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Why I’m not painting

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

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

Denis Johnson

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

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

“Yes, to get you better.”

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

“I understand the question, Dad.”

“I’ve had a good life.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No pickle juice,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, precisely. Or saner.”

He grinned, and Mom revived.

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

“What about me?” I asked.

“You are too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you leaving now?” he asked. 

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

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

“Well, no because you will be asleep.”

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

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

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

Beyond the Visible

At the start of a my walk…

I was grateful to spend the last week housesitting near Face Rock Beach in Bandon, Oregon. I walked the long beaches usually twice a day, in between overlong work sessions.

One afternoon, as I headed north, I noticed that Face Rock was baredy visible in the fog. In fact, if I hadn’t seen her before, I wouldn’t have even known she was there.

On my return, the fog had cleared, and the namesake rock was in her usual pose of looking up at the sky from the waters. I couldn’t help but wonder: how many things do we walk past in the fog of our limited perception, not knowing the presence of beauty just beyond the visible conditions of our lives?

…and on my return.

I spent a good chunk of the week’s work on a new possible adventure–one that would require new ways of seeing, thinking, and dreaming.

We shall see (and I do hope with more than my natural eyes).

With love from the fog & the sun,

Anna

Imagination’s worlds

A Late Arrival, Aron Weisenfeld, oil on panel.

At the risk of coming across as a human billboard for Arcadia Gallery, I have to note with pleasure a show that has already come down—with the same inadvertently useless timing of my last post on the gallery. Maybe this helps offset the impression that I’m standing on the street directing passersby through the front door, not that I would be ashamed to do that. On my last trip to the West Coast I was in California too early to see Matthew Cornell’s tour de force of small works, Roadside Attractions—(Manifest Gallery could do a solo installation of this same show entitled Magnitude 7, except that Cornell usually sells out whatever he shows). I arrived in time, though, to marvel at Aron Wiesenfeld’s Natural Selectiona haunting series of images that have a patina of somber fantasy, but are surprisingly vivid depictions of gentle, and sometimes intensely beautiful, alienation. His paintings are mostly centered around a young waif whose occasionally elongated figure reminds me faintly of Giacometti’s gaunt sentinels. Wiesenfeld creates scenes of almost hermetic silence, inwardness and isolation—all surrounding what look to be adolescent figures. Yet these qualities aren’t nightmarish, but are closer to tranquil waking dreams set in natural surroundings or sparsely populated urban landscapes. Illuminated signs beckon from a rural highway across an empty field or the glow of an Apple display logo shines like a candle from the lap of a teen sitting under a stone archway. His young, reflective figures seem slightly lost or just willfully unmoored from any recognizable purpose other than to be aware of their own superfluous presence in a world too busy or remote to notice them. (A mood known to most people, at any age, no?) This comes across as a good thing for us, at least—these figures become conduits for the viewer to variously absorb the intense beauty of the world immersing these idle avatars.

What’s so gripping about the work is how these almost stylized images awaken powerful, haunted feelings of familiar moods inspired by subtle qualities of light and even temperature that echo back through a viewer’s experience of countless winters or autumns, along highways, in woods. It’s a twilight world, alternating between wide, almost desolate open spaces (fringed with signs of random commerce) or protective havens for Wiesenfeld’s subjects: a reflecting pool, a tunnel, a crawl space or crumbling wall, and a beckoning pit. The images are like moments from disenchanted fairy tales, yet they aren’t depressing. They convey the not entirely unpleasant sadness one courts by listening to certain music in mid-teens, or twenties (or thirties for that matter)—when the joy of heartache can be a way of feeling most alive. Three paintings in the show have an almost mythical simplicity and resonance. His largest canvas, The Bridge, shows his waif standing on an old, improvised footbridge gazing off to the horizon dotted with lights from scattered commerce and low-rent homes clustering along a state highway. (It’s the sort of development that zoning boards relegate to places where those on the board wouldn’t build their homes, but in these paintings, there’s poetry in the yawning distance between the ruminating figure in the foreground and the winking points of light that shine at the far edge of the field.) One of the marvels of the painting is how everything looks illuminated exactly as it would under a full moon. The mood is one of fragile, forlorn expectation. The Pit shows a white robed figure, ghostly beside the black open mouth of a large well, or maybe just a firepit, but it feels more like a wormhole to the Black Forest. And a third depicts a single young watcher, patiently holding a lantern beside a rail line in the middle of an obscuring snowfall. She could be waiting to say hello, or lingering after a goodbye, or just loving the silent fall of the snow, though the title, A Late Arrival, tells the story. That little lamp illuminates an entire world, like the imagination itself, and though almost nothing is clearly distinguishable, everything in the picture seems just as it should be. As in most of these paintings the lonely figure is enveloped and sustained by the world they seem to establish around themselves simply by being at the imaginative center of it. 

