples of Bailey's methodically burnished still-life paintings are on view alongside his serenely elegant figure paintings. In all the works on display are traces of what writer Mark Strand characterizes as a dreamlike, almost theatrical rationality.

I recently spoke with William Bailey and asked him about his work and about his observation that representational painting is now flourishing in the studios of a new generation of artists.  

John Seed in Conversation with William Bailey
William Bailey
When I look at your paintings I see skill and subtlety. Am I right in calling those things central to your work?

As far as skill goes, one always hopes to acquire the skills that are needed to do what one wants to do. What I mean to say is that skill is not a free-flowing, free-floating issue in my work -- if that makes any sense.

Night Near Monte Murlo, 2009, Oil on linen, 57 1/2 x 45 inches
It certainly does. You have been painting and exhibiting your work for over 60 years now, so you have been building your skills for a long time.

That's right... In regards to subtlety, I think again you are either subtle or you aren't... I think subtlety has to do with a way of seeing and what you value in what you see. I suppose from the outside in relation to a lot of work that goes on I might be seen as seeking subtlety and that is fine with me.

Giostra, 2009, Oil on linen, 50 x 60 inches
The painter James Doolin -- whose work was highly refined, rather like yours -- once told me when I was inspecting one of his canvases: That is how I see the world. In other words his paintings reflected a very personal way of seeing. You seem to work the same way.

I would agree with that. That is well put. However, you can't see everything subtly. What I mean to say is this: unless you have a very strong structural basis, subtlety can become merely wishy-washy.

Afternoon in Umbria, 2010, Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 63 3/4 inches
So a strong structural basis is something you strive for early in the development of each work?

Oh yes...always.  

So your work has its basis in drawing? In form?

I would say in drawing. I think some people come to painting through drawing and others through a sense of area and color and of shape. For me drawing was the earliest and most important contributor to my work.

Citizen Among the Monuments, 2013, Oil on Linen, 45 x 57 1/2 inches
In the show at Betty Cuningham Gallery you are exhibiting both recent figure and earlier still life paintings. Is it fair to say you move effortlessly between the different kinds of subject matter? Do you handle them with the same sensibility?

(Laughing) Nothing is effortless.

 Both the still lifes and the figure paintings come from my imagination. They are not done from life: they are done from memory and images in my head. So since they both have their origins in the same place its not that hard to switch from one to the other.

Rancale, 2013, Oil on Linen, 15 3/4 x 19 7/8 inches
Coming from memory gives you a lot of latitude in the way you treat things.

It does indeed. It is probably the reason I work the way I do.  

When someone visits your current show how do you hope they will respond to your work?

The most important thing is for them to take time to let the paintings unfold. That holds true of both the figure paintings and the still lifes. The other thing I hope they will recognize is that my paintings seek a kind of silence. If you are looking for something that jumps around you won't find it. That is simply the character of the work. Also, people should understand that these are not meant to be realist paintings. They are about imagery.

Tavernacci, 2013, Oil on Linen, 18 x 24 inches
Are there any current artists that you feel a strong connection to?

There are a number of artists that I am admire -- I'm not connected to many -- they are all over the place. Right now what I would say about what goes on outside of my own work is I notice that there are more young painters than there have been in my memory. And there is more good figurative painting going on than I can remember. Its odd that this is the case at a time when painting is being viewed more and more as a kind of niche activity. There is very little recognition among the museum curators and the galleries. So what I see is not reflected so much in the galleries as in the studios. It is a remarkable time because there is a culture of young artists who are surviving somehow without the recognition of the larger art world.

Woman in Umbria, 2013, Oil on Linen, 11 x 9 inches
There does seem to be a groundswell of interest in representational painters, and the internet seems to be playing an important role.

I think that may be one of the things that holds things together for the young painters that I referred to before: the fact that they can be in communication with one another and with writers. It has built a community. Of course I'm not involved in that - I have very little use for computers -- but I do think they are important in this way.

William Bailey and Camilla Fallon: photo by Clarity Haynes 
Yes, I actually found out about your show when a Facebook friend -- the painter Camilla Fallon -- posted a photo of herself chatting with you at the exhibition.  

Aha! Well there you are!

William Bailey
2/13/2014 To 3/29/2014
The Betty Cuningham Gallery
541 West 25th Street
New York, New York 10001

Tim Vermeulen: Speaking to Shared Experience

Tim Vermeulen's recent paintings -- on view at the George Billis Gallery, New York through March 15th -- are awkwardly confessional: just as the artist intends. Strong autobiographical, psychological and spiritual elements charge his seemingly modest paintings with considerable narrative power.

