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Skyline of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake just after a cloudburst

Yesterday I heard an interview with an American journalist on NPR. She has spent most of the last 8 years in Afghanistan reporting on the war. In the process she developed a deep affection for the country and its plight, so much so that she just couldn’t bear to stay and watch as bad decisions and misguided policies have made things worse.

For the last few months she has been living on Cape Cod. Instead of reveling in the exquisite summer of that breathtaking landscape she has been restless and dissatisfied, stewing over her discomfort in being back in what was once her homeland. Her turmoil is more than missing the adrenaline of a war zone, she said. It is how much the United States has changed since she last lived here.

“Everyone I speak with now is deeply unhappy with the way things are going in this country. Everyone. They each have a list of what they think is broken, and their concerns vary. But every person I speak with is convinced this country has severe problems and that we are headed in the wrong direction.”

That is my experience as well, and it was brought home to me recently during a recent trip to the west. Two of my most spiritually-inclined friends live off the grid in the wilderness of New Mexico, and they announced to me quite unexpectedly they were very optimistic about the future. It stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t heard that kind of optimism from anyone. For years. At that moment I realized the deep divide between life 10 years ago and now. If I had polled my friends about their view of the future just 5 years ago, I would have seen a reasonable bell curve distribution ranging from “life is great!” to “everything sucks”. Now that response would just flatline.

Is this just a case of “end of the American empire” blues? The twilight of our self-professed hegemony and “best country in the world” mythos? Is it generational? Is it a proclivity particular to progressives and liberals (like me and 99% of my closest friends)? Is it a larger story, a global pessimism that transcends national boundaries or political beliefs? Maybe a case of e) all of the above?

I keep thinking about the cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien who spent 20 years living with indigenous people and learning about how to live from those who seem to do it with more joy than we do.* She was a keynote at a psychology conference a few years ago and told a thousand therapists, “You think you know all about addictions? Well maybe not. We live in a culture that harbors addictions so large you probably don’t even see them.”

Here is her list:

1. Addiction to intensity and drama.
2. Addiction to the myth of perfection.
3 Addiction to focusing on what’s not working.
4. Addiction to having to know.

This past week has been all about #3 for me. Every political update on MSNBC, Facebook and Twitter (and particularly exemplified by the hashtag firestorm of Jeff Jarvis‘ “#fuckyouwashington” last weekend) has been about what’s broken, what isn’t working. And yes, it does have an addictive quality to it. You get good at finding what’s broken, and what’s broken gets very good at finding you. It’s a reinforcing loop.

Being a hermit or doing a “Jonathan Franzen” (he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for Freedom he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue) are options. But is it possible to shift to another lens for viewing the world? I am tired of feeling hopeless. Maybe that is part of the old wisdom that things sometimes have to get worse before they can get better. The saturation finally forces a shift.

No answers here, just a public pondering of what it will take to move out of this weather pattern.

* Angeles Arrien’s Four Fold Way, culled from her experiences living with several different indigenous populations:

1. Show up and be present.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Tell your truth without judgment or blame.
4. Be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome.


The view of Coolidge Point near Manchester Massachusetts and home to my friend Laurel, a hermit artist extraordinaire. Being a 21st century Thoreauian is a singular stance.

More on the theme of isolation, solitude, quiet (see the earlier post Where it Works.) Online artists and friends Walt Pascoe, Luke Storms and Holly Friesen directed me to an essay that appeared two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz. Tracing the concept of solitude from Ancient Greece through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism, Deresiewicz illuminates a rich history of how time alone has been viewed. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our current era, not so much.

Deresiewicz captures the essence of our time in a word:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

Say it isn’t so, Joe. I value the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, and most art that I respond to has a strong relationship with both of those concepts. But Deresiewicz is naming something that has shifted significantly in the last ten years in so many aspects of our lives.

As an artist, the visibility-first approach to art making and marketing is something many of us find deeply disturbing. I’m not shunning the value of visibility for anyone who is a maker. We need audiences to read our poetry, look at our paintings, listen to our music. And when the Internet can help us find those who are receptive, that’s a plus. But is visibility the grounding for the contemporary self? Is it possible to do your work with sincerity and authenticity and still have a high Klout score? These are questions I’m not sure can be answered just yet.

Deresiewicz’s essay is worth the read in its entirety and full of insights on a number of themes including generational differences, cities, suburbs, friendship, cultural history. But here are just a few other passages that speak most directly to my own solitude-seeking, hermit-hearted self:

* * *
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.

* * *
To hold oneself apart from society…is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion”.

* * *
No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

* * *
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company…But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

A shelf of visual stimulants in my studio

The artistic value of hermiting and the need for isolation has been an ongoing theme on this blog, so of course I was intrigued reading Tony Perrottet‘s essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about writers, isolation—self-inflicted and otherwise—and the discipline needed to work. (Curiously, the piece is titled Serving the Sentence in the print version, Why Writers Belong Behind Bars online.)

Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, researched the life of that legendary “sinner”, the Marquis de Sade, and came to the conclusion that, based on output, “prison was the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade. Other writers should be so lucky…By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.”

Other writers found their own way of creating isolation and inviting productivity. Annie Dillard pushed her desk away from the windows looking out on a verdant forest in Cape Cod to face a blank wall. Her warning: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” John Cheever worked in a dark basement of his New York apartment building. Edna Ferber of Algonquin Round Table fame looked onto the “blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse.”

Blank walls don’t serve the same purpose for a visual artist that they might for a writer. The eye needs to be fed, and sometimes it can be delighted by a twig’s shape or a pebble’s surface. But the demons of distraction for artists are still real, and as for writers they are ubiquitous, clever and constantly morphing. The 21st century has made it possible for them to find us whenever and wherever we may be working:

Being chained to the desk, as the expression goes, is no longer a guarantee of productivity. Who can stick with the blank page when the click of a mouse opens up a cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex? At once-remote literary colonies, writers can now be spotted wandering the fields with their smartphones, searching for reception so they can shoot off a quick Facebook update. These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.

Jonathan Franzen has famously described how he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for his latest novel, Freedom, he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue.

Honoré de Balzac had no ports to plug up, but he found other ways of staying focused on his work:

[Balzac] felt that the most effective spur to productivity was abject poverty. As a best-selling writer in his early 30s, Balzac looked back fondly upon his younger days as a bohemian, living in a garret and gnawing on a diet of bread, nuts, fruit and water. (“I loved my prison,” he wrote, “for I had chosen it myself.”) Even when successful, he would wake at midnight, symbolically don the habit of a medieval monk, and write for eight hours straight, fueled by pots of coffee. His biographer Graham Robb suggests that Balzac went so far as to deliberately run up debts to force himself to churn out the pages. Given the dwindling amounts writers are paid these days, the fear of bankruptcy—the modern debtor’s prison—remains an inspiration to us all.

Some artists thrive by living and/or working in artist buildings and by being part of lively communities of like-minded folk. Others need isolation, lots of it, and seek it with a spiritual hunger. Maybe it is just figuring out what works for you, be it a blank wall, the spur of poverty or a disabled Internet. For me, it is just quiet. Lots of it.

The pleasures of the minimal. Just the bare thing. Raw, open, essential. Unvarnished.

Here are two minimal recent moments. One was indoors, at Carroll and Sons Gallery in Boston, and the other was the outdoors, in Utah.

Damien Hoar De Galvan’s show, I Wish I had Something to Say, is like a cool drink in your hand on a hot day. I was delighted, engaged and energized by the back room at Carroll and Sons transformed by this motley collection of his small works. The wit and tone is perfectly pitched—neither self conscious nor manipulative, but thoughtfully playful with a quiet strength. The tension between the visual and the languaged that exists in work of this kind is a very fine line, and it is tricky to navigate. Going off track results in pandering on the one side or falling into the arcane on the other.

Clearly DHDG is an artist drinking from the same stream as Richard Tuttle*, Bill Walton** and one recently exposed facet of my friend George Wingate***, three artists whose work never grows tiresome. But DHDG is, as each of these three, engaging in this form in his own way. Through July 30.