Max Gottschlich on the limits of knowledge

Max Gottschlich

A few months ago, I came across what for most people other than professional philosophers would be an obscure, academic essay on Kant in the journal Metaphysics from 2015. I stumbled onto it after skimming through some art criticism online and finding a phrase about “Kant’s theories on the limitations of logic.” This intrigued me; anything about the limits of human reasoning draws my attention, but especially in relation to this foremost German critic of human reason, who also happened to be the fellow who established the philosophical framework for the reliability of the scientific method.  So I Googled “Kant on the limits of logic” and this essay topped the list of hits. The title of the paper almost sounded like a Monty Python parody of Continental philosophy: “The Necessity and Limits of Kant’s Transcendental Logic, with Reference to Nietzsche and Hegel.” Yet the content of the paper has held my interest, off and on, for months. 

I have reread Gottschlich many times, and though I’m still bemused by a few passages toward the end, the essay strikes me as both a useful explication of what Kant was doing in his philosophy and also a way of putting logical reasoning into proper perspective. All of which has a bearing on what visual art can do outside the scope of what Kant was exploring. The quietly radical implications of all this probably wouldn’t bother those who think science is the last word on truth—but it should. In other words, it’s an effort that seems at least partly consonant with Heidegger’s own critical views on the entirety of Western thought and the nihilism at the heart of it.

Max Gottschlich, the essay’s author, starts by pointing out that Kant sets aside metaphysics—all the theories of truth that have arisen in Western philosophy since the Greeks. Instead, he examines, in The Critique of Pure Reason, only the marriage between logic and the knowledge it offers. Instead of postulating an ontology—a theory of being—he shows how the system of logic gives form to the manifold world of sensory experience and thus give rise to our understanding of a world that operates by natural laws. All other forms of awareness are set aside in this process. What the world or anything in it actually is remains beside the point–and unknowable through logic. Logical understanding—transcendental logic as it is called in the essay—provides the superstructure within which all individual things become comprehensible within this ordered world of appearances.

Kant no longer undertakes the inquiry into being and its determinations, but more fundamentally asks about the conditions of the possibility of knowledge of objects in general.

It’s pertinent to note that logic isn’t only the ground for scientific investigation, but also provides the structure of computer software and artificial intelligence, as well as an individual’s common sense problem-solving in daily life. Logic itself is reshaping our entire world–it’s what rules the spirit of our age. Gottschlich wants to understand how this sort of knowledge functions as a whole. For him, Kant isn’t interested, per se,  in particular operations of formal logic, as a computer engineer would be, but in the role that logical understanding and knowledge play in forming the boundaries of thought and human awareness. He aims to think about how logic structures knowledge, how it generates it, rather than about how the rules of formal logic lead to particular valid propositions that can be proven.

He points out that Western philosophy perennially begins with the identification of thinking and being: it is taken for granted that rational thought is how we come to unveil the being of things and the world. Thought corresponds with the world in reliable ways—and the goal of much philosophy has been to propose a theory, a metaphysics, to explain how and why this is so. Until Kant, the author says, philosophy assumed an equivalence between thinking and being. In this view, the actual being of an object in the world, what it is, reveals itself through its intelligibility—it becomes transparent to thought. If you think in a logical, non-contradictory way about the world, it has been assumed you will arrive at an understanding of the world’s inherent nature. To achieve this consistent, non-contradictory realm of thought—and being—much of Western philosophy has situated truth somehow apart from this changing, imperfect world: Plato’s realm of Forms or Ideas, for example.

Yet Gottschlich suggests that this consistent, non-contradictory world of logic exists only as a way for the thinking subject, “the transcendental I”, to maintain itself in time, to persist and endure, to survive–to maintain an integrated sense of personal identity and also to successfully impose one’s will on the world. Witness the power and benefits of science and technology, the children of logic. Yet, as much as logic enables us to master the world, that world  itself, in its actual nature, is almost essentially contradictory–it undermines itself. 

Concepts like κίνησις, οὐσία, ἐντελέχεια, σύνολον, causa sui, monad, and, as Kant indirectly shows, the concept of freedom and the “I” have something in common: they cannot be conceived other than as a unity of opposed determinations (being–nothing, rest–motion, particular–general, possibility–actuality, matter–form, unity–plurality, cause–effect, determination–indeterminacy, subject—object).

