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Making marks

The Light in The Room, detail, oil on linen.

My most recently finished still life makes me uneasy. If I look at it in a dim light, before going to bed, I’m gratified that I did almost exactly what I set out to do—capture a glowingly illuminated kitchen in the middle of a bright, summer day. But during the daylight hours, if the surface of this painting is well-lit, I want to crawl into a corner and close my eyes. 

I had this same feeling a year ago last month when I went to see my prominently displayed paintings—I could see them through the front windows of the museum while parking my car on the street—at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition in Wisconsin, jurored by Frank Bernarducci. Once I got up close, by virtue of the unsparing gallery lighting, the brushwork made my skin crawl. I felt exposed. The execution didn’t appear to have bothered anyone else, considering the placement of the two paintings. But ever since that opening, I’ve been concentrating on the thickness of the paint—endeavoring to get a Goldilocks feel, not too thick, not too thin—and the way I need to handle it, wet on wet. I’ve been conscious of the desire to user thicker paint for years, but this determination to paint wet into wet began when I returned from Wisconsin last year. (I make exceptions when this isn’t possible, when I see something in the already dried coat that makes my stomach tighten with disappointment, as it did yesterday with the taffy painting I’m doing now. But I make my amendments by putting down uniform areas of wet color and then going back to push detail into them immediately.)

I don’t want what I’m rendering to look hyper-realistic. The paint should look like paint, not the surface of a photograph. But it needs to flow gradually from one spot to the next. No rough edges where edges don’t form clear lines and borders in the source. So now, today, the formerly irksome part of the painting doesn’t make me want to hide when I look at it. It’s all about the nature of the brushwork, the energy and visibility of the mark (or just the way the paint flows from one tone into another) as catalyst for how the eye flows across the image and reads it. I don’t expect my brushwork to be what it is in Van Gogh, or Sargent, or Manet, or Hals, or Thiebaud, or Jenny Saville. But the brushwork now doesn’t get in the way of what pleasure I get from looking at what I’ve done. It isn’t at odds with the image. But when I see areas where the paint is applied skillfully in terms of value and hue, but it just looks awkwardly scumbled, dragged across already-dry paint, and the edges of each spot of color make it look scuffed and chaotic, then I want to slip the painting away into storage. I don’t, because it’s a decent enough painting. Yet his knowledge doesn’t help, which I take as a good thing. Excellence requires striving.

It’s all about whether or not the eye bumps into a spot of paint or glides over it, riding the energy of the paint itself, the life it imparts to the act of looking. I am probably right in reacting this way to the work I’ve done. But maybe not. When it comes to painting, it’s best not to be certain of anything except in those rare cases when I know the painting is really finished and as good as I can make it. (I’m certain about the prefection of most of Vermeer, and quite a bit of Piero, but that’s a pretty safe certainty and though I know I’m looking at a painting when they’re the ones making it, the marks they make aren’t all that visible.) The less refined execution might end up being what people value most in some of these paintings I want to avoid seeing—the way in which the surface is at odds with the image it induces you to see. In fact, I’m constantly trying to do smaller, more improvisational paintings that are all about the visibility of the paint and where the areas of paint look abstract and unrecognizable up close—in other words, simplified and much more painterly work. But this isn’t what I’m after in the sort of paintings I’ve been exhibiting over the past decade—with the exception of one small interior with figures, quickly executed with easy brushwork, I showed at a pop-up in London years ago. 

The humorous element here is that with either kind of brushwork, my current painting looks roughly the same from a few feet away—and the magic of Chardin resides in how, up close, it is just a chaotic mess, while a little farther away, it’s amazing. But it’s a good chaotic mess up close. His paint was thicker, more sensuously applied, more like Thiebaud than Vermeer, so that the paint itself was a pleasure to see. As opposed to what I’m dealing with. But I’m working on it. 

Window to the future

The Window, Matisse, oil on canvas, 57″ x 46″

One of the treasures from my visit to the Detroit Institute for Arts Museum, and displayed near two equally excellent paintings. Historically speaking, it’s only a short walk from this painting (hanging with two equally beautiful pieces by Matisse) to the work of Richard Diebenkorn.  Yet this was painted half a century before Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. What’s baffling is how so much lyrical feeling can be invested in such a restrained and limited range of colors.

H.K. Freeman’s husbandry of her medium

Moment #34, H.K. Freeman, oil on panel, 18″ diameter

I collect spoors, molds and fugus.

Egon Spengler

In the fungus among us, H.K. Freeman sees a world suffused with seemingly chaotic but purposeful mystery. That alone marks her as someone worthy of attention. Fascination with things almost everyone else ignores or shuns, for me, is a springboard for originality in visual art. She is yet another interesting artist I discovered in Manifest’s recent Painted exhibit. Freeman’s current obsession reminds me of Emmett Gowin’s full immersion in the South American rain forest, devoting himself to capturing moths, not with a net but with his photographic lens.  Yet moths are already beautiful. Anyone who has come across a cecropia moth, as I once did in our back yard many years ago when we lived in Utica, will not be able to look away, the wings are so Blakean in their eerie glamour. With fungus, not so much. Noting the mold on my basement cinder blocks after a rainy month, I reach for the bleach. 

But Freeman is a spiritual cosmologist. She sees wonder and mystery in what others recognize only as decay. She marvels at a devouring life form that is neither animal nor vegetable, but something that eats the world’s leftovers as an after-after-party clean-up crew. In all fairness, anyone who has enjoyed a portobello or truffle knows that fungus can taste pretty good, as well. Freeman shows us something more rarefied in her sometimes tiny spherical paintings of fungus that look like miniature worlds viewed through a microscope, or the surface of planets light years away. 

She’s at her best when she finds a symbiotic strength in her medium’s proclivities, offering a little guidance here and there—like a color field painter pouring and steering a flow of paint. It’s both a practical and a symbolic relationship with materials. Anyone who has worked in the natural world, say, growing a garden, recognizes the partnership. The garden does most of the work. Anyone who has tried to steer himself or herself through the world recognizes how free will represents a tiny marginal allowance you earn through prior discipline, simply for the chance  to choose against the daily inertia of one’s character. You are there to nudge things—including yourself—this way and that, toward the desired end. When she finds the effects she wants by letting the paint do what it does on its own, but intervening where needed, the work is enchanting.

