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Self Portrait with Masks, James Ensor

It is easy for someone like me, who has been studying art for a lifetime, to convince myself that I have an accurate measure of the dimensions of a particular artist’s operative domain. But gratefully that conceit has not resulted in a callow disregard, and I love when my previous views have to be upended and rewritten. That’s how it felt to see the James Ensor exhibit (at the MOMA through September 21) this week.

It wasn’t the paintings that caused me to redraw the Ensor field of influence. In fact I classify many of his more grotesque paintings similarly to the work of Francis Bacon (also on exhibit in New York, at the Met)—historically significant and influential in their scope, but not a match for my aesthetic point of view.

But the drawings and etchings? That’s the side of Ensor that caught me immediately and held me in the show for hours. Without the plasticity of paint to veer into the grotesquery of an acid palette and harsh edged imagery, something emerges from Ensor that is emotional, sensationally powerful and utterly modern in its sensibilities. The line-based, mostly tonal pieces in this show are knock outs—exquisite etchings and small drawings, of which there are many on exhibit. Two drawings in particular stand out. These large pieces, never shown in the US previously, speak to and with his most famous painted masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (which is too fragile to travel from its safe perch at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.) My favorite drawing, “The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” feels like a sourcebook for many artists that followed including Grosz, Dubuffet and Basquiat.

Holland Cotter’s description is a good one:

“The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” from 1885, is gigantic: nearly seven feet tall and done on a giant piece of paper. The setting is an immense proscenium theater, which is also a city street, with an army of helmeted extras marching toward us, the panicked audience. Signs hang everywhere, advertising art (“Les Impressionistes”), commerce (“Charcutiers de Jerusalem”), politics (“Mouvement Flamand”) and celebration (“Hip hip hurrah”). In the middle of the tumult, like a tiny light, is Jesus riding an ass.

An Ensor scholar could probably crack all the coding. And anyone who lingers over its scrim upon scrim of graphite lines will recognize a formal tour de force. But it’s more than that: it’s an entry point into conceptual and emotional realms with few clear guideposts. The drawing is, after all, absurd and freakish, like Rembrandt’s “Hundred Guilder Print” turned into wallpaper. Is the result in any way a devotional image? A social statement? A take-no-prisoners travesty?

What I love about this piece is its intensity. Yes, that cynical and angry Ensor subject matter is in full display, but it has more to offer than his outrage. The quality of his line, the density of his hand working on paper, the way the visual language transforms human passion and emotion—that is what stopped me in my tracks.

Every photographic image I have seen of this piece, online or in print, is deeply disappointing compared to the original. Its power is furtive. In many ways, that is true of Ensor in general.

More from Cotter’s review:

Although Ensor has long been a fixture in the art canon, he is also a fugitive presence. My guess is that a lot of people know his name without knowing quite who he is. Who can blame them? He’s hard to pin down. Gothic fantasist, political satirist, religious visionary: one minute he’s doing biblical scenes, the next the equivalent of biker tattoos, in a style that veers between crude and dainty…

He will certainly never be popular. He’s as much a visionary as van Gogh and a far more imaginative neurotic than Edvard Munch. But he was inconsistent in matters of style and polish. And he didn’t paint a “Starry Night” or a “Scream.” What he did paint — basically a medieval dance of death choreographed in personal, topical modern terms — most of us don’t relate to or want to hear about, though I suspect some artists do.

The MoMA survey…is an artist’s-artist show. It will appeal to anyone trying to negotiate an insider-outsider perch, anyone obsessed by violence and light, anyone who knows that loony is relative, that art is reality seen from a high small place, that the distance from a joke to a shock to a prayer is short.

To learn more about this show, here are several reviews and articles worth reading in full:

Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Valery Oisteanu in the Brooklyn Rail

Elatia Harris at 3 Quarks Daily


The Persistance of Memory, by Dali

Penelope Lively has a view of memory that reflects my own beliefs about this extraordinary thing we can do with our minds. In an article in the Guardian by Sarah Crown, Lively’s view is stated clearly:

“The idea that memory is linear,” says Penelope Lively, crisply, “is nonsense. What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.”