Even with pure reason, even putting aside the polarities of the actual world, the mind finds itself ultimately in a state of contradiction. The abstract idea of causation can’t resolve the contradictions inherent within it. Every effect has a cause, each cause has its own antecedent cause, all of which must have been started in motion by a Prime Mover, a first cause. And yet there is no such thing as an action without a cause: the notion of a first cause is self-contradictory. We can’t rationally conceive of a first cause. 

Kant looked at the philosophy of his own day—from empiricism to pure idealism—and found that both opposing schools led to self-contradictions and the inability to ground reason in a valid way. The outcome of this realization is that thinking and what is, the actuality of the world, come apart. Thinking isn’t commensurate with actuality. So, for Kant, all these other attempts at philosophical thinking offered no way to establish a reliable connection between thinking and the phenomenal world, the “spacial-temporal manifold” of sensory information.

(With David Hume’s empiricism, if every idea or content of consciousness should be proven to be grounded only in sensation,) then not only does all objectivity immediately vanish into a “bunch of impressions,” so that something like a common world is a fiction, but also the so-called subject is nothing but a Heraclitean flow of impressions in which it immediately dissolves. Thus, not only metaphysics, but all scientific knowledge and its presuppositions, are fundamentally unjustified.

If all knowledge is simply grounded in sensation and the mind is a provisional epiphenomenon of the random behavior of the world, then all knowledge is equally random, simply a mirroring of the endless, orderless shifting river of experience. Science and natural laws are just as fungible as the ideas that arise out of this ever-changing kaleidoscope of phenomena. In this case, knowledge is either inherently contradictory—a thing is both there and then not there, changing slightly into something else, just as you try to pin it down with a name—or ultimately illusory. But science works, the world is predictable, up to to a point, so this can’t be the case. 

Kant establishes how, in fact, there can be any identity between thinking and being: how thinking can actually reflect or represent an intelligible, ordered world—in a way that works for human purposes.

Kant inquires into that which lies behind previous epistemologies, the prerequisites of the interrelation of the logical and reality.

Kant’s endeavor is consequently to unfold systematically all the presuppositions that guarantee that thinking in accordance with the forms and principles of formal logic does not result in mere tautologies or lead to contradiction but is objectively valid.

He wants to show how thought can be objectively valid, neither contradictory nor a matter of empty equivalences—how and why rational thought itself creates its own necessity.

What knowledge do we achieve or obtain about being or actuality by means of formal logic?

This line from Gottschlich is his central interest: what sort of knowledge do we achieve through formal logic, or to put it more compellingly, what is modern science actually teaching us? What is human knowledge, as defined by Western thinking, and how does it reveal to us—or potentially divert us from—the nature of actuality?

Against the background of this question, we can capture the main difference between formal and transcendental logic: formal logic presupposes the constitution of the objectivity of the object, whereas transcendental logic shows the mode of the constitution of objectivity.

The eyes want to glaze over here, but his argument pivots on this assertion: logical thinking presupposes the objective validity of its own processes, which can’t be proven from within the procedures of logic itself—an observation akin to Godel’s incompleteness theorem—while Kant’s “transcendental” examination of logic tries to reveal how objectivity itself is established, without going beyond this question to ask exactly what “objective thinking” is doing in the world, and in the foundation of human nature itself. Kant is critically thinking about the nature of objectivity as a whole, not simply looking at ways in which objective knowledge of particular things is acquired.

This justification requires necessarily establishing an a priori (universally valid and necessary) relation between the logical form and what we call the object.

Therefore, the logical must be regarded as forming form, as logical activity a priori, which constitutes the identity of something as something, the objectivity of the object.

“Logic must be regarded as forming form” is a pivotal phrase in the paper. Max G. shows how human understanding, at the level Kant was trying to elucidate, the “transcendental level,” prior to particular thoughts, actually creates the forms which provide the structure of thought itself: thought unifies multiple sensory impressions into the perception of an object, establishing the identity of things in the world, in such a way that this act of “forming form” constitutes both the objective world and the mind that understands it simultaneously.

(A) concept is not like an empty box, waiting to be filled with content or to be applied to given objects or particulars. Rather, the concept is a concept if and only if it grasps something.

Logic is prehensile, almost creative. A concept isn’t something that exists in the mind waiting for the individual to come across its equivalent in the world: a concept is formed only when it grasps something in the world: takes manifold sensory impressions and actively unifies them into a useful idea or perception. Without that soup of sensory data, there is no concept. Logic gives form to the world itself. So much for Plato. And yet this entire complex network of understanding itself, structured by logic, remains ungrounded and unproven. 

The logical principles (mainly the principles of identity and noncontradiction) are no longer simply axioms. According to formal logic, the principles of logic cannot be positively grounded or proved, as every proof or every syllogism already presupposes these principles.

