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Tilt-shift compassion

 

Landlord, oil on panel, 16″ x 26″

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since James Casebere’s photography was included in the Whitney Bienniel. I remember, back in 2010, being wowed by his reproductions of the suburban dioramas he painstakingly constructed and then lit and shot. His work seems to have gotten more austere and cerebral and political since then, but his landscapes of newly-built suburban dream homes still convey the ambivalent beauty of an increasingly unaffordable American Dream. Casebere centered the simplicity of his scenes at the median point between verisimilitude and minimalist geometry of newly constructed McMansions. His houses stand on an otherwise almost naked slope with newly-planted saplings a quarter century away from offering privacy and shade. Anyone who has lived in a new suburban tract knows the mix of feelings: the exhilaration of moving in, the weird sense of emptiness and exposure in a place without foliage, the smell of new construction and the sounds of new doors clicking into place, as well as the paradoxical solitude of tract housing jammed side by side into narrow lots. Casabere’s dioramas were about American life, as it is experienced by those lucky enough to buy a home—how much more poignant now in the current real estate market these scenes must be for young people hoping to put down roots. Yet his houses jutted up in various colors, evoking geometric abstraction, like the structures in an Icelandic landscape by Louisa Mattiasdottir. It was stunning work and it stirred many conflicted feelings—yearning, hope, and the inevitable disappointments of routine.

He was one of those art stars of the moment, using dioramas to make two-dimensional images, like Gregory Crewdson, on an even larger scale, whose constructed scenes—far more realistic and detailed—have a cinematic power and a darker, but even more alluring mood. Crewdson lives on the edge of popular culture. There’s a sense of epic effort in his illusions that seem imbued with an invisible presence. Built by hand and then captured with photographs, his work would be familiar to anyone who listens to Yo La Tengo (where I discovered it on one of their album covers) or watched Six Feet Under. His art was mentioned on the show, and he was recruited to do a promotional campaign for it.

It’s been years since I’ve looked into diorama art, so it took me a while to even come up with Casebere’s name, even with Google, yet the current exhibition at Arcadia in SoHo demonstrates that at least one artist is pushing the genre into a more narrowly defined scope, and the results are wonderful. They are also in great demand. The show sold out immediately. What’s most astonishing, though, is that it took Alberto Ortega only a year to build his dioramas and then paint all the scenes based on them for the show. Producing a solo show at this level in a single year deserves hushed respect. Ortega uses his own carefully arranged dioramas—lit in a distinctly personal way—to create oil paintings that hearken back to Edward Hopper. He keeps things far simpler than the more spectacular photographic work of Crewdson and Casabere, but Ortega is just as cinematic. Like an early hip-hop artist, relying on the bricolage of samples lifted from earlier recordings, he buys props made for model train enthusiasts and then assembles them and puts them into a new context—through their arrangement, their color and their lighting—to work his magic. At Ortega’s new Arcadia Contemporary solo show, Stephen Daimant answered a few of my questions. He has built an uncompromising engine of profitability on the demand for extraordinary painting, moving from downtown Manhattan to Culver City and Pasadena and then back to West Broadway during the pandemic. I asked him if the Spanish painter built his own houses. No. He buys everything he needs ready-made, marketed for model train enthusiasts. He finds what he needs and then makes you see it in a personal way—more like a still life artist than a painter of landscapes. In arranging the structures, the figures, and the skies he creates as backdrop, he transcends the everyday feel of the clean, well-lit place that model train enthusiasts tend to build as a setting. What sounds like a quick workaround to avoid the labor that Casebere would put into making a paper house provides an essential simplification of form. The cars date back sixty or seventy years. The little suited traveling salesman, standing by his parked car and contemplating his limited income and lean prospects, clutching his brief case while the sun sets behind him—his tiny faceless head gives the impression of some lonely, dogged worker, a Willy Loman who only wishes he could be the man in the gray flannel suit with a corner office. This is Samuel Beckett-land, with white picket fences. This is Plato’s world of Forms, if Plato’s demiurge had been a six-year-old boy building the world in a corner of the family room.

Much of what makes these paintings work resides in the choices he makes in lighting his scenes with great care, using subtle angles that accentuate the contrasts between light and dark and helping to additionally obscure unnecessary detail. Foliage is reduced to a dark mass of beautiful deep green. Things are spot-lit, as if on a stage, but somehow the lighting doubles as angled sunlight, leaf shadow, the color of a late sky reflecting off a wall, or unlikely streetlights that mostly remain out of view. Ortega’s ability to control multiple sources of light gives him a way to accentuate the stark three-dimensionality of the props, everything arrested, caught in amber, the past alive in the present, offering a sense of loss and yet a strange sense of connection between the viewer and the subject, a personal bond, as if remembering things you’ve never experienced.

All minute detail is shorn away of necessity, because the props don’t bother with it—there is no attempt at hyper-realism and the generally convincing impression of physical reality vies with a tilt-shift effect of subliminally recognizing these objects as they are, at the scale of toys.

The experience of looking down at these little scenes of ordinary life makes you feel protective of them. You feel an involuntary empathy with such little figures, almost wishing you could make their lives easier, or keep them company, wherever they are going. You want to go down and give them a hand, the way Clarence wanted to give George Bailey a hand. It’s not a feeling one gets very often in an art gallery now, let alone in a mall. It’s marvelous.

Spirituality at The Armory Show

Le bapteme, Marc Padeu, 78″ x 110″

On Saturday, I wandered lonely like a cloud through The Armory Show, at the edge of Hudson Yards. That domineering real estate venture is the child of our precarious finance-driven economy. It’s a forbidding, crystalline, Antarctic Fortress of Solitude rising up along the river, with Dubai-like heights so reflective its towers almost disappear against the sky. Across the street, a honeycomb of gallery booths spread out in uniform ranks inside the equally glassy, tourmaline facets of the Javits Center. (By contrast with the glass towers, the Center looks more like an enormous multi-story greenhouse.) Inside, at this annual pop-up art mall, rows of booths gave birth to another seemingly endless grid of tight little alcoves as I slowly made my way through the maze, swiveling my head in all directions, trying not to miss anything, as if riding through Pirates of the Caribbean.

