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George Wingate viewing “Candara” at the show in Providence (photo by Robert Hanlon)

George Wingate, artist and life long friend made a trip down from Wenham to see the show at Rhode Island College, “Acquire/Inquire.” He sent me the photograph above with these simple words:

standing before the moon.

Oh that I could evoke that haunting landscape, that I might capture some of that earthiness that is not Earth, that landscape that does not carry a drop of our DNA in its dust.

The show comes down today. This was an important exhibit for me, the first public showing of a very new and different body of work. Thank you to the wizardry and resourcefulness of curator James Montford, the accompaniment of three extraordinary women—Marcia Goodwin, Doris Weiner and Denyse Wilhelm—and the universally welcoming faculty and staff at Rhode Island College.

Here are highlights from three reviews of the show:

Barlow’s paintings are sensual…she paints handsome, crusty, glistening abstractions like Golasule, which resembles frosty white-blue ice. Others look like lichen or, in the case of Gola, a turquoise and milky white tropical tide pool.
Greg Cook
The Boston Phoenix

The paintings of Deborah Barlow are ethereal and light, mixing multiple forms of paint and technique. While the other artists focused on a search and discovery form of style, Barlow is more scientific and alchemic.
Kyle Grant
The Anchor

Deborah Barlow is represented by a series of lushly luminous abstractions that look a bit like Minimalist cloudscapes. (Look long enough and you may feel like you’re floating inside the world’s most tasteful lava lamp.)
Bill Van Siclen
The Providence Journal

I am always grateful for fresh words that help describe a new body of work. “Standing before the moon” feels good, as do a few other words that came from these writers—“handsome,” “crusty,” “glistening,” “scientific,” “alchemic.” Even the lava lamp reference is growing on me after my very with it daughter gave it a thumbs up.

One wall of the “Acquire/Inquire” installation

To see more images from the show, click here.


Hold Everything Dear

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe

and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent

in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light

that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky

and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning

the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth

one step ahead of time

the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together

clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug

carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking

the map of the palm held

in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days

as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words

the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together

animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

–Gareth Evans

So begins John Berger‘s book of the same name, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Written about a post 9/11 world, these essays are very different from the exquisitely written books about art and life that most of us have come to know during Berger’s long career—his canonical Ways of Seeing as well as The Shape of a Pocket, About Looking and Sense of Sight. This book is full of discouragement and frustration with the state of the world and in particular Middle Eastern politics, and Berger doesn’t mince or soft pedal his views. This wasn’t an easy book for me to read.

But I am reminded of what he wrote in Ways of Seeing over 40 years ago: “Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” That is evident in these essays.

But as for the poem, that’s a keeper.

Two women stroll among the walls of Halebid, built in the 9th century

Sharing experiences from travels is a bit like sharing dreams: The iconography and narrative are personal and not well suited for public discourse. So other than sharing the rudimentaries, my report on my time in India will be succinct.

A phrase or two from Mira Schor‘s juicy and very personal book, A Decade of Negative Thinking, captures much of what I am feeling now that I am back home: “I’ve wished that I could give my students and myself the gift of time, time to work or not work in the studio, and, more importantly, to forget about ART; time to just take a walk…”

That is what this trip to southern India was for me: time away from the studio, a hiatus in thinking about art making and the world we have created around that rarefied activity. Yes I took 2600 photographs which serve as a kind of quick capture sketchbook/scrapbook. But making art was not on my mind at all. In a culture that old and that confoundingly complex, stepping away from my life was a much better way to offer up an open, fertile, receptive spirit. The resonance is outside of language and still echoing.

Hindu shrine at the top of the Fort hill in Hyderabad

Hampi’s Vittala temple, known as the musical temple because striking the columnns produces musical tones

Inscription at Hampi

The exquisite Chitrangini Mahal (or Lotus Mahal) in the Zenana Enclosure, Hampi

Figures from the 12th century goparum at Belur which effortlessly incorporate images from the Kama Sutra

The lacey Chola temples at Thanjavur

Entrance to the Ekambaranathar temple in Kanchipuram

Enchanting and sacred Madurai, pilgrim site

Rajasthani pilgrims at Chidambaram

Meal time at the Children’s Aid Society in Hyderabad

Lord Gommateshwara, the world’s largest monolithic stone statue, at the Jain temple in Shravanabelagola

Students at Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy)

Hampi, from a distance

Sign to the pilgrimage site, Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Altar for Saraswati

The many faces of India: A street in Mamallapuram in Southern India, 2008

The heart loves what it loves, and mine keeps coming back to India. So how grateful I am that after four years I am returning again.

I could try to explain my attraction but that seems unnecessary given the land’s long history of beguiling, enchanting and mystifying its guests. This quote by Apollonius of Tyana dates back before the Common Era and yet it could have been written by any of us today: “In India, I found a race of mortals living upon the Earth, but not adhering to it, inhabiting cities, but not being fixed to them, possessing everything, but possessed by nothing.”

This trip we are spending all our time in the South. Our intention is to veer, explore and wander as far from beaten paths as we can.

I will be back here after March 27th.

Home altar near Chennai

The Yearling, by Donald Lipski, now installed in Denver

In David Levi Strauss’ book, From Head to Hand, he begins the chapter on sculptor Donald Lipski with three quotes and this paragraph:

The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.
–The Blind Man (1917)

Why not look at the constellation of things that surround us every day? That is the combinatory art. Nothing should be left out. Everything has to undergo the test of how it can live in this relatedness.
–Frederick Sommer, The Constellations That Surround Us (1992)

Art supposes that beauty is not an exception—is not in despite of—but is the basis for an order.
–John Berger, “The White Bird” (1985)

From the viewpoint of art for art’s sake, aesthetic decisions are continually being contaminated by the things of this world. In Donald Lipski’s art, this process is not merely tolerated, but celebrated. In fact, this contamination—resulting from the contact and mixture of disparate substances and materials—defines the method and has come to be the principal subject of Lipski’s art.

A great collection of quotes, and a topic that has many more levels to it than just Lipski’s eclectic work. Sommer’s encouragement to look at and work with the “constellation of things” and to take a “combinatory” approach to art making speaks to me as a painter as well. Clearly my approach is a much more subtle implementation, often operating most powerfully at the inchoate level of intent. But the steady accretion of non traditional materials into my work has been my own painterly way of coming into relationship with the constellation of things that exist in my world.

I also found this passage about Lipski and his relationship to minimalism provocative:

Lipski’s art is particularly well suited to contemporary postindustrial society, a society of plethoric overproduction, wealth, and waste. But his art is not plethoric. It is, rather, remarkably light on its feet, transforming glut into spare elegance. The work clearly responds more to minimalism than to pop, but with a twist…David Rubin wrote: “Although minimalism was born of a disdain for metaphor and materials with associative value, Lipski has brought new life to is most cherished principles. In subjectifying minimalism, altering it as he does objects, Lipski has effectively transformed it from an art of the few into an art for the many.

My favorite Lipski is his 1998 installation for Grand Central, Sirshasana. A huge artificial olive tree, it hung upside down. The roots were covered in gold leaf and its branches were draped with 5,000 Swarovski crystals. Named after a head down yoga position, the tree felt ethereal and provocative—its roots reaching heavenward and its branches drawing down to the earth. Much can be drawn from that orientation, and Strauss quotes the 13th century Zohar: “The Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates us all.”

This work feels loaded, lush and full of light.

Sirshasana, in Grand Central

Untitled (Seven Mountains) by Ursula von Rydingsvard (Photo by Ben Aqua)

In the introduction to David Levi Strauss‘ book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, he points out that “in an increasingly mediated world, one of the most radical things artists can do is to use their hands.” He goes on to quote Leo Steinberg: “The eye is a part of the mind.”

This point of view is right in line with my operative ethos for art as defined by Robert Smith in her review a few years back of what is missing in too many of the museum shows she was seeing: Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. So the reference in Strauss’ title to the head and the hand is of elemental importance to my view of art making.

This small book has been on my nightstand for nearly a year. The writing has a compact denseness that I love. You only need to read a line or two at the end of the day to be dropped into that meditative state before sleeping. Strauss offers his wisdom and insights on a number of artists and writers who are among my personal favorites: Joseph Beuys, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Nancy Spero, Cecilia Vicuña. I’ll share a few passages from the book over the next few posts.

Here is a sampling from his chapter on Ursula von Rydingsvard, “Sculpture and Sanctuary”:

Rydingsvard’s relation to the symbolic is effected by her relation to nature. She has often spoken in interviews of her abhorrence of competing with or imitating nature. She eschews mimesis in favor of reciprocity, aiming to get the objects she makes “to echo things that nature might say but doesn’t.” Her organicism is always a mediated organicism, arising from the religious imagination as defined by W. S. Piero: “The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness, back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it—the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work.”