This is where the argument here veers toward Godel, who suggested that every mathematical system depends on certain axioms that have to be assumed and can’t be proven by the system itself—because they need to be used in order to work out any proof at all.  It’s a bootstrapping problem inherent in human thought.

All deductive (as well as inductive) reasoning must therefore ultimately rest upon principles which seem to be given patterns of reason. This is true given that formal logic cannot ground its own principles. Now, in transcendental logic, thought can proceed a step further and enlighten the relative necessity of this positing. Transcendental logic reveals that these principles are demands of consistency that are to be set in order to maintain or preserve the identity of . . .  self-consciousness.

In a philosophical sense, this transcendental logic is precisely the structure of self-preservation for the thinking subject—the “transcendental I.” It enables rational consciousness, a sense of self, to survive through time and gives it continuity—while at the same time being the framework for useful, purposeful behavior essential to physical self-preservation. Logic is essentially at the heart of the will to power, or put another way, in common terms, the survival instinct.

Objectivity is not, as common sense believes, the representation of something beyond the I, of an object outside us, but a system of necessarily related representations. Therefore, according to Kant, the objectivity of the logical form requires the givenness of the matter as a separate source of knowledge and a necessary relation of the representations to each other. Again, it is important to note that the limitation of knowledge to the object of appearance must not be regarded as an expression of skepticism or the modesty of telling a story about alleged finite human capacities. Its purpose is rather the opposite: this and only this limitation will guarantee the necessity of knowledge . . . 

This strikes me as a rare, remarkable insight (I suspect, not being a professional philosopher and not knowing how much this field has been tilled in the past few decades). Gottschlich points out that Kant’s transcendental logic and the way in which it arises through its own action in establishing objects of thought and their interconnections, as they yield themselves to logic itself,  represents the only way to assure the validity of scientific endeavor, or “the necessity of knowledge.” Logic, or what we consider the only reliable form of human understanding, represents a system of knowledge in which all things in the world have reality only in relation to the way they appear to fit into this system of knowledge.

There is the problem inherent in this Faustian power. We have no way to consciously step outside this system and behold things as they are, no way to willfully set aside our pragmatic, manipulative (and self-interested) understanding of how appearances behave—and this doesn’t detract from the validity of scientific, logical thought. In fact, it’s what makes it work—this limitation.

Necessary knowledge of objects is not possible with regard to a thing in itself, but only with regard to a coherent, contradiction-free, and therefore unequivocally determinable system of appearances. This is nothing other than the object of modern natural science.

It is important to note that in this perspective all phenomena (individuals, particulars) as appearances must not have something like an identity within themselves, an internal or imminent identity which presents itself in the way a thing changes or reacts, as previous ontology conceived it. To put the point more sharply, they are not selves at all, that is, they have no internal self-relation. Rather, they are merely functional elements in a system, and their identity or determinateness is rooted only in this system of appearances.

The living, changing self of things endures beyond the ambit of rational thought. For the purposes of logical thought, things have no inherent being in and of themselves, but exist for us only as nodes in a vast matrix of appearances ordered by the human mind. What a thing is, in and of itself—Kant’s thing-in-itself—is irrelevant when it comes to reasoning. And operating only in this logic-generated world of appearances, logic finds its supreme power. The manifold world of appearances reveals itself as orderly, useful, an enormous resource, or in Heidegger’s terminology “a standing reserve” of raw material for human purposes.

Now, we must not think that this is only a matter of the scientific worldview. The logic of objectification or identification with which the transcendental logic deals is of course a matter of our everyday life, too. Without this objectification, human beings could not survive biologically.

Kant’s transcendental logic unveils the hitherto hidden teleological character of formal logic, its imperative character: formal logic is the logic of knowledge for the sake of domination, of control. The goal of modern mathematical natural science is knowledge that can be applied. The transcendental logic shows that this is made possible only because this object, the world of appearance, is not alien but thoroughly constituted by the logical I.  . . . .. It is a logically transparent world. This enables prognosis, and prognosis enables technical mastery of nature. I can control something completely only if I am able to predict action and reaction a priori. This is the one side, namely, that Kant’s transcendental logic shows under which conditions this knowledge of domination is possible.

But unlike Kant, Nietzsche stresses that the concepts we build up via logic are sheer positings, hypostases. By “hypostasis” we mean something that is factually ontologically dependent and yet is regarded as if it could exist on its own.