The beautiful people were there in abundance, trying to look as chill as the champagne in ice buckets beside their plush chairs. So much money, but how much of it was being spent? I don’t know the break-even point for a gallery—how much needed to be sold to make a profit after the fee for a booth—but few of the people staffing these booths looked light-hearted. Most had a selection of work from their roster, while quite a few staked their investment on a solo show of only one artist. The solo shows were invariably the most interesting.

The free market is a necessarily brutal place, even at this lofty level. A corner bodega probably has an easier time turning a profit than many of the souls who must spend months preparing to ship this costly work overseas and put it up for sale at a fair. Represented were 250 galleries from around the world, but after an hour of walking, it felt like far more. It was often depressing, so much of it a cavalcade of disposable and over-hyped art. But that isn’t far from the experience of walking through Chelsea and ducking into one gallery after another. New York City is changing and has been for many years now. I miss being able to wander into Danese-Corey and never being disappointed. I miss OK Harris downtown. I also miss the Half King. And Hi Fi in the East Village. And the lines outside the Upright Citizens Brigade on 26th. All gone. Fine, so one is a restaurant, and another is a little bar/music studio, and another a school of improv, but they are similar disappearances of the past decade and were small bastions of quality or history or what will probably be considered Old New York in only a few years. Manhatttan needs another Maeve Brennan or Joseph Mitchell to document this metamorphosis, this infiltration. You feel as if you’re watching from the shore as art rides the froth of a giant wave of international money sweeping aside graceful little figures who managed to stay vertical on economic swells of smaller, more human dimensions. (There are notable survivors, like Arcadia Contemporary, whose scale is in all things extremely human. It didn’t need a booth at this show, because it is killing at its SoHo location, having sold out its entire new show at the opening on Thursday.) So it can still be done, old school, if the goal is to make enduring art rather than spectacular profits.

Dave Hickey had a vision of how the art world ought to work, imagining terraces in the Renaissance where sellers traded collegially with buyers desperate to own a particular painting—someone who just had to have it, because it was alluring and beautiful, regardless of any other consideration. It was how he wanted the commerce of art to work, fueled by the desire, charm, delight, the freedom to make art and freedom to buy it out of love, not as an investment. He lived long enough to see the phenomenon of the art fair, and he must have felt conflicted about it. It all works as he wanted—but it was hard to experience the sort of surprise and awe he celebrated as the heart of the enterprise. On Saturday, a small percentage of the work on view was arresting enough to break through the sensory overload and make me want to stop and gaze at it for more than a couple seconds, never mind getting to the point of wishing I had the ducats to own it. So little of it made me ask with wonder and admiration: how did she do that?

Some did, though.

In a few instances, I asked that question with astonished wonder. In a few booths I found evidence that great painting is still alive and well and selling. Looking at Hyperallergic’s review, now that I’m back home, I realize that I gave up too soon in a few cases—but what I found in my quick tour justified the cover charge. One painting even brought tears to my eyes: a first for me. Within just the past few weeks, I was telling a fellow painter that no painting had ever made me cry, unlike music and movies and books. I stand corrected.

Early on, in a couple instances, I found relief in work from the past represented at various galleries. Galeria de Arte, Mexico City, offered modernist abstracts by Gunther Gerzso, who died in 2000, lyrical studies in carefully scumbled color. They brought to mind a cross between Kandinsky and Braque, the surface sprinkled with stone dust, the way Braque used sand to create a stucco-like support for his oil. The gallerist on duty said that Gerzso has never had a museum retrospective to establish the strength of his achievement. The work here showed long hours of painstaking craft, and a hum of harmonies in color and texture that reminded me of the energy one feels in the Southwest desert’s air and heat. It looked worthy of a museum show to me.

Andy Warhol, Details of Renaissance Paintings, artist’s proof, 60″ x 83″

A London gallery, Archeus/Post-Modern, offered a selection of prints from Pop and Op artists—the usual suspects, Ed Ruscha, Warhol, Bridget Riley—but in what seemed like a moment of personal synchronicity, the most prominent print on display was a large artist’s proof of Warhol’s interpretation of St. George and the Dragon, the story of England’s patron saint. I’d discovered this print only a few months ago while meandering around the Web looking for various treatments of that myth down through history. Warhol photographed and then did his thing with a detail of Paolo Uccello’s painting from 1460. It’s a mysterious, almost bewilderingly abstract image: just the face of the serenely composed but endangered woman and one wing of the dragon jutting into view. Warhol was Byzantine Catholic, and went to church on Sundays, but one rarely sees any indication of his faith in the work, and it’s pretty well sublimated here, but still present and accounted for with a touch of enchantment.

AES+F, Inverso Mundus, Inquisition or Women’s Labor #2, oil on canvas, 71″ x 62″

Across the aisle from Archeus and down a few booths I had my liveliest encounter of the day. It was a solo show of a “collective” of four expatriate Russian artists who go by their initials: AES + F. They do politically charged work in various media: video, porcelain, oil. The work is astonishingly crafted, intelligent, and wryly confrontational. The Senda gallery from Barcelona showed two large oils, reminiscent of James Valerio’s theatrically staged scenes from decades ago, yet brightly hyper-realistic and assiduously painted. In these two paintings, the artists created a re-enactment of the Inquisition, but with women dressed for a charity gala in gowns and evening wear pretending to torture half-dressed men strapped and bound to devices the artists constructed simply for the paintings. In both paintings, one of the women wields bolt cutters but not to lop off a pinkie, as we are often led to think is the wont of a Russian mobster. They appear to be engaged in a bit of ungainly man-scaping of chest hair—just a little off the top, dear, says the Baron du Charlus in the upside-down stock. The incongruity of everything in the images made me laugh but I was baffled by the corporate-looking attribution so I asked the young woman in the booth for some background. I pointed to a catalogue on the table and asked, “Is this an individual?” She came out and talked at length with enthusiasm about the group in fluent English, with a faint Spanish accent.

“They mostly work with video art and print and sculpture but very rarely do painting. This is part of an exhibition they did called Inverso Mundus, which means the world upside-down. It’s the women’s Inquisition, the matriarchy, the roles subverted, reminiscent of martyrdom scenes. Women’s work! In a very dystopian manner. AES + F have done twenty paintings. These two are the only ones left. All the others have been sold. They are really admired but really hated by the Russian government which is why they are based in Berlin. Their work clashes with the current political views.”

I asked her where she was from in Spain. She laughed and said “Michigan.” She’s living here in the states, a senior at the University of Michigan, and pointed out that she was wearing yellow (not quite maize) and blue: “It’s game day!” in that Spanish accent.

“Go Blue,” I said.

Apachaya Wanthiang, Grandmother, acrylic on canvas, 11.8″ x 15.7″

At Galleri Brandstrup’s booth, it was gratifying to see this Oslo gallery, of all things, showing the work of a young painter from Thailand whose dreamlike tropical scenes verge on expressionist abstraction. Apichaya Wanthiang applies acrylic as if it were gouache or watercolor, thin washes of paint clotted here and there with gestural accents. The resulting image hovers between something recognizable and strangely subliminal evocations of human figures in heavy foliage. Most distinctive was Wanthiang’s evident willingness to take chances, experiment, grope her way toward some kind of indeterminate closure. She’s discovering what the paint will reveal without using techniques for effects she understands ahead of time. In the smallest painting, an image of her grandmother, it looks as if the woman is flanked by three nude figures, but they are obscured and hard to fit together visually. The impact is puzzling and oneiric like a fragment from Kafka. The paintings never look done; she has simply quit working on them and the brushwork is far from elegant or polished, a passionate physical struggle with the medium.

Lauren Spencer King, Flower, watercolor on paper on panel, 12″ x 9″

Around the corner from Brandstrup, I almost missed one of the most remarkable of the solo shows from Regards, a Chicago gallery that represents few painters but couldn’t resist recruiting this one from Los Angeles, the work is so strong. It was a restrained installation of small, realistic watercolors of orchids on paper stretched over a support as if it were canvas canvas. I don’t generally like hyper-realistic work that crops a photographic image to create an abstract visual structure disengaged from its context. But in this case, Lauren Spencer King’s meditative studies have an all-over quality that, from a distance, looks gestural and abstract—if you see a photo of an installation of her small work taken from a distance, they look as if they belong in a show with Sam Francis or Helen Frankenthaler, yet up close they are amazingly accurate and three-dimensional images, capturing the curve and color of orchid petals, fields of line and form and color, lush, sensuous, and alive. It’s the work of a still mind channeling enormous energy into a small, perfectly constructed space: your own mind grows quiet just gazing at the paintings. It’s no accident that she teaches meditation.

The most powerful moment for me at The Armory Show was only a few booths away from the orchids. Jack Bell, of London, was displaying a solo installation of Marc Padeu’s large-scale scenes of African life. He’s a phenomenal painter from Cameroon, born in 1990. His work juxtaposes flatness and depth, areas of bright, almost arbitrary color within a photo-realistic armature of human figures. It sounds contrived, and sometimes it jars just slightly in its juxtaposition of brilliant colors—and echoes a bit of the feel of Kehinde Wylie’s sardonic mash-ups of Western tradition and African grit—but there’s no irony here. In one particular painting, the subject dominates the painting’s execution so that the narrative fuses with its treatment in such a way that the work stood out from everything else I saw at the fair. Le bapteme shows a small gathering of the faithful at the moment when two of the men are lowering a convert into the water for her baptism and a new life. The structure of the figures brings to mind Caravaggio: the foreshortening of the bodies and the way in which everything is arranged in a tight triangle that teeters on the fulcrum of one man’s leg, sunk into the brown water. The triangle is about to tip to the right as the woman sinks into the water, and then tip back as she comes up for air—the rhythm of a metronome, the passage of time, implicit in the arrested movement. Everyone wears white and the color scheme is highly restrained with a pale, yellow sky and flattened shapes for leaves in the background. The paint is applied in ways that simplify detail into general areas of uniform color, but without distracting from the illusion of depth and realism—the way Estes applied paint on a much smaller scale and more complicated patterns of marks, but Padeu is playing more with the tension between flatness and the illusion of depth.

All of this technical skill, though, is in service to a vision of goodness that, to me, is more powerful and accurate and effective in showing the nature of Christianity than most religious painting from the present and past. Piero’s Resurrection and Virgin Enthroned with Four Angels are rare, amazing and powerful paintings, for example, but they seem remote from the experience of faith and love. This image embodies in narrative form the experience of the faith it’s depicting: two strong men cradling the uncertain woman as she slowly goes under, ready to pull her back up. It’s almost the choreography of a waterboarding, but with everything reversed and opposite, blessed. The painting conveys the concentration and care in the men’s faces, the way in which the hands of all three are knotted together at the center of the painting, the individual and her community unified in this ceremony, in her surrender, the life-changing moment itself and how they are all bound together in this transformation of kindness, hope, and joy. None of this is conveyed the way a European would show it now, with a cool post-modern take on a religion Europe would just as soon discard. Africa is another story. I stood for a long time in that booth unable to look away. Just the fact that this deeply serious image, this tribute to simple human goodness and love, existed here, in a contemporary art fair, was incredibly moving. It makes my eyes fill up with gratitude even now.

How to heal the world…

…give thanks, take joy

An August Nod to Machado

Some Antonio Machado magic for these dog days of summer:

And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

From his poem, “Last Night As I Lay Sleeping,” translated by Robert Bly

Beauty, and Dave Hickey, reconsidered

 

Dave Hickey, 1940-2021

In The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey argues for the unruly vitality of the human imagination against forces of control—economic, political, and academic. It’s a book that wants art to be made in a state of absolute individual freedom, where forms and ideas contend for survival in an imaginative free market governed by nothing but desire: the desire to make art and the desire to see or own it. It’s an energizing book. Though it’s a bit of an invitation to anarchy—creative anarchy—ironically, it’s an argument for deference and courtesy. He elevates beauty into a core principle, which hardly sounds scandalous, though it was greeted that way. For him the struggle to make something beautiful forces an artist to cede power to the viewer—the artist has to beguile, not lecture. That’s a shift in power that few people around him wanted to see. He asserts a painter needs to make the viewer want to look, rather than rely on institutions that compel people to look and think a certain way, based on certain forms of approved expression. Better to make a beautiful object without significance than to create an admirable bit of agitprop that repels or bores everyone who sees it, as it offers a dose of permissible opinions about life.

Yet rereading this book again, one can see how Hickey never thought to follow his impulsive invocation of beauty (in response to a question at a professional conference) with a journey to its Platonic extreme and see beauty as the mysterious goal itself. He doesn’t pause to attempt the impossible that every real philosopher has: what is beauty, in and of itself? The question is unanswerable, but craving an answer to it is an essential way to be awake to life. It’s a question a bit like Heidegger’s question of Being: “why is there something rather than nothing.” The first time I read his book, this avoidance on Hickey’s part didn’t really occur to me, this shunning of questions about the nature of beauty. It’s easy to miss how he degrades beauty, in a sense, as something almost equivalent to advertising. His point here was to fight back against external controls over creativity, and he succeeds, with supple, showboating eloquence.

He’s a relativist, a pragmatist, a postmodern theorist himself pushing back against how postmodern theory has been debased with political agendas. He argues that beauty is the most effective Trojan horse for smuggling ideas into the heads of others. If you’re a progressive who wants to see social change, then you need a David to paint something as visually thrilling as the Oath of the Horatii and secondarily deliver some politics, on the side, while he has you transfixed. Beauty is the gift wrap for provisional, historically useful ideas—yet the real gift for Hickey turns out to be the wrapping—and this is where he has to cede that beauty matters more than any significance you can consciously invest in it—because most ideas have an expiration date, while great beauty endures.

His serpentine argument asserts that structures in art from the past can be repurposed and echoed, quoted and subverted, to say new things. They can be perpetually renewed—the structures themselves are the treasure, not whatever they mean at any given time. The structures of past art—wouldn’t T.S. Eliot call it the tradition?—form an ever expanding network of associations that serve as an inexhaustible matrix of possible ways to convey new meaning. And what keeps this matrix handy for future use is the mystery of its beauty. We don’t want to let go of what gives delight. We want to keeping looking. It sticks around for centuries until it suddenly seems to be useful again to a critic who can deconstruct it in novel ways or an artist who can use it to imply new things. (Never mind that it’s an end in itself.)

His call for individual freedom of expression pushes back against what he calls the “therapeutic institution”—the assembly of every organization designed to arbitrate what is good vs. bad, worth preserving vs. overdue for the dustbin, or simply abhorrent—the diverse collective of organizations that “privilege” worthwhile art without caring about how much joy it affords when you first set eyes on it. It can be as dull or lifeless as it wants, as long as it teaches you something that’s good for society. For him, by contrast, art should be free to do anything, unruly as a dragon in flight, as long as it kindles some kind of love at first sight.

The problem is that Hickey needs for that love to mean something. He still wants it to represent what it signifies. As he spins and spirals through his rhetorical aria, it feels as if he belongs within this cabal he opposes. He’s the unruly kid down at the end of the table refusing his peas, but he wants to be heard by the family who wishes he’s shut up and eat them. He is quite happy to interpret art for you, and so art needs to mean something intelligible in order for him to speak about it at any length. What makes him a bad boy is that he wants these meanings to be slippery, anarchic, surprising, unpredictable and sensuously pleasant. For him, the therapeutic institution is dedicated to supervising this concealed meaning, this dragon, or aborting it altogether if what it signifies doesn’t behave properly. For Hickey, beauty and a free market for it, undermine these repressive forces of control over what art is allowed to mean.

All of this is what’s kept Hickey fresh. His book is more relevant now than it was in the 90s. Yet what strikes me now is how ancillary beauty is to his thesis. He approaches art intellectually–even though beauty, in and of itself, refuses to surrender to the intellect–and he expects art to return the favor. (Of course he does. He’s a critic.)

Actually, most people who buy art don’t require anything beyond the physical object itself. Real art collectors buy art because they want to own it and continue to look at it, regardless of what it can be construed to mean—that’s why Hickey’s vision makes sense. It’s a survival strategy for wonderful work. He wants art to be fun, to give joy, but in order to push back against the censors who need their art to be full of correct and important views on life, he convincingly argues for how meaning in art is most vital when it’s least predictable and challenging–and clothed in beauty. But his understanding of beauty and truth seems so pragmatic that it allows him to sidestep the question of beauty’s irresistible mystery, and why beauty itself might matter more than anything it is intentionally meant to represent. But that’s where words come to a halt, and that puts a critic out of work.

 

2

Art often means something. It pointed toward God during the Middle Ages, and through much of the Renaissance. In the 19th century the mythological and narrative themes of academic painting were discarded by Impressionism. The Impressionists mocked the notion that art had to mean anything at all. It simply had to convey the world as it is. I think it’s safe to say this isn’t what is most celebrated about modern art—it’s lack of meaning. Dada wasn’t the only movement opposed to the requirement that visual art mean something. One could say there were precursors to this as soon as painting became an end in itself. In Vermeer, Chardin as well as in all the landscapes for the sake of landscape, as in Bruegel’s amazing drawings and his paintings of the seasons. Durer’s rabbit is simply an exquisitely drawn rabbit. It doesn’t stand for anything but itself. Impressionism introduced the novel idea that all narrative content, all symbolic or metaphoric resonance, had become an impediment, to the act of direct seeing, to the communication of life itself, as it is—seeing for its own sake but also for what can be conveyed wordlessly, silently, in an experience that can’t be made intelligible by other means. Visual art delivers perceptions and intuitions with perfect clarity, and the most fundamental of them are immune to language and analysis. Renoir’s boating party on the Seine shows a group of young, hip people in a moment of idle happiness and isn’t that about all that needs to be said? It’s a painting that conveys an awareness of the entirety of life and yet, in literal terms, it shows nothing of any great significance. It welcomes you to the party.

One can find endless exceptions to this rule, even since the advent of modernism—Guernica for example—throughout an immense inventory of overtly political and narrative and otherwise illustrative modern art. Meaningful art is everywhere, and it can be amazing. But against all of that significant artwork one can now look out on the vast body of inventiveness that functions the way instrumental music does, like Kandinsky’s or Klee’s translation of spiritual intuitions into color and line and geometric form. One can talk about their formal beauty, or lack of it, but talking about it adds little to the act of looking. (Hickey is quick to sneer at the celebration of formal beauty in and of itself as a way of dodging the discomfiting truths in art, citing how some defended Mapplethorpe’s transgressive photographs by talking about their formal excellence, while he brings his examination of the photographs back to what they signify in relation to previous art.) But you can’t talk anyone into seeing what Kandinsky meant for you to see, the actual experience of that visual music, its isness—you have recourse only to your eyes.

Looking is both the first and last step in a person’s encounter with a painting. If you don’t see it in the way that you listen to music, then discussion won’t be much of a substitute for the joy. Talking about the overture to The Marriage of Figaro can be interesting, but it won’t enable you to hear how the very pulse of human life opens up as you listen. Hearing Mozart’s overture once, you don’t need a critic to explain it to you. It is a world unto itself, complete and perfect, full of supreme energy and joy, in need of no metaphoric scaffolding. It’s a child of Mozart’s heart and labor, his offspring. To secularize a term from religion, it’s a sacrament rather than a signifier—sacraments being an instantiation of something, not symbols of it. It doesn’t just sound like life; for anyone who adores that passage of Mozart, it is life. Mozart and Kandinsky leave no room for an art critic to drive a piton into their magnificence, the better to pose on top of it—though this won’t stop people from writing about their work, nor should it. The more the merrier, because it will usually get people to look, but that doesn’t mean the writing penetrates or conveys the work itself. At best it points you in its general direction and withdraws.

Again and again, Hickey suggests that beauty is the means rather than the end of art. He dismisses Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation in a sentence, but she was attempting, in a limiting way, to point toward a new way to behold art: as an embodiment of human awareness, through what she could only call style, for lack of a better term, as opposed to seeing form as a vessel for content. In every word, every punctuation mark of an original poet, in every mark of Van Gogh or Klee or Porter, you have a portal through which to see an entire world that goes by the name of that individual now, a world embodied in that one fragment of it, the work itself. And that individual world resonates with the universal one we all inhabit. This isn’t how most people would describe what’s meant by style. For her, the work was less like a container for something one could carry away from it and more like the soul of a complex child, sharing the richness of its creator’s perceptions and emotions and experiences with anyone who wants to get to know them. The work isn’t a formulation of that individual’s abstract concepts about life—it is an embodiment of that life. It’s his or her baby, the product not just of the artist’s reasoning mind, but of his or her arms, legs, senses, emotions, and a vast reservoir of conscious and unconscious memory. It’s an embodiment, as well, of everything reason can’t penetrate.

 

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It’s hard to imagine a thinker further from Hickey than Iris Murdoch. In The Sovereignty of the Good, Murdoch argues for beauty as an ontological principle. She uses classic terms that must sound outdated to many: goodness, beauty, and truth. (How antiquated. Aren’t we in a post-truth world? Isn’t truth just a function of power, as Nietzsche and contemporary postmodernists maintain?) So any talk of love and beauty must sound sentimental: love being typically associated with romance rather than, say, the act of a soldier falling on the live grenade and beauty an outward, surface quality not thought to be terribly instrumental when you’re intent on changing the world—Yeats’s “terrible beauty” notwithstanding.

It’s initially a dense book that almost immediately lost me in her introductory attempts to parry all of her contemporaneous philosophers, analytical and existential, who were denying or minimizing the inner life of the individual. Philosophy banished metaphysics and then came looking to dispel individual consciousness even in her time—while the idea of an inner, individual life is more imperiled now than ever before. Granted, some are still defending consciousness as something mysterious and distinct from all of the bodily functions that now are widely assumed to give rise to our putative illusions about an enduring individual identity. (Identity is a koan: maybe I don’t really exist but when I say that, why should I listen, since nobody is talking? Who’s listening?) For her, the essence of an individual’s moral and spiritual struggle was a conscious, subjective and largely invisible effort to pay attention to what’s actually the case, within oneself and in the world. This strenuous effort to simply see the reality of your own life, over years, for her, creates the groundwork for moral choice, which is less the act of a free agent and more a state of almost inescapable submission to what is necessary, once you’ve learned to see how things are. To see the state of things clearly is to be as prepared, and as eager, as possible to submit to the difficult but obviously right thing to do. Once you see what’s really worthwhile, the pull of all the easier alternatives fades. You have begun to see they aren’t real.

She defends the reality of subjective consciousness—the sense of being a soul moving through the world—as the only way to account for the actual experience of being alive and human. And this gives her permission to talk about something as inactive as silent contemplation—simple attention—as having fundamental value, something that can’t be dismissed as a misunderstanding of language. For her, simply paying close attention to anything outside the self—“unselfing” as she calls it—even if it’s nothing more than buying a house plant and keeping it alive, is the beginning of a moral life, because it lures you out of the confines of your self-absorption. Once you pay close enough attention to your relationships with the world and others, and your own behavior, you begin to see the truth of those relationships, and what used to be a matter of choice begins to seem a necessity. It becomes almost reflexive. There is still choice but it’s often effortless. When, say, you really recognize another’s psychic pain, it’s easier to forgive them for how their anger might hurt you.

One of the most beautiful scenes in It’s A Wonderful Life is when young George Bailey refuses to deliver the drunken druggist’s prescription. It’s full of a poison Mr. Gower didn’t realize he’d selected because of his grief over his son’s death. George recognizes what’s happening. He refuses to deliver the drug, and Mr. Gower smacks him in fury but George, weeping not from physical pain but because he knows Gower’s son was killed in the war, keeps explaining what’s happening until Gower sees the horror of what he’s almost done. George knows and feels the man’s desperation, instantly begins to mourn with him, because he sees clearly what the man is suffering—the boy is completely oblivious to the pain of having been struck by the old man. His act of paying attention in every detail to what’s happening around him and within Gower enable him to save both the patient waiting for the prescription and the druggist as well. Forgiveness and compassion aren’t even a choice at that point: they are identical with the kind of attention George’s character pays to the people around him. As Murdoch says:

If we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. . . . The exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial.

In other words, you train yourself, through a quality of attention during all the seemingly trivial hours of each day until you find yourself acting benevolently without even considering the alternatives—what would be a difficult choice for someone ensconced in self-centered habits becomes a willing surrender to what simply appears to be the only thing one can do and still live with oneself. You can’t imagine yourself doing otherwise. That feeling of necessity is something earned through years of looking honestly at what you do and what you face. It’s a practice.

Anyone who has read Krishnamurti’s talks will know this drill. He spoke about attention, in the same terms: how awareness can eventually give rise to right action, so that one is persuaded that there is no credit to be given for doing the right thing. It happens almost without choice. People who are lauded as heroes often say, “I was just doing my job.” It’s another way of saying, “It didn’t even occur to me to do otherwise.” Or “I did it without thinking.” They acted without pausing to choose. No alternative occurred to them. The choice, the act, had already been loaded into the chamber, as it were, through years of looking honestly and patiently at themselves and the world around them.

If I attend properly I will have no choices, and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. The ideal situation . . . is . . . to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something much more like ‘obedience.’

This is where her book becomes interesting in the context of painting, because she starts to oscillate back and forth between the moral and esthetic realms: becoming a better person is the same process as the one that leads to becoming a better artist. For her, as for Wittgenstein, ethics and aesthetics are one discipline.

One of the great merits of moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.

Anyone who makes art knows how crucially it depends on the principle of freedom of expression—what Dave Hickey so vehemently defends in his book. To apply external controls over creative expression is the surest way to eliminate the surprising turns of great art—the surprise that is so essential to love-at-first-sight. Yet Murdoch has no interest in a world of art which is essentially a free-for-all, the kind of marketplace Hickey’s book conjures up where everything is allowed and what survives is simply what pleases the most people. (That’s exactly how the market works, and how it should work, but Hickey’s vision of beauty’s role in all this depends far more on the invisible role of intellect than Murdoch’s.) She describes the discipline of attention as a way to acquire an interior sense of obedience to what is true and beautiful—even as it ultimately remains mysterious and resistant to the intellect. This inner discipline is an individual form of regulation that makes institutional control not only irrelevant, but hindering. As T.S. Eliot said, no system can relieve people from the need to be good.

In a way, it’s a refinement of what Hickey proposes—not his pagan orgy of pleasure for the sake of pleasure, though her “unselfing” works within the same kind of free society where individuals have to labor toward wisdom and awareness individually, through thousands of tiny choices day after day, month after month, year after year. Artists who have reached any kind of noted accomplishment will recognize this process as exactly what they have needed to do, and that is her point. Art grows out of this same kind of humble, submissive attention to the smallest and seemingly least important details. The ability to convey the way things are—as Van Gogh did in his painting of worn shoes—results in work of great beauty even if the subject is superficially ugly or imperfect. As Charles Hawthorne advised, go paint the train station. Beauty is everywhere if you give everywhere your complete attention. Murdoch writes:

In one of those important movements of return from philosophical theory to simple things we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely a part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue is . . . the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve.

Goodness and beauty aren’t just adjectives to describe an infinite array of things that have pleasant qualities. They are transcendent a priori truths, a glimpse of something more enduring than the fragmented sequence of experiences in the average day. People struggle to approach them in behavior and perception, trying to get closer and closer to goodness and beauty and truth itself—three facets of a single gem as it were—drawn toward them more powerfully as you begin to see them more clearly. We know them when we see them reflected in specific things and people and events, but we’re unable to define them in themselves. They remain “a magnetic and inexhaustible reality.” Unlike me, she wants nothing to do with God, doesn’t really need a God, in her philosophy, but an impersonal Goodness comes across as a close approximation, if not the same thing. Her idea is that the greatest life—and the greatest art—is simply one that embodies this Goodness/Beauty we’re never quite able to grasp but are able to see and serve more and more clearly through strenuous attention to whatever happens to be the case in an individual life.

The actual nature of life withholds itself in the minute-by-minute dissatisfactions of everyday experience, the stew of conflicted desire and distraction, the quietly chattering consciousness that darts from one thing to the next, minute by minute. Yet it discloses itself to an awareness humble enough to simply watch and listen. She doesn’t try to resurrect metaphysics in her brief book. But for her, insight into what’s real can be achieved and earned, because goodness is already there in everything around you, unobserved or intentionally ignored—and an increasing awareness of it serves as training for being good. And that implies what metaphysics has always asserted, that we begin ensnared in illusions and can only make progress by submitting to a reality we don’t create but can only learn to see and serve in gradual, small increments. This is the lesson from wisdom traditions around the world, from Plato to Buddha to Orthodox Christianity. This is almost exactly the opposite of the way Hickey describes artistic freedom, but I’m not sure he would dismiss Murdoch here:

Beauty appears as the visible and accessible aspect of the Good. The Good itself is not visible. The ‘there is more than this’, if it is not to be corrupted by some sort of quasi-theological finality, must remain a very tiny spark of insight, something with, as it were, a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form. But it seems to me that the spark is real, and that great art is the evidence of its reality. Art indeed, so far from being a playful diversion of the human race, is the place of its most fundamental insight, and the centre to which the more uncertain steps of metaphysics must constantly return.

