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ASCEND 2022 Creatives Conference in Jacksonville

Oil Painting, film making and production, and musical inspiration. Join other creatives from across the West Coast at ASCEND 2022 creatives conference and workshops July 14th (early bird classes), 15, and 16th in Jacksonville, Oregon! And sign up early as some class sizes are limited. Inspiring professional instructors and captivating speakers, with 4 major FOCUS PATHS to choose from. Oil Painting with Frank Ordaz, plus see his original works with Lucas Film and so much more.   Filmmaking with Jeff Bates from The Chosen. Thrive in your craft, impact culture, and confidently forge ahead while being energized by fellow creatives!  Use SOAR coupon for $25 discount. Register at AscendWestCoast.com by July 10th.

Quinceañeras & Everyday Unicorns

Fifteen summer solstices ago—give or take a matter of hours—I wrote my first blog post here on Wordbody. There have been many books and paintings since then. Many things lost and a few things won. I’ve shared most all of them here. Some posts are long, considered essays. Others are the equivalent of a photo and caption. Some I think about for weeks. Others pop into my head the day I decide to post, inspired by a word or image. Like this one. 

 

You can easily guess at my inspiration. I came across this stuffed unicorn on my walk. It was much larger than it looks: almost five feet long, lying right there on the shoulder of our country road. I couldn’t help but wonder who had lost it, dumped it, or left it. 

 

These days, a unicorn is often a metaphor for a uniquely successful start-up or entrepreneur. But once upon a time—back when the equivalent of television was stained glass and tapestries—it represented qualities like purity, freedom, gentleness. 

 

I don’t have a grand plan for this post—it’s one of the quick ones. But to honor my blog’s quinceañera, I wanted to give her a gift. Not the dirty stuffed unicorn but what that mythical being once represented. Actually, I’d love for the world to give itself those gifts. Purity doesn’t have to be unique. Freedom doesn’t have to mean a financial boon. Gentleness doesn’t require a horn growing from the middle of our heads. Really, it’s a gift to know we can cultivate these things right where we are. 

 

Happy birthday, Wordbody. May the next fifteen years be full of everyday magic, too. 

 

Looking into the blind spot

Frank Stella | NUVO

I have never finished reading Frank Stella’s Working Space, a long and impressively written essay on the evolution of “pictorial space” in Western painting. It’s done as a coffee table art book, with lavish illustrations, so reading is optional. For a while, I loved listening to him talk about art, but early on I decided to get off the train at the nearest stop because I gathered what appeared to be its destination: positioning his work in the ongoing history of art. It’s a fascinating argument, because Stella can be a spell-binding rhetorician. His prose draws you in with its magisterial command of art history and his unique position as a pioneer in painting back when it was still possible to be such a thing. I suspect he has never gotten over that—who could? —and this book struck me as his attempt to characterize his entire body of work as pioneering. The book is bold, brilliant, and sometimes baffling, but I didn’t mind that last part, because his slippery prose has rewards of its own. That’s how rhetoric works: it draws you in with its momentum. He seems to be arguing for his later three-dimensional work, on shaped canvases, as a new way of painting “pictorial space” comparable in its paradigm shift, historically, to the intimate, cinematic depth of field Caravaggio brought to painting in his own time.

I don’t know. Aren’t Stella’s constructions more of an idiosyncratic fusion of painting with sculpture?  I love his ebullient, affirmative energy, no matter what he’s doing. So does he need to cling to his pioneer status, especially when “progress” in visual art exhausted itself in the 60s?