A wall of simple images on paper—unframed and immediate

My second minimalist moment: The desert landscape in Utah. It is elemental to me—the light, the sky, the landscape. In a recent review in Art News of my show in Santa Fe earlier this year, the reviewer put it this way:

Deborah Barlow lives and works near Boston, but is so starkly, deliberately, ocularly a creature of the West—where she spent her youth and formative years—that one risks confounding the senses even before peeling back the first layer of brusque sensuality that clings to the surface of her paintings.

The desert is inside, that I know.

Great Salt Lake, from the southern end of the lake

The view near Saltair

Wheat fields near Lehi

Another Lehi view

Double rainbow! I never see these in the East

The light after a storm: Soft and yet acidic


Other minimalists:

*I have written a number of posts about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

Scale it Up, Scale it Down
Tuttle Therapy
Go Broad, or Go Deep

**Bill Walton‘s posthumous show in Philadelphia is reviewed here.

***George Wingate‘s installation from earlier this year is reviewed here.

Temple site at Mahabalipuram, India

Many of us have been discussing James Gleick’s recent piece in the New York Times, Books and Other Fetish Objects which addresses the digitization projects that will move historical documents into the cloud, available anywhere and by anyone. Gleick is a bit impatient with the sentimental attachment that some have for “the thing itself.” For him, it is content that matters as exemplified by this anecdote:

In a Sotheby’s auction three years ago, Magna Carta fetched a record $21 million. To be exact, the venerable item was a copy of Magna Carta, made 82 years after the first version was written and sealed at Runnymede. Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.

And this contemplation on what happens when we move beyond the thing itself:

It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

I am not in your camp, Gleick. It seems that there are two tracks here—content, and the thing itself. Call me a fetishist, a misaligned magical thinker. But my experience is that these objects take on a power of their own and have a unique relationship with us. (That evocativeness—the power of things—is the subject of the documentary Mana: Beyond Belief which I wrote about here.) We feel a sense of that power with touch or just being physically present, and that experience cannot be captured in words, photographs or 3D renderings. A high resolution image of one of my paintings will never be the same as the artifact itself.

I keep coming back to how it felt at the ancient temples in Southern India, pilgrimage sites for so many years. Whether those places were built on sacred ground or just acquired their power from the millions of pilgrims who came and gave their energy over time, these places have an aura that is tangible, physically experienced and unforgettable. Digitizing content is one thing, the experiential is another. Oft quoted but still useful is Wallace Stevens’ stanza from Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

I’m for the both/and.

Many of you have undoubtedly heard about the Chain Letter Show. The idea was a robust one—using the existing network of artists, create an international, artist-curated, pop up event at several locations around the world all at the same time. Ten artists were asked, and then they asked ten more, who then asked ten more. It is easy to see how you get to exponentiality very quickly, making this an idea that was clearly both crazy and very fun. How could I not go along for the ride?

On the day designated for dropping off work, my friend George Wingate and I arrived with our own work plus pieces by several of our friends at the Boston location, Samson Projects. By noon there were art objects stacked three and four deep, and a line of artists was starting to form in front. (By some accounts Samson ended up with over 1200 at the end of the day.) It was clear to George and me by mid day that this wasn’t a venue that would work for us or for our friends.

So there we were in the South End, our arms full of gorgeous pieces by artists we love. Then George and I had a “Salon des Refusés” (although in this case the “refusing” was self-inflicted) moment: Let’s decouple from the Chain Letter event and just have our own show: UNCHAINED. The first version of Unchained is here on Slow Muse, followed by a second “in the flesh” installation in George’s beautiful barn gallery in Wenham, just north of Boston, later this summer.

Here are the artists included in this first exhibit: Deborah Barlow, Kelvy Bird, Dennis Cowley, Pam Farrell, Patty Hanlon, Robert Hanlon, Don Howard, Elizabeth Mead, Holly Meade, Paula Overbay, Anne Pelikan, Mary Smith, George Wingate.