I recently interviewed Tim Vermeulen and learned more about his background, his imagery and his need to share his most personal experiences and impulses.

 John Seed Interviews Tim Vermeulen

Tim Vermeulen

Can you tell me a little bit about your early background? I understand that your father was a funeral director who kept a morgue in the basement of your home.

I was born the son of a mortician in Paterson, NJ. The behind-the-scenes aspects of the business were never hidden in any way from the children in the family, so I regularly watched people being embalmed and prepped for services. I have never figured out exactly what effect this daily experience of death has had on my psyche, but I imagine this was a great motivating force in my decision to become an artist.

I also come from a strict, Dutch Calvinist background with a theology that emphasized our "total depravity" (e.g., from Calvin's Institutes: "I am compelled here to repeat once more: that whoever is utterly cast down and overwhelmed by the awareness of his calamity, poverty, nakedness, and disgrace has thus advanced farthest in knowledge of himself."). Once, in a graduate school critique, I said that my work was about dealing with issues of life and death; one of my professors disagreed and said she thought it was more about redemption and damnation. I now see that my funeral home experience, while strange and sometimes frightening, has had nowhere near the powerful, daily, often deleterious effect that religious indoctrination has had on my essential nature.

Tim Vermeulen, The Animal Realm, 2014, oil on panel, 18.5 x 16"

When did you first become interested in art and where did you study?

I was always very interested in art as a child, but in my junior and senior year of high school I had an art teacher who introduced me to art as a very serious pursuit, as far more than a mere cultural frill, and as a way to work through what he called "the basic plights of man." I went on to receive a B.A. from Calvin College and an M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from The University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana.

Tim Vermeulen, December, Oil on Panel, 13x10''

What have your artistic influences been?

The primary influence has been 15th and 16th century Dutch painting (e.g., Jan VanEyck, Dirk Bouts, Pieter Bruegel). I especially like in early Dutch narrative painting what I have heard referred to as the "realism of particulars," where certain objects, often of great symbolic weight, are rendered with incredible devotion while the painting as a whole lacks the rigorous underlying structure that was so essential to the Italians. So, the paintings often draw you in to a somewhat believable stage space but something is always askew and awkward.

Tim Vermeulen, The Hell Realm, 2014, oil on panel, 18.5 x 16"

How does the theme of the true self versus the false self appear in your work? can you tell me about a specific painting?

During a period where I underwent Jungian analysis I was introduced to this notion and the theme is most directly addressed in any of the many of my pieces that incorporate masks. For example, my most recent series of paintings is based on the six Buddhist Realms of Existence. In The Hell Realm I stand before a bathroom mirror with the mask of a demon obscuring most of my face. The mask represents this false self. In my understanding the true self creates this mask to protect itself from the vagaries of a cruel and uncaring world.

Tim Vermeulen, Displaced, oil on panel, 14.5 x 12.5"

Is that you holding the two suitcases in the painting Displaced? Tell me about the image

Yes, that is me in the piece. All of my work is autobiographical and most incorporates direct self-portraiture. In the past 12 years I have moved 7 times and I have almost never felt truly rooted anywhere. I have come to recognize that the feeling of uprootedness is about far more than just the physical house. In the painting I gaze at a damaged home. For Jung the house is often a representation of the ego, so the feeling of being uprooted can be anchored deep within a self that for me has dimensions that are psychological, physical (about coming to terms with the changing body), spiritual, and intellectual.

Can you briefly tell me the stories behind a few of the other paintings in your show?

Tim Vermeulen, Vision Test, 10 X 12.5", Oil on Panel, 2013

Vision Test: For most of my life my eyesight has been above average and I have never required any aides. In recent years I have succumbed to the inevitable weakening of my vision and I now require regular visits to the eye doctor. This painting incorporates the eye test but for me it becomes a piece about being an artist and the artists' constant questioning of the meaningfulness, authenticity, and insightfulness of his/her "vision." There can be an almost crushing subjectivity and freedom in art-making that probably plagues artists with more self-doubt than any other profession.

Tim Vermeulen, Restoring, oil on panel, 8 x 11"

Restoring: Many of my paintings employ excruciating detail and very complex arrangements. In this piece I wanted to try something very pared down with a void-like background like one sees in many Baroque portraits. For me repairing the vase represents the process of trying to reintegrate a fractured and fragile personality.