4

I’ve referred to it more than once here, but there is hardly a more moving description of how beauty and truth radiate from a work of art than Heidegger’s prose poem, tucked into The Origin of the Work of Art, published in 1935, about Van Gogh’s painting of peasant boots. They were actually a pair of shoes the painter bought but couldn’t wear, so he decided to use them as a subject. Each of the earlier sentences from the German philosopher is almost a wordy haiku, and is certainly written in the spirit of Issa or Basho, without their brevity and ability to stick to nothing but the simple facts. Heidegger can’t resist telling you what the Japanese poets simply show, but the effect is much the same. He tried his hand at poetry, but he never equalled the gravity and beauty of this passage:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field . . . (her) uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.

Heidegger calls forth not just a woman’s life but a surrounding human and natural world from a painting of two commonplace things. Any lover of music or film or painting, any reader of poetry, can pull together a long list of examples of other work that has this effect—work that opens up a panoramic vista of life, an experience full of pathos and a sense of both of ultimate loss and immense gratitude and love. The relentless state of being in love, romantically in love, induces this heightened awareness almost continuously—excruciating beauty and certain loss, given the nature of time. Art works more fitfully. The ending of My Dinner With Andre has this effect, the fast-forward imagery of a child growing into a man and then disappearing into adulthood on the way to death, as if the mind has panned pack to glimpse the immensity of the earth itself, the smallness of human preoccupations, the way in which we’re lost in everyday distraction from the beauty. Beauty, beauty everywhere but none we’re able to drink at any given hour or minute. This is what it means to be a fallen creature, cut off from this ever-present but unregarded beauty inseparable from the frailty of human hopes and joys and despair, the silence and apparent impersonality of nature. Insofar as this pair of worn, crushed, misshapen, ugly old boots embody the world of the woman or man who wore them, they are as beautiful as the world, the life, you see through the prism of a beloved child’s face. There is no intellectual meaning embedded in this painting, no dog whistles of political or sociological content. What this painting conveys is universal and instantaneous, bypassing the intellect, opening the heart and awakening a larger mind than the intellect, the nous, in the Greek understanding of the sentient heart.

Manifest zoom

Sam King, Untitled, 10″ x 8″, oil on linen and canvas

That’s a sample of the work from Sam King on view at Manifest in Cincinnati right now, a fantastic little painting, with tremendously restrained color harmonies and a rich feel for the texture of his medium. It grabbed me in the email announcement Jason Franz and crew sent out inviting people to click into a conversation (see below) among the current exhibitors at Manifest. King’s work tends to follow the structure of this one,  serried ranks of marks, though sometimes with a far more aggressive palette, visual jazz improvisations. He has worked mainly with unevenly mapped, loose grids of geometric shapes densely packed, honeycombed almost, into often tight formats: 15″ by 15″ canvases aren’t uncommon. Then, as you scroll through his site, he springs a very large image on you: 72″ in one dimension. Check out the paintings he did over the past couple years, breaking out of the grids though they are still implied so that the variations and the violations from those regular ranks of marks spring out at you like a Matisse cutout. Note the ones where he limits his color scheme and mutes it, or pares the colors down to a few with blocks of uniform color that look like redactions. The one above gives off a strong whiff of Klee and holds up well in the comparison. In this one the colors are exactly right, as if he’s translating a melody perfectly into paint for the first time, everything just where it should be on the surface.

The Zoom conference Manifest will be worth a listen. I’ve participated in one of these with Manifest and another, quite recently with fellow exhibitors at Main Street Arts. In both cases, it was a rich learning experience and rewarding to listen to fellow painters and those working in other media talk about how they work and how they came to be artists. Here are the details for joining the Zoom from Manifest:

Thursday, August 4th, 6-8pm
Common Ground #18 — A Virtual Exhibiting Artists Panel Talk

Zoom-based loosely-formatted panel talk featuring many of the artists showing in Manifest’s newest set of exhibits.

Panel conversation prompts will include:

1. How is the notion of “transformation” evidenced in your work?

2. Considering materials specifically – At what point are they transformed into something you’d classify as art? Does the artist transform the materials or is it the other way around? Who else is allowed to participate in that conversion?

3. Do the products of your studio lead to more personal, inter-personal (artist to viewer, or vice versa), or community metamorphoses?

 

This pandemic-inspired format for artist talks at Manifest provides the public a chance to meet more exhibitors from the very wide radius that Manifest’s shows draw from. It also offers the artists from afar a chance to meet each other, our staff, and others in engaged conversation. It is also a particularly good opportunity for students of art at any level to have a chance to join in open discussion with working artists, and get a sense for how such a professional practice may be maintained and incorporated into one’s life.

This talk will feature the artists with work included in the newest set of exhibits of Manifest Gallery’s 18th season. It has been thanks to the heroic commitment of exhibiting artists that we’ve been able to continue our work as the neighborhood gallery for the world through the pandemic. However, what has been lost to some degree is the vital energy of people gathering at our opening receptions, and artists traveling to Cincinnati from near and far to make connections and meet each other in their shared exhibits at Manifest. We are offering this ongoing series of online panel talks to provide a chance for the artists and the public to share this common ground once again.

Tickets are FREE!
In order to help Manifest’s staff manage the online event we ask that anyone planning to attend register for a ticket. Zoom connection details and access portal will be provided as part of the ticket. Get a ticket at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/378319663297

Blooming Through

O the courage of yarrow, 

impossibly blooming through 

abandoned asphalt. Yarrow—

meaning healing & love, 

meaning even the thickest lid 

above the wild seed of our hope

cannot contain tenacious life.  