What’s marvelous is that, in this fascination with one of the lowliest of life forms, she sees God. She doesn’t preach, just passes along her awe at how much order and beauty and shines forth from the world of decomposition. She’s working a field Richard Wilbur tilled in his great poem about the vulture, and how that carrion bird’s meals serve the same purpose as an ark, delivering life from death.

From Freeman’s website:

The intricate worlds of lichens, fungi, and mosses serve as a starting point for my paintings. These sublime organisms help ensure and maintain life on earth. I draw upon the history of landscape painting and abstraction, together with eco-theology, to communicate spiritual ideas in relation to creation. Using the finite to think about the infinite, the paintings evoke the mysterious, wondrous, interconnected process of existence.

I alternately manipulate the paint and playfully relinquish control to create these worlds. The imagery simultaneously fuses and dissolves, oscillating between certainty and uncertainty with the promise of resolving into something familiar. The luminosity of the colors and the use of abstraction convey the euphoric, transcendental sensation of my initial encounter with the subject matter. The abstraction and the colors stimulate not only the visual senses, but also act on the psyche to contemplate the painted microcosms. I hope the references to creation will invite viewers in, while the abstraction will challenge viewers to perceive in a way that goes beyond the surface of the painting, so they can explore their own thoughts and beliefs.

Ed Clark, 1926-Oct. 18, 2019

Ed Clark, Maple Red, Oil and mixed media on canvas, 73″ x 76″

I discovered this magnificent painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum on a visit late last month to Detroit. I recognized the artist when I saw it from a distance only because I’d recently discovered him after news of his death. I felt like Art Brut singing about their ignorance about The Replacements: “How have I only just found out about Ed Clark?”

Dana Saulnier

 

Untitled Study, 2014, oil on canvas, 42″ x 56″

I can say that my drive to make art is a desperate issue for me. If I was motivated narrowly by my desire to place myself in some kind of professional situation, where I was primarily concerned with the work’s status within a narrow set of theoretical discourses, then I am not sure that I could proceed with the faith and doubt necessary to the work. I want the work to make sense to people whether they are educated in art theory or not. Like good music I hope good art takes you in. It is hard work to make art and I want to think that it matters to people. That it enlarges our capacity for living.

                                                                                                                         —Dana Saulnier

In an interview a bit harder to penetrate than this lucid remark in the middle of it, Dana Saulnier offers a couple of tangentially related thoughts. I spotted his work in the recent exhibit at Manifest Gallery, so I delved deeper into the paintings already familiar to me from his show at First Street. In this brief observation, Saulnier resists the professionalization of art.  It sounds as if he’s saying that he refuses to find his place in whatever happens to be going on theoretically or, as I would put it, conceptually, in the art world. He doesn’t need to belong. I like this, because he’s asserting his individuality, but also because theory comes second here. Starting from conceptual premises works against painting’s ability to convey an awareness more oceanic than conscious thought–so it’s ass backwards to make a painting to illustrate an idea or a theory of art. To look for significance in visual art can obscure what it’s actually doing. An industry of critical thought depends on the need to extract significance from creative work. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Painted Word, to make work that depends on criticism for elucidation or justification upends the relationship between creativity and critique: the critic rules the creator. Postmodernism depends on this. Painting begins to obey the need to be significant in such a way that it will attract critical approval. What gets put aside is attention to what a painting can do, in contrast to what, say, a novel does. Work that arises out of a theory of art, or any conscious purpose, reduces a painting to the role of “signifier” which has, at least, the virtue of keeping critics busy. It sounds as if maybe Saulnier wants to sidestep all of that and allow his work a more elusive impact—though his own critical thought about his work throughout the rest of the interview would seem to argue otherwise.

In this short reflective comment, though, he also says he wants his work to be available and effective, in some way, for people who know little or nothing about art in general—again suggesting that a painting’s work is unmediated, requiring neither commentary nor training. Looking is required; thinking optional and not advised. (Tolstoy’s theories of art toward the end of his life took a similar stance, repudiating much of the Western canon that most educated people would have considered sacrosanct—and quite a bit I would hate to lose, personally. But his intent was to remain true to the wisdom he earned after narrowly avoiding the impulse to kill himself over his inability to understand life intellectually, all of which he dramatized in Anna Karenina.) Granted, some of the most thrilling and powerful visual art has significance in the sense that it conveys much that can be clarified by criticism and commentary and training. It represents ideas, it has significance, the way language does. Yet, for me, the greatest painting has no significance whatsoever, but is instead a perceptual catalyst, a representation only in the sense that an aroma represents a meal. A scent doesn’t signify anything but its provenance—it’s an element of its life-sustaining origin and it brings you toward that origin in the way a painting by Braque could be said to embody the world it invites the viewer to inhabit. How it does this is utterly mysterious, and that isn’t a reality that offers much mileage to critical conversations about it.

Opportunity in the overlooked

Laid Down, Erin Raedeke, oil on canvas

I first noticed Erin Raedeke’s paintings when she was a member at First Street Gallery in Chelsea some years ago and was immediately charmed by her handling of color. Her delicate, playful images of birthday party detritus, strewn across the field of view, gave her endless ways to improvise with tones that created deeply felt, personal color harmonies. The work was representational but also “all over,” without the negative space typical in a still life, the objects in the foreground against an empty background. The work was fine-tuned, with attention to unique details, but gracefully and effortlessly executed. If she worked from photographs, it didn’t show. My first thought was that Fairfield Porter would love the work. Nothing is overdone; the paintings appear to be first responses to whatever she sees without much going back over earlier marks. I saw her work again in 2015 at a group show curated by Matt Klos at Anne Arundel Community College. The painting in that show was simpler and harder to read, but still executed in the same steady, quiet and idiosyncratically personal insistence on representing humble objects in recognizable space in order to come up with results as close to abstraction as representation.

