Art: Making up our own rules

By Adam Fotos

A few weeks ago, Mike Lash came to the University’s School of Art to give a talk. He showed some poorly cared for and yellowing slides with a warning as to how not to document work, and he made it clear that he preferred calling what makes – what most people call “art” – simply “stuff.”

While finishing up his master’s of art at Northern Illinois University in 1985, Lash completely changed his way of making art. An 8-foot by 8-foot painting of his had won a prize in a student competition before he left school, but it was a painting unlike any of his art before then. He had entered it anonymously, and in doing so, he was denied the $500 award since he refused to reveal his identity. He never even picked up the painting so now it is in the Northern Illinois University collection with Lash’s name on it, after someone figured out it was his – he still never got the check.

Once he completed his thesis, he abandoned it. After the “grad school corral,” he was done with what he was doing. He stopped making paintings. Through graduate school he had been playing a different game.

“Now I’m playing my own game,” he said.

Out of graduate school, Lash used any material he could find to make his “stuff.” He used pencils from bowling alleys and found paint to use. He drew on cardboard he found or old, thrown out paintings. He set up his own system of rules to create hundreds of drawings, which covered the walls of his first gallery show out of school called “800 insipid works.” The cheapest work was sixty cents and all 800 works sold except for the most expensive, a $200 piece that now is at home in a Wisconsin university collection.

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    Later his work would be featured in a French textbook along with Raymond Pettibon and Sean Landers in a discussion on artists who use comic-like imagery in their work. Lash’s use of image and text places cartoon drawings of people, chickens, rabbits and interiors with often misspelled “punch lines.” There’s a sense of humor in his paintings and drawings that sidesteps depressing irony or complete wryness when he’s poking fun at death and failed relationships. When I asked him why he didn’t consider himself a cartoonist, he said he’d rather be thought of as a “bad renderer.”

    After the lecture he asked the audience to help with a collaboration project of his. In exchange for a copy of his latest book, “Pervert,” we had to let him take our headshots with his digital camera. He was going to draw each of us, and we could choose to have a PG-13 or X-rated text to go along with our picture. Not using anyone’s real names and his self-admitted bad drawing, he was going to catalogue our images as if we were all on a porn Web site as the featured stars. Most people signed the Faustian contract, since most college kids will do anything for a free book.

    The best part of the evening was definitely going out to the Blind Pig with Lash and others for drinks. The bar seemed to be more of a comfortable place for everyone to talk about art, not in the basement of the art school or in a gallery, but in the real world. Lash’s work is ultimately about the real world.

    His characters are loaded symbols carrying whatever baggage he wants to unload on them. A hanged rabbit is himself when his daughter was born, giving him a new life, a new identity. Another character, Ostrum, a man with a bird mask, is an avatar of the pathetic – based on the paleontologist who first proposed dinosaurs evolved into birds but who later recanted because his revolutionary thought was refused by his institution.

    He said more than once that night, “I’m doing one piece of artwork my whole life.”

    When he signed the book he had given me, he wrote, “This is my whole life. I mean it, man.” He wanted to make it clear to us younger artists gathered that night that what we’re doing, in making art, is really just a game. In knowing that, there was inherent futility, but as a game it was one that we could make up our own rules.

    Adam Fotos is a graduate student in FAA. His column appears on alternate Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected] few weeks ago, Mike Lash came to the University’s School of Art to give a talk. He showed some poorly cared for and yellowing slides with a warning as to how not to document work, and he made it clear that he preferred calling what makes – what most people call “art” – simply “stuff.”

    While finishing up his master’s of art at Northern Illinois University in 1985, Lash completely changed his way of making art. An 8-foot by 8-foot painting of his had won a prize in a student competition before he left school, but it was a painting unlike any of his art before then. He had entered it anonymously, and in doing so, he was denied the $500 award since he refused to reveal his identity. He never even picked up the painting so now it is in the Northern Illinois University collection with Lash’s name on it, after someone figured out it was his – he still never got the check.

    Once he completed his thesis, he abandoned it. After the “grad school corral,” he was done with what he was doing. He stopped making paintings. Through graduate school he had been playing a different game.

    “Now I’m playing my own game,” he said.

    Out of graduate school, Lash used any material he could find to make his “stuff.” He used pencils from bowling alleys and found paint to use. He drew on cardboard he found or old, thrown out paintings. He set up his own system of rules to create hundreds of drawings, which covered the walls of his first gallery show out of school called “800 insipid works.” The cheapest work was sixty cents and all 800 works sold except for the most expensive, a $200 piece that now is at home in a Wisconsin university collection.

    Later his work would be featured in a French textbook along with Raymond Pettibon and Sean Landers in a discussion on artists who use comic-like imagery in their work. Lash’s use of image and text places cartoon drawings of people, chickens, rabbits and interiors with often misspelled “punch lines.” There’s a sense of humor in his paintings and drawings that sidesteps depressing irony or complete wryness when he’s poking fun at death and failed relationships. When I asked him why he didn’t consider himself a cartoonist, he said he’d rather be thought of as a “bad renderer.”

    After the lecture he asked the audience to help with a collaboration project of his. In exchange for a copy of his latest book, “Pervert,” we had to let him take our headshots with his digital camera. He was going to draw each of us, and we could choose to have a PG-13 or X-rated text to go along with our picture. Not using anyone’s real names and his self-admitted bad drawing, he was going to catalogue our images as if we were all on a porn Web site as the featured stars. Most people signed the Faustian contract, since most college kids will do anything for a free book.

    The best part of the evening was definitely going out to the Blind Pig with Lash and others for drinks. The bar seemed to be more of a comfortable place for everyone to talk about art, not in the basement of the art school or in a gallery, but in the real world. Lash’s work is ultimately about the real world.

    His characters are loaded symbols carrying whatever baggage he wants to unload on them. A hanged rabbit is himself when his daughter was born, giving him a new life, a new identity. Another character, Ostrum, a man with a bird mask, is an avatar of the pathetic – based on the paleontologist who first proposed dinosaurs evolved into birds but who later recanted because his revolutionary thought was refused by his institution.

    He said more than once that night, “I’m doing one piece of artwork my whole life.”

    When he signed the book he had given me, he wrote, “This is my whole life. I mean it, man.” He wanted to make it clear to us younger artists gathered that night that what we’re doing, in making art, is really just a game. In knowing that, there was inherent futility, but as a game it was one that we could make up our own rules.

    Adam Fotos is a graduate student in FAA. His column appears on alternate Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected]