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Close up of Nagala that, from a certain angle, feels more planetary than painting
I’ve been in a particular kind of intimacy with my latest body of work (such a wonderful phrase to describe a variety of artifacts that feel connected…) Yes, you bring them into existence. You labor over every inch of their surface. You lovingly coax them along. Then something happens. They begin to talk back. They take on a life of their own. And then, if you are lucky, they find a place to live somewhere else.
I’ve been packing up an upcoming show for weeks now, lots of large paintings heading west. My intimacy with each piece has expanded into a full familiarity with their backsides, their potential unwieldiness, the scope of their girth, the width and length and weight of each one.
It has been a period with a different kind of focus, but a kind of focusing nonetheless. Being present even in this effort has its own rewards albeit harder won.
From Sarah Robinson’s highly companionable small book, Nesting*:
If we can be still long enough, details of the world reveal themselves of their own accord. Steven Holl counsels, “To open ourselves to perception, we must transcend the mundane urgency of ‘things to do.’ We must try to access the inner life which reveals the luminous intensity of the world. Only through solitude can we begin to penetrate the secret world around us. An awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.” Rather than forcing our experience into a prefixed Platonic ideal or the totality of a planner’s prescription, contextual information is simply allowed to emerge. This is deep listening, the source of both poetic making and responsible action…
Through listening and observing, appropriate form emerges from the unique variables of the situation. Local insight yields diverse outcomes. This is perhaps why much of what indigenous cultures produce bears the signature of their landscape. Being situated is to be at the site, the unique unrepeatable place that is context.
*More about Nesting here.
In writing Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?, John Berger has fashioned a book that is a hybrid cobbling of many facets of the his persona—memoirist, philosopher, art historian, artist, political essayist, cultural critic. Berger has a long history as a writer and a well recognized voice, so creating a category-busting book like this one is in some ways a perk that comes with his success. This is Berger doing his “the world according to me,” and the result is a quirky and very personal patchwork of stories.
In many ways Berger’s approach is more blog-like than it is book-like. The reader is invited to roam through Berger’s life and insights without the artifice of a recognizable template or format. Some parts are better than others, but there is much to recommend this unexpected blending of Bergerian insights and ideas.
(Note: Another very successful example of this wide angle viewing is Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting which I wrote about here.)
The fundamental armature of Bento’s Sketchbook is the writings of Spinoza. The Bento of the title, Spinoza spent most of his life—when he wasn’t working as a lens grinder—contesting Descartes’ mind/body duality. And sketching. And in spite of his refusal to publish his works during his lifetime, Spinoza’s writings survived (and ended up playing an influential role in bringing about the Enlightenment.) His sketchbook(s) however did not.
Berger steps in as if to offer himself as a proxy for Bento’s lost visualizations by assembling sketches from his everyday life. In the words of Colin McCabe: “What [Berger] is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza’s attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world.”
In an interview with Berger in the Paris Review, he described his own intentions for this book:
I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.
Spinoza gets embedded in the warp and woof of Berger’s personal encounters and stories. In an unexpected turn, those 17th century passages offer up a more optimistic view than Berger’s harsher personal sense of a world gone wrong, one that is neither fair nor hopeful.
But from time to time Berger steps away from the world’s troubles and contemplates the simple act of drawing. It is at those moments that he is at his most expansive.
When I’m drawing—and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning—I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning.
Thanks to the recent work of neurobiologists like Antonio Demasio, it’s now known that the messages which pass from cell to cell in a living body do so in the forms of charts and maps. They are spatial arrangements. They have a geometry.
It is through these ‘maps’ that the body communicates with the brain and the brain with the body. And these messages constitute the basis of the mind, which is the creature of both body and brain, as you believed and foresaw. In the act of drawing there’s perhaps an obscure memory of such map-reading.
As Damasio put it: ‘The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s map-making abilities.’
Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be compared with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.
When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…
Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…
We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisibile to its incalculable destination.
The freeform (non)format of Bento’s Sketchbook is appealing on many levels. But may I confess to a wandering eye? While reading Berger’s book I kept fantasizing about how much I would love to see a version of this from some of my most thoughtful artist friends. Berger is first and foremost a writer, and his drawings are uneven at best. A more gifted hand could shift the balance to equal parts words and images. Hey there Altoon Sultan, George Wingate, Miriam Louisa Simons, Sally Reed, Tim Rice, Rachael Eastman, Riki Moss, Holly Downing, Elizabeth Mead, Luke Storms, Holly Friesen, Walt Pascoe, Pam Farrell, Paula Overbay, Nancy Natale, Lynette Haggard, Tamar Zinn, Filiz Soyak, Ramah Commanday, Amani Ansari—something to consider?
I was first introduced to Aboriginal painting in the early 90’s when my friend Colleen Burke returned from the Australian Outback with a cache of gorgeous pieces on bark and canvas. I sat for hours with her paintings and searched constantly for what few books were available in this country (it was, after all, back in the primitive B.I. era—Before Internet). And finding original works from these desert artists that could be seen in person was rare in North America. Scattered small shows happened here and there. I drove down to New York to see one, a group of Aboriginal paintings hanging at the United Nations which was really more of a cultural/anthropological event than an art exhibit. A gallery featuring Aboriginal work sprang up in San Francisco for a period of time and then disappeared. It was the inaccessibility of seeing this work in person that drove me to finally make an art pilgrimage of my own to Alice Springs. That trip was a life changer for me.
Much has changed over the last 20 years. First and foremost is access to the work. This year alone I have seen two major exhibits of Aboriginal works here in the U.S.: Ancestral Modern, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi‘s collection at the Seattle Museum (and written about here), and more recently, Crossing Cultures, the Will Owen and Harvey Wagner collection at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Both collections contain extraordinary works and have both been promised to the respective museums. Great paintings from this region live here now.
Second, the work itself has evolved. Aboriginal painting began at a very specific point in time—in the early 1970s. A young art teacher from Sydney, Geoffrey Bardon, brought the first acrylics and canvases to Aboriginal communities. The time between those first brushstrokes and a major art phenom was as close to overnight as success can be.
Many of the works in both of these shows are by artists who are second (and even third) generation, following on the path laid by those first pioneering elders 40 years ago. The lineage in the work is evident, but these younger painters are not caught in a derivative loop of tradition and style. The work feels fresh, exploratory and yet still elementally Aboriginal. I connect deeply with the old as well as the new.
For those of you living in the Northeast, the Crossing Cultures exhibit at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum runs through March 10, 2013.
Previous Slow Muse posts on Aboriginal art:
I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.
But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.
Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.
Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.
Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.
I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.
It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)
Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?
The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.
And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.
Corinna Belz‘s remarkable documentary about Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter Painting, is one of those films you can watch over and over again. Maybe I should be more direct: One of those films I can watch over and over again. Released on DVD in September, Gerhard Richter Painting has already enchanted me two times through, and don’t feel the least bit finished. Like that inexplicable experience when a particular landscape reaches out and grabs you from your very first encounter, Richter is pure resonance for me and was from that first exposure to his work many years ago.
One of the world’s most famous living artists, Richter is now 80 years old and still working. His paintings require physical strength as well as a finely tuned aesthetic. Belz captures both parts of his signatory art making—Richter dragging an oversized squeegee across the painted surface as well as the way his eyes engage with and interact with a work in progress. As a filmmaker, Belz is masterful at walking the line between being there and becoming transparent. After a while I am caught up in the illusion that I am alone in the studio with Richter, a respectful witness to a ritual that feels deeply personal, profound and inviolate.
A few passages from Kenneth Turan‘s thoughtful review in the Los Angeles Times rang true for me:
A serious man but playful, deeply thoughtful with a bit of a leprechaun quality, Richter pointedly wonders if “to talk about painting is perhaps pointless. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that. Painting is another form of thinking.”
As if to amplify that thought, we see Richter working on a series intended for a New York City gallery opening. We watch as he first applies paint in broad yet meticulous strokes and then uses an enormous metal squeegee, so big it looks like a piece of aluminum siding, to confidently scrape away parts of what he has painted on.
Unlike his figurative work, Richter considers his abstractions to be more instinctual than planned. “Something just happens” is how he puts it. “They do what they want,” he adds, smiling. “I planned something different.”
Continuing with this theme of personification, the artist quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno about individual works of art being mortal enemies. “Each painting,” he says, “is an assertion that doesn’t tolerate company.” So how does he know when a painting is finished? “When nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop…”
One of this film’s most intriguing moments has Richter quietly confronting Belz and wondering whether giving her this kind of carte-blanche access was a good idea. Painting under observation, he says, is “the worst thing there is, worse than being in a hospital. The camera makes everything different, you feel so exposed.”