* * * *

Deborah Barlow
18 x 18″
mixed media on wood panel

* * * *

Mary Smith
ancient string/fairy
12 1/2″ x 13 1/2″
Collage on paper

* * * *

Paula Overbay
Penelope’s Handkerchief
12 x 12″
mixed media on wood panel

* * * *

Elizabeth Mead
Internal Organs
Misc. sizes
Porcelain on wood shelf

* * * *

Pam Farrell
Chinese Whispers
18 x 18″
Beeswax over oil on mulberry paper on wood panel

* * * *

Kelvy Bird
20 x 20″
Mixed media on paper

* * * *

George Wingate
Adam Grows a Beard
8 x 10″
Acrylic on panel

* * * *

Patty Hanlon
Blue Scenery
5 x 6″
Plexiglass CD box, latex gloves, pigments

* * * *

Robert Hanlon
The Decision
5 x 10″
Pigment and shellac on panel

* * * *

Holly Meade
Young Man Trapped in War
12 x 12″
Woodblock print

* * * *

Don Howard
2010 Christmas Card
5 x 7″
Collage, paper, feather, paint, pen

* * * *

Anne Pelikan
The Lookers
4 x 6″
Paper postcard with sections cut out

* * * *

Dennis Cowley
View from Browns Island 2010
4 x 5″
silver gelatin print (pinhole)

Paris, 1970
Photo by Elliott Erwitt

Maybe it happens to you like this: unexpected events and encounters often come in multiples. It’s as if random events are actually traveling through our lives in a wad. How many times has someone come to mind who I haven’t seen in years and then they suddenly appear at a party or on the street? Many.

That rhythm of random repetition showed up for me again this last week. I just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir about New York City in the 1970s as seen from the high velocity, celebrity-studded perspective of both Smith and her lover/friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. I lived in New York City at the same time and remember Smith’s extraordinary performances at CBGB that catapulted her into fame. The world she describes, centered around the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, was very far from my ragtag circle of friends living in unwieldy lofts on the Lower East Side. I wasn’t running into the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso on my rides on the F train or walks through Chinatown. But reading her words brought those days back to mind, back to a Manhattan and a me that are long gone. Woody Allen’s somewhat superficial but irresistably enjoyable film, Midnight in Paris, was a paean to our private variations of the moveable feast.

Manhattan in the 1970s was one of my moveable feasts, but so was the year I spent in France when I was 18 years old. And those halcyon days came flooding back when I recently visited my art teacher from that year I lived abroad. He is the reason I changed my life path and decided to spend it making art, and now he lives in the hills above Salt Lake City. His secluded Italianate villa is filled with artifacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to dinosaur bones. Stepping into his cloistered Miss Havisham world is already an invitation to leave life as we know it, but even more so when I discovered he had unearthed the photos from that long ago time in France—black and whites that capture a me and a France that, like Manhattan in the 70s, no longer exists.

Who I was back then is as elusive as a dream image, and it is just as hard to share it meaningfully with anyone else. But reconnecting with these two periods in my life, in close succession, has brought all sorts of forgotten energies to the surface. Asking those old selves to unveil their forgotten secrets is not as easy as a car that comes round for you at midnight on a Paris street, but I’ll take these trips back however they come.

The Wasatch Mountains in Utah

This comment from Bill Keller in the New York Times caught my eye:

In “The Uncoupling,” there is a wistful passage about the high-school cohort my daughter is about to join. Wolitzer describes them this way: “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”

That description could apply to many more cohort groups than just high schoolers. Generally I’m not wired for jeremiads or lamentations of discontent, but it is reasonable to ask if all of us are suffering from contextually challenged information, from too much of the oleaginous spread without the hearty loaf, from cravings that still leave us feeling unsatisfied and undernourished.

On one level our Twitter feed and Facebook news are a customized news service. My partner David calls his Twitter connections his “readers”, grateful for how they flag articles he would never find if he were meandering the halls of cyberspace by himself. And that’s useful, without question.