Tim Vermeulen, Stray, 19.5 X 15.5", Oil on Panel, 2013

What are your interests outside of painting? I understand you are active in a dog rescue organization.

I have been very active with English bulldog rescue and bull terrier rescue in the last 7 years. We have had over 20 foster dogs and have adopted 3 ourselves. Dogs play a very prominent role in many of my paintings. They can be the classic symbol of fidelity or in some pieces they symbolize the aggressive nature that I both fear and jealously desire. I have also done a number of portraits of rescues and foster dogs to raise money for our organization.

Tim Vermeulen, Marked, 7.5 X 9.5", Oil on Panel, 2013

How do you hope people will respond to your current show at the Billis Gallery?

I hope that my paintings work on a couple different levels. There is a surface story that is easily read and accessible. Beneath the surface story is an autobiographical and psychological impulse. This can relate to childhood traumas, to dreams I have had, to my current life concerns, and to my experiences of and in the world. Though based in autobiography, I seek something that is universal, and I think of my own place in the work as a kind of everyman figure. The work is very personal but I want to make pieces that are more than just a visual diary. I hope they speak to a shared experience.

Tim Vermeulen
February 18th - March 15th
Gallery hours: 10am-6pm, Tuesday - Saturday
George Billis Gallery
521 W. 26th St New York, NY 10001

F. Scott Hess: The Perfect Hess-Storm

What a year Los Angeles artist F. Scott Hess is having: his works are simultaneously on view in a two-part retrospective, and a one-man gallery show. His deadpan historically-themed mockmentary and curio cabinet The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation is gradually making its way from the deep South to the West Coast.

Hess is the subject of a feature article in February's Juxtapoz, and a ten-page spread in a Polish art magazine: since he doesn't read Polish, that has been a bit frustrating. A 200 page F. Scott Hess coffee table monograph is due out this fall. It all seems to be coming together in a kind of perfect storm: in fact, Scott has been calling 2014 the year of the Hess-storm.

F. Scott Hess: Photo by Marc Trujillo

Despite all the attention Scott can still go martyr and bring on a striking crucifixion pose at a moment's notice as he did on the opening night of his CSU Fullerton retrospective. "I tend to focus on what hasn't happened, on what's lacking," Scott wrote in an unpublished set of career musings he penned a few years ago: "Positive reinforcement rolls off me like water off a duck's back." Still, even while throwing back his head in a martyr's pose Hess can't quite wipe the grin off his face...
F. Scott Hess, 10 x 13 inches, 200 pages
Published by Grand Central & Gingko Press, Designed by Wendy Peng
Essays by John Seed, Leah Ollman, Doug Harvey, and Mike McGee
Available: Fall 2014

To achieve what he has, Hess has relied on his inborn "mule-like stubbornness" for nearly forty years, making art on his own terms. Remarkably, he has built his career without any real acknowledgement from the East Coast art establishment: his work has never been reviewed in Art in America, Art Forum, or Art News. He has had solo shows in Vienna, Tehran, Laguna Beach, San Francisco and Mobile, Alabama, but only scant exposure in New York. Of course, there is always 2015…

Committed to narrative and representational painting since the start of his career, Hess has always seen himself as standing outside the periphery of the official Art World. "I didn't play their game," he has written: "I didn't deal with issues the Art World felt important. I didn't work in forms and mediums that were of the time."

Instead of "playing the game" Hess has been painting brilliant and darkly funny paintings, building friendships, teaching and serving as a beacon to an upcoming generation of representational artists. In recent years he has used social media expertly and hit the max of 5,000 Facebook friends a long time ago, and he uses the "like" button fearlessly. Scott is a great painter," says his friend and fellow artist Marc Trujillo, "and in addition to the example he provides in rigor of his work he's also been really generous and helpful with his contacts. He puts me in touch with people and we compare notes about everything."

As this year's Hess-Storm demonstrates, all the effort that has paid off in both his personal and professional spheres. "Scott is responsible for a resurgence of narrative in painting," says curator Mike McGee, "A lot of younger artists have come along since (Scott) and felt empowered to tell stories."

F. Scott Hess at Barnsdall Art Park on 2/2/2014 with 32 Portraits from 1991
Photo by Ron De Angelis courtesy of Koplin Del Rio Gallery

One of his new paintings from 2014 -- Lift at Koplin Del Rio -- is a trenchant and enigmatic masterpiece that needs to be seen in person to be appreciated. It features four naked figures -- two men and two women -- who hoist a hippo skull against a sky that illuminates its interior with a flecks or golden-orange light. Scott says it was designed to have "multiple meanings" and to be seen as alternately "religious, cultish, evolutionary or mystic."