Along the way in Working Space, though, Stella says things, in quasi-poetic idioms, where he finds brief, profound ways to veer out of his swim lane. It’s hard to tell if he knows he’s no longer talking about space or the depiction of space, but about epistemological quandaries fundamental to human life, not simply in the art of painting. Without warning, he slides into a passage about the limits of human knowing, the limits of knowledge itself, not just whatever is the case with things shown or signified. It’s evocative language that seems better delivered in stanzas than paragraphs. The italics are mine:

This ephemeral quality of painting reminds us that what is not there, what we cannot quite find, is what great paintings always promise. It does not surprise us, then, that at every moment when an artist has his eyes open, he worries that there is something present that he cannot quite see, something that is eluding him, something within his always limited field of vision, something in the dark spot that makes up his view of the back of his head. He keeps looking for this elusive something, out of habit as much as out of frustration. He searches even though he is quite certain that what he is looking for shadows him every moment he looks around. He hopes it is what he cannot know, what he will never see, but the conviction remains that the shadow that follows but cannot be seen is simply the dull presence of his own mortality, the impending erasure of memory. Painters instinctively look to the mirror for reassurance, hoping to shake death, hoping to avoid the stare of persistent time, but the results are always disappointing. Still they keep checking. We can see Caravaggio looking at himself from The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, Velásquez surveying his surroundings in Las Meninas, and Manet testing the girl at the bar to see if there is anything different about those who have to work rather than see for a living.

Stella bears down on something fundamental to human experience at the start of this passage: the way in which knowledge traffics in the light of day, what’s available to limited, temporal, personal experience. It’s always incomplete, provisional, pragmatic, rational. It’s how we survive, by larding the brain with information and an understanding of how things work. But what encompasses all of this conscious experience and understanding eludes us: the world itself. Knowledge and daily experience necessarily overlook the whole world. We can’t objectify or picture the entire world because we are a part of it; we see it from our little perch, fragmented, dissected into things and actions, desires and deadlines. The entirety of what is, including our own minds, can’t come into view, can’t be known.

Stella’s “dark spot that makes up the view of the back of his head” reminds me of the hooded figure in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, an unfamiliar companion, an indispensable shadow. (Stella confuses the issue by locating this darkness in the blind spot behind the viewer but also “within his limited field of vision.”) In a way, though, that odd contradiction expresses what’s profound in the passage: the entirety of the world is there, throughout all of human experience, present—like a scent—in every perception and thought, throughout our field of vision, but also inaccessible, at the back of the head, behind the act of seeing and knowing, at the root and foundation of consciousness itself, unseen and unknown.

The painter constantly yearns to represent this totality, this world that includes the painter and the act of painting, but there’s no way to get outside that world in order to see it, to picture it. He nails the quandary: “He keeps looking for this elusive something, out of habit as much as out of frustration. He searches even though he is quite certain that what he is looking for shadows him every moment he looks around. He hopes it is what he cannot know, what he will never see, but the conviction remains that the shadow that follows but cannot be seen . . . (is, essentially, death.)” This is a radical shift. What he seemed to have been saying is that this shadow, what’s unseen in the act of seeing, is life itself. He pivots to mortality and the “impending erasure of memory.” Now the passage sounds like an elegy to lost youth, a dirge about approaching senescence. He finishes with a little quick take on Manet, beautiful and obliquely to the point—Manet trying to climb out of himself to see the world as it actually is, not simply the way he habitually sees it—but he has lured the reader away from what he nearly said. Saying it directly—we can’t know life itself as we know what we experience from hour to hour as an individual—would have required him to stay there, contemplating something more philosophical than ways to work with the nature of space in painting. He needed to stay on point in order to do what he sets out to do: ensure his pioneer status in his three-dimensional work.

Painting can be a confrontation with the limits of what a human being can know. By the limits of knowing, I don’t mean in the Rashomon sense that we are all locked into a particular opinion of an event or thing simply by the accidents of our location or time or personality. That’s what the apophatic root of post-modernism has become, narrowed to a political and social and economic truism: human beings create truth with power. We live in a time when those with the most power think science provides everything human beings need to understand about human life. Science is our most powerful tool for bending nature to our will, caging the world with our conceptions about it. It’s a tool. It doesn’t tell us what the whole of the world is, except in its own pragmatic terms. It doesn’t open a human heart to a glimpse of the totality of a life. Knowledge is like a flashlight that illuminates only what it’s aimed at. You have to aim it and thereby cut off your ability to see everything that surrounds the beam of light.

