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BLM vs. MLK, spiritual art, apple fritters

Jim Mott’s painting of a mailbox, after arriving at this spot in his Landscape Lottery.

Jim Mott came by this weekend for a conversation after a long absence, and we picked up more or less where we’d left off last time, talking partly about spirituality, art and God, BLM vs. MLK, his new art project, and some other things I ordinarily don’t talk about, like apple fritters. Though Jim is deeply political, in a way that goes back more to the Sixties than what’s happening now, he’s the least confrontational and least angry political person I know. Many people obsessed with politics seem to have embraced it as a substitute for religion. Jim already has a faith, so politics is simply a way of thinking about how to put that faith into action. What I like about his politics and his religion are the way in which they get submerged into his paint, in a sub-rosa way, neither overt nor strident, producing work that embodies his spirituality rather than illustrates it, if that makes sense. Most of the artists I’m close to are deeply spiritual, but each one in a very different way from the others. Here’s a good portion of our long conversation:

Dave: I went through this spiritual crisis in my teens and it was discovering Van Gogh who got me into it.

Jim: The crisis?

No, he got me into painting. He was so screwed up, but he responded to it by painting. He started by preaching and then went from that to painting, so it was kind of the way he dealt with there being something wrong with the world, or with him.

There’s that romantic notion or tradition that the world doesn’t get it and the individual poet does, so you’re at odds with the world.

It was just the opposite of that with me. I didn’t get it. Life was absurd and I didn’t get it, but that was repugnant to me, so at some level I knew I wasn’t right to have that perception. That was my dilemma. The idea that meaning seemed impossible and this was a crisis, a problem. It seemed the world was pointless and amounted to nothing, and this was horrifying because I couldn’t see out of that mental trap. But there’s a contradiction I didn’t see in this. Camus based The Rebel on a recognition of this contradiction: that people inwardly rebel against nihilism. If nothing matters, then there’s no reason to be dissatisfied with that, just enjoy what you can and that’s that. Why is it horrifying that life seems to amount to nothing? There’s some context in which the absurdity of life is unacceptable but if everything is genuinely pointless how can anything be unacceptable? I couldn’t get to that state of “there’s no way any of any of this can really matter, including my anguish over the impossibility of meaning, so I might as well enjoy life while it lasts.” I couldn’t reconcile myself to this nihilistic certainty I had. So I looked at Van Gogh because I assumed he had to have gone through something like that and responded to it by painting. I’d already been painting pictures of my favorite guitarists, Hendrix, Clapton, Bloomfield. I was in a band, I loved playing my Telecaster. I did the paintings just to have them on my walls. Enlarged copies of album covers. Then I read about Van Gogh and thought, hm, painting is an activity that’s interesting in itself, partly because Van Gogh, this incredibly discontented guy, was so devoted to it. Van Gogh got me to that point. My reading later gave me a way to understand this crisis I’d gone through in a spiritual perspective. So the painting and the spiritual perspective merged.

When you’re doing a good painting you feel like you’re participating in something larger than yourself, at some level it’s about ego-lessness and service. Given all that, the way the art world is all about ego competition and material symbols of success, what would happen if, I don’t know, what happens to you when you buy into that at all. You’re doing what you need to do to advance yourself but, as a result of that, cutting yourself off from your deepest, most authentic sense of what it’s all about – and that awareness of doing something in service to something larger, that awareness and how it imprints itself on the painting, that might be as important to the viewer as all the other qualities that would make a painting conventionally successful.

You mean given the art world’s definition of success. Should you fight it or resist it? That’s always a question.

You’re working to show this . . .

Mystery . . 

Right. The art world wants someone who’s world-famous. If someone had handed me world fame, I’m not sure I’d turn it down, but . . .

If it does amount to something, a painting, then if you aren’t known, how do you get it out there? Something essential to your life, how do you connect it to other people?

Even with the significant but moderately narrow level of recognition we get, is it worthwhile to generate a counter-narrative about what it’s all about? As an alternative to the pursuit of the material rewards or even critical recognition. I don’t know. Just to have a small audience to tell that to, you’re still having an impact. Integration is the mission now for me: art and spirit, left and right.

<Behind him on the little end table, I always display his night painting of the Memorial Art Gallery and nearby Tom Insalaco’s painting of an eclair. We have a sidebar discussion of eclairs vs. apple fritters and where to find the best fritters, which was possibly the most impactful part of the entire conversation, but not worth transcribing.)

So what are you painting?

Well, I find I’m not very motivated unless I have a project. So I’m doing this project with my wife’s niece. During the protests, my wife was saying the protestors were destroying the neighborhood where she’d grown up here in Rochester. She said, “My friends in the suburbs were cheering them on, but the people who live there, the ones the protests are supposedly helping, don’t have anywhere to get groceries now. She said, “Defund the police? What are the victims of domestic violence going to do when they’re getting beaten? So she was thinking of writing an essay. She knows the inner city. Her family comes in all colors.  She’s keenly aware of racism and poverty. She was writing an essay about how your lawn sign isn’t helping anyone. She had just visited her niece. Her niece’s son, whose father is Black, doesn’t see those signs.  What he does see is poverty and chaos and a school system that’s failing. He’s in third-grade at a school where the majority of students can’t pass state exams for their grade in math and English – on a good year. During Covid he’s been doing his schoolwork, doing all his classes on a smartphone with a smashed screen.

What a year.

So I was thinking, she went around looking for Black Lives Matter signs in her nephew’s neighborhood, where the message might reach him and make some difference, and there was just one in this area of several blocks. She was saying the people in those neighborhoods don’t need people in the suburbs to put up signs; they need people to go in and connect with them and understand poverty, start to make a larger sense of community a reality. So I decided to work with her niece. The project was to get together once a month and go sketching at a series of places that are meaningful to her. I’ll make paintings to go with the sketches. Ideally we’d have our sketches and the painting and a story about a place that meant something to both of us. But mainly we both sketch. It’s a model for how to reach out and connect with someone, using art – which has the benefit of being visible – show-able. It’s the next project after the Itinerant Artist series and the Landscape Lottery.

All of these projects encourage me to go out of my way to pay attention to parts of the world I otherwise would overlook or not see.  There’s a forced getting past my own interests in order to connect with something more (which I suppose is a deeper interest). Art is inherently spiritual, and this sort of builds on that, makes art practice a spiritual practice. I found what I painted in Ferguson, when I went there a year after those riots, it felt like a vigil or prayer, just being there doing a painting.

Did you see the Simone Weil quote I sent you in that material from Matthew Crawford. She said basically . . . Crawford wrote these books . . .

The World Beyond Your Head.

Right. Shop Class is Soul Craft was the first one. 

Which one did you like better?

The first one because it was so out of the blue. The second one is sort of the sequel, extending his philosophy beyond craftsmanship and the trades. His way of doing philosophy was to repair motorcycles. It’s analogous to painting in the way it connects physical skill and physical awareness. Iris Murdoch was one of the most powerful references in the first book. She wrote about how art is a way of simply paying attention to something else but yourself. That’s what you were saying: egolessness, just redirecting your attention to anything but yourself. That alone is ameliorative or just a way of approaching the Good. She calls it unselfing. 

Not just attending to it, but identifying with something greater.

The whole surround, the world you are in. You a part of this wholeness you’re inhabiting and just trying to be aware of it. Weil was saying that any moment of intense awareness is akin to prayer. That’s all prayer is, surrendering to something bigger. I thought that was interesting that you made that connection too.

I went through some of her stuff in my thirties and was really impressed.

Crawford talks about skilled physical labor. He talks about how, in motorcycle repair, it becomes intuitive because you get so familiar with the machine, the sounds it makes, the way it moves, whatever, that you diagnose what needs to be done, sometimes, subconsciously, by attending to physical cues without even being conscious of it. It’s partly a physical learning. Like muscle memory. It all derives from intense periods of just paying attention with care, even love.  