Her birthday party images give her an ample and varied palette of hues—almost any color can be made to fit into an image. Conical hats and flaccid balloons could be strewn across a surface to create patterns and shapes at will, though she was sedulous about keeping her subjects as random-looking, as “found” as possible. Departing from the party leftovers, she has used layered fabrics to create quasi-minimalist abstractions, some almost as radically simplified as Rothko or a Barnett Newman zip. The top layer of fabric would be torn or punched in places to reveal the color or pattern of what was underneath. Some of these paintings were as large as five feet tall, adding to their sense of kinship with abstracts from the mid-20th century. Yet even in this flat, minimal work, Raedeke has been just as diligent in capturing factual detail—the frayed tendrils of thread bristling from a torn edge running across a canvas as demarcation between large areas of nearly uniform color. She has an insistence on rendering lines as thin as spiderweb. Such minute detail in a sea of color seems like a pyrrhic effort to pull back from the larger strategy of enveloping the viewer—but it works. Oh, OK, we’re looking at cloth. There is something compulsive in this, in the way that much of what’s best in a particular artist’s style represents a surrender to inarticulate instincts about what needs to happen simply to make a picture come alive. Yet that adherence to minor detail makes even these larger, more amorphous paintings approachable, humble, amiable—when you recognize what’s been represented they snap back into insignificance, studies of what nearly anyone else wouldn’t even have bothered to notice. The fabric even looks a little stained. 

Her recent work is included in Manifest’s Painted, and it seems like a culmination, in a way, of what she’s been doing over the past decade, from the versatile color of her birthday party messes to the almost ascetic renunciations of the fabric paintings where she seems to want to improvise as simply as possible with color and form and space and yet still show you something you might actually see on the surface of a bed or countertop. She’s sticking with fabric, but there’s more depth—and the patterns of this fabric give her room to vary color and line and shape It hangs like a curtain, and its decorative print gives the painter a way of bringing back the musical tones. In this case, it’s just a pair of muslin sheets, it seems, decorated with floral patterns, a scattering of blue pansies on the cool side of the painting. The fabric hangs in supple folds, against a deep red background that shows as a slash of color at the bottom, beneath the hems. It’s as humble and unspectacular as possible, but the patterns are rendered with care, almost gratitude for the opportunities they offer.

The particular integrity she brings to her work shines through in this insistence on painting nothing but what she sees—even if it’s merely the torn edge of monotone, porous cloth—in order to create a nearly flat field of color. If you allow for varying degrees of flatness, this is a pursuit common to countless painters, but she brings a lyrical, almost wistful quality to her images, as if she’s nostalgic for the moment, a few seconds ago, that she last glanced at her subject. And in the work I enjoy the most from her, the impression of flatness gives way to depth—albeit the shallow relief of curtains or layers of wrapping paper under a half-eaten hamburger. They’re fragments of a larger experience, not signifying anything but rather saturated with her sense of how life feels.

Mighty mite

Towards Dam, Michael McCaffrey, oil on panel, 8″ x 8″

This little work is lit with an intensity that Van Gogh went south hoping to find, painted with an economy of means Edwin Dickinson pulled off in his premier coup canvases. It’s tiny, eight inches square. At that size, Michael McCaffrey invests a humble power and life into his kinetic, tactile marks. It makes De Kooning’s slashes of paint seem hyperbolic and theatrical by comparison. McCaffrey’s targets are way harder to hit, being so finely calibrated, which concentrates the power of his marks, his accuracy of representation making the brute physicality of his brushwork so energizing. The stucco promontory in the front looks as dazzling as coral, and yet also gently evocative of early growth in the spring. It works observationally, gives a convincing glimpse of a grassy patch, yet that sandpapery swath of color easily could be a detail from Braque.

One of the many mysteries of painting is how such rough execution, such raggedy shreds of paint, applied as if the project were masonry rather than a picture, conveys the raw light and air, no less, the clean scent of that tumbling breeze, almost by accident–the way rhyme somehow coincides with the exact articulation of something new in a sonnet. The sky and clouds are a sort of hyper-blue that feels like one of those noons in March, warm with spring sun but still chilly with late-winter wind. The wiped-away blur of olive and ochre and murky blue-green across the middle works as a distant landscape with a tree for this miniature world to pivot around. It looks as if he’d painted with blunt, bristly instruments, and maybe a cotton rag, that little random scribble under the cloud carved into the wet paint with the dull point of a brush handle, like a jerky signature.  Michael McCaffrey’s work can be seen in Painted at Manifest Gallery, and spotting his name in that show, I went hunting, and I found this wonder from the past along with a few equally impressive little landscapes, executed with the same kind of heedless joy.

Painted

Shot of Painted exhibition at Manifest

Taffy #2, on the right, next to work by Perin Mahler, far left, and Dana Saulnier

Taffy #2 will be in Cincinnati at Manifest Gallery until later this month, in Painted, the organization’s 4th biennial survey of contemporary painting. It was up against some stiff competition from the U.S. as well as from a number of foreign countries. As the indefatigable Manifest crew says on their site: 

For this exhibit 167 artists from 35 states, Canada, Greece, Singapore, and Turkey submitted 682 works. Thirty-three works by the following 26 artists from 17 states were selected by a blind jury process for presentation in the gallery and the Manifest Exhibition Annual publication.

Jason Franz, the gallery’s director, sent participants an email with nearly exhaustive photography of the beautiful installation. The glimpse it offered of the other work inspired me to search out a better look at the paintings on view—from the artists’ websites. I’ll be posting some brief appreciations with images of paintings from the show over the next couple weeks. Some of the most arresting work was from: Kim Anderson, Hannah K. Freeman (can’t wait to see where this young artist goes with the devotion she brings to her work), Donald Keefe, Anne Lindberg, Martina Nehrling, Robert Samartino, Carol Stewart, Dganit Zauberman and two painters associated, in the past and now, with First Street Gallery in Chelsea: Dana Saulnier and Erin Raedeke, one of the most delicate and lyrical of contemporary perceptual painters, whose work I’ve written about before. 

I’m hoping to get back to a regular schedule of posts, after four months of nearly total immersion in caring for my parents. It was a sea change of a summer for me, and I hope I can channel my response to that ordeal into a renewed dedication to daily painting. Even so, for several members of my family, a relocation to the Northwest where I grew up may be on the horizon over the next year. It will pull me away from the ability to work for another (much shorter) hiatus at some point. It’s a frustrating period for me, because I’ve reached a point where I know I can apply, in an organized and reliable way, what I’ve learned to do over a period of decades. 

All in due time, you might say, but patience is easier to observe than to put into practice. It is the hardest virtue to learn in painting. But during these unjustly lazy-feeling periods of hiatus from the studio, I will feel like a sinner even if I develop all the patience in the world, because I always have Kafka’s aphorism in the back of my mind: “There are two main human sins, from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence.” No matter how hard I work at other crucially vital things, time not spent painting feels like time lost, though I know this feeling was my enemy and not my friend this past summer. I’m happy I didn’t heed it. 

The view from my room

E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View delivers its wisdom with affection. There are no villains in this novel, only people who, unintentionally, without malice, lead others astray. This is a universal human predicament for Forster, primarily because individuals can so easily lead themselves astray, and he finds it both amusing and problematic. People may be hopelessly lost most of the time, but he doesn’t dislike anyone for that. It is a very amusing novel, though it’s also one that can bring the occasional tear of humble gratitude to your eyes for the warmth Forster shows to all his characters. As with Jane Austen’s vision, his is the story of someone at risk of never recognizing that everything she wants is right in front of her. This isn’t just a familiar high concept for a romantic comedy, it’s also Forster’s general view, in the novel, of human awareness. It’s a book about the folly of conformity in the social world and, on an epistemological level, the ignorance embodied in knowingness. The challenge for his characters is how the mind becomes a prisoner of what it takes for granted. His story shows how one heart wins out against the long siege of the mind. In all of this is a hint at the role visual art can play in human life. In a world where a well-timed view can offer escape from the mind’s confinements, visual art is situated to open some doors.

In the foreground of the story are groups of people who are hyper-aware of one another, self-consciously doing what they are supposed to do, seeing what they are supposed to see, Baedeker in hand, a herd of travelers obedient to their own confirmation bias. They judge themselves and one another by conventions that channel their lives into safe, predictable paths. Abroad and at home, they are like bees gathering pollen without ever seeing the garden.

As a backdrop to this comedy, the novel offers glimpses of a categorically different, all-encompassing way to see the world. The sky, the sea, the hills, untouched by the seasons, preside like Greek gods–but ones who have ceased to meddle, for better or worse, in the plight of the book’s characters except to show them a radiance that hints at freedoms they seem to dread. Those elements serve as backdrop and origin of everything human, all of the events most threateningly vital and beautiful: a sea of violets, a face at a window, a kiss in an open field, a passionate murder in a piazza that erupts in front of Lucy Honeychurch and then fades like a thunderstorm until it almost seems to have never happened, at least to her. She shakes it off and shuts it out.

The book can be read as a comedy, but it’s a novel with sobering convictions about the estrangement of psyche from eros (in the largest sense of eros as an appetite for Life beyond the grasp of understanding). The struggle to harmonize mind and heart rises to the status of a spiritual ordeal: their estrangement is a sort of original sin in Forster’s world. George Emerson scrawls a question mark on a sheet of paper that he leaves behind in the room that Lucy and Charlotte eventually occupy after they arrive in Florence. He’s obsessed with what Heidegger would call “the question of being.” He can’t make sense of the universe. It’s an impenetrable puzzle to him, as his father suggests to Lucy in a quiet moment. He tells her that she could befriend him, free him from his question mark and help him say yes to life.

It doesn’t appear to be a tough assignment. A glimpse of her beauty is enough. As Lucy wanders off looking for the Rev. Beebe, she steps onto a natural terrace covered with violets that have spread out and down the hillside, overflowing and flooding the hill with color. Forster situates Lucy at the source of beauty itself: “This terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.” Whether or not beauty will save the world, as Dostoevsky wrote, it’s all that’s needed to get George reoriented. Lucy realizes she has stumbled onto this disturbing, unconventional young man, raptly observing the view of the trees, hills, sky, and when he sees Lucy riding her sea of violets, like Botticelli’s Venus, he strides forward and silently kisses her. The death in the piazza she was able to shake off within minutes. The kiss, though, infects her with an anguish of divided emotions she wrestles with for the rest of the story. Unconsciously, she can tell where this all leads, and it terrifies her. She shuts the window on it, the way she did with the murder in the piazza, and acts as if nothing has changed in her–that a man has simply insulted her virtue. But the rest of her story shows her fleeing what she feels, hiding from the fact that she loves someone odd and unconventional and at times offensive to the people around her.

Lucy “was sure that she ought not to be with these men; but they had cast a spell over her. They were so serious and so strange that she could not remember how to behave.”

Finally, because of the elder Emerson’s insistent compassion for her and her son, she finally awakes from the self-deceit of her engagement to the most educated and knowledgable man in the book–the one least aware of the beauty in Lucy’s character.

There has always been much talk about the novels of ideas. Saul Bellow was once heralded as a thinker. Yet as brilliant as Humboldt’s Gift is, Bellow applies a welter of ideas to the story the way a gardener applies compost. (In the book, Humboldt calls himself a “shoveleer.”) Bellow’s musings, transferred into the mouths of his characters, help expand and grow them in the mind of the reader, because they indicate so much of Charlie Citrine’s and Humboldt’s inner lives, but the action of the book has little to do with the ideas his narrator wedges into the events. The story simply gives the author an opportunity to digress into the historical and philosophical and metaphysical speculations that preoccupy him. Forster’s characters, in their conversation and behavior, their emotions and thoughts, embody and enact Forster’s central insight about the limits of human self-awareness. They don’t tell you about it–they aren’t aware of it themselves–instead, they show you. At one point his narrator simply steps in and states directly what is obviously happening, simply to underscore the central idea of the book, that people have to struggle all their lives to take one honest step: to recognize who they are and what they should do.

