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Embodiments of Life

Still Life, Gillian Pedersen-Krag

There’s a funny and moving scene in Amadeus where Mozart defends his music for The Marriage of Figaro. His monarch cites good reasons for prohibiting a performance of the story: it’s immoral, degenerate and revolutionary in spirit. (The movie suggests that some might have thought of Mozart’s own personal life in those terms, on occasion.) The king fears that a performance of the opera might inspire insurrection.  France is on the verge of political chaos. Austria worries about the contagion. Yet Mozart dismisses all of these considerations, and his fervor about what he’s done in his composition is entirely about the formal brilliance of his work: the libretto may be subversive, disruptive and potentially violent, but his music is the embodiment of harmony and order. He’s living on an entirely different plane from those around him, playing a glass bead game with notes, striving for transcendent harmonies, merging many voices into one melody, with a passion for conveying nothing more than the quick joy of life itself.

The king: “Figaro is a bad play. It stirs up hatred between the classes.”

Mozart: “Sire, there is nothing like that in the piece. I hate politics. The end of the second act for example. It starts out as a simple duet. Just a husband and wife, quarreling. Suddenly, the wife’s scheming little maid comes in, duet turns into trio. Then the husband’s valet comes in. Trio turns into quartet. Then the stupid old gardener comes in. Quartet turns into quintet. On and on. Sextet, septet, octet. How long do you think I can sustain that, your majesty? Twenty minutes. If that many people talk at the same time, it’s noise. Only opera can do this. But with opera, with music, you can have twenty individuals talking at the same time and it’s not noise, it’s a perfect harmony.

For him, it isn’t what anyone in the opera is saying that matters. What matters is the magic of music’s arithmetic, the way layer upon layer of separate sounds can be woven together into a complete whole—how one becomes two and two becomes three. And of course that’s what endures. No one today who gets goose bumps listening to that opera’s overture cares that it might have sparked a revolution. We’re filled with the bliss of Mozart’s genius, not the libretto’s comically subversive message.

For me, Mozart’s struggle is similar to the struggle of representational painters who realize that they are wrestling with physical materials in an effort to create an image that answers to certain entirely formal needs—and therefore to convey, through perception alone, an awareness that has little to do with imparting ideas or thoughts. The formal qualities work in a way that doesn’t depend on what they can be construed to mean. A painting has little or nothing to say about life; instead, it embodies life directly.

Even without the need to mean something that can be extracted through analysis, representational work faces another challenge. Paint’s abstract qualities—color, value, texture—still need to evoke a roughly recognizable world. Color has to serve representation in a way similar to the way Mozart’s music works with the burden and opportunities of his libretto. (In the movie, Mozart couldn’t care less whether or not his story is vaudeville or Greek tragedy or conventionally meaningful at all; the narrative merely gives him an excuse to channel delight and joy through sound in a purely physical way.)

Having rewatched this movie recently, I was reminded of these polarities when I drove down to Village Gallery in Cazenovia this past weekend to listen to Gillian Pederson-Krag speak for an hour about her painting. I was eager to see her paintings and meet her ever since I’d caught a glimpse of her work in Baltimore a few years ago at an exhibition of perceptual painting curated by Matt Klos. In Annapolis, Pederson-Krag’s painting hung appropriately alongside examples from Rackstraw Downes, Edwin Dickenson, Charles Hawthorne, and many other great painters who worked mostly in a perceptual mode.

On view now at Village Gallery are her latest landscapes and still lifes, a genre in which she has made color her primary concern. With landscape, she somehow, marvelously, uses a much more restricted palette to evoke feeling and intuition from scenes that feel like remembered dreams even as they are also precise representations of either enclosed wooded bowers or expansive beaches that serve as the threshold to endless open space. In both still life and landscape, she does what Fairfield Porter strove to do: depict the world just as it is, while seeming to make it slightly more beautiful. That sounds like a cosmetic procedure, but Porter added a stipulation that a painting is beautiful because it contains a mystery, not because it hews to some pre-conceived notion of what’s lovely. The paradox of this aim toward beauty is that every vital painting has to rediscover what the terms are, how beauty can be disclosed in a fresh way. For Pederson-Krag it arrives through the struggle to achieve this with color—often despite the demands of representation. (Porter shrugged off many of those demands as a needless surrender to a work ethic, keeping his brushwork simple and often very loose, turning his shadows sometimes into pure hues; his thesis about Eakins was that the earlier American painter submitted to assiduous realism in an effort to make painting feel more like work than play, trying to convince himself he was actually working for a living rather than indulging himself in art. Porter, on the other hand, was determined to keep his choices more unpredictable, regardless of whether or not he worked just as hard in the end.)

Pederson-Krag’s brief description of her central contest, the tug-of-war between color and representation, for me, was the pivot around which everything else in her talk revolved. She spoke of how every artist has to find his or her own “door” into painting, a foothold from which all of the work springs. She opened a book about Cezanne and walked around showing her little audience the painter’s early, unrecognizable, melodramatic depictions of murder and rape—you could see how he essentially realized who he was when he discovered that the paint mattered more than what it depicted, and thus how he, and only he, could make a painting. As she pointed out: he discovered who he wanted to be as he discovered how to paint. For him the door into painting was the hope of making a field of color evoke geometric form and volume without losing the sense of brilliant open-air light—pushing toward pure abstraction in formal terms, while still evoking a partly recognizable world involuntarily distorted in an individually original way. What’s amazing about Cezanne is that the increased complexity of color in his work, compared to the green and blue world he was rendering, doesn’t feel arbitrary, but has its own inner necessity, in Kandinsky’s phrase.

Countless painters are engaged in that same effort now. This effort to fashion a truce between pure color and the way the world actually looks, when it works, can reveal feelings, moods and intuitions, what used to be called a sensibility, opening up an entire world of visual intelligence that isn’t about intellectual content. In a way, a painting is about nothing but itself, even though when it works it triggers in the viewer a long sequence of insights and experiences, opening up a fresh way to behold a familiar world. A great painting doesn’t mean something; instead it evokes a world. The problem with most of what’s said about painting is that, of necessity, it usually ignores this central work visual art is engaged in and instead tries to translate the work into intellectual terms. Analyzing art, speaking about painting, invariably conceptualizes what’s happening, even though visual art is able to bypass the intellect entirely, and embody, as Porter said, a mystery inaccessible to theory. (Don’t look to Banksy for this, for example: what he’s doing, and so many artists who have something to say, is perfectly clear.) The mystery isn’t something occult or strange or rare: it’s simply an awareness of life so familiar and intimate—and anterior to thought—that it becomes invisible in daily experience until a painting makes it feel new by making it visible again. The point of painting is to manifest what’s there in life from minute to minute but is so omnipresent it’s inaccessible to conscious observation. Peterson-Krag put it this way: the beauty a painting achieves is both surprising and familiar. It’s a slightly different way of saying “surprising and yet inevitable.” And she echoed another of Porter’s observations when she said, “It enables you to see something familiar as if for the first time.”

That’s precisely the paradox at the heart of painting: to enable you to recognize something that feels entirely fresh and new.  If you recognize it, it can’t really be new, and yet that’s how it feels.  Habit falls away and the most ordinary things become fascinating again when represented effectively in paint: looking at a great painting is liberating. The difficulty of painting, and of any creative work, is that there is no way to keep doing this reliably, despite all of the repeatable working methods a painter can master—beauty emerges as a byproduct of the struggle, as unpredictable to the painter as it is to the viewer.

