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Storms, especially the ones as enormous as Sandy, move me to sober. Serious circumspection seems appropriate as my friends in New York and Virginia get dropped from the grid and swamped with water.
But it is also a humbling reminder that we can never step out of the complex and extraordinary life of this planet, this place we call home.
I didn’t know about nature writer Ellen Meloy until after she passed away in 2004. Her books include Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. Her quiet wisdom about our right relationship to earth rings true for me again and again.
Here are a few words from her that have helped me reset my dial this morning:
Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.
For a homebody surrounded by the familiar or a traveler exploring the strange, there can be no better guide to a place than the weight of its air, the behavior of its light, the shape of its water, the textures of rock and feather, leaf and fur, and the ways that humans bless, mark or obliterate them. Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.
I think about home and what it means a lot, and that thinking informs my experience of painting both consciously and unconsciously. It feels like it deserves to be part of one’s daily ritual, to remember what place is and where we fit in it.
In a review of Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise, another thoughtful writer Chelsea Biondolillo catalogs ways of writing about nature and how they reflect on our condition:
Near the end of the series of essays which make up The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meloy gives a few descriptions of nature writing which serve to position her work in the larger context of naturalist literature. The first, “The literature of loss,” is exemplified perhaps most beautifully in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. The second, “An ‘antidote to despair,’” brings to mind David Quammen’s humorous pieces for Outside Magazine, collected in part in The Flight of the Iguana. The third is where Ellen herself fits in: “The antibodies to doom, words and experiences that remind us of our vital connections to the natural world so that we might repair and revere them.” She joins Diane Ackerman and Thoreau in this category.
The antibodies to doom, words and experiences that remind us of our vital connections to the natural world so that we might repair and revere them. That’s a mantra for any day, post Sandy or otherwise.
Jerry Saltz‘s Facebook page is a world unto itself. With as many “friends” as the Facebook Police will allow, Jerry regularly posts provocative questions that spark conversations that can go on for days, garnering responses from hundreds of artists of every age and stripe. What began as an experiment quickly took on a life of its own, a phenom that Jerry has described as a bit like being in a room with 5,000 people, all of them discussing art.
I am fascinated by the passionate and very public tussling that goes on in Jerryland. Rather than jumping into the fray, I usually go with the lurker stance. Some artists excel and thrive at real time art languaging. I need to mull, to contemplate, to sit quietly with ideas. I love that process, but it doesn’t happen instantaneously. After all, this blog was named Slow Muse for a reason.
One of the most recent topics on Jerry’s page was about the Wade Guyton show at the Whitney Museum. For those of you who are not familiar with his work, here is Roberta Smith‘s overview from her glowing review in the New York Times:
Like many artists Mr. Guyton, who is 40, is both a radical and a traditionalist who breaks the mold but pieces it back together in a different configuration. He is best known for austere, glamorous paintings that have about them a quiet poetry even though devised using a computer, scanner and printer. The show is titled “Wade Guyton: OS,” referring to computer operating systems.
Uninterested in drawing by hand, much less in wielding a paintbrush, he describes himself as someone who makes paintings but does not consider himself a painter…
While clearly not made by hand, his works are noticeably imperfect. The paintings in particular clearly tax the equipment that generates them; they emerge with glitches and irregularities — skids, skips, smears or stutters — that record the process of their own making, stress the almost human fallibility of machines and provide a semblance of pictorial incident and life.
The line between what the artist has chosen and what technology has willed is constantly blurred.
So earlier this week Jerry posted this statement on his Facebook page:
Last week some of you claimed that Wade Guyton’s paintings aren’t paintings. Some called them “prints” or “mono-types” or other things. Some said they’re not art at all because “he doesn’t touch them.” (In fact he’s perpetually tending & tugging the linen as it comes out of the printer.) In regards to categories like painting: Dislocations, adjustments, ruptures, and expansions are always happening. Always have. Always will. Let go of the neatness of identification (see Plato’s Cave). Painting doesn’t need anyone’s protection. Like love, let painting do what it does. Or not.
Particularly for those of us who are painters, these are topics that open floodgates of strong opinions that surge and churn. As of this post, there were 788 comments on Jerry’s page. I haven’t read them all, but here are a few that stood out for me.
I like them. they’re less about paint and “touch” of the hand and more about touch of the mind. how the mind puts things together, relates one image or memory to another. the troublesome aspect could be how impersonal they are. but i’m thinking he’s managing to avoid falling off the wagon entirely. the saving grace is in his choices of mashups. they do feel personal to me because…he manages to capture a mood and THAT touches me. his work is a flat tragedy of too much to bear.
—Jennifer Wynne Reeves
If I were able to live for 1 million yrs. I probably would still be using my hands to make my work–with a medium that is organic like paper and pigment. But, I would still appreciate having other artists use the most current technology to make THEIR work so I could look at it and feel more of who I am–and go for that with every thread of myself…call me Wilma Flintstone–It’s okay with me.
I could give a fuck if they are paintings or whatever, but are they good and why are always my questions. And the first? The best? Eff that shit too. Do they open the world and excite my brain? I don’t care about anything else. It is only empty dialog. New materials always find a way to present new cases, if you think about it. That is what is cool about technology and even paint has advanced if you think about how many different mediums there are now.
—Alan Van Every
I know you want a cease and desist from all dead-enders fighting for what painting is. However, you were correct to identify the label as political. This summer, you took offense to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, claiming she “crowed that her Documenta would have ‘not much painting’.” You went on to say that Carolyn “seems hostile to art’s old unruly cave creature, painting.” Not coincidentally, she is crowned this years most powerful person in the art world. As ridiculous as the Power100 list is, your fight for painting in Documenta 13 might just as easily have put you in the ranks of a dead-end-last–war fighter too.
Soul and a good brain connected to a good pair of eyes is the most important thing. The tools come later – to serve, not lead. Guyton’s stuff is too art-about-art for me.
If that sounds schizo, it is. BTW, Did anyone here read through the super-schizo 500-page 50th Anniversary Issue of ARTFORUM – Art’s New Media? I quote from it: “Media resist unification. They resist ontology. They are much like art. And art, we might say, is always becoming media.” — Michelle Kuo, editor, ARTFORUM, September, 2012. Perhaps as a result of reading this mass of conflicting information and opinion the takeaway was to forget such tired dialectical distinctions as analog/digital. Just look, listen, read, feel, enjoy, ponder, move and theorize with sensetive intelligence and without boundaries.
Wade Guyton looks to me to be a really interesting twist on contemporary printmaking. But why the attempt to conflate his effort -or even describe it simply as painting -I am not directing this particularly at Jerry who could be simply reporting here as this is an ongoing effort with art world heavyweights the likes of Ann Temkins weighing in (I paraphrase) Pollock dripped, Richter squeegeed and Guyton hits the print button- well within the perimeters of extending the venerable tradition in western painting of radical innovation.’ In other words Wade -who is on the hot list with the international set of curators at the moment -is being touted as yet another way of assaulting painting while employing its strength as a tradition to ad contextual weight to his work -work that probably doesnt even need the curatorial assist. This is more from the painting is dead crew (well you can still paint -but there must be irony, some form of caveat that speaks to the degradation of painting.) When these people, the generic internationalists, happen to choose an actual painter, its usually a poor one -Tuymans is a good example, the apology for painting hence its degradation continues….its called spin. If it doesnt matter, why claim its painting—when it really is not—answer: it completely matters in terms of contextual weight.
The printer is a TOOL; Artists use tools.
The “digital” (as with images or photographs) is MATERIAL; artists use materials.
Job one of the artist is: EMBED THOUGHT IN MATERIAL (whatever material that is with WHATEVER tools).
I would highly recommended for the long-term health of your own particular Cave and your own particular Cave Art that you NOT worry over anything beyond these three very basic starting points.
Trust me on this.
I am a professional.
Take time to think about it. A lot of time. Ten, fifteen years at least. Then get back to me.
Trust me on this …
Or … see you OUTSIDE the Gates of Thebes …
(Oh and see the damn show; hate on it; hate on the ptgs; hate on me. Just DO NOT worry over the above things.)
So in sum, and in the long view, it really doesn’t matter if you embed specific thoughts or not in your work, what matters is that you make work that inspires other people to think, to feel, to have an ongoing relationship with the piece instead of just glancing at another abstract rectangle on the wall and never looking at it again. The goal should be depth, and therefore duration, for the viewer. It doesn’t matter if he or she grasps the artist’s thoughts or not.