That reminds me of one of my hates. At Mendon park, one of the workers cut down some bushes that work as habitat for certain birds and put one of these carved benches with a little awning over – it doesn’t work as shade, the bench is crudely made, and it all looks horrible. He’s crafting but there’s no aesthetics and no knowledge of the environment. I complain, but who’s to say what’s bad. I am, I guess, . . . but you know . .

These days nobody hesitates to say what’s bad. Everyone is constantly passing judgement on someone else.

Right, and that doesn’t dissolve the ego. I realize I can be very judgmental.  There was this show in NYC in the 80s that was called Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

Wasn’t that Kandinsky’s title?

Yes. I was excited. But it was such bad art – well, a lot of it was weak. More to the point, the curators seemed clueless, and the writing in the review… it was clear the person didn’t know what spiritual was.  It was just something theoretically defined, satisfied by certain prescribed “spiritual” criteria.

Kandinsky’s art was spiritual, but it wasn’t overtly religious. If you asked someone to do a spiritual painting, you might get an illustration of a story from the Bible. Of course that could be a genuinely spiritual painting, but not necessarily

Someone who goes to a church I sometimes go to tried to get me to paint a picture of a holy mountain in India, but he wanted saints faces floating around it and I told him I didn’t do that kind of work. I tried to persuade him that a painting of an everyday landscape could be spiritual. He just got mad and found somebody else to do the painting. The guy just wanted that and nothing else would do. That’s one end of the spectrum, but the NYC end is that spirituality is one small sub-category of abstract painting, and nothing else was.

Kandinsky didn’t mean a particular kind of painting, but that painting itself is an attempt to show what’s there in the world unseen that might become more visible through the imaginative struggle with paint.

And for him it was mainly abstract – although he did leave room for “Landscapes with Spirit”. There were no landscapes in that NYC show.

With the surrealists and the heart of abstract expressionism there was an attempt to channel spiritual energy, not just a formal innovation.

They painted as if their lives depended on it. So I met with my niece once and did some sketches and tried to get some paintings done from them. She sketched a tree and it was good. She isn’t being artistically ambitious – at least not yet –  it’s mainly a chance to focus on something good or benign – in this case a tree – that she doesn’t make time for otherwise. It was just a way to get her out there sketching. She said she missed that. The first location was a church where she said she’d been baptized. And then, more recently, when her life was getting too crazy and she needed to get away, she’d slept on the back steps of this church one night.

So she got something out of the sketch that others wouldn’t. We did a sketch of houses with shadows on the roofs and the sketches were exciting, but the painting didn’t have life of the sketches. I got this photograph from that setting and I was blowing it up and just to focus I blocked off a panoramic strip of it and that strip got really interesting so now I may have this little thin painting that has nothing to do with poverty.

If you’re drawn to it, do it. Don’t stick with the plan.

<Then I contradict myself, talking about how I’m sticking to my plan, despite resistance. We talk about my marathon of taffy paintings and the way I have to postpone other things I’d just as soon be painting. I do small sections every day, a very laborious and long process but I don’t want to drop it and move on until I get the project done. A painting takes six weeks generally and when I get to week five, that’s the test in terms of energy and focus. They aren’t hyper-realistic but also not overly rough in a painterly way. You know it’s paint but you don’t see all the execution, the mark making. I’m surprised that this is what I want. I thought I wanted something else in the handling of the paint when I began this series.>

I don’t do much plein air anymore. I sketch and do photographs and work from them in the studio. I miss working from life. It’s different. You might change the image in ways that are poetic.

Yes. I think the people who are opposed to working from photographs, they are looking for variations you can’t help but make in the way you render what you see. Like Van Gogh’s marks. There’s no way he could get away from those marks. There’s no way a photograph could tell him to make them.

I have a selfish question. I feel I should try to do a Landscape Lottery somewhere else. I’ve done it here with good results. You get public interest. I’m trying to think of where to go next. It should be a city.

You randomize the GPS to come up with the locations.

Yes, for the Landscape Lottery the idea is to define an area – say Greater Rochester – then generate random points within that area to determine where I’ll go to paint.  The first time I did it – in Tucson – I used a computer to generate random GPS points. For Rochester I used a pair of dice and six by six grids superimposed on a map of the metropolitan area, nested grids. Roll dice three times and you end up with a fairly precise location. With randomized locations you find something demanding that you might not have picked voluntarily. It challenges my preconceptions about what’s worthy of being painted, my ability to feel a sense of connection. I like the idea that “there is significance in all things waiting to be attended to.” But it can be hard to tune into.

It’s just you and the device. Not someone else saying or giving you a suggestion. The itinerant project as you and the other people you stayed with.

One of the rules I give myself for the Lottery is that at any painting stop I have to try to meet people. Particularly, if I meet a stranger, I will ask them to roll the dice – determining my next painting destination. Someone in the inner city rolls and I get sent to farmland in Hilton. The farmer I meet there “sends” me to the next stop (it happened to be the airport). And so on.  It’s a way of getting to know people I wouldn’t meet otherwise and weaving these invisible connections through the community. (These people from very different backgrounds are sort of collaborating.) I would need to do it probably in a metro area with a gallery that would want to show the results.

Try Cincinnati. It’s a big art town. Manifest might be interested in a project like that.

That’s good. The heartland.

They’re non-profit. It’s a research center. They’re always looking for new ideas. They aren’t going to turn it down because it isn’t a money-maker.

I’m not really sure why I’ve made enforced randomness such a big part of my practice. Initially, with the Itinerant Artist Project, the focus was more on a way of sharing life – typically with strangers – that art made possible, especially getting outside the gallery and into their homes. The unpredictability was just a byproduct of relying on volunteer hosts. But I was drawn to the challenge of making art anywhere and being able to connect with anyone. And I’ve noticed the hosts for the IAP are self-selecting – I’ve gone all over the country, but it’s mostly been the world of middle-class white people who can afford to put me up for a night or two. When I do the Landscape Lottery, it’s different. I end up interacting with people from all walks of life. In both Tucson and even more here.  One of the memorable stops was – I think I told you this – the random point was in Gates and there were all these things on the way I really wanted to paint. But I had to keep driving to get to my spot. No, not the quarry, not the railroad. . . oh it’s just a residential street. And the light’s nice. But there were a bunch of American flags and odd little houses and nothing picturesque at all. It was a Republican street. That’s not bad, but there was a vibe that I was in a place . . .

That’s funny. Democrats don’t put out flags.

There was a certain feel. I knocked on the door of the house I parked in front of to explain why I was there. I was very uncomfortable, but I told them about the project and this nice old lady and her daughter living there, we had a great time. They rolled the dice and sent me to the next place, which turned out to be Mount Hope Cemetery where her husband was buried. <Along with Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony> But then the scene I actually chose was just a mailbox on that Republican street with some old Fifties ranch house, and it ended up being a really popular image for the show. The woman who lived there came out to get the mail, and I apologized for being in the way and I said, ˜You know any artists around that I can give a sketch pad to?’ She said “my husband sketches all the time.’ Sure enough, he was coming down the road, and he looked suspicious, kind of unpleasant, but it turned out that he sketched everything, all the time. I got him to talk a little. He’d done a painting in high school, in Manhattan, which the school kept and he once went back to try to look at it and someone from the board of MOMA had bought it.

I remember that story.  

I like being on my own and withdrawn but I actually enjoy making these connections. Extending who I can identify with. I can be very very left on some things and my whole family, my grandfather was a socialist who helped set up Canada’s healthcare system and my parents were activists. Everyone was so enthused about the BLM movement but Sonja and I were horrified that they were demonizing the police.

Now you have this “insurrection” and the police are heroes.

It’s just, I’ve had bad interactions with lots of police. They’re often power-hungry jerks but . . .

But you have to have them.

Try to be on good terms, at least keep open the potential to interact with them as human beings, reach their humanity.

There aren’t that many serious anarchists anymore. Where is Bakunin these days? 

<Jim read from his phone Obama’s chastening comments about how unwise it is politically simply to talk about defunding police.>

As soon as someone’s camping on your lawn, you will call the police. The new District Attorney in L.A. says he isn’t going to enforce trespassing laws. As soon as someone pitches a tent on a front lawn in Brentwood, that will change. Compton too, probably, for that matter.

Strategically, when the protests started, I remember the news. Police all over the country were taking a knee. Yes, some are very racist. L.A. and St. Louis, but a lot weren’t that way. After a few months of demonizing police, that changed.

If I’m just a racist copy why should I answer the 911 call? With social media you feel as if you have to respond to stupidity with stupidity. It’s like the Goya painting of those two giants just bludgeoning each other with cudgels. That’s social media.

Almost all I watched of the Washington protests were these moderate Republican senators who had just lost Georgia and were talking about just getting along. They looked as if they’d had a conversion experience. Some of them really meant it.

Of course, they did. What happened to Martin Luther King Jr? Who is out there calling for the sit-in rather than the riot?

I have a friend, also named Dave Chappell, who is a student of Christopher Lasch and he’s now considered one of the top scholars on the civil rights movement. He’s white, but he’s . . .

But he’s really Black, like Bill Clinton?

He has an inside pass. He works so hard on that stuff. One of his books was about what made civil rights work. His argument was that it was prophetic religion that really had force and the leaders were willing to die for it. They had these high principles. The segregationists used church to reinforce their convictions but they didn’t have the same energy because they didn’t have the moral foundation.

It was the New Testament. Resist not evil. Love your enemy. It all comes from Tolstoy’s later writing when he embraced his own form of Christianity. He inspired Gandhi. They corresponded. MLK followed the example. Don’t answer evil with evil. Give love in response to evil.

Which is hard.

It’s seriously hard. But anyone can realize that if you’re sitting there in the photograph being attacked by police dogs and offering no violence in return, you’ve won. You don’t win against evil by being evil.

The movement now doesn’t have religious conviction.

It’s postmodern. It’s completely abandoned the absolute values that were undergirding the civil rights movement. Values are whatever works to seize and sustain power. Now it’s just power against power with no underlying absolute value. We have narratives, not values.

The push for justice and not being treated with bias is good but when you start pushing the police lines because you have demands based on what the people did who rioted last week and treating people like animals to get what you want – that’s not the moral high ground.

It’s Saul Alinsky not Martin Luther King, Jr. If the conservatives could wake up the same way. A hundred thousand people show up and sit down on the steps of the Capitol and refuse to leave, demand an investigation of the election. That’s a sit-in with a clear objective. Just sit peacefully and force the troops to carry them away. How would the media condemn them? That would be a way to ask for an investigation to find out whatever actually happened and move on. Everyone turns it into a struggle to the death because they want to turn the opposition into the enemy.

Well art can still save the world, Dave, right?

It’s certainly a way of sitting still and refusing to move. Wasn’t it Dostoevsky who said beauty will save the world? It’s worth a try. 

Santelli’s stream of consciousness

Minstream 17, Bill Santelli, colored pencil on paper

A three-person exhibition, Constellations, featuring paintings, drawings, and installation works by Sara Baker Michalak, Bill Santelli, and Mizin Shin will open shortly at Main Street Arts. It’s curated around the commonality of their work. Each, in different ways, builds a patterned image—loosely or with gridded regularity—that aims for the cosmic. As with every painting, the particulars matter because of their unity within the whole work, but in this case the particulars are mostly effaced within the flow of what’s happening everywhere else.

I’ve known Bill for years and was pleased to hear that he’d been invited into this show, having seen these new drawings on Instagram over the past year. Like his Prismacolor drawings in the Path series, these explorations of thought—the honeycomb of ovals suggestive of thinking’s fragmented flow—represent a patient, repetitive and extremely disciplined practice using the simplest combinations of tone and line. In the Path series, he creates long, languid and pliant streaks of color that evoke tall grass bending in a breeze, where each line creates cells of pale monochrome. They are like leaded panes of stained glass, but also look surprisingly like glimpses of dawn breaking over wetlands.

In these newer drawings, his colors are even simpler and richer, and the minimalism of the Path drawings has been reduced to a grid of loops with less reference to nature. When I asked him to describe what went into the drawings, he wrote “I began these drawings after reading about the concept of ‘mindstream’ in Buddhist philosophy, which is described as . . . the moment-to-moment flow of sense impressions and mental phenomena.”

He offered some background on his preoccupations in this work. He’s been reading a lot about Krishnamurti—a long-standing source of inspiration for his work—and watching videos of his talks. Krishnamurti’s focus consistently returned to a mindfulness that pulls back from the conscious mind’s endless jabber, the flow of that in-the-head narrator. He urged his listeners to impartially observe the operation of their own minds in an attempt to disengage from the grip of reactive thought and action. (Isn’t that a good phrase for our current national disease?) These drawings, for Santelli, grapple with his awareness of his own thought bubbles, as it were, floating past as he meditates or walks—pulling him away from being fully present and aware. Krishnamurti’s central point is to get his practitioner to disengage and become an observer of everything the mind is doing–to simply be aware of it all, and that awareness alone will awaken a kind of intelligence that isn’t simply conscious reasoning. It’s a bit like the Greeks referred to as nous. If you see yourself clearly, down to the roots of your behavior and thinking, both of those are changed as a result of that clarity.

Not that this is necessarily what Santelli is attempting to represent here. But it’s related. As he puts it in his statement for the show: “As with all my work, the drawings are an introspective process – I find myself reflecting on the inner journey, about letting go of old forms and opening to new ones, of balancing the path inward with the pathway outward. The choreography of shapes and colors creates a motion across the paper, a fluid yet gently turbulent “mindstream” that arises and passes away in each moment.”

As with the Path series, these drawings are in colored pencil—mostly Prismacolors in the ultramarine and dark gold images. He’s also working with Caran d’ache Luminance pencils in the brighter work for “a palette shift.”  He says, “The Caran d’ache colors are really nice, but each pencil costs almost $5!” he joked. When I asked about his shift from the Path series to this new mode, he said he continues to do the Path work, but they take much longer to complete.

He’ll be showing one 22 x 30 inch drawing in this Mindstream series and the rest are much smaller.  For those he worked with strips of paper cut from larger sheets used with the bigger work. “I had these strips laying around and I was able to get the most individual paintings by cutting the strips down to 5.75” x 8”. I’m happy with what I’m doing in the Mindstream work.”

I asked why the ovals? “I have used geometric shapes (circles, squares, triangles, rectangles) in other series of drawings I’ve done.  But the oval, hardly ever.  Visually, I think of the oval more as a form for these considering drawings (inspired by forms and shapes I was seeing on my morning walks), and also what I was trying to convey – which was (and here he quoted his statement in progress) “a choreography of shape/form moving across the paper – each individual shape/form representing a separate thought, that would arise and fall away as I worked.”

Monastic. Cheap. Admirable.

Does anyone still remember those skits on Conan from more than two decades ago where President Clinton would appear as a digital mask worn by Robert Smigel? The writer did a ludicrous, but hilarious, impersonation of Bubba as a Southern party boy living it up and getting away with everything and anything. “I gotsta gotsta have my snacks,” he crowed. And he was talking as much about Monica Lewinski as a side of French fries. A still shot of Clinton’s face on the monitor was lowered into the guest position beside Conan’s desk and within that motionless and grinning face, Smigel’s real-time mouth displaced Clinton’s lips—the writer’s mouth speaking his lines while the President’s face was still frozen into that vote-getting, Teflon grin. It was very funny and outrageous, and it would probably be impossible to perform these days, given much of what was being said, for many reasons. It was so over-the-top and explicit that it took on a reality all its own. (Come to think of it, that would be a good way to describe much of the art world over the last century.)

Those Smigel skits were the first thing that struck me when I saw these $100 portraits of women at The New York Times. The eyes in some of them look as if it were somehow possible to have Photoshopped them into the paintings, like Smigel’s good-old-boy accent. Could the paintings have been done on top of the photographs used as a support? Regardless, they’re good. I loved those boundary-testing skits on Conan, because they simply pointed out that when someone is doing what you want him to do, he can get away with nearly everything else in his life. Again, like the rules that once obtained in the art world. (Rewatching the first season of The Wire this week confirmed that lesson as well in terms of Baltimore politics and law enforcement as observed by David Simon.) In my view, the ends are never enough to justify the means, and integrity matters, but I may be in the minority these days.

In these one painting-per-day style portraits, Jean Smith conveys a subject’s eyes with an eerie photographic precision about how the cornea and iris reflect light, but the eyes are framed by a gesturally primitive mask. These souls are looking out at you from behind their own almost graffiti faces. A few of them I wish I’d bought: I mean, why not, for $100? But I like them. Yet her point is to undermine the economy that continues to push the ownership of visual art into an elite economic ghetto of the uber wealthy.

I shouldn’t be talking this way. The work I’m doing now takes weeks without it’s done without interruptions, usually a minimum of four weeks per painting, but also as long as two months with the sort of interruptions that you face when you actually have a life outside the studio, as I still do. No one can afford to put in four to six to eight weeks on a painting that sells for $100. But the point Nick Marino makes in his piece for the Times is that artists aren’t even reaping the actual profits of what has become an extension of the stock market—paintings are now purchased for high prices at the start and then their value is repeatedly inflated through resale or auction, simply as some corollary to day trading Silicon Valley stocks or investing in Bitcoin. (This can’t last. Our financially leveraged economic boom will not continue forever. The art world bubble will burst along with the others, but it may go on for quite a while.)

I love the idea of doing paintings quickly and selling them for unusually low prices. Jim Mott and Harry Stooshinoff are making wonderful, even remarkable paintings in this mode, along with many others. These quick portraits of women offer a continuous experimentation in ways of seeing and representing nothing more than how light lands on an individual face and how the eyes look out from the prison that personhood can seem—when in fact human individuality is the greatest miracle of life.

Excerpts from Marino’s piece:

I can appreciate that beauty has monetary value, particularly for the one and only example of a particular exquisiteness. Someone spent time making it, and that person should be compensated. But even modest artworks can be out of reach for almost anyone who’s not a real estate mogul, shipping magnate, stockbroker or oil baron. Under the sanctimonious cover of “arts patronage,” these plutocrats use art to launder their money, trading up the value of young artists and enriching one another in the process. The artists, meanwhile, get paid only once, on the initial sale. The end result is (artwork) that costs as much as a Honda Civic.

Opting not to use a gallery, Smith listed each of her works on Facebook for the ludicrously low price of $100. She could certainly charge more, but the egalitarian price is the point. It’s her version of the $5 tickets Fugazi used to sell to its all-ages shows — and anyway, she has never needed much to survive. For the past quarter-century, she has lived alone and monastically in an apartment without a sofa or kitchen table (she eats off a filing cabinet), and her monthly expenses, including rent and utilities, total about $1,000. She only needs to sell 10 pieces per month to break even — though that has never been her problem.

Well, that’s all she needs to make if she doesn’t pay taxes. But at that level of income, she wouldn’t need to pay taxes. He points out that having created an insatiable demand for her low-budget art, she can’t keep up with it. The question is, does she keep her prices low or do what the free market naturally does when demand far exceeds supply: let prices rise as far as demand will lift them. I’m guessing it will depend on whether she ever gets a mortgage. I hope she continues to live monastically, as Marino describes her lifestyle. Monastic is almost always unimpeachable as a way to live, especially for an artist. Thoreau, or “Pond Scum” as The New Yorker referred to him once (at the link, you’ll see a note at the bottom of the essay pointing out the original headline), proved that monastic individuality isn’t such a bad way to live until people come in the winter and start cutting up your pond and selling it as blocks of ice.

The other takeaway here: hey, Facebook is still good for something.

Tonalism then

George Henry, View of Venice, 28 x40, oil on canvas.

As a follow up to my recent post offering two contemporary Tonalist works at Oxford Gallery, this painting of Venice, by George Henry, was on view at the same time as the current work. This one is part of Jim Hall’s available inventory of historical Tonalist work. It’s an amazing painting, in many ways, not least of which is the impasto, stucco-like, surface of the oil. The paint is applied so generously, in multiple layers, that the tactile quality of its pebbly contours, the way in which shifts in tone create a relief map of color, is extraordinary. The overall impression is of a harbor bathed in a blindingly intense gold at sunset, but the way the paint is organized on the surface of the canvas is what’s most remarkable.  Bogert’s life spanned a period of radical changes in technology and culture, and, of course, art.

From Wikipedia: George Henry Bogert (February 6, 1864 – December 13, 1944) was an American landscape painter.In 1911 an exhibit of his work was held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and attracted widespread notice. His work is represented in the permanent collection of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.

His work has been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of ArtNational GalleryCorcoran Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, BostonHuntington LibraryPennsylvania AcademyBrooklyn MuseumEdinburgh Museum in ScotlandShanghai Club in China, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and others, also in private collections, including those of Andrew CarnegieClarence Mackay, and Thomas B. Clark.

Dean Mitchell

Parking on the Reservation, Dean Mitchell, watercolor.

There are certain painters whose work, the first time I see it, floods me with relief, the way I often feel when I walk through the door of my home after a long road trip. My burdens drop away because I can see, through the work, that everything I need is always at hand, in nothing more than, say, the way sunlight glares off the hood of a car. It’s hard to specify the burdens a painting like this removes, other than what my delight in nothing more than hazy sunlight would suggest: the fundamental human affliction of rarely being able to see things just as they are, being too busy in pursuit of something else not as real. In Dean Mitchell, whose work was recently exhibited at Exeter Gallery, this quality arrives with the mysterious additional blessing of his ability to show things in the world, times of day, the quality of light during certain months and at particular latitudes, as if this abundant, inanimate stage for the petty human craving to be somewhere else, or someone else, is itself perfectly sufficient to be just what it is and nothing else. With Mitchell, there’s no striving to impose himself, interpret, or curate for hackneyed beauties of landscape in favor of a drab bungalow, frail as a lean-to, under a palm tree. Through the title suggests it may be located on a Native American reservation in the West, it is exactly the sort of home one sees in abundance in certain Florida neighborhoods of Sarasota or Tampa or, I would assume, Quincy, where Mitchell grew up in a shack. It’s exactly the sort of place you wouldn’t even notice while taking a residential shortcut off Tamiami Trail on the way to Target or Home Depot. And yet in his painting it’s stunningly beautiful—without his having intentionally beautified the subject in any way. In other words, he has the utter humility and diligence of a photorealist, with scenes that have the instant verisimilitude a good photograph has, though he dispenses with all details that don’t matter through his mastery of watercolor. This is something the medium enables and almost requires. The brevity of the way he indicates clusters of leaves, in other hands, would have the predictable facility of a commercially professional work, but in his paintings it looks original, fresh, and discovered, even though it looks as if he’s hardly trying. And the way he knows what doesn’t matter, what he doesn’t need to show, and elides it into a wash of color with such easy efficiency, makes me envious, self-pitying, and full of awe, as if I were Salieri hiding behind a curtain while Mozart noodles out something immortal with only one hand at the keyboard, maybe eating a sandwich with the other.

 

Haunted by God’s loophole

Doubt, Susie MacMurray, a temporary installation at Southwark Cathedral. London, constructed of butterfly nets.

I went back online recently to get another glimpse of Susie MacMurray’s masterful A Mixture of Frailties, the first work of hers that stunned me when I stumbled upon her solo exhibition at Danese/Corey seven years ago. I was delighted and a little surprised that it continues to resonate in new ways after the passage of years. This time it brought to mind, of all things, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. A frontal view of her headless figure’s prominent shoulders makes them look like sprouting wings or the stumps left behind by their amputation. This hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the actual piece at the exhibition. MacMurray built it around a tailor’s dummy—as she does with her signature garment sculptures—this time enveloping the curvy armature with limp latex gloves. On the floor, they form a train that flows outward and downward in all directions as if the garment were melting. Conversely, the figure seems to rise up out of the floor from under that network of gloves. It’s funny to see in this earthbound dress an ironic echo of the ancient sculpture’s martial grandeur, especially since this work glows with a quietly, almost self-defeating pathos all its own. The fact that you’re looking at what could be a lifetime supply—a life sentence, as it were—of dishwashing gloves both anchors and intensifies, by contrast, the work’s unlikely glory. By creating a ballroom gown out of them, she magically transforms all those flaccid tubes into a spectacular vestment—female power constructed with reminders of male impotence. That’s either a wry sort of Jacobin feminism or honest testimony about how little power any of us actually have. I tend toward the latter. With MacMurray, what looks like an apotheosis always comes with amusing asterisks. The way this dazzling matrix of frailties rises up from the floor, ready for lift-off, seems to echo the triumphant flight promised in the Greek sculpture, but our glove lady isn’t getting airborne any time soon. She is both imprisoned and glorified by all the chores she would love to flee. Feminist interpretations aside, what seems to be embodied here is something wiser and more universal. This beatification of scut work embodies a rare insight into the dignity and worth of long subservience and surrender to a humble task.

All of these impressions reconfirmed for me that much of MacMurray’s work has to do with the unity of polarities in life—in this case, how drudgery and imprisonment and servitude can actually clothe triumph and transformation, or at least can be transmuted to reveal them. A similar truth lies at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions: the identity of form and emptiness in Buddhism, as well as the notion that your everyday mind is the Buddha, for one. In a different way, the Beatitudes hint at paradoxical realities—the last shall be first—set within a more dramatic spiritual narrative. One can find other corollaries. Her wisdom applies to art-making itself, pointing toward a seminal realization for practicing artists of how the freedom of creative expression dwells within the tedium of repetition, craft and patience. MacMurray’s work requires a great deal of all three. For her, it’s meditative. This equivalence of triumph and drudgery applies to her installations as much as, if not more than, the work of a guru of art-as-process such as Chuck Close. His words are well known: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” The paradox of the work ethic itself is that what’s good in life can’t be severed from often tedious labor. The process of making one of her pieces embodies this paradox: Medusa required a year to make,

one tiny copper ring at a time, shaped into a circle and clasped together by hand into chain mail. The result is spectacular and humbling. Many of her large-scale installations depend on repetitive, assiduous devotion to handiwork—assembling large quantities of everyday objects until they bathe the space they occupy with a kind of sentience, as if the hosting building has become self-aware, through the work, of the human vulnerabilities it shelters.

In Shells, MacMurray embossed an entire staircase at Pallant House in Chichester with slightly-opened mussel shells stuffed with red velvet in suggestive folds. The work was a compassionate homage to the wife who lived unhappily there after her husband built the town house in 1712: each shell an emblem of sexual readiness and frustration. Each of those 20,000 shells had to be carefully pried open—just a bit—so that they could adhere close to the hinge of the valves, even though parted at the lips enough to let the red velvet bulge outward from inside, a brilliant cluster of contrary implications in such a simple pairing of materials. One might observe drily that it’s a slightly less metaphysical take on unconsummated love than, say, Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it inspires awe, just the same. Again, the idea—pairing the shells with the scraps of velvet—makes it all possible, but the hours of labor needed to realize the idea gives its embodiment a gravity that serves as counterweight to this temporary installation’s ever hopeful climb toward the sky, or at least the ghost of a second-floor bedroom. As they ascend, all those shells whisper life is never quite what you want it to be, now, is it? Her most ominous installation, Doubt, depended on the patience required to assemble a surfeit of butterfly nets into a vaguely apocalyptic swarm, a cloud of shadows hovering in the vault of Southwark Cathedral in London. Again, this weightless specter floats overhead, a dark angel, but it’s contained by the walls around it—the emptiness of the cathedral becomes a disposal for what everyone sheds in this place, or else that effluvium overhead is what keeps them from rising up from the floor. And again, butterfly nets no less, reminder of both the insect’s transformation into a beautiful freedom as well as its trap.

Her wit has a crystalline simplicity. But there’s obviously something deeper than humor finding a home in her lovely ironies. She is powerful and clear-eyed about human limitations, while suggesting that those limitations aren’t necessarily what they seem. The paradoxes inherent in her formal innovations bring to your lips a smile of amusement but there’s also a sense somehow, in her work, of simple gratitude for what all this labor conveys. She lives for the epiphany of formal discovery, the gift of spotting new materials that give rise to what she makes. A waterfall of hair nets. A flock of fish hooks. A nest of wax eggs. But the long days or weeks or months of doing the same thing over and over gives her work its power. Sol LeWitt could have scribbled a note saying: “assemble little copper rings into chain mail in the shape of a woman deploying snakes at her feet” and have called his little memorandum conceptual art. Jeff Koons could do the same, in his own way. But reading that note—or having someone’s minions alone carry out the work order—wouldn’t have had quite the same impact. (MacMurray does rely on helpers occasionally with her most involved projects.) Sometimes the best discoveries for her come at the end of the process of making an installation—the idea at the start doesn’t come close to expressing the impact of the completed effort. She stands back and looks at the finished piece and thinks, oh, so that’s where all this labor was leading . . . the embodiment exceeds the idea that spawned it.

About her current show, Murmur, at Pangolin London (until Dec. 22) she said recently that, in the back of her mind, many of her themes have been intensified by the current pandemic and lockdowns. Notions of flight, liberation, imprisonment, dread, mortality, safety and risk. In Murmur, she also glances toward her own life as a mother, and in the context of motherhood all these themes seem to be multiplied exponentially. It’s one thing to recognize the perils and rewards of human life in oneself, but the stakes become so much more potentially heartbreaking when you see them in the life of your own children. The joys and anxieties of parenthood represent one of the central themes of this show.

 

Her sense of life, of the limitations that derive ultimately from mortality—reminds me vaguely of a scene I saw recently in a new Russian series on Netflix, To The Lake, shot in and around Moscow. In one of the later episodes, an Orthodox monk encounters refugees from a plague, and before he wanders back to the little church he seems to have built by hand, a little sacred gallery for crude icons he’s painted, one of the fugitive women button-holes him and begs him to pray for the child she has lost. He asks her if the child had been baptized. She says no. He says, “I can’t. But you can. Only the mother can pray.” I’d never heard of that tradition, but it was a remarkable moment full of disquieting contradictions and the interesting notion that motherhood is God’s loophole. God won’t accept a monk’s prayer for a baby? Say what? A mother can communicate with God in a way that even a monk can’t? No one else in the world is allowed to put in a request for help? How is that fair? These two characters accept it though, and there’s a thankfulness in their silence acceptance of life’s long odds. One thinks of all the cruel restrictions of the current pandemic, children unable to be at the death bed of their parents. The world has narrowed as a result of strange, seemingly inhumane rules imposed with benevolent designs. But still. (If someone had told me I couldn’t be at my father’s bedside when he died last year, for any reason whatsoever, I would have been tempted to buy my first gun and use it to open negotiations about palliative care.) With the young mother and the monk, there was so much human vulnerability and willingness to entertain one last opportunity for hope concentrated into a brief exchange on the road. The monk’s gentle solicitude and compassion spoke volumes about the pathos of a human soul’s predicament.