From still life to still life, Pederson-Krag works to establish a varied range of colors that fill the entire visual field established by the painting—nearly every patch of color in the painting serves a purpose, leaving no room for negative space. Even a wall behind a little green end table bears a pattern—a tactic Zoey Frank uses to the same effect in her still lifes. The eye moves around the canvas comfortably but doesn’t fix itself on any particular item as a focal point, but instead apprehends the light, and the entire composition, as a whole. This approach makes the surface of the painting, the paint itself, as important as what it depicts. Her struggle is to compose an image in color, using the hue of various source objects to create a design—balancing the flat design against the challenge of creating a three-dimensional space—while attempting at the same time to unify the image into a coherent whole and a consistent sense of light.

This, for me, is what she meant when I asked her at what point in her life color became her central concern:

I have always struggled with it. I think it’s the most powerful element in the painting. When I’m really moved by a painting it’s usually the color. I’m always looking for color and warmth. Many objects have a character to them, but they don’t have a color opportunity. When I’m painting, the color always diminishes. I’m always diminishing the color so I always exaggerate it (early on) because I know it’s going to disappear. As I work into things, the color diminishes and I tend to resolve things with value. In that landscape (pointing to one of her pieces on the wall), I tried to make it about color but in the end I could only make it work with a value statement, which is the little element of light (shining through at the center of the painting). (The parenthetical remarks are mine.)

What I think she meant was that she designs a painting as a composition of pure color. In a still life, her objects are carefully chosen and arranged, chosen in part for their color, not simply “found” sitting on a surface in her environment. Her intent is to create a pattern of hues on the surface of the canvas by depicting what she has assembled. She begins with a focus on the relationships among the various colors she’s enabled herself to put down on the surface, through her arrangement of objects, but eventually she gets to the point where she can’t ignore the painting’s lack of unity, so she gradually shifts to a concern with lights and darks, in an effort to create a unified whole. And that inevitably dilutes and obscures the color and pulls her away from what prompted her to paint in the first place. When the painting works, even when it works beautifully, as her paintings all do, it’s a wistful truce between color and value. I’ve always considered this contest between value and color the price of perceptual painting, or any sort of representational work whose primary motive is color. There’s a trade-off in how the demands of representation mute a painter’s opportunities with color. At some level, you’re stuck wrestling with how the world actually looks: it’s mostly green and blue and brown, and it’s full of shadows. Anyone who wants to work primarily with color and, at the same time, create an image that looks remotely the way the world actually looks is living under the yoke of conflicting demands. It’s why it’s easy for a representational colorist looks toward Stella or Noland with envy.

What’s remarkable about Pederson-Krag is that she succeeds so impressively and her final colors become subtle, not dull, in a lustrous way. Though Matt Klos suggested to me, on my visit to Baltimore, that perceptual painting descends mostly from Impressionism, Pederson-Krag’s effort ends up creating images that look Tonalist in their disengagement from the immediate present, in the way they hint at loss and memory and the past, a timeless evanescence, as it were, while still feeling entirely alive and unpredictable in the colors that emerge from her tenacious determination not to obscure the fact that she’s fashioning a field of paint, not simply tricking the eye entirely into forgetting the paint in favor of what it depicts. If I were a collector, I would have bought more than one of her still lifes, but her landscapes have taken her to an even more rarified level and in some ways are more amazing. In them, she achieves a remarkable sense of reality, in a severely restricted range of colors, even while, up close, the images are literally layered visibly into a stucco-like surface of paint—a surface I told her reminded me of Braque. I marvel at the landscapes, because though I can conjecture my way, as a painter, from the blank canvas to the final image in some of her still lifes, even repeated viewing of the landscapes left me baffled about how she got from a white stretch of cloth to the painting hanging on the wall: those scenes embodied yet another level of mystery that kept me coming back to look at them in vain for a clue about how she’d made them.

Bill Finewood

These are small, beautifully executed landscapes by Bill Finewood, currently on view in “Methods Change but the Spirit is the Same”, at the Insalaco-Williams Gallery 34, Finger Lakes Community College. It’s a great overview of his work in different mediums and styles throughout his career. These oils were stand outs in composition, color and handling of the medium, resonant with the unique light of a particular time of day and season. The show also includes a marvelously tactile and detailed drawing of a rabbit, a bit of an homage to Durer’s famous and incomparable one.

Air, water, food and art–maybe in that order

From the sixth episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, a witty, smart podcast about almost anything from the vantage of this era in which human beings are changing the nature of the world, intentionally and unintentionally, in ways no living creature has ever done before. This is almost the entire essay on the Lascaux caves, but the second half, on Taco Bell, is just as fine and worth the visit for a listen:

So if you’ve ever been or had a child you will likely already be familiar with hand stencils. They were the first figurative art made by both our kids somewhere between the ages of two and three. My children spread the fingers of one hand out across a piece of paper and then with the help of a parent traced their five fingers. I remember my son’s face as he lifted his hand and looked absolutely shocked to see the shape of his hand still on the paper, a semi-permanent record of himself. I am extremely happy that my children are no longer three and yet to look at their little hands from those earlier artworks is to be inundated with a strange soul-splitting joy. Those pictures remind me that they are not just growing up but also growing away from me, running toward their own lives. But of course that’s meaning I am applying to their hand stencils and that complicated relationship between art and its viewers is never more fraught than when we are looking deeply into the past.

In September of 1940, an 18-year-old mechanic named Marcel Ravidat was walking his dog Robot in the countryside of Southwestern France when the dog disappeared down a hole. Robot eventually returned, but the next day Ravidat went to the spot with three friends to explore the hole and after quite a bit of digging they discovered the cave with walls covered with paintings, including over 900 paintings of animals: horses, stags, bison and also species that are now extinct, including a woolly rhinoceros. The paintings were astonishingly detailed and vivid with red, yellow and black paint made from pulverized mineral pigments that were usually blown through a narrow tube, possibly a hollowed bone, onto the walls of the cave. It would eventually be established that these artworks where at least 17,000 years old. Two of the boys who visited the cave that day were so profoundly moved by the art they saw that they camped outside the cave to protect it for over a year. After World War II, the French government took over protection of the site, and the cave was opened to the public in 1948. When Picasso saw the cave paintings on a visit that year, he reportedly said, “We have invented nothing.”

There are many mysteries at Lascaux. Why, for instance, are there no paintings of reindeer, which we know where the primary source of food for the Paleolithic humans. Why were they so much more focused on painting animals than painting human forms? Why are certain areas of the caves filled with images including pictures on the ceiling that required the building of scaffolding to create? Were the painting spiritual? “Here are sacred animals.” Or, “Here is a practical guide to some of the animals that might kill you.” Aside from the animals, there are nearly a thousand abstract signs and shapes we cannot interpret and also several negative hand stencils, as they are known by art historians. These are the paintings that most interest me. They were created by pressing one hand with fingers splayed against the wall of the cave and then blowing pigment, leaving the area around the hand painted. Similar hand stencils have been found in caves around the world from Indonesia to Spain to Australia to the Americas to Africa. We have found these memories of hands from fifteen or thirty or even forty thousand years ago.