Billions of stars light up the direction toward the center of our Galaxy. The vast majority of these stars are themselves billions of years old, rivaling their home Milky Way Galaxy in raw age. These stars are much more faint and red than the occasional young blue stars that light up most galaxies. Together with interstellar dust, these old stars make a yellowish starscape, as pictured above. Although the opaque dust obscures the true Galactic center in visible light, a relative hole in the dust occurs on the right of the image. This region, named Baade’s Window for an astronomer who studied it, is used to inspect distant stars and to determine the internal geometry of the Milky Way. Baade’s Window occurs toward the constellation of Sagittarius.—From Astronet. (Photo: David Malin)
Over the last few months I have repeatedly bumped into the cosmic art meme: art explorations (by others as well as my own) that speak to and connect with the concept and implications of the space/time continuum.
Astronomical photographer David Malin‘s images of space (the above image is one of his photographs) have been assembled into an exquisite Phaidon volume called Ancient Light: A Portrait of the Universe. This book has been a steady resource for me all summer. Even the front cover is provocative: white binding wrapped in a black paper sleeve with star pattern perforations.
The recent show at the ICA featured works by Josiah McElheny where these themes were present as well. From the ICA description:
Some Pictures of the Infinite tackles cosmic questions, tracing this persistent theme in the work of Josiah McElheny. Over the past two decades, the problem of infinity has driven McElheny’s efforts to represent the unrepresentable, as the infinite by definition must always elude stable grasp. The exhibition also examines images of time: archaeological time, linear and cyclical models, and the overwhelming span of cosmic time.
In McElheny’s diverse body of work, the infinite crops up again and again… He has also repeatedly drawn inspiration from the enormity of the cosmos, gaining a working knowledge of astronomy through a long-term collaboration with the cosmologist David Weinberg. Their partnership has resulted in multiple artworks picturing the origins of the universe, with particular attention to the theory of the Big Bang.
Equal parts empirical and aesthetic, McElheny’s imaginative approach to science doesn’t instruct viewers but seduces them, couching cutting-edge cosmology in unabashed formal beauty.
Installation view of Josiah McElheny’s The Center is Everywhere at the ICA. The work’s title references Blaise Pascal’s pronouncement that “nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
From the curatorial statement by Elizabeth Rooklidge:
Cosmology is the arena in which science, metaphysics, philosophy, and religion converge. The multitude of cosmological approaches seeks to uncover the universe’s origins, fate, meaning, and physical laws. By studying the universe, from the smallest pieces of matter to the enormous expanse of time and space, we may be able to come to a better understanding not only of its scientific functioning but also humanity’s ultimate purpose. Drawn from the WCMA collection, Cosmologies considers just a few of the many ways in which art can explore these complex themes.
Reflecting the multifaceted nature of this investigation, the featured artists work in a wide array of media…several artists take scientific inquiry as their point of departure, integrating it with philosophical contemplation and a search for personal significance. Some mine ancient mythology, while others engage cosmological thought through compositional abstraction. A few reflect on the historical and cultural implications of space exploration. Whatever their origin, these works collectively reveal an enduring fascination with the universe as well as the rich results of these artists’ cosmological investigations.
The exhibition includes works by Kiki Smith, Vija Celmins, Thomas Ruff, Duane Michals, June Wayne, Bernard Cohen, Lynn Chadwick, Joseph Cornell, Wallace Berman, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Rauschenberg, Vik Muniz and Barbara Takenaga. Here is a sampling:
Three exquisite lithographs from June Wayne (who I have written about previously here) are accompanied by this thoughtful curatorial note:
In a series of lithographs entitled Stellar Winds, June Wayne turns scientific cosmology from celestial mechanics to energetic abstraction. A stellar wind is created by gas flowing from the upper atmosphere of a star out into space. Here, Wayne transforms the momentum of the star’s gas into an enigmatic, graceful composition. Drawing from her artistic curiosity about energy and space, Wayne investigates the physical universe as a metaphor for exploration of the self.
And my own work speaks to an abstracted astral sensibility as well. In a new series of large format works, my explorations co-mingle a sense of the cosmic expanse with the infinite that also exists in that interior world of our consciousness.
That is one way of describing what is emerging I suppose. The right words are hard to find for a body of work that is still forming.
The political campaign seasons that seize up our nation’s mindshare every four years have become a gladiator’s spectacle of showmanship and theatrics. The truth, whatever that may be, is not what anybody hears or expects from the political campaign process. And most of us watch with a tacit sense that this is a game, with rules, that is being played out in the public arena.