We accept that this vast system of logical understanding exists on its own, but it is in fact adopted provisionally–the entire system is posited–for its usefulness, rather than because there is any way to establish that it is actually commensurate with the world as it actually is. In his shift to Nietzsche, Gottschlich tries to elucidate what is implicit in Kant’s critique of reason—that it establishes objective validity for thought, but also shows implicitly that logical thought isn’t impartial or without “interest” in the world. Logical thought is the central way in which human beings exercise the will to power over the world, for better or worse, from the wonders of arthroscopic surgery and targeting cancer drugs to Chernobyl and Hiroshima. And it all rests on our collective agreement to trust in logic as if it were the most faithful way of being aware of the true nature of things–with no way to prove that this is actually the case. Logic works. That’s the best we can say for it. 

Nietzsche claims that all of this vast body of reliable knowledge is founded upon the illusory assumption that there is such a thing as truth. This was the first note in our now familiar, discordant symphony of postmodernism. While this assumption gives us power over nature, truth is nothing more than pragmatic, useful “hypostases.” We act as if logic is more than simply a tool with which to assert our power, but it is actually merely a ploy for bringing the world to heel. Postmodernism follows inevitably from this. For Nietzsche and for Gottschlich, actuality doesn’t square with logic–the world exceeds what we regard as the truth of it. What he’s also suggesting is that there may in fact be something true beyond our pragmatic rational science, but it is outside the reach of logic–he’s not siding with Hume and Heraclitus or, necessarily, the postmodernists.

If actuality or life is conceived as becoming, then it cannot be conceived as free of contradiction. Therefore, the model of a world which is free of contradiction amounts to a perversion of actuality or, according to Nietzsche, the expression of the will to dominate life. For this reason, formal logic cannot serve as an organon of knowledge of actuality.

Formal logic cannot serve as a means of gaining knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but only of the thing as appearance, which is contradiction-free.

Logic tells us nothing about the actual nature of anything as a whole. From within its bounds, we are as clueless about what the world actually is as we ever were. We understand only how to make the world work for us.

Formal logic—as basis of all science. . . .enables us to gain control over the becoming of life, to domesticate, to govern it. Indeed, Nietzsche wants to uncover the construction of our scientific view of the world by means of logic as a mighty tool of domination. Kant would agree with this by responding: Transcendental logic demonstrates exactly the preconditions under which we can gain objective knowledge qua knowledge that may serve to dominate actuality.

To know actuality, the living world itself,

. . . .is knowing which interprets something as presenting a self. Actuality is not a possible object of scientific experience in Kant’s terms, or a Tatsache in Sachverhalten, <a fact in a state of affairs> as Wittgenstein puts it in the Tractatus, but an event (Ereignis). This requires us to overcome the interest toward this being and to exercise a theoretical perspective (θεωρία), which means letting it be or present itself.

. . . . transcendental logic elucidates how formal logic has always been a logic of technical-practical knowledge. Transcendental logic is the logic of our technical conduct, which shows what it must presuppose and how we must regard actuality—namely, as (a) world of appearances—if we want to gain knowledge that serves as a means of domination.

What began as a technical, academically philosophical examination of Kant’s theories of knowledge has suddenly become a critique of the Western world’s foundational assumptions about truth–about the agenda of domination behind the seemingly impartial search for scientific facts.

The spirit of our age is imbued with the myth of technology in all domains of our life. This myth is the one-sided, abstract enlightenment, the totalitarianism of the standpoint of utility or finite purposiveness. Kant’s transcendental logic is the first inner-logical step of the enlightenment of this myth.

Kant wants to shed light on what’s operative in logical reasoning: the inability to witness or behold the true nature of things as they are, but to control and utilize the world for human purposes. This is pure Heidegger, yet it’s also surprising and refreshing to hear a philosopher say such things without having to slog through Heidegger’s language. In this case, Gottschlich arrives at observations Heidegger arrived at, but he gets there in a much less mystifying way, simply by examining Kant’s reasoning about logic.

What the world needs as desperately as selfless love is what goes by the term “reasonableness,” a sense of disinterested, balanced response to the behavior of others and the vagaries of life. Reasonableness is the best tool we have for getting along. But that isn’t what Gottschlich is talking about when he speaks of about reason and logic. Toward the end, his essay is a reminder of how the myth of science’s omniscience so governs the contemporary spirit that the limitations and true nature of our assumptions about truth have become virtually invisible, simply because—with our thinking moving only within the boundaries of logic—we assume scientific knowledge is the only way to understand the actual world, when in fact the full nature of human life can’t begin to be addressed by rational thought alone, if at all. We have good justification for ignoring this inconvenience, because reason affords such incredible power over the world—though that power begins to look more Mephistophelean (Iris Murdoch equated “Kantian man” with Milton’s Lucifer) with each passing year, despite the benevolent marvels of medicine and computers. The benefits are irresistible and wondrous—until they aren’t, of course. I’m not only thinking of nuclear risks, or the Pandora’s box of genetic engineering, but also simply the way in which purposeful thought quickly comes to be the only way to apprehend life, shutting out all other ways of beholding the world, all of which are an essential yet unconscious backdrop for human life. To be fully alive is to be able to step outside all sense of purpose and recognize something larger, more encompassing and so innate to being alive that it’s nearly impossible to recognize—simply because it can’t properly be an object of thought. Painting’s great virtue is that it offers a way to see beyond human purpose, outside the box of reason, to reconnect with this ever-present backdrop—a world unavailable to reason–that gives life to human purposes in ways that purposeful (logical) thinking itself can’t objectify. And in this way, visual art–when it isn’t being used as a tool–is a counterforce to something far more fundamental than politics and economics, it’s a pursuit fundamentally contrary to the hyper-rational spirit of the age that began with the Enlightenment and the growing hegemony of science. 