C.S. Lewis understood this in his own way. Toward the end of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he engages the reader with odd terms for the distinction between the object of knowledge and the act of knowing. This sounds incredibly dry, and it pretty much is, if you read it dispassionately. Yet there’s an insight in all of it that is lost on most of humanity, in its general lack of self-awareness. He refers to lectures from an early 20th century philosopher, Samuel Alexander, who as far as I know has completely sunk from view. It takes patience and attention to see what Lewis is getting at, but I was reminded immediately of it when I read that passage above from Stella.

In this book, Lewis talks about an experience of Joy he has throughout his life, a bittersweet sense of the totality of life, with a simultaneous mixture of rapture and painful yearning. A bit like being in love. His pursuit of this experience leads him toward the end of the book to these lectures from Alexander and they alter his understanding. The Joy he describes has no determinate object. The pursuit of Joy, as an experience, ignores that this particular state has no object in the known world, but is a desire for something absolute or transcendent, a totality, a world, something that can’t be known:

I read in Alexander’s Space Time and Deity his theory of “Enjoyment” and “Contemplation”. These are technical terms in Alexander’s philosophy; “Enjoyment” has nothing to do with pleasure, nor “Contemplation” with the contemplative life. When you see a table you “enjoy” the act of seeing and “contemplate” the table. . .  In bereavement you contemplate the beloved and the beloved’s death and, in Alexander’s sense, “enjoy” the loneliness and grief. We enjoy the thought (that Herodotus is unreliable) and, in so doing, contemplate the unreliability of Herodotus.

I accepted this distinction at once and have ever since regarded it as an indispensable tool of thought. A moment later its consequences–for me quite catastrophic–began to appear. It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is . . .  to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is . . . to cease being afraid. But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment . . .

In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it.

This is akin to that shadow at the back of Stella’s head: no matter how you turn around to look at it, it’s always back there behind your eyes. Lewis goes on:

Unfortunately, this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought or the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind–like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped.

This discovery flashed a new light back on my whole life. I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate (the act of “enjoyment” itself).

All of the later Wittgenstein seems to be indicated by this passage. It sounds at first like an observation that has more to do with Lewis than with anyone else, but it’s a fundamental epistemological mystery as profound as anything Kant investigated. What we are, what we experience, what makes us human, what makes life a life, eludes the act of knowing because “we murder to dissect.” To get a clear glimpse of anything that gives life “meaning” or savor or (insert the word that doesn’t exist for life’s isness here) –to see life itself for what it is—we have to stop living as it were in order to contemplate it. The act of wanting or seeing or loving has to pause in order for the subject to pay attention to it: so it’s forever out of view, forever a shadow at the back of the head. The nature of who you are, and of what your life is, remains out of view, because you can’t both live and see clearly the life you embody, the person you are. You can only live and try to keep an eye on your own observable behavior for clues. In other words, Being itself remains mysterious because for human beings it’s a sequence, a flow, of behaviors that matter only from the inside, from within the givens of groping forward as a human being, as you live your life. You can’t step outside any of that to get a good look at it and thus know it as you know the table that sits in your kitchen.

There’s an instant humility engendered by an understanding of what Lewis was saying. Knowing itself, the act of knowing, is driven by feeling, desires, moods, purposes that arise from impulses that precede our intentions and thoughts—and it all becomes a fabric of experience, a way of life that can’t be clearly understood in its totality because to try and see it is to quit living, to step back from the act of living itself.

Much like music, painting is a way of aiming toward a perceptual wholeness that might trigger an awareness of a wholeness akin to it in one’s own experience, an inkling, like Lewis’s Joy, of life’s isness. There’s nothing definitive about most individual works of art, nothing that will do this invariably or for everyone, but as Stella suggests, intentionally or not, the impulse to honor that wholeness by putting paint on a surface in a certain way, is to wrestle with that shrouded figure who haunts us and hunts us all because he is who and what we are.