So encountering genuine candor in any form during the backdrop of a campaign season stands out in stark contrast. Over the last week I had three encounters with unvarnished opinions, and it felt invigorating.
Composer Philip Glass. The New York Times did an interview with Glass about his collaboration with Beck for reinventing pieces from his large body of work. “Rework: Philip Glass Remixed” features tracks by Amon Tobin, Tyondai Braxton, Beck and others.
Glass was self-effacing and wise when he talked about the creative process (far from the incessant self-branding and promotion that has become an artistic norm):
When I talk to young composers, I tell them, I know that you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it. But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change.
What do you both think about timelessness and your work, and how things in your work feel dated or not dated?
Glass: It all sounds dated. Because I can’t write that music again. I can’t write “Einstein on the Beach” again. I played from it in a concert the other day, and it’s like I never wrote it. My brain’s been rewired. I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I think that the music we write, it accurately reflects the way our brains work, and our brains are constantly evolving. Our brains are very plastic; they continue to grow.
How do you see the work that you did versus the work that you do?
Glass: I don’t mean to give you a Zen koan, but the work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don’t know. That’s why I can’t tell you, I don’t know what I’m doing. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.
National Gallery (UK) Director Nicholas Penny. Charlotte Higgins highlighted some of Penny’s comments from a recent interview on her Guardian blog. Penny was ruthlessly honest about topics the taste makers usually steer clear of. It takes stones to speak like this to your colleagues:
On art forms he does not relate to: “The art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art. I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.”
On museums and the market: “Exhibition in a museum – and, even more so, acquisition – is an endorsement which has become a substitute for critical appraisal. There seems to be a belief that the reputations of artists in museums will never be challenged. This is a valuable myth for the market. It may be that once a certain amount of public money has been invested in art it will be valued forever. But I doubt it.”
On looking at contemporary art: “I try not to think of contemporary art as a separate category. I object to being asked whether I ‘like contemporary art’. The question betrays the assumption that one will look at the art of today without a critical eye.”
On meeting artists: “I think it is a mistake to suppose that meeting an artist would help to understand their art. The intelligence and imagination of many artists really exists only in what they painted or carved or modelled.”
Camille Paglia in Cambridge last night
Author and cultural critic Camille Paglia. Paglia was in town last night to celebrate her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, a populist approach to art history. (Paglia said she got the idea for a defense of art after listening to AM Talk Radio and hearing art consistently deprecated. “I wrote this book for home schooling moms, for those most alienated by art.”)
In her rapid fire delivery (she used more words in her 60 minutes on stage than any lecture I have ever heard) she waxed rhapsodic about what is so important about art. “Kids today are barraged by fragments. There is a discipline to the art of seeing. You must be alone and in quiet to really engage with a work of art.”
A well known atheist, Paglia was harsh on how secular humanism has been dismissive of spirituality and religion. “Spiritual themes are important, and current art historians do not deal with the spiritual.” Her book keeps that spiritual thread throughout her 29 essays stretching from antiquity through contemporary art. “Most people who deprecate the value of art do not get that Mondrian and Pollock also had deep spiritual longings and addressed those concerns in their work.”
According to Paglia, abstraction has never really been accepted or understood in the U.S. “In Europe art and art history are valued as cultural heritage. There is none of that in this country.” By writing specifically for those who are most alienated by art, she is convinced they can come to understand why art should be taught to children and valued in our lives. “Everything can be brought to bear in understanding a work of art.”
I have had issues with many of Paglia’s positions in the past, and I have read her wild rants about the hypocrisy of the academic world and the “Marxist” meme that still exists in many forms. And as entertainingly polemic as she often is, she also has an exceptional gift for populist advocacy. Her first foray into that advocacy was for poetry, Break, Blow, Burn. Now with Glittering Images she is focused on bringing the power of art to an audience who has written it off as effete, exclusionary and decadent. That is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Happiness studies (Is that a legitimate category of research now? I think yes) have produced results that often surprise me and feel counterintuitive. One well known study from a few years ago found that happiness is not just the product of a proactive program of self help books and positive thinking. It also is impacted by the collective. The phenomenon of happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion. As one researcher put it, “How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all…And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.” (An earlier post, Catching Some Happy, addresses some of the findings of that study.)