My review of Rydingsvard’s show at the de Cordova Museum last year inter alia can be read here.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, from her recent retrospective at the de Cordova Museum

From my early days: Graphix 5, from 1977

David Cope is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz (my alma mater). In a segment on Radio Lab over the weekend, he described an extraordinary project he began in 1981 when he was suffering from a serious case of composer’s block. After a conversation with a computer scientist, Cope developed the idea that it might be possible to use the computational power of a computer to identify the essential DNA of his compositional style and then aid him in assembling the opera he hoped to write.

A program called EMI, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, was the result of that effort. The description of how this “tool” works is fascinating. While he originally intended to use it for help with his own musical development, he quickly saw its potential to parse and uncover the patterning in all music.

The first results of this effort seemed lifeless to Cope. But with tweaking and adjustments, the results became quite extraordinary. It seems that there is a signature in the structure of a composition, and that signature can be used for propagation.

In Cope’s words:

My idea was that every work of music contains a set of instructions for creating different but highly related replications of itself. These instructions, interpreted correctly, can lead to interesting discoveries about musical structure as well as, hopefully, create new instances of stylistically-faithful music.

My rationale for discovering such instructions was based, in part, on the concept of recombinancy. Recombinancy can be defined simply as a method for producing new music by recombining extant music into new logical successions…recombinancy appears everywhere as a natural evolutionary and creative process. All the great books in the English language, for example, are constructed from recombinations of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Similarly, most of the great works of Western art music exist as recombinations of the twelve pitches of the equal-tempered scale and their octave equivalents. The secret lies not in the invention of new letters or notes but in the subtlety and elegance of their recombination.

Of course, simply breaking a musical work into smaller parts and randomly combining them into new orders almost certainly produces gibberish. Effective recombination requires extensive musical analysis and very careful recombination to be effective at even an elemental level no less the highly musical level of which I dreamed.

(The Radio Lab link above offers samples of music written using EMI by Cope as well as compositions “inspired” by the elemental DNA of Bach and other composers.)

This provokes my sense of what is signatory in art as well. Peter Schjeldahl wrote a piece in the New Yorker several years ago that has haunted me ever since. While suffering from dementia at the end of his life, de Kooning was still painting elementally de Kooning works. Which causes one to ask, where does style reside anyway? (I have also pondered the claim of neurologists who say a brain damaged person in the West can sing the happy birthday ditty even if they cannot speak or recognize their family members.) Researchers have tried to identify the fractal-like DNA of a Jackson Pollock painting—not without controversy, however—or those other small tells that end up determining the authenticity of a work of art.

On a more personal level, can you spot the signatory patterns in your own work? Looking back at my early efforts I see all sorts of patterns, proclivities, inclinations and tendencies that feel familiar to me now. Cope’s approach is scientific and my judgment is subjective, but the question is still floating for me.

More recent work: Sloycha, 2011

Golasule, on display at the Bannister Gallery, Rhode Island College

Having just come off a very acknowledging opening and show, I have been thinking a great deal about that last part of the arc of art making: connecting with others. Like many of my artist friends, I spend most of my time alone in my studio. My process is so private, and the envisioning that brings a body of work into existence isn’t something I can discuss or confer with other people. It happens outside of language, in solitude. It is very similar to my body’s adventure in childbirth where you have a visceral understanding that no one else can help you out. Gestation is your gig and yours alone. As my mother used to say, it’s too bad nine women can’t each be pregnant for a month to bring a baby into life.

But then there is that moment when the work takes on a life of its own. It is that occasion when you first view a piece outside the context of your familiar womb/studio. When it has to stand for you with other work and hold your vision in tact. When it will be experienced and examined by people who may have no idea what your intentions were when you made it, or do not subscribe to any notions that art comes from and speaks to a mysterious place deep inside.

Completing the arc of the whole process—from the first mark you make on a surface through others participating and connecting with your completed work—offers a final chord sense of the journey. And that feeling can be a glorious one. Little in life can compare with the sense of deep gratitude I feel when someone else has an authentic experience with one of my pieces. I can’t and won’t paint for others. But when someone other than me connects, I am euphoric.