The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy’s first aim was to defeat herself. As her brain clouded over, as the memory of the views grew dim and the words of the book died away, she returned to her old shibboleth of nerves. She “conquered her breakdown.” Tampering with the truth, she forgot that the truth had ever been. Remembering that she was engaged to Cecil, she compelled herself to confused remembrances of George; he was nothing to her; he never had been anything; he had behaved abominably; she had never encouraged him. The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul. In a few moments Lucy was equipped for battle.

The battle is with herself. Lucy’s peril is everyone’s. She’s like Huck Finn feeling guilty for freeing a slave and yet ultimately unable to stop himself–precisely because he’s a good person, though he believes himself a criminal. Lucy’s “views grew dim” as she locks herself into the room of what she thinks she should do. George and his father are exceedingly odd ducks, awkward men she knows are unacceptable in her circle–they are embarrassing–and yet everything they say and do opens her soul to the beauty of her life.

Forster’s religion is individual, idiosyncratic, the religion closer to William Blake, the early Wordsworth, and the American Renaissance, one without an institution to contain or channel it. He keeps organized religion at arms length and gently mocks it in the figure of Rev. Eager who is giving a pedantic–but well-informed–tour of the Giotto paintings at Santa Croce early in the book. But one of the wisest and kindest people in the novel is Rev. Beebe, almost an avatar for the book’s narrative intelligence that nudges people in the proper direction, hoping for the best, expecting much less, while forgiving them for whatever ends up happening. What’s required in Forster’s world isn’t knowledge, but rather a new sort of self-knowledge that’s rooted in an expansive sense of the world’s beauty and joy and a conviction of human fallibility.

The book is essentially about the real meaning of the word “repentance” in the New Testament: the need for an upheaval and transformation and radical reorientation of human awareness through humility. The story embodies this transformation without ever talking about it: it’s the armature of the story. Metanoia, as the Greeks referred to it, means to do an about-face, to gain a completely different view of life–but when that upheaval comes for Lucy, sorrow is all she feels, until the joy of realization floods in. The transformation Foster is trying to dramatize is about awakening from the sleep of safety and predictable routine and propriety to a riskier engagement with what is unpredictable, what’s “indelicate but beautiful” as the book expresses it early on. It’s about doing the inappropriate but beautiful thing, again and again, as the only path to a true life. As the elder Mr. Emerson–the most compassionate and socially awkward soul in the book–says, urging Lucy to realize she loves his son: “Life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.” This is Emerson’s greatest gift to Lucy, shocking her into a view of her own heart. His words devastate her, at first, but his tenacious compassion, the depth of how much he cares for her and his son, enables her to see herself for the first time.

Up from the labyrinth of common sense and conscious reasoning, somehow or other, she gets a glimpse, a view, of the whole of life–and this view, this life preserver, is a gift not an achievement. Lucy and Charlotte are given their view of Florence and the Arno at the start of the book–and Lucy keeps being given an enlarging view of the world throughout the story. They don’t earn it; mostly they don’t even want it. The book is all about the tension between the safe confines of the room of daily life–habit, convention, caution, and prudence–at odds with the rescue of a beckoning view. It’s all about the struggle to finally see the truth by letting go of what you think you know. The opposite of ignorance, for Foster, isn’t knowledge. Those who know the most are the least likely to see the view.

Modernism, in painting, began with a rejection of knowing in favor of seeing the world with fresh eyes–and nothing more. It was an attempt to replace ideas with life. Cezanne had highly influential ideas about how to paint, but not about what a painting was supposed to mean. Impressionism offered a way to see the world directly, without reference to myths, without trying to turn a painting into a metaphor. Modernism and post-modernism moved on from this radical, original shift that put seeing as the whole point of the enterprise. Since then, thinking has returned to painting with a vengeance. Yet modernism began as a way of putting into practice Blake’s assertion that you can escape mind-forged manacles through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment.” This sounds fraught with problems. But Blake was pushing back against the intellectualism and skepticism of the Enlightenment, its disembodied lucidity. Painting, for Blake himself, was one way to enact this insight–open your eyes in order to open your mind, which was a credo implicit in Impressionism.

Pure painting requires the painter and the viewer to simply pay attention; thinking about what’s been shown or seen is an option, not a necessity, and usually an impediment. It blocks the view. The particulars of what’s seen matter in a technical way, enabling the painting to work, but it’s the integral nature of the view that’s mysterious and inaccessible to intellect; this wholeness is the whole point, as it were, regardless of all the specifics of an individual work. In Forster’s novel, music serves this function. Lucy plays a bit of Beethoven on the piano, immerses herself in Beethoven’s world, and then ventures out into the world of Italy more open to its possibilities, receptive to what’s there. (In one of Forster’s other great novels, Howard’s End, the Schlegel sisters debate whether painting and music do essentially the same thing.)

In Rev. Eager’s little textbook commentary on the Giotto paintings at Santa Croce, Forster gives one of his most foolish characters a chance to express the book’s deepest wisdom about art and life. The paintings don’t shine because of technical qualities. They make visible something otherwise inexpressible: “Observe how Giotto in these frescoes—now, unhappily, ruined by restoration—is untroubled by the snares of anatomy and perspective. Could anything be more majestic, more pathetic, beautiful, true? How little, we feel, avails knowledge and technical cleverness against a man who truly feels!””

Why I’m not painting

Part of the extended family in my father’s hospital room a week ago.

And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”

Denis Johnson

When I got to the hospital to tune my father’s institutional television into the last round of the British Open on NBC a week ago, we had an unusually lucid and direct conversation about whether he should just go home and let things run their course, rather than be transported to a nursing home tomorrow, potentially for weeks of rehabilitation and healing. It was both honest, but also hyperbolic—a way of simply telling me that he felt completely defeated and cared only about going home.  

“So we’re going to rehab after this to keep me alive?” he asked.

“Yes, to get you better.”

“Then why can’t I just go home and die?”

“I understand the question, Dad.”

“I’ve had a good life.”

“We want you around. We want to get you healed up and back to the way you were before you got to the hospital,” I said. “Get better for us. Do it for us. We miss you.”

