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Thank you, collective mind. And in this particular case, thank you friend Sally Reed. In response to my posting below entitled Talisman, Sally sent me the following:

This brings to mind another less acute, but still astute, evocation of grief as a dog. It’s by Denise Levertov.

Talking to Grief

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

Your post also reminds me of these lines, or at least of the feeling stirred up by the lines, from DH Lawrence:

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

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During a time when I am still sitting in the silence—in the thinking and feeling rather than the doing, making, manifesting—my thoughts have been drawn to examples of significant disruptions in the flow of artistic output. Not just my own, but others.

Probably the standout example from the recent past that is pointed to most frequently (and which I have written about here previously) is the painter Philip Guston. In the early 1970s his work turned rather quickly from a career of lyrical abstraction to the caricatured world of goons, rednecks and Klansmen, a Southern version of a Mad Maxian nightmare. He said he wanted to “paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet…to paint as a cave man would.” I was a young painter at the time, and the shock of that shift is one of my most salient memories of reoriented response to an artist whose earlier work I adored.

Thoughts about this radical shift were prompted by reading a Ken Johnson review in the New York Times of a current show of his drawings at the Morgan Library. (An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting today.) According to the review, Guston stopped painting in 1966 and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted to “clear the decks.”

Although it took me years, I did finally come to terms with Guston’s last phase (he died in 1980.) I “came to terms” in the sense that I spent hours looking at his work and reading what he wrote about it. At a retrospective of his work at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge several years ago, I watched several documentaries made about this shift, and the evolution came to make more sense to me. As Johnson states in his review of this phase of Guston’s output, “suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out.”

I’m not contemplating a shift in my own work of that magnitude, but I do feel a sea change that is still unnamed and more inchoate than clear. Unlike Guston, I do not have a sense that there are ideas and preoccupations that my life long interest in non-representationalism cannot hold. But Guston’s willingness to “go naked” and follow where his sensibilities led regardless is an extraordinary gesture of guts. Overidentification with a particular aesthetic, technique or process results in the same troubles that we encounter in our psyches when we overidentify with our own story, our highly subjective (and usually painfully inaccurate) sense of who we think we are. As the spiritual traditions advise, achieving wisdom means you have to give up your story, your safe concept of what reality is. The wisdom path demands that you start the day by breaking yourself apart. Then the next morning, you wake up and break yourself apart again.

To all this I say yes. Notwithstanding, this passage about Guston’s earlier work, written by Lawrence Weschler in his book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, still rings true for what a great piece of art does for me:

I remember one time, for instance, seeing this small Philip Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. Now, the Brooks was a big painting on every scale: it had five major shapes in it — a black shape, a reed, a green — big areas, big shapes, with strong, major value changes, hue changes. Next to it was this small painting, with mute pinks and greys and greens, very subtle. It was one of those funny little Guston kind of scrumbly paintings, a very French kind of painting…[m]y discovery was that from 100 yards away — this was just one of those little breakthroughs — that from this distance of 100 yards, I looked over, and that godd*mned Guston… Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum… Well, that godd*mned Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall.

How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.

The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)

I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.

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Fritz Haeg (courtesy of New York Times)

Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.

“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.

But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.

Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.

But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.

This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.

Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.

Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.

“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”

The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”

And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.

Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.

“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”

If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.

David Colman
New York Times

Ever since it was first published in 1998, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, edited by Bill Beckley with David Shapiro has been my primary text. This collection of essays brings together the thinking of artists and critics on the greatly misunderstood (and much maligned) topic of beauty.

Uncontrollable Beauty embodies many of the reasons why I began blogging in the first place. It speaks to what was not being paid attention to, written about, dialogued, analyzed or acknowledged in the contemporary world of art.

Here are some excerpts from that collection:

Agnes Martin: When I think of Art, I think of Beauty, Beauty is the mystery of Life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.

Peter Schjeldahl: ‘Beauty is Truth. Truth Beauty?’ That’s easy. Truth is a dead stop in thought before a proposition that seems to obviate further questioning, and the satisfaction it brings is beautiful.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: In the art world, the idea of the beautiful is always threatening to make an appearance or comeback but it tends always to be deferred.

Santayana: To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.

Louise Bourgeois: Beauty? It seems to me that beauty is an example of what the philosophers call reification, to regard an abstraction as a thing. Beauty is a series of experiences. It is not a noun. People have experiences. If they feel an intense aesthetic pleasure, they take that experience and project it into the object. They experience the idea of beauty, but beauty in and of itself does not exist. Experiences are sorts of pleasure, that invoke verbs. In fact, beauty is only a mystified expression of our own emotion.