These hand stencils remind us of how different life was in the distant past. Amputations, likely from frostbite, are common in Europe, and so you often see negative hand stencils with three or four fingers. But they also remind us that the past (artists) were as human as we are, their hands indistinguishable from ours. Every healthy person would have had to contribute to the acquisition of food and water, and yet somehow they still made time to create art almost as if art isn’t optional for humans  It’s fascinating and a little strange but so many Paleolithic humans who couldn’t possibly have had any contact with each other created the same paintings the same way–art that we are still making. But then again what the Lascaux art means to me is likely very different from what it meant to the people who made it.

I have to confess that even though I am a jaded and cynical semi-professional reviewer of human activity, I actually find it overwhelmingly hopeful that four teenagers and a dog named Robot would discover 17,000-year-old hand prints. That the cave was so overwhelmingly beautiful that two of those teenagers devoted themselves to its protection, and that when we humans became a danger to that cave’s beauty, we agreed to stop going. Lascaux is there. You cannot visit. You can go to the fake cave we built and see nearly identical hand stencils but you will know this is not the thing itself but a shadow of it. This is a handprint but not a hand. This is a memory that you cannot return to. All of which makes the cave very much like the past it represents.


My parents, Gene and Rita Dorsey, from happier times.

I’ve been a blogger manqué for much of the summer mostly because I’ve been immersed in trying to finish the three paintings I’ve already written about—and I am on pace to get them done on time. But I’ve also been busy with my two other occupations—writing to earn money and taking care of my elderly parents. It feels odd to call my parents elderly when I, myself, will in short order be able to qualify for that demographic. Maybe sixty is the new forty, but I have a feeling that the milestones to come will cast a darker shadow on a narrowing path. Time feels as if it’s getting shorter by the day, which means I need to work harder to stay ahead of the clock, but I’m finding that the painting life is giving me lessons about my larger life as a human being, not just a painter, despite myself. The need to pay attention has become the central imperative of my life, in almost all activities. Writing still comes naturally, and I can do what I need to do—with the exception of contributing to this blog over the summer, clearly—but caring for my parents has become both a bigger challenge and a deeper reward. I find, repeatedly, that I’m choosing to see myself as a son, rather than a painter, on a daily basis for varying lengths of time. And I’m discovering that, as laborious and discouraging as it can be, I’m adapting to it. I’m changing in a way similar to what happened to me when I became a father, when I found myself willing to do almost anything to care for my kids, without resentment or complaint—no matter how it robbed me of my autonomy and personal time.

My brother, Phil, and I share the responsibilities of enabling my parents to continue to live independently in their condo in Penfield, NY, a twenty-minute drive from my home. My father lives most of his life now at a few points on the tiny map of his primarily domestic world: bedroom, bathroom, dining room, deck and TV room. He’s able, just barely, to shift his body from bed to scooter and thence to the bathroom, the living area, or the deck outside. His infirmities derive from stenosis, peripheral neuropathy, a brief TIA from which he partially recovered, pulmonary issues, and increasing effects of dementia—he is the same person as he always was, but greatly diminished, hemmed in, caged by his body and brain, though his sense of humor remains intact as do his gratitude and kindness. However, more and more his despair over his condition sparks bouts of anger or snarky critiques of those around him. Inevitably, whenever we are together I gaze directly at the future, my future and everyone’s future, and it has the effect of stripping away most of the layers of denial that all of us wrap around ourselves like comforters on a cold night. Old age and death watch me, as I watch them. We’re all dying slowly or quickly, and when you see that, what matters most in life is giving as much care to one another as possible. Occasionally, the demands of my father’s predicament test my equanimity, but most of the time I just surrender and do what both of them need and what my brother, Phil, is unavailable to do.

Yesterday afternoon, I stepped away from my canvas long enough to take a call from my mother. I had to do it on my iPad because the iPhone was downstairs, and I dreaded it because I had never definitively located the pinprick in the tablet’s body for the microphone. For a long time, I’ve been speaking into the data port, like a dolt, which usually has elicited an exasperated question: “Are you in the car? You’re fading.” This time I found it at the top of the case, finally, and so comms via iPad have been established, once and for all, with reliable clarity.

“Well I finished The Bostonians,” she announced.

We’d been reading this book together in parallel over the past couple weeks. Despite the recent erosion of her vision, Mom still can use lenses to decipher a recipe if she can enlarge the typeface enough: she cooks her own corned beef, makes pasta with lobster, garlic and olive oil, pan-sears sea bass and serves my father a milk shake for lunch every Sunday. For decades they have lived there happily. In the past, they’ve been able to venture out to meet with friends for lunch or dinner, play golf, and spend the winter at their other condo in Florida. Now they leave the place only to buy necessities or visit a physician.

Yet this domestic normalcy doesn’t hold anymore. A cursory description of their life doesn’t reflect the daunting emotional struggle they face. My father has declined dramatically over the past three years, both physically and mentally, and my mother has only now, at 93, begun to show signs of memory lags—a hesitation in calling up a particular word or name—the little blips of aphasia I already notice in myself, dead pixels that wink out in the screen of memory and then light up after a while, or don’t. Physically, her only ailment has been macular degeneration and arteriosclerosis, requiring a stent earlier in the decade—triggering a reaction that sent her heart racing so fast she nearly died in her hospital bed until they found the medication needed to slow it down.

All that aside, Mom reads more books than I do. It’s her solace, her reward, both an escape and an engagement with narratives that give meaning and perspective to her own life. It’s the one thing she looks forward to in her day, the hour or two in bed after my father has fallen asleep when she can let a storyteller take her by the hand and lead her mercifully through someone else’s younger life. She spends all of her day, every day, caring for my disabled father, who has declined more and more rapidly, both physically and mentally, in his 90s as he wanders deeper into the waste of advanced age. His struggles are hers, though my brother and I live close enough to visit and help her through one crisis after another, or simply show up to do repairs and solve technology issues or fix equipment or, most often, take them to a medical appointment. Mom can’t see well enough to actually read the words on a page, unless they are dramatically enlarged on the computer screen, so she listens to voice-acted books downloaded from Audible. In the past, she always kept an eye on the Sunday Book Review, sampling best-sellers, and reading mostly classic American authors. Her syllabus through the years included all of Hemingway and his biographers. (She and my father had met Hemingway’s son, Jack, once in Sun Valley, and he told them he hadn’t read a word of his father’s novels and never would, which wasn’t a surprise, considering how Hemingway had abandoned him and his mother, Hadley, in Paris.) Over the years my mother has read books by Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt and Tom Wolfe, as well as one-off hits like All the Light We Cannot See, and has, in the past, eagerly consumed everything John Irving published, as well as dozens of other authors. Recently, she read Winesburg, Ohio, but couldn’t cotton to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The prose, which in The Great Gatsby has almost never been equaled, just put her off. She always preferred Papa. Having exhausted the available catalog of audible books by John Steinbeck, she now relies on me for suggestions. For example, I spotted a new Anne Tyler book in the Sunday review and downloaded it for her, but her reaction was that it felt like a sandwich and soup after the fine cuisine of James and Tolstoy

This past spring, I nominated Anna Karenina, because I’d decided that, while I paint, I would start listening to whatever she was “reading”, so that we could talk about what we think of it as we make our way through it. Tolstoy was one author I had neglected to read in my younger days, with the exception of his later essays and some of the longer stories. We both loved the novel, the sort of book that couldn’t be written now, given our culture. What followed were long discussions about the characters. I explained to her how Levin’s slow enlightenment, in parallel with Anna’s moral and psychological decline—they both confront suicidal urges with radically different outcomes—was a retelling of Tolstoy’s own harrowing spiritual journey. Levin is Tolstoy’s avatar, and what happens to him in the book is a fictional portrayal of the mental agony that led Tolstoy to discover a new interpretation of the New Testament, a fresh reading that ended up inspiring both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

She told me that as the end of the book neared she kept hoping for more and more chapters, she was so spellbound by Tolstoy’s world and the generosity of his vision. On the other hand, she has yet to finish Resurrection, partly because it bores her but mostly because Henry James has sauntered decorously into her path and, after four of his novels, addicted her to his voice. We started with Portrait of a Lady and made our way through The American and What Maisie Knew and now The Bostonians. I have a list of seven other novels, though I plan to spare her the complicated syntax of his final three great books. She was as ambivalent about the voice in What Maisie Knew as I was, and it was only a comparatively brief sample of the prose in The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It’s easier to read than to listen to the incorporeal Jamesian sentences of those last novels, which seem to want to detach themselves from the physical world and feed the consciousness of his characters directly into the reader’s mind, like the umbilical data cables in The Matrix. He likes to pack a paragraph of thought and feeling into a sentence that feels as if it is constructed to make you forget how it started by the time you’ve arrived at the period.