    

The magic of the everyday, domestic, and mundane

Tangible Things, invitational group show at Main Street Arts, Clifton Springs

Main Street Arts invited me to show some of my taffy paintings in its current exhibit, Tangible Objects, along with the work of six other artists who are experimenting with form and materials, and whose work in many cases evokes commonplace, overlooked objects. In other words, Bradley and Sarah Butler recognized that someone who tries to bring forth the sense of a world in a couple pieces of salt-water taffy would be right at home with these others: all of us are exploring the formal opportunities afforded by the most humble, vulnerable objects most would consider insignificant. In other words, the spirit of still life painting hovers throughout the show: the beauty and resonance of the everyday, domestic, and mundane. I was also delighted to see my sense of being haunted by color field painting (in my candy paintings) is echoed a bit in the work of one of the other artists, Myung Urso, whose materials are fabric and paper. It’s a great show, and the work is original, surprising and often quietly poetic and stirring.

Becca Barolli, weaves stiff, annealed steel wire into shapes that suggest fabric—an old, falling-apart afghan, a long muffler—bending the wire and braiding it into these nearly immovable effigies of something far more warm and cuddly. She works long hours, rubbing CBD oil into her fingers at the end of a work day, trying to weave with steel—it’s almost a vocation the Greeks would have imagined as karmic justice for some offense against tunics. The objects suggest petrified remains of what once nurtured comfort and life, but they aren’t morbid, nor depressing. Instead, the immense, repetitive effort, the meditative devotion required to transform the body of supple, humble things into art gives them a mysterious totemic after-life. The contrast between the delicate, original object, and the work based on it, impervious as chain mail, accentuates the gap between the medium and what it represents as well as the delight triggered by that gap in all representational art, fusing both sameness and difference into one perception. Barolli is a recent MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has had a residency at Mass MoCA and has shown at galleries in L.A., New York City and San Francisco. Her practice favorably brings to mind Susie MacMurray’s,  and it would be interesting to see them paired in a show some day.

At first, Sue Blumendale’s dresses look as if they could be worn to a party, but they’re made of archival copy paper that serves as a support for digital images of people from her ancestry: mother, father, aunts and a grandmother she never met. The dress becomes a sort of sculpted image of an absent human form, missing from inside the dress but commemorated with two dimensional images printed on the paper. The pictures of her family come from a family album. It’s intensely personal and felt, and the humble quality of the dresses has an almost Japanese quality of self-effacement, the everyday object surviving, transcending its wearer, coming into its own, and likewise, the artist herself withdrawing to let the dress shine, just as the subject, the missing person is absent inside the dress but present in the memorial pattern. It’s the transformation at the basis of all art: the individual human being sublimated into the creation. These are wonderfully realized three-dimensional images, where stylistic choices come together perfectly in a unique way. It’s lovely, intensely personal work. One wonders if someone could make a living doing cloth versions of these dresses to be worn, on commission, for people who wanted to clothe themselves with a memory. A new form of portraiture and a new line of clothing that exhibits the work anywhere, at any time.

On the walls are little rows and groupings of silver utensils by Christina Brinkman that stand out as interesting abstract objects—partly despite and partly because of their utility. Everyone is familiar with silverware, but these spoons shine like silk or brushed nickel. Like all the work in this show, there’s a human vulnerability and modesty that gives each utensil a kind of personality, cheerful and dutiful, surfaces showing the evidence of the artist’s hand and heart. If you owned a set of these serving spoons and forks they would likely hang on the wall, untouched; they seem to have created a new category for contemplation that has nothing to do with eating. Those little indentations in the trough of a spoon as empty as Lao Tzu’s hub of a wheel. His emptiness is what made the wheel move, empty but full of function; the emptiness here seems to make room only for the imagination. She is also a painter, printmaker and sculptor, and she has designed work for MoMA.

Along the same lines, by throwing dark clay on a wheel, Peter Pincus fashions vessels that seem to embody the human craving for touch. The matte surfaces of his pots and urns require careful handling because touching them can alter the surface: these perfectly shaped objects have no skin, as it were, no armoring glaze, and though their dark curves seem infused with mystery and reserve, they are, in a sense, naked and exposed, completely open to their surroundings. It’s this fusion of opposite qualities, that makes then so attractive, magnetic, with an aura of ancient craftsmanship. Pincus teaches in the School of Art and Design at Rochester Institute of Technology.

The love for a family member, her grandmother, inspires Anna Sprague’s constructions, ostensibly jewelry, though the little three-dimensional imaginations look at home framed behind glass. She grew up in Cleveland and her experience of nature informs what she does, so it’s fitting that she resides and works in Rochester now, because the natural terrain here is more or less the same as upper Ohio, full of glacial undulations—rivers, lakes, woods and fields, wildlife. She arranges a cluster of lentils in an oval, and they look like metal filings aligned in a force field, or a scrum of ladybugs, in coordinated formation, patterns strange and soothing at the same time at such a small, intimate scale. It’s also as if you are looking down at a geode turned inside-out, prickly but with edges and points safely blunted. In either case, it’s as if you’re seeing something ordered by nature rather than human artifice.

In some ways I felt closer to Myung Urso’s creative vision than anyone else in the show. She works with hand-dyed ramie fabric, paper pulp, pigment and paper board. Her most interesting pieces in the show were three-dimensional collages inspired by her observation of geometric shapes in scraps of fabric leftover from her previous constructions. She will build a box that serves as a sort of minimalist, geometric structure, like a little Bauhaus home without windows or doors or roof, cladded with half-moons or wavering rectangles. Again, the fusion of opposites, makes it come alive—as in the hard-soft contrast in Barolli’s metal fabric. And in this case you want to handle it, the soft nap of the fabric, the subtle colors. One thinks of Stella and especially Klee, and, as with everything in the show, there’s a humble freshness, a vulnerable refusal to make big statements, but a kind of meekness as a virtue that infuses her work and makes it deeply appealing. It’s a spirit that hovers throughout the entire show.

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.