What about those times when the connection doesn’t happen? All of us know that feeling too, and mediating the pain of not being seen, understood or acknowledged is a skill set every artist needs to develop. Call it thick skin training, autonomy or willed obliviousness, it comes with the territory and always will.

One of my most thoughtful blogger friends, writer and artist David Marshall, wrote a post recently that addresses the pain from not being seen. From his blog Signals to Attend:

I recently passed the 200th post on this blog and must confess—sometimes my peevishness builds up like the buzz of an amplifier feeding back its own distortion. I begin to feel attention ought to be paid and wish I felt as valued as I ought to be valued…

Try as I might to believe in the intrinsic, the essential, the genuine value of pursuits and their independent, autonomous, anarchic pleasure, it’s not enough. Private accomplishments aren’t real. If no one reads me, I haven’t written…

Which is why Buddhism appeals to me. Striving, experience tells me, is the source of unhappiness, and the person who knows how to put it aside has found enlightenment well beyond most of us. I’m no one’s Buddha, though I affect that stance. My humility and calm hide a riotous soul shouting for notice.

How does one get from here to contentment? I don’t know.

So far, my desire to overcome desire hasn’t worked.

Whatever tools we use to get through those feelings—whether Buddhism, selective neglect, denial or various forms of emotional immunity—it IS part of the creator’s paradox: We have to create/we are too fragile to create. That edge is one of being both obsessive and vulnerable, expressive and withdrawn. David ended his post with this thoughtful question: “And what do you do with a heart that wants and wants and cannot say so?”

Here are a few shots from last night’s opening for Inquire/Acquire* at the Bannister Gallery. Kudos to curator James Montford for bringing cohesion to four very different bodies of work. And thanks to all those who braved the snow in Boston (just as we were beginning to think we’d slide past this winter without any) to drive to Providence. Great evening all ’round.

Deborah Barlow

Denyse Wilhelm

Marcia Goodwin

Doris Weiner

*Show info:
March 1- 29, 2012

Bannister Gallery
Rhode Island College
600 Mt Pleasant Ave
Providence, RI 02908
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 8pm

John Pawson’s monastery in Bohemia

The gap that exists between theory and practice is a challenge in so many pursuits, and Minimalist architecture is just one that struggles with that perennial problem. In 1908, Adolf Loos wrote a memorable essay, “Ornament and Crime,” that advocated for a more streamlined aesthetic. And yet to create that illusion of austere perfection, the process cannot be carried out in line with the ethos of simplicity.

From Thomas De Monchuax‘s article in the New York Times, Why Less Isn’t Always More:

Today’s most celebrated Minimalist architect, John Pawson, counts among his clients both poverty-sworn monks and the fashion designer Calvin Klein, whose own designs specialize in enabling you to pay much more for the right much less. Pawson’s work happens to be beautiful and kind; its proportions are the natural ratios that you find in shells and flowers. It gives you room to breathe. And yet it’s subject to elegant deceits.

A building of few details would seem to be a building of few secrets. But austerity in architecture connotes a visual and functional transparency that it completely fails to provide. Any seamless-seeming building is full of complex joints and junctions, fixes and fudges that make a thousand parts look like a single monolithic, sculptural whole. To look as if you left everything out, you have to sneak everything in. What seems spartan is usually, invisibly, baroque.

Monchaux’s article draws parallels between this often obscured reality and the hidden costs of the fiscal and economic austerity we are witnessing around the world. “Austerity may be aesthetically pleasing, but that rarely translates to good policy.” And the irony plays out in what those Minimalist spaces speak to as well:

Austerity…is as much glamorous as solemn. As an aesthetic category, it’s strangely aspirational. It can become a mode of luxury, even excess. The difference between a minimalist room and an under-furnished room is freedom of choice.

Today’s minimalism conjures a life of such intangible ease that the mere creature comforts of visibly abundant stuff are transcended. It makes a near ethical virtue out of an aesthetic practice of refusal (perhaps extending, disconcertingly, to notions of physical aesthetics in which obesity is associated with poverty and to be too rich is to be too thin). While Mies and his contemporaries introduced their skinny-framed, flat-roofed, white-walled architecture in the context of prototype public housing, they perfected it in deluxe retreats like the Farnsworth House.

The irresistibility of this aesthetic is so powerful to me that I am seduced instantly into its illusion of perfection. This article is a much needed reminder that everything needs be seen in a fuller sense, a view that incorporates hidden costs and implications.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House