by David Charles – 10/16/2006
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Art that does not “Just Sit on its Ass”
Spend a few hours on Jim Pallas’ web site (www.jpallas.com) and you will see that an attempt to write a comprehensive article on this prolific, innovative, multi-talented and multi-faceted artist would be pretty futile. So this is going to have to serve as an introduction to the man and his work. And if it leads you to explore him and his art further, in cyber or real space, it will have done its job.
Jim Pallas is a funny guy. Talk to him or correspond with him a little and you will no doubt be exposed to his highly literate and intelligent wit. And there is satire and social commentary running through his art along with his sense of humor which has survived with him into his 60s. But his humor is quite gentle and his satire and social commentary are not harsh or biting which makes them all the more effective.
“Live life to the fullest,” is his raison d’être. Go to his web site and it just goes on and on in all directions with an incredible assortment of creations which really are testimony to this approach to life. He says, “I make art to enlarge myself.” Jim has made a lot of art. He must be awfully big by now!
Beginnings: the “Sidewalker” and “Zap”
series with a note on Art and Money
“A native Detroiter, I awoke to the possibilities while attending Wayne State University (M.F.A. 1965). After graduating I was blessed with a day job to which I gratefully clung for thirty-eight years, teaching the boomers and their kids at a local community college,” says Jim on his web site which has some hidden biographical notes if you can find them. In the web version, however, “teaching” is clickable and takes you to a description of one of his drawing classes where he walked in pretending to be a blind man and helped open the eyes of his amazed students.
“I made the commitment to art in 1960 when I was in college,” says Jim, “But it wasn’t until a few years after graduation that I became comfortable thinking of myself as an artist. It took a couple of years to get out from under the influence of my teachers, to clear the stink of ancient chalk boards and exam sweat out of my nose. By that time, the middle 1960’s, I was living in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, a gritty urban jumble of loose pieces, with property values low enough to attract artists. This environment inspired a series of works called “Sidewalkers,” wheeled, painted assembled forms based on people, vehicles and noises of the street. Eventually this led to making words of wood and metal and mounting them on wheels to give them mobility and absurdity. Ultimately, they ended in the “ZAP” series , a group of brightly painted, small wheeled onomotopoetic words, like “Zoom” and “Zap” surrounded by more such words, ‘click’ and ‘puff’.”
Jim does make money from his art. We’ll get to what he’s working on at the moment which is almost literally a cash cow (or cash frog or robot or cash something), in due course. But a central part of his thinking is contained in his statement:
“It is just a fluke of western culture that art can be bought and sold. The artist gains a kind of freedom when he realizes that there is no real relationship between money and art.”
His early work sold well. This is from his “ZAP” series:
The ones shown are selected from a dozen or so sculptures that are only two to three inches high. “At that size they exist more in the mind of the viewer than in real volumetric space and therefore can have whatever scale the viewer gives them,” Jim explains. “I like to imagine them about twelve feet high. Commercially, they were very successful. I sold them all, most to Allan Stone in New York. I considered continuing to mine those ideas. An artist whose work is selling comes under external pressure to evolve slowly if at all. Most collectors are comfortable buying work which looks like the work that preceded it and are happy to see subsequent work that looks a lot like what they bought. They feel the artist has validated the work by continuing to commit time and energy to similar work.
“Dealers establish a market into which the new work fits easily only if it is similar. Dealers and critics often advise artists to change slowly. Give the public time to adjust to the new. This is good advice for the artist who is looking to build a collecting base. However, I was never interested in that. If I were interested in making money, I would never have become an artist. I want to do what I want to do. I was drawn to the visual arts because, like life, it is an absurd activity, one that needs no validation outside of itself. Art and making money are two separate activities. An artist can safely combine them only with the realization that they have nothing to do with each other.”
“This ‘Zap’ series marked the end of old style art for me, art that Claus Oldenberg says ‘just sits on its ass,’” says Jim.
Motion, Interaction, Mechanical, Electric, Different, Brilliant
So, moving on…
“Generally, my artworks are interactive performing sculptures that depend on a combination of electronic logic and environmental stimuli to produce behaviors of movement, sound, light, or other phenomena. They often represent creatures or personages. I’ve been called a surrealist,” says Jim. That label on its own would give you a woefully inadequate impression of what Jim’s art is all about. You really need to see it all. Then you will have seen what he does. Skip the descriptions. Just look at the work. Honestly. You need to go to Jim’s web site and work your way through. You’ll lose a day of your life (or at least a few hours) but you’ll gain a new view.
“The web is a realization of the some of the potential that was present in the amalgam of those cross-country phone lines, the glowing blue phosphor tube and that kid in Ann Arbor matching skill with the ace in Berkeley,” says Jim. “In the 70’s, I discovered the joy of transistor transistor logic (TTL) devices and the graphic expression of printed circuit boards. My first choice for a programming language became solder.”