At that, he started to cry, and I went over and put my arm around his head, the only way I can give him a hug anymore, since he’s usually seated—this time he was still in the surgical bed adjusted into an armchair position. I told him no one can force him to go to the nursing home, and it’s entirely his choice to have us bring him home or go into rehab where he was accepted for it. He seemed to find this reassuring, but I’m not sure he believed that we would listen to him. He had the power to choose his future, but he was willing to choose rehab. (Which he did and where he is now getting better very slowly but with more emotional balance.) Emotionally, at 92, suffering from significant cognitive impairment, unable to walk as a result of stenosis and vulnerable to pressure sores, he has often felt left out, disregarded in conversations, hovering at the periphery of whatever is happening around him. This has been the case for the past couple years. It’s intensely frustrating, an invitation to despair, for a former CEO, a man who ran a total of four different newspapers at various points in his career, who was honored with an award from President Reagan in the Rose Garden for his work in the volunteer sector as head of the Gannett Foundation, when that organization was still operating as a force for change in the communities served by Gannett newspapers. He was a pen pal briefly with Barbara Bush, and was conversationally acquainted with three presidents in his various roles at Gannett, Independent Sector, and the American Council for the Arts: Reagan, Jimmy Carter and even Nixon, many years ago, after he joined Gannett. All of that feels like a dream now, the life of a different person. Now, like a little boy with mournful eyes, he waits patiently as two women he met only in the past week come into his hospital room to lift him up and change his clothes, get him into a reclining chair, adjusting his catheter, clean his wound with a bleach solution. The pressure sore after debriding was the size of a shallow cupholder, looking as if it had been created by pressing a round cookie cutter into his bottom. It will take months to close up and will require debriding by a specialist. He feels nearly helpless and totally at the mercy of everyone and everything, and this would be some fresh hell for anyone, let alone someone who controlled organizations for a living. Now his life is subject to the prerogative of diligent people he hardly knows. His decline began when he turned 80 and began to feel the first indications of stenosis—funny bone-like reverberations in his legs as a result of pressure on the sciatic nerves branching from his spine. For years, he slowly lost strength and sensation in his legs, with operations that arrested the progress of the neuropathy and opened up circulation to his feet in order to save them from amputation. It has been a war against the disintegration of his body and brain, and despite everything the father we know and love is still in there, dwelling behind his eyes, joking, flirting with our mother, when he is at his best and most rested. Without warning, his wit can reach out to use through those shining eyes with a few words.

As the young technician got him into the device that would transfer him to the reclining chair she said, “We just need to change you.” Meaning his clothing. He glanced at me and said, “Change me into what?”

He was indulging in whimsy, but also wishful thinking, something along the lines of metamorphosis into superhero or maybe just a man forty years younger. But she missed the tone and went on innocently and kindly to explain in routine terms what she was doing. I said, “He’s joking.” I’m not sure she got it. This is the great pity of Dad’s time on earth now, as Denis Johnson put it: sometimes we can’t convince him of what’s real, and he can’t tell us what he’s trying to say.

Like other good quips, his joke was full of truth. He’s been changing, very slowly, into something rare and strange to all of us: a withered man in his 90s, sometimes gazing into space with lifeless, exhausted eyes many afternoons, who used to insist only two weeks ago on a glass of wine at dinner and was able to get himself out of bed, onto a power chair, into the bathroom, shave, take a sponge bath and then ride out into the kitchen to wait for my mother to get up and come downstairs for breakfast. Now he has lucid mornings and afternoons where he struggles through a swamp of somnolent confusion. But we are there, and the staff of the hospital is there, to make sure he is healing and regaining his strength. His biggest challenge is emotional: simply maintaining the will to live and fight through his cognitive and physical limitations in order to be a presence in the lives of his wife, children, grand-children and, on rare occasions, his great grand-children. Every day he has to remind himself that the struggle is worth enduring. 

I’m doing exactly what I should be doing as a human being, and yet still feeling slightly guilty for not being able to paint. I have had almost no time to do it in a sustained way across a long sequence of days and, least of all, across the succession of days, weeks, and months, the sort of habitual discipline required to produce the solo show I would like to assemble in two or three years. In the past six weeks I haven’t painted at all.

For the past year and a half, my days have been a kind of schooling in how sometimes the painting life means not being able to paint. That is, if you’re a human being with a heart. (And without that, what kind of painter would you be?) It’s a bit of a paradox: the greatest truths usually are full of contradictions when translated into behavior. I don’t mean losing the will or the skill. I mean the times when being fully human makes painting impossible. This is both deeply frustrating. At the same time, I feel at peace and at rest, almost, in this act of surrendering to what I can’t help but do. Helping my parents is what decades of prayer and meditation have trained me to accept cheerfully, almost avidly: the ability to not give a second thought to what’s morally and spiritually right. I still have reservations about totally giving myself up to the demands of being care-giver, but fewer and fewer of them now—though this role is unlikely to become all-consuming. I can see quite clearly what matters most here. And soon quite a bit of my time for work will return, given the trajectory we’re on with him.

My typical day has been a teeming welter of chores, assists, watchfulness, planning and problem-solving—not to speak of onerous clean-ups. Six weeks ago, my mother fell trying to get my father’s wheelchair out of the car in their garage. She broke her hip and crawled into the house to alert him. He called me and my brother and we began six weeks of daily assistance for them both, driving to the hospital and then to their condo to make breakfast and dinner for them—my wife made most of the dinners on our nights for cooking—until she quickly became able to make their breakfast, giving us the chance to call on them only once a day. But about that time Dad was becoming so weak that he fell while trying to get off the couch, and he was taken to the hospital where they found the pressure sore he had developed rapidly as a result of sitting for hours on his scooter—Mom had taken his seat on the couch we had covered with egg crate foam to prevent pressure sores. In all our attention to Mom, we took our eye off him and didn’t count the hours he was spending on the hard cushion of the power chair. Now he had become the crisis.