Perfect plaid

Audition #4, detail, Chris Hyndman, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 48″

From INPA 8.  I have to say, this doesn’t look humanly possible, if it is painted in the traditional way–you know, uh, with brushes. The regularity and exactitude of the lines in the fabric, draped across what looks like a sheet of old Ben Day dots, the way in which little specks and lines of white backing show through the surface of the curtain fabric–it all looks as if it would require months to complete. Hyndman’s intentions are highly conceptual and the feel of the work resists emotional engagement. He says on his website that he imagines them as backdrops–like ambient music, presumably–for people to pose or express themselves, such as a prop for a stand-up comic. I can’t help feel there’s more going on here, at the technical level, than “acrylic on canvas” is willing to divulge, but if not, then these paintings are an astonishing act of hyper-obsessive skill.

“Hang Up & Read Me A Story” at Rogue Valley Biennial Art Exhibit

Biennial: Hang Up & Read Me A Story

Greetings!  I’m pleased to say that my watercolor painting Hang Up & Read Me A Story was juried into the Rogue Valley Biennial Art Exhibit!

Biennial: Hang Up & Read Me A Story

Details About the Exhibit.

The exhibition is hosted by the Rogue Gallery and Art Center in Medford OR.  It opened Friday, June 28th and runs through to August 2nd, 2019.  There will be an artist’s reception on Friday, July 19th from 5:30 – 8:30 pm.  The art center is located at 40 South Bartlett St. in Medford.

The artworks are hung in the Main Gallery of the art center.  The exhibition is free to the public and all are invited to come view the works during gallery business hours.  Hours are as follows:

    • 10am to 5pm  Tuesday thru Friday
    • 11am to 3pm   Saturdays
    • 5pm to 8pm    Third Fridays

Show Statement for “A Juried Exhibition of Contemporary Art”

Per the Gallery, “this biennial exhibit features juried artwork from local and regional artists in various media.  These new works present innovative, insightful and thoughtful expressions of current events, art movements or political issues”.

The Painting and Current Culture.

This painting is one of a series of paintings our cell phone culture.  I attempt to make a gentle statement about how pervasive the cell phones are.  So much so, that we forget to do without the constant companion on the other end of the phone.  It’s like an extra person is invited to so many of our personal encounters.

As such, this particular painting was inspired by a conversation I had with one of my second cousins, Anne Shelton.  She happens to be a librarian.  Anne mentioned the distractions caused by the mobile phones in the libraries.  And, thus, an idea was born.  Within a short time, I had a concept drawing.

Biennial: Hang Up & Read Me A Story

 

On Experimentation.

For me, creating a painting it is a process of experimentation from start to finish.  And, the start point is the concept drawing.  This is one of two drawings I created using this idea of cell phones in the library.

In any case, the value of starting out with a concept drawing is that I start to realize my idea.  That being said, though, I give myself room to change.

As I start to build the painting, layer by layer, I allow myself to change the design.  This may be a risky approach.  However, I find that a small 5×7 inch drawing is quite a bit different from a 14×21 inch watercolor painting.  That is, what looks good in graphite might not work just right for me in watercolor.  Also, I like how the act of painting itself generates ideas.

I did say “risky approach”, though, you might notice.  Such practices can go so wrong.  But, it’s just a piece of paper with some paint on it.  At least, that is what I tell myself when I am creating the artworks!

So, to reiterate then, I see my approach as being “experimental” in that I allow myself to explore or experiment the “what if” ideas that pop into my head.

Invitation To See The Exhibition!