Of course hippos don't normally have fangs, so the skull that the figures gingerly hold aloft is from an animal that doesn't really exist: it is an artist's willful invention, admired by a naked cult. It is a very funny painting but it also makes a point: don't be embarrassed if your taste is a bit different from everyone else's. Find the right cult, enjoy the camaraderie and admire the fire of ideas that only the imaginative can perceive…

F. Scott Hess, Lift, 2014, oil and egg tempera on aluminum panel, 39" x 32"
Photo: Koplin Del Rio Gallery

F. Scott Hess
Koplin Del Rio Gallery
6031 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
January 11 -- February 15, 2014

F. Scott Hess, Thief, 2002, Oil on Canvas, 32 x 40 inches at the Begovich Gallery

F. Scott Hess: Retrospective
CSU Fullerton: Grand Central Art Center
Curator | Begovich Gallery Director, Mike McGee
125 N. Broadway
Santa Ana, California 92701
January 25 -- February 27, 2014

F. Scott Hess, Sudden Storm, 1987, Oil on canvas, 87 x 121 inches, at Barnsdall Art Park

F. Scott Hess: Retrospective, Part II
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park
4800 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
February 2 -- March 16, 2014

The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation
Sumter County Gallery of Art
Sumter, South Carolina
February 13 -- April 18, 2014
Coming to the Long Beach Museum of Art: Dates TBA

F. Scott Hess at The Representational Art Conference (TRAC2014)
Presentation: Achieving Figural Movement
March 3, 1:45 to 2:30
Panel Discussion - The Future for Representational Art
Moderator: John Seed
Panel: Candice Bohannon, Graydon Parrish, Peter Trippi, Kara Ross, F. Scott Hess
March 5, 8:30 to 10AM
The Crowne Plaza Hotel Ventura
Visit the TRAC 2014 website for registration and information

What Makes a Jackson Pollock Painting Worth Millions?

In Pollock We Trust: Digital collage by

On November 12th of last year, Jackson Pollock's Number 16 sold for $32,645,000.00 at Christie's, New York. The 30¾ by 22¼ inch painting has a surface area of 684.1875 square inches, which means that it sold for $47,713.52 per square inch. To put this in context, the Median U.S. Household Income for 2012 was $51,017.00.

Just how did this Pollock painting -- a rectangle of paper covered with skeins of enamel paint -- come to be worth such a mind-boggling sum? It is a fantastic and vexing question isn't it? I think there is a short answer and a long answer.

The short answer is that the figure of Jackson Pollock sits at the apex of a vast cultural construction: the currently accepted history of American art and culture. To explain how he got there, and how his work became a form of currency, requires a long answer.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Number 16, 1949
Oil and enamel on paper mounted on masonite, 30¾ x 22¼ in.

Jackson Pollock, who was born in 1912, perfectly embodies a cultural myth that has fascinated and obsessed Americans -- and those who have admired and/or envied American culture -- since World War 2: the myth of the heroic individual creator. Over time, Pollock's legendary status has been woven very completely into the fabric of a media society that has built art and culture into a very lucrative business.

Pollock is an artist who is seen as the prime mover and innovator behind a new American style of art (Abstract Expressionism) that blossomed in this county in the aftermath of our nation's defeat of the Axis powers. America's triumph in the war, infinitely aided by our having developed nuclear weapons first, validated our obsession with progress and paved the way for an era of American cultural hegemony that has lingered strikingly. Interestingly, if the rise of Fascism hadn't driven a generation of intellectuals to emigrate to the U.S. the nuclear bomb and Abstract Expressionism would have likely both been invented in Europe.

If the idea that Europeans would have invented Abstract Expressionism seems improbable to you, take a look at Joan Miro's 1925 painting "The Birth of the World," which features a background of flung and poured paint which the artist characterized as "free and unconscious." This work was painted eleven years before the American critic Harold Rosenberg published an article in the New Yorker describing the emergence of what he called "Action Painting."

Jackson Pollock led the American avant-garde -- originally a military term -- in its defeat and supersession of European culture. As we now know, Abstract Expressionism even had some CIA help in terms of becoming the representative style of American individualism and in turn confirming American exceptionalism. A new generation of critics, especially Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, made striking arguments for Pollock that helped him earn a lofty position in postwar America's rapidly evolving cultural Pantheon.