Earlier last week, I went over and got Mom a little later than usual, and we arrived at the hospital slightly after 8 a.m., thinking it would still be an early arrival, but the parking garage was full on the most convenient levels so I dropped her off and and parked where I could on the roof. She was waiting patiently with her cane, near the elevator, and we went inside. After a couple visits, she started looking forward to the wheelchair in the entry. On our first day after Dad was admitted, she scoffed at it. But she had done so much walking with the cane that she longed for the relief of the chair, remembering how her friend Lynn used her own recovery period after hip replacement to get her husband to wheel her around the airports and move to the heads of the line. Now, finally, Mom understood the simple pleasure of being cared for this way, after a life of putting her family first and caring for all of us before she cared for herself. We got up to Dad’s room and he was awake, but hungry. Again, they had prohibited solids and fluids in preparation for a biopsy in radiology. They were going to peer into his back with their x-ray eyes, as it were, in real time as they inserted a needle into his spine to take a sample of potential bacteria in tissue they thought was an abscess between a pair of thoracic vertebrae. They had been leaving him off antibiotics for days, hoping to let a lurking infection regain a foothold in order to get a reliable biopsy. At it turned out, Dad had to wait most of the morning to be wheeled down into radiology.

I had talked to Mom on the drive to the hospital about whether or not we could set up all of what he needed, the wound care and the therapy, at home. So, waiting for the arrival of his nurse and/or physician, I began to investigate how to get the equipment. I decided to check with Eastside Medical Supply on the availability of hospital beds and inflatable mattresses. The hospital was using a programmable mattress that would shift the air pressure underneath him regularly, rotating it around various quadrants or simply toggling it from side to side, in order to keep the pressure moving to different parts of his body and reduce the risk of future sores. So after I got Mom some coffee, I drove back into Brighton and stopped at Eastside. While one of the two reps worked at their computers, without greeting me, I started up a conversation by simply saying, “I’m looking for a hospital bed and an inflatable mattress.”

The woman at the computer shifted her attention partly to me, asking if I wanted to rent or buy. It went on from there, and I found the most expensive bed, for over $3,000 and a mattress for $1,500, as a tentative plan. It told her what we were hoping to do, how my mother was able to still be a caregiver at 94, and that we hoped to get my father home either for care after his stay at Highland or after a longer period of time after rehab.

“She’s 94?” she asked, “That’s amazing. That’s very rare.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. I looked at her name tag. “Marisa. Marisa I’ll remember. Like Marisa Tomei.”

“Yeah, just like her. The only difference is that she’s richer.”

I laughed. “And older! Talk to you soon.”

I then drove back to Allens Creek Valley and bought three cartons of fresh Southern peaches at Gentle’s Farm Market, one of them for my parents, and went back to the hospital. They had come to get my father just after I left, and he was still in radiology. I reviewed with my mother all the information I’d gotten and Dad arrived on a gurney. As he told us a bit later, the procedure had been agonizing, exhausting. He was a little groggy from the fentanyl they’d used to calm him down, but he told us how painful it had been, maybe as a result of the needle but also being stretched out on his stomach which caused lower back pain. In his fragile emotional state, everything has been overwhelming or angering or frustrating or, in reverse, incredibly compassionate and touching. He’s full of either love or despair, from moment to moment. Whenever anyone asked him how he was doing from that point on yesterday his response was usually, “Not good.” He cried a bit, intermittently, over his entire situation but seemed to be adapting to the reality and the necessity of being away from his family and undergoing treatment for his infection. Soon after he arrived we got a visit from his physician who said the biopsy had been successful. He spent time offering sympathetic words to Dad as well as explaining what would happen next: a sample that would tell them roughly what they were dealing with in a general way the next morning and then, a day later, the exact bacteria they needed to target with the antibiotics. (As it turned out, there was no infection anywhere in his body. The spot they thought was an abscess was just a penumbra, in surrounding tissue, of healing processes in the bone from a pressure fracture in the recent past. Their needle biopsy of the bone itself proved this.) I thought to myself, did they just do a spinal tap?

During the previous day continuing into this one, my brother had been searching for all the paperwork on my parent’s entire financial portfolio, the amounts of money invested anywhere, the name on the account, the nature of the life insurance policies, the person insured, and so on. The hospital needed all this in order to present my father’s case to the ten nursing homes we had selected as possible next stops on the journey back home. We had had a serendipitous visit from two representatives from Home Instead on Monday morning and, though they had expected Dad would be discharged and they would need to provide help immediately at my parents’ condo, we said, essentially, “Not yet. But eventually.” In the meantime, might they suggest the best nursing homes? They did, wonderfully, having had experience, first hand, in nearly all of them. My brother wasn’t finished with the financial paperwork, though he had spent a couple hours tracking down most of it the night before after he brought my mother home. There was something disquieting about how invasive this was: all of their most personal information about what they had worked their whole lives to save would now be in the hands of organizations that wanted access to that money.

Phil had arrived and had bought some sandwiches in the coffee shop downstairs. My mother shared hers with me, while we worked on soothing and calming my father, and serving him some of the hospital lunch that had arrived. I took pictures of the mattress and bed in his room, and did a Web search finding exactly the same programmable inflating mattress and a comparable bed for home use at a cost of just under $20,000. This professional “surgical” bed wasn’t needed. We could set up something just as effective for much less money. I visualized the next two days as everyone waited for the bacterial culture to grow, and realized I should either compile all the jazz my father once enjoyed on iTunes and sign him up for Spotify to recreate his old playlists. Or else just get him his laptop so that he could stream old shows and wander around the Internet rather than gaze listlessly at cable on the hospital TV or look out the window. He’d never once said he missed the computer. I’m not sure it even occurred to him, in the flux of events, that he could have had it at his side in the hospital, but he would want it eventually either here or in the rehabilitation facility.

For six weeks, my mother has been relying on a helper to clean the house, do laundry, and make a few meals. This companion had been crucial as Mom regained her ability to walk after the partial hip replacement. We’d had a stair lift installed so she could get up to her bedroom and down again. At 94, it was the first time she’d needed any assistance getting up and down stairs.

“I got a cramp in my leg last night. I’d told her to clean up the refrigerator. I said ‘My daughter-in-law told me to have you clean up the shelves in the refrigerator.’ She said, ‘I was thinking that needed to be done.’ So she cleaned the shelves but also rearranged things. I got the cramp and made it all the way back downstairs and . . . “

“No pickle juice,” I said.