I had finished The Bostonians an hour before my iPad played its little steel band ring tone riff.

“What did you think?” I asked. “I liked it. I think it ended exactly the way it should have.”

“I think so,” she said. “They did get together but he had that last comment about how she would be in tears again.”

“But you can see it’s true. He wants to silence her. He wants her at home, not in public.”

“I just couldn’t stand to see her end up with Olive. I was so disgusted with that woman.”

“Olive was a stalker. She was making money off Verena’s genius, wasn’t she? They all were. It wasn’t healthy.”

“I liked Basil.”

“I did too, but James gives you a pretty balanced look at what’s going to happen. Basil wants her to quit advocating for women and just be there for him. He said that she can go on speaking and using her talents, but only at the dinner table. She’s not going to be able to bear it. She’s in love with him, and I wanted her to marry him, but Ransom needs to wake up. James keeps you guessing what he thinks about the women’s movement back then—it was a sort of circus with all the other contemporaneous spiritual movements—but I think in the end he sympathizes with the idea that women need to be free and equal, just as the blacks in the south did. He brings up the parallel many times.”

“That’s fine, but what happens to the family?”

There was a personal stake in this conversation. My mother had chosen the traditional path: to be the business executive’s partner both at home and in society. And it had worked for them and for us, as sons: she was devoted to her kids. The challenges of raising us constituted all the fulfillment she needed in life. My father made enough to support all of us. Discussions around women’s liberation had taken place in our home while I was growing up, decades ago, and the dilemma is at the heart of what’s happening now in the lives of my children. My father was an advocate for feminism and my mother wasn’t opposed, but she distrusted the overreach she felt was built into it. She predicted that children would suffer.

It’s a question that is being raised and resolved again, in opposing ways, in our family right now. My wife was able to quit working for the early years of our children’s lives, just as my mother had done, but then Nancy went back into teaching full time. My son and daughter have worked many years in Los Angeles in the film industry. Christin suspended a Los Angeles career that took her through various positions at companies like New Line Cinema and Skydance after having her second child and is now happily exhausting herself as a full-time mother. Her simple justification: “Family comes first.” My son, Matthew, has worked for a decade cutting movie trailers at Seismic Productions, and his wife, after having their first child late last year, has decided to hire a nanny and return to her job with Ellen Degeneres. I’m watching from the sidelines to see how this works out—once Laura has a second child, I’m expecting she’ll have second thoughts about driving off to work every morning. Yet they won’t be able to survive without two incomes, having just bought a modest but astronomically-priced house in Encino. It’s a little ranch, squeezed between two others, with 2,000 square feet, no garage, no basement, of course, and a limited attic for storage. It’s just one step up from a starter home, at best, despite the price tag. The insanity of the economy we’ve been creating for the past decade troubles me. This is not going to end well, for the country. They have no choice but to have two careers. Feminism happens to serve the capitalist system quite well—because decades of wage stagnation have required both parties in a marriage to have careers now, and that’s a recipe for stagnant wages. Flood the market with labor and wages stall. As a result, single-incomes aren’t enough for most families.

“Well, I don’t think Henry James was thinking much about child-rearing, What Maisie Knew notwithstanding. In this case, he was just wondering if Verena’s talents will fester and create a lot of suffering for both of them. And how long are children around every day anyway? It’s only for a few years and then they’re off to school.”

“But they are home by three,” my mother said, essentially advocating for the choices she was able to make sixty years ago.

And so we debated a question that America settled decades ago: women need to have all the rights and opportunities as men, and children will be raised as best they can be despite the absence of one or both parents for much of the day. As it turned out, my mother was very happy and quite fulfilled without a career.

And now it’s my turn to juggle work and family, taking care of them, as they took care of me. This has become one of my most vital roles right now, when I put down a paint brush—and partly why I haven’t been contributing as readily to this blog. I’m working on a personally imposed deadline to complete three challenging paintings, and all the while my parents are requiring more and more assistance. I have been over at their condo for an hour or two, or three, every few days over the past few weeks. I had to lift my father off the bathroom floor last week, when he appeared to all of us to be dying. He had lost strength in his legs, stretched out on the tiles, gazing up at the ceiling with dazed eyes, and when I got there he was having trouble breathing, could hardly speak, and didn’t seem able to respond to questions. I managed to leverage him up by following my younger brother’s example from a previous mishap—slipping my arms under his, squatting behind him, locking my hands at his breastbone and then lifting his 160 pounds with my legs to the point where I could slide his butt onto the wheeled transport chair beside him. He had collapsed out of weakness from pneumonia in his right lung and an infected bladder—the outcome an episode a couple weeks earlier of incontinence. E coli was the villain. My brother showed up and called 911, and the paramedics got him on an IV, which helped restore some alertness, and took him to Highland Hospital.

It was the last thing any of us wanted. Hospital stays for anyone in the family consume your life, and my father hates those stays with the sorrow of a small child. My wife had had a life-threatening emergency with a strep infection in the spring, and I spent nearly a week driving to and from her room twice a day with food and supplies. In these situations, little work gets done: the concentration needed to paint or write can’t coil itself tightly enough to drive the momentum required for the flow I need. But there was no hesitation on my part: the ability to shift into this outer-directed gear has become second nature, directing my attention to something other than myself—the task at hand. I’ve been doing this for my parents so many years. I’ve surrendered to it, gratefully now. It’s the best thing I can possibly do with my time. There is no choice really, when you see what needs to be done—what is the only good thing to do. It becomes its own reward. So with our father, my brother and I spent several days commuting to and from the hospital, picking up our mother, spending time at his bedside, and then returning home to get in some hours of work, while the other brother drove to pick her up and take her home in the evening. This was only one incident in a long sequence of similar events, throughout the years since Dad turned 80. Somehow we are managing, thanks to my mother’s tenacity and strength and health, to keep them both out of a nursing home, though lately we’ve begun to wonder how long she’ll be able to cope with his deterioration.