This phenomenon has naturally led to thoughts about what else might be operating in that emotional contagion model. What other emotions (or memes) are spilling over invisibly into our lives? Given the highly bipartisan state of our nation, it doesn’t seem to apply to political beliefs and our interpretive spin on reality. But what about the sought after qualities—bravery, inventiveness, resourcefulness, creativity, moxie–that are, like happiness, held in high esteem by everyone regardless of political affiliation?
I am operating in the zone of imaginative conjecture here but only because I am frequently inspired—deeply—when someone I know steps up and out of the quotidian and does something extraordinary.
I had just that experience this week when I received a copy of David B. Marshall‘s newly published book, The Lost Work of Wasps. Marshall became one of my favorite online connections when I discovered one of his blogs several years ago. He is a writer, artist and a teacher, and his posts on his most recent site Signals to Attend are full bodied, exquisitely wrought and always thoughtful. What I didn’t foresee was how transformed his jeweled insights—which I have been experiencing in serial form over time—are by taking up residence in book form.
Using the template first used by Yoshida Kenko, a 14th century Buddhist monk who assembled a collection of his brief essays into a book called Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idelness), Marshall has found a container for his wide angle mind and eye. By combining words with his own drawings—he calls them “doodles”—The Lost Work of Wasps can be read in a linear fashion or in random access, Hafiz style. (In the Persian tradition, personal questions are answered by randomly opening the Oracle of Shiraz’s book of poems to find the answer.)
The idea of borrowing Kenko’s format may sound like a bit of cleverness, but it is neither manipulative nor misused. It is actually a perfect fit for the way Marshall’s mind moves from one concept to another. And having his thinking flow in my hand feels very different than scrolling down through his posts online. Blogs have their own footprint. So does a book.
I know this is obvious but I keep being surprised when I am reminded once again of how forms affect content. It’s like the experience of trying to move a small artwork into a large format and finding that it just won’t translate. Lyric isn’t epic, intimate isn’t high drama, and a book feels and reads differently than a blog.
And what a boost all of us get from Marshall’s bravery and vision. The spillover of creative resonance is like getting order for free in chaos theory. Thanks David, and congratulations.
Holly Brubach has written a compelling take on novelist Orhan Pamuk‘s latest book, The Innocence of Objects. This latest publication is a catalog of the contents of a museum Pamuk conceived in tandem with the writing of his last novel, The Museum of Innocence:
Every item in its collection, assembled over more than 10 years, figures in a memory Pamuk invented for the characters he imagined. “I had the feeling that focusing on objects and telling a story through them would make my protagonists different from those in Western novels—more real, more quintessentially of Istanbul,” he writes.
Brubach takes this cue and explores the relationships we create with things. She points to the paradox of a culture that is being urged to live in the present moment while supporting a multibillion dollar self storage industry and airing popular reality shows about hoarders. “Modernity means overabundance,” Pamuk says. “We are living in the age of mass-produced objects, things that come without announcing themselves and end up on our tables, on our walls. We use them — most of us don’t even notice them — and then they vanish without fanfare.”
Pamuk’s introduction to “The Innocence of Objects” concludes with his own manifesto. Tenet No. 3: “We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company or species. We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane and much more joyful.” Tenet No. 11: “The future of museums is inside our own homes.”
In deciding how to display the things he acquired, Pamuk was struck by “their loneliness,” and it led him to “the shamanic belief that objects too have spirits.”
I’m in that tribe, the one for people who have experience with the power of objects. For those of us who fill our homes with art and collect for the sheer pleasure these objects bring, that goes without saying. My life is full of embodied artifacts that speak to me every day. And believe me, paintings DO get lonely. I’ve seen how much a work can change and come into a breathtaking liveliness just by giving it objects to converse with. That is the curator’s gift of course, but it happens in my studio all the time.
This concept of the power of thingness is constant present for me. Out of curiosity I went back through my previous posts, and there are so many that touch into this idea. Clearly this is a primal meme for me. The list of previous Slow Muse posts is included below if it is one of yours as well.
The Power of Things
If you are contemplating a trip to San Francisco in the next year, do it before June 2013. That’s when the entire SFMOMA will close down til early 2016 for construction of a significant expansion. As the second largest contemporary art museum in the United States, SFMOMA will be tripling its endowment and adding 78,000 square feet of additional indoor gallery and public space (SFMOMA currently has 59,500 square feet of galleries and a 15,000 square foot Rooftop Garden added in 2010.) Unlike MOMA’s alternative space at PS 1, SFMOMA hasn’t announced anything specific for that 3 year hiatus.