“That’s right. You knew what I was going to say.”

We both laughed. Her home remedy for leg cramps has always been to drink pickle juice for whatever it contains, electrolytes, salt. Whatever is in it, it works. But no pickle juice to be found. It was hiding at the back of the shelf, as it turned out.

“So I drank some olive juice,” she said. “When my doctor asked me yesterday how are things at home I should have said, No pickle juice!”

“This is how you know you are a bona fide very old person Mom. You hate change. That’s what Dad said when I bought the better TV for you guys. Why do things have to change?”

As Mom dozed off, remarkably, Dad was wide awake, alert. This was a rare moment. I glanced at Dad and he smiled and I pointed toward her and he said, “I know.”

“You seem back to normal now Dad. In the morning you’re fine. You seem better than you have all week. In the afternoons you’re a maniac but in the morning . . .”

“I’m sane,” he said, with another smile.

“Yes, precisely. Or saner.”

He grinned, and Mom revived.

“You’re awfully patient honey,” Dad said.

“What about me?” I asked.

“You are too.”

“But not as patient as your mother,” she said, sardonically, wagging her finger at me.

“You guys can come by again for dinner at our place tonight,” I said to my mother and brother. “I could bring a little back for Dad if he wants it tonight. I’m going to go home and see if we have everything we need for a meal.”

I drove home to get the leftovers and told my wife that they would be having dinner with us. She said she had only one ear of corn but wasn’t going to drive back to Wegmans for nothing but corn, so I took both the ribs and a fresh bag of salad and moved our little supper to my parents’ condo. Meanwhile, my mother and brother had arrived there to finish the paperwork. I filled the bird feeder and attached monofilaments to the hanger as a way of repelling house sparrows—a trick I learned from a Google search. I watered the flowers. I weeded. I shampooed the carpet in the bedroom where the power chair has left what looked like footprints of feces in the pile—his accident had been the result of my father’s not being able to move fast enough after a dose of laxative the previous day. It had been quite a scene when my brother took them to the hospital, thanking me for staying behind to clean up the spectacle of shit in various rooms: covering the seat of his scooter with De Kooning smears, swiped onto fenders and wedged into the tires, pressed into creases in the seat, trailed across the hardwood kitchen floor, painted onto the threshold of the bathroom and tracked across the tiles, and worst of all, spotting the bedroom carpet like a footpath. I had managed to clean up nearly all of it in half an hour but finally realized—by scent—I’d missed what was pressed into the treads of the front tire, like Play Doh, so I drove the little battered vehicle out onto the desk and hosed it down as best I could. Now I tried to get what remained out of the carpet with some success.

After that, I fixed the couch with a sheet of underlayment beneath the cushions to make it easier for anyone to stand up from a seated position—fabricated wood to use under hardwood flooring that I usually cut up for the sides of crates to ship paintings to shows. If I had only done this when she’d come home six weeks earlier from her hip surgery, then my father wouldn’t have lingered half the day on his scooter and developed the pressure sore that will necessitate two or three months of healing—or more—and rehabilitation. It was a domino effect, as I put it to the attending physician. My mother was back home after hip surgery in four days moving around on her feet with a walker and then a cane. It was my father who succumbed to my mother’s injury.

I found Dad’s computer and tested it to find it more functional and quicker than I expected. Chrome was laden with parasitic extensions redirecting searches and eliminating Google as a search tool. So I did a search on how to disable them and removed everything but the ones Google itself had installed, as well as the ones for the security software I’d added a year ago.

At this point, they had finished the financial sleuthing, and I served reheated ribs. My brother Phil was ready to call it a day and drove home and, though we had ruled out another visit to the hospital—being yet another round trip that required half an hour minimum to complete—Mom and I decided to stop in one more time. We brought a little cut of ribs I could heat up in a stealthy way with a microwave I had found for visitor use in another ward—the “joint center” down a long hall and around a corner on Dad’s floor of the hospital. But when we arrived, Dad said he wasn’t hungry, though his hospital dinner was delivered in short order, and my mother coaxed him into eating by slicing his meat and feeding him with a fork. Emotionally he was back to his first years of life, and now, with the ritual of feeding him his dinner. When his nurse arrived, ready to dress his wound, we said goodbye.

“Are you leaving now?” he asked. 

“Yes, we will be back in the morning,” I said.

“But not until then?” he said, plaintively.

“Well, no because you will be asleep.”

The nurse chuckled. We told him we loved him. He told us he loved us too. I drove my mother back to the condo, my fourth trip to the condo of the day, made sure she had the peaches I’d bought for her, and, after putting her ice water up next to her bed and making sure the doors were locked and she was ready to get some sleep, I drove home.

This was just one day, without a minute available for painting. I wrote some of this post in the hospital room though and have kept working on it since he took up temporary residence in the rehab facility we chose. If all goes well, I may be able to get back into daily painting this coming week, even though I will still be visiting my parents every day to encourage Dad and assist my mother. On Monday we will find out when the rehab facility thinks he can go home and what they believe his prognosis will be. Yesterday he ate two full meals, larger than most of the meals he was eating even before his trip to the hospital. Life, for now, is getting better. 

When I got back, I took a half-smoked cigar from the car, and I smoked the rest of it on our patio, a rare treat. I gazed up into the leaves of our cherry tree, as I listened to an Audible book, and realized why the leaves of our aged cherry looked less perforated by spider mites this year. As I watched, titmice, chickadees, a woodpecker and even a catbird arrived and hopped all round inside the tree, pecking at the twigs and bark, apparently eating as many insects as they could find, almost working as a team to clean the tree and keep it healthy. It was wondrous, a glorious little moment of symbiosis—so many creatures working, even without knowing it, to keep other living things alive and well—something serendipitous for the good of both tree and birds. I was happy that I had helped all of this by keeping our bird feeders and bird bath full throughout the summer and encouraging the winged traffic through our property. In a life where nothing comes easily anymore, some things still just seem to happen on their own, thanks to the mysteries of how the world is ordered. Watching those birds I thought of Elizabeth Bishop: somebody loves us all. The challenge is to make those words true by trying to be that somebody.