To summarize, then, I am pleased to announce that I have been included in the Rogue Valley Biennial Art Exhibit this summer.  If you are in the area, please do stop by and see the wonderful art works by my fellow local and regional artists!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The post “Hang Up & Read Me A Story” at Rogue Valley Biennial Art Exhibit appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

Italian painting, circa 2019

 

A page from INPA 8, work from Salerno, Italy. From Manifest Creative Research Gallery’s website:

For the INPA 8 Manifest received 1301 submissions from 389 artists in 42 states and 26 countries. Entries represented works made from 2014 through mid-2017. The publication will include101 works by 62 artists from 27 states and 6 countries including Canada, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States. A written work by Anne Keener (Columbus, Ohio) is also included.

Twelve professional and academic volunteer advisors qualified in the fields of art, design, criticism, and art history juried the eighth International Painting Annual. The process of selection was by anonymous blind jury, with each jury member assigning a quality rating for artistic merit to each work submitted. The entries receiving the highest average combined score are included in this publication. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexy yet serene

Hope, Yolanda Heijnen, oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″

This large oil on canvas is from the recently published INPA 8, from Manifest Creative Research in Cincinnati. (I’m going to post a series of paintings I love from the publication over the next couple weeks or more.) This is one of two offerings Manifest selected from Yolande Heijnen, of New York City. The remarkable handling of the paint gives the image the quality of something seen through a streaked, clouded window, yet it also flattens out what appears to be a couch or bed where the woman kneels in a surrendering pose. The way in which the artist abbreviates the blue sheen of the cloth in loose handling on a tan undercoat, with that one crisp line to designate a seam in upholstery or slipcover or bedspread, works beautifully to convey a tactile sense of the fabric without indicating any level of detail at all. The assertively, sensuously unfinished quality of the painting reminds me strongly of Diarmuid Kelley–and Mark Tennant to a lesser degree, though with Tennant there’s less love of the paint itself and an a more acerbic emotional distance from what’s depicted. This is an economical study in three or four colors, depending on how you parse it: dark gray, dull blue, yellow tan for the furniture and redder tan for the skin tones.

What will we send out?

When I created the Word-Painting Project, the idea was to do something that could encourage others…and cover my grocery bill while chalet-sitting for friends in Switzerland (I’m a practical poet!). 

Though I thought I was making time for the project, the project made time for me. It gave me time to watch the light on the Alps and the clouds catch on their peaks. It gave me time to listen to the symphony of cowbells on the Holsteins munching wildflowers on the slope of the next-door chalet. And it was a joy to share that time in words and images by creating a word-painting every day for ten days. 

Back home, the prints of those originals already arrived, and I’ve hand-addressed the first of ten batches to go out over the summer. This week, a stack of Word-Painting No. 1 prints began their stamped way through the postal system to their recipients, and I blessed them as I dropped them into the post-office slot.  

This was the last image I created for the Word-Painting Project. It seemed appropriate to end with a question: What will we send out into the bright world beyond us? Some days, the world is bright, as in sunny and good—like this summer solstice day. And some days, the world is bright, as in the harsh glare of a world in need. Regardless of the natural or emotional weather, I choose to send out something encouraging. And with it, a big dose of gratitude. 

So, in each of Switzerland’s three, official languages, thank you for being part of the Word-Painting journey: danke, merci, grazie.

The sorrows and joys of taffy

Here I am with a taffy painting I started in February, but have been deterred from finishing because of multiple family obligations. Nevertheless, slow but steady.

I embarked on a series of enlarged images of salt-water taffy last year, unable to reach cruising speed for the work because of a slow flood of continuous family obligations. Over the past year, I’ve had to keep halting my painting (and writing) every two or three weeks for multiple reasons, including several trips to Florida to prepare my parents’ condo for rental or sale, since they’re no longer able to get down there—as well as flights to L.A. to spend a welcome week with my kids and grandkids, after long absences. Having just gotten back from one of those weeks in L.A., my mother fell and broke her hip and then amazed the Highland Hospital staff with her rapid ability to get moving again after a partial hip replacement at the age of 94. So, with my time devoted to helping both parents adapt to all of this at home, my work has been on hold for yet another week as of today. 

Caring for aged parents has provided an energizing counterpoint to work at the easel, especially because I’ve been focused on such what seems at first such a trivial subject, dollops of salt-water taffy veiled behind twists of waxed paper, in contrast to the somber, chastening experience of advanced age. Lauren Purje, after she saw my paintings of candy jars seven or eight years ago, remarked, “There’s sadness in them.” It was undoubtedly what charmed her about the paintings, though at the time I was nonplussed by the comment, unconscious of everything about those paintings other than my formal intentions. Sad candy seemed like an oxymoron. They offered me a way to bring more color to a still life—giving me a softened geometric image, a grid, and the format let me choose the colors I could put down. It also offered a balance between flatness and representational depth. The emotional pull of the image wasn’t even on my radar—I was too aware of my formal goals to be alert to what the act of painting had smuggled into the image on its own, while my attention was diverted to the paint itself. In other words, the candy jars were a reminder of how I think art actually operates, embodying a world of feeling and imagination despite an artist’s conscious intentions, conveying more than the artist is, or can ever be, aware of.