I have read a few of Lively’s books—they are well written and veddy English—and remember in particular her novel Moon Tiger. The protagonist is an aging historian named Claudia Hampton. In this excerpt from the book, Claudia speaks for Penelope and for me:

Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once. The machines of the new technology, I understand, perform in much the same way: all knowledge is stored, to be summoned up at the flick of a key. They sound, in theory, more efficient. Some of my keys don’t work; others demand pass-words, codes, random unlocking sequences. The collective past, curiously, provides these. It is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. My Victorians are not your Victorians. My seventeenth century is not yours … The signals of my own past come from the received past. The lives of others slot into my own life. I, me. Claudia H.

Haven’t we all known those people who remember everything in perfect sequence? My friend Richard’s father could retell his experiences of being in France on D Day with such accuracy when he was in his late 80s, never missing a detail or a time stamp. I can’t do that about yesterday let alone an event that happened when I was a teenager. I used to think it was an artistic liability but now I have come to believe it cuts through the population in general. Natalie Angier, the gifted science and health writer at the New York Times, is wired like me too. (And yes, I have to admit I was comforted by having her in my camp.)

And as the haunting (and I do mean haunting) film Memento points out, what are we if not an assemblage of our memories? That movie, structured backwards like a plate broken into shards, was the most visceral encounter I have ever had to what Alzheimer’s might be like.


Richard Tuttle, an artist I hold with deep regard, loves textiles. A few years ago he was asked by curator Mary Hunt Kahlenberg to put together a show of 25 Indonesian ceremonial textiles. His choices as well as the commentary captions he wrote—referred to by him as “love letters” to each of the pieces—were published in a small book called Indonesian Textiles.

The conversational style of the book’s text is refreshing, and I am moved by the passion both Tuttle and Kahlenberg bring to the topic. For Kahlenberg textiles are numinous, with spiritual and aesthetic qualities:

Is it the preparation of the materials, the spinning and dyeing of the yarns, the stretching of the warp and interlacing of the weft, the individual motifs, or the overall composition? Brought together, these elements of process and design produce a construct that is not immediately recognizable to many in our western culture…But how does this laborious process lead to a manifestation of spirituality of feeling similar to those expressed in western art? Do our preconceived notions of manual skill, along with its integral repetitive and obsessive aspects, preclude emotive and spiritual expression?…

The textile’s motif is the most apparent communicator with the spirit world, translated in the form of ancestors…constrained by the grid of weaving, these complex characters and ideas are simplified and become abstractions. In this process they are reduced to their essentials.

Tuttle’s insights wander into, around and through the making of these pieces. He points to how many contemporary artists have been influenced by handwoven textile design including Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Fred Sandback and Kiki Smith among many others.He feels that their interest in the process and the product reflects an almost political message, finding in these pieces an emotion that would be silenced or lost otherwise. “At the very least,” Tuttle writes, “they bring awareness to a structure that becomes more and more invisible as it transfers the physicality of the hands to the cerebrality of the head.”

I also was stopped by this metaphysical aside, suggested by Kahlenberg’s Indonesian mentor: “The warp is what is given in life and the weft is what happens in life.” Well played.


Nicholas Wade, one of the better scientific contrarian journalists, has written about why Jared Diamond’s blockbuster Guns, Germs and Steel is misleading as well as why cats are, without question, utterly useless. (That last topic garnered thousands of emails in passionate protest. Many cat lovers, myself included, are convinced that felines are angelic energies embodied in a four legged form.)

So Wade’s recent piece in the New York Times about conformist thinking—focusing primarily in the sciences—is in keeping with his primary theme.

Here’s a sampling:

“Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.”

So says Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist known for his study of twins raised apart, in a retirement interview with Constance Holden in the journal Science.

Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There’s a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss’s shoes, and to win the group’s approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”

Ah, herd values. I referenced a memorable passage about Nietzsche on this topic in an earlier post which seems particularly relevant here:

Jan Sokol:

Nietzsche occasionally calls even himself a nihilist, but for an entirely different reason: everybody has a mouth full of values, but in reality they all behave like cattle, like a well-fed “herd”. What they call “values” are only wooden idols which overthrow themselves. People do not seek any “values”; rather they follow the others like the herd. It is also true today that only what is rare, difficult, risky and demanding has value, and we all avoid these things. We prefer to wait for how things turn out.

Conformity in the arts can be harder to detect. When the “norm” in a field is to outrage, overstate and shock, detecting the power of the herd mentality may be less obvious than it would be when a lone economist’s warning about a pending housing collapse is ignored. But trends and fads in thinking are prevalent everywhere and the arts are no different. Wade’s points of view sometimes irritate the hell out of me, but I’m so glad he’s a reliable other voice. He’s that curmudgeon you don’t want to invite to your party, but he nails it time and time again.

Howard Zinn

Some of my favorite advice for living came through Howard Zinn by way of The Impossible Will Take a Little While, a collection of essays about and by people who did not give up even though the deck was stacked against them. To paraphrase the outspoken, truth-wielding Zinn, he says you have to wake up in the morning with hope because if you aren’t hopeful, then there isn’t any. Zinn is pragmatic as well. He advises that if you have friends who are depressed and discouraged, then you just better get some new ones.

In the spirit of Zinn’s advice, It is refreshing to read about something positive in the arts, which is exactly what the blog Creative Destruction did with its coverage of a recent meeting of arts leaders held in Michigan. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center and the turnaround artist behind Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s resuscitation was the keynote speaker. In spite of the economy and draconian budget cuts for the arts, the meeting attendees seemed upbeat and hopeful.

This is from Creative Destruction’s report:

Kaiser, known for his book, “The Art of the Turnaround”, offered three primary ideas to stave off disaster: Don’t cut funding for the artistic product, don’t cut marketing, and plan really INTERESTING projects which might take several years to accomplish. Donors will support bigger, interesting ideas more than little, boring ones, but big ideas need time to get funding in place and to capture the public imagination. His four-word mantra: great art, well marketed…Have the courage to be creative, daring and interesting because tepid art isn’t worth the price of admission, and in a down market no one will spend money to come to something that isn’t compelling. For all your budget woes, continue to market aggressively and innovatively because potential audiences won’t come if they don’t know about your art and potential donors won’t give if they don’t care about your institution. Even in times like these it’s ok to think big, but give yourself time to succeed.

Advice well suited for organizations as well as individuals.

(Photo: Tate © The artist)

Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art at Yale and commissioner of the 2007 Venice Biennale, has written about the Per Kirkeby exhibit at the Tate Modern. The first paragraph of Storr’s commentary is actually one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions I’ve read of the current “exercises in anachronistic classification” that bedevil the art world today.

I’m also including the second paragraph as well where Storr states his point that Kirkeby does not fit any of the current buckets as they are now constituted, even though Kirkeby was “a polymath in tune with his times, which is to say a well-educated man and an improviser all at once.”

This is a well deserved focus on a major (and under-appreciated) artist and worth the complete read. (Note: Another excellent review of the show by Laura Cumming from the Guardian can be read on Slow Painting.)

A good deal of the art history being written today isn’t art history at all. Rather, it consists of exercises in anachronistic classification in which artists are assigned tags and lined up in groups according to ideological and stylistic genealogies. The rubric of Conceptualism,for example, becomes the catch-all basket for a disparate array of aesthetic practices, notably textual art, appropriated and manipulated photos, the hard core performance art, video, installation art, readymade sculpture and allied subgenres. When it comes to identifying the antithesis – if not nemesis – of Conceptualism for those who deem it the only true path for progressive postmodernists, the usual suspect is painting. It would appear equally obvious to such pro-pomos that painters have nothing much to do with Conceptualism, although licences to paint are issued to, among others, artists such as Art & Language, John Baldessari and Gerhard Richter, that one-man undoer of all dogmas.