Art should be free
“I did a telephone project in 1974 where anyone could call an announcing machine and get a ‘phonevent’. I then solicited tapes from artists and changed them every two weeks. No charge. Nobody made any money. Nobody was supposed to make any money. We did it to ask the question ‘Can the telephone be art?’. 10,000 calls in a two week period was common. It was popular enough that, once, the volume of calls shut down three exchanges. The telephone company was not impressed.”
There were many, many projects, many series. All we can do really is sample a few.
From Jim’s web site: “LAW (1994) is about the relationship of the physical word to human behavior in the form of law. Commissioned for a law library and reminiscent of a shrine, it consists of a base surmounted by a chair, heart and sword under a canopy of keys and rubber stamps. The three feet square base is an assemblage of the accouterments of the legal profession, including not only books and phones but also jail bars, handcuffs and money. Viewers trigger an infra-red sensor which activates a computer buried among the objects comprising the base, and whose monitor appears to be rummaging through documents, images, legal services and the internet in pursuit of legal issues.”
This has become rather famous on the FAR web site, through the latest escapade: Hitchhikers in the Valley of Heart’s Delight project. No point repeating that here. If you are not familiar with it, you should check it out here: “Famous Hitch Hikers’ Safety Assured by Fine Art Registry™ Tags”
But the Silicon Valley founding fathers are just the latest in a long line of hitchhikers which go back to 1981. True, this is the first crop that had GPS tracking systems so their progress could be followed online. True also, this is the first bunch of hitchhikers who bore Fine Art Registry tags and were securely registered on the FAR web site before they were let loose to wander around the highways and byways (and these guys had the most adventurous trips of anybody). But the basic principle goes way back. In fact Jim pioneered the hitchhiking adventure personally before letting anyone else loose.
In the summer of 1981, the non-profit Detroit Focus Gallery requested entries for a mail art show. Jim Pallas was out of town in a meadow in the middle of Michigan, cutting shadows out of plywood, painting them and placing them in the fields and woods. Some were shapes of sun-cast shadows traced on plywood set on the ground.
Some were sitting or standing silhouettes of figures he traced of himself and his son, Jason. This cutout of the shadow of Jason was shotgunned when it was left out during hunting season (right).
One was a silhouette of Jim himself sitting Buddha-like (left). In the back of his mind was Focus’ mail art show. The sitting figure looked like it was waiting for something to come along. It looked like it could be waiting for a ride. Jim wondered if it could get a ride to the Focus Gallery. He put a sign around his neck, “DETROIT”, and a note on the back that said “Get me to a party at 743 Beaubien Street at 7:30 June 10th. You can come, too. Until then I don’t much care. Take me as far as you are going and set me by the side of the road. Please, don’t put me on the expressway.”
Three days later, a young man walked into the Focus Gallery with the figure under his arm, wanting to know from the director, Gere Baskin, what this was all about.
She told him. He returned for the opening of the Mail Art Show.
Well, that was all the encouragement Jim needed. The hitchhiker project was born. In the next few weeks he put most of his immediate family on the road. Later, poets, dancers, artists, a senator, a film maker, a journalist and others all took to the road. Adventure followed adventure. “The reason I do Hitch Hikers is for the adventures they create and the stories they generate,” he says.
The latest incarnation, YLEM’s entry to the IESA ZeroOne Festival in San Jose makes fascinating reading. And Jim is ready to launch more of them out there.
When Curator of Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), Andrew Snider, was planning the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo, he wanted some way visitors could donate money to help the effort to protect wild frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians. He had seen Jim’s Brochuri Putinherecus, a sculpture designed to encourage visitors to deposit brochures for recycling in the zoo’s Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, and knew about its success in encouraging visitors to deposit their brochures in the mouth of the sculpture. He wondered if the same idea might be applied to money.
“Enlisting the aid of engineer Nick Holland, we came up with this warty fellow.,” says Jim.
Made of fiber glass epoxy over a sturdy steel frame, he responds to coins or bills dropped in its mouth. Most of the thirty-six responses are short, but four are poems culled from Jill Carpenter’s beautiful collection, “Of Frogs and Toads”, a book of poems about amphibians that is really about much more. Most of the responses are performed by Carollette Goodman and Edmund Jones, players from Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit. All proceeds are given to the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
This was the first of a whole series of interactive sculptures designed to respond in various ways to the receipt of cash.
Then there was Vincent Van Gogh and we’re back, willy nilly, to the subject of money and art.
Detroit held a huge exhibition of Van Gogh’s work in 2000.