 

 

 

Online Study Through The Art Students League Part 1

Hi!  Off and on over the past two years I have been taking online classes through the Art Students League of New York.  And, it has been quite the learning experience. Before I go any further, though, I would like to share my personal recommendation for online studies through the Art Students League. Also, I …

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The post Online Study Through The Art Students League Part 1 appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

I’m thinking, I’m thinking

October 28, 1950…'The Jack Benny Show' Debuts On CBS - Eyes Of A  Generation...Television's Living HistoryI’ve been delinquent for quite a while now on this blog and Instagram, painting and not posting, much of the time, though for the past four months, I was also caring for my mother who died in April. I’ve also been awaiting the completion of a new studio, I was away from painting since early February. In the past four years I’ve chosen to spent nearly a near away from painting to be more with family members who were ill or at the end of life, so my work on the salt water taffy series has been slower than I’d hoped. That personal era seems to be over, and the new studio is almost entirely set up, so work resumes this week. I hope to return to this blog on a regular basis as well. It isn’t that I haven’t had things to say. As I like to remember Jack Benny’s punch line: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking.” It isn’t quite the way he phrases it in the bit, but you get the idea.

I’m thinking, I’m thinking

October 28, 1950…'The Jack Benny Show' Debuts On CBS - Eyes Of A  Generation...Television's Living HistoryI’ve been delinquent for quite a while now on this blog and Instagram, painting and not posting, much of the time, though for the past four months, I was also caring for my mother who died in April. I’ve also been awaiting the completion of a new studio, I was away from painting since early February. In the past four years I’ve chosen to spent nearly a near away from painting to be more with family members who were ill or at the end of life, so my work on the salt water taffy series has been slower than I’d hoped. That personal era seems to be over, and the new studio is almost entirely set up, so work resumes this week. I hope to return to this blog on a regular basis as well. It isn’t that I haven’t had things to say. As I like to remember Jack Benny’s punch line: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking.” It isn’t quite the way he phrases it in the bit, but you get the idea.

Renato Muccillo

Dark Waters, Renato Muccillo, 6″ x 8″

Remarkable new paintings by Renato Muccillo at Arcadia Gallery. Very small, intensely realistic, yet painterly.

Renato Muccillo

Dark Waters, Renato Muccillo, 6″ x 8″

Remarkable new paintings by Renato Muccillo at Arcadia Gallery. Very small, intensely realistic, yet painterly.

Speck-Sized Faith

O sweet seed—

you small not yet,

smaller already.

The final flower waits

in speck-sized faith.

Come forth—unfurl 

the gentle petals

of patience.

A meaning made of trees

eclipse, oil on linen, 12″ x 18″

One of the first shows I visited when I was in New York City last week was a meaning made of trees, a collection of new work form Ron Milewicz. It’s outstanding. Milewicz continues to explore the pictorial possibilities of his new location in the Hudson Valley. I had an illuminating conversation with him about the work.

1. The little catalog available at the show, first of all, how was it done? I’ve tried that for solo shows in the past and have not been happy with the results, but your images were accurate and well printed. Who did these for you? Second, the catalog was from your previous show? If so, there’s a real consistency in quality and approach between those paintings and the ones on view now. You have found a groove and are working it, and you have clearly defined personal “rules” you follow in these Arcadian views. Did this style come to you all at once, full blown, or in stages? 

The catalogue is from my Axis Mundi show in 2020. It was printed by an online company called Uprinting. I had the paintings photographed professionally. I designed the catalog myself on my Mac using Pages, and then a graphic designer familiar with Uprinting design programs made the layout that was sent to the printer.

That was two shows ago—I had another show since at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, New York, in 2021.

I do not have “rules” but I do have a consistent approach to the landscapes that has developed over the past several years. For a period of about two years, I was only making on site graphite drawings. These tonal works are very much a direct response to the experience of the landscape I am working from—its atmosphere, light, spaces, and forms as well as its stillness and calm. The drawings were a very intuitive reaction to the environment, and they came relatively quickly. I then started to make oil paintings in the studio from the drawings. It took a longer time to understand how the drawings might be reinterpreted as paintings, in terms of materials, touch, color and scale.