Still, the art historical record seldom reflects many of the more intriguing anomalies buried with current customs of classification. Take the case of Per Kirkeby, and, for contrariness sake, begin at the beginning of this Danish artist’s long career with a group of works that are usually ignored, and a few pertinent facts that are habitually glossed over when his name comes up. The paintings, few in number, are square mixed-media works on masonite dating from 1968 and 1969. Kirkeby was just entering his thirties at the time, having abandoned the university study of natural history he began in 1957 to enter the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen in 1962, a year after it was opened as an alternative to the Royal Academy. Already behind him was intensive work as an academic and field geologist – as Lasse B Antonsen writes in one of the best synoptic accounts of his early career, Kirkeby took part in two expeditions to Greenland in 1958 and 1962. Ahead of him at the Experimental School were life-altering encounters with recent and current vanguard art, notably that of the paintings of Wols, the drawings and poems of Henri Michaux, the music of John Cage, the multi-media events of Fluxus and the art and mentorship of Joseph Beuys (who Kirkeby first met when both showed up a day early for one of Beuys’s actions at the Royal Academy). In short, Kirkeby was a polymath in tune with his times, which is to say a well-educated man and an improviser all at once.


The Four Elements

I. Pasiphaë

Wife: word and vow. Invisible. Bound—
as heat is to flame. No god did this,
no pretty, facile cow. A kingdom
of men, blinded. And me—burning
to be seen. Burning for him. I chose,
did not haggle over price. At last,
in the ashes, after, you see me.

I made sure his whores spewed only
monsters. And I am one of them.

II. Daedalus

Falling, all my life. Not clever enough
not to come between a king, his wife.
No map for how to live past this.
I dismantled sleep, built wings, became
the air, took what I loved—rescued him.
But not to keep.

III. The Minotaur

I was a monster. I knew. At home
in the stone prison, innocent, amazed,
I simply was. But then they came—
fair and afraid. I looked, held them in
my gaze, saw it in their eyes: the other.
A monster. Me. Devoured what they had taught:
beauty. Became its absence. Lay down
in welcoming mud, offered up
my misborn head. Took the blows. Was glad.

IV. Icarus

Pick up that shell. Hold it to your ear.
It is not the sea that sings inside,
not beating waves you hear. It is me—
rinsed of ash, earth, and air; no architect,
ant, or string as guide—lost. And drowning.

I carried them all, tried to set them free.
Burned her away in the sun, wore cloud,
escaped the walls, was lovely for them,
but fell for me.

–Leslie Harrison

Leslie’s new book, Displacement, has been one of my bedstand stalwarts for several weeks now. This piece, featured on Poetry Daily, is the flagship that begins her collection. The rest of the poems are arranged under chapter headings for each of these four mythic characters/archetypes. Some of the lines cut right through all my protective membranes—like this: “Burned her away in the sun, wore cloud,/escaped the walls, was lovely for them,/but fell for me.”

(Photo courtesy of Lasse Antonsen)

Painter extraordinaire and friend Marcia Cannistraro (to whom I will always be indebted for giving me her studio when she moved out of Boston) stopped by this weekend and introduced me to Lasse Antonsen. Lasse’s exhibit, The Continuous Translation, was completing its run at the Artist’s Foundation Gallery at the Distillery, just up the street from my studio space.

Here is a description of that installation from an interview with Lasse on Artspace@16:

The Boston exhibition consist of two walls filled with white flowers and plants hanging upside down, floor to ceiling, with a narrow text fragment by Victor Segalen on the bottom, which reads:

“Upon a ladder of steps made of artifice and skill, would not the highest rung be to express one’s vision by an instantaneous, continuous translation that would echo one’s presence…”

A third wall in the gallery presents flowers similar to the ones in this exhibition, where the dye from the plants has bled through, resulting in subtle, pastel colors.

The tags on the flowers in this exhibition read:

“…there is perhaps another shock, from the traveler to the object of his gaze, which rebounds and makes what he sees vibrate.”