One of the most crucial ways I’m trying to be there for my mother, through all this, is by reading these books along with her. As much as she and my father need our physical presence to solve myriad problems—I put in an hour trying to clear out the ductwork for her clothes dryer last week—these reading sessions are in some ways a life line. More and more she has no one to talk with her, since my Dad’s ability to converse about anything has become minimal. To talk about Tolstoy sustains her and revives her and gives her something to look forward to, both the act of listening to the stories and then the phone calls where we talk about them, in our little two-person book club. The key element in all of this is just the simple act of paying attention. Someone cares enough to engage in a half-hour conversation every day, listening to the challenges and pleasures of the past twenty-four hours. Everyone craves attention and so few other people are actually willing to give it: spouses, children, parents, friends, and employers. It’s surprising to discover that, these days, one of the best ways of getting focused attention from anyone is to call a Sears repairman or some independent plumber and simply enjoy how those hourly rates can inspire the most intense and helpful work on your problems that money can buy. You can get, along with it, some intelligent conversation—some of the liveliest talks I’ve had in recent years about nearly any current event or life predicament have been with some of these sharp and independent workers. It’s probably as good as psychological therapy, which is one other way to pay for the luxury of having someone else listen to your problems, looking for solutions. Bartenders, of course, are always a fallback.

As Iris Murdoch pointed out repeatedly, when you pay attention to someone or something you give up autonomy—you have to willingly submit your freedom to the service of something greater than whatever you feel like doing at any given moment. This is as true in my family life as it is in painting. It can be incredibly easy and unconscious, when you’ve done this so much that there’s no resistance to whatever needs to be done, but it can also be achingly difficult. Paying attention is risky: once you do it, you find yourself drawn against your will into an undertow of obligations to the task that has it’s own momentum, because you end up caring about the people you’re helping more than you did before you opened yourself up to their predicament. That momentum can be painful, a riptide that exhausts you if you fight against it psychologically. But if you give in to it, it can be a tail wind. The caring leads inevitably to the rededication of time and energy to someone else. That means sacrifice. But a sacrifice can also be a loss of weight, a lightening of one’s own load—you give up your attachment to what you think you want to do in order to do what you know you need to do. There’s buoyancy in it, if you let yourself go.

I’m learning from all this, learning about myself and about what matters in life. Every day I’m recognizing more clearly that to pay attention is the most fundamental human faculty, from which everything else springs. What means the most to both my father and mother is not that we solved the problem, but that my brother and I cared enough to show up and talk to them about it and try to help. The attention is what they crave more than anything. And as much as I remind others in the family that this is the case, being thousands of miles away makes them less and less able to show they care. It’s up to the two of us now. Everything else humanly possible grows out of paying attention, as Krishnamurti—and many others before him—observed in all of his lectures. It’s there at the root of every skill, every instance of learning, every meaningful human gesture, peak emotional moment, and pleasurable indulgence. Most of what I regret from my typical day can be traced to inattentiveness. Before all else, in painting, I have to pay attention. It’s both the first and last step, as that sage observed. Once I’ve done that, I have to pay even closer attention.

Wide Awake passes the Turing test

Parquet Courts at SXSW 2013

Wide Awake, the new album from Parquet Courts, is a relief. I’d almost given up on these guys. In his production of the album, Danger Mouse has helped bring them back to their core strengths, while at the same time becoming a bit like the musical equivalent of Prozac. He makes the overall experience less discordant and much, much more enjoyable than the band’s work since their breakthrough album, but he also rounds off the edges a bit. In a few tracks, the boys hit their post-punk target with the same raw power and wit (“Do I pass the Turing test?”) that was so evident in Light Up Gold. Yet much of this pleasurably surprising album stays at a less frenetic pitch. What’s hopeful is that, in comparison with the experimental recordings they’ve been tinkering with, here they’ve kept faith with their unkempt appetite for a relentless beat, and are a little more considerate of an average Ramones lover’s needs. What I miss is the sense of their cutting completely loose, flirting with barely controlled frenzy in obeisance only to a melody and their phenomenal drummer, Max Savage. They have yet to set the crossbar any higher than Master of My Craft but they’re getting close.

No ideas but in things

Frederick Hammersley’s notes for possible titles

To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.      –Agnes Martin

Frederick Hammersley was a sort of visual Taoist. Everything in his work seems to emerge out of a creative tension between polar opposites. Even his titles often depend on the polarities of a pun. If something in his work is pregnantly curved, it will be answered by razor-sharp angles elsewhere. In his organic images, the paint seems as irresistibly pure and fresh and new as tinted icing on a cake, yet it will be surrounded by a frame that looks salvaged and restored, as distressed as driftwood. These one-off, hand-crafted wooden frames—the urge to run a fingertip across them was mighty strong when I saw his work in 2011—are countered by the thin, low-profile lines of the floater frames that contain his geometric images. He worked on comparatively miniature canvases for the organic paintings and built the shadow box frames seemingly to bulk them up, and the frames work as yet another essential, polarizing element. They are almost prosthetic, a completion of the work, different from the way Howard Hodgkins integrated his frames with the work by making them a wider surface for his paint. With Hammersley, the frames are idiosyncratic, original, married to the painting rather than subordinate to it, making the painting a distinctly three-dimensional object, physical and situated in a particular place in front of the viewer’s body, a fellow traveler through time, smiling with an unspoken individual history. The painting sits inside the shallow box, without seeming to touch it, at rest, at home.

In these organic paintings, black and white wrestle as opposites often in their own tiny zip codes, yet they are segregated in such a way that their polarity is enveloped by the larger polarity between this opposing duo and the various peninsulas of luminous color around them. It’s wheel within wheel of opposing elements, smaller polarities within larger ones.

Group Insurance, Frederick Hammersley

Hammersley’s organic shapes look anatomical and informal, hand-written, as if they could be cartoon X-rays of whatever is going on inside a Dr. Seuss figure. His lines feel as recognizable as a signature. The coloring book shapes allow him to juxtapose one pure color against another. The tones glow with delight, a calmly heightened response to the experience of seeing one spot of pure color next to another. They offer understated, captive ecstasies. Their color harmonies emerge gradually as you view them. The assertive, overconfident world of so much large-scale abstraction depends on its ambitious scale. Hammersley’s luminously colored lobes huddle and fold into one another like vulnerable newborns on small canvases; they almost need their frames to get noticed.

His geometric paintings are much larger, but not all that big. The work I saw at Ameringer McEnery Yohe (now Miles McEnergy) were square, ranging between three and four feet wide, small enough to fit on the wall of nearly any American house. As David Reed pointed out in the show’s catalog, Hammersley’s work was meant to be part of one’s daily life, a domestic companion, not something to visit on “high art occasions.” The structure of his geometries seem like an entirely dispassionate pursuit, like a multiplication table, a methodical working through of every possible recombination of variables, every last way to assemble a rectangle, triangle and parallelogram within a square. Yet even these angular images don’t feel impersonal or cold. Their amiable simplicity is what’s most striking. Often he worked in black and white, and rarely relied on more than three or four tones, keeping his paintings as minimal as they could get. And yet when he did venture into color in the geometric compositions, it was usually a lyrical departure into lilac, taupe, peach, or a muted green.

The work these paintings do is entirely perceptual. There’s nothing to decipher. Yet, against my better judgment, I’ve been lured back to my catalog of Hammersley’s work recently because of their coy, elusive titles. This troubles me. Normally, I hate titles and the way they offer a foothold for intellectualizing a painting. Conventions notwithstanding, a date would suffice. With plenty of notable exceptions, titles usually strike me mostly as an artifact handy for taking inventory. Even Guernica would have been just as well served by its title if any other town had been attacked—a different place-name wouldn’t have diminished the painting’s shrieking protest, and Untitled might have conveyed an appropriate speechlessness. With a host of exceptions, the names of paintings are like the names of people—you need them mostly to talk about them or add them to somebody’s list. Yet Hammersley’s titles are both playfully irrelevant to the silent work his paintings are actually doing, and—like those weathered frames—a way of situating the work for the idle pleasure of musing about it. The question, as always for me, is whether or not thinking about a painting matters at all—since, for me, painting (like music) does it’s most essential work immediately, before any thought about it can get in the way.