Somehow these qualities seem companionable with the spirit that informs much of what MacMurray has included in her show: the emotional risks and lowly tasks of parenthood. When it comes to motherhood, her imagery is closer to a Matthew Barney Cremaster vitrine than a Mary Cassatt mother-and-child, but some of the pieces feel like visualizations of terse, tough Blakean axioms: for every egg, a hook.

Murmur is built around its eponymous work, a mobile-like assembly of ostrich feathers, fish hooks and wire that extend for the entire length of the gallery. It’s a variation on her native theme: the inseparable pairing of freedom and the bonds of daily life. Like musical notes on a staff, a nod to MacMurray’s previous career as an orchestral musician, each of these feathered barbs seems to float upward, from left to right. They are tipped with little wax beads, rather than the hooks one would expect if they had been tied together for fly fishing. Yet, at a slight distance from each feather, the fishhooks help establish the feather’s place and its relationship with the others. They seem to float upward like dandelion seeds or birds, but (and this is what makes it a MacMurray) those hooks are sure to snag on something, such as their maker’s fingertips. One thinks of children, having been raised, setting off into the world but never fully detaching from their parents—and this note gets sounded throughout Murmur, with one piece after another referring to mothers, child-rearing, and the complexities of parenthood.

Susie emailed me last week to invite me to her live conversation, via the Internet, with the gallery’s director, Polly Bielecka, at the opening of her show. During the live video stream, she talked with the gallery’s owner about most of the work on display, and though it was no substitute for actually seeing the work, it offered an indication of the pleasures it affords. Her answer to one question focused on parenthood in relation to a small construction in which she attached a slice of deer antler to a wax ball:

This is Mother and Child, one of the small pieces I made during lockdown. There’s something about going from the scale that’s immersive to something that’s so small you have to protect and hold it in your hands. When I was going through the antlers I had collected I came across this one which is a first-year prong from a culled deer. There’s even a little piece of hair left on it. It made me think of mothers and children and the violent act of that baby being gone. It made me think of umbilical cords and apron strings. It’s another wax ball that’s reassuring. And I found it poignant and wanted to give it something to hang onto. It’s like Murmur, the joy of seeing (the little ones) take off into the world and the desolation of being left behind. How do you deal with those things? The world is a terrifying place as well as a wonderful place. The work I make is a constant reassurance to myself that both of those things belong together. How can I still exist after my children are gone? But I do, and it’s good, as well as frightening.

What I’m waiting for is the solo exhibition, years from now, when she assembles all of her garment sculptures into one place, if she continues to construct them as she likely will, slowly and painstakingly, over the next decade. In her conversation, she hinted at the next one, entitled Stalker. I can’t wait to see it.

Tonalism now

So Close But Not Enough to See, Ryan Schroeder, oil on canvas.

This painting, from a recent group show at Oxford Gallery, has grown on me since I saw it. It fell into a group of paintings interspersed throughout the show that were essentially Tonalist work from various periods. Jim Hall has bought and sold Tonalists for years, and has a stock of examples from well over a century ago from which to pick and choose an occasional painting for his walls.

Another example from the same show is Fran Noonan’s, Quiet Glow. I’ll post a much older example of the tradition shortly, from the same show. Jim’s definition of Tonalism includes artists not often included as part of the school, such as Rothko, but he can make a good argument for the commonalities among them.

In pursuit of insignificance

Matt and Will at Tinker Nature Park a few miles from us.

About a year and a half ago, I set a goal to finish eighteen salt water taffy paintings as the core of a solo show in a year or two. I’m working on the eighth—I sold the first one and have stopped posting pictures of the successive paintings partly as a way to prevent the temptation of selling more. My painting plan has been deferred again and again because of my recurring role as a care provider. Last summer I spent three months mostly taking care of my parents and this summer and fall I will put in about the same period of time helping care for my son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Matthew has migrated here back to Pittsford, NY during the pandemic, after having lived and worked for more than a decade in Los Angeles. He lost his job cutting movie trailers—not lost just yet, but he will be furloughed at least into next year. So he’s unemployed with no assurances about the future and saving money by bringing his family to live with us temporarily in the comparative safety of Western New York, where everything costs less at least for now. What they do when the pandemic recedes depends on his wife’s job as a producer for Ellen Degeneres. Until then, she and Matt will stay with us through her long, arduous recovery from a car accident several weeks ago, during which she will resume working remotely for Ellen via Zoom. Their stay here isn’t all-consuming for us, but has become the center of our activities, putting my work nearly on hold again, as it was last summer and then off and on for months after my father’s death a year ago. I began to regain a regular daily painting schedule over the past week, but have had to put it aside again, I hope briefly, until we settle into a more predictable routine. Our lives have become like a Frank Capra movie where family, friends and neighbors are constantly traversing the interior of our house, bringing food and gifts, standing vigil through some small crisis, and using our grill to prepare a meal.

Again, my painting has been put on hold for the past month until a few days ago when I was able to resume work. By the fall, I should be able to settle back into a productive rhythm on the taffy paintings—one of which has already been exhibited in Ohio at The Butler Institute of American Art and at Manifest Creative Research Gallery. It’s a series of paintings that has required me to develop a diligently repetitive work process—Chuck Close would nod with approval at the monotony of my daily life when I’m at full tilt. My methods are getting more reliable than in the past, my technique is becoming more stringently observant of how areas of tone flow into one another and how the paint sits on the canvas, while I’ve reduced my subject to the simplest and least overtly meaningful objects imaginable. In other words I’ve embarked on a group of paintings that will be my attempt to do what I have been saying for years that painting is uniquely suited to do: convey a glimpse of living wholeness, the entirety of a world, through purely formal means, and doing this with an image devoid of signifiers. Or at least an image in which any signifiers one might deconstruct are entirely beside the point when it comes to the essential work the painting is actually doing. I want paintings entirely devoid of intellectual content. I’m tempted to title at least one painting of taffy in this series: This Is Not Salt-Water Taffy.

I had hoped to complete maybe eighteen of these paintings by next spring and offer them as a solo show and present them as a body of work for consideration at galleries in larger metro areas, eventually. But the world seems to be fast-forwarding through an economic transformation as a result of the corona virus—something that otherwise would have happened over many more years that it may take now. What will be left of the gallery scene after the suspended animation of so much activity in Manhattan and Los Angeles? How have gallery owners survived this devastation? Have they? I got an email maybe two months ago announcing that Danese Corey was ending its exhibition program, without being able to discern whether this means the gallery was ceasing to operate or simply was going to close its brick-and-mortar space on East 22nd St. The announcement shocked me and made me heartsick: I loved or at least respected the work of nearly everyone who exhibited there and considered that shop one of the most intelligent and discerning of any gallery I’d ever visited. It feels like the loss of a good friend. So who else will succumb to the loss of revenue in a sector already beset by the inflation in real estate and the decline of galleries in general as a result of the dominance of art fairs. And aside from that, I doubt I will have quite as many finished paintings as I’d hoped by next spring, now that life keeps recruiting me for other tours of duty. I will likely present whatever I have completed and see what response I get, but I could also postpone all of this another year—yet that would feel like a surrender, backing off from the massive disruptions the world has been undergoing, not only my world’s, but everyone’s. As a result of all this, being on near-hiatus from Instagram and this blog feels oppressive and dispiriting. Yet I want to build this new body of work before I post anything from it, and I’ve been producing little else. I’m also continuing to write, when I can, about art—without yet posting it. A post about my visit to the exhibit of J.D. Salinger relics, as it were, at the New York Public Library, will be forthcoming shortly—it has taken me half a year to catch up and draw together all the notes I took away from it in January.