Entering that small and very white room, I had an initial response of taking a sudden breath in. But quickly the breath-holding gave way to a sense of being in a strange and beautiful flow—one that was haunting yet comforting, welcoming and yet slightly alien, full of life force and yet funereal, suggesting silence and yet mellifluously toned.

I actually like when words can’t capture an experience. And they don’t.

Here’s one more Lasse observation from the same interview. This hints at the larger arc of his overall project:

Wherever an object is situated, layers of meaning are embedded in it. By recontextualising—by creating an installation or a scenario—new meaning is established.

And as if The Continuous Translation wasn’t enough in and of itself: Turns out Lasse is also a leading expert and friend to fellow Danish artist Per Kirkeby. (A review of Kirkeby’s current exhibition at the Tate is posted here on Slow Painting.) In a major essay written by Robert Storr about the Kirkeby show in Tate etc. magazine, Lasse is referenced as a major source.

More about that anon.

For more information and images by Lasse, visit his website.

(Photo courtesy of Lasse Antonsen)

Aboriginal rock painting, Kakadu, Aust. Credit: Thomas Schoch

As a follow on to my earlier post on human spaciality, Stanford assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems Lera Boroditsky has written a piece on Edge that explores how individual languages shape the way speakers think about space, time, colors and objects. She demonstrates that language has a fundamental impact on thought, “unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

One of her examples was particularly provocative to me given my interest in aboriginal art and what it represents to its makers. (To read my postings on aboriginal art and culture, do a search here for “aboriginal art”.)

Boroditsky’s example:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

Thank you to Steve Durbin at Art & Perception for sending me the link to this article.


Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and now Free: The Future of a Radical Price is out promoting his book. (I know, I know, the irony is too tempting isn’t it? No the book is not free, and neither are his speaking engagements. But I digress…) Now with a review in the Times Book Review last Sunday by Virginia Postrel, his ideas are being bandied about a lot.

Anderson is very smart. I thought The Long Tail offered brilliant insights into how the internet has shifted business paradigms, models and best practices. I haven’t read Free yet but certainly intend to.

But even without having read the book, interviews with Anderson have piqued my curiosity. “People are making lots of money charging nothing,” says Anderson. “Not nothing for everything, but nothing for enough that we have essentially created an economy as big as a good-sized country around the price of $0.00.”

Although Anderson is writing about business models and for profit entities, I can’t help but compare his thinking with one of my favorite books, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. I have referenced Hyde’s work before (his other book, Trickster as well as his poetry here on Slow Muse, and articles about his thinking on Slow Painting) and continue to recommend The Gift as a book that every artist and maker should read.

Hyde’s territory is not the same as Anderson’s, but I keep putting the two of them in the same room in my head, hoping they get past the small talk and into some real content. There’s something going on here, a parallelism worth exploring regarding giving for free, gifting to others, connectedness between stakeholders and community.

Hyde gives a historical overview of how gifts and gifting have impacted the inner life concerns like emotions, feelings, spirituality. In Hyde’s model of the gift economy, a gift can be tangible or immaterial (like a talent, or teaching). He writes, “I have hoped…to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.”

In describing a “gift economy” Hyde demonstrates how its purpose is to build and strengthen human connection and relationships. That is a very different set of goals from the market economy that Anderson is addressing. Hyde makes the distinction between the commerce of gifting, which is rooted in the “erotic” (as in bringing together, the power of attraction) and the commerce of the market economy, which is founded on “logos” (logic, distinction.)

In the market economy, the hoarding (or “saving”) of goods is one way to build wealth. In Hyde’s gift economy, the opposite is true. Wealth actually decreases with hoarding since it is the circulation of gifts within a community that results in an “increase”— of connections, the strengthening of relationships, and of community. For Hyde, the circulation and perpetual flow of gifts is the key.

Anderson’s concepts are about redistributing the profiteering. He talks of cross-subsidies, “shifting money around from product to product, person to person, between now and later, or into non-monetary markets and back out again.” But in all this cross subsidizing, in all this money that comes in here and goes out there, goes up then down, in and around, isn’t something else happening here?

Worth sitting with, it seems to me.

Hopefully there will be more on this later.