Museum director Graham W.J. Beal said, “The 315,350 tickets sold totaled $3 million and attracted visitors from 48 states and as far away as Russia and Japan. Some $800,000 was racked up in museum shop sales and $300,000 in food services; museum membership increased 20 percent for $750,000 in additional revenue.” Add that to the bucks spent at hotels, restaurants and amenities by tourists, suburbanites and others who ventured in to the city to see the show, and the Detroit News felt justified in proclaiming. “Van Gogh exhibit is $93 million work of art.” in Detroit in 2000.
The September 22, 2000, article goes on to remind us “Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime…” and speculation about his motive for suicide always considers his poverty and guilt resulting from being a financial drain on his younger brother, Theo, and Theo’s family.
Yet W. Frank Fountain, president of the DaimlerChrysler Fund, sponsor of the Van Gogh exhibition, said, “Van Gogh is powerful proof that art and economics are compatible.”
“I couldn’t ignore this,” recalls Jim. “It made me mad.”
His response was this. A giant head of Vincent van Gogh, modeled after his “Self-portrait with Straw Hat”, stands seven feet tall on its pedestal. Naturally, his right ear is missing, but his left ear has a large enough opening that money can be dropped into the head. This causes him to respond with Dutch accented observations about life and art. There are over one hundred and thirty responses.
“At last, when it comes to money, you too, like Mr. Fountain, can stick it in Van Gogh’s ear,” says Jim.
Griot Knowbot is essentially a donation box, a way for visitors to support the Detroit Science Center by means of small donations of money. An infra-red sensor at the bottom of Griot Knowbot’s torso detects the movement of people in front of it and activates both the yellow light display in its head and the fan that blows its hair out over its forehead. Patterns of lights in Griot Knowbot’s eyes make it appear to be looking around. The patterns are actually composed of fixed light emitting diodes in two 7 by 8 matrixes which are always active. Griot Knowbot accepts coins or bills in its mouth and electrically “feels” them as they enter or “sees” their shadow as they fall. Sometimes money slips by without Griot Knowbot noticing, but usually the Knowbot responds by playing one of over 150 sound files from its memory. Most of the responses are based on writings or utterances of scientists, philosophers and inventors, but some are from comedians, artists and others. A few are sampled music, sound effects or animals. Some are beyond description. With these sound responses, Griot Knowbot is perpetuating our oral tradition using a combination of art and technology.
These particular pieces bring with them their own economics. Jim gets a commission to do one. He verifies that the person or organization commissioning the piece is serious and is actually going to realize an income from these pieces. Once he agrees to do the project, there may be the option of paying for the sculpture with 75% of the proceeds until the piece is paid for. Once the piece has paid for itself, 100% of the proceeds goes to the purchaser. “It works very well. I’m sorry when they stop generating cash for me–I have to get on and do the next one,” he laughs. His current project, or one of them, is another robot, working title Poet Bot, for a complex of non-profit organizations called Omniplex. “It’s like an alien poet and his pet,” Jim explains. The 9’ tall alien robot flails around as the arms inflate and collapse.”
Fine Art Registry
It was when he was putting the finishing touches on the Pioneers in the Valley of Heart’s Delight that Jim stumbled across the Fine Art Registry, just in time to help him solve a problem that existed with all the hitchhikers from day one.
“Teri Frank’s Fine Art Registry is perfectly designed for the Hitchhiker project,” says Jim. “Its inexpensive pre-registration of artworks before they are stolen or go missing is unique. I believe most of my previous Hitchhikers went missing because people who picked them up realized they might be a work of art and, in the popular mind, a work of art could someday be worth a lot of money. Besides. they look cool in the basement bar. But the fact that they can be listed as ‘STOLEN’ on-line with an image and description makes them unsaleable. People thus have no incentive to keep them. The public has delivered three of the five Pioneer Hitchhikers to their destinations and I expect the remaining two will also arrive safely. As fineartregisry.com gains traction, I expect it to become routine for collectors to check their impending purchases.”
So the famous five Silicon Valley hitchhikers all bear FAR tags and statements on the back which explain that they are tagged and registered.
Now Jim is going to tag his next robot, the Poet Bot, even though it is not going to be set out on the road, so that in 100 or 200 years someone can look it up on the FAR web site and get all the relevant information.
Does he have a plan?
“I never had plans,” Jim laughs. “I didn’t need them. I go from day to day without feeling the need for planning.”
For sure Jim’s art will continue to spring up here and there, entertain, delight, enlighten, give pause for thought, maybe even stir things up a bit as the Hitchhiker project did quite unexpectedly.
His production to date has been really vast. We have only scratched the surface of the world of Jim Pallas: go and spend some hours at his web site: www.jpallas.com
— David Charles | October 16, 2006