“Painting,” he says finally, “is a secret business, something you do in secret and reveal in public.” It is the achievement of “Gerhard Richter Painting” to shine a light on that hidden, private act as few other films have done.
At first I assumed that the seduction of this film was just my Richter thing and the long standing connection I have to him and his work. But when I encouraged my studio assistant Brandon—an artist from a completely different generation and orientation—to watch it as well, his email response that night was heartening: “That documentary was amazing. I will probably have watched it three more times by the time we meet again.” Yes!
And one more homage to Richter, this one by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian:
Gerhard Richter is a great artist. I don’t mean that lightly. The German painter is sublime, profound, and authoritative in a way that invites high-flown comparisons and invocations of art history. And yet, his own utterances on art would suggest he finds such hyperbole repulsive, and is suspicious of anything that romanticises the creative act…
Reality is profoundly ambiguous, modern physics tells us. An electron can be in two places at once. These paintings describe a world of uncertainty, without surrendering to despair. Richter is alive to the play of chance, the randomness of nature, the complexity of experience – yet proves that art can still bring something serious and beautiful out of the chaos. He towers above the artists of today.
Previous posts on Slow Muse about Richter and his work:
San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books is located on the periphery of North Beach, just a few blocks from the better known City Lights. Both bookshops are labyrinthine and lushly overstuffed. But Stout and me, we have a mystical connection. I never leave that narrow two storied jewel box without some treasure under my arm. And the latest find is my all time best: Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, by Sarah Robinson.
This small book is an exquisite set of essays that goes well beyond the domain of architecture. Her world view blends philosophy, poetry, biology and wisdom to offer a concise and clearly written meditation on how to think about who we are as humans in this grand adventure. My library has a shelf full of books that explore these complex themes of art making and human consciousness (Gaston Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edward Hall, E. V. Walter among many others), and Robinson references many of them in her notes. But none of those writers offer up what she has achieved: A human sized, perfectly tuned invitation into the world of these ideas. Malcolm Gladwell refers to “amplitude” as the gastronome’s measure of how flavors come together in such exquisite compliance that the recipe cannot be improved. Robinson’s book is high amplitude in written form.
And as an object itself, the book is also a feast. Small in format, the book includes images that sit well positioned amid the beautifully laid out printed words. (Like other William Stout Publishers books, Nesting has been designed with great attention to detail.)
The introduction was written by Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist I have written about many times on Slow Muse (and the author of one of my favorite books, Eyes of the Skin.) Robinson’s chapter headings say something about the range of her purveiw: Of Havens, The Mind of the Skin, Practically Unconscious, Dark Matters, Love is Paying Attention, Belonging, To Dwell in Possibility. Each of these chapters could fill several posts, full of provocative insights and the fresh comingling of ideas.
And how timely. To read this book about the nature of place and how we are with our world is particularly apropos at a time when all of us are freshly aware of the devastation of homes and communities caught in Sandy’s force field.
That’s a worthy place to start. Here are a few passages that speak to those complex circumstances:
Our environment mirrors what we have come to believe about our relations and ourselves: that all are re-place-able, the palpable echo of Cartesian solopcism. The natural environment, local culture, and social patterns, once dominant factors shaping the character of a place, are now only marginal determinants…Dislocated from the tissue of community, people are routinely forced to start tabula rasa, a norm all the more insidious because it is equated with freedom.
Places [in the past] were not commodities, they were dense contexts of communally-lived history as well as a source of one’s personal identity.
Our feelings about a particular place may be personal, but the feelings grow out of collective experiences that do not occur elsewhere. They are specific to and belong to the place. People and place participate in one another’s sustenance, and places perish along with the disappearance of people who cherish them. We dwell in places in a paradgim of mutual influences.
Perhaps we can understand place as a basin of attraction, a matrix that evokes and sustains our imagination. E. V. Walter writes:
“Towns may die for all sorts of reasons, but expressive vitality depends on how a place engages the imagination. A place is dead if the physique dos not support the work of the imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings…’Where do I belong?’ is a question addressed to the imagination. To inhabit a place physically but to remain unaware of what it means, or how it feels, is a deprivation more profund that deafness at a concert or blindess at an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong nowhere.”
More, much more, to come.
More information about Sarah Robinson’s architectural practice here.