In addition to the Cindy Sherman show which ends on October 8, SFMOMA had a number of other memorable exhibits. My favorite was Field Conditions. Here is the description of the show:
Can there be architecture without buildings? What if a wall or a floor went on forever? What happens when people move through a room? From immersive installations to intricate drawings, the works in Field Conditions pose provocative questions about the construction, experience, and representation of space. This exhibition assembles an array of projects by both noted architects and contemporary artists — including Stan Allen, Tauba Auerbach, Sol LeWitt, Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Lebbeus Woods, and others — that redefine the relationships between invisible and visible, field and boundary, finite and infinite. Field Conditions invites us to imagine beyond the frame.
Marsha Cottrell‘s stellar drawings (pictured above) were included in the exhibit and unforgettably masterful.
In the permanent galleries I was pleased to see a number of Bruce Connor works on display. (I am a big fan and have written about him in several posts here including Authentic Tomfoolery) and Moving in the Landscape as One of its Details.) I was also delighted to see a rich and dense Petah Coyne sculpture, a wall of Joseph Cornell boxes and some timeless Ray Johnson collages from the 60’s and 70’s that look completely contemporary. (He is so underappreciated.)
In an effort to support the local art scene, one gallery is devoted to San Francisco’s Mission School, part of the “lowbrow” art movement that took its cues from street culture (and highlighted in the excellent documentary, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Art Culture, directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard.) Several San Francisco Mission School artists have become well known such as Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen.
And a bonus shot: Louis Vuitton’s windows facing Union Square sporting an homage to Yayoi Kusama‘s brilliant show at the Tate Modern in London and most recently at the Whitney Museum…
Read the FAQ about SFMOMA’s expansion here.
Small art featured in Brett Baker’s online show of small works: Blades, 6 x 7 inches, egg tempera on calfskin parchment stretched on panel, by Altoon Sultan. (This painting hangs in my house and pleases me deeply every day.)
Artist Lori Ellison posted the following essay on Facebook in response to notice of Brett Baker’s curation of small works, Focused Field, on the Curating Contemporary site. Written in 2010, Ellison captures the unique power of small work with such flair. I responded immediately since it also taps into many concepts I have been exploring here on Slow Muse over the last six years. (Links to a few posts on this topic are included at the bottom.)
In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.
If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale—in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artist need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.
To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long long apprenticeship.
Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.
If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind – we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone – I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.
Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room.
A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.
That, that is what I am looking for.
A list of liked-minded posts about humility and smaller format art post previously on Slow Muse:
Our minds create maps of every place we go. Apparently all animals do this, not just us. And those cognitive maps are not necessarily accurate or drawn to scale. Like the iconic map of the London Tube designed in 1933 by an electrical draughtsman named Harry Beck, the best maps make a complex system comprehensible by eliminating information that isn’t essential and simplifying the schemata to mostly straight lines. Beck’s map is conceptual, not accurate, but it is the most famous and most emulated transportation map in the world.
There are emotional maps too. These are more complex charts than a transit system schemata or a topographic map of the terrain. For one thing they include the additional coordinate of time. The past is constantly linking and looping back into our present, and our memories of how things used to be are constantly being stretched taut by how those places change. The map of a life is layered, dense and highly specialized. Some friends share a layer or two, but this complex of overlays and connections ends up being a map only comprehensible to one person.
Visiting California is the inevitable return to the deep foundational grid of my personal map as well, the one formed by a childhood in the Bay Area and college years in Santa Cruz. As richly engaging as present tense California is, it is still for me just a glass floor atop the isometrics of the deep past.
I spent time with some extraordinary art and artists while I was there—Holly Downing, Ramah Commanday, Tim Rice, Jorg Schmeisser, Theodora Varnay Jones, Laura Corallo-Titus, Marsha Cottrell, Howard Hersh, Kathy Greenwald, Shelby Graham, Norman Locks. Landscapes that continue to take your breath away. Exquisite food. And of course the wedding of dear pals Sally and Meehan. I’m in a kind of sensory overload so it may take a few days for all the cognitive systems to fire up again.