So I was particularly delighted to add a new volume to my favored bed stand stack–another articulate defense of art that is not just cerebral, conceptual, emotionally detached and non-retinal. Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (which was first published in 1992!) approaches philosophical aesthetics from an unexpected point of view. She does not approach art as a scholar of visual language but as an ethologist and anthropologist. Her claim is that art is as intrinsic to human life as other observable behaviors like the proclivity to ritual, play, seeking sustenance. This tendency in us to “make special” is biological and as Dissanayake has termed it, “species-centric.” She spends several chapters of her book examining the anthropological parallels of art in other cultures, but it is her extraordinary skill at seeing through the vacuity of postmodernism in the visual arts that makes this book a terrific and reinforcing read for anyone interested in these issues.

Here is an excerpt from her preface that captures much of her basic argument:

While artists and art teachers might especially welcome a biological justification for the intrinsic importance of their vocation, everyone, particularly those who feel a loss or absence of beauty, form, meaning, value, and quality in modern life, should find this biological argument interesting and relevant. Ironically, today, words such as beauty and quality may be almost embarrassing to employ. They can sound empty or false, from their overuse in self-help and feel-good manuals, or tainted by association with now-repudiated aristocratic and elitist systems in which ordinary people were considered “common” for not having the opportunity to cultivate appreciation of these features. But the fact remains that even when we are told that “beauty” and “meaning” are socially constructed and relative terms insofar as they have been used by elites to exclude or belittle others, most of us still yearn for them. What the species-centered view contributes to our understanding of the matter is that knowledge that humans were evolved to require these things. Simply eliminating them creates a serious psychological deprivation. The fact that they are construed as relative does not make them unimportant or easily surrendered. Social systems that disdain or discount beauty, form, mystery, meaning, value and quality—whether in art or in life–are depriving their members of human requirements as fundamental as those for food, warmth, and shelter.

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Ellen Dissanayake

Here’s a midwinter diversion for you. From Slow Muse friend and frequent commenter, Elatia Harris:

3 Quarks Daily is known as one of the blogosphere’s more cerebral haunts, and it occurred to me that habitues of 3QDistan might know a great deal about being broken-hearted by a poem, a song, a building, or most of all an idea. People are okay, too — but are they less interesting and compelling? I’m asking you. I was inspired in this challenge by the Museum of Broken Relationships, a traveling repository of love’s artifacts now in Skopje, Macedonia. The MBR received lots of media attention last fall, but passed us by on 3QD — I hope to remedy that. For some visual inspiration to take the challenge, here’s the link.

3 Quarks Daily

I am compelled by the idea that the enormous cultural thrust usually associated with romantic love has its equivalencies in other domains. I can openly confess to thinking of something other than another person when I hear a love song. For me the object is more typically a particular landscape or the longing for that altered state that happens in a creative fervor. Or of course the total body ecstasy of being with a painting or a building that lands right at the center of me. Maybe true for you as well? (Send your votes to Elatia at elatiaharris AT gmail DOT com.)

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Cold Mountain 3, by Brice Marden

Here’s a thoughtful and provoking passage from one of my favorite blogs, Joe Felso: Ruminations. He references Han-shan, the same poet who inspired Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series of paintings, who feels similar in spirit to my earlier posting on Master Linji, also from the Tang Dynasty:

I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths that approach revelation. Sometimes a little simple human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical. Lately, I’ve been reading poetry by Han-shan, poet of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:

As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!

Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see the way he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor of failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, threatening but also ludicrous. The poem may not be oh-worthy, but the speaker is fully present in these few lines…

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. I’m happy Han-Shan reappeared at this stage of my writing—he tells me to pause and listen to how silly I sound.

I received a book in the mail as a gift from a friend* I haven’t seen for some time: Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh. As is often the way these things go, I opened it up to a few passages that had deep resonance for me. While I have many friends who are seriously walking the Buddhist path, my interest and knowledge is more of the sideline variety. But as is the case with most mystical writing, wisdom can speak to anyone regardless of context or commitment.

The book features the teachings of Master Linji, a 9th century Zen teacher. He used the term “the businessless person” to describe the person with nothing to do. “As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary–put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” What a thought. That’s about as far from American consciousness as it goes.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s overview of Master Linji’s message:

Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.