But like a river that can just as easily carry pleasure boats as it can sewage, the constant flow of information (a term i use loosely) starts to resemble effluvia if you stay in it too long. Perhaps I should just make that a first person statement: The constant flow of information starts to resemble effluvia if I stay in it too long. Like the sage advice for dealing with a difficult family member, the secret seems to be this: Limit your exposure.

While my online persona gets much less time than my other more important selves, I still look forward to extended breaks when I get to check out of all my obligations. These sojourns are my own “limit your exposure” control system.

So I’m off for a week, this time to Utah. I’ll be back, refreshed and ready to replunge, re-engage, reconnect.

An excerpt from Bulabula 1, a painting currently hanging in my show at Lyman-Eyer Gallery in Provincetown

A Ball Rolls on a Point

The whole ball
of who we are
presses into
the green baize
at a single tiny
spot. An aural
track of crackle
betrays our passage
through the
fibrous jungle.
It’s hot and
desperate. Insects
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense, and the
sense that we’ve
lost proportion.
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
our decision.

–Kay Ryan

I am consistently drawn to Ryan’s work. Her poems are often epigrammatic, taut, terse, slightly off kilter, smart. All qualities I admire.

David Kirby honors Ryan’s work by drawing a comparison with those towering figures in American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson, hands-down champ at writing poems that are as compressed as Whitman’s are sprawling…

But of course there is no real competition between the Whitman who boasted “I am large, I contain multitudes” and the Dickinson whose niece Martha reported that her aunt once pretended to lock the door to her bedroom and pocket an imaginary key, saying, “Mattie, here’s freedom.” In other words, Ryan’s are the biggest little poems going.

Rather than hunting down the world and making it cry uncle, Ryan likes to create an elastic space the world can enter and fill.

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson, published in 2008, is one of the most evenhanded descriptions of the flamboyant, unpredictable, arcane—and at times, utterly exasperating—world of contemporary art. Thompson teaches marketing and economics and, refreshingly, doesn’t write from the point of view of someone who has been drinking the Kool-Aid (in contrast to the “look at me, I’m an insider!” tone of the unbearably lickish Sarah Thornton in her recent book, Seven Days in the Art World.) He’s evenhanded in his narrative even when describing circumstances that most people would find utterly ludicrous (as are so many of the Damien Hirst anecdotes for example) and helped crack the code for me on the veiled elitism and exclusivity surrounding art auctions. This is one book you will want to read all the way to the end, something I do less and less these days.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the book:

The art trade is the least transparent and least regulated major commercial activity in the world.

A dealer may follow you around, speaking a form of dealer-code where cutting-edge means radical, challenging means don’t even try to understand it, and museum quality means if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

White Cube considers Hirst the most marketing-savvy artist in the world. No artwork other than For The Love Of God [Hirst’s jewel-encrusted skull] was ever written about in a hundred publications, a year before it was created. Artists Dinos Chapman called the skull a work of genius—not the art, the marketing.

Judging art is supposed to have less to do with the content of the work and more to do with an instinctive sense for what the artist has to say. Kirsten Ward, who is a physician and psychologist, says that art has the greatest impact when it makes the thinking part of the brain talk to the feeling part. Great work speaks clearly, while more trivial work does what critics call “going dead.”

The term “buying with your ears” is used several times in this book, and I flinch every time I write it. It is an art world term that means buying art by reputation…the term has made the transition from insight to cliché.

Jeff Koons made banality blue chip, pornography avant-garde, and tchotchkes into trophy art, with the support of a small circle of dealers and collectors. –Kelly Devine Thomas

Auctions are a bizarre combination of slave markets, trading floor, theatre and brothel. They are rarefied entertainment where speculation, spin and trophy hunting merge as an insular caste enacts a highly structured ritual in which codes of consumption are peerage are manipulated in plain sight. —Jerry Saltz

In reality art fairs are adrenaline-addled spectacles for a kind of buying and selling where intimacy, conviction, patience and focused looking, not to mention looking again, are essential nonexistent. —Jerry Saltz

It is a great paradox of our times that visual culture should be vanishing even as the art market soars. Abstract concepts take precedence over what the eye sees. Artists’ names matter ever more, and the art to which they are attached ever less. —Souren Melikian