And, along with my projected solo show, I’m trying to assemble a sequence of essays that could serve as commentary for the show of taffy paintings. Let’s call it, for now, The Salt-Water Taffy Manifesto. If I were to complete writing it by the time I have a full complement of paintings for an exhibit, I will see if I can affordably print and present it as a companion catalog, a little illustrated feuilleton on behalf of purposely insignificant painting. That’s the plan anyway. So I may seem to have disappeared on this blog, but only because life has become more intensely interesting (and demanding) than the act of writing about it. And even so, I intend to pick up a paint brush every day from this morning until next April. That’s a promise to myself. Even if only for the current hour.

The toll of the shut-down in the Dorsey clan

Will Dorsey, with his new broom, taking a walk near our neighborhood in Pittsford. He and his family are now living with us as a result of the shut down.

After a freak accident on Friday, my daughter-in-law ended up in the Intensive Care Unit at Strong Memorial Hospital here. It was an unreal series of events in a day that was quietly uneventful up until that point. Our lives began that morning, not as usual, but at least unremarkably, if you discount the fact my son and his wife were back living under our roof with their two-year-old son as a result of the Covid-19 shut down in California and the nation. I began that morning two days ago around 6 a.m. by ordering groceries for my 95-year-old mother, still living independently, but unable to drive. It’s been a year since my father died, and she has adapted bravely to his loss. The help my brother and I offered my parents while he was dying occupied our entire summer last year, when we set up a hospice in his living room to deliver palliative care for weeks as he succumbed to sepsis from an inoperable pressure wound. Our new summer emergency wasn’t yet upon us at this hour. The Instacart order from Wegmans arrived here at my house, as I was mowing the lawn, even though the notes for where to deliver the food outside my mother’s door were visible on the payment page during checkout. So I finished the front yard and loaded the groceries into my Kia and drove twenty minutes to her place with them. We spoke briefly about the state of affairs in my household—for the time being, my son and daughter and their two-year-old son have migrating back to Pittsford, NY from Encino, CA, thanks to the economic shut-down. Our country’s state of suspended animation has interrupted, if not ended, Matthew’s ten-year career as a successful editor/creator of movie trailers for Seismic Productions. Movie production has been completely dead since March. Laura continues to work remotely for Ellen Degeneres. producing Ellen’s website videos with Kristin Bell and others. Her ability to do her job at home, with conference video calls, has enabled them to sell their home in Encino and flee the highly inflated cost of living in Southern California (as in most of the large metropolitan areas in the U.S.).

They arrived here with a carload of household items three weeks ago when they moved into our two spare bedrooms. We rearranged the house to give them space to live and work: the two spare bedrooms upstairs are now theirs, one for Will and the larger one for them. Laura works at a desk in our living room while Matthew takes care of their son, Will, who is possibly the most energized two-year-old on the planet. Matt talks about how, the day he was born, Will was wide-eyed and studying the features of his room, when he should have been sleeping or eating, and unable to see much of anything around him. When he goes for what might euphemistically be called “a walk” he sprints on his tip toes down the street, using the grate in a storm sewer as a razor thin balance beam for the balls of his feet if he isn’t wearing shoes. (Last year, along this same path during his visit, not even two years old at that point, he recited the numbers on the mailboxes as they passed.)

Neither Matt nor Laura know what the future holds for them as a family. She arrived here in the middle of this economic depression—if the unemployment rate, rather than the financial sector, represents the true measure of the economy—and not long after publication of a Buzzfeed article about the “toxic” work culture at the Ellen show. It was followed by revelations in which employees talked about harassment from several executive producers. Each of these stories sparked separate investigations within the company, still ongoing. The day after they arrived, Laura got a call from Warner Brothers and was interviewed by one of their attorneys asking about the allegations. She told the attorney that she was treated with respect and kindness, but that she was aware this might not be the case for others. My impression from everything I’ve heard is that Ellen is a creative spirit who, like many others in many fields, is being required to run an organization rather than focus on her strengths as a comedian and a personality. Once a creatively productive individual rises into management, it can often create problems. This happens everywhere: reporters become editors, detectives become desk sergeants, art directors run art departments, James Patterson becomes the head of a fiction factory. OK, maybe that last one worked out, for better or worse. Ellen seems like someone more at home in a green room than a C-suite conference room. It seems Ellen delegated the actual leadership of the company to her executive producers and they may not have been entirely suited to the power. But all of this is gossip at this point, gossip that has imperiled an entire company.

We all spent several weeks wondering if the show would return in the fall. Each day, Laura started her day at noon, EST, and finished up around 9 p.m., running meetings. Meanwhile, Matthew continued to play the John Lennon house-husband role, becoming Will’s closest and most available companion. On top of all this upheaval, Laura is pregnant and due to deliver her second child in December. So there was a faintly Joad-like quality to their journey, if the Joads had been traveling east rather than west, in an air-conditioned VW, staying at boutique Airbnbs, and funded by a modest nest-egg of equity from a highly inflated real estate market in California (where realtors set dates to take bids and houses nearly all sell for more than asking.) Their nest-egg was no larger than the down payment they made on the house two years ago: closing costs consumed the slight mark-up in the price. The 2,000 square foot “starter” home cost just under $1 million, with a back yard directly adjacent to a busy cut-through street at rush hour, with no side yard on either side, only a pair of catwalk-wide alleys, and no garage.

During my grocery delivery to my mother’s place, we talked about all this, speculating on where my son and his family will end up, how Matt might be able to resume employment, and how much stress this has put on their little family. Laura has become the bread-winner, Matt the homebound parent, and this creates tensions symmetrical to the ones in my own home, where I continue to work for a living though my wife is retired. Being an earner gives you some illusory leverage, but mostly it’s just a foundation for resentment rather than actual power. Living here, they could easily afford to continue in these roles—in L.A., never. When people talk about the urge to preserve the economy, it may in part be an expression of the desire to preserve the animal spirits of Wall Street, but mostly it’s about avoiding this kind of disruption through unemployment—the need for the middle class and working class to pay their bills and remain solvent. The continuing response in states like California, where the lock-down has been fairly stringent and lengthy, is only worsening what has been a growing trend around the country for years: the unaffordability of life in cities like L.A. and New York City. Tents for the homeless are going up everywhere as a result of this inflation. There was an encampment of the homeless only a quarter mile from Matt and Laura’s home in the San Fernando Valley. Inflation is invading smaller U.S. cities as a result of an ongoing wave of migration out of the big metro areas into these more affordable towns. It’s all the outcome of a temporary largesse thanks to the arbitrage of two currencies, the big city dollar vis a vis the much stronger small-town dollar. You bring that weak L.A. dollar into Western New York’s stable economy, and it buys a house more than twice as large, with outstanding public schools supported by taxes, not tuition, not a feature of parenthood in L.A.

We witnessed this last year in Boise when my wife and I looked at housing there, as a possible move to get us within a two-hour flight of Los Angeles, where both of our children and all of our grandkids were located at the time. I remarked to a Circle K cashier working in one of Boise’s more prestigious eastside neighborhoods how robust the housing market was in that beautiful city—the prices were already slightly higher than here in Rochester. She said, “Yeah, it’s great for the new arrivals, but terrible for the rest of us.” Those words will be the motto for countless cities across the country as people migrate steadily out of the big cities over the coming years. She said that if you’d grown up and taken a job in Boise, housing was essentially already unaffordable even in that idyllic, smaller city. Inflation, as a result of a decade of Fed policies to prop up an unsustainable economy, is the big story no one is reporting.