But the following extract is the passage that speaks most poignantly to me. For any artist, the question–the project–is everything. To rethink the concept of a question as something that does not require an answer but has the capacity to destroy obstacles and shift everything–“tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us”–is a humbling thought.

In school, when we want to ask a question, we remain seated and put up our hand. We use our head, our intellect, to ask a question in order to get a bit of knowledge in return. But Zen isn’t like that. Here our aim isn’t to find out and store up knowledge about Buddhism; it’s to ask the right question, the question that has the capacity to destroy our obstacles. If we don’t have that question, it’s better not to come forward. Our question should be something that can tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us. Maybe it can teach our teacher and the whole community, too.

That’s a project for a life time.

*Thank you to Andria Klarer–seeker, mystic, friend.

Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.

–From The Triggering Town by poet and teacher Richard Hugo

I love this book. Opening it up to a random page before heading to the studio is to find a heartwarming wink, an approving nod, a much-needed nugget. It is at times like these, when undercurrents are relentless and unpredictable, that koan-like guidance can steady the vessel. And often the steadying of the vessel is as simple as lifting the hand off the rudder and being willing to just drift.

Here are a few more:

Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work.

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost…It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

I think that art should be allowed to go private. It should be a matter of one-on-one. In the last few years, the public has only heard of art when it makes record prices at auction, or is stolen, or allegedly withheld from its rightful owners. We need to concentrate more on art that sits still some place and minds its own business. We all hope for a strong response from art, but the kind of buzz that we have to live with nowadays is the enemy of art. Quietness and slow time are its friends. Let’s hope that their turn will come.

–John Russell, in conversation with Jason Edward Kaufman

This quote captures the essence of the idea behind Slow Art and the reason I started blogging over a year ago. Russell’s advocacy for a more personal one-on-one art experience–an art that has gone “private”–runs against all the tendencies of our culture.

The sentiments Russell expresses remind me of one of my culture heroes, Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org. Even as his social networking site is valued in the billions of dollars, he is not interested in selling out. When asked why, this was his answer:

“Who needs the money? If you’re living comfortably, what’s the point of having more?”

He has talked about starting the site in his spare time as a service to the community, and it just kept expanding. “I believe people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and good.” By taking that approach, the site has become a massive force of its own.

When something authentic and powerful goes against the drag-it-down current of conventional wisdom, who knows what will open up? I long for these new points of view, new ways of thinking, a shift in the consciousness.

Thank you Elatia Harris for finding the quote by Russell and sending it my way.

I’m off to New York for a few days. Before I go, I will share some thoughts about simplicity and transcendence. I am probably being drawn to this viewpoint as a way to counteract the commencement of a holiday season that often feels more garish and overstated than heartwarming.

“Translation,” wrote Kakuzo Okakura…”can at best be only the reverse side of the brocade–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.” Few examples illustrate this better than the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics imperfection, crudescence, an aged and weathered look. Although wabi sabi may embody these qualities, these characteristic are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. As long as one focuses on the physical, one is doomed to see only the back side of the brocade, while its real beauty remains hidden. In order to see its true essence, one must look beyond the apparent, one must look within.

The term wabi sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese. Wabi originally means “despondence” and sabi means “loneliness.” These are words for feelings, not for the physical appearance of objects. The term embodies a refined aesthetic sensibility…

[Consider] the haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Yasano Buson:

From a mountain temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist

This poem conveys a deep personal aesthetic consciousness, a bittersweet mix of loneliness and serenity, a sense of dejection buoyed by freedom from material hindrance. This is what wabi sabi feels like. And one can only experience it by turning the focus from outer appearance to look within. No wonder the Japanese struggle to explain wabi sabi; they try to tell how it feels, not just how it looks…

One only needs to look at Walker Evans’ photographs of the interior of an Alabama farmhouse, or Andre Kertesz’s images of shadows cast by empty chairs, or the central courtyard in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu to recognize a similar aesthetic awareness. These artist speak to the audience through mutual understanding of their private emotions. Such a connection cannot be faked. A common fallacy is to believe an artist can artificially create a resonance with the audience with certain visual cues. Unless the work is a genuine expression of the artist’s feeling, the effect will appear hollow to the perceptive eye.

Wabi sabi is not a style defined by superficial appearance. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet and sensitive state of mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible, paring away what is unnecessary, and knowing where to stop.

Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano

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Mexico, 2007