2. Your career is interesting: you’ve gone from excellent urban landscapes to these visionary woodland scenes, both periods just as well done, but with a completely different sense of purpose, at least for the viewer. The urban landscapes fit within a much broader practice for contemporary artists; many more people are working in that vein these days. What you are doing with the trees reminds me of Burchfield and Nick Blosser, a Tennessee artist who has almost disappeared from view on the Web. Do you see these as two distinct phases or is there a continuity between the city and the country work for you? 

They are two phases as they are derived from distinct locales and from the very different circumstances of my life outside of the studio, which inevitably changed my priorities in the studio. There is continuity in the sense that I am painting the world around me in both instances, although the conditions of those worlds are very different from each other. There’s also consistency in my concern for light, stillness and formal rigor.

3. I think of Burchfield in particular: the disjunction between his dark, almost monochrome American Scene pictures and the nearly psychedelic visions of his last period where he seemed to be attempting to convey the totality of nature in each painting. The divide between those two periods was radical, more radical than the shift in your work, but there’s no way for me to see how you get from the urban landscapes to the woodland visions, step by step. The move to Hudson Valley obviously triggered something, but the question is: what internally changed in how you see and paint as a result of this move? Did you grow up immersed in nature and then left it behind for years working in New York? 

I have lived in New York City my entire life. The move to the Hudson Valley was motivated by a yearning for silence, both an external silence and a corresponding internal silence. In that sense there already was a change happening before I moved upstate that anticipated the transformation of my work by my new surroundings. It was a transformation I actively sought even though I did not know the exact character the transformation would take. Immersing myself in nature fulfilled my desire for solitude, and I think it was this fulfillment, along with the influence of a new physical environment itself, of course, that changed the work.

4. My favorites are Eclipse, Pink Pond, Afternoon, At the Edge of the Woods, and Snow Squall, but all of the paintings are impressive. Eclipse is superb. That little black dot just where it belongs. You are obviously focused on trying to convey the nature of trees, but trees in these paintings offer a framework, a skeleton for the entire image which seems to me just as much about how light inhabits space, how it seems to use objects to reveal itself as much as it discloses visible objects. The way you capture a certain quality of light is masterful. Does that come easily or take time? How much are you focused on conveying ambient light in each painting? (One surprise in the Walton Ford show at Gagosian was how much he is concerned with light and the way it colors the animals he’s painting: it’s partly what makes his best work so striking. Everything in the image reveals the light source.)

Light is very much a primary concern in these paintings. I would say that the light comes more easily in the drawings than in the paintings, both because I am in nature when I draw and because of the complications introduced by color into the paintings. The light I am after is a light that simultaneously belongs to this world and doesn’t. The dialogue between the trees and other forms depicted in the image and the light is critical, as I see the material and the immaterial as interdependent.

 5. I’m especially interested in your handling of paint. It’s almost as if you are rubbing the paint on in thin layers, always keeping the tooth of the canvas visible in the marks. The paint looks dry, almost like charcoal or pastel. The edges are never clearly distinct and sometimes are impossible to locate up close. How do you work toward a final image? Are you constantly moving back to look at the image from a distance to see if it comes together and the forms are clearly visible despite the way you eschew tight detail? 

I build the images very slowly with thin layers of paint. I apply the paint without adding any medium so it does almost become as if dry pigment has been rubbed into the surface. I want the light to come up from the white of the ground and for color to be the consequence of the optical mixing of these layers—a kind of dry glazing. I would like for there to be a mutability of color so it seems to change as you look, making it almost impossible to say what single color you are seeing or where one color ends and another begins. I would like to reduce the presence of the mark so it might feel as if the paintings had painted themselves. I am concerned with the big rhythmic movements of mass and light and want detail to find an essential place in the development of these rhythms. I do look at the painting from varying distances as I work and enjoy the abstraction up close and its cohesion into form and space from further back. I am not as worried about the forms being clearly visible as much as them being too visible and not holding their proper place.