Before the war America's cultural superstructure already had been developing rapidly. The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929: the same year that seventeen year old Jackson Pollock moved to New York to study art. The growth of Pollock's career and the growth of the market for his work has coincided with the ascent of New York's status as America's -- and arguably the world's -- capital city of art and culture.

According to this informative chart -- A History of New York's Gallery Districts -- there were 140 art galleries in New York when Pollock arrived. There are now about 1500. New York's art museums welcomed some sixteen million visitors in 2012. Arts in the broader sense -- Visual Art, Theater, Dance, etc -- are a huge economic force: a New York state survey of 2010 identified 53,085 arts-related businesses employing 335,683 people.

Getting back to Pollock, a striking aspect of his work is that it is abstract. To put it another way, it requires anyone who accepts and or "likes" it as art to accept what was once a radical premise: that ideas are more valuable than skill. In the American model, progress starts with ideas and if you have a great one you are going to own a factory (or today an internet startup) not work in one.

The Philistine modern art haters of the fifties who would look at a Pollock in a magazine and say "My kid could do that" missed the point that Pollock was a "genius" who had changed how things were done because he had a new idea of how to do things: he replaced the brushstroke with the drip. Ideas begin in the mind as abstractions, and if you don't "get" a Pollock there remains a possible taint: if you need or like images or realism maybe you have an excessively literal mind.

Pollock's career unfolded in an era when the development of mass media accelerated and multiplied the dissemination of new ideas and images in art. Pollock's career was certainly aided by the rise of mass media: a tremendous impact was made by the spread Life Magazine did on him in 1949, which posed the question: "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?

In other words, he got in early on a trend that was just emerging. If you are a visual artist living and working now you can't help but be aware of the fact that if you come up with a great idea in the form of an image it will be infinitely multiplied by a tsunami of jpegs that will spread your fame and increase your reputation across the globe. Try googling "Jackson Pollock" and you will get over 18 million search results. Jackson Pollock, who has been the subject of a feature motion-picture, a Pulitzer Prize winning biography and innumerable magazine articles and museum exhibitions has had his myth multiplied by a media society, and it didn't hurt that he died young in a spectacular car crash.

Pollock's secure place as an embodiment of Americanism -- and as an internationally famous artist ---has translated into extraordinary cash values for his art. The price record is reportedly held by his No. 5 of 1948 which is believed to have sold for $140 million in 2006. Disputes over the authenticity of several purported Pollock works have made for some very entertaining news stories in the past decade. Recently, the authenticity of what some believe is Pollock's final painting has come to hinge on forensic analysis of a polar bear hair found embedded in the paint.

It is an accepted fact now that works of art can serve as financial instruments just like stocks, bonds or precious metals. If you want to check the value of Jackson Pollock as a "stock" you can use the Mei Moses® Fine Art Index to get an objective handle on the market. Art databases including those at and have made access to data about the prices of art at auction instantly available to anyone interested in investing works of art. By the way, we still refer to people that purchase multi-million dollar works of art as "collectors" but is there anyone with that kind of money who shouldn't be called an investor?

One way to look at the prices for Pollock's work is to call it a great American success story. Can't we just sit back and beam with pride over the story of a trouble young man whose artistic legacy is valued by museums, auction houses and banking institutions? Another way to look at the situation would be to speculate that Pollock's prices are the result of a cultural asset bubble. What would happen, for example, if art historians came to a new conclusion and decided that Pollock was actually a rather minor artist after all? Books would need to be re-written, curricula redesigned, and museums might put his works into storage.

Pollock's Number 16 is an abstraction backed by an abstraction: the construct of America's cultural and artistic history. Like a one hundred dollar bill it is ultimately just a piece of paper that we have learned to trust as valuable. It is worth many millions of dollars only because an entire cultural system has been built on the assumption of its value. It seems like an unintended consequence, but the generations of predominantly left-leaning critics, curators, and academics who carefully constructed the story of American modernism ultimately built up a new asset class for super-wealthy investors.

It strikes me as ironic that an artist we value for his rebelliousness and innovation has now become a figure that is somehow beyond question. Could you get a job as a Museum Director in the United States if you told those interviewing you that you didn't care for Pollock? I doubt it. The process of turning Pollock into an icon and a commodity has gone so far that it is nearly impossible to turn back. Perhaps for that very reason, Pollock paintings continue to look good to investors. After all: Pollock is too big to fail.

Note: for another very illuminating take on some of the forces at work in the Art Market, have a look at the video below, created by Tymek Borowski and Pawet Sysiak.