I chose taffy for formal reasons as well: the way in which it enabled me to pick and choose different color harmonies and presented loosely abstract properties in the shapes of the paper and the molded nougat-like candy full of supple curves with a few sharp edges. Each bit of wrapped taffy, when the image is enlarged, looks sculptural, muscular, but also ethereal and vulnerable to me—like the contrast between the modeled wax and fabric of Degas’ sculpture of an adolescent dancer. The spirals and tiers and spots of color in the candy itself feel—to me—like wistful, sotto voce references to color field painting, translated into three dimensions. Stacking them and setting them near a window for the shadows cast by a single source of natural light, I’m fascinated by how much drama the images can evoke, like glimpses of rare birds. Their shapes and lines, and the variation in opacity and transparency, give them an almost psychological resonance when I look at the finished work. They seem full of personality. And, simply in their shape and the way they catch the light, a stacked pair of these treats evokes for me a dozen different things: insect wings, tropical fish, rock faces, raptors, carved marble, Elizabethan portraits, skulls, and flesh clothed in sheer fabric. There is a slightly erotic allure in the way these little chunks of sugar present themselves for viewing though the lumpy quality of their form makes this sort of reflection amusing. All of it is amusing. It’s a little funny simply to find oneself painting images of candy and talking at any length about it. Thiebaud kept having to fight the notion that he was crazy to pick his sweet subject matter in the beginning. 

Whether or not anyone else has an inkling about any of this while looking at these paintings, it’s what makes me want to stick with it for quite a while: all of these associations give the act of painting these images a luxuriant feel of being immersed in an encouraging certainty that this is exactly what I should be painting right here and now. That’s a rare feeling, because it’s so easy to get away from the feel of settling into exactly what you most want to do with paintings that answer to what you want to see when you are done. I forget about how slowly the work proceeds and delight in the process itself, in the feel of the paint as I apply it. When you are in that zone, it hardly matters what you are depicting or how, because there’s a sense of perfection in the process that justifies itself anc conveys something essential about painting to a viewer. Again, this is ironic. I’m representing objects riddled with imperfections, wrinkles, crimps, dimples, and cracks, squeezed, smudged, torn here and there, and yet by painting all of that a certain way, they look exactly right and they evoke for me the perfection of any and all imperfections in a subject when they are subsumed into a good painting.  

Lately, too, these paintings feel like an intersection between life and art for me. I’ve been surprised at how the light itself, the way it falls on these punished-looking yet stubbornly cheery servings of empty calories reminds me of the slow, suffering decline my parents are enduring. A sentinel of mortality hovers in my peripheral vision every day now, the sense of impending surrender that skulks around the emotional family campfire, waiting for the flames to gutter.  They aren’t going anywhere. Their health is comparatively good, broken bones notwithstanding. But the erosion of age is relentless. The perky quality of this candy, seemingly eager to be unwrapped and enjoyed, reminds me inevitably of how my parents continue to crack jokes despite the indignities and disorders of advanced age and how they delight in the simplest things, the company of nearly anyone—how they still revel in the color of new leaves in the spring, the beauty of their grandchildren (as hard to make out through the distortions of macular degeneration as it is to see edges of candy behind waxed paper), the weary smile of a son showing up every other day to help. The nurses and techs who came to my mother’s room loved her after three days. She and my father still live independently at home, but it’s a cluttered place now, full of devices to help my father move around, countless pill bottles, machines to magnify whatever my mother needs to read, and lingering smells that wouldn’t have been there ten years ago. They are at the age when they still want to live, and be with the ones they love, though they are ready for whatever might follow the encroaching squalor of a struggle that gets harder from one month to the next.  I could try painting portraits of my parents, but in an oblique way, for me, these taffy paintings are representations of their lives, their struggle, their spirit.

So the sadness of jelly beans may be in the process of being upstaged by the brave tristesse of taffy. Whether the work conveys joy or sadness, life or death, if they turn out the way I want, the images this subject gives me will—I hope—hint at a larger beauty that encompasses all of those polarities. One thing that hasn’t changed and doesn’t fluctuate is love and much of this work is a celebration and direct expression of it. I love my family. I love my work. I may be painting taffy for quite a while, and all those wings that will never fly. I hope I can find time to paint other things as well, though maybe I shouldn’t worry about that just yet.