To have lived in Encino and continued to work in their industries wouldn’t have been utterly impossible for Matt and Laura. Matthew’s hours probably would have returned to something like a normal level by next spring, though the money in making trailers has never recovered to its pre-2008 levels. Laura’s job has somehow never seemed in danger, until the news stories shook the program and put everyone at the company on a resume-update footing in anticipation of the potential decision from Ellen Degeneres to simply give up on her position as one of the most successful talk-show hosts in the country. Yet in the tentative words of resolve issued at first to the media and then to employees, it appeared that the show would go on. I told Laura, I didn’t get the impression that someone as courageous as Ellen—one of the first gay entertainers to come out and work openly in the context of her gender identity—would give up and slink away into some kind of semi-retirement. As the days passed, Laura has become more confident and took heart from the love shared by her team and among her co-workers. Ellen and the executive producers who report directly to her may have been either remote and emotionally difficult, defaulting to anxiety-fueled management seeded with encouragement for motivation, but drop a couple tiers down into the show and the bond among workers is fierce. One of Laura’s closest friends and former co-workers, Lena Waithe, has risen into the ranks of elite Hollywood royalty—something that was beginning to happen when Lena attended Matt and Laura’s wedding in 2014. She remains in close contact with Laura even now, through texts and personal visits to their former Encino home.

As I was driving home from my mother’s, Matt called, and I answered in hands-free mode.

“Laura was hit by a car. I don’t know many of the details. She’s at Strong. When are you getting home?”

“In about fifteen minutes, probably. You mean your mom’s CRV was hit? Wasn’t she driving the CRV?” I asked.

“She wasn’t in the car.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“She was waiting to go in for her blood test, sitting outside, and a car ran over her.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s what the guy said. The car rolled over her.”

He decided to head to Strong Memorial Hospital himself, not knowing any further details. When I got home, with further texting from Matt, I pieced together what had happened. Laura arrived at the University of Rochester testing clinic, where you can show up without an appointment and get blood drawn. It was crowded inside so, wearing her mask and conscious of the need for social distancing, she went outside, where people were already overflowing from inside. She looked for a place to sit away from the throng. There were no chairs or benches or anywhere to wait comfortably. She found a spot on the grass strip alongside the parking lot and sat on it to text with co-workers. As she put it to Matt, “I was texting and then I was under a car.” The older woman driving the vehicle had gotten confused and saw herself heading toward Laura, kicked the throttle instead of the brake and jumped the curb, the tire climbing over Laura’s back, pinning her to the ground, crushing one side of her pelvis, which probably saved the baby’s life, cracking the opposite hipbone as well, breaking a rib, her shoulder blade and her forearm. The tire left a track of bruises across her back. It also dislocated her hip, which caused her great pain at the time. A bus driver saw the entire accident and jumped out of the bus to help her. Another bystander waiting outside the clinic—there were many who had to find a place to wait outside—called Matthew and also called the ambulance.

When the paramedics got her to Strong (also owned by the University of Rochester, the city’s largest employer, the new Eastman Kodak Co. in terms of its role at the apex of the local economy)  they determined her vital signs were good and got her into the ICU as quickly as possible to make sure the baby survives. Its heartbeat was untroubled, and continues to be strong. Through she arrived at the emergency room on Thursday, surgery to repair the hip couldn’t be scheduled until tomorrow, Monday. So she is in traction, virtually immobile, unable to move enough to text, yet able to make a phone call or dictate into the phone. Yesterday, she was in some degree of pain until later in the afternoon when the attendants found the right cocktail of pain analgesics for her drip.

My wife, Nancy, and I have been caring for Will as Matt spends much of his time at her side in the ICU. Almost immediately after the accident, I called a personal injury attorney to find out what we needed to manage the costs of her medical care. I also wrote to one of her closest co-workers at the Ellen Show with a quick summary of what had happened, after which word spread throughout the company and resulted in a flood of texts and phone calls of concern and support. The attorney said few people understand that despite the prevalence of no-fault car insurance, the car insurance policy of the driver at fault, the one who ran over Laura, will pay for medical care—not Laura’s health plan from the show. Car insurance is entirely responsible for the payment of injury claims, he said. We haven’t yet checked with another attorney on this, though Matt has a name from a high school friend here. Once the driver’s liability coverage is exhausted, Laura’s own car insurance will pick up additional costs. After that, the source of the money needs to be determined. The question is simply how long she will be in the hospital, and the cost of the care she will receive. At this point, everyone expects her to fully recover, but it will take months of rehabilitation before she delivers the baby in December. Costs were an immediate concern because one of Laura’s best friends had a highly premature child not long ago and those six weeks of neonatal care, and treatment for her own complications, ran up a bill for $1 million, with a co-pay of $25,000 for the couple. The last thing Matt and Laura need is to see their nestegg erased along with one of their jobs.

Yesterday, Matt was at her side in the ICU when his phone rang from an unidentified caller. One of Laura’s producer friends at the company said she could expect a mystery call and to answer it. Laura was anticipating a call from an executive producer. Matt answered.

“Is this Matthew?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Hi Matt, this is Ellen Degeneres,” she said.

“Oh, hi Ellen! Let me put you on speaker.”

As he did this, Matt was startled by an alarm in the room. Laura’s heartbeat had spiked so much, it set off an alert from the monitor.

“Hi Laura. How are you honey?” she asked.

Laura told her.

“Do you remember the accident?” Ellen asked.

“Yes, every second,” she said, and proceeded to recount what happened.

Ellen spoke with her for a while and said the company was very concerned about her and would be there for her if she needed anything. She signed off after a short while, saying, “Believe it or not, I have another person to call in Chicago who was in a car accident.”

The call reassured all of us that the show will go on, that Laura will have a secure job, and that her team cares deeply about her. When Matt got home, he was telling us the story of their day together in the hospital and a text came in.

“It’s Kristin Bell,” he told us, sitting on the couch in our family room.. Bell offered her concern and sympathy and any help Laura needs. Matt said, “She says to tell her we love her.”

An hour later, he got another text. He said, “A car full of food is arriving.” He went out into the driveway and carried in a dozen packages, full of chicken parmesan, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken wings, garlic bread, salad, a feast of fast food ordered for delivery by Laura’s team at the show.

Every night since they’ve gotten here, Will has woken up crying at some point between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Last night, after Laura’s mother arrived from Philadelphia and slept in the room where Matt and Laura had been sleeping, Matt slept on the floor beside Will—without any discomfort, he said, which is more a reflection of Matt’s tolerant, flexible character than the ergonomics of a hardwood floor. Will slept soundly through the night for the first time since their arrival. With a few prayers for Laura’s complete recovery and a successful surgery, we all did.

The grace of the mundane

The Light for the Day, 24″ x 24″, oil on linen

​I pause to look at the ordinary places and objects in everyday life and feel the stillness and quietness that historic painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and Edward Hopper capture with an inexplicable sense of solitude and melancholy.
     In my paintings, the mundane surroundings imply transient conditions: such as the disappearance or transformation of old buildings, inexpensive furniture abandoned out on the street, people in the subway heading somewhere, an empty street on holiday, small closing stores in the neighborhood, and dusk at the end of a day.
     I am compelled to leave traces of such moments of disappearance on my canvas. The toned-down mood and the elaborate details raise feelings of stillness and quietness which portray an ephemeral presence. 

–Yonjae Kim