I’ve been leading myself down this garden path this summer, though—against my better judgment—and I’m two thirds of the way through for a triad of paintings where naming the work will offer more ideas than my typically pedestrian titles do—and so I’m going back to Hammersley to reassure myself about this. When I did my first painting of paired jelly beans and bullet casings, I was looking for a way to combine soft and colorful objects with something hard and shining. It occurred to me that a Jelly Belly might fit into a bullet casing as a whimsical substitute for a lead slug. The idea made me uncomfortable because it felt like a facile metaphor, like a distant nod to the famous photograph of the protestor who inserted a carnation into the barrel of an MP’s rifle during the Vietnam era. I have no passion about guns nor about controlling their ownership. Gun owners should be allowed to own whatever they want, under the law, knowing that they’ll likely never need to fire them. Gun control is virtually pointless. With millions of weapons already out there, you can’t, as they say, put the genie back in the bottle. All the guns anyone will ever need are privately owned already and will never be seized unless we end up living in a completely different country. If the nation wants to ban particular semi-automatic rifles, we should do it, but it won’t change the culture nor really stem much violence. If bullets made of sugar are social commentary, it’s my wry, impertinent version of it. The problem is not in our Ninja stars, but in ourselves.

Jelly beans/bullet casings

None of this has anything to do with why I painted the image. Jelly beans and bullet casings seem to belong together as polarized formal elements, visually, regardless of whether or not they form a coherent or unambiguous assertion about anything at all. Yet it’s hard not to think about what they can be construed to mean, though—and that makes it doubly hard to resist the urge to make the painting. The title arrives after the image, and in this case it has involved weeks of musing, weighing alternatives, finding the lightest touch possible and then discovering a way to tie things together. It took me more than two months to come up with a title for my second painting of bullet casings with jelly beans, mostly because I had nothing in particular that I wanted the painting to convey, intellectually. The temptation is to draw from my own long-standing or current preoccupations, though, and this is what I’ve ended up doing.

For the small series it belongs to, a subset of the jars I’ve done over the past decade, I’ve wanted to do three of them containing something other than jelly beans or M&Ms or Chiclets, and so I’ve been on the alert for objects that are roughly the same size as something small and edible, with some kind of distinctive sheen—if not as colorful as candy, then something metallic. The motivation to do the first candy jar arose as a response to my love for color field painting and abstraction in general. I wanted to find a way to stick to still life painting—technically the jar paintings are a single object placed on a flat surface containing multiple repetitive parts—but at the same time I wanted to build the image out of nearly uniform areas of color, pieced together to form a pattern that extends across nearly all of the canvas. Color was the primary motivation. Thiebaud, Mattiasdottir, Matisse, Porter, Morandi, and especially Janet Fish used a personalized palette to make color nearly an end in itself in their versions of a still life. Without taking overly painterly liberties with what I saw, I wanted to find a way to do something similar, to use color to create a persuasively real image that also has qualities of an abstract pattern. I enlarged the jar and presented it so that it nearly fills the entire canvas, pushing everything it contains forward toward the viewer so that it seems to be hovering at the flat surface of the canvas. The image toggles back and forth between representation and abstraction, and the fact that the same but slightly different set of objects is clustered so tightly together in a repetitive pattern hints at all-over abstraction.

With one jar of candy after another, using color and shape to explore variations on the same basic structure, I had little interest in doing more than numbering the individual paintings according to the order in which I’d painted them. But with my first departure into something other than sweets—the first painting I did using diaper pins a few years ago—I recognized the opportunity to venture elsewhere with the titles. A friend, Sheri Colao, had suggested the subject when I was visiting her and her husband Brian, in Pompton Lakes. Until then, I’d had no idea these colorful pins even existed. But I liked the idea, found them on the Internet, and ordered enough for the project. At the time I had planned to paint two different images containing the diaper pins—one jar full of open pins and one full of them safely closed. After finishing the first of the pair, I began to free associate in order to come up with a title and the fact that the pins were all open and jabbing toward one another in a seemingly disordered jumble suggested the perils of an unrestrained, impulsive, or rebellious life. (Or, maybe, social media?) Hence, Cutting Loose and Breaking Free. So I ended up with a conceptual label for an image that grew out of nothing more than a craving for certain formal qualities in the image. As counterpoint to that first painting, the smaller companion in this current series of jars will be named Reticence.

For the second coupling of jelly beans and bullet casings, I’ve drawn from my recent reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and his later non-fiction inspired by his code for civil disobedience and, at least for now, I settled on Resist Not, shortened from Resist Not Evil, though the first canvas ended up with the slightly ironic title that seems too obvious: Gun Control. The new title suggests that maybe both gun owners and gun opponents might find a better approach by refusing to fire back at their opposition, intensifying an anger that simply spurs further polarization. Yet I find nothing in this issue very compelling. I grew up borrowing a friend’s .22 rifle and shooting targets at a range—it was a fun, coming-of-age ritual. Guns are a part of life. But Tolstoy was right: the more you fight your opponent, the more he fights back. Imagining a gun that merely stuns, or dispenses candy, might suggest a form of non-violent resistance—or no resistance at all, which was the original advice. “Resist not evil” is an admonition adopted first by Tolstoy and then by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who both scaled the Russian’s advice into social change

And on it goes, as my thinking mind improvises on an image that wasn’t inspired by any of these considerations.

I’ve played all sorts of interpretive games this way, as Hammersley did when he playfully improvised on his tones to puzzle out his titles. In fact, the past couple days, I was thinking of mottos or guidelines that come in threes, trying them out, but none of them really fit. Silence, exile, and cunning. No. Hope, faith, and charity. Not really. Waking, dreaming, deep sleep. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Paper, rock, scissors. Moe, Larry and Curly. Still thinking of Tolstoy, I even looked up lists of monastic vows, of all things, and found one that actually almost applies: chastity (restraint), poverty and obedience. What three admonitions could be a larger repudiation of current Western culture? I could almost twist those notions to fit, but it would be a stretch. But the point is that none of this ex post facto significance motivated me to make the paintings, the third of which should be finished by the end of August. My interest is working with formal characteristics, smuggling certain kinds of color into a painting, and letting the integrity of the image generate it’s own ideas, or none at all. Bypassing the discursive brain is how most or all of a great painting’s work gets done.

Bumping into the sacred

Michael Pollan (source:YouTube)

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, which describes the wave of new research into psychedelic drugs. It’s in the same vein as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, drawing parallels between what users experience and what mystics from various religious traditions said about their own encounters with transcendence. I’ve never experimented with these substances, despite pressure to do it from the other members of my garage band in high school, in which I played guitar. (They all had a habit of dropping mescaline before practice sessions.) I have no interest in trying them now. What’s compelling about Pollan’s book is that he had little interest in religion and spirituality when he began his research and was surprised by what he discovered as he got deeper into the subject. What interests me in all this is how it relates to the way in which the process of painting is a much quieter, and less dramatic, path toward a similar sort of ego-effacing state of awareness–though that phrase would hardly describe much of the higher profile art being produced now. (Critics, of course, can make the discipline even more ego-effacing . . . )

“The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe. This might not come as news to people who take psychedelic drugs or to the researchers who first studied them back in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t at all obvious to modern science, or to me, in 2006, when the paper was published. What was most remarkable about the results reported in the article is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.”