6. With quotes from Northrup Frye and Max Picard in the catalog, you are clearly concerned with more than descriptive realism. Was this quasi-spiritual approach to the natural world, the visible world, implicit somehow in the work you did before the tree paintings? Am I correct that you are trying to convey what isn’t visible, a kind of numinous life inherent in the natural world, Emersonian or Buddhist, for that matter, that becomes obscured by the daily grind of individual survival? Thoreau would have spent time appreciating your paintings, I think: is it your intent to awaken that kind of “transcendentalist” appreciation in the viewer? Burchfield had that same quality: the sense that you both try to convey the inner life of the natural world where it connects with something timeless and more mysterious than familiar natural phenomena.

Mere descriptive realism is one of my greatest fears in life. Unless you have that magnificent and rare ability to go through the visible world and past it, such as in a still life by Juan Sanchez Cotan, an overly wrought painting can easily become deadening.  

In all my work I have tried to convey, though not in any self-conscious way, what is invisible in the world through what is visible. Perhaps that possibility is more easily identified in nature. It is hard to spend a sustained time in the natural world without having the sense that there is more present than what we can only see.  Without becoming didactic, I do hope that a viewer of my paintings has an awareness at some level of the unseen forces at work in nature, either as respite or as menace, or as both simultaneously. I can see that there might be connections here to certain aspects of Buddhist or Transcendentalist thought and I am gratified that they struck you as such.

7. My apologies for such long questions. What is your life like in the Hudson Valley? Are you part of a community of artists or do you work mostly on your own? It’s been a trend for a number of years now: artists moving away from the economics of New York City toward a location both affordable and more beautiful. 

My life upstate is mostly solitary which I feel is necessary for the work. Though I pretty much work on my own, there is a strong community of artists in the area with whom I do have regular contact.

8. How long do you typically work on a canvas? Do you work on only one at a time or alternate among several?

I typically work on a canvas on and off for months, sometimes for years, putting it aside at times until it becomes clear to me what needs to be done. I will occasionally work directly from an isolated weather event such as a snow storm, in which case the painting may be completed in one or two sessions. I work on several canvases at a time, but which “several” is constantly changing.

9. Are your sketches done in situ and then used as sources back in the studio? Do you ever take photographs to assist in the work?

The drawings are always completed on site. I do not think of them as sketches or as preparatory works even though they may consciously be intended to be the basis for future paintings. The paintings are typically made from the drawings. I do not use photographs, as the paintings rely on the memory of an actual experience of nature.

10. Many of the woodland paintings are dominated by one tone, sometimes two: rose, blue, gray, yellow, yellow and blue, orange, green. Does that take discipline or is it just intuitive? I’m constantly fighting the desire to use more color than I need to, and always finding that the more that color is withheld a bit, the easier it is to unify a more powerful image. The one or two dominant colors in your scenes offer the key to the mood and the “world” you convey. 

One, but not the only reason, that I paint from drawings rather than directly is to free myself both from literal color and from the ubiquity of green in the summer landscape of upstate New York. I am not much interested in discerning unending nuances of green in a plein-air painting. The color is restrained to privilege other pictorial issues and to achieve the sense of the calm that draws me to the landscape. This is more important to me than accurately documenting factual color. There is an intuitive response to the experienced color and mood of the landscape I am depicting. I hope an authenticity remains despite the liberties I take with perceived color in the interests of creating a coherent image. The further development of color relationships is one that moves forward both by disciplined analysis and by occasional intuitive decisions. This is one of the reasons it is sometimes important for me to put a painting aside for a while – to allow time for the necessary color to reveal itself.

11. Have you always worked on such a small scale? Have you tried much larger versions for this series and if so, what were the results? If not, do you think you may try larger scenes in the future? 

I have worked much larger at times in the past—some of the earlier cityscapes are as big as twelve feet across and some of my still lifes are six or seven feet in dimension. I have not tried much larger versions of the rural landscapes other than a recent horizontal painting that was six feet wide but only a foot high. The landscapes seem to be getting smaller rather than larger and I do not anticipate that they will get any larger in the foreseeable future. I like containing a limitless space in a very intimate and modestly sized rectangle.

12. Are you working on anything or thinking about anything beyond the trees? 

I have recently started working on some still lifes. I am curious to see where they will go or how they may ultimately come to influence the landscapes.

Ron’s show at Elizabeth Harris will be on view until May 28.