“AS SOMEONE not at all sure he has ever had a single “spiritually significant” experience, much less enough of them to make a ranking, I found that the 2006 paper piqued my curiosity but also my skepticism. Many of the volunteers described being given access to an alternative reality, a “beyond” where the usual physical laws don’t apply and various manifestations of cosmic consciousness or divinity present themselves as unmistakably real. All this I found both a little hard to take (couldn’t this be just a drug-induced hallucination?) and yet at the same time intriguing; part of me wanted it to be true, whatever exactly “it” was. This surprised me, because I have never thought of myself as a particularly spiritual, much less mystical, person. This is partly a function of worldview, I suppose, and partly of neglect: I’ve never devoted much time to exploring spiritual paths and did not have a religious upbringing.”

“The story of how this paper came to be sheds an interesting light on the fraught relationship between science and that other realm of human inquiry that science has historically disdained and generally wants nothing to do with: spirituality. For in designing this, the first modern study of psilocybin, Griffiths had decided to focus not on a potential therapeutic application of the drug—the path taken by other researchers hoping to rehabilitate other banned substances, like MDMA—but rather on the spiritual effects of the experience on so-called healthy normals. What good was that? In an editorial accompanying Griffiths’s paper, the University of Chicago psychiatrist and drug abuse expert Harriet de Wit tried to address this tension, pointing out that the quest for experiences that “free oneself of the bounds of everyday perception and thought in a search for universal truths and enlightenment” is an abiding element of our humanity that has nevertheless “enjoyed little credibility in the mainstream scientific world.” The time had come, she suggested, for science “to recognize these extraordinary subjective experiences . . . even if they sometimes involve claims about ultimate realities that lie outside the purview of science.”

By the time Griffiths turned fifty, in 1994, he was a scientist at the top of his game and his field. But that year Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn, the result of two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga. Despite his behaviorist orientation as a scientist, Griffiths had always been interested in what philosophers call phenomenology—the subjective experience of consciousness. He had tried meditation as a graduate student but found that “he couldn’t sit still without going stark-raving mad. Three minutes felt like three hours.” But when he tried it again in 1994, “something opened up for me.” He started meditating regularly, going on retreats, and working his way through a variety of Eastern spiritual traditions. He found himself drawn “deeper and deeper into this mystery.” Somewhere along the way, Griffiths had what he modestly describes as “a funny kind of awakening”—a mystical experience. I was surprised when Griffiths mentioned this during our first meeting in his office, so I hadn’t followed up, but even after I had gotten to know him a little better, Griffiths was still reluctant to say much more about exactly what happened and, as someone who had never had such an experience, I had trouble gaining any traction with the idea whatsoever. All he would tell me is that the experience, which took place in his meditation practice, acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material worldview that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” In time, what he was learning about “the mystery of consciousness and existence” in his meditation practice came to seem more compelling to him than his science. He began to feel somewhat alienated: “None of the people I was close to had any interest in entertaining those questions, which fell into the general category of the spiritual, and religious people I just didn’t get.”

Later, he quotes another researcher:

“You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness, you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.” Whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion.

Embrace Your Day Job

About a week ago, Hyperallergic published a great, brief assessment of how tough it is to make a living as an artist, and it’s pretty obvious that if you want a life of luxury then you should look into investment banking. Yet the ultimate effect of the piece is heartening. Most of us are on the same life raft. On the whole, artists don’t make much. But we find ways to make ends meet and still make art. And the longer we stick with it, the happier we get. The writer, Benjamin Sutton, was reporting on a study released by Creative Independent, an offshoot of Kickstarter. The group surveyed artists in the U.S., UK, Canada, France and roughly 50 other countries.

What’s most welcome about the piece is how it actually showed that it’s possible to be serious–and reasonably happy–about making art without being able to stay solvent from the proceeds. Which means, more or less, that if you think Van Gogh was a failure, then you need at attitude readjustment, friend. Failure isn’t about money when it comes to creative endeavors.

Here were some of the finding:

  • The majority of visual artists working today make less than $30,000 per year. (Average median income in the U.S. is nearly double that.)
  • Only 12% of respondents said that gallery sales of their work have been helpful in sustaining their practices, and grants ranked similarly low.
  • Two thirds said they had to rely on freelance work to make a living. The next largest segment do work unrelated to art for the bulk of their income.
  • Half of all artists surveyed said they make less than 10 percent of their income from their art.
  • Schools don’t prepare artists for a world that runs on the exchange of money–though it’s hard to see from the findings what art schools could actually do to help artists earn more. A little more preparation for how one needs to find other ways to make a living in addition to art maybe . . .
  • Just under a third of respondents felt that gallery representation did little to improve their financial stability. The gatekeepers are finding it just as difficult to stay in the black as the artists themselves.
  • The Malcolm Gladwell rule of 10,000 hours of practice as a threshold for mastery–in this case ten years of work–makes a difference. Artists who stick to a professional regimen for a decade earn more and find themselves much happier with the life of making art. After two decades, happiness rises even more.


Serenity and joy at Butler

Palm Pattern #125, Edith Bergstrom, at Butler Institute of American Art

The Butler Institute of American Art, the nation’s first museum devoted exclusively to American art, is a jewel tucked way in an old, slimmed-down Rust Belt town, which was booming when America’s industrial age was in full swing. Youngstown is probably one of the communities hardest hit by the migration of heavy industry out of the U.S. and has had to rebuild since huge job losses in the 1970s. Once a city of 170,000 people, it shrank to around a third of that in the 70s and 80s. As with most cities once nourished by the Erie Canal (like the one in which I live), it has had to find ways to diversify its economy and attract and grow innovative new technology firms despite the Great Lakes climate. In the past decade, Youngstown began to stir with new economic life and because of its history as an industrial powerhouse, back when it attracted immigrant workers from around the world, it remains one of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in the nation. Flint and Detroit may get all the publicity, but Youngstown has to have been buffeted and betrayed by the global economy about as severely as any town in the world—and yet it has found a path forward to a new sort of identity and pride in itself. The Butler seems to assert a kind of unassailable character, an affirmation that a few quiet human virtues—gratitude, appreciation, taste—won’t just survive but can prevail in our current feverish media culture. It feels a little miraculous to walk into this little oasis of beauty and wisdom hidden in “flyover country,” among the ghosts of steel mills almost exactly halfway between New York City and Chicago, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

I delivered a painting to the Butler this past week for the Midyear exhibition by driving west through Buffalo and Erie. I was startled, when I turned onto Wick Avenue, where the museum is situated on the Youngstown State University campus. It’s a beautiful structure, a little grander in person than in its photographs, with a columned façade that looks as if it were modeled after one of Piero’s early Renaissance piazzas. After I dropped off my still life in its wooden crate, I decided to linger for a look at my destination. It was such a pleasure, I ended up staying far longer than I’d intended. It was like being introduced to someone with whom you feel a deep affinity—both the permanent collection and the current temporary exhibits were evidence of a guiding, deeply affectionate intelligence about great art. That sense of welcoming affinity is how I feel every time I visit the Phillips Collection, and to a slightly lesser degree, smaller museums like the Morgan and the Frick—as if I’m perfectly at home in the space and with the work itself. Many of the museums in cities that once thrived because of the Erie Canal offer art museums whose character is akin to the Butler’s—The Albright-Knox, the Memorial Art Gallery, The Everson and Munson-Williams Proctor. The emphasis on American Art at Butler makes it somehow feel the most companionable of them all. By contrast, this hospitable sense of belonging is what I don’t feel when I tour many galleries and some museums. The Tate Modern in London, for example, had an atmosphere of severity, an almost impersonal sense that the art on display was meant to be a rude awakening, which is fine. That’s certainly a recurrent quality in modernist and post-modern work, and there’s nothing wrong with the occasional swift kick to the head, but here, everything I saw seemed to be imbued with a sense that art can celebrate life as a welcome gift. It was moving to feel this kind of serenity in a community that has endured enormous tribulations as America’s economy reconfigures itself.

It was a pleasure that a few of the paintings I was seeing for the first time had been familiar to me from reproductions for decades–while others were unfamiliar works by some of my favorite artists. It was a delight to finally see, in person, Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, James Valerio’s Ruth and Cecil Him, and Music by John Koch along the mezzanine in the museum’s central gallery.  Each is an example of the painter’s mastery at its peak. They were on display along with equally powerful work by Janet Fish, Neil Welliver, Alfred Leslie, Will Barnett, Jules Olitski, Paul Jenkins, Motherwell, Avery, Gorky, Ivan Albright and Pollock. Much of the work is exceptionally good, sometimes in ways that aren’t entirely characteristic of the painter’s best-known style. Alfred Leslie isn’t represented with one of his figures lit from below, but with a large grisaille watercolor landscape, a twilight view of a road in Massachusetts. A large abstract by Jenkins, Phenomena Panning Gold, isn’t anything like the intensely colorful swirls of paint most familiar to his admirers, but an almost monotone study of molten lobes that look like a fossil record of an orchid blossom. The work by Chuck Close was a complete surprise, maybe one of the most charming images he’s ever done, a mid-sized portrait of his daughter, Georgia. It’s another grisaille image, hung on the wall opposite the Leslie watercolor, constructed as a mosaic of thick paper pulp chips squeezed through a metal mesh. As always with his more recent work, it’s a marvel how Close creates an impressionistically accurate and convincing glimpse of the human face—this time cheerful and smiling—through such rough deconstructions of its photographic source. His usual grids are here replaced by chunks of pulp organically arranged, like an assembly of thumbprints. Even seeing Arsen Roje’s work for the first time was eye-opening. In reproductions, his depictions of scenes from classic movies look a little too ironic, sharing the slightly jaundiced irony that seems to be essential to Pop Art, yet the dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not is technically masterful. It goes to interesting places with oil paint that seem unique to Roje. It made me grin to see the perfect likeness of Sheldon Leonard—the bartender from It’s a Wonderful Life, and an actor who went on to produce of the Dick Van Dyke show —finding his nook here in an art museum.

And that was just the central gallery. Other smaller gallery spaces at the museum were devoted to different themes and mediums: print-making, pastels, art about sports, art about the American west. Each one was just as interesting, surprising and beautifully curated. Wolf Kahn’s small drawings of old barns looked exactly right in proximity to Mary Sipp-Green’s twilight scenes as well as an Olitski impressionistic drawing of a dusk landscape. In the print room, a lithograph by Bellows, a quick sketch of one of his daughters, showed amazing draftsmanship, as quick and confident as a Rembrandt or a Matisse line drawing, the shine of her hair effortlessly rendered with a few quick strokes of crayon on stone. And the solo show, Edith Bergstrom: Exotic Palms, was equally impressive. Her work uses the distinctive patterns of palms, their fronds, the thorny armor they leave behind as they wither and fall off the trunk, the spikes, all aspects of a palm’s anatomy are sources for her to use in creating images that straddle representation and abstraction, some palms looming up like titans, others just a web of syncopated light and dark blades and stripes. Most exceptional were Bergstrom’s watercolors that simplify a dense thatch of leaves into backlit plumage, plants that look like winged raptors swooping in for the kill, or angels hovering directly in your path, just off the ground. The confidence, precision and simplicity of these paintings, as well as their sense of color, is breathtaking.

Floral food

David Gracie, “Cupcake” Oil on Maple Plywood, 21” x 26,” 2017

I love a cupcake as an intellectually weightless subject. Make of it what you will, the less I mess with it the better off I am, both the cupcake itself and its representation. Its pleats and creases and folds crumple and smear on the trip home if you hit a couple potholes. It pretends to be the perfect little stupa of pastries, but touch it the wrong way and you start to ruin it. Like paint itself sometimes. David Gracie’s inverted cupcake seems fraught and decadent. It could be growing from a seed or spore. It appears to be floating in a dank sylvan setting, like a skunk cabbage or an inside-out toadstool, wearing its gills as a cap, but with only the smallest of stems, holding it up or maybe down. Is it levitating? The surreal aura of the scene would seem to allow it. I doubt that it would prove fruitful to spoil the mystery by asking why. It is on view at Exeter Gallery in Baltimore, which opened its doors last fall and has begun showing the work of artists as different as Gideon Bok and Erin Raedeke. I wish I’d made the trip to see the show of Paul Manlove’s paintings. (Guys, build a website. If there is one, Google is not aware.)

In a time when art galleries seemed besieged by an economy that favors the very rich, and the very famous, who all seem to prefer to show, buy and sell at art fairs–rather than the humble and traditional gallery space–you have to admire anyone intrepid enough to open a new one for business. With all the shops that keep closing their doors, others continue to pop up. Like our already bruised cupcake rising backward toward the blue sky whose cool light it reflects toward the viewer. Matt Klos, a fellow exhibitor at Oxford Gallery here in Rochester, appears to be curating shows at Exeter, owned by Noe & Amanda Detore. He’s the right guy for the job. It’s sure to be another outlet for the “perceptual painters” and maybe others (too early to tell) who deserve more recognition. The work they’ve shown so far has been fascinating and a little strange, and this new show seems to fit right in.
Here is the emailed invitation to the opening on May 12, 6-9 p.m. from Matt:

David Gracie is a painter of slow meditative works. As mechanical as his process of painting may be it is tempered by his empathy, humor, and curiosity in looking. This exhibition of Gracie’s work from over the past fifteen years marks a homecoming for the artist who was born and raised in Baltimore.

David Gracie was born in Baltimore, MD in 1978. He received his MFA from Northwestern University in 2004 and his BFA from the Hartford Art School in 2000. He has been included in exhibitions at The Museum of Nebraska Art, NE (’17), Hartford Art School, CT (‘17 and ‘09), The Suburban, WI (‘16 and ‘15), Mt Airy Contemporary, PA (‘15), The University Club, IL (‘13), The University of Missouri, MO (‘12), The Hyde Park Art Center, IL (‘11), Colorado State, Pueblo, CO (‘10), The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, DC (‘10), Bowery Gallery, NY (‘08), Mary and Leigh Block Museum, IL (‘06), and Fort Wayne Museum, IN (‘06). David was awarded a Nebraska Arts Council Merit Award and the Lincoln Mayor’s Kimmel Foundation Award in 2016. David is currently an Associate Professor of Art, Elder Gallery Director and Chair of the Art Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Exeter Gallery is committed to the notion that a gallery is a meeting place for ideas and discourse. Please join us at the opening reception or email [email protected] to make an appointment to view this exhibition